By Nick Pernokas
In a cynical world that has moved past Roy Rogers and John Wayne, a world where a phone has become a wallet, and kids don’t need a belt like their cowboy heroes wear anymore, you’d think that leathercraft would be a dying hobby. Fortunately that’s not true, but only because there are still a few brave individuals out on the frontlines fighting to reinvent it for today’s world. One of these entrepreneurs can be found just outside of Waco, Texas. There, in a beautiful studio hidden inside an industrial park warehouse, a burly, tattooed man with a Glock strapped to his belt, exercises his creativity. In his element, he enjoys coming up with new ideas, acting on them and then making them available to the world through social media. In the process, he’s making leather work sexy again.
Aaron Heizer’s pistol is a habit dating back to his days on a military transition team in Iraq. The small team served as mentors to large numbers of Iraqis; the gun served as peace of mind.
Aaron served in the Army for 16 years. As a prison guard, he traveled all over the world with stints at places like Fort Leavenworth, Fort Sill, Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay. Today, the colorful tattoos on his arms serve as souvenirs of the locations where he was stationed. While Aaron, a former biker, was stationed in Hawaii, he wanted to make some leather saddlebags for his motorcycle. He didn’t have anyone to teach him how to do leatherwork, so he purchased some Al Stohlman books, Tandy tools and taught himself.
“That’s one of the reasons I have a passion for teaching now. I don’t want other people to waste as much time, energy and money as I did,” says Aaron.
Eventually a wreck would end Aaron’s motorcycle career, but his leatherwork took off. As Aaron got more experienced, he began making things for other soldiers. He began producing a lot of holsters. Many soldiers wanted personalized wallets, as well as covers for their “green books.” A green book was a hardcover journal that soldiers used for everything from work notes to grocery lists. The books took a beating and rarely lasted long enough for all of the pages to be used. A nice leather cover made them look cool and extended their life.
Eventually, Aaron’s pricing pushed him out of the market for the military crowd, but Heizer Custom Leather continued to stay busy.
Aaron retired from the Army in 2015. He intended on continuing his holster business in Killeen, Texas. A fellow holster maker, Chris “Slickbald” Andre, was making custom holsters, as well as selling supplies like Blue Gun forms, belt clips and patterns to other holster makers. Chris was really busy with his custom work and wanted to get out of the supply business. Aaron heard that he wanted to sell his business, Maker’s Leather Supply, and thought it would be a good fit with his holster business.
“I thought that that would be a nice business to have running in the background, and I really loved the name,” says Aaron.
Aaron purchased the business in January of 2016. Then Aaron and his wife, Janie, found that they enjoyed selling to other craftsmen like themselves. Janie encouraged him to put the custom work on the back burner and focus on the supply business. Aaron was a fan of George Hurst and his Hidecrafter store in Fort Worth. So, he modeled his own business after George’s.
Aaron had wanted to teach and he found he could combine it with the retail business. The Heizer’s expanded their lines to include products for other leatherworkers, not just holster makers. They sold things that Aaron would use himself and he coached his growing clientele on how to use them.
“I remember getting five orders a day and we were high-fiving,” says Janie. “Now we have 60 to 70 orders a day.”
The couple purchased a laser with the intention of making contemporary leather rub-off tooling patterns based on some of their friends’ and customers’ work that was in demand. At the same time, Aaron was teaching a wallet-making class. Many of the students would ask him for patterns and he’d cut one out of cardboard for them. Aaron found that he could easily make the pattern in a durable acrylic template with the laser. Soon, the acrylic templates were selling like hotcakes. Since they were selling blue gun forms for holsters, the Heizers used blue acrylic to keep the colors the same. This helped to solidify their brand.
Other products were added to the template line. The template could be used as an actual die on the leather and the piece cut out directly by following the edge of the template with a scalpel. As demand grew, lasers were added. Today Maker’s has six lasers and employs two full-time employees to run them.
After two years, Maker’s Leather moved to Elm Mott, just north of Waco. Janie was from this area, and her father has a gun safe manufacturing business just down the road from their current location on Interstate 35. The 6,800-square-foot building they found looked too big, so they only rented half of it. The owner built a beautiful showroom within the warehouse for them. Within six months, they were renting the whole building.
“A friend told us that if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” says Janie. “I said no, we’re done growing. It turned out to be good advice.”
“If you’re not constantly putting out a new product, or doing something to stay in the minds of people, then someone else is,” says Aaron. “And, they’ll take your business.”
