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A Tooling Renaissance | A Look at Some of our Favorite Artists

The world is in a leather tooling renaissance. Artists are creating new styles and incorporating leather work in unique ways while paying homage to the traditional

toolers

that have come before our time. Here at J.Forks Designs, integrating tooled leather into our designs has become a fundamental staple in our creations. But we are not the only ones to carve new paths.

Recently, we had the privilege of interviewing some of our favorite toolers. We discovered what their inspiration was to start tooling, how they define their style, their favorite toolers, and what inspires their work today.

 

ANTHONY VAUGHAN

Anthony Vaughan grew up rodeoing and by default learned to repair his own tack and leather equipment. Vaughan was introduced to leather when he would wander into saddle shops as he rodeoed across the country. He always thought tooled leather was neat, but never thought he would make a career out of it. Vaughan explains, “Welding was my hobby, to be honest with you.” When his welding gear was in storage during a move, Vaughan decided to go to a rodeo. When he got home, he said to his wife, “I think I am going to buy some leather tools.”

How would you define your style?

Vaughan incorporates the traditional Sheridan style with the tips and tricks he learned from interacting with various artists throughout his career.

Who is your favorite tooler, past or present?

Vaughan is a traditionalist and favors “the Don Butlers of the day.”

What inspires your work today?

Vaughan’s inspiration stems from challenging himself to create items that are not traditionally made from leather or use an exotic leather while attempting to craft something out of it. “That is what gives me the drive to keep doing it. It gets boring just doing belt after belt, or saddle piece after saddle piece after saddle piece.”

 

CALEB HILTON

What inspired you to start tooling leather?

Hilton started tooling at age 12 and explains, “It is kind of hard to remember what first inspired me to start tooling.” He got his start prior to social media; before tooling was a fad and before the internet was home to a plethora of how-to videos. Hilton did not start for any particular reason, but was always driven by an ambition to be different. His work shows this still today.

How would you define your style?

“My style is very different, a lot like tattoos!” Hilton explains that his strong suit is not in traditional tooling. Hilton spends his time creating works of leather that stand out while incorporating hidden images in his artwork to create stories and meaningful pieces of work for his customers.

Who is your favorite tooler, past or present?

“My favorite leather craftsman would have to be Cody Ackel. My style of tooling is the way it is today because of him!”

What inspires your work today?

“To better myself every day!”

 

TRAVIS STILLSON

What inspired you to start tooling leather?

Stillson illustrates that John Rule from National Saddlery in Oklahoma City was his inspiration to start tooling. He was first exposed to leather tooling while shopping for tack at National Saddlery. “I would watch those guys work. I just thought it was pretty cool.”

How would you define your style?

Stillson describes his style as “unique and original.” He was influenced by gun engraving and mimics the layouts of the gun engravers.

Who is your favorite tooler, past or present?

Stillson’s favorite tooler is Jim Jackson.

What inspires your work today?

Stillson is inspired by nature itself. His work is evolving into a more natural, realistic and life-like look.

 

JESSE MOHON

What inspired you to start tooling leather?

“Just being around it my entire life, I just kind of fell right into it.” Mohon’s father owned a saddle shop. “It was just something we grew up doing. My sister did it. I did it. We built our own belts when we were little”.

How would you define your style?

Mohon explains that his style is “traditional with a twist.” He pushes the lines of traditional without branching too far away.

Who is your favorite tooler, past or present?

Mohon has always looked up to Brody Bolton. “His flow and his tooling was impeccable.”

What Inspires Your Work Today?

“I do not look to any one thing for inspiration.” Mohon explains that his inspiration comes from observation and experiences like hanging a hummingbird feeder or watching the wind blow across the grass in eastern Colorado.

 

CODY ACKEL

What inspired you to start tooling leather?

Ackel has always loved art, specifically street art, and spent a large part of his childhood drawing. When he was a senior in high school, his mother gave him a leather day planner for Christmas and he thought, “Wow I can do my art on leather!”

How would you define your style?

Ackel is influenced by the Sheridan style, but likes to incorporate roses and graffiti. “It sets me apart from other people, and it is just something I really enjoy doing.”

