It’s the Pitts by Lee Pitts: I Could’ve Dyed
December 2, 2013
I'm not the kinda guy who can sit around watching TV, so every evening finds me in my shop where I've taken on everything from blacksmithing to upholstery. Ten years ago I became a leatherworker, although not the most profitable endeavor I've ever engaged in, it is by far the most enjoyable. I especially like the tooling and stitching part, and please note that I said "stitching." Women sew, men stitch, even though it might look exactly like sewing and some of our machines may even say Singer on them.
To make my own conchos for my leatherwork I took up engraving a couple years ago and it has darn near killed me. I've put several holes in my hand and now buy Band-Aids® by the gross. There's a steep learning curve to both leatherwork and engraving and it has been only recently that I've been proud enough to put my name on my leatherwork. As for my engraving, no way am I putting my name on it! Although future collectors will be able to identify my work by the DNA in the dried blood on my pieces.
Note that I said I was a leatherworker and not a saddlemaker. The leatherworking field is a bit like karate in that there are various levels of talent, with saddlemaking and bootmaking being the black belt. When I tell people I do leatherwork they always ask if I've made any saddles, to which I say, "Of course, I've made several."
It's not an outright lie because I have made three saddles, except that none of them is taller than six inches. They are miniature saddles, two of which I have displayed in my house. It is the story of the third saddle that I am most proud. My good friends Skinner and Joan Hardy lost their beautiful young granddaughter Lauren to cancer a few years ago and since then they've helped a lot of people through their Small Miracles Foundation that they established to help families blind-sided by pediatric cancer. If you have any spare money laying around this Christmas and don't know where to send it, they do good work. (www.smallmiraclesfoundation.org)
During one of Joan's visits to our house, she saw my miniature saddles and asked if I would make one and donate it to Small Miracles to sell in their annual auction. Imagine my excitement when Joan called after the auction and told me that the saddle brought $15,000. Not because the saddle was any good mind you, but because the nice folks were so charitable. They were so giving that the buyer donated the saddle back to be sold every year. (Probably because he didn't want to keep it in his house permanently where guests might see it.) The second year it did even better, fetching $50,000. So whenever someone asks if I make saddles and, if so, how much do they sell for, I say truthfully, "Well so far I've been averaging right around $32,500!"
My idols in the leather world are Don Butler from Wyoming, Doug Cox from Nevada, Jesse Smith from Colorado, and Ron Butler from California. I can look at their work for hours, studying every stamp. Because I'm self-taught, and because I'm a lousy teacher and student, asking saddlemakers for tips is the only training I've had. Which may explain why some of my early work is often mistaken for dog chew toys.
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One year at a vaquero show I was studying a beautiful saddle with great intensity while peppering the saddlemaker with one question after another. I think he got tired of all the questions and finally blurted out, "You must be a saddlemaker?"
"Why do you ask?" I said proudly, as if I belonged to that fine fraternity. "Is it because of the many knife cuts on my fingers, the way I was trying to steal tooling tips from you, or perhaps you noticed the beautiful hand tooled belt I'm wearing that I made with my own two hands?"
"No, it was none of those things," he said with a chuckle. "But I do have a good tip you might want to remember. In the future I would not scratch the inside of your nose when your hands are still wet with what appears to be Fiebings® mahogany colored dye."
I could have crawled in a hole and dyed.