Maker’s Leather’s storefront is part retail area and part working leather shop. It’s hard to tell which is which. Upon entering, a visitor is immersed in a spirit of creativity. Samples of completed leather art and products, created by Aaron and his students, line the walls. Projects in progress mingle with leather tools for sale. Oscar and Myra, a couple of friendly shop dogs, offer to share their toys with customers. A woman cuts out leather earrings with a small clicker at the front of the store. She isn’t an employee though, but rather a customer.
“We let customers come in and make stuff. We try to help them out…whether that’s letting them borrow a machine or giving them some direction,” says Aaron. “Ultimately, it leads to a better relationship with a customer.”
Aaron had never used social media much. As his Facebook friends changed from military friends to leatherworking friends, he began to notice the large pool of people with a common interest. One day a friend, saddle maker Don Gonzales, was visiting with Aaron. He told Aaron about the number of followers who were watching his saddle- and leather-working videos. Aaron realized that with all of the leather workers on Facebook, a YouTube channel might be a great way to reach out to the world. YouTube had become the place to gain instantaneous knowledge on how to do things – for a generation that no longer went to the library for answers.
In the two years since Aaron launched his YouTube channel, he has 9,000 subscribers watching his “how to” lessons. Aarons videos are easy to follow, packed full of tips, but more than that, they are warm and informal. When a pizza guy comes to the door, Aaron stops to get the pizza. When he needs to refill his perpetually full coffee cup, he does.
“That’s part of us. I’m not a videographer,” says Aaron.
Many of his followers (and you could call them fans) feel that they know him because he leaves a little piece of himself on the screen. Perhaps most importantly, the videos are free and without advertising. And every project is completed using Maker’s Leather products. Aaron has found himself having to sign things for people, including leatherwork that they made from his videos.
Weaver Leather began selling Maker’s templates. An independently-owned Maker’s Leather franchise was opened in Australia. Recently, Tandy Leather also began to sell the templates.
“Tandy’s moved more templates in six months than we’ve moved in three years,” says Aaron.
Tandy is interested in developing some ideas and exclusive products with Maker’s. Some sophisticated kits are in the works that will allow a hobbyist to build his project from scratch.
A new phase in Maker’s evolution has just been announced. The company has hired a replacement for Aaron. Nicholas “Doc” Aker, a former military nurse, is the new vice president of operations. He will take over Aaron’s managerial duties. This will allow Aaron and Janie to focus more on the creative chores that they enjoy. For Aaron, this means more time to teach. Much of Aaron’s teaching is done on social media and is a large portion of Maker’s success. A new studio will allow Aaron to produce even better videos for his large following on YouTube.
Both of Janie’s daughters, Alex and Marsha, work in the store. One of their best friends, Landri, runs the shipping department.
“We’re a family business. Everyone here is family, or has grown up with the family,” says Janie.
Maker’s carries hand tools like C.S.Osborn and Barry King. They offer many kinds of leather including Hermann Oak, and Wickett and Craig, which can be purchased by the square foot. Maker’s is a partner in Indelible Leather Finishes, which produces antiques, dyes and finishes that they carry. They also offer Angelus paints. All of their staff is knowledgeable about leatherwork and they can answer questions about the products they sell.
Maker’s offers a full line of Cobra sewing machines and related machinery. Aaron is a good coach on using them and he can also troubleshoot them for new customers.
Janie and Marsha make the cool Maker’s Leather T-shirts that are offered on their website, as well as similar custom print and embroidery work for other leather customers. In addition, Janie works three days a week in human resources and as a safety coordinator at a company called Britco.
“We’re busy,” laughs Janie.
Maker’s Leather also gives back to the community. They sponsor a fantastic FFA leather program in Frost, Texas, by donating leather and materials. Teacher Monica Patrick has obtained grants to fund the leather program, which allows the students to make professional level products. The finished items are sold at a silent auction where the kids have to explain how their product was constructed. Because of Maker’s donations, the young leathercrafters are able to keep all of the money. Aaron and Janie have been known to bid on the items as well, and a couple of the items are proudly displayed in the store.
“Aaron and Janie Heizer are role models, guardian angels and some of the biggest supporters of agricultural education, and Frost FFA,” says Monica. “They have been perfect examples of love, strong work ethics, generosity, compassion, kindness, creativity and encouragement.”
Even as Maker’s Leather Supply continues to grow at an exponential rate, one thing hasn’t changed.
“My hobby and my job are one and the same,” says Aaron.
And that would be the definition of a lucky man.
To find out what’s new at Maker’s Leather Supply, call them at (254) 300-1881, or go to makersleathersupply.com. For a lesson from Aaron, check out their YouTube channel.
Maker’s Leather Supply
451 S McLennan Loop
Elm Mott, TX 76640