The Ottumwa Courier

September 5, 2013

A lifelong hobby

By SHELLY RAGEN Courier correspondent
Ottumwa Courier

---- — 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.

Richardson opened the small shop in Selma about 30 years ago. Hanging on the walls are bridles, harnesses and gun holsters, and there are several saddles on display near the counter. Most everything is American-made except for the metal pieces. Richardson says unfortunately very few companies in the U.S. make them anymore.

Although his hobby shop is technically not a business, some folks do come from nearly 100 miles away to have him repair saddles and other pieces. Richardson points out a stirrup that needs repaired and a strap of a harness with the leather torn. He’ll have to cut a new piece of leather out for that.

There is a new trend of appreciation for local, handmade products, as well as the art of the community, and it seems to be catching on. Perhaps there is a sentiment attached, one of bygone days, and the hope to see a resurgence of that American self-made spirit.

Richardson hopes to see future generations enjoy leather-working as a hobby or a sideline job.

“There are quite a few people around that do some leather tooling, that make wallets, purses and belts,” Richardson explains. “I’ve run onto some every once in a while that do things like that. They do it because they enjoy it — creating something of their own with their own designs.”