Anyone who’s followed this site for more than a few minutes will know I have a great fondness for Davis Leatherworks’ notebook covers. They are simple and functional and they are oh so beautiful. Often we buy these lovely handmade products and know nothing about the people who make them. Being the nosy person I am, I wanted to do something about this. So I asked Chris Davis if he’d mind answering a few questions and he very kindly agreed.
Be sure to read all the way to the end for a fantastic giveaway.
Why leatherwork? What got you started?
Well, let me tell you a little about myself in lieu as to why leatherwork. I’m a twenty-three year old college graduate, married with a almost five month old son, and I’m about completely useless when it comes to working with my hands (a problem I am actively trying to remedy). Growing up in this modern generation, I found myself surrounded by video games and computers. While I enjoy them, even to this day, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life (just a few sessions fixing family and friends’ computers showed me that I don’t have the patience to work in technical support). After I met my girlfriend, who is now my wife, I learned that her father is a blacksmith/blade-smith, and that he also made his own leather sheaths for his custom-made knives. I watched as he designed patterns, cut the leather, and stitched it up, and I thought to myself, “That looks like something I could do…” My first work was definitely in the realm of interesting, but I was able to stick with it and learn, improving my skills as I went along.
The leather you use is beautiful. Where does it come from and how do you choose your suppliers?
Most of the leather that I choose to use, especially when it comes to notebook covers, is from Horween of Chicago. Established in 1905, Horween pride themselves on their fine leather which is tanned and finished here in the United States. That’s one of the major things I look at when I go to purchase leather. Where did it come from? Most of my suppliers obtain, tan, and finish their leather right here in the USA, which means that the leather cost is higher, but also seems to result in a finer, more consistent product.
What, for you, makes leather such a beautiful material?
To me, the most beautiful thing about leather is it’s flaws. Sure, you can finish leather so that it all looks just about the same, but give me a piece of leather that has some scratches, some scars, and some imperfections. Through these, I can look at a side of leather and not just see a material, but I can see the lifespan of the animal that the skin used to belong to. I can see where one particular cow got too close to a barb-wire fence thanks to the scratches on the backside of the hide. I can see where a rancher made his mark using a branding iron, and the skin healed up leaving the brand there for eternity. Another thing that makes it a beautiful material is that each piece of leather is unique. No two cow hides are exactly alike. No two tannages are alike. No two finishes are alike. Each time I place an order, I look forward to being able to open the box, roll out the leather, and run my hands over it. There’s no other material in the world that feels quite like a beautiful piece of leather.
Where do your ideas come from and how do you go about developing a new product?
There’s a verse in the King James Bible in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that says, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” One of the biggest challenges is to design a product that is not, in some way, influenced by another craftsman’s work. A major part of my job is to gauge what consumers want. I do this by following several different forums, watching what major accessories brands do, and by looking at the work of other craftsmen. When I see that another leatherworker has created a product that is selling very well, I look at the major aspects of the product. Why is it popular? How is it different from something I’ve made? Then, I draft up a couple designs, trying to make changes in the design that reflect my personality and skills. It’s a difficult process, because as I mentioned before, “there is no new thing under the sun”. If I were to sit down and design a product with no influence from any other maker, I could probably get online and in no time find an existing product that is mirrored by my own.
The first step in designing a product is to define a need. What would my customer want to buy? Sometimes this even refers to what would I want to buy.
The next thing is getting the design from my head onto paper. This step is one of the longest, as it sometime can take several drafts before I get to where I’m comfortable with the design.
The third step is to transfer the pattern to the leather, sew it up, and finish it.
The often necessary fourth step? Back to the drawing board. Occasionally, a design won’t come out quite right or after I finish it I don’t like the way it looks. I’m not an engineer by any stretch of the word, so product design is somewhat of a hit or miss. The rejects are stored on a shelf in my shop, and often as I’m working I’ll go back and look at what I’ve “messed up” in the past and learn from those mistakes.
Lastly, is the test phase. Before I release any product on the market, I try to carry it around for a month or so. I want to make sure that my design will hold up and work the way that it should.
What is your process for making a notebook cover?
First, I select the leather and check the cutting area for any major defects/issues. I generally cut each and every cover by hand with a razor knife, but if a customer custom orders a large quantity (over 50), I use a die to punch the covers out on a hydraulic press. Once the covers are cut, I then punch two holes in the centre of the cover at the top and bottom. These are then sliced through and an appropriately sized elastic band inserted which holds the notebook in. I them emboss my logo on the back of the cover using a custom-made stamp and mallet. Then, the second smaller band is tied on the first to acts as the closure for the cover. I then slide a complimentary Field Notes notebook in, pack it up, and ship it out to my customers.
What do you feel makes a great product?
I feel a great product can be told by attention to detail and craftsmanship. While there are some who can sew an amazing line with a sewing machine, I prefer the little quirks and oddities that come from sewing a project by hand. I like to see where the craftsman has left his/her individual touches on the product. Some may call these defects or imperfections, but as long as they don’t hinder the use of the product in any way, I see them as evidence that someone has put time, effort, and love into something that they hope will last for a long time.
Can you reveal any future plans or products?
As of this time, I’m slowing down development for the Thanksgiving/Christmas season. It’s common for me to receive a ton of custom orders around this time of year, so development of new products generally grinds to a halt. However, I can say that if you are a fan of the Field Notes brand of notebooks, you should join the Field Nuts group on Facebook (if you haven’t already). Davis Leatherworks is coming out with a set of custom-branded covers for them. The first (our standard cover with elastic bands) is already available for pre-order in my online store. The second will be a flap-style cover with a credit card/id slot or two. The third will be a flap-style cover with receipt/scrap paper storage. I’m really excited to be able to work with such a great community of awesome folks!
Thank you so much Chris for taking the time to do this at what is such a busy time of year.
Please be sure to head over to Davis Leatherworks and support a true craftsman!
How would you like to win the brand new ‘Card Slot’ Field Notes cover featured in this article? This is Horween Brown Chromexcel, Hand-cut, Hand-sewn, Hand-crafted in the USA, pure loveliness and is a brand new line from Davis Leatherworks.
Now obviously if you win you will very quickly put a notebook of your choice inside the cover. To enter this giveaway, you need to leave a comment explaining what you will use that notebook for.
This is open to anyone, anywhere. The winner will be picked randomly on Saturday 28 December. I’ll then contact you by email and you’ll have a week to get back to me with your postal address. If I don’t hear from the winner in that time I’ll pick again. Please note that if you live outside the USA it could take quite a while to get to you and I won’t be responsible for any customs delays or charges.
Thank you Chris for donating this fantastic prize!
This giveaway ended at 6pm GMT Saturday 28 December 2013.
Please see here for the winner. Thank you to everyone who entered.