By Marcus Day
Bob Kaufman sits hunched over a piece of tan-coloured cow leather, using a pencil to draw an outline of rose petals.
He whistles quietly to himself, working quickly with a skilled hand. The outline complete, he replaces the pencil with a metal tool, the size of his index finger.
He pushes the tool into the leather, making indentations on the pencilled markings.
Over the next 10 minutes, he reaches for about half a dozen other tools, taking them from the racks on his desk, barely looking up as he does so. Not once does he hesitate, even though there are hundreds of tools, each one with a particular purpose, some designed by himself, improvised from other objects.
It is like watching a concert pianist and a surgeon: his hands move instinctively, guided by years of practice, knowing where to find what he wants; and they display the steadiness required for a delicate medical procedure.
Occasionally, hand power needs to be augmented with a mallet.
“Have you ever hurt yourself?” I ask.
“No,” he replies.
I restrict myself to one or two photographs, nervous about disturbing this tableau of concentration and painstaking attention to detail. There should be a sign warning visitors, “Quiet! Artist at work.”
It is almost a relief when he finishes and hands me the leather piece, showing two flower petals and a feather; the detail contradicts the speed with which he executed these examples of his work.
How does he do it?
One answer could be 47 years of experience and learning from mistakes. Another could be an enduring love for his art. Yet another could be a deep appreciation and respect for leather.
“Leather breathes,” he says, as if referring to something animate. “It is completely different to nylon or plastic.”
Amplifying the point, Kaufman moves to another part of the shop and begins rummaging through a stash of material, emerging with something dark, disk-shaped, and fibrous. What ensues is an education in different personalities of leather — some tough, some fibrous, some smooth, some more durable than others. Not unlike people, really.
“Guess where this leather comes from?” he asks.
I don’t even know where to begin, tongue-tied by the dread of appearing foolish.
“A stingray,” he smiles.
Next before my uneducated gaze is a beige, pock-marked strip of hide; it is soft and flexible, but very hard-wearing, I’m told.
“This is ostrich,” says Kaufman. “It’s good for belts and wallets.”
Bison leather follows … and then a lightweight, darkish fold of skin, that looks easy to tear into pieces.
“Kangaroo leather, the toughest of the lot,” says Kaufman. “Go on, try to rip it.”
I pick up a section and begin tugging, gently at first, half-expecting to hear the shred of fibres. Nothing. I apply much more force, but still nothing gives.
“I’ve seen really strong men try to tear it — none successfully,” says Kaufman. “It won’t stretch. It’s the leather used for stock whips and bull whips. That cracking sound you hear from a whip is the breaking of the sound barrier.”
Kaufman picks up a handful of interwoven lace from a plastic container; he looks like a cook scooping black ribbons of tagliatelle out of a steaming pot.
“Kangaroo lace — it’s thin, but tough as hell,” he says, as I forlornly wrestle with it, pulling, pulling, pulling …
By now, I’ve accepted Kaufman’s assertion leather is alive; yes, it does breathe and display different characteristics. It deserves our utmost respect.
Kaufman has been plying his trade in Maple Creek for three years, but his connection with leather goes back a lot longer … all the way to his ranching childhood in the Montana area. His passion for working with leather was ignited when he entered a shop in Lethbridge in 1973. It opened his eyes to a world of possibilities; thus began a journey of self-teaching, while he made a living out of ranching and range management, working for the Alberta Forest Service and running big ranching operations in British Columbia and Alberta. In 2017, Kaufman moved from a ranch between Walsh and Irvine, Alberta, to Maple Creek, after buying the old Jehovah’s Witness building. He remodelled the property, removing a stage and carpeting, putting in laminated flooring (it can cope with the glue that Kaufman uses) and having windows installed.
It may no longer be a church edifice, but it does contain elements of a sanctuary, a place where Kaufman can while away the hours, creating intricate designs to meet customer specifications — brands, perhaps, or initials, passages of scripture, or images of a favourite horse or rodeo event. The workshop is full of projects, finished, and half-finished: saddles, bridles, chaps, hobbles, belts, purses …
Kaufman has four sewing machines, each with its own capabilities. One is a portable “Pearson” used by the English military in the 1800s for stitching harnesses and saddles; it looks like it belongs in a museum. On a wheel attached to the mechanism is written: “The British United Shoe Machinery Company Ltd, Leicester, England.”
“Does it work, or is it just for show?” I ask.
In response, Kaufman sits to operate it.
“It will sew pretty heavy leather,” he says.
In our technology-driven world, with its near-worship of modernity, it is strangely comforting to watch this antique in motion. What ingenuity to devise such an apparatus.
Kaufman then shows me a more modern-looking machine; it is a bench drill press, which he uses for buffing leather with the help of beeswax.
I touch the edge of a piece of leather before and after buffing; the difference is striking.
“Would you say what you do is a dying art?” I ask.
“Yes, I think it probably is.”
I glance at my watch. Time loses its meaning at Kaufman’s Saddle Shop. I can scarcely believe I have spent two hours there, keeping Kaufman away from his work. He has shown infinite patience in answering my questions, exhibiting some of his skills and even giving me a parting gift to go with the floral/feather piece: a leather keyring bearing my initials “MD.”
I take off into the sunshine, leaving behind a master craftsman and his multitude of living, breathing leather friends.
• Contact Bob Kaufman via bobkaufmansaddles.com or phone 306-662-3912.