A Top-End Texas Leathercraft Hand
By Gene Fowler
When Clint Wilkinson was born in Denton, Texas, his grandfather Weldon Burgoon bartered a custom-made saddle to pay the doctor bill. Now, 36 years later, Clint carries on the family tradition of leathercraft arts: producing handmade bags, briefcases, wallets and other finely wrought creations in the same location where Weldon’s Saddle Shop served North Texas cowgirls and cowboys for more than half a century.
“My work is a combination of the superb construction of Louis Vuitton with a high-end Western look,” Clint explains. “My grandfather says there’s something romantic about the West. I think he’s right, and as I see it, everybody has a little bit of Western in them.”
Son of a professional calf roper, Clint grew up riding to rodeos in the bed of his dad’s pickup and helping out in his grandfather’s custom saddle shop and Western wear store. “That’s where I first learned the basics of leathercraft. My grandfather would give me a little piece of leather and show me how you worked with the different tools. And then I’d clean and oil the saddles and learn to care for the leather.”
Born in 1930, Grandpa Weldon Burgoon began working with leather as a necessity while growing up in the Great Depression. “You couldn’t afford to hire somebody to do things then,” he says, “so it just came as kind of a second deal that I started making belts and purses.” He also learned the how-to’s of saddle upkeep and in his teens, he started rodeo-roping himself. Weldon acquired his first sewing machine shortly after World War II and opened his Denton saddle shop in 1957. When he closed its doors for the last time early last year, auctioned off unsold Western wear and part of his lifetime collection of Western memorabilia, it was also the last time folks could hear him say the shop slogan, “Buy from a real cowboy.”
Though immersed in the “cowboy way” from an early age, it was in his teens that Clint found a greater sense of freedom riding a dirt bike than he’d experienced on horseback. He discovered adventure on the rugged, off-road motorcycle courses called motocross. At the same time, his creative DNA inspired him to document the sport in graphics, photography and video. In 2007, after years of racing competition, Clint co-founded an online dirt bike magazine, growing the site’s brand until it became the internet’s most popular motocross platform.
“I was also still working some at Weldon’s during that time,” Clint says. “One minute I would be designing motion graphics for Red Bull, creating web elements, learning code, making Skype calls or a hundred other things, and the next minute I’d be selling a pair of boots or helping my grandfather fix something.” Blowin’ and goin’ from 6 am to 1 am most days, he was drinking way too much coffee, getting very little sleep and spending far too little time with his wife and two young kids. “Eventually I hit a wall where my body shut down and my brain wouldn’t work. In 2012, I told my motocross website partners that I needed a break.”
Parking the pressure and stress of the crazy-paced digital chase, Clint returned to the thing that saved him, working with leather. “I sat down in my grandfather’s shop and made my dad a belt. And before I knew what was happening, I felt like myself again. I felt like I’d come home.” He discovered the therapeutic aspect of leatherwork. “When I work with leather now, I cut out all the distractions and become present in the moment. It’s really kind of a Zen thing.”
In fact, Clint felt so energized by the process that he made the leap to leather full time, working out of Weldon’s Saddle Shop and stamping his products with that name. In 2014, he founded Bell and Oak, a leathercraft boutique named for the intersection of the two streets where Weldon’s stood. Soon, he was fashioning fine Horween leather into coasters, wallets and gift items, often by the hundreds for corporate customers. These pieces were machine cut and sewn – a technique that began to get monotonous for Clint’s creative mind. The burgeoning maker movement was another factor. It was flourishing in Denton; an Americana-perfect small town about 30 miles north of Dallas, where many artistic types decided to put down roots after graduating from the local university. “I started seeing a lot of leather pieces that looked like mine, so I knew I had to make a change,” Clint recalls.
After studying the fine leatherwork pieces produced by members of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA), Wilkinson decided to blaze a trail in handmade, higher-end leather art. To stake that claim, he changed the brand name of his company from Bell and Oak to his own handle, Clint Wilkinson. The sign on his studio door now reads Wilkinson, handmade in Texas.
As a result, Clint now puts six or seven hours of painstaking dedication into making a wallet, and a briefcase or handbag can take as much as 80 hours of intense attention to detail. “But it’s worth the extra work,” he says. “I’m creating heirloom quality leather pieces that my customers can pass down through their own families.” Most importantly, the leather artist knows you can’t hurry fine work and each step deserves its own sweet time. “My grandfather taught me that. One of the hardest things in leather work is to not finish before you’re through.”
For the higher-end work, Clint at first switched over to bridle leathers, feeling they held up a little better. Then he started researching and eventually using Japanese leathers, French calf and Italian leather, though he does continue to use the American leather, Hermann Oak. He’s also made the transition throughout his career from saddle knives and the classic Terry Knipschield knives to Japanese knives. “I use a Nobuyoshi knife for straight sculpting, skiving, edging… just about everything. And I use a pricking iron made in France. My favorite edger is from Ron’s Tools in St. Ignatius, Montana.”
