Necessity is the Mother of Invention: or, how a lack of money and a ruthless self-reliance evolved into a craft business.

handmade leather belts - earthworks journals

“When without resources, depend on resourcefulness.”
~ Sun Tzu

Samantha and I have always enjoyed making things. Even before we met, when we were children, our favoured toys were the sort of toys which involved creating; model kits; lego; crayons; paints; even a sheet of paper could become anything you wanted it to be with a child’s imagination. Of course, being brought up in the 1970s, we may well have been products of our time; the whole self-sufficiency kick of the ‘70s meant that we were fed a steady diet of television programmes to get us making and doing. We’re both from working class backgrounds which meant that there wasn’t much money to go round for materials and tools and this made us get creative with our creativity.

Samantha took this passion for making things further and went on to a degree in Fine Art Sculpture at University. Being rather impoverished, Samantha used materials which she could find cheaply or, preferably, for free. This led to an invaluable lesson about materials helping to dictate form. Each material has its own inherent property and it’s this marriage between the artist’s intention and the property of the material being used which dictates the final form. This led to an appreciation of the unique beauty of materials in their natural state and how they can be utilised while still retaining that natural beauty; this is something which is still hugely important to us with Earthworks Journals, the importance of enhancing the natural quality of leather rather than disguising it.

I had a bit more of a chequered education/career path and, at the age of 23, I fell into working for The Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust on a year long contract as a Wildlife Ranger. Most of my work here was in forestry and my days were usually filled with coppicing, pollarding and hedge-laying. These practices all create a lot of spare wood and I was given the scope to develop my traditional craft skills while working for Thegreen woodwork - mike abbott Wildlife Trust. It was here another Ranger introduced me to a book which was to become a classic of its type, Green Woodwork by Mike Abbott. Using the directions in Abbott’s book, we built a pole lathe and all of that free green wood we were getting from managing the woodlands was soon being turned into all manner of objects. We took the pole lathe to Country Shows to give demonstrations and sold the items we were making to raise funds to give back to The Wildlife Trust. There was something nicely cyclical about that.

The Self-Reliance of The Craftsperson

Over the years, Samantha and I have developed a ruthless sense of self-reliance. We’ve rarely had periods when we’ve had money going spare but we have built up a good selection of tools and a huge variety of materials, bits & bobs, doodahs, thingummyjigs and whatchamacallits that we can make things from. I’m not saying that we are self-sufficient, far from it, but before buying anything our first recourse is to ask ourselves “Can we make it?”. And the same goes for jobs around the house, we would rather tackle jobs ourselves rather than get someone else to do it for us. Here’s Samantha on a rickety scaffold tower (which we hired very cheaply) repairing the chimney at the back of the house:

sam repairing the chimney - earthworks journals

Of course, given what we do for a living, we do have a large amount of leather offcuts and leather tools around the place and, naturally, we have made ourselves various items out of leather. I thought I’d share a few of these here.

1: The Tandrover:

Many years ago we bought a battered old Pashley tandem. This old beast had travelled across Europe and around India with its previous owner and was looking a bit worse for wear; so we gave it a bit of a spruce up and made a pair of new saddles from natural vegetable tanned leather, added a leaf motif and coated them with neatsfoot oil. These are over a decade old now and well travelled but still look as good as new. They’re buffed to a high shine with the effort of trying to get the weight of the steel-framed tandem up even the most modest of Northamptonshire hills!

vintage pashley tandem - handmade leather saddles - earthworks journals

2: Bags:

Who doesn’t love a decent leather bag? The only problem is that to buy one of decent quality is usually way out of the price range of a humble craftsperson. All of these are hand-stitched and most of the hardware has been salvaged from other items (those buckles on the lighter coloured satchel were from a particularly nice pair of boots I used to own (we never throw decent hardware away!))

handmade vegetable tanned leather satchel - handmade leather clutch bag - earthworks journals

handmade leather saddlebag satchel - oiled natural vegetable tanned leather - earthworks journals

handmade leather bag - waxed leather - earthworks journals

3: Sheaths:

As I said earlier, I used to work as a Ranger for The Wildlife Trust and it was there I developed a love for hand-tools. Me and Samantha have also done a bit of wild camping and we’ve both even taught people outdoor woodcraft/survival skills on occasion. Obviously, when I get a new bladed tool I always make a sheath for it.

