Friday, August 8, 2008

Elevating leather tooling to a fine art

Jack Sept will showcase work at Silver Creek

Express Staff Writer

Jack Sept keeps busy in his workshop with a custom-made saddle worth approximately $6,000. Photo by Dana DuGan

When leatherworker Jack Sept was growing up on a ranch near Sheridan, Wyo., he spent hours hanging out in the bunkhouse with the hired cowboys. Their conversation fired up the young cowpoke.

"They talked about handmade boots and good handmade hats and custom saddles," Sept said. "It was always gear."

When he went to town with his father he'd hang out at the saddle shops.

"Don King, who is an icon in the business, did a demonstration for our 4H group. After that I was hooked," Sept said.

King is renowned for his Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association trophy saddles and for creating the Sheridan style of leatherwork in the 1950s. The style features exuberant yet controlled designs often with garlands of flowers intricately carved into the leather.

Now living in Bellevue with his wife Ann Jeffries, Sept continues working his craft 47 years later. He custom makes saddles and chaps, as well as belts, checkbook covers, stirrup straps and other gift items.

This weekend Sept will be one of the featured craftsmen taking part in Silver Creek Outfitters' annual Boots & Buckles show. The opening cocktail reception begins tonight at 5 p.m.

Others displaying their wares will include Clint Orms Silversmiths, Montana Watch Co. from Livingston, leather apparel by Lone Pine Leathers, custom boots (including a special anniversary version) by the 125-year-old Lucchese Boot Co., William Henry Studio in Oregon and Silver Cactus jewelry.

"I'm really, really pleased to be associated with Silver Creak," Sept said. "They are a great outfit. They're by far my biggest outlet for gift items."

Inside Sept's workshop south of Bellevue, a summer breeze lightly blows the curtains into the light-filled room. It's a compact space. Above his long worktable are hundreds of leather tooling stamps and other tools. On a saddle holder in the middle of the room is one of his gorgeous custom-made Western saddles that will be raffled off by Idaho Cattle Women to fund college agriculture scholarships. Sept will sell tickets at the Boots & Buckles event.

Hanging off racks on one wall is an array of items including some custom-made chaps. They hang above several Herman Oak saddle frames covered in hardened rawhide. An industrial-strength sewing machine that he uses to stick the leather fills a corner. On the wall are pen-and-ink drawings of horses and cowboys done by Sept.

"I've done every kind of art you can think of but I always came back to leather," he said. "It is my medium and I consider it an art."

Sept said that saddle making is the "ultimate leather project."

He hand draws his patterns, tools them, dyes the background, stitches and finishes the edges. It's fine craftsmanship handed down over time from cowboy to cowboy.

Sept explained that back in the day, a cowboy's home could be identified by the unique designs on his saddle.

"There are the mechanics and art on a saddle," he said. "It has to be functional but it can showcase the arts. Decorating saddles has been going on for centuries. The big thing today is all the clinicians and trainers who push their clients to get good gear and take care of it. There is resurgence in really good custom gear."

Sept begins each saddle with a design concept for his client, with whom he works closely. May of his customers are women.

"They care about what the saddle looks like. I like an informed customer. Someone who gets involved."

He works long hours on the details of each piece. Belts might take more than four hours to tool. A saddle takes as much as four months.

"What's distinctive in my work are the inner weavings of design over and under," he said. "It has an artistic flair. Good stitching, dyes, rubbed edges. It's attention to detail. Buying a custom-made saddle is like buying a mountain bike from a place like Sturtevants versus Wal-Mart."

Sept comes by all of this as honestly as a day's work on the range. He went to college on a rodeo scholarship and rode rodeo for years.

"I know what works and what doesn't because of my background," he said. "I think that's important. It's invaluable experience."

This is the second year Sept will participate in the annual Boots & Buckles show at Silver Creek.

"I am honored to be showcased with nationally recognized craftsman," he said. "We've developed a great following from Silver Creek and have lots of repeat customers."

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