Hand stitching has also contributed to the upgrade in product quality. Creating a hole for the stitch with an awl, Wilkinson pulls the thread through the leather and makes a twist and tightens the thread. That creates a series of interlocking knots and strengthens the stitching so that if one stitch has a tear, the whole piece won’t fail. Each stitch takes as much as ten seconds and a briefcase, for instance, can have over 2,500 handsewn stitches. After trying all kinds of thread, he’s settled on one made in France as the best for his products.
Even though he’s now taken his craftsmanship and artistry to a whole ‘nother level, Clint still looks to some older leather workers for tips and ways to improve. “One of my favorites is saddlemaker Troy West, who lives in Azle, just west of Fort Worth,” he says. “I visited his shop, and it was really neat to see how he had it laid out. He showed me how to make your own custom tools; he took a nail and made a stamping tool out of a nail.” Clint also got ideas for improving his studio from talking to Canadian saddlemaker Chuck Stormes. “I saw pictures of his studio. It was not like a traditional saddle shop; it was more like an art studio. So I made my workshop similar to his. One thing, he doesn’t light a lot of the space, just the area where he’s working. I’ve found that keeps my eyes from getting strained.”
The Denton, Texas artist also admires some of Japan’s leather crafters. “Tsuyoshi Yamashita, in my opinion, is the best leather artist in the world in terms of construction,” Clint says. “His construction methods are unreal. The same is true for Hajime Niwa—I especially like his sewing. It seems like Western leather craftsmen, the first thing they get good at is tooling. They don’t worry as much about clean construction. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I think you should focus on construction first, then work on tooling. If you marry those two, it’s a home run.”
Wilkinson does some beautiful, intricate tooling on watch bands for the Montana Watch Company. “My TCAA saddlemaker friend Cary Schwarz got me that job. He was making them and had too many saddle orders. So now I make all of their watch bands.” Clint’s made quite a few key clips for another client, Stetson Hats. And the gift shop at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, stocks Wilkinson leather pieces stamped with the presidential seal, including wallets, coasters, dog collars and key fobs in the shape of the state of Texas. “I also made a leather insert for a writing desk for them. It was a collaboration with Denton woodworkers called Pastrana Studios. They use the desk for special book signings.”
Clint looked up from his work table one day and saw Fort Worth recording artist Leon Bridges opening the door to his shop. “He wanted a custom guitar strap made with his grandmother’s name on it,” he recalls. “I thought he might like to do some of the stamping for it, so I invited him to do it. He was kind of nervous about it, and I started worrying what Columbia Records would say if he missed and hurt his hand. But I later saw him wearing that strap in a music video. That felt really nice.”
A new generation of Wilkinsons might be continuing the family legacy before too many more scorching summers have passed over the vast expanse of cactus patch we call the state of Texas. Last spring, Clint got an order from the Bush Library for 1,200 red leather bookmarks. He was busy with a custom job and recruited his ten-year-old son Dylan to punch holes in the center of each piece of leather for the decorative tassel. The youngster did a first-class job with the assignment. Down the road, when Dylan and his little sister Autumn are a bit older, their dad might bring back some of the easier-to-make Bell and Oak products and let the kids show their stuff. “It would also be a way of providing customers with more $50 and $100 items.”
For now, he’s honoring the family legacy of the present and the past. “I’m setting up a little museum in the shop as a tribute to my grandfather. I’ve got things from his bit and spur collection and some of the saddles he’s made and some he’s collected. And there’s also some plaques and awards from his career that recall highlights, like his 2010 induction into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame.”
A 2017 documentary about the Burgoons and Wilkinsons, Story Town with WELDON’S – A Western Way of Life, chronicles the family’s rodeo and leathercraft traditions. Produced by the Denton media company, Curious Dog Creative, the film also portrays the bittersweet sunset of Weldon’s Saddle Shop.
“I had a shop teacher that told my daddy I had good hands, and Clint, he’s got good hands,” an 86-year-old Weldon told the filmmakers. “Not everybody’s fortunate enough to have that…I helped Clint with the tooling and the leather, and he helped me with repairing the saddles. But his love was for makin’ new stuff. What I was able to teach him was the fundamentals. He’s taken it waaay yonder farther than that. He’s an artist, and he’s burning with ambition to do well. And we’re sure proud of him.”
Clint’s website is https://clintwilkinson.com/. In addition to his top-shelf leather products, Clint also offers copies of a 2012 oral history interview with his grandfather, produced by the University of North Texas. To order a DVD copy of Story Town with WELDON’S – A Western Way of Life, go to https://www.curiousdogcreative.com/.