The axe is my favourite Gransfors Bruks.

gransfors bruks hatchet - handmade leather sheath - earthworks journals

The strange, long implement is a Nata Jigata; a single bevelled Japanese cleaver – a beautiful thing, literally razor sharp and the best tool I’ve found for snedding.

nata jigata - japanese cleaver - handmade leather sheath earthworks journals

I made the knife myself. The blade came from a Swedish bladesmith and I made the handle using thin layers of birch bark stacked together and sandwiched between the two Holly end caps. The tang runs through the whole handle and rivets at the end. I made the sheath from a natural vegetable tanned leather which I wet-formed around a blade catcher, also made of Holly wood. The leather hanger is ‘mystery’ braided.

handmade knife and sheath - birch bark handle - swedish hand-forged blade - vegetable tanned leather sheath - earthworks journals

4: Shoes:

We haven’t actually made an entire pair of shoes yet but we have repaired and/or customised several existing pairs. Samantha found this pair of shoes in a charity shop, she loved those remarkable wooden soles but the uppers were badly worn and damaged. So, we created a simple mule type upper and matching insole from some oiled vegetable tanned leather with a subtle bit of edge decoration.

reclaimed and customised wedge shoes - handmade leather uppers - carved wooden soles - earthworks journals

5: Belts:

Belts are a particular bugbear of mine. It’s so difficult to find a reasonably priced, good quality leather belt on the high street! Even when they are advertised as leather they are, more often than not, made of leather composite (this is leather dust in a polyurethane carrier rather than an actual strip of leather, leather composite is to leather what mdf is to wood). And it’s not just the cheap brands that are made from leather composite, many of the high-end fashion brands do this too… and not just with belts! Many designer handbags are made from terrible quality ‘leather’. People are buying outrageously priced items thinking that a fancy logo is a promise of quality when it really isn’t. It’s this sort of dishonesty and lack of respect for the customer that makes my blood boil!

So we always make our own belts, like everything else we make, from proper leather and with proper hardware. Things that will hopefully last a lifetime, preferably several lifetimes:

handmade leather belts - vegetable tanned leather - earthworks journals

6: Journals:

And then, of course, there are our journals. I’ve been keeping a journal, on and off, for years so it’s natural that I’d use the ones we make to write in. I’ve built up quite a collection of them over the years. Some of them I keep at home as personal diaries; some of them are well travelled and taken out and about to record notes and thoughts. It’s always fascinating to look back through them at the person I used to be. Here’s a small collection of mine.

earthworks journals - personal collection of leather journals

If you’ve stumbled across this blog post and don’t know what we do here at Earthworks Journals then you can visit the ‘home of the handmade journal’ here earthworksjournals.co.uk

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How to take care of your leather: polish, conditioner or dubbin?

“Look after your leather and it will look after you.”

Ok, that’s not perhaps the most notable of quotes but nonetheless true. Humankind has relied on leather for thousands of years; it has clothed us; it has shod us; it has protected us from the elements; it has protected us from attack; and sometimes we let it become a one sided relationship and fail to repay the love. We forget that leather, although it looks tough, although it gives the impression it can look after itself, we forget that it needs a bit of looking after on occasion.

Having recently launched our own brand of leather conditioner, Earthworks Special Leather Stuff, I thought it was time I wrote a bit about the hows and whys of protecting your leather.

EARTHWORKS JOURNALS - SPECIAL LEATHER STUFF BEESWAX DUBBIN 4

First of all, let’s address why we should protect our leather goods. As we know, leather is a remarkably tough material and this is largely due to its composition. If we cut through a hide we can see that it is made up of countless tiny collagen fibres all enmeshed together in a complex weave; this gives it its strength. When the leather is bent or twisted these fibres are able to slide across each other which gives the leather its flexibility.

During tanning, when a skin is turned into a usable leather, the various initial processes dry out the fibres in the leather; this means the tannery then need to put oils back into the hide, this stage is known as fatliquoring. These oils lubricate the fibres so that they can freely slide across each other as the leather is manipulated. However, with time and use, the oils diminish in any finished leather product and the fibres dry out again. These dry fibres no longer slide freely across each other but rub, chaff and grind which causes them to fray. I’m sure we’ve all had a pair of old boots that have had splits appear in the leather just behind the toecaps; this is what happens when the leather dries out.

So, on occasion, we need to replenish the oils in the leather fibres.

There are a bewildering array of leather products and finishes out there and, if you ask any leather worker, they will have a different recommendation for you.

