5 Principles These Leather Goods Craftspeople Followed To Create Hugely Successful Companies

At Fine Leatherworking we get a wide range of customers in search of luxury quality leather working tools. We get beginners who want to do great work but don’t know where to start, and we get experienced craftsmen who are looking to improve the quality of their work.

Every once in a while however, we get a customer who is different. They’re usually older and they call because they want to talk to a person first before ordering online. They often have a very specific question about a tool or material that we have on our store. Somewhere in our conversation, they mention a company that they work at and I Google it as we are talking. That’s when I discover that this polite gentleman is the owner of a huge leather goods company. I’m always shocked when I get these calls because my immediate reaction is ‘why would you bother with a little shop like ours? You have a corporation that is a thousand times bigger than us, so what could you possibly need?’ Their answer always makes me smile.

“I’m always looking for something better.”

They don’t mean a company better than theirs; they could easily crush us.  They’re talking about finding new tools and better techniques.  We finely curate the products we carry and offer the best advice that we can give. When these guys see that we’re offering a new tool, paint or a technique that they’ve never seen before, they always reach out to us.  At first I chalked it up to them being a collector of fine tools and sometimes that is indeed the case.

I’ve found that every customer like this is always looking to improve his or her work. Most have been working with leather for many years, but even after all that time, they’re not resting on their laurels.  These are lifetime craftsmen who have sometimes started their companies out of the trunks of their cars and built them into companies worth millions of dollars.  But when they see a potential opportunity to improve their materials or their technique, they always take it.

When I get the opportunity to speak with people of this caliber, I try to find out what made them successful in their business and their leather craft. Today, I’d like to share five of their most common principals.

Refine, Refine And Refine More Until You Think You Can Do No Better; Then Get Your Work Out There

As I mentioned above, masters of a craft are always learning and trying to improve. It is often the case that once you reach one plateau, the next one becomes visible. The ascent into mastering a craft really never ends, but it’s ok to start where you are. You want to refine your work as much as possible. Go just a little beyond what you think is ‘good enough’ and try to do the best that you can. Don’t push yourself to the point of frustration and failure, but don’t settle for mediocrity either. This is especially true when you’re just starting out.

Once you reach what you think is the best you can do, get your work out in front of people. Sometimes you have to start by selling out of the trunk of your car, on Etsy or another marketplace. You don’t necessarily need to sell your work, but get it out in front of people. Get feedback on your work, earnestly listen to what people have to say and continue to refine. I will often do better when I’m making something for someone else. Using your work for gifts is a great way to get your stuff out there.

ArmGuard by Chris F

Here is an example of an archery armguard made by one of our customers, Chris F.  The photo on the left is from a year ago and the photo on the right is a recent arm guard.  Notice how everything is better about his work: his stamps are clearer, there’s more nuance to the pattern, the edges are finished better, there are grommets for where the cords go in and there’s stitching on the edges. You can see both the individual improvements on each aspect of his work and also how it improves everything overall.

Try To Improve Just One Aspect Every Time You Work

You’ve probably heard this piece of advice before. I’ve heard it a lot myself.

When I get calls from leather craft veterans, they’re not looking for ten different ways to improve things. They’re usually laser focused on just one aspect. That can be nearly any aspect: sewing, edges, gluing, cutting. Or it can be just one detail like how to improve the buttons on my work. Trying to improve everything at once will drive you crazy, so focus on just one aspect at a time. When I’m doing a project, I will choose one component to really focus on. I’ll tell myself that ‘everything needs to be good, but the zipper construction on this piece needs to be great.’

button-detail

 

An improved button using a leather cover.

Focus On Just A Few Products And Be The Best At Them

One question that I always ask longtime makers is ‘what do you feel made you successful?’ and I usually get the same answer: “focus on a few things and be the best at them.’ When I research their companies more I often discover that they didn’t start out offering everything.  They usually started out offering just a few products or even just one product.  When I ask about their story, it’s usually that they honed and refined and refined that product.  At the same time they also marketed it and tried to get the word out until enough people noticed. Eventually they reach a turning point and go on to great success. You don’t have to offer a huge catalog of items at first. It’s often the case that you get a reputation for one or a few things. Focus on those few things first, then branch out as you get better and well known.

