By Susan Ditz
Al Gould is an inveterate doodler.
His multifaceted, complex drawings are sketched repeatedly as he works through a design to refine the patterns and elements that make each one so distinctive. Whether for a saddle, briefcase, purse, chinks, photo album or guitar strap, design innovations and meticulous attention to detail are why he is considered one of the country’s master custom saddlemakers and premier leather artists.
Born and raised in Clovis, California, the thriving 77-year-old was first introduced to leather work at nine when his grandmother gave him his first box of tools. A lifelong learner, Al’s been perfecting his considerable creative skills for nearly 70 years and has been building western saddles since he was in college at Fresno State. In fact, he dropped out after his junior year because, “there were too many saddles to make.”
When he was in junior high, Al had become adept at stamping leather patterns, but he wanted to continue improving, so he went to work for H.R. Beavers’ saddle shop after school and on weekends. “At the time, as a young fella, I couldn’t find anybody to teach me, so I spent a few years giving my time for zero pay so I could learn by watching and doing,” he recalls. “Over the years, some people have shared their knowledge voluntarily, in some cases I’ve had to coax them to share and some things I’ve just outright stolen!”
In the ‘60s, Beavers and C.H. Mavis were Al’s mentors. “Mavis was getting up there in years,” Al recalls, and he had advanced arthritis making it difficult to stamp the detailed designs demanded by customers. “Once he discovered that I could stamp, he’d cut the leather during the day and put the damp pieces in a plastic bag until I got there after school. Looking back, that experience taught me early on that there had to be a logical process in the production of a saddle, you had to have a specific plan.”
Mavis was also responsible for introducing Al to the dynamic possibilities of swivel knife cuts when he showed a belt made by a Native American stamper. “I had never seen anything like it,“ he recalls. There were birds integrated into the complex design. “I realized that you could use the swivel knife to cut in a pattern, or you could use it to make a stand-alone piece of art.”
The saddles Al now makes are enhanced with impressive swivel knife cut designs on the fork, cantle and latigo carriers. “It’s become one of my signatures, the others are my ribbon borders and the shape of my saddle seats,” he says.
One of his role models and early teachers was his grandfather, who made his living working as a cowboy, and Al was an eager student. “I rode a lot and I guess you could say, I developed a western mindset.” But when he went to college, the leather work took a backseat for a while, as Al was eager to play football and develop his rodeo skills, focusing on steer wrestling – or bulldogging as it’s also known. A lifetime member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, for over 29 years Al was a big winner in rodeos all over the West.
That broad experience as a horseman, and an interest in making saddles as functional and comfortable as possible for both horse and rider, led him to develop a different seat style. It is based on the way English saddles are built, which accommodate the anatomy differently, and allows the rider to sit more in the center of a western saddle, which makes a much easier ride.
An enthusiastic storyteller, Al loves sharing a tale of the most significant proof of concept that his saddle design performed as promised. Before he and his wife Diana were married over 20 years ago, Al invited her to go up in the high country to a friend’s summer cow camp where Al was the cook. Diana was raised on a ranch, but she hadn’t been on a horse for 10 years and she had some orthopedic challenges. Al was worried that trekking over 10 miles might cause some discomfort and potential discord. “It was amazing. I got off, no problem, felt fine and even helped Al make dinner,” Diana remembers. “Anyone that’s ever ridden that long would normally be very stiff and sore, possibly for days… I swear it was the saddle.” But that’s not the only testimonial that his new design works, dozens of happy horse owners rave about what a game-changer his style saddle is, how much pleasure it adds.
As Al was getting his small business off the ground in the late ‘60s, the regional go-to guy for custom saddles was Art Vancore. He had a long waiting list, the demand for saddles was increasing and customers were impatient. Vancore was impressed by Al’s craftsmanship, but also with the care that went into saddle building. So, he started referring customers to Al and the business really took off.
For a lot of reasons, in the 1970s, Al was starting to get kind of burned out being a one-person operation. He decided to join the McPherson Leather Company in Los Angeles to help design saddles to meet the emerging West Coast market.
