Lee Pitts: The Cowboy Arts
April 11, 2018
I'm proud to say that I was a vocational student, even though the rest of my high school looked down on us and we were quarantined far from the regular campus. Teachers and school administrators weren't used to straight A students and the smartest kid in the class learning to weld and one even suggested to my mom that my smarts would be wasted by taking agriculture. He suggested I'd make a "wonderful lawyer." If there is such a thing.
I've always been a shop rat and taking ag class meant you got to take an hour of shop every day. I've always enjoyed fixing things in our home, for neighbors, antique dealers and even museums and to me a perfect day is spending all day and evening tinkering in my shop. I've collected thousands of tools used for carpentry, welding, soldering, carving, leatherworking, engraving, jewelry making, airbrushing, embossing, tinsmithing, upholstery, blacksmithing, and engine repair. I even have some dental and orthopedic surgery tools so if you need a tooth pulled or a bone set, I'm your guy. (If you don't mind anesthesia by one of my over 100 hammers.)
I've gone through phases of what I liked to do best. I started out by wielding wrenches back when cars came straight from the factory with a sick engine or cranky transmission. When they started putting computers in cars I lost interest and switched my allegiance to wood carving and woodwork. That phase lasted until I realized a guy that's overly medicated probably shouldn't be using a table saw. I'm lucky to have survived that phase with all my fingers intact. I've always loved to weld and one summer in the oilfields I was a pipeline welder's assistant. He discouraged my taking up the profession because he said all welders became cranky old men. I listened to his advice but became one anyway. A cranky old man, that is.
Then I found the perfect hobby: leatherworking. It satisfies two of my biggest urgings, I get to pound on things and it requires lots of tools. Some of them are wicked looking things like round knives and head knives and they took a long time to master, but here's my secret to surviving the learning phase: Super Glue. It's better than a bandaid for cuts.
I love working with leather because you can burn it, stamp it, dye it and airbrush it without all the sawdust of woodworking, and without burning your house down with a welding torch. I can make a belt in a day or two that a friend will wear for a lifetime. So far my best creations are a miniature saddle that sold for $50,000 at a charity auction for my friend Joan Hardy's Small Miracles Foundation, and a photo album I made for the Junior Hereford Association that sold at the Nuggett auction for $18,000 and ended up in my friend John Ascuaga's hands. So, thus far I'm averaging about $34,000 per item just in case you wanted me to make you something.
For years I was too embarrassed by my work to stamp my name on it and hopefully most of it found new life as doggy chew toys. My biggest problem is I live in California and the state has outlawed all the old dyes and finishes that look so good. I'm left with making Indian "teas" out of strong coffee and rusty nails. And wouldn't you know it, just as soon as I mastered the art of carving flowers, oak leaves and scrolls, fads changed and bling, geometric designs and roughout saddles are all the rage. I can non-tool a saddle as good as anyone.
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I got so tired of buying silver conches to put on my leatherwork that I took up silversmithing and engraving next. The biggest problems with it are silver is costlier than leather or wood and it's real easy to slip and put a hole through your hand while engraving. My engraving is really unbelievable when you consider I'm legally blind.
I read recently that some schools can't offer shop class because there aren't enough qualified teachers. Kids are graduating without ever having used a hammer. If the boats ever stop arriving from China there may come a time in this country when we'll once again need folks who know how to make things and there won't be any left.