Take The Time To Learn A Skill

Sharpening is one of the most important skills in leatherworking and it’s also one of the hardest. It took me several months to be passable and a whole year to get decent. Before I started leatherworking I carved traditional Noh masks in Japan. When I was learning woodcarving, my teacher always sharpened the tools for me.

I didn’t understand why at first, until I started trying to sharpen on my own. It was a painfully long process for me to sharpen just one tool. When I asked him how long it would take to learn to sharpen, without hesitation he said ‘a year.’ And he was right. After a few months I could sharpen a tool enough to use it, but it took a long time to get it as sharp as he could. I’m going to share with you my sharpening knowledge and hopefully help you to learn faster, but it’s important to remember to take the time to learn these kinds of skills. The good news is that once you get good at sharpening, it takes less and less time. I would literally spend an hour sharpening a chisel where my teacher would take about 10 minutes.

kobeshimi

Here is a picture of my work. It’s all hand-carved out of wood.

If You Love What You Do, You’ll Never Work A Day In Your Life

Often the successful leather goods makers I talk to were not classically trained in a leather school.  They searched and searched for the best instructions that they could find and practiced and practiced until they felt that they could produce something that they could be proud of. This always inspires me because it reinforces the fact that you don’t always need to have ‘the right’ background to excel at something and that you can start at any time. What I have observed from these experienced leatherworkers is that they love what they do. Their passion for what they do was a major contributor to their success. People often say you have to be disciplined to be good at something. While this true, discipline does not have to be drudgery. If you love what you do, you will take it seriously and the discipline and work required to be good will come much easier for you.

For me that was making leather bags. It’s crazy I know, but making the perfect bag is, for me, what drives me to do great work. I never get tired of looking for new designs or trying new techniques and construction methods. I’ll spend hours on this whereas other people will give up after just a short while.

What was the one thing that you wanted to make that inspired you to get into leatherworking?  Please let us know in the comments.

44 replies on “5 Principles These Leather Goods Craftspeople Followed To Create Hugely Successful Companies

  • Dan Tutt

    Thanks for the “little things”, such as this article. I like to think of them as “gold nuggets”…informative and inspirational. Although I realize that quality tools and materials are expensive, and I squell like a stuck pig paying for them, I also understand their usefulness. The “nugget” that you provided in this article is one of the reasons I will patronize your site when I need a quality item. Keep up the quality customer service and you will go far my friend.

    Reply
  • Starr

    I wish i got real, sincere and inspirational emails like this more often. Thank you sooo much.
    I just might start working in leather again.

    Reply
  • Mary Spence

    Thank you! Great words to live by! I love belts! I am getting better but still always looking at new designs and ideas! Thanks for your post!

    Reply
  • Ercilia Guajardo

    Love this post, I have been doing leather work off and on for the past 15 years more so now that I have done purses, wallets for my own personal use, thanks to my kids and husband who got me a kit for me a couple of years ago for Mother’s Day. I proudly show off my purse and wallets have gotten a lot of compliments on them that I have people start asking me to make them one similar or something close or a different styles. I have been trying a lot of different new ideas. Last year I was able to do a life size western saddle with the help of John Deck a saddle maker and I am working on another one in my own since he past away this year before we could get started on my second saddle.

    Reply
  • Becky

    A very great article. Nice to read how much time you have to invest a beautiful piece of leather to edit. This is still true craftsmanship.

    Reply
  • Tamara

    I am currently into my 5th handbag and it is my 3rd paying order! I started off making a really quirky colourful purse with different grades and textures of leather and then a handbag to match. People noticed it straight away and I am often stopped in the street (proud crafter moment!) My current obsession is edge skiving. I have brought several hand tools and am practicing with varying results! I love posts like this as they tell me I am not alone in my love of leather and my constant quest for perfection.

    Reply
  • vrinda

    Tamara I’m curious how you started working with leather
    I’m a jewelry designer wanting to get into leather handbags
    and am a little intimidated
    Thanks

    Reply
  • Michelle Cohn

    I am just beginning the journey to learn the skill of making my own fine leather handbags. I am delighted that I found your website. Thank-you for sharing your knowledge and offering quality products. Do you have relationships with zipper suppliers as well? I want high end components to incorporate into my bags.

