by Gene Fowler
Necessity, some wise personage once ventured, is the mother of invention. No one knows for certain who first spoke (or wrote) these words, though some attribute the phrase to Plato. It doesn’t matter, really, whether the stone-chiseled maxim was voiced by the Athenian philosopher or by George Washington or…Groucho Marx. It hangs in there. It endures. And after talking to dozens of makers all over the country who found their way to the medium of leather, I am as convinced of its veracity as I am that the sun sets in the West.
It’s sure as heck true for brothers Jason and Chris Angelini, who handcraft everything from wallets to belts, bracelets, hatchet holsters, hammer holders and much, much more at their company, American Bench Craft, in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Like so many others, the brothers began their careers in handmade leathercrafts when an item of everyday utility failed to function.
“My wallet fell apart at the end of 2013,” explains Jason. While that may not sound like the end of the world, to a person with a background in mechanical engineering like Jason, it might offer a welcome challenge. And having spent six years in service with the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense Division of the Army National Guard, Jason is clearly a step-up-and-get-’er-done kinda guy.
“So, I wanted to design a wallet that wouldn’t fall apart at the seams,” he continues. The result eventually became ABC’s Hammer Riveted Wallet, crafted from a single piece of high-quality, veg-tanned U.S. steerhide bridle leather and held together with metal rivets, no stitching. Around that same time, Jason and Chris were talking about wanting to start a business together. Jason, who had started incorporating decorative and functional leather into his woodworking hobby—in the form of leather door pulls, hinges and inlays—developed a feel for the medium and fell in love with it. “I like it because it’s a forgiving material and it’s less messy than wood. No dust.”
After a short-lived partnership in the computer biz, the brothers found they preferred the timeless and tactile experience of making something useful with their hands to peddling digital dreams. Chris’ New York film school studies had led to working on shoots for a few years, before a stint in marketing and advertising, and when he first saw Jason’s wallet design, he said, “Cool! I’ll try to sell that!”
And sell it the Angelini brothers did.
Chris and Jason launched ABC with a Kickstarter campaign in March 2014. In the first month, they sold $20k worth of wallets. “But Kickstarter was a little different back then,” Jason recalls. “Our campaign worked because we started building it four months before we launched, using our personal social media and encouraging our family and friends to share the content. So, when Kickstarter saw that we had $1,000 in orders at 5 a.m. on the day we launched, they started pushing it globally for us. Later that day, we had orders from Norway, Japan, Israel. It might be harder for that kind of grassroots approach to work today, with so many more people using platforms like Kickstarter.”
The brothers were also prepared in the production department. Chris had done a lot of prep work, talking to tanneries and other suppliers, and ABC had shipped all its first orders by that May, two months ahead of projections. Then came the website, more social media, word-of-mouth, and Chris and Jason’s passionate drive was paying off.
The company grew, but it still wasn’t raining green on the ledger sheets. A healthy sense of humor helped keep the brothers afloat through those lean early years. In 2017, as recounted on the ABC website, the Angelinis’ friend Eric was home from the Merchant Marines. Knowing they needed help to grow the business further, they asked him to join them with a tongue-in-cheek pitch. “Hey Eric,” it went, “you should come work with us at American Bench Craft. We have a claustrophobic workshop in the basement of an office building, with dim lighting, no windows and a town meter maid that finds every reason under the sun to give us parking tickets. We work 80 hours a week and make less than unpaid interns. What do you say?”
Eric couldn’t resist. The fresh energy he brought to ABC’s sales department resulted in the landing of three of the company’s biggest clients in his first three months with the company. Soon, the crew left its “dungeon office” behind and moved to the current larger, airier, brighter space in Wilmington.
The durable Hammer Riveted Wallet, with its clean minimalist look, remains one of ABC’s most popular products. Expanding their line, the next item the brothers began producing was belts. “They were successful right out of the gate,” says Jason. “Everybody could relate to the frustration of cracking and peeling of cheap belts manufactured in mass with bonded leather.” They offer a rainbow of varieties, including the Sierra Belt, Badlands Belt, Brigadier Belt, Mesa Belt, Fire Chief Service Belt, Working Man’s Belt, Everyday Belt. The Hoofpick Belt features a brass hoofpick – an item used to clean the feet of horses.
Figuring their customers’ beloved pooches needed accessory upgrades, the brothers added dog collars and leashes. Then the Angelinis added the product that has become the company’s most popular: Multi-Tool Cases to be worn on belts. Here again, these items sprang from designs Jason created for himself, after his own tool cases fell apart. “Many of the cases and sheaths that come with tools only have a lifespan of about two years, and after that, if you can’t carry it on a belt, it’s useless.”
Customer feedback told the brothers folks wanted front pocket wallets and smaller travel wallets. Requests granted; the product line expanded. ABC’s offerings now include the Boneyard Biker Wallet; the slim, minimalist Frontier Wallet; the Frontier Shark Skin Wallet; the scarred and distressed Hammer Riveted Wallet and a traditional bifold wallet called The Billfold.
The Hemingway, a personalized leather passport holder and journal cover for Field Notes brand notebooks, adds up to an irresistible travel item. One cleverly named catalog item, The Henry David Throw Fleece Blanket with Leather Carrying Strap, threw me at first. I just naturally added the “Thoreau” in there in my mind.
Chris and Jason’s sister Leah developed ABC’s For Her line, keeping the company’s hallmark of rugged simplicity, while designing bracelets, earrings and belts for women that have proved quite popular. Leah’s love of horses has equestrian gear on the ABC radar, though Jason says that if they expand in that area, it won’t happen for a while.
With all the coasters, koozies, toiletry and duffel bags, Dopp kits, coolers, key fobs and more, the brothers have pretty full plates. Corporate orders, for companies like Samuel Adams and Narrangansett breweries, also keep them busy.
“We wanted to consolidate our manufacturing and the supply chain and keep it as local as possible,” says Jason, when asked about materials sourcing. “Our hardware comes from Buckle Guy, which is only about 30 minutes away. And we source our leather from Wickett & Craig. They’re an amazing tannery. When we were first starting out, we found that they were the only one that would sell us a single hide of leather at a time. And our primary use of veg-tanned leather, as opposed to oil or chrome-tanned, is much better for the environment.”
The Angelinis are also keen about reducing waste. Brainstorming for a creative use for small pieces of scrap leather, they hit upon a gem. Christmas tree ornaments!
They also proved adaptable when COVID-19 hit our shores this past spring, shifting some of their manufacturing to the cutting of paper-based filters for cloth masks produced by American Roots in Maine. The need appeared to slow in late summer, but speaking in late September, when they had produced some 600,000 filters, Jason said production was ramping back up. Not only did ABC’s pitching-in help our frontline workers, but it also allowed them to hire through the pandemic, rather than lay folks off. Even the Angelinis’ dad came on part-time. Hats off to you, guys.
Through it all and into the future, American Bench Craft lives up to its slogan, BUILT FOR ANY FRONTIER. “The idea is to create products that look just as good in a business environment as in the woods,” says Jason. “It’s a balance of ruggedness and elegance.”
And that’s a combination worth keeping.
PHOTGRAPHS COURTESY OF AMERICAN BENCH CRAFT