I’m Bill Keitel. A Leather Smith by trade. As I progress in age, I find I can perhaps look forward to some sort of retirement. I don’t really know what that might look like, but it allows me to ponder my future.
I started out being born 100 years too late. I continue to honor and appreciate all of the trades and acknowledge that they built the civilization that we know today.
I started my career apprenticing as a shoe repairman and specialized in various prescription-orthopedic buildup work for a podiatry school. I have been a leather smith my whole life. Those around me are computer specialists, web developers, and no one is an elevator operator.
Most of my friends and customers recognize me as someone who sells them something. They think I am a salesman, and perhaps I am. It is not my whole life, because to sell them something I have to create something.
Primarily, I have spent my life as a leather smith. I was born into this curious world amazed at all around me. My profession should have been as an anthropologist, archaeologist, sociologist — something in those “ology” veins.
Today I continue to go to my place of employment and do various sorts of leather smithing. I sort hides. I grade hides. I read hides. I know the history of the buffalo by looking at the results of a tanning process I dictate. The final statement of his life is in my hands.
I look at a recent tannery run produced specifically for me, consisting of perhaps 400 hides. I can tell they have come from different ranches throughout the West and Midwest. I can tell most were free-ranging, and some were feeder lot-raised. I can tell which ones came from Canada (about 5 percent). I can tell which ones came from the largest state park in the U.S. The hide also reveals which animals were breeding females, by the stretch marks that appear toward the belly.
Daily, I decide the appropriate way to create product from this material. I can take the shortcut to create better yield, or I can use the tried-and-true method of creating quality and value to myself and my customer. I always reflect on an old adage: “The disappointment of poor quality lasts longer after the cheapness of the low price is forgotten”.
At work, I look at my tools and realize some are brand new and some are 100 to 150 years old. I use them all daily, sometimes without a second thought. They serve their purpose, as they always have
Leather smiths, I suspect we are a select group of craftsmen. We might make shoes or harnesses, or buggy whips! We work with our hands as we intently read the hide. We sell our products at art festivals, so we resign ourselves to the public scrutiny. Are we fine craft? We are certainly not fine art — are we craft? I feel comfortable with the “Artisan” category, craft that has served the ages.
I delight when our tanning process is complete, six weeks in the making. When the shipment arrives, hundreds of hides are inspected. Each hide is expensive, each hide tells a story. We tan the buffalo leather with a “naked” finish. It is a tanning process that costs more than other types of tanning. It also reduces the yield of a hide, because this process reveals, rather than hides, natural markings on the hide. I am keenly familiar with peoples disappointment when products fall apart prematurely. You will find our Buffalo Leather Wallets and Billfolds will last two or three times longer than a fashion store variety.
As we unpack the hides, we encounter brands, barbwire scars, suture marks from a buffalo that has been “horned in.” It is apparent which animals were raised in wide open spaces and which ones were raised in feeder lots. The leather is all of the highest quality; grades A, B and C indicate which ones have more scars. Our tannery run includes some of each, and that is what sorting is all about.
I am not the first one to work and sort hides for a living. This has been done for the past 10,000 years on this continent. I have the good fortune of doing it in a more refined setting that includes air conditioning, German and Italian die-cutting machinery.
Over the decades I have fed and clothed my family by this profession. I have sent my children, and others, to college. All this by an ancient craft.
As I scan the tools at my workbench, I realize I have amassed many — far more than I could afford to buy at one time. I am interested in history, and I spy a couple of tools that I have used for decades. One is made of bone, and the other of antler. One is a “folder,” and the other is a creaser that when pressed onto the leather scribes a line. I bought them with a larger group of assorted antique leather working tools 40 years ago.
These bone and antler tools stand out because they are not the 100-year-old variety of tools that reside in my collection of working tools. These tools date to the pre-production era. They were made when bones and antlers were more available than iron and steel. They are still used weekly, and they hold a place of importance and reverence in my daily routine.
Amassed over a 45-year career, the tools tell my profession, they tell my trade, they tell my story.
The story of a 1870’s leather smith is alive 147 years later and continues with gratitude to all of those who have appreciated this curious lifestyle.