    Reply
    • Fine Leatherworking

      Hi Michelle,

      Zippers supply and a tutorial on how to install them is something that we’re working on. Was there anything in particular about finding the right kind or using them that has been challenging?

      Reply
      • Michelle Cohn

        Thanks for your reply. My question is both – I am looking for the right kind and will then need to learn how to incorporate them into the bags. RiRi zippers seem to be the best option for the direction I want to take after comparing them to Talon and ykk, etc. As far as RiRi distributors go – there are only a few and those that do offer RiRi zippers seem to only offer limited options than what is actually available from the company. I want custom colors and zipper pulls.

        Sincerely, Michelle

        Reply
  • Allison Sattinger

    I cannot believe I JUST stumbled upon this amazing website today. Cannot wait to place an order, but tools are rivaled in beauty by articles like this. So glad to have found you!
    A

    Reply
  • T. Michael

    I want to thank you for providing such an informative and inspiring blog and website as a whole…not many places in the states where you can find such premium quality products and materials. Leather Artisans and Crafts People need this type of service; somewhere to shop, gain knowledge, share their concerns and get answers all in one place. Great Work! -TM

    Reply
  • tina

    regarding zippers: ykk excella has very good quality zippers, look at their website, a lot of choice in colors, pullers, metal etc…
    i am using them for some time now and i am very satisfied, the belgian company Delvaux uses them too.

    Reply
  • Agus Widodo

    Thank’s for the words, inspiring me about where to start. I am not patient person, want to learn as fast as I can. Let’s start with simple project……

    Reply
  • Paul

    I was inspired to get into leatherwork over 20 years ago. I used to work in the golf industry and during that time sign wrote several golf professionals golf bags. Craig Parry is the most famous one. One day a golf professional I knew asked me to sign write his golf bag but the bag was very cheap. I suggested to him that instead of sign writing that bag that a bootmaker friend and I make him a bag. We bought a Singer 132 K6 and over the next 3 1/2 months in our spare time designed and made him a full leather golf bag from Connolly leather. Whilst I no longer have the K6 I have continued to make the occasional leather goods including a hand stitched saddle bag for a motorbike and a motorbike seat and another golf bag using a hand cranked patcher and hand sewing.
    I still have so much to learn and improve on and recently bought a Singer 153W103. I would love to be able to stamp as well as the wrist guards shown in this post.

    Reply
  • Rosemberg

    I just got this article when I’m struggling with my saddle stitch 🙁 but no, I won’t give up! Thank you for the tips:) I hope one day have my work on your blog…who knows?! 🙂 greetings from Sweden

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Keep up the diligent practice, Rosemberg! We’d love to see some photos of your work at any time. Send us an email!

      Reply
  • Evelyn

    Looking forward the upcoming course! Leather bags are where it’s at for me too. I love handbags, satchels, luggage, totes, clutches, dopp kits etc. The feel of a perfectly proportioned bag with the right weight is what inspires me. I have a small collection of vintage handbags that I’d like to recreate in leather.

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Great to have you here as a part of our little community, Evelyn! We’d love to see you at one of our upcoming hand-bag courses!

      Reply
  • Davo

    Inspiring post. Thanks. Holsters got me into leather working but I quickly moved to other small leather goods. Wallets are the passion now – each one I do, I learn something to improve on. I give away the wallets that I judge worthy and keep all the others in my “rejects” box. I like to review my past efforts every now and then just to remember the how and why of the failures and reinforce the improvements I made. The most important thing I have learned to date is something that my dad told me very early in my life – use the best tools and materials that you can afford no matter what your building. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      I love that – “use the best tools and materials that you can afford no matter what you’re building.” Great advice for beginners and old-hands alike. Thanks, Davao!

      Reply
  • Pedro

    Thanks for the article. Love hearing from other’s starting like myself. I am a cement Mason by trade. I started leather working by making my one year old son some shoes… It was fun. Everything I make looks better than the last. I get a natural high seeing the progress. I take pride in everything I make. I’m now exploring making tool belts for my fellow Masons. Custom cement finishers belts are simply none existent in stores. I made my first yesterday and today I brought it to work. It was nice to have a fellow coworker offer to buy it. I have a long way to go but the journey is fun. I’m looking into buying a sewing machine. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Hi Pedro. We do mostly hand-stitching here but would love to hear your input on how you’re doing with the machine stitching. Keep in touch!

