By Liisa Andreassen
It all started when James (Jimmy) Acord met a guy in a band who had a cool-looking belt pouch made out of an old Western boot. Acord figured he had some boots, so why not try to make his own? And, so it began.
With a background in welding, he knew how to create needed tools, so he made a pouch with a thread and a big needle. It was a success. People started asking him to make similar pouches and as he ran out of old boots, he had to find another leather source. He contacted Tandy and Cleveland Leather, while continuing to get requests for other hand-crafted leather items such as holsters, guitar straps and biker gear.
A fly-fishing fate
Mostly self-taught, Acord learned the craft from Al Stohlman books and created his own patterns and designs. Bill Jones also taught him a lot about shoe repairing and different aspects of leatherwork.
Around 1984, a few years after purchasing a leather shop and learning leatherwork as a part-time pursuit, Acord walked away from his career as a welder to devote his full attention to leatherwork. He continued to work as a traditional leather craftsman until 1995, when he was introduced to the fly-fishing world by a woman taking art lessons from his wife, Susan Shie. This woman’s husband, Doug Hall, was a bamboo rod maker.
“Doug and I became friends and later that year, his wife ordered a cigar case for him as a Christmas gift,” Acord says. “She asked me to use bamboo rods and flies in the designs. She didn’t make any specific suggestions, so I had to research fly fishing and use my imagination.”
The cigar case was a big hit and it marked a big change in Acord’s work. The more he personally got into fly fishing, the more he wanted to make cases for his equipment, and the more people would order those same kinds of cases for themselves or gifts.
“I no longer wanted to take other kinds of orders,” he says.
Since that time, Acord has turned to producing custom-made, fly-fishing accessories almost exclusively.
Acord’s most requested products are clamshell-style fly cases, reel cases and fly-rod cases. The artwork is typically a favorite fly, trout or salmon image.
“Often, customers will ask me to add some natural imagery around it, like cattails or leaves,” he says. “Sometimes they ask me to do portraits or scenes from pictures they provide. For most of the orders, I hand carve a set of three initials, which my wife Susan designs freehand, so that the letters fit together nicely.”
Acord says that time and distance keep him from fly fishing as much as he would like, but he still manages to go to Michigan once a year where he attends a bamboo rod makers’ gathering in Grayling, and then stays on to fish.
“I get inspired by being out fishing, I guess,” he says. “I also love to find images in vintage books and articles in fly-fishing magazines. I’ve also been lucky enough to fish in the Smoky Mountains and in Western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains.
One of my product designs is my Mohican Streamside Angler’s Bag, with each piece custom designed for the individual fisherman, to hold his or her specific equipment. That case was inspired by my love for the Clear Fork River in Mohican State Park.”
Every once in a while, he’ll take on a project outside of this realm. For example, last year he got an order from a loyal customer and good friend who owns a distillery, Dry Fly Distillery, to make covers for three liquor bottles. The process is called “leathering.”
“I carved their logos for the bourbon, vodka and gin, and he told me to come up with my own designs for the backs of the bottles, along with his initials. I put a different trout on two of the bottles and an image of a bamboo fly rod with a mayfly sitting on it on the back of the third bottle. The bottles were unusually shaped and I ended up making a wooden mold, so I could drop one of the glass bottles halfway into it and then wet-mold the leather pieces on it. The design had a neck, then a wide ‘skirt’ that tapered out to the bottle body, which also tapered down. It was quite a challenge just to figure out the pattern pieces,” he explains.
A space that inspires
Acord lives in Wooster, Ohio, with his wife, Susan. He works out of a 30 x 30-foot workshop with knotty-pine paneling and open-ceiling rafters, which he hangs patterns from. It’s in the walkout basement of his house, with large windows overlooking a wooded ravine.
“I love working at home,” he says.
He only does custom orders now, though earlier in his career he did a lot of repair work. He hand sews all pieces, but has kept his leather machinery and tools, such as his 1939 Landis Stitcher.
“I still use my big, 1939 Landis line finisher a lot, but otherwise the machines are nice to look at,” he says. “I’m fond of collecting and using antique hand tools for leather work. I think about how many people have used these tools before I got them.”
Acord explains that he also has room to lounge in his shop – a place where he can relax for a few minutes while their dog, Libby, reclines on her couch too.
“I have a large reference collection of books and magazines on leather and fly fishing that I can sit and look through in this comfortable space. I don’t have a TV and I hate the phrase ‘man cave.’ My shop is a studio workshop. I have a good stereo and listen to FolkAlley.com most of the time, but I’m there to work.
And, there’s no doubt that this space inspires unique work. In fact, Susan has strong opinions on this.
“Jimmy spent 20 years accepting any type of leather order request, from anyone who walked in the door – so he developed a huge skillset of processes that were at his disposal. I think that’s a big part of why his work is totally unique in the world,” she says. “There just isn’t another artist doing what [he’s] doing. Each case is a little bit of Jimmy.”
James Acord’s Leather
Wooster, Ohio 44691-1806