Tuesday 29 March 2011

Leather Lovin'

Two years ago, when I decided to try my hand at bookbinding, I figured my first roadblock would be finding a place to buy leather. I was amazed when a quick Google search pulled up a result just couple a blocks from my house and quickly realized how lucky I was to have such a valuable resource so close by.

Tundra Leather (located at 313 King Street East) has been a staple in the city of Hamilton for decades and a constant in my days ever since my first visit. They have it all – from raw materials and tools (including hides, furs, beads, buckles, hardware, thread, stains, dyes, paints, conchos, decorations, books, videos, creams, finishes and more) to mountains of experience and a sincere desire to share that knowledge.

I'm serious. I can't say enough good stuff. They legit live by the oath that hangs on the wall of the workshop area...

I can't count the number of times I've stopped by with a question, only to have Peter (Peter Grove owns the shop) or Sean (Sean Dalgetty has been his sole employee since 1995) drop everything and spend the next two hours talking me through the many ways I might come at a project, or offer up their own equipment for my use.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's open with a story that's awesome and hugely motivating in terms of knowing that it's possible to turn passion into profession.

Peter started working at the store when he was 12 years old. At the time, it was a Tandy Leather franchise and Peter swept and mopped the floor in exchange for scraps of leather. He eventually learned to tool some of the pre-cut and punched kits Tandy sells and went door-to-door with his own makeshift portfolio - a catalogue cobbled together from cut-out flyer images of the various belts, wallets and purses he knew how to make.

He's since progressed...

In the ensuing decades, Peter worked for Tandy in various capacities. When the company opted to close its Hamilton location in 1991, he bought them out and re-named the shop, Tundra.

Where to begin? First of all, yes that is a snake face hanging by the industrial-strength sewing machine. Secondly, every corner of the shop is equally fascinating and full of similar stories (like what that sewing machine can do to your arm if you use it incorrectly -not pretty- and the fact that Sean has more chocolate stashed in his tool boxes than Claudian Kishi hid during 14 years of the Baby-sitters Club). I could blab to the ends of the Internet.

One of the many great things about Tundra is that there are no pressure sales here. Peter will be the first to tell you the eight tools in the little leathercraft starter kit he sells will allow you to do 90% of the projects you might have in mind. However, if you do want to drop hundreds of billz on new tools and toys (yes please!), Tundra has more than enough merch to oblige you.

 Besides new stock, you can sometimes pick up beautiful antique pieces that satisfy form as well as function. Both Peter and Sean (but especially Sean) have a penchant for turn-of-the-century European tools and I’ve been lucky enough to score a few old-school finds they happened to have doubles or triples of.

These head knives, for example, are about a hundred years old. Sean has dozens in sizes ranging from "deck of cards" to "pool deck," though he admittedly has no idea what you would use the guillotine-scale knife for. He just knew he had to have it.

He meticulously hand-stitches covers for all his tools using the top-notch, decades-out-of-production Irish linen thread from Barbour or Campbell - if you can find either of these on ebay, they seem to trade as good as gold among leatherworkers.

Speaking of - below is a shot of Sean working on a pair of gator-skin cowboy boots. They'll take about 100 hours and he'll hand-sew everything because his stitches put sewing machines to shame.

How much do you want to be able to make your own cowboy boots? Something about that idea is just so romantic. To be able to craft your own kicks and then go off adventuring in them -because surely you wouldn’t be doing anything run-of-the-mill in cowboy boots- knowing that your hands made your travels possible? Unreal (for the record, Sean disagrees with Garance Dore - he says every woman needs a pair of cowboy boots).

In addition to gator skin, Tundra carries creamy vegetable-tanned tooling leather in many weights, snake skin, pig skin, cow hide, deer skin, suede (much of which is Ontario-local) skunk fur and even boxes of foxes! If you think leatherwork is something you might be interested in, definitely swing by the shop. Don't be put off by a pre-emptive perceived lack of skill - there's something about working with leather that is so unlike wrestling with any other textile. I'm a complete disaster when it comes to fabric, but leather has a quality that makes things click.

Don't believe me? Peter and Sean will be more than happy to talk shop with you. Be sure to ask about their five-week tooling workshop. So worth it.

If you're curious to know how exactly leather tooling works, check out my website this Thursday - I'll be posting a little photo tutorial as I work on my entry for the upcoming 61st annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Creative Leathercraft.

Photos courtesy of Amy