The King of Detail
By Danna Burns-Shaw
Few leather artisans have the attention to detail like Howard Knight; his diversity in style leaves one mesmerized in amazement. Howard creates works of fine art in his small leather shop, which is adjacent to his home in the beautiful, mountain community of Stevensville, Montana. Howard and his wife, Amy, moved to Montana from Northern California, after Amy retired as a nurse practitioner. A breezeway from their home leads Howard to his leather shop and Amy to her shop, where she immerses herself in glasswork. Montana is a perfect place for the Knights; they enjoy fishing, snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, creating and living the good life!
Most young children have their first leather crafting experience during 4-H camp, and Howard was no exception. At 10 years old, he picked up his first leather tool and made his first impression in leather. Forty-two years later, his works are being commissioned from all over the world. He is regarded as one of the world’s finest leather artists, designers and master carvers, and was also inducted into the coveted Montana Circle of American Masters.
Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, Howard was a country boy who discovered his love for leather in 4-H and was hooked from the very start. He made coasters, wallets and knife cases for family, neighbors and friends – to fund his growing need for tools and supplies. After high school, Howard did a tour in the Air Force, which left little or no time for leather work. After leaving the military, Howard began an electrical apprenticeship. There he found a need for well-made leather products and began making tool pouches, tape measure holders, belts, wallets and a host of other things related to his new trade.
Whenever he could, he traveled to study with people like Ray Pohja, one of the most influential people in the leather field. Howard developed a great passion for floral tooling, with an emphasis on the Porter’s Saddlery-style of design. Chuck Smith, Jim Jackson, Clint Fay, Don Butler and Don King all helped Howard to hone his masterful skills. Those remarkable skill sets, passed on to an eager student, were the foundation and what Howard credits for his impeccable attention to detail. At this time, Howard was mainly occupied with contract belt tooling, when he wasn’t working as a journeyman electrician. Then, an unfortunate on-the-job accident led to a 2 ½-year recovery period. Leather work made it possible for Howard to endure the excruciating rehab from his injuries. It was during that trying time that he decided to pursue his passion for leather work, full time. That was January 2000, and now 17 years (and many lessons learned in business) later …Howard has no regrets.
“I love making belts, my primary ordered item; I walk into the shop every morning and enjoy the smell of the leather, and the challenge of the day. I have a wide variety of clients with varied needs and likes – it’s never boring here. We have a saying here at the shop: it’s just like Club Med, only really different.” The challenge is what drives Howard’s creativity; he loves being pushed to new levels of masterful creativity by adding new genres into his repertoire. But belts are Howard’s mainstay; his bench is rarely without belts in the line of production.
In 2008, Howard had all his eggs in one basket, with his entire production allocated to one store in a Colorado ski town. When the recession hit and the purchase orders no longer came, Howard had to dig deep and figure a way out of his debacle. Howard decided to look for a new door to open; the door he chose was Harley Davidson. Being a motorcycle enthusiast, Howard took a few remarkable pieces he had created for his own Harley to a bike show, to see if he could drum up any interest. Folks went wild over his work and started to commission unique, one-of-a-kind leather seats and bags.
Reinventing himself several times in his career has fueled Howard’s passion for greatness. Word of mouth and referrals are Howard’s main source of clients, who commission him to cover things they love in leather. Many motorcycles, car interiors and home furnishings are adorned with embellished leather created by Howard’s expert hands. When I asked Howard what his favorite project was, he paused and then humbly stated, the Phantom Boots. Taking over 800 hours, the 100 percent hand-tooled, one-of-a-kind boots were carved, painted, airbrushed – and embellished with 14K white gold! He has since made six more pairs of the museum-quality boots for the same client.
Another of his most revered projects was an 11-foot stereo cabinet, adorned with hundreds of different flowers and leaves. Each flower and leaf was created using his client’s photos, which showed specific types she wanted replicated and carved into the leather. The result was a stunningly unique piece of furniture. He enjoys collaborating with furniture makers, adding his carved leather details to their world-class pieces. He is especially excited about a new project he is working on, where he is tooling a complete wall in leather!
Howard has just one assistant who helps him with prep work; he says she is a very talented painter and also assists with painting, cutting and sewing. He’s had apprentices off and on throughout the years, but not currently. He would like to find an apprentice that would stay around for a while, as he has no intention of putting down his swivel knife! In his shop Howard has a band knife splitter, a bell knife splitter, three different sewing machines and a small hand clicker. He would like to add a full size clicker, as well as a few more tools, to help speed along the many steps required to complete his intricate work. He says, “Each piece is a work of art. These tools are my paintbrushes.”
As a master craftsman and fine artist, Howard Knight embraces collaboration with artists working in other mediums. He works with only the finest goldsmiths, silversmiths and bootmakers in America. Howard states, “I aspire to create heirloom pieces to be passed down for generations to come.” Always American made – by an American master. Every piece Howard creates is truly one-of-a-kind, done one-at-a-time, in his studio in Stevensville, Montana, USA.