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Oct. 23, 2021 | Saturday
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NOTL leather crafter turns passion into business
Gabe Betton in his leather crafting workshop. The 24-year-old has turned his passion for leather crafting into a small business called Tool & Hide. (Richard Harley)

Gabriel Betton doesn't hide his passion for leather.

The 24-year-old, who moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake about a year ago, says it's sort of like wine — there's so many different types of leather, each with its own unique feel and even smell.

Sitting down with Betton at his home workshop, it's clear he's not just a leather maker, but someone who has taken the time to understand his craft. There's a whole wall of different types of leather and his tool bench is packed with items for every aspect of leather crafting.

He got into his craft about two years ago, after ordering a handmade leather watch strap that opened his eyes to the world of leather. Now he runs a small hand-crafted business called Tool and Hide, specializing in custom-made leather items.

It started with a passion for woodworking, he says, and a need for covers for his tools.

"I've always been into knives and tools since a really young age. And then once I started working with wood, I realized I needed a lot more gear to hold my tools," he says.

"I thought, 'Hey, leatherwork should be something that I could get into.' I bought my first hide and then it was just game over. From there I just fell into the trap of just getting more and more into it and really fell in love with it," Betton says.

Aside from his tool covers, he says he made a "plethora" of different items with his first hide — things like coasters, belts, valet trays.

He pulls out one of the first pieces he ever made, a wallet that he hand-dyed.

"This is what's sort of referred to as natural vegetable-tanned leather as opposed to basically 95 per cent of the leather you'd see on the market. And it's tanned using tree nuts. So it's really sustainable and then it also produces the most high-quality leather," he says.

After he started getting requests for items, he decided he wanted to start a business to fuel his passion.

"It basically snowballed from there," he says.

Betton sources his leather from around the world, some from Saskatchewan and some from places like Zagreb, Croatia, where distributors sell fine Italian hides.

While his biggest sellers are his smaller, minimalist wallets, he also does custom orders for things like laptop sleeves and guitar straps.

"I'm always happy to do kind of cool one-off custom projects where I can play with it a little bit," he says.

He's trying to make more higher-end bags, too, "because it's a little bit more creative space."

He pulls out a black leather briefcase he's working on, half-finished, and folds it into shape.

He creates all his patterns himself. "They're all drawn by hand and I try and keep it super original, because, honestly, I see so many guys making the same thing all the time. And I just rather have my own brand."

While he's working directly with real leather from a variety of animals — he's got shark leather, horse leather, ostrich leg leather and various other types and grades — he says something a lot of people don't consider is that leather hides are mostly a byproduct of the meat industry.

"Most people assume that cows and horses and all those sorts of animals, buffaloes, that they actually use for the skin, that those are being killed for their skin but it's actually the complete opposite. Those animals are already dead, essentially, and it's just reusing a part of their body. So I think that's sort of a great thing," he says.

Most of his products are done using a saddle-stitch method instead of machine stitching — a technique he says hasn't changed in "100 years or so."

"Most products you'd find on the market, like probably more than like 98 per cent of stuff is all machine-stitched," he says. "And, to experience something truly handmade, in my opinion, it should be saddle-stitched, and crafted from hide by hand from start to finish."

"I'm basically pulling one thread with two needles from side to side so if a stitch breaks, it's not like the whole thing is coming apart."

He says since starting his work, he has realized just how much time and effort goes into custom leather products.

"It's one of those things where it's truly like wine, even just smelling the different leathers," he says as he takes out his book of leather swatches.

The first one he shows smells strongly, almost like a farm, while the next has almost a sweet, forest smell.

"They all have their own variety, which is kind of a really cool thing to me," he says, naming various leathers from producers like Badalassi Carlo in Italy, or Horween Leather Co.

The cost of different types of leather ranges dramatically, from about $4.50 per square foot to upward of $200 per square foot for high-end leather like shell cordovan (often used in high-end shoes).

Each leather has its own unique challenges, depending on the grade, down to the shape of the animal. For example, shark leather is tougher to work with for larger items, since it comes for the most part in the shape of the animal.

For custom orders, he lets customers pick through the different leathers they like best, and says being in Niagara-on-the-Lake with a vibrant wine and food industry, he wants to echo that aspect of town with his different varieties of leather.

"It is such a fine art in my opinion and a quality leather will last generations."

As far as learning his craft, he says it's a combination of research and trial and error. Sites like Reddit are great for finding advanced techniques and YouTube also has some beginner advice.

"And then, just practise. I've wasted quite a bit just learning on pieces that I've kind of messed up or whatever, because it takes a long time just to sort of refine those skills to a point where I feel like it has some value for maybe somebody else," he says.

"Most of the guys have been in the trade for a while, they had grandfathers who were cobblers or bag makers and that sort of thing."

He says he thinks leather crafting is a great way to use products that otherwise could go to waste.

Instead, he can "make this beautiful piece out of it. So it's really cool to me."

Betton says he's hoping to turn his business into a full-time operation and will soon be looking for shops in town to carry his products.

"It was a random thing for me that started and I've been super happy being able to make things for people ever since, because I get to do what I love and it gives them something that they love, too."

Betton's products can be found at www.toolandhide.ca.

 

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