Who is your favorite tooler, past or present?

Ackel's favorites include Pete Gorrell and James Jackson.

What inspires your work today?

Ackel is inspired by trying to make each piece better than the last. He also just truly loves art, and “being able to put what is in my head down on something that you can see.”

SARAH BRUTON

What inspired you to start tooling leather?

Bruton was inspired by her “saddle-making husband.” Bruton married a Texas cowboy turned saddlemaker that moved her to remote ranches. Her interest in tooling leather was sparked when she wanted to find something fun to do. “He showed me some leather, and it kind of took off from there.”

How would you define your style?

Bruton describes her style as a combination of balanced symmetry with a mix of both following and breaking the rules. “I like to start with a good foundation on all of my drawings but then throw in unexpected twists and turns.”

Who is your favorite tooler, past or present?

Bruton enjoys the stylings of 76 & Riveted, Don Gonzales, and Tod Breshard. “I enjoy all three of their styles because they do unexpected things. They have different twists, but it is all very pleasing to the eye.”

What inspires your work today?

Bruton’s work is inspired by three factors. The first is nature. “I love going on hikes in the spring, finding all the new wildflowers, and getting inspired for new flower designs.” The second inspiration comes from the women within the fashion industry. “Most of them are also hard working moms or girls that are just doing something they love. They are not these big, abstract social icons that you see.” The third factor is bettering herself and setting an example for her children. “I have always been in the mindset that if you are going to do something, that you might as well do it as well as you can. So, I personally try to use myself and set higher goals than I can reach at the moment. I am always trying to push myself, look for the flaws, and move past them.” Bruton explains that when her children are not in school, they are often in the shop with her. “I am not only setting the bar higher for myself, but I am also showing them you just never stop. You just keep ahead of the curve. Do not get complacent; just keep on going.”

DON GONZALES

What inspired you to start tooling leather?

“I have always kind of been buried in art.” Gonzales’ mother was an artist. Surrounded by art and art supplies, he was always encouraged to create. In eighth grade, he spent the weekend with a friend whose father introduced Gonzales to leather work. “He had a whole little leather shop set up in his barn—a big cut table, tooling bench, all this stuff—and I was just amazed.” For Gonzales, tooling was like drawing on leather with a three-dimensional look. He spent an entire weekend at his friend’s house playing around with leather, and he was hooked immediately. “Leather was always kind of my first real thing that always stuck with me.”

How would you define your style?

“Mine leans more towards the Sheridan style” Gonzales explains, “[but] I do not consider mine Sheridan per say as far as following Sheridan rules (if there are rules for what we would call Sheridan).” Early on, Gonzales purchased the book Sheridan Style Carving and instantly fell in love with the look, particularly the work of Chester Hape. He started mimicking Hape and all of the Sheridan toolers’ works until his own skill level grew and veered in a new direction. “To me I call it freeform-style, because I just kind of do whatever I want. I do not have these rules.”

Who is your favorite tooler, past or present?

Gonzales favors Chester Hape and Terry Henson. He has a lot of respect for Chester Hape and pays homage to his vine work. Hape was the artist that Gonzales admired while he was learning how to tool leather, but Terry Henson is his current favorite artist. Henson incorporates an older style into contemporary work. “That is what I like about him. He is an old hand at it; he has been at it for a long time. He is good, but he is keeping up with that instead of just tooling the same old stuff that his granddaddy taught him to do.”

What inspires your work today?

“Right now it is oil painting, which I am absolutely horrible at, by the way. I am not good at it at all.” Gonzales explains that he likes the challenge of learning something new—the process is fun and keeps him motivated. “So, for me it is t he oils, just because they are so complicated, and it is going to take me years to get good.”

 

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While there are many leather toolers that we love and respect, the aforementioned are just a few of our favorites. These artists stay true to their art and prioritize their quality. Their passion shines through their work, and it inspires us to step outside our comfort zone and develop new skills.

If you have not already followed these artists on social media, we strongly encourage you to do so, you will not be disappointed.

 

Stay tuned for upcoming interviews from more of our favorite artists!