Trade Talk With Talented Leather Workers

Perfecting a Craft

 

When it comes to skilled artisans, the Chattanooga area has no shortage. From setting rivets to saddle stitching, local leather workers are captivating the community with their knowledge of the craft. While the men profiled here might not make the same type of products or have the same style, they can all agree on one thing. The intersection of functionality and style is what leatherworking is all about.

 

Photography by Vityl Media

Gregg Wise 

Wise Leatherworks

 

Can you describe your journey with leatherworking?

The path I’ve taken into the world of leather started as the simplest of ideas. Sitting around the dinner table on a Sunday just catching up with family thinking in the back of my mind how unfulfilled I’d become with my career. My brother-in-law, a tattoo artist and leather crafter himself, suggested I consider leatherworking. I was hooked and immediately began researching everything I would need to start.

How would you describe your style?

Minimalist. I love making something so simple yet so functional.

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made?

My favorite project was the first passport cover I made. It was really the first project I designed and created by myself. It looks terrible, but I love it!

Bag made by Gregg Wise.Which piece has been the most challenging and why?

It was a hand-stitched bucket bag. The design that my customer wanted actually came from another crafter out of Europe. I looked at those pattern pieces for weeks before I got up the courage to jump in, but when I did everything seemed to just click, and off I went. The bag came out perfect, and I couldn’t believe I made it.

What is your creative process?

I really come up with my best ideas in three different ways – when I’m driving, just sitting around talking to my wife, JoAnna, or having a nice glass of bourbon.

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Don’t be afraid to mess up. Just remember when you do, and keep building off your mistakes. Before you know it, you’ve got a beautiful piece and a new experience.

Gregg wise filing a piece of leather.Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share?

A young lady approached me at a show about fixing a bracelet for her dad. A few weeks later, her mom called me and explained exactly what that bracelet was. They had four kids, and he had a charm for each of them on this bracelet. Their son had recently passed away. He had added a charm with his son’s fingerprint, but the bracelet broke. After hearing this, I crafted a new bracelet with the charms and sent it back as a gift for their loss. Months later, that same girl found me at a show and thanked me for what I did for her dad. It made me feel so good that I could have that kind of impact on a family by using my craft.

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Phil Pritchard

Wolftever Leather Goods

 

Can you describe your journey with leatherworking?

In 1981, I went to work for Scholze Tannery and eventually became involved in all areas of the operation. It was fascinating to learn how to convert a smelly, dirty cattle hide into beautiful and functional heavy leather. Around the same time, a friend and coworker named Bill Faulkner introduced me to leatherworking, and I was hooked! Using my hands to make functional and attractive products from such a beautiful natural resource has become a lifelong passion.

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? How have they evolved over time?

Over the 40+ years I’ve been doing leatherwork, I’ve made many different types of products, but I’ve recently narrowed my focus to knife sheaths, belts, holsters, and other gun leather. My work has continuously improved and is still evolving. I learn something new on every project, and I expect to never stop learning.

Phil Pritchard smoothing leather through a machine.Which piece has been the most challenging and why?

Any piece that is the first of a type of product is always a special challenge. When I think back now to how rough my first holster was and how many mistakes I made, I have to laugh, but it was a tremendous learning opportunity. I was able to interact with coworkers and customers who had much more experience in leatherworking than I did. I would ask them to critique my work each time I made another product, and I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could. 

What is your creative process?

Whether I’m working on a customer’s special order or developing a standard product for sale, I want to clearly understand the purpose of the product and how it will be used. Once I’ve decided on the best type of leather to fill the need, I need to determine the best design that satisfies all the elements of functionality, fit, safety, durability, budget, and aesthetics. 

leather brands organized on a block.What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Follow your passion. You need to love your craft, and you need to be excited about spending a lifetime learning and perfecting your skills.

Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share?

One of my great-
grandsons spent some time in the shop with me during the summer break last year learning some basic leatherworking skills. With my help, he made himself a knife sheath that turned out quite well. Seeing the big smile on his face when we completed that project was definitely a highlight for me.

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Christian Holmes and his wife

 

Chris Holmes

Fox & Forest Leather Goods

 

Can you describe your journey with leatherworking?

I started leatherworking a couple of years ago. I actually started with knife making, but we moved and I didn’t have the space to continue that hobby, so I decided to start making leather sheaths for the knives I had already made. I started exploring the leather-making world and realized there were so many different pieces I could make outside of sheaths. 

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? How have they evolved over time?

We make totes, belts, wallets, dog collars and leashes, and other pieces. We are constantly trying to add new things to our list of projects, and we really value items that are both beautiful and practical.  

How would you describe your style?

We are going after a more modern take on leather. We love that leather craft has a long and rich history in style, but we try to create pieces that move away from your traditional western look and add a more sleek and modern flair. 

 
Christian Holmes working with a piece of leather.

 

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made?

My favorite piece I ever made was a dark green men’s satchel with snap closures and a lot of pockets. It was one of the first large pieces I did myself, and it really gave me the confidence I needed to keep creating. 

Woman branding a piece of leather.What is your creative process?

If I need to get creative, I just get in the shop and start working on something that I know. I have found that creating includes a lot of mistakes, but you don’t want your whole day to feel like it is just mistake after mistake. I need some wins throughout my day to keep me moving, so I usually like to have more than one project going. If I get stuck or frustrated with one, I just move on to another.

What is one misconception about leatherworking, and what do you want people to know about the craft?

A lot of people view all leather as the same. There is a scale of quality in the leather world, and it really matters, especially when it comes to the longevity.

Leather samples with Fox and Forest Leather Goods branding.Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share?