      Reply
  • James Junkins

    Great article. Very inspirational. My reason for wanting to get into leather working is old age. I noticed the usual signs of aging. Dexterity declining, Inability to maintain focus. Most importantly I wasn’t establishing goals as I did when I was younger. I figure that in leather working I can exercise these and other deficiencies and have both physical and spiritual (Zen?) evidence of my progress.
    JJ

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Hi James. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think leatherworking is a great exercise for physical, mental and spiritual health. It builds dexterity, concentration, problem-solving skills, and really puts us in a kind of reflective space that’s great for getting clarity with things in life. Lots of good reasons to practice!

      Reply
  • Jeanette Hiller

    I just started in leatherwork. I am a purse and bag girl and can rarely find one i like at a price i can afford. So I thought I’d learn to make my own!

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      That’s a great way to go, Jeanette! I think many of us started doing leatherwork under the same circumstances. Keep in touch and let us know how things are going. I’d love to see some photos of your first bags!

      Reply
  • TapTapTap

    This is the article I needed. I just wanted to improve on the stitch work.. I practiced and practiced and now its passable (actually better than that but Im harsh on myself).
    I have stacks of leather that look like a cribbage board. Now I want to learn how to burnish leather but here is my rub: I have reached out to people around my area (even in person) and it is almost like a secret society at times. Its disheartning at times. I found the thing that I can focus on and funny as it may seem, its calming. I look at the clock with a smile see that it is 7pm, next time I see it…. I’m like damm 15 til midnight.
    I find this to be a path that I want to pursue and has been the most positive thing I seen read digested in at least a month but there is also a very real negative to this and it is the influence by naysayers. I hear more of the: there is no future in this/ no way to make a real living/ etc etc etc.
    I just want a sign at times… I came across this by pure chance, sure as hell feels like a sign.
    Thank you

    Reply
  • Miss Moneypenny

    The thing that has me trying to learn leather-working skills is the search for a beautiful collar for my dogs. I’ve seen many attractive (from afar) designs that turn out to be not all that finely crafted. And I’ve found really well-crafted collars and leashes that are very limited in design. I’ll take the well-crafted-if-uninspired any day, but I want to make collars that are finely crafted AND inspired. I am sure I will be able to learn and acquire the skills; I am a highly skilled knitter, tailor, and seamstress and a pretty good spinner and a beginning weaver. Right now I am struggling to choose the right tools. I thought I found the right knife, now it turns out I have to learn how to sharpen it. Thanks for all the tips you share–I’ll get there eventually.

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Great feedback! So many of us took our first step into leatherwork because we couldn’t find what we were looking for. I’d love to see your finely crafted AND inspired dog collars! Keep us in the loop.

      Reply
  • Omar Ahmad

    Tqvm.
    I’m very new in this field. Has to learn a lot from you guys. I need to learn how to make bags, steering wheel covers, gear knob and motorcycles bag.

    Reply
  • Raul Esparza

    Thank you so much for sharing! It’s good to be reminded to focus on a single detail (like the burning focal point of a magnifying glass) and become great at that one thing! Sharpening, is something I really enjoy. I’ve carried a pocket knife for many years and I’m always getting better at sharpening it.
    To answer your question though, leather belts is what got me into leather work. And thanks to this article I’m going to identify one thing to improve upon to make the belts I produce even better! Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Sharpening is such an important skill to have in leatherworking! A sharp knife will not only perform better and make your job easier, but it makes the whole process of leatherworking more enjoyable too. Thanks for chiming in, Raul!

      Reply
  • Dennis J Merlino

    CUSTOM LEATHER CREATIONS NJ
    I am very happy about sewing my fist zippers. Use both brass and nylon and reduced them to fit a four inch opening. I take extreme care in the refined details of a piece and I am ever observant on examples of ‘professional’ productions. Classic techniques with detailed alignment are imperatives when it comes to completion of finished shoe pieces. I make many one of a kind pieces to order and have never had a client unsatisfied with the finished piece. Thanks!

    Reply

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