By Nick Pernokas
When Bruce Johnson was 11, the spark was lit. That was the year he traveled to South Dakota to spend the summer helping his grandfather on his ranch. The cow-calf operation did a little bit of its work on horseback, and Bruce was hooked. He would return over the next several summers, getting his first horse in the process.
For a boy growing up in Logansport, Indiana, you might think that desire to be a cowboy would die down during the rest of the year. In the Seventies though, the Midwest was a hotbed of the Quarter Horse industry, and there were many top trainers showing horses in every western discipline to fan the flames.
Bruce began showing in western pleasure, halter and reining at the open and Quarter Horse shows. One local cutting horse trainer was Keith Barnett, and Bruce worked for him during the summer of 1981. This was a great chance for Bruce to ride some really well-bred horses.
Bruce enrolled in vet school at Purdue University in Indiana. One summer he did a student internship at an equine practice in Edmond, Oklahoma. While he was there, he began roping calves, which he continued to do when he returned to Indiana. Graduating in 1984, Bruce moved to Oakdale, California, for a one year internship at an equine practice. Oakdale had a reputation as a cowboy town and Bruce thought it would be a good place to live.
When Bruce met Susan in Oakdale, his plans changed. She was a roper, barrel racer and cow horse competitor. They were married in 1985 and Bruce decided to stay.
“I never regretted it. It’s been a great place to live,” says Bruce.
The practice moved Bruce to a satellite clinic in Clements, California. Bruce, Susan, and their year-old son, Travis, stayed on a cutting horse ranch. Part of their board was to help tend the cattle. Bruce can remember gathering cows in the cold, with his son, at 5:30 in the morning before he went to work.
One of the high points of Bruce’s year in Clements was meeting saddlemaker Bob Scott. Bob had a small shop with a couple of employees. Bob was also a friend of Susan’s family, and he showed Bruce how to do some repairs to his gear. He gave Bruce some needles and an awl, and taught him how to hand sew. Bruce showed an interest, and visited frequently, so Bob showed him how to basket stamp. Bob and his wife were both very artistic and good leather carvers.
“I didn’t realize, at the time, how much I was picking up watching them build stuff,” remembers Bruce.
Bob began making a few hand-sewn, basket-stamped, lined headstalls and reins. He became proficient at sewing, with a vise attached to a bread board in the kitchen. He sewed one headstall a night, eight stitches to the inch, an inch per minute.
Bruce was also exposed to the California tradition of saddlemaking. Many of the old time makers, who had worked for Rowell and Visalia, were still around, as well as others who had followed in their footsteps. There were a lot of good quality custom saddles in use.
A few years later, Bruce moved to a mixed animal practice. He decided that he liked small animal practice, but his family was suffering because of the long hours he was working. After going nine days without seeing his, then, three-year-old son, Bruce changed jobs again. This time he took a pay cut and went to work for a small animal practice in Oakdale. This gave him more family time, as well as more time for his other love…the horse business. Bruce and Susan were showing and trading a few horses.
In November 1992, Bruce saddled a large three-year-old colt that he was training. The ride culminated with the horse bucking the length of the arena. The colt bucked hard enough to break Bruce’s pelvis while he was still in the saddle. Bruce healed quickly, but he couldn’t ride for three months. One of his veterinary clients was the manager of a local Tandy store, so Bruce decided to take some classes there and improve his leather work. Soon he was building wallets, belts and other small projects. Bruce also began floral carving.
The owner of the Tandy store stocked other high-quality tools, like Gore stamping tools and Chuck Smith swivel knives. Bruce added to his small inventory of leather tools and improved his work. Bruce began building more ambitious projects like rope bags, awards and other tack items. He even built two saddles with help from local saddlemakers. Bruce was still hand sewing everything though.
“I hand sewed about 20 trucker wallets one weekend,” laughs Bruce, “and I decided I needed to step up and spend the $1600 for a sewing machine.”
Bruce bought a lever-operated Boss stitcher in 2000. The machine was great for any type of sewing, and it was excellent for repair work because it would track down the old holes.
In January of 2002, tragedy struck. Susan passed away from an aggressive form of breast cancer. To make it worse, the hospital ICU charges of $100,000 arrived, which the insurance company wouldn’t pay. Bruce knew that his associate veterinary salary wouldn’t be enough to get through it.
“Things had to get pretty serious in the leather business.”
Bruce put the word out that he needed leather work, and that he‘d take anything. After a month of building things, when he wasn’t working at the clinic, he knew that he needed a powered machine. Ferdco had an Adler 205 that would fill his needs, but Bruce didn’t know where he would come up with the $2200. He told them to ship it anyway. That night he got a $5000 order from a WPRA awards committee in Arizona. They sent him a $2500 deposit.
“It was one of the God things in my life.”
It was a trying time, but it pushed Bruce to try a lot of different things outside his comfort zone. He did bulk belt orders and awards. He had two mobile units that sold his products and they went to the larger trade shows like the NFR. They would call and ask if Bruce could build an unusual item for a customer, and he’d figure out how to do it. He became good at eyeballing something and coming up with a pattern that would work. Bruce used a couple of simple carving patterns for corners that looked good, but could be done quickly.
“You only have one or two tries to get it right, or you never should have taken it to start with.”
In a twist of fate, Susan’s best friend, Rundi, and her husband had roped with Susan and Bruce. They’d even traveled to ropings together. In 2001, Rundi’s husband had passed away from cancer. Rundi and Bruce had known each other for years and had a lot in common. Eventually, they began seeing each other. On their first date, Rundi let calves out and untied them for Bruce so he could practice his roping.
