Precision Tools for Precision Work
By Nick Pernokas
Over by a wall at the Boot and Saddle Makers Roundup, in Wichita Falls, Texas, there is a crowd gathered. Hats and shopping bags obscure what they’re looking at. It looks like the free sample cart at the local supermarket as the crowd hovers. If you push your way closer though, you can see craftsmen bent over, stamping pieces of leather. They carefully scrutinize their work, before selecting another tool from the bins of shiny merchandise. The sign on the booth reads: Barry King Tools.
Barry King grew up working in the family business, King’s Saddlery and King Ropes, in Sheridan, Wyoming. Barry tied knots in ropes and made strap goods. His grandfather, Don, cast a large shadow there as the “inventor” of the Sheridan style of tooling. Barry had actually been interested in leather tooling as early as the third grade, but working in the leather department at King’s reawakened his interest in it. While he was in high school, Barry began stamping belts. His dad, Bruce King, who was the store manager for King’s Saddlery, helped him with his tooling. Noted leather artist, Jim Jackson, also worked for King’s at the time and gave Bruce some pointers.
As an active teenager, Barry also participated in the rodeo events.
“It was pretty much, as part of the family, you were required to do that,” laughs Barry.
Barry’s parents encouraged him to be well-rounded and he became involved with other sports. Eventually, he gravitated towards golf. His love for that game has remained with him.
Another part of high school that Barry enjoyed was machine shop class. The instructor let Barry make some leather tools, which he took home to work on his belts with. Mallets were one of the first tools that Barry built in shop. Jim Jackson saw one and was impressed. Jim ordered a maul, as did Barry’s uncle, John King, the head saddle maker at King’s. John began to coach Barry on making stamping tools out of nails in his garage and Barry went on to build more at school.
“I’d just go to the feed store and get a box of nails. I’d hammer out thumbprints, bevellers and flower centers. They were pretty crude, but they’re still usable,” says Barry.
Barry looked for mild steel nails, which had a head large enough to hammer out for the impression that he wanted to make, and a shank long enough to be able to hold on to when they were being used. Eventually, he used some mild steel bolts as well. Barry realized that he might have a good, side business going – in addition to tooling belts. By 1994, Barry was out of high school and selling mauls, mallets and swivel knives; by 1996, he was selling stamping tools.
Barry went to college and studied machine tool technology. He learned to work in stainless steel, which some of his customers were requesting by now. Leather workers, from more humid areas, wanted stainless steel tools so that they wouldn’t rust. Barry felt that the mild steel left a little bit of a carbon imprint, which some craftsmen liked, but they wore out a lot faster.
Today, Barry builds tools in a 4800-square-foot shop with a storefront, in Sheridan. He has seven employees. Many of the tools are 100 percent handmade, while others combine computerized technology with handwork. The computers have actually raised the quality of the tools because they removed some of the “human error.” The CNC milling machines can hold to extremely high tolerances for a more perfect tool, but most of the stamping tools are still finished by hand –Barry does this work himself. It ranges from deburring the cut tools, to filing the tools that have filed impressions. The machines can’t cut the lines in the lined patterns as fine as they can be done by hand. This process of making tools produces a stamping tool that has a much sharper impression than a hot stamped tool. A hot stamped tool is one that is produced from a die, and that is not the way Barry does it. The hand-finishing has allowed Barry to remain competitive with larger factories and off-shore companies, who can’t finish their tools by hand. Geometric stamps continue to be the most in demand because of the lower retail price of the finished leather goods, as opposed to carved pattern retail prices. The Barry King stamping tools also have a lifetime warranty.
Barry King Tools comes up with five or six new stamping tool designs every month. When different sizes are factored in, this number becomes three to four times larger. Some are by customer request, often when a saddle maker is trying to match an old tool on a saddle pattern that hasn’t been made for many years. These may be added to the retail line if no one is making a similar one. Barry doesn’t like to copy stamps that someone else is currently making, in order to avoid stepping on their toes. Other tools are inspired by patterns in wallpaper, carpet and design books. The new tools keep customer interest up. The company offers over 1400 tools and has plans to continue expanding the line.
”We’re continually growing as much as we can for the amount of time we have in a day.”
Outside of the United States, the majority of Barry’s tools go to China and Japan. According to Barry, the Chinese market is huge and approaching that of the U.S. In the last five years, the production of high-quality leather work has exploded in China. This was due to talented Japanese and Taiwanese instructors teaching classes in China.
“I was over there this summer at a trade show and it was totally the opposite of what the U.S. perception is (of quality). The personal items, like bags, that they were making were probably better than what anyone’s making in the U.S.”
Barry King Tools attends 10 to 12 trade shows a year. Barry’s brother, Brad, fills in for him at some of these. The booths are user-friendly, with damp sponges and scrap leather provided for craftsmen to test the tools on.
At 43, Barry still does leather work, but doesn’t take orders.
“I’m so busy with the tool business that the leather tooling is just a relaxing time for me.”
By 2010, Barry had become a good enough golfer to try to qualify for prestigious golf tournaments like the U.S. Open. Today, he plays golf primarily for recreation. Barry also owns a plane and flies for enjoyment. He lives with his wife, Kristen, in Sheridan.
To find out more about Barry King Tools, go to www.barrykingtools.com or call 307-672-5657.
Barry King Tools
1751 Terra Avenue
Sheridan, WY 82801