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Sunday, 10 January 2021

Wildlife-inspired Leatherwork

A number of years ago - maybe as many as 15 - Lindsay and I diverted from the M5 on our way down to the West Country, and called in at Cleveden Craft Centre. Here we found a pleasant assortment of craft shops and a café. I was particularly impressed by the workshop of Mr. Arnold Smith, who is one of the finest leather-workers in UK, and who has special talent for portraying wildlife in leather. On this first visit, I purchased a simple leather belt that was decorated with stamped oak leaves and acorns.

Turn the clock forward to 2010, after a few more visits and a couple more belts purchased, when Lindsay kindly commissioned Mr Smith to produce a picture of a Little Owl for our wedding anniversary. Mr Smith is a very busy man, and it was a few months before my Little Owl picture arrived, but I was delighted with it, and pleasantly surprised by the price charged. You can find Mr Smith's web site here:- http://leathercraft.weareblink.com/  - I am sure that you will be impressed by his work.

my Little Owl  - by ACA Smith

Now this is where I find that I've lost track of the timeline of how it all happened, but Lindsay and our daughter, Melanie, had been attending a number of short crafting courses at 'Crafts in the Court' at nearby Barwell. At one point, they decided to book on a short leather carving course being conducted by a gentleman by the name of Malcolm (I'm sorry to say that I've forgotten his surname) and asked if I was interested in joining them. My answer was a resounding 'yes please!', as I was already contemplating making a leather belt. 

The course was excellent and lasted probably only two or three hours and there was a follow-up a couple of weeks later.  The girls both made decorative Christmas items, but I was trying out some potential designs for a belt. 

After these sessions there was a long period of several months getting a raft of tools and materials assembled and then doing a few practice pieces. Some of these items were obtained from Mr. Smith, some via the internet, and some from The Identity Store, an excellent leathercraft supplier in Matlock. Eventually, over the Christmas period of 2017, I started work on the belt itself. I had in mind that I would like to make three belts, each one featuring one aspect of my wildlife interest. Wanting to leave the most important one to last, I started with a butterfly-themed belt, inspired by the Chalkhill Blue butterflies that I'd been seeing during that summer. The belt was eventually finished in February 2018, and although it shows my lack of skill, I am nevertheless quite pleased with it, as it is not that easy a task carving detail into an item that is only an inch and a half (3.8cm) wide. The photo below shows a section of it.

 section of Butterfly Belt - finished in February, 2018
It was not until late summer of 2019 that I embarked on the second belt, having totally gone rusty on any skills I might have developed during the production of the first one. I wanted this one to be totally different to the first, and to feature dragonflies. I knew that it would be virtually impossible for me to carve dragonflies at such a small size, but the main supplier of leatherworking materials in USA, Tandy, once offered a dragonfly punch tool, now discontinued. I managed to get one and, although it was quite basic, found that with some additional cuts I could make the dragonflies a little more detailed. I also spent some time working out a reedmace design to cut into the leather, and sorting out what I wanted to do with the 'background' leather to give a suggestion of water. The trial pieces took a long while, but the belt itself was quite quickly produced. Again, I am relatively pleased with the result.

section of Dragonfly Belt - finished in October, 2019

There was then a huge gap without doing any leatherwork at all until early 2020. For the third belt, to feature owls, I spent months on and off trying various different designs and processes as I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to achieve. By early December, 2020 I was ready to go. I had decided on something roughly in the style of the first belt, with a simple design, but somewhat more elaborate finishing processes. I hope that I will not now bore you by explaining some of the steps taken to produce it.

Swivel Knife
For the design of the leaf and flower motif, as shown in the first belt, I used a commercially produced stencil. This has a raised design on one side. The leather is then moistened (a process known as 'casing'), the stencil is placed on the moistened leather, and pressure applied to the stencil so that it leaves a mark on the leather where cuts are to be made.

Fairly deep cuts are then made in the cased leather using something called a 'swivel knife'. The swivel knife has to be kept razor-sharp by stropping before each session. The result is as shown below.

pattern cut into cased leather
The leather is cased again, and an assortment of punches is then used with a nylon-headed mallet, with the leather sitting on a stone slab, to give contour and texture to the design, and extra detail is cut in to the design, as shown below.

design after the leather is punched and extra detail cut in
I then used a similar process to produce what were intended to be a few representations of Little Owl between the leaf/flower pattern sections. This used similar processes, but the design was my own and printed onto tracing paper which I then used a stylus on to press the design into the cased leather. Lindsay pointed out to me, after it was too late, that I'd managed to make the owl cross-eyed! A texture was then punched into the 'background' of the design. At this stage things look a little messy, but the design is starting to come to life.
 
section of belt after all cutting and punching finished
After this, there was a complex process of colouring and finishing the belt. This involved applying coats of masking liquid, and a couple of different stains with a fine brush, then applying an antiquing compound, before smoothing the edges of the belt and applying a protective finishing coat - all of which took rather longer than the cutting and punching (usually referred to as 'leather carving'). All I had to do then was attach a fine brass buckle!
 
OK, so I'm no artist, and my leather-working skills are rather basic, but I'm quite pleased with the result.
 
section of the finished Little Owl belt
I'm not sure what my next leatherworking project might be if, indeed, there ever is one, and will probably, by then, find myself back to square-one skills-wise!
 