Rundi began helping Bruce in the shop, and even began sewing on the Boss. Bruce was able to pay the hospital debt off, just under the two year deadline. In December of 2003, Bruce drove to Las Vegas to check up on the vendors who were selling his products. He had a really good day, and they had sold quite a few of his rope cans and shaving kits. Rundi flew in that night, and with true Vegas magic, they became engaged.
After Bruce and Rundi were married in 2004, they moved to their current Oakdale location. They made their garage into a leather shop. Bruce still did bulk orders and awards, but he moved steadily towards more custom work, carving and saddles. Bruce found that there was a good market in the area for custom barrel saddles. He took classes and went to leather shows to gather more tools. Bruce found out that he had not budgeted enough money when he went to the Sheridan leather show for tools. A friend suggested that his customers needed to pay for his tools, so he increased his prices by five percent. That five percent went towards tools, and a sewing machine, the next year. Bruce took a clinic on saddles with Al Gould and Don Butler, and his work continued to improve.
“You hear about how secretive saddlemakers are, but I never ran into that once. I never had anybody not tell me how to do something. But, I wasn’t making a ton and I wasn’t underpricing anyone.”
He feels like one of the most important things that local saddlemakers showed him was how to put in a good ground seat. Al Gould critiqued his saddles, and also helped him with the order of steps, to reduce the down time between them. This increased Bruce’s speed dramatically.
Bruce became friends with an old man named Sam Huey who had been in the leather business for 60 years. Sam had done harness, English and western saddlery work. Sam was a walking encyclopedia of leatherwork, as well as knowing everyone who had been in it. Sam had been in many of the old shops and had gleaned friendships and tips from all of them. Sam did contract piecework out of his garage in Riverbank, California. More importantly, he rebuilt old tools and machines.
“He’d ask, ‘Did I ever show you how to do this?’ and break out a tool.”
Bruce would usually go home with a new tool. Sam also introduced him to many old tools, and showed him why some were better and how to restore and sharpen them. Sam awakened an appreciation for the old tools in Bruce.
Bruce began to buy tools, keep the ones he wanted and sell the rest. Bruce’s website was doing well for his leather goods, so in 2010 he added a page with his extra used tools on it. They sold out the first day. He put more on, and they sold. The tool business continued to grow and Bruce really enjoyed it. But, he couldn’t do everything, so in 2012 he stopped taking saddle orders. By 2015, he had stopped taking leather orders for anything.
“I didn’t have deadlines or Christmas orders for tools. I had time to enjoy things.”
Bruce primarily sells hand tools and stamping tools. He usually has several splitters and other bench machines on hand. Bruce has a few buyers that contact him when they run across leather tools at auctions and estate sales. He finds some tools himself through eBay, and others come from people who call him with tools they’ve found while “cleaning out the basement.”
The older tools were made to last for the professionals of the day. Bruce has a personal collection of tools besides the using tools in the leather shop. The collection is mostly 1800s makers with different versions of draw gauges, rein rounders, knives and a few antique punches and hand tools. Some date back to the 1830s. Bruce has used all of them at least once, and they still perform well.
“It’s pretty neat to think you are putting the same tool to some leather that somebody else used before the Civil War.”
When Bruce gets home from the vet clinic, he usually goes to the shop. If he’s not polishing something that has come in, he’s probably looking at pictures of tools that someone wants to sell. He enjoys the quiet.
“I’m in my own world here.”
Bruce’s customers range from high-end craftsmen to the novice who has taken some classes, bought some basic tools, and now wants to step up to the next level. Tool collectors are only a small part of the business. As of now, Bruce and Rundi have tagged over 11,000 hand tools and bench machines, plus over 1500 stamps. Most tools are sold through their website, but they also set up at the Prescott and Sheridan leather shows. Bruce has some great tutorials on his website for tool use and maintenance. He plans to produce some instructional tool videos as well.
Bruce’s son only followed in his dad’s footsteps to a point. Travis is a livestock auctioneer and rancher. The Johnson leather business may be making a comeback though. Rundi retired from her job as a histologist last year and has started doing some really good leatherwork. Of course, she has some of the best tools in the world to work with!
Bruce on sharpening old knives
Bruce uses a variable-speed, professional knife grinder to sharpen old knives. He starts off with 120 grit, and some of his belts go up to 2000 grit. After that, he goes to buffing wheels to polish the blade. Bruce goes from black compound to green on his buffing wheels, and finishes polishing with Fabulustre compound for a mirror finish. He goes from a coarse sisal buffing wheel to a spiral sewn medium wheel, and finishes on a soft wheel.
The secret to a sharp knife is a flat side with a slight convex shape at the edge. If the blade is too flat and thin on the end, it tends to roll with use.
“Most people stop sharpening their tools 2 – 5 minutes too soon. It’s a passable edge and they stop at, say, 600 grit. If they kept going and polishing, the edges will last longer.”
Bruce doesn’t recommend power tools for the guy that’s just maintaining an edge because things can go bad quickly.
“Anybody can maintain an edge, but restorations need to go to a professional.”
For regular leatherworkers, Bruce feels the flat stone systems with an oil bath are good for sharpening. He recommends sticking with the finer stones in the set. A strop at the end on a softer surface, like a mouse pad with fine wet/dry sand paper on it, is good for putting a light convex edge on the blade. If it’s overdone it will roll the blade over. The convex edge is not good for flat blades or awl blades.
Bruce Johnson Leather Tools
PO Box 125
Oakdale, CA 95361