The very first bag I ever made was the most memorable. We still have it hanging up, and it is a good reminder of how much progress we have made. The bag isn’t much to write home about – I used the wrong kind of leather and the stitching is crooked … but the leather has aged well, and it is still a beautiful bag. It was the bag that kicked it all off.

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Ben Beasley

Chattanooga Leather Works

 
What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those?

The majority of what we create is knife-specific sheaths. I spent summers on my grandparents’ farm in Middle Tennessee. I remember being out working with my grandad and asking, “Do you have your knife on you?” He always had the same response, “I’ve got my pants on, don’t I?” As Americans, the ‘well-equipped and prepared for anything’ gene runs deep. We are survivors, woodsmen, pioneers, and rebels. I have formed my business around catering to the people who don’t want to forget that. 

How would you describe your style?

Classic meets modern, functionality meets style, outdoors meets urban. Our carry systems bring the classic feel that everyone thinks of when they picture leather, and they marry that with the modern capabilities of design.

Ben Beasley grinding a piece of leather on a machine.What is your creative process?

There are some days that I come into the shop ready to draw and can turn out several new designs. Then there are days that I absolutely need to design something with a deadline, and it can be the most difficult thing to get right. One thing that helps on those days is to schedule myself the time to run with it. It also helps to keep a notepad with me at all times. 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

My advice is simply to do it. Whatever the craft, try to get your feet wet with it. If there is something there that lights a fire in you, keep at it. There are a lot of distractions in today’s world, but the value in life comes from those things that we decide to do and make a way to get them done. 

What is one misconception about leatherworking, and what do you want people to know about the craft?

Hammering a brand into a leather piece.Many people think leatherwork has a costly barrier to entry. Sure, it can, but there are so many ways to begin to dabble with it relatively cheaply. It seems that the craft has slowly slipped out of popularity, and I always have people asking me about it assuming that they need a full shop with fancy tools.

What do you love most about the work you do? What’s the most challenging?

I love creating. I love that at the end of my day, I can look at my bench and say, “I made that.” Also, I love that what I get to do in the shop ties in with what I love to do outside. The most challenging part of what I do has been in the last few months when I am finding myself working on processes more than on products. 

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Chris Noland

Lemon Tree Leatherwork

 
Can you describe your journey with leatherworking?

While serving in the Army, I spent many evenings shining my boots and came to really appreciate the process of maintaining leather. I always loved how leather goods could last for generations if taken care of. After spending a long time appreciating the craft, I finally decided to try it myself. I started making wallets and small goods in 2020 with a cheap tool kit and a bundle of scrap leather and have been at it since. 

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? How have they evolved over time?

I mostly make wallets and small goods, but I have made all kinds of things. I’m interested in making some costume pieces or even a pair of boots eventually. I especially like making wallets because they get the most use. 

Chris Noland working with a piece of leather on a cutting board.How would you describe your style?

I would describe my style as traditional refined. I like to use classic designs but try to make each piece as elevated as I can. For me, that means using the highest quality leathers I can source and spending a slightly ridiculous amount of time finishing each wallet. 

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made?

My favorite piece I’ve made was a briefcase last year. It was the most complex build I have done. It was a beautiful tan harness leather with all solid brass hardware and fully lined with a royal blue Italian suede. I was a bit sad to see it go when I shipped it to the customer.

Chris Noland cutting a piece of leather on a cutting board.What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Know that you will always be your biggest critic, and don’t be so hard on yourself. Also, keep your knives sharp!

What do you love most about the work you do?

I love the smell of the leather and the history of the tools and techniques. Most of all, it always makes me happy when I can make something for someone I care about. With leathercraft being so versatile, there is always a way to apply it to a person’s interests. I’ve made paint brush rolls, dice and card holders, pen sleeves, photo albums, and even a fly fishing lure wallet.

Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share?

I have recently had the opportunity to help another local artist get started with leatherwork. I helped her make her first wallet and get started on her first bag. It has been a fun experience to help someone else start their journey into the craft.

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David Haslerig

Haslerig Saddlery

 
Can you describe your journey with leatherworking?

To put it simply, I found a need for the trade as I began wanting particular items to use as a team roper in high school. I began with braiding items such as headstalls, and eventually, others wanted to place orders. I first started in my parents’ garage and later accepted a position as the strap goods department manager at Reinsman Equestrian. That experience gave me the tools necessary to open my own shop in 2010. 

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? How have they evolved over time?

I have built my brand on producing custom, high-end leather goods, specifically for the western way of life, and I make everything from saddles to purses and belts. My craftsmanship has evolved in that my tooling has become more distinct and intricate, and I’ve gained a lot of know-how when it comes to finish work and fine details. 

 

David Haslerig crafting a piece of leather at his workstation.

 

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made?

In 2020, I built a briefcase complete with custom-engraved Ryan Edmonds silver pieces. It was a stand-out piece because I was granted the freedom to build it with mostly my vision in mind, and I, along with my customer, was incredibly happy with the final product. 

Which piece has been the most challenging and why?

As a whole, saddles are the most challenging. With every saddle, there are different complex pieces, and they need to be not only eye-catching but also comfortable and functional. When it comes to comfort, they need to be comfortable for both the horse and the rider. I find myself setting an exceptionally high standard for these pieces. 

 

David Haslerig standing at his work station.

What is your creative process?

I simply begin by creating a functional layout, and as the piece grows, the complexities bring each piece to life. 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Learning to draw your own patterns will help you to create your own sense of style that becomes recognizable. 

What do you love most about the work you do? What’s the most challenging?

I love the creative process of taking an idea a customer has and surpassing their expectations. The most challenging is probably the time that is involved. There never seems to be enough of it.

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