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Texas man continues family tradition crafting leather goods

June 12, 2018

DENTON, Texas (AP) — It’s silent in the small studio on the corner of Bell and Oak streets in downtown Denton, except for the scraping of metal on stone.

In the same spot where his grandfather hand-tooled saddles for four decades, Clint Wilkinson, 35, silently counts each stroke of a knife across his damp whetstone.

The tools he uses were custom-made in Japan, the highest of high-end. Next to his whetstone is a small water dish with cracked white paint that his grandfather used in his own shop.

The store is a mix of old and new. Faded photos of Wilkinson and his grandfather hang on stark white walls. Antique display cases hold a collection of Wilkinson’s fine leather handbags.

Working with leather has always been the family business, but it hasn’t always been Wilkinson’s. He rebelled against the leatherworking tradition as a young man, making a living riding motocross and writing about the sport.

Then, he said, leather saved him. The family shop became his sanctuary from the stress of a career in digital media.

After three career changes and with a new business bearing his name, Wilkinson now feels at peace in this quiet shop, where he’s trying to claim a reputation as the best leather craftsman in the state.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you can’t just go in a straight line.”

Wilkinson’s family has lived in Denton for six generations. His grandfather, Weldon Burgoon, grew up ranching. In the Great Depression that meant making your own saddles, ropes and other gear.

In 1957, he opened a saddle shop downtown, and Weldon’s became a Denton icon.

When Wilkinson was a child, he said, his grandfather would put him to work cleaning up, working the register and learning the basics of working with leather.

But Wilkinson wasn’t interested in the Western tradition of his family. As a teenager, he preferred riding dirt bikes to riding horses.

He raced motocross professionally as a young man, and then started an online magazine about the sport. The magazine, while successful, kept Wilkinson in a daily grind that over six years became too stressful.

He felt overwhelmed and insecure. Doctors said he was perfectly healthy, but he felt like his body was breaking under the pressure. In 2013, he decided to step back from the magazine.

Wilkinson came home, to the saddle shop where he grew up, looking for something new.

He sat down at his grandfather’s work table and began making a belt with an intricate, hand-tooled design. The work calmed him and offered a chance to be creative.

“We live in a world full of distractions,” he said. “When I go sit down with leather, it’s like a zen type of experience.”

He decided to use his brand-building skills from his years in digital media to build a leather-working brand. He called it Bell and Oak, for the intersection where his grandfather set up shop in Denton.

He churned out wallets and belts, coasters and keychains. He got a contract to produce leather pieces for the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. To this day, if you purchase something leather in the library’s gift shop, chances are you’re buying something Wilkinson created.

But the rate of production meant the return of that old stress. He started to feel overwhelmed again and knew he had to make another change.

Around the same time, his grandfather decided to hang up his hat and sell the old shop in downtown Denton. His retirement was celebrated with a resolution from the Texas House of Representatives. Wilkinson even got a mention in the official resolution.

“His grandson, Clint Wilkinson, got his start in the shop, has since opened his own luxury leather store next door, carrying on the family trade,” it read.

The family sold the store, which was subdivided by the new owner. Wilkinson was able to secure the corner storefront. He set up his workbench in the same spot where his grandfather worked for all those years.

Now, Wilkinson isn’t trying to build a national brand. His goal isn’t to get his leather goods in every store in the country. The name on the door is simple:

Clint Wilkinson, handmade in Texas

He creates everything by hand, a work-intensive process that makes his pieces special — and pricey. Most of his pieces are custom-ordered for individual clients, although he still mass-produces the souvenirs for the Bush library. A small wallet can cost $285 and take three working days to make, the Dallas Morning News reported .

He uses tools handmade for him in Japan. He uses French thread with Japanese sewing techniques. He uses leather from Italy, France and Japan.

Sometimes, his clients will bring in exotic leather they collected on a hunting trip, and he’ll turn it into handbags and wallets. Recently he made a watchband out of elephant leather. More often, his exotic leathers are from a little closer to home, like American alligator skin.

He’ll spread out the leather hide and carefully cut out pieces using a template. One wrong move, and the entire piece could be ruined. He then sews the pieces together.

Each stitch takes up to 10 seconds. First, he creates a hole in the leather with an awl, then pulls the thread through, ties a small knot, and tightens the thread. This way, if one stitch comes loose one day, the whole piece won’t unravel.

It’s precision work. There are few craftsmen who work this way, and machines don’t knot stitches like that. There are certainly easier ways to make wallets and watchbands, but Wilkinson said his pieces are meant to last. He hopes they are heirlooms, something to hand down to future generations.

“Legacy is a big deal for me because of what my grandfather created,” Wilkinson said. “I don’t want that legacy to just go away. I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep some portion of that alive.”

What’s more, now Wilkinson is passing that leather-bound legacy on to a new generation.

In March, Wilkinson received a large order from the Bush Library. He needed to make 1,200 bookmarks from strips of red leather. Busy with other custom orders, he enlisted the help of his 9-year-old son Dylan to punch a hole in each for the decorative tassel.

About 300 holes later, Wilkinson said he was surprised to see each hole was dead center and the boy seemed hungry for more. Wilkinson had found a new apprentice in the family.

While Wilkinson said Dylan isn’t ready for the detail-oriented custom work, he looked for a way to include his son in the shop. In May, Wilkinson said he’s decided to bring back the Bell and Oak collection as a lower price-point line, machine-produced in part by his son.

“It’s something I can trust him with,” Wilkinson said. “I wanted to bring back something that if someone had 100 bucks or even 50 bucks, they can get something.”

Wilkinson said he’s first training Dylan on the machines, but eventually he hopes to teach him custom leathercraft. Now, it’s a family tradition.


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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