Local leather worker keeps prices low but quality high

CRAIG CUNNINGHAM/DAILY MAIL Chris Davis gets his leather in sides, literally the tanned side of a cow. He purchases the leather from tanneries around the United States, including the famed Horween factory in Chicago.
Chris Davis stared his home business, Davis Leatherworks, while he was a student at the University of Charleston. He couldn’t afford the leather goods he saw online, so he started making his own. People soon began placing orders for his wallets, iPad cases, notebook covers and belts and the hobby blossomed into a business.

Chris Davis prides himself in making things that will last.

Every wallet, notebook cover, business card holder, belt and iPad case he makes comes with a guarantee: if it breaks, Davis will replace it or fix it.

But in the year and a half since he started his business, Davis hasn’t seen anything return to his shop. Instead, he gets photos from fans on Twitter and Facebook, showing how his products are aging.

“It’ll last forever if you take care of it,” he said.

Davis got his start in leather work while he was a student at the University of Charleston.

He ran a stationary blog at the time, writing reviews for different pens and notebooks. He became a fan of Field Notes — a company that sells a variety of U.S.-manufactured notebooks and writing utensils — but balked at the price of the leather covers available for the journals.

So he started making his own.

His father-in-law, Ron Hoy, helped him get started with leather work. Hoy is a blacksmith and makes leather sheaths for his knives.

Davis started helping him make sheaths, but soon graduated to other projects like wallets and notebook covers.

He posted photos of his finished products on his website and online forums, which attracted the attention of other Field Notes enthusiasts, who started placing orders.

“I’d get an order here and there, then send it off. As far as I was concerned, it was done,” he said.

But then the orders kept coming. And coming. And coming.

Soon he was filling anywhere from 20 to 40 orders a week. Leather work was becoming much more than a hobby.

“I was making enough money to really call it a business. It changed pretty quickly before I realized what was happening,” he said.

When Davis graduated from the University of Charleston last December with an accounting degree, he was faced with a choice.

He could either devote his full attention to his leather business, or look for a job in his field of study.

“The problem with graduation in December, most accounting firms are looking for interns.”

His wife, Sarah, also was pregnant and Davis realized that taking a job at an accounting firm during tax season would mean long hours away from home.

“I didn’t want to be away from them that much,” he said.

So, Davis Leatherworks became his full-time job.

He has turned a bedroom in his Belle home into an office and workshop. He also has an online shop, www.davisleatherworks.com, where customers can see examples of his work and place orders.

“I get at least an order every day,” he said.

Most are from the United States, but Davis has also shipped orders to more than 15 different countries. One guy in the United Kingdom has placed about a dozen orders.

Some order items right off the shelf, while others request custom work. Davis recently created a custom fountain pen case for one of his customers.

“We worked together and figured out what he wanted,” he said.

There might even be a Davis Leatherworks sunglasses case in Brad Pitt’s glove compartment.

The Japanese eyewear brand Matsuda commissioned Davis to make a few custom cases for its high-end sunglasses. The company told him Pitt bought a pair and, although he has no proof Pitt has the case, the movie star has been photographed wearing the glasses.

Davis’s designs are simple, showcasing the high-quality leather he uses in each project.

Each project starts with a cardboard template, which Davis traces onto the leather with a scratch awl. He then cuts out the pieces with a utility knife or, for long straight cuts, a round-bladed “head knife.”

His leather arrives in “sides” — literally, the tanned side of a cow — from tanneries all over the country.

“I try to make sure everything I buy is sourced here in the United States,” he said.

That includes tanneries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and even the noted Horween Leather tannery in Chicago.

If necessary, he uses a skiving blade to thin out the leather. This is usually required if the piece needs to fold, like a notebook cover or a wallet.

If the project requires stitching, like a wallet or an iPad cover, Davis uses another awl to mark the line where the stitches will fall. He then uses a four-pointed punch to make holes in the leather, and stitches the pieces together with needle and waxed linen thread.

Customers sometimes request tooling on their pieces, those fancy embossed designs usually featured on cowboy holsters and fancy saddles. Davis will oblige, but says the process greatly increases the price of his products.

“It’s very time intensive,” he said.

Tooling can add three to five hours to a project, and Davis said he tries to keep his labor costs around $15 per hour.

Davis actively tries to keep his prices down. The most expensive item on his website, a hand-stitched wallet, is $35.

He could easily charge more, with good conscience. Plenty of manufacturers charge hundreds of dollars for even the most simple pieces. Davis could double his prices and still be cheaper than his competitors.

But he won’t.

“I thought, if I ever go into business I want to make something a college student could afford,” Davis said. “I was making the things I made because I couldn’t afford the high-end stuff.”

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or zack.harold@dailymailwv.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

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