Tony Morgan shares his journey into leather working, his experiences starting his own business, and offers advice for those looking to do the same.
Hi Tony, thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ever since I was young I’ve wanted to make things with my hands. I’ve worked with green wood, willow basketry, elm bark and even put my hand to website development. My passion for nature and the well-being of the planet steered me towards using just my hands and not power tools. I always aim to use natural, local and sustainable materials.
It’s great to hear that using sustainable materials is important to your work! So what inspired you to start working with leather?
Working with green wood and coppicing requires using and sometimes carrying around sharp tools, such as axes, chisels and draw knives. These all needed covers to protect their carefully honed sharp edges, as well as my fingers! I started using the leather from old boots and any other scraps of leather I could find (see the photo of my first axe sheath made from the heel of my wife’s old Dr Marten boot!).
I quickly realised that I needed to work on the finish and so began to research leather techniques on YouTube and various leather workers forums. It wasn’t long before all my tools had covers, and I’ve not stopped since. If something in our house stays still long enough then it gets covered in leather! When I ran out of things to make for myself, my wife and son, I decided to start selling handmade leather goods to all my friends and family. I’m now at the stage where I’m selling book covers, glasses cases and more to lovely people in places as far away as USA and Japan.
That’s great! What is it about leather working that you enjoy so much?
You don’t really need to do much to leather to make it look beautiful! Just some careful cutting and stitching, then a generous coating of oil and wax is enough to get some “wow” results. Most of the credit should go to the animal that grew the hide, and the tannery that produced such a wonderful material. Having said that, I do get a huge sense of satisfaction when I hold in my hands something so luxurious and professional-looking, and then realise that I made it!
So what is a typical “day in the office” like for you?
Interesting question, as a family man with bills to pay, and naturally not being a risk-taker, I’ve taken the slow and steady route to hopefully becoming a full-time leather worker. So, my typical “day in the office” consists of a mixture of the occasional hour in the evening, jumping back into a project I have on the go, or spending a full Thursday and Friday immersing myself in leather, dye, oil and wax. Luckily, I have a dedicated area in our house setup as my workshop where I can leave projects and tools ready for the next trip into crafting.
When I have a full day of leather work ahead of me I spend the morning catching up on my favourite radio programmes or comedy podcasts, and the afternoon with music blaring through the speakers. I quite like to burn incense when I work too – it helps my mind to switch into its creative gear. Most of my time is taken up with fulfilling customers’ orders, most of which are bespoke and designed to match each person’s requirements. Occasionally I’ll be able to dedicate myself to experimenting with new ideas, usually by making myself, my family or friends’ things.
Do you find you’re busier at certain times of year?
Each year has been different, mostly due to personal circumstances and different marketing strategies, but generally November and December are busy for obvious reasons!
I’ll bet! Have you seen an increase in people’s awareness of traditional crafts over the past few years?
I started my traditional crafting journey in my early twenties, which was in the last decade of the last century! Back then, before the internet, there were only a few books available to read on the subject and a handful of small dedicated groups. Interest in these subjects has definitely grown over the past twenty-five years, helped along by TV shows like Grand Designs (Ben Law’s woodland house), Ray Mears and currently The Repair Shop. Groups such as the Association of Pole Lathe Turners have done wonders to share knowledge through an annual gathering and through smaller, local, monthly get-togethers. But I think one of the most influential mediums has been YouTube and the internet in general. The advantage of increased awareness is that customers are more often willing to appreciate the amount of work that goes into a handmade item.
What advice would you give to someone considering starting a career in leather working?
Keep crafting, keep enjoying it and make sure you charge enough money for what you make! If you’re really good at what you do then you need to make sure you’re getting paid enough for the time you spend on an item. If you’re not getting enough income and you’re working really hard you may begin to despise what you’re doing, which, if you love your craft, is the worst feeling in the world. Try not to listen to the people that whisper just loud enough for you to hear, “it’s a bit expensive”, because they are not your customer. Stick to your guns and the right customers will come along. It can be a very long and hard process but is well worth it when people admire something you’ve made. For me it’s the best feeling in the world!
All images © Tony Morgan.