March 17, 2010

Craftsman turns leatherworking into a prospering sideline

— Bob Wallace of Raymond is making a sideline from a skill once central to mankind: the art of leatherwork.

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leatherworker Bob Wallace cuts out a belt for a customer.jpg

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Bob Wallace of Raymond crafts intricatley patterned handbags and other items from leather.jpg

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Throughout the ages, animal hides have been used for clothing, shelter and crafts, such as shoulder bags and various other containers. In the Bronze Age, even battle shields and body armor were crafted from leather.

Today, most of us would be hard-pressed to fashion anything from animal skin. Wallace, 51, picked up the craft about seven years ago and prides himself that the age-old tradition of handmade crafts is at the heart of his practice.

He was first fascinated with leatherwork as a kid in upstate New York after watching someone work a piece.

''Many years later, I got the opportunity to try it, and I loved it,'' says Wallace, who lives just a few yards from Thomas Pond with his wife, Laurie, and their teenage son, Adam. ''It was just a hobby at first. Then people encouraged me to go public with it.''

True to his name and ancestry, Wallace calls his leatherwork venture Braveheart Leather and specializes in Celtic-themed designs.

Leatherwork can be quite intricate. One way Wallace keeps to the handmade tradition is edging a piece with leather lacing.

''Everything I do is strictly by hand,'' Wallace says. ''I have a sewing machine (a 1927 Singer, a beefy machine that can pierce leather with ease). But I hardly ever use it.''

Lacing is methodical work. Wallace's lacing rate is about 7 inches per hour.

''It's just like you would find in the 'wild West,' '' he says.

Today, Wallace says, leatherworkers are more difficult to come by in the eastern U.S. because cowboy tradition and the prevalence of horses are still part of the culture out West.

''I was out West and saw some of the saddles people were making,'' said Wallace. ''It's incredible. People are willing to pay up to $15,000 for a saddle. It's something they're going to sit in all day.''

Before you think you can't afford custom leatherwork, Wallace makes everyday items such as belts that sell for $35. Because he uses thicker leather, Wallace's belts usually last longer than department store varieties. The belts are popular with tradesmen who may prefer more rugged accessories.

Aside from taking custom orders, Wallace goes to trade shows each year to sell his wares. He exhibits at the United Maine Craftsmen's show at the Cumberland Fairgrounds and at Point Sebago. As his normal bread and butter, Wallace is a team leader at Idexx in Westbrook, and he displays his craft at the internal company show every year.

Getting the three-dimensional look of his pieces takes time. Wallace has a small workshop in his garage in Raymond filled with tiny hand tools, such as punches, stamps and knives that resemble dental implements.

''I take a pattern and transfer it onto a piece of heavy tracing paper,'' Wallace says. ''Then I wet the leather.''

Because the leather is now pliable, Wallace can trace a pattern onto it, which then gets cut out with a swivel knife. To form a relief, a design is roughed out with a knife. Then Wallace repeatedly hammers around the outside of the knife-traced area using any number of small stamps to compress the leather. These compressed areas are often dyed a dark color, which further enhances the three-dimensional effect.

Wallace's offerings include belts, portfolios, wallets, checkbook covers and purses, as well as Celtic-themed key rings and flasks. To peruse the offerings or to contact Wallace for a custom piece, visit Braveheart Leather at www.braveheart, or call 655-2222.

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at:

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This vase and handbag are some of the iems fashioned by Raymond leatherworker Bob Wallace.jpg

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