The ancient craft of leather working may have succumbed to mass production in many places, but a handful of San Angelo area businesses continue to custom make by hand some of the best saddles, boots and accessories to be found anywhere.
Leather specialty artisans include CK Custom Leather, which makes items ranging from saddles and belts to purses and wallets, Ernie’s Shoe Shine Parlor, a longtime shop that specializes in leather restoration, care and repairs, and C/7 Custom Leather Work, which specializes in chaps but also offers custom-made purses, holsters and bible covers.
M.L. Leddy’s, which opened in Brady in 1922 and relocated to San Angelo in 1936, specializes in handmade boots, saddles and a range of other leather products. Its craftsmen can be watched from the sidewalk downtown on Oakes Street through the shop’s expansive glass front as they work. The company also has a store in Sundance Square in Fort Worth.
One of the most versatile in its wealth of leather products is Jeys Saddlery, a family-owned business, which specializes in custom-made saddles and a variety of other goods including iPad covers, belts, wallets, custom guitar straps, makeup bags, gun holsters, shell bags, motorcycle seats and chaps.
“We’ve been doing this for almost 25 years,” said Todd Jeys, who set up shop in April 2004 after learning the trade from his uncle. “Even after all these years it fascinates me. It’s a chance to be creative.
“But it’s a dying trade. When I started there were five or six saddle shops in San Angelo. Now there’s two. Kids today live in a technology era.”
Jeys became interested in leather after walking into a leather shop in Nebraska, where he grew up. He was just a young boy at the time. His interest was piqued even more when he learned that an uncle in Wall, Texas, a few miles east of San Angelo, operated a leather shop.
Jeys relocated to Texas in 1992 and began learning the trade from his uncle. He decided to start his own business in San Angelo in 2004.
He employs four full-time workers, including his wife, Amber Franks, who serves as the office manager. Other employees include Lou Blake, a strap hand who builds parts for saddles, Panfilo Martinez, who makes saddles, and Jimmy Lee, the group’s head designer.
Lee, an avid horse rider, “was a surprise addition to the business,” Jeys said.
“He bought a saddle from me and then asked if he could start working for me part-time,” Jeys said. “He had no experience, but he was a quick learner. He also has a very creative mind.”
Leather making is an art form, says Jeys. At his store, everything is done in-house, made by hand with Herman Oak leather, a durable, quality leather that is made in the U.S., Jeys said. Depending on the product and work being done, the cost of a custom made saddle can range from several hundred dollars to $2,700.
“The cost is higher for extra tooling, notches and patterns,” he said. “Sometimes customers get nervous about the cost until they see us do something unique. We pour our hearts into everything we make and take pride in building something that is good and will last.”