Just Tooling Around

MANSFIELD, TX — At the ripe old age of 13, Dave Smith lifetime filled with leather crafting. Now at unknowingly began a hobby that the age of 67, Dave is still at it, would eventually define and and his impressive masterpieces give a unique purpose to are a sight to behold. “It’s a sense of his life. On a day trip to accomplishment Dave still has the first few Waco, his parents splurged pieces that he ever made, many by buying him a leather tooling to make of them from the kit purchased in his youth, including a wallet he made kit that would soon captivate his something with for his grandfather, a key holder and a imagination and develop his creative luggage tag.

215man-wBut over the years, Dave my own hands. became busy with life, and his interests talents. Little did they know that It’s something I do changed from leather crafting to fast one splurge would lead to a cars and dating. He enjoyed his that will last.” college years, eventually settling down and marrying Judy in 1975. Some years later, they welcomed their daughter, Victoria, into the world and settled in for a life filled with family and work responsibilities. His long-term career working at Applied Industrial Technologies selling heavy industrial conveyer belts for about 40 years proved satisfactory. Now, Dave still loves hot rods and even treated himself to a retirement gift, buying a fast and shiny black Dodge Challenger.

As a working family man, Dave eventually found his way back to leather crafting about 25 years ago, thanks to his father-in-law who had purchased a collection of tools at a garage sale. The moment Dave saw the tools, he immediately recognized them as leather craft tools, and his childhood memories came flooding back. He was suddenly inspired to take up his old hobby once again, this time with a more serious dedication. The first thing he made was a checkbook for his wife, and after that, he was hooked. “I got bit by the bug pretty good,” Dave admitted. In fact, those eight tools quickly turned into over 300 and counting, as he got back into the swing of things.

Getting reacclimated with the art, he felt much like a student learning all over again. Dave quickly learned his old self-taught techniques, in some instances, needed fine-tuning. “I had developed some pretty bad habits, actually, so I relearned how to do things properly,” he admitted. He took classes, looked for challenging projects to complete and played with materials to evolve his skills. His meager beginnings were a thing of the past, as his projects turned from wallets and checkbooks to saddles and figure carvings, which is an image on leather stretched from behind to achieve a 3-D appearance.

215mamnUltimately, Dave became the teacher, initially teaching beginners and then eventually leading a workshop-style class open to all levels of leather crafters. “I love teaching leather craft. Seeing those light bulb moments when a person finally masters a new technique is such a joy,” Dave declared. He is also directly involved with both the International Federation of Leather Guilds and the Lone Star Leather Crafters Guild. Unfortunately, in 2010, Dave had to take another short sabbatical from leathering due to health-related issues.

After countless tests and doctor visits, he was diagnosed with internal bleeding, major coronary blockage and esophageal cancer. A large tumor in his chest region was discovered by accident and, he believes, by the grace of God. “I am a strong believer in prayer,” Dave said. “It’s what got me through everything.” Dave had to have several surgeries and endured chemotherapy along with radiation as a preventative measure.

During his recovery, he had to promise to stay away from sharp objects, which meant no leather craft. “The entire year•long ordeal, including no leather work, was the hardest thing I have ever endured in my life,” Dave confessed. But during this time Dave also received the most prestigious accolade he could imagine.

During his chemo treatments, he received a phone call informing him he had received the Lifetime Achievement Award. “To be nominated by my peers for something so significant was just unbelievable,” he said. Soon after his recovery, he was right back at it, hammering away at the leather with a delicate, yet firm hand. With all the years of practice and technique development under his belt, Dave can now make virtually anything, and it is no wonder that his work has earned him acknowledgement and awards throughout the leather crafting community. “The only thing that limits a person is their imagination,” Dave remarked.

Some of his most creative and labor-intensive pieces include a leather log cabin and several ornately decorated saddles, one of which his daughter has claimed. Most leather crafters strive to make a saddle, so these pieces, in particular, were a huge achievement for Dave, marking his level of accomplishment in his artistic abilities. Another piece in which Dave takes great pride is his intricately designed portfolio binder. The cover features beautifully detailed Sheridan roses and a horseshoe, inspired by one of his horses, with textured basket weave panel on the back. The binder took Dave about 20 hours to complete. “Every design begins with a drawing,” he said, “and I am lucky to have lots of friends who draw up designs for me.”

Once a design template is ready, the pounding begins. Literally, each impression upon the leather is formed by a specific stamp, but each strike of the Jim Linnell, titled The Heart of Texas, a complex featuring just about every design element possible. Dave has already spent over 100 hours working on his version, which includes three-dimensional features, coloring, layered pieces and intricate patterns. He admits he still has a long way to go. “It’s a challenge, but I enjoy it,” Dave said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment to make something with my own hands. It’s something I do that will last.” stamps is only a minute part of the larger design.

Most pieces, like Dave’s binder, require thousands of strikes to complete the design. Each stamp is hammered into the dampened leather hide using a mallet. If the stamp slips or the mallet recoils, striking the stamps twice, a permanent mark is left. “This is what sets hand crafted leather apart from machine-pressed leather,” Dave said. “Those little imperfections really end up giving the piece more character.” Currently, he is working on a copy of a piece created by one of his mentors, Jim Linnell, titled The Heart of Texas, a complex featuring just about every design element possible. Dave has already spent over 100 hours working on his version, which includes three-dimensional features, coloring, layered pieces and intricate patterns. He admits he still has a long way to go. “It’s a challenge, but I enjoy it,” Dave said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment to make something with my own hands. It’s something I do that will last.”

Written by Sara Edgell.