The Ottumwa Courier

Southeast Iowa

September 5, 2013

A lifelong hobby

SELMA — The handwritten sign on the outside of the R & L shop in Selma reads “open by appointment or chance.” If you happen to go for the luck of chance, you might find Rex Richardson busy with his 50-year hobby of working with leather.

Walking inside the shop, it’s as if you stuck your nose right inside a real leather baseball glove. It’s a wonderful aroma and a step back in time to an old tradition of American handiwork. In this day and age of electronic everything, it’s nice to see a simple working trade such as leather craft.

Richardson, 82, is a self-taught leather craftsman who learned the trade by reading books and practicing. Some might consider his work western art, but he honestly doesn’t. He explained farther out west they might see it more of as an artform.

“I don’t consider myself an artist. It’s just a hobby. It don’t take a rocket scientist to learn how to do it. I try to do the best I can,” Richardson explains. “My trademark is there’s one mistake in every job.”

If you look closely at the intricate tooling on the saddles, it’s hard to identify any mistakes. The lines curve into leaves and foliage in swirls and an untrained eye wouldn’t see it; however, the leather craftsman would. The workbench is stocked with every sort of tool necessary, such as gauges, hammers, edge bevellers and knives. It is interesting to see some of the tools that have been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Richardson demonstrates the leather pattern-making of the foliage by dampening a piece of leather and using a stamping tool the size of a long nail. He taps on it with a hammer and repeats the action moving upward on the leather. He then demonstrates another design with a swivel knife that makes decorative cuts that only penetrate through half of the leather. He does all the designs freehand with no set pattern.

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