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Custom leather: Jim Brainard spends life perfecting the art of leather craft

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Jim Brainard has spent the large majority of his life bent over a work bench, mallet and stamp in hand, tooling and crafting leather into fine goods and beautiful pairs of boots. 

In fact, Jim says he became interested in the art of leather craft at just 10 years old. Today, Jim owns and operates JB Custom Leather in Parker, Colo., and throughout the last decade he has turned his leather craft skills into an esteemed custom boot making business. 

The beginning

            “I became interested in leather work at the age of 10, which is a pretty natural hobby to pick up for those in the horse and rodeo industry,” Jim says. “I learned to tool leather goods, rodeo chaps and belts.” 

After turning 14, Jim notes he became an apprentice for a third generation boot and saddle repairman. 

“I spent five years there, 1974 to 1979, learning the tricks of the trade in repairing saddles and tack,” he says. “Then in 1979, I bought the place from him and operated it myself until 2000.”

            “In 2000, I brought in a partner and we grew into a few big stores,” Jim recalls. “We outgrew ourselves, so I sold out my storefront business and started a new one at home – JB Custom Leather.”

 A new adventure

            Jim notes in JB Custom Leather’s early years he was crafting leather goods and repairing saddles and tack, and while he was enjoying putting his life-long skills to use, he decided to take on a new adventure. 

            “About 11 years ago, I went back to my mentor to learn how to make western boots,” Jim says. “And for the last 10 years, I have been focused on and passionate about developing and growing into a custom-made boots business.” 

            “Boot making is my passion. I have made so many leather goods, belts, wallets, chaps, etc. But I have always found it more interesting to make custom boots,” he states. 

            However, Jim notes this doesn’t mean he has stopped creating leather goods and repairing horse tack. 

            “I live in a big horse community, so I still have people from all over the world bringing me saddles and tack they need repaired,” he states.  

            Yet, Jim says he has found his passion in custom boot making and doesn’t see himself moving on to any other new adventures in the future. 

“I have been at this long enough in life, I don’t want to go after anything new,” Jim states. “Custom boot making has been the most challenging venture I have taken on in my life because it requires both artistic awareness and physical labor. It is what I am passionate about and what I want to continue doing.” 

Custom leather boots

When it comes to creating custom leather boots, Jim notes there are three styles – traditional western-style cowboy boots, roper-style cowboy boots and lace-up-style cowboy boots.

 “I use variety of domestic leather like cow and steer hides, goat skins, pig skins and exotic leather of all kinds, including ostrich, alligator and kangaroo, basically anything that can be made into a leather boot and be durable,” he explains. 

            Among all the different kinds of leather, Jim notes alligator is his favorite, and the one he uses most. 

            As far as creating a custom-made pair of boots, Jim says it is all up to his clients.

            “I make my boots for my clients so I try to give them whatever they are looking for,” he explains. “Some of them are hunters and trappers who have tanned hides and skins, and some are just looking for something different and unique.” 

            With a variety of options, different and unique is not hard to come by in Jim’s shop. In fact, he notes he can create boots with any variety of skin, color combination, toe shape, heel height, overlays, inlays, letters, logos and patterns.

            “When a client and I have our initial contact, we talk about what they want and what the cost is going to be, because custom-made boots are pretty costly,” he says. “We then have a consultation and I do some measuring.”

            Jim points out his measuring process is very extensive because the measurements he takes at the time are ultimately translated into the overall fit of the boot.

            “The measurements translate into the shape and form of the boot, the toe shape and the heel height,” he says. 

            After this, Jim explains he will spend time with his client looking at different boots, and then they will sit down and draft out every detail from the shape of the pattern, the cut of top, the color of leather and the color of thread. 

            “On average, the initial process averages an hour and a half,” he notes. “Because it takes time to make a custom pair of boots, it usually takes me a few months before I can get to the particular person’s order. Then once I’ve finished, they come back in to see me and actually try the boots on their feet.” 

Always learning

            Despite the fact Jim has been making custom leather boots for a decade now, and working with leather even longer than that, he believes he still has a lot to learn about the trade.

            “I still have so much to learn about it,” he states. “It’s just part of the trade. I would never be able to live long enough to learn everything there is to know about leather crafting.”

            This is why networking is such an important concept for Jim.

            “One of the most important things to me at this point in my career are the trade shows I attend,” Jim says. “I go to two shows annually, both of which showcase leather craft and boot making.” 

Jim notes these two trade shows are­ The Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan and the Boot and Saddlemaker’s Trade Show in Wichita Falls, Texas.

“Of course, there is some competition that comes with these shows. I have the opportunity to enter contests at these shows that are judged and critiqued by my peers,” he explains. “I like the competition because it really helps me learn and grow as a leather maker.”

“But the other part of these shows that I think is even more important is the networking,” Jim continues. “These shows get a bunch of leather makers together in one place to share concepts, skills and techniques. I am always learning.” 

For more information on JB Custom Leather or to get in touch with Jim Brainard, visit jbcustomleather.com or call 303-946-4930.

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

  • Posted in 2020
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