A time-honored tradition of leather-making

Mike Massey, owner of M bar S Ranch Gear, showcased his craft of leathermaking during this month’s First Friday Art Walk event. Here, he uses a punch to create a background for a design element on a knife sheath. His biggest market right now is for conceal-carry gun holsters.

Tradition. Now that’s a word Mike Massey symbolically sinks into his leather every time he painstakingly taps his punch to make the background for geometric designs, rosettes, scrolled leaves or a basketweave pattern that will grace his saddles, knife sheaths, belts and holsters. 

The Carlinville, Ill. native who owns M bar S Ranch Gear was a featured artist at the Hermann Art Council’s First Friday event this month, and he was set up in an appropriate place—Saleigh Mountain Leather Company.

Mike wound up in Montgomery County on a land deal and he brought his wife and leather crafting skills with him. Growing up, his family had horses and lots of horse tack (saddles, bridles, halters, etc.) that would occasionally need to be repaired.

“I learned from my grandfather, how to do things,” says Mike. “I’d go to farm and ranch sales and I’d buy old saddles from the late 1800s and early 1900s that were hanging in barns, that were shot. I could buy them for $5 and take them apart to find out how they made them.”

Mike shows how a western saddle is crafted, showing the skirt, drop-plate rigging, the swell and gullet—all the parts that take up two-and-a-half sides of tanned leather beef hide. A side could measure 8 ft. by 4 ft., so that’s lots of leather.

He says you can tell the difference between hides by how the animal was raised, the nutrition in the diet, at the time the animal was living.

“U.S. hides are the best,” he says. “The tanning processes are the best.”

He shows the differences in leather with some of his pieces, pointing out “chrome-tanned” goods (“It molds and shapes”) versus “vegetable-tanned” (“This does not” ). 

He talks about the moisture content in leather and the surface temperature and how important that is when carving and punching leather design, called “backgrounding.” That’s what gives leather design it’s three-dimensional relief. 

“When you put leather up to your face and it feels cool [to the touch], that’s when the saturation in all the [leather] fibers is the same and it will then be ready to carve. 

Carving leather is not for the faint of heart. Once you’ve cut a line or pattern in leather, it’s permanent. Mistakes remain forever.   

In 2001 he decided to get serious about the craft and taught himself to carve leather, doing copious amounts of research and trial and error application.

With time and practice, he became one of the master saddlemakers in the Arts Apprenticeship Program sponsored by the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center, University of Missouri, and the Missouri Arts Council. It’s a program that exists to keep skilled crafts passing to the next generation, so Mike was assigned an apprentice to learn the art of saddlemaking.

It helps to be creative, to do leatherwork that catches the public’s eye. Mike drew horses as a kid, but he says he’s not a good artist. His sketchpad shows otherwise. He has a flair for cutting patterns in leather and punching backgrounds that make eye-catching one-of-a-kind designs. 

While he loves his craft, he laments over the fact that we live in a throw-a-way society. Consumers purchase cheap products, made from cheap materials at discount stores and don’t think twice about throwing them away when they fall  apart. That mentality runs counter to everything Mike tries to accomplish with his leatherwork. The reason he works with leather is because it’s a durable material that gives the product a well-worn character over time. He expects his products to last a life-time and more. He’s a self-proclaimed history nut and likes tradition and well-made goods.

“People don’t take the time to recognize quality—they want something new and different all the time,” he says. “My belts are going to last to the point you can give them to your kids—they won’t wear out.”

His belts are made of quality vegetable-tanned leather. They are thick and appear durable, with beadwork sewn by a Blackfoot woman from Calgary, Alberta. She uses silk to sew her beadwork, according to Mike, and her beads are made of glass.

His biggest market right now is for conceal-carry holsters. He shows one that is crafted for a Smith and Wesson J-Frame revolver. 

He knows his market—primarily two different groups. One is made up of farmers and ranchers that know and use leather items and appreciate long-lasting quality and the second is the city or small-town, well-paid professional that wants one-of-a-kind, quality leather goods that might not be used often, but will display nicely and make good conversation pieces. 

Mike’s craft may be well-honed tradition, but it’s his artist’s medium, durable, long-lasting tanned leather that capture the spotlight in those circles. And most important, they are more than willing to be his customers. 

“Quality comes with a price.” 

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