 
Thank you for your visit. This was an absolute one-off blog post. My next post will be back to my wildlife observations and, primarily, feature birds
 
I wish you all the best for 2021. Take great care, stay safe, and make the most of the wildlife that surrounds you.

24 comments:

  1. Wow, what a talent and the results are very impressive. Love the Dragonfly belt. In these times, I suspect its passing the time nicely. Take care.

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    1. I was hoping that the dragonfly belt might meet with your approval, Marc. The leatherwork has kept me nicely occupied at times when I've not felt the ability to go out. I suspect that I'll have to start thinking about another project soon as, if I follow the advice of the powers-that-be as I fully intend to, I'll not be leaving the house any time soon.

      Stay safe - - - Richard

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  2. Let me hear no more about "lack of skill" or any other such sentiment. Most of us would never even attempt this kind of work and I think the results are stunning - and I mean that, Richard - STUNNING. Well Done! Kudos! Congratulations! Bravo! Félicitations! Enhorabuena! Even on the coldest day I would leave my coat open to show off the belt. Fantastic work!

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    1. Thank you, you're too kind, David! In reality, on the coldest days when I need to wear a coat, I'm not putting on one of 'my belts', but an ordinary commercially produced one. I'm saving mine for the warm weather!!

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    2. Flaunt them every chance you get!

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    3. But I want to keep them in pristine condition !! ;-}

      (QvQ)
      (......)
      --"---"--


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  3. Wow Richard, I am more than just impressed. You work is brilliant and I love the little owls, their eyes are looking for bugs so they move in all directions. I enjoy painting occasionally, but I cannot remember the last time I picked up a brush! My Mum in later years decided she wanted to work with copper. She had never shown any sign of being artistic other that cross-stich rugs which she did to keep he arthritic hands working, I was amazed she produced some amazing work.

    Now you are back in the swing of it, and it looks like we may all be locked down for a while longer, keep up the good work and try something bigger, your work is really good and well worth the effort. Thanks also for telling us how the work is done, very interesting.

    Keep well and stay safe, both you and the family. Cheers, Diane

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    1. Thank you, Diane. Your blog clearly shows your artistic side, and I think that you should take up painting again. Do you have any of your mum's copper work to treasure? I did a bit of pencil drawing and painting in my late teens/early 20s. One piece that I was rather proud of was a painting of Jimi Hendrix - it was a little on the gruesome side and Lindsay forbade me to hang it for fear of traumatising our kids!

      Now we are in full lockdown, I have already started thinking about the next leather project. Currently it's a toss-up between a leather messenger bag for when I'm out in the field and a leather picture - I'm leaning towards the latter initially.

      Best wishes to you and Nigel. Take care and stay safe - - - Richard

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  4. I just showed this to Miriam and she is "blown away!"

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    1. Having such a positive reaction from someone as talented craft-wise as Miriam is a real boost to my confidence. Please thank Miriam for me.

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  5. Wow, congratulations Richard! You are a real artist. Great leather work! I hope you are ok.

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    1. I fall very short of the skills in leatherwork shown by the real enthusiasts, Anne, but I enjoy trying!

      We're doing OK here, thank you, but the restrictions on life due to this virus are very frustrating. Take great care - - - Richard

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  6. Excellent workmanship. I dreamt of achieving some skill like that when I left school instead I ended up with a camera. Stay safe Richard.
    Mike.

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    1. I've always enjoyed making things, Mike, with mixed results over the years. In my early twenties I made a rather unusual-looking electric guitar with the intention of learning to play once I'd finished it. However, someone saw it and told a friend who played in one of the members of an up-and-coming band about it, and I was offered a price that I could not refuse! I never did learn to play guitar.

      Take great care - hoping you get the vaccine soon - - - Richard

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  7. You can add my name to the compliments of your leatherwork here Richard. No more of this lack of and rusty skills please.

    Take care Stay Safe.

    Pete.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Pete - I accept your kind chastisement!

      Hang on in there! Help is on the way - so we're told! Best wishes - - - Richard

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  8. Hi Richard, beautiful that leatherlook. I love the owl.

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    1. Thank you, Caroline. I'm starting to think about another owl-themed project!

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  9. Hello Richard
    A steady hand is urgently needed for such fine work, I myself am a very impatient and restless person who can never sit still, so this work would not be for me ... ;-))
    But your artistic way is impressive so it would only be fair and the website of your internet shop to say so that we can order the belts, I would like one with owls on it ...
    Thank you for showing me
    Greetings Frank

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    1. Hi Frank. Fortunately I have quite a bit of patience and a relatively steady hand ;-}. It is my eyesight that is starting to let me down!

      As for selling them on line, this is not really a feasible proposition, as the price would have to be too high to be attractive to me. There are nearly GBP 50 (EUR 55) of materials in the belt, more than half of which is the cost of the buckle. There is also an estimated 25 hours of work involved now that I have already done one - it was probably 4 x that for the first one! There was less work to do for the butterfly belt and less cost as it had a conventional simple brass buckle. The dragonfly belt took less time than the other two.

      Stay safe - - - Richard

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  10. Fabulous story. The Little Owl art is simply gorgeous.

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    1. Pleased to hear you enjoyed it Dave. Stay safe - - - Richard

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  11. Beautiful leather work, absolutely talent.

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    1. That's very kind of you, Bob! Take great care - - - Richard

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