When Resistol, the hat company, wanted to expand their apparel business, they needed someone with Al’s expertise in horse culture and rodeo and hired him to run operations in New Mexico and Texas. He made quite an impression on western store owners with his knowledge and understanding of what customers needed and logged a lot of time on the road.
In 1990, armed with a lot of new perspective from time in the corporate world, Al returned to Clovis and established his saddle business, which also included making other cowboy gear such as chaps.
What made a big difference to Al when he re-established his business was something he’d been taught early on, the necessity for building a saddle with a production sequence. “There had to be a logical process in the production of a saddle, you had to have a plan if you were going to be efficient and produce a quality product at an affordable price,” he says. “You don’t start something without a plan—you need some semblance of a roadmap. This old guy used to tell me, ‘If you fly by the seat of your britches, you’ll crash. If you fly with a flight plan, you can make changes along the way and you’ll have a successful flight.’”
One of the most fulfilling aspects of his career has come from his commitment to sharing what he’s learned. “I have been blessed with talent and abilities gained over the years,” he explains. “Success to me has come through the satisfaction of having developed something worthwhile and being able to give back thoughts and ideas.”
Hundreds of students who have taken his classes for more than 25 years (or sat for days learning new techniques by working in his shop) are quick to sing Al’s praises as a generous teacher. “He has such a great love for his craft; he is a great inspiration and motivator,” says amateur saddlemaker Ron Van Crumpet of Fallon, Nevada. “Al takes the time to carefully explain everything in detail. His system for building a saddle has cut my time in half.”
Al admits to slowing down some. “One of these days, I’ll quit taking orders and do what I want…maybe I’ll work on a different saddle, who knows. I have a thought process that enables me to increase my patterns, my tool usage–I’m still learning, I’m still being inspired,” he says.
As he nears 80, is retirement on the horizon? That would be an emphatic “Nope.” Too many things he still wants to do. “I have hopes and dreams. For some of us it doesn’t take much.”
The Swivel Knife: Tool with an Attitude
In addition to his considerable knowledge bank, one of the things that sets Al Gould apart as a leather arts instructor is the way he teaches and offers wisdom with a very robust and sometimes mischievous sense of humor. Here are a few of his thoughts about mastering the swivel knife.
“It seems strange that a tool could have an attitude. I can understand personality. Yet, there is that swivel knife. It is almost as though it understands how important a tool it is, and it just lies there looking arrogant with a smirk on its blade, projecting that smug look.”
“Your swivel knife loves to prey on your insecurities and project its attitude. Hiding your swivel knife in a drawer will not subdue the smugness. It will still be there when you take it out and attempt to master this all-important tool. So, in your quandary you wonder ‘How can I deal with such insubordination?’ The answer is you don’t have to take that attitude stuff from your swivel knife! Remember, it cannot move until you do. You need to take control. That control can only come from confidence born of practice.”
“After you have found the swivel knife that fits your needs and is comfortable in your hand, it is time to get into the mental game. Many of the talents we own come to us through evolution or experience. This is a slow process, especially in the age of instant gratification. What we must try to do is shorten the learning curve so that good works can come more quickly. Two things that have helped me are visualization and practice. Visualization is the ability to see in the mind’s eye the finished project before the first work is done. In the case of the swivel knife, it is important to see the cut in your mind before you start cutting. Practice is the major ingredient in mastering all activities.”
“I have the pleasure of owning a variety of Al Gould’s leather creations and as an artist myself, have particular respect for his painstaking planning and artistry. He truly begins with ‘the end in mind.’ One of my favorites is a shoulder bag of soft black leather combined with a tooled top–his signature swivel knife work includes a copy of my signature! It self-closes, fits my shoulder and has laces for corralling my car keys! After 15 years of use, it still looks elegant for business or pleasure.
My husband and I were recently on pre-evac notice for the Creek Fire. Our ‘Gould Collection’ including the purse, belt, saddles, tack, briefcase and binders were some of the first things packed!”
Renee’ von Hagel, Coursegold, CA
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