Jesse Salazar: The beauty and utility of leatherworks

Lab employee develops his own intricate designs

August 10, 2021

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Jesse in his workshop with some of his leather goods.

Jesse James Salazar of the Laboratory’s materials science and technology division takes a piece of premium vegetable-tanned leather and places it on his workbench. Jesse picks up a pencil and begins to draw an intricate pattern on the animal hide. Sometimes he relies on designs he has seen, other times he just lets the design flow from whatever comes to mind.

Once the design is set, Jesse dampens the leather and carefully carves out the design using a special swivel knife, which enables him to bring out the pattern’s basic shape. He then uses a variety of stamp tools to create a beveled and three-dimensional appearance to the pattern. Once all the pieces have been crafted and they are dried, Jesse uses machines in his workshop to put together beautiful and utilitarian products, such as a pistol holster or rifle scabbard, a pair of shoes or sandals or a wallet or purse.

“My interest in leatherwork started with my uncle,” says Jesse. “As a young boy, I accompanied him on many trips to the local Tandy Leather supply store, where he would pick up supplies and various types of leather, which he could use to craft items that he needed while trapping and horseback riding in the backcountry. He made rifle scabbards, bags—pretty much anything he needed. I remember the smell of that store—it’s an aroma that has never left my senses. Then there’s the utility of leather—it can withstand years of use under the harshest of conditions.”

Like his uncle, Jesse has an affinity for the outdoors, taking any free time on his hands to go hunting or fly fishing. When Jesse’s son expressed an interest in leatherwork, Jesse got him a starter kit. Two months later, the young man lost interest and the kit went into the closet.

“One day I was shopping for a tooled leather belt and found that the box stores had less-than-desirable products that nevertheless carried a hefty price tag,” Jesse says. “Then I remembered that starter kit—I took it out of the closet and decided to make my own leather belt to my standards—that was the beginning of my love for the craft.”

The process of creation

Like many artists, Jesse is a keen observer, his sharp eyes always looking for designs to augment his own creativity.

“My projects begin with inspiration taken from artists throughout history, from the past to today,” Jesse explains. “These designs then percolate in my head, allowing me to individualize the designs to fit my own approach and overall style.”

Once Jesse has a design in mind, it’s off to his workshop. “With a hot cup of coffee next to me and my favorite music on the radio, I just let it flow,” he says. “I lose track of time, my head filled with thoughts and ideas on how to improve not only the current piece but also other pieces I have in mind.”

To bring a final design to life, Jesse oils and treats the leather before adding special dyes and finishes to it.

Desire drives art and craft

Jesse notes that although an artistic background is beneficial when it comes to leatherwork, he says that it is far from mandatory.

“Skill comes with time, and making that time requires desire to work the leather,” Jesse says. “To get started, head over to your nearest leather supply store or get online and visit a site like Amazon. Purchase a leather starter kit, a mallet or maul and a small piece of vegetable tanned leather—it all should cost you less than $100. As your skills improve, you can expand into more elaborate designs, and from there you can build your own approach and style.”

To begin developing a style, Jesse says that there are plenty of patterns already available. “Take the time and do a quick online search,” he says. “There are plenty of patterns, ideas, books and how-to videos out there to get anyone started. Once you get into it, you may find that you are hooked.”