The techniques and tools are time honored, the artistry unparalleled.
Leather working may be a dying art, but it's Brett Smith's life's passion.
Smith has been doing leather work for 20 years but has been peddling his wares as T Star Leather for the last nine.
For Smith, it's about creating heirlooms, feeling a connection to a long lineage of craftsman and satisfaction in a job well done.
He was slinging lead as a performing cowboy at a western theme park when he got his start.
Before he knew it, his performance buddies needed new sheaths and holsters and the hobby turned into a paying gig.
Smith does custom work that's meant to last, so it didn't take long for word to travel.
"I have orders that have come in from coast to coast. I've sent stuff to England, India and Australia. It's pretty humbling when you get in contact with people halfway across the globe who have thousands of options for leather but pick me," Smith said.
His wares run the gamut.
When it comes to leather work, Smith's experiences have made him a jack of all trades.
He creates for old west reenactments and for competitors in western shooting sports. He creates horse tack, motorcycle gear and travels the Renaissance Festival circuit.
He's crafted a bit of everything, but there's one saddle that stands out among the rest.
"The most unique, fantastic thing I've gotten to build was one particular saddle. It had hand-carved holly leaves covering 50-60 percent of the surface. It had an Edgar Allan Poe poem carved around
the back of the seat. It had a cardinal carved in and inside all the holly leaves and berries were names of family members, friends and horses. Anywhere there was tooling there were names hidden in. That was a pretty fantastic piece," he said.
The kind of piece that stays in a family for generations.
Smith said, "It's a treasure to know I've built something that's going to outlive both the owner and the maker…To think I'm carrying that tradition forward, that's why I do what I do."
"Other than that I've done things out of crocodile, elephant hide, other exotic skins.
“You're working with the natural features of the scales, or whatever, and you incorporate that into the final design, so each one is one of a kind," Smith said. "I'm more of a craftsman or artisan — but with those pieces you're an artist. Those pieces are so much fun because while I'm creating it, it's telling me what I'm making."
As with many craftsman, it was up to Smith to learn the tricks of the trade from books and other leatherworkers.
"For the first six years I was pretty much book and self-taught. I got to the point where I wanted to take the next big step. For making holsters and sheaths the goal is to get the title of saddle maker. So I went from Maryland to Texas to learn how to build saddles. I took a whole class on it from a guy that had been building saddles for 50 years. I learned that I had made a very good start but had so much more to learn," he said.
Smith knows hand-crafters and artisans are a dying breed and he has an idea why.
"There are no shortcuts. I have all the equipment to do it as efficiently as it can be done…it's hours of painstaking labor. It's not sitting at a screen. There are no easy answers," he said. "There's a lot of time and learning to even be able to get to the point to create something that's masterful. It means you have to dedicate yourself to it and work at it. I don't feel that people do that as readily today as they used to. There are a lot of distractions."
For Smith, satisfaction outweighs distraction.
"There's a lot of satisfaction in the end of the day when you pull out a piece of natural leather and a few days later you've created something. Every time I finish a project I like to just sit and look at it for a few minutes and enjoy the finished piece," he said. "There are many things I've done, that aren't building, that I've been able to take pride in my part in it, but nothing makes me as proud as when I've built something and it's good."
T Star Leather's good can be found in the Grapevine on Claremore's main street or at TStarLeather.com