I love the scent of leather. There is nothing else similar to it in the world. No substance which has quite the same mix of earthy masculine and faint hints of sweet feminine combined. It’s natural, not perfumed, and quite mild if treated right. Any time I walk into one of the many leatherworking booths at ORF I find myself inhaling deeply to maximize my intake of it.

If you have ever been to a ren faire, especially the Ohio Renaissance Festival, you know that the exuberance shown towards leather pieces knows no bounds. From belts to boots and pouches to pauldrons, just about everyone has something on their garb made from this tanned and treated bit of animal hide. We all have our personal favorites around the festival, and some of the booths are known for one item in particular. I have a pair of nine-buttons from Son of Sandlar, a girth belt from Brown Cow, a purse from Blue Flame Leather, a hat from Saxony Leather, and more pouches than you can count!

Clearly a fellow leather lover

During the 2019 season there were over 15 different leather crafters on the faire grounds, some in booths and some in tents or wagons. I visited each one of their shops for a chance to chat and see what kind of pieces they had to offer. While many of the leatherworkers have their staples such as belts or pouches, I was thrilled to find that no two crafters have the same pieces or the same signature style. With a little observation, you can know a Brown Cow corset from a Saxony leather bodice, and in all likelihood, you’ll want both for different occasions.

I took some time with Chip Brown from Brown Cow Arts to talk more in-depth about what it takes to become a master leatherworker. He was kind enough to let us drop by his home and workshop to take a look at the process close up. Looking at his place, it’s easy to see how one can grow from project to passion, and from passion to profession. We had briefly discussed his beginnings as a leatherworker in our Building History blog post, but now I wanted to know more about what goes into the process at this professional craftsman level. Chip was happy to share.

Quality Leather produces quality pieces

A variety of leather sits on the shelves at Chip’s workshop

Where does leather come from? Well, it comes from animals! Most leather is made from cowhide, although more unusual forms are available if you know where to source from. It is considered a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, comprising about 5% of the value of the animal and putting as much of the cow to use as possible. Leatherworkers typically buy wholesale, and – as opposed to mass-market leather which is sourced from overseas – many faire crafters source from within the US, locally if possible.

Leather is typically sold after the tanning process has been completed, as doing this yourself could add days or months to your work depending upon the method used. Thankfully the methods used during the Tudor era – which involved measuring innards onto the hide to soften the fur – are no longer part of the process

Nowadays there are two basic types of tanning processes that produce two distinct types of leather. ‘Chrom tan’, created by processing a hide with chromium bromide, is a soft and flexible leather that is well suited for flexible clothing pieces and pouches. ‘Veg tan’, created by processing hides in tannins from vegetable matter such as oak bark, produces a stiff and thick leather that can hold structure and take tooling and other detailing work. ‘Veg tan’ is what you’ll find belts and hard leather corsets are made of.

“Most people hear the term ‘top-grain leather’ and think it means the best…because it’s ‘top.’ But actually top-grain leather means the top layer of the hide has been cut off, leaving suede.” Chip explained. “The suede is then usually coated in vinyl (plastic) and printed with the texture of leather. When buying quality, hand-made leather pieces you want to look for ‘full-grain’ because that is the natural top of the hide and nothing has been removed. You get all of the unique and beautiful qualities and quirks of the hide.

Tools do not make the artist, but they help

Chip’s partner, Heather, demonstrates the special industrial sewing machine used to sew through leather. The machine is not only stronger to get through the tough material, but also has a special footer that will “walk” the leather through the machine.

If you type “beginners leatherworking kit” into a search engine, you can get the basic tools for about $60 or so before shipping. They’re a good place to start if you want to dip your toes into the field or make a special gift for someone. For a professional crafter, the purchases get a bit more pricey. We’re talking $6000 sewing machines, 40-ton hydraulic presses, ventilated stations for dyeing and working with chemicals, and that’s all before discussing operating costs for a season run.

Bottom: a pouch before it has been topstitched. It looks nice, but not quite finished. Top: a pouch finished with a top stitch, evident in its quality.

“Some folk think that taking this on is about getting rich quick. It’s more like going broke slowly.” Chip tells me with a laugh.

All these tools provide leathercrafters with the ability to streamline the process without sacrificing that handmade quality. They can delegate some of the labor like beveling edges and pressing grommets to minions (the loving term used for the apprentices) while keeping the more detailed and artisan portions of the work to the ‘master’ crafter.

Chip demonstrates how to finish the edge of a belt with a bevel by hand. It is a very slow process.
Advanced tools, such as this auto edger, can bevel all four edges of a belt at once. Speeding up the process for a professional craftsman.
One of Chip’s “minions” adds grommets to mug straps
Chip demonstrates how to cut belts out of larger hides with a hand-held strap cutter.
The powered strap cutter makes the process of making belts as easy as making pasta!
Heather dyes the edges of mug straps black to create a polished look.

You can always see an Artisan’s Touch

Chip holds up a draft of his next piece, a leather corset featuring Celtic knotwork cats, his own design.

Cutting, sewing, and adding hardware are only the start of a true master-worked piece of leather. It is the finishing touches that will set something you find at a venue such as the Ohio Renaissance Festival apart from mass-market goods.

Anyone can pick up a copy of the Al Stoleman Leatherwork Manual and start on their journey with enthusiasm. But what sets an artisan apart is the long years of practice and success through repeated failures that allow one to develop their own style.

Chip Brown starts creating his Celtic knotwork cats design by cutting the lines into the leather with a swivel knife. Knowing how deep to cut, cutting that deep consistently, and creating smooth lines takes years of practice.
After the design has been cut, tooling is done to bevel edge lines, compress the leather in areas to add depth, and press textures into the leather.
The corset front begins to take shape. Left side: the design is nearly complete after having been cut, beveled, and tooled. Right side: the design has only been cut and beveled. The finishing steps take time and skill, but they make all the difference!

Brown Cow is well known for their Celtic knotwork and firm fitting corsets. Journeyman Leather carries vividly dyed soft suede pieces. The Goblin Trader takes things in a different direction with leather-bound books and delightfully creepy fetish dolls. One of the more nifty things that made an appearance last season were the little leather dragons from The Leather Arts Store! No two crafters do things the same way, and it’s a point of pride to have something from your favorite.

Chip uses a hydraulic press to imprint a design into leather. His method of creating and using dies is a proprietary method that took him years to create.
The design is revealed after the hydraulic press is lifted and the die removed.
Finished corsets await the racks for next year’s festival.

Unlimited Potential

This is just a glimpse at the breadth of potential when it comes to leatherworking and the kind of leather goods you can find at the Ohio Renaissance Festival. This is why many people turn to privately commissioned pieces from their favorite leathersmith. It’s a lot like bespoke garb in that you are coordinating with a professional who can help turn your dream into a reality. Check out some of the booths around faire and consider what kind of crafter’s style best fits what you have in mind!

Leather Goods From Around Faire

Leather Workers you can find at the Ohio Renaissance Festival

Saxony Leather

Catskill Mountain Moccasins

Crimson Chain Leatherworks

Rogues to Riches

The Goblin Trader

Journeyman Leather

The Griffin Works

Brown Cow Arts

Dragon & Unicorn Leather Mugs

The Leather Arts Store

Son of Sandlar

Blue Flame Trading Post

Minotaurs Labyrinth of Leather

Vllad the Viking Guy

For Leather After

Correction: in a pervious version of this post Heather was misidentified as Chip’s wife.