Lee Pitts: The Cowboy Arts
I’m a shop rat. Always have been. If I wasn’t working on my cattle or other FFA projects I was more than likely to be found in our shop. I was also a vocational student which meant in my last three years in high school I spent an hour every day in the school’s ag shop. This was in addition to two automotive classes I took and one woodworking class in junior high school. Nearly every piece of furniture in our house has either been refinished or reupholstered by me. I’ve worked on all our cars and trucks and consider myself a proficient welder. By watching You Tube videos and reading books I’ve taught myself blacksmithing, silver soldering, plastic molding, engraving, and how to use a milling machine, wood and metal lathe and a key making machine which I restored. I even took classes in jewelry making which helped me in making belt buckles and repairing old bits and spurs. For years I restored items for a very high end antique store.
Having said that I hate the household arts. I don’t have the “thyme” for cooking and couldn’t stand working at Starbucks and doing the same old “grind” every day. (Puns intended.)
By far, the thing I enjoy the most is leatherworking and I’ve collected hundreds of leather working tools along the way. I taught myself and it was the second most difficult skill I’ve learned. (Engraving was the hardest.) It took me years before I was proud enough of my work to stamp my name on it. Now I’ve restored saddles for museums and leather bound French clock boxes that held $25,00 clocks. One of my miniature saddles brought $50,000 and a scrapbook I made was auctioned off for $18,000.
But leatherworking does have its drawbacks. For example, one of my best friends bartered a swap with a well known leatherworker for a floral tooled belt and I was with him when he picked it up. It was antiqued, fully tooled, the edges were smooth and it was a beautiful belt that I know took at least 10 hours hours to complete. But upon closer inspection my friend found where the leatherworker had sewn off the edge of the belt. It was a big boo-boo and I would have scrapped it and started over, as I’ve had to do many times. To make a long story short my friend refused the belt and the leatherworker, who was obviously embarrassed, made him a new one.
That’s the thing with leatherworking… it’s just not that forgiving. In most other trades if you make a mistake you can back up and redo it, or do something cosmetically to hide your error. Not so with leatherworking. Years ago I made what I considered to be a beautiful leather tooled binder with ornate silver engraving on the cover. To give the leather a nice patina I covered it with neatsfoot oil and set it outside in the sun for two days before applying the final finish. But when I went to retrieve the binder I was shocked to find that the neighbor’s dog had turned it into a chew toy.
The worst example of a lot of time being completely wasted was experienced by a great saddle maker I know by the name of Ron Butler. He’s no relation to my Wyoming idol Don Butler who passed away a few years ago. Don was the best designer and tooler of leather I’ve ever seen. And Ron Butler might be in second place. He is that good. Ron had just completed hours of tooling on the fender of a saddle and it was gorgeous. After tooling it Ron and his lovely wife spent hours dyeing all the spaces between the flowers and the leaves which in itself is an art because it’s very easy to get the dye on the flowers, leaves and scrolls. Ron’s very young grandson seems to want to follow in Ron’s footsteps because he paid close attention to everything Ron did.
The next morning Ron went to his shop only to discover that his grandson had taken his permanent markers and crayons and colored all the flowers and leaves every color of the rainbow on the finished fender. And he had definitely not stayed within the lines!
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