By Liisa Andreassen
While his passion is fighting fires, he has a burning desire to work with leather too. Jeremy Unruh, a battalion chief with the Hutchinson Fire Department (HFD) in Hutchinson, Kansas, has been fighting fires for about 20 years, but it wasn’t until about four years ago that he began doing side work as a leather craftsman.
A firefighting career leads to leather
Unruh’s father was a firefighter in the same town and that’s what led him to be a firefighter. He wanted to work alongside his dad and was able to do just that for several years, before his father retired.
“There are many reasons why I enjoy being a firefighter,” he says. “I played many sports when I was in school and the transition to the fire department felt very similar, with the team atmosphere and comradery. The fire department also filled my need for that adrenaline rush. When it gets right down to it though, I enjoy helping others the most.”
He explains that along with the joys there are, of course, dislikes.
“I’m a family man and it’s difficult to leave home and be away for my 24-hour shifts,” he says. “This job can and will tear you down. The shear amount of stress – mentally and physically – making critical, split-second, life-dependent decisions and the horrors we see nearly every day, takes its toll.”
Enter Fireruh Leather – a one man, firefighter-owned small business – that specializes in creating custom leather items for firefighters, and also serves to help him combat these daily stressors.
“It’s a bit hard to explain,” he says. “In my line of work, there are highs and lows. When I’m called into action, it’s usually on someone’s worst day – a house fire, a death, a vehicle accident or natural disaster. We’re tasked to fix the problem and that comes with a great deal of stress. The horrific things I’ve seen and conditions I’ve been in…never disappear. When I get to make a leather project, it allows me to escape a little. I get to clear my mind and it gives me a chance to reset. It keeps me in line – mentally and physically.”
Unruh explains that he really didn’t make a conscious effort to get into leather crafting. It all started in 2014 when he purchased a leather firefighter radio strap from a company who was well known for custom firefighter gear. He wore it for about a week and destroyed it working a house fire.
As a result, he questioned the product’s quality and wondered if he could make his own replacement. He did some research and decided to give it a go. He purchased his first piece of leather and made a new radio strap. It wasn’t long after that others wanted radio straps. It just sort of blew up from there.
Unruh is completely self taught. He’s spent countless hours on YouTube in leather forums and asking questions of fellow leather crafters. He says he gets his artistic ability from his dad and credits his attention to detail to the fire department.
His product line is varied and he tries new things all the time. The most popular are radio straps, belts, suspenders, helmet bands and shields. He also makes quite a few wallets and notebook covers, and has even dabbled in gun holsters and knife sheaths. Right now, he only makes custom items and product prices range from about $30 to $250. Most of his leather comes from Springfield Leather Company in Missouri – also a family-owned business.
“Every time I think I’m catching up and maybe will have time to make a few stock items, I get busy with more custom orders – that’s good. I like making one-of-a-kind items,” he says.
His at-home shop serves as a sort of sanctuary. He has no assistance; he does all the projects himself.
“The space is small, but serves its purpose,” he says.
There are two workbenches, a sewing machine and storage area. For the first few years, he worked out of his garage, but that came with heat, cold, humidity and many other problems. Last year, he moved into a spare room inside their house.
“Everything is now cleaner and there are no sweat droplets on my projects,” he jokes. “And, the proximity allows me to be closer and more available to my family.”
He’s been married for 18 years and has two daughters, 12 and 14. They too are crafty; his youngest likes to make leather bracelets from time to time. His wife manages a pre-K, Candy Lane, which the couple owns together.
To date, his single most memorable project was a leather fire shield made for a five-year-old boy who was battling brainstem glioma.
“Our department loved this kid,” he says. “We made him fire chief for the day and the fellas would check on him and spend time with him whenever they could. I was honored to make this shield for him.”
Unruh says that he cherishes the artistic freedom that comes from leather crafting.
“I make a lot of firefighter radio straps and love it when I can have the freedom to tool as I wish,” he says. “I still use that same radio strap I made for myself four years ago.”
Facing challenges head on
Starting a business comes with challenges and for Unruh, getting his name out there has been his greatest one.
“It seems like it took forever to get noticed,” he says. “I don’t advertise much and solely rely on social media.”
Finding a unique style has been another.
“Since I’m completely self taught, I’ve relied on mimicking others to learn. Now that I have a few skills, I’ve evolved and can flow with my own style,” he says.
Looking down the road, he hopes to create a successful website, build a shop on his property, get big enough to need an employee, have consistent orders and continue to learn and evolve in the leather craft.
He’s got the fire within to make it happen.
4506 East Redtail Road
Hutchinson, KS 67502