Let’s start off with the basic shoe polish. I’m sure we all have several tins of good old Kiwi shoe polish in the cupboard; I certainly do, they’ve been there for years and all have that familiar rattle of hopelessly dried out polish (they do this because they are spirit based and all that spirit evaporates over a period of time, leaving the dry wax), in this state they provide as much nourishment as a dry river bed .

kiwi shoe polishes - how to care for your leather - earthworks journals

These high-shine polishes, being spirit based, are made from petroleum distillate mixed with a wax blend. Of course, these vary in quality with the higher end products using carnauba wax and the lower end products containing paraffin wax. If you want a quick glossy, high shine on a pair of shoes then this stuff certainly does the job. The downside is that it has little or no conditioning properties; it’s very much the glamour approach to leather care, although your shoes may look healthy and well cared for on the outside, underneath they are slowly dying from lack of nourishment.

At the other end of the scale are the specialist oils such as Mink Oil and Neats Foot Oil. These do a great job at conditioning your leather and are especially good for outdoor leather-gear as they help protect against the elements. We have an old Pashley tandem which we made the saddles for from a nude vegetable tanned leather, we treated these with Neats Foot Oil and it darkened the leather to a lovely golden glow and they still look as good as new after several years. However, care needs to be taken when using oils such as these as it can be easy to over-saturate the leather which will cause the leather fibres to swell and the integrity of the leather to break down.

pashley tandem - handmade leather saddles - earthworks journals

Between the basic shoe polish and the specialist products are a whole host of leather preparations which contain varying ingredients and at varying prices. It can be difficult to know which to trust. Decent quality leather goods can be, as we know, quite pricey; this is mainly down to the price of the raw material and unfortunately decent quality hides, like the ones we use here at Earthworks Journals, are very expensive. So, how do we know which leather conditioners to trust on our premium leather goods? If you visit any forum on the internet where they discuss leather you will find heated debates on the very subject; a preparation that one person recommends will be hated by another person. It’s all down to trial and error and personal choice.

Let’s take, as an example, a popular leather conditioner which many people swear by. It’s made by a respected manufacturer so we would think it would be good. It’s called Aussie Leather Conditioner and it’s made by Fiebings. I purchased a tub as I’d heard good things about it.

fiebings aussie leather conditioner - how to care for your leather - earthworks journals

As we can see from the label, it proudly proclaims ‘with beeswax’ under the title, but it has no other ingredients mentioned on the label. On trying it on a scrap of leather it went on quite nicely, it’s easy to apply, but I thought it felt a bit light, a bit insubstantial. So, I dug a bit deeper and found the data sheet for it online:

http://www.tlfsafety.com/PdfFiles/2199-00%20ISO_MSDS.pdf

As we can see from this data sheet up to 70% of the content of Aussie Leather Conditioner is Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline), up to 35% is Aliphatic Hydrocarbon (I’m guessing that this another petroleum based substance), and a maximum of 15% wax; and even this 15% isn’t beeswax, just a rather vague ‘natural and synthetic wax blend’.

This is not to say that it’s not a good product, some people obviously love it, but it’s just not for me. However, it is good to try these different products to find out what your particular favourite is.

Being traditionalists, we tend to go back to basics here at Earthworks Journals. All of these preparations have evolved (or devolved, as some may suggest) from the ancient and original leather conditioner, dubbin. We’re lucky that our leather supplier also manufactures some of the finest bridle leather in the UK and they still manufacture traditional, old-fashioned dubbin. Proper dubbin contains just three ingredients, beeswax, tallow and fish oil; and this is still how our supplier makes theirs, using the best quality of all three ingredients.

We use this dubbin on our journals and on all of our own personal leather gear. It gently melts deep down into the leather fibres as you rub it in and buffs to a soft sheen. You only need to use it sparingly and you don’t need to do it too often, a little goes a long way.

Another added bonus dubbin is that it smells beautiful. There are many products out there that claim to be traditional dubbin, but most of them are heavy on the petroleates. Dubbin should have a soft, rounded smell and a creamy feel, it you find one that smells like chemicals and feels like vaseline, then it’s probably not a traditional dubbin.

After speaking to our supplier they agreed that we could share their dubbin with our customers so they sent us a vat of it and we decanted it into some rather attractive little aluminium tins and you can buy it from our website here:

https://earthworksjournals.co.uk/collections/leathercare/products/the-earthworks-special-leather-stuff-all-natural-beeswax-dubbin

However, don’t take my word for it. We love it here are at Earthworks and rarely use anything else on our leather but, as I said above, a leather conditioner that one person sings the praises of will be hated by another. You might like our traditional dubbin or you might not like it but, if you haven’t found the perfect product for your leather goods yet then this could just be it!

EARTHWORKS SPECIAL STUFF - BEESWAX DUBBIN - earthworks journals