By Nick Pernokas
Jesse Beckham sports a cool Western look that would remind you of the Texas Red Dirt Music scene that’s so popular in the Southwest. The “Open Road” hat that he wears is a tribute to his grandfather’s choice of headwear, but also a nod to his Texas heritage. Like the products he makes, it says that this is what he came from, but not where he’s going.
“I haven’t been a cowboy since I was about 12 years old,” laughs Jesse.
Jesse grew up in Nocona, Texas, the last stop in Texas on the old Chisholm Trail. It was ranch country, and Jesse’s uncle ran a cattle conditioning yard on the north side of town. On the weekends, Jesse’s dad would load him up and they’d go help at the feed yard. For Jesse, that meant being put on a horse to ride around in the pens, while the adults worked the cows.
By the time Jesse was in middle school, he’d developed other interests.
“I became kind of a gear head.”
Jesse became really interested in cars, hot rods and customizing auto interiors. After high school, Jesse planned a career in building hotrods. He enrolled in an automotive industry school in Wyoming called Wyoming Tech. Unfortunately, Wyo Tech had strict attendance requirements. When Jesse and some classmates were snowed in at Goodland, Kansas, over a Thanksgiving break, Jesse was faced with sitting out the rest of the semester. At the time, Jesse’s sister was attending graduate school at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. She talked him into returning to Texas and enrolling at MSU. It was a good move and Jesse received a bachelor’s degree in history from MSU. A Master’s degree followed. While he was in graduate school, Jesse worked as a teacher’s assistant. The pay wasn’t great and in 2012, when he saw a Louis Vuitton weekender duffle bag that he liked, he knew it was beyond his means. A thought that has been echoed by countless other artisans popped into his head.
“I thought, I’ll make my own,” says Jesse. “How hard can it be?”
Jesse’s mom had some sewing experience and helped him draw up some patterns. He bought some basic hand sewing materials, including a Speedy Stitcher, on eBay. A visit to the Texas Ranch Roundup trade show in Wichita Falls, yielded some chrome-tanned leather from Panhandle Leather. Returning to his apartment, Jesse started on his duffle bag.
“Of course, come to find out, it was a little more difficult than just sewing one together.”
The project stimulated Jesse to try his hand at some simpler projects and he began building key fobs and wallets. While looking for leather information online, he discovered that the Boot and Saddle Maker’s Roundup was right in his backyard.
Jesse went to the show and emerged himself in the leather culture. He looked at the tools and materials that were available and asked a lot of questions.
“That was my first time to be able to put my hands on tools, to put my hands on a lot of leather. That show was a launching point for me.”
With his money spent, taking a bagful of supplies and enthusiasm home from the show, Jesse went to work. He built knife sheaths, holsters and anything else he could learn from.
“Basically, anything that anyone was willing to give me money for, I would make it,” laughs Jesse. “And there are items out there that if anyone says I made them, I will deny it until the day I die.”
In his final year of graduate school, Jesse was looking for a job. He was really interested in working with a museum. Jesse was able to land a paid internship with Texas Tech University at the Lubbock Lake Landmark. The site is an important working archeological site and natural history preserve on the north side of the city. It has evidence of nearly 12,000 years of use by ancient cultures and fossils of extinct animals. Ironically, the year that Jesse spent in Lubbock was to benefit his leatherwork tremendously. Moving away from his friends and concentrating on his job at the Lake museum allowed him to focus on his leather projects at night. He finally finished his duffle bag, complete with Sheridan-style carving and tackled other more difficult builds. Lubbock has a fairly active music scene and Jesse built a lot of guitar straps for local musicians. One customer provided an engraved buckle to be used on a guitar strap and Jesse became interested in buckle making and engraving. He studied Bruce Cheaney’s series of videos on metal work and when he moved back to Wichita Falls, he bought some engraving equipment. A renowned knife maker, Dr. Fred Carter, lived in the area and Jesse was able to visit with him. Watching Fred work gave him more insight into engraving. Soon, Jesse was making belts and guitar straps with some of his buckles and conchos on them.
In 2014, Jesse married Jayme. Realizing that his leather business wouldn’t support a family yet, Jesse went to work for his brother-in-law’s family in their oil and gas field service company. Jesse enjoyed the security of his “day” job, so he could pursue his craft at night. The birth of his son in 2016, reinforced this perspective. Jesse wanted to make sure he had enough family time when he got home from work, so he packed his engraving equipment away and decided to focus on the leather work alone. In order to be able to better plan his leather work schedule, Jesse backed away from custom orders and decided to aim towards building product inventory and online sales. He began to make some small bags and took them to a local juried show where they were accepted. Soon, Jesse was selling shaving kits and tote bags.
Jesse wanted a name and logo that would set his products apart. Jayme liked penguins. Logically, a penguin would be lost in Texas. So the brand became Lost Penguin Leather Goods. And it’s not only memorable, but a little inspirational.
“If you feel like you’re having a bad day, you’re down on your luck and things couldn’t get any worse, just remember this. You’re never going to be as lost as a penguin in Texas.”
Jesse feels that the key to working successfully in leather comes down to organization. The method came to him when he listened to a podcast by leather worker Odin Clack. Odin talked about how he built his routine to be more productive and a light bulb went off in Jesse’s head. Jesse began keeping track of all the time he was using and he began allotting time for all of his activities. This time management included the time that was needed to build each product. Today, Jesse remains dedicated to it and he writes his schedule down every day in his padfolio. Jesse follows the same routine every day. He gets up early, takes his son to daycare and goes to work at the oil company. When Jesse comes home, he dedicates himself to time with his family. When his son goes to bed, Jesse goes to his shop. Jayme has to grade papers for her job as a teacher, so she comes out to the shop while she does her schoolwork. Jesse tries to put in two to four hours a night, five days a week, and this lets him spend the weekends with his family. Family time is not negotiable.
“I’ve been doing it for so long now, that when I don’t have work to do in the shop, I get sort of stir crazy.”
Jesse faces a double-edged sword now. He has so much work that he can’t take anymore on. A private label project for a local retailer has developed into hundreds of key fobs a week with motivational sayings on them. Another simple personalized item that is in demand is coasters. To help him produce these profitable small items in large quantities, Jesse uses a Weaver Leather Mighty Wonder clicker and a foot-operated rivet press. He’s looking at other equipment to help the “work flow” in his 450-square-foot shop.
These private label items are Jesse’s bread and butter, and he has their production times down to minutes on his spread sheet, which gets back to letting him plan his time. It’s hard to reach this type of precision planning on “one-off” custom items. This efficiency lets Jesse get a lot of product turned out in a much shorter time than he would without it. Jesse is very selective on his custom orders, but this regimen allows him to fit in some creative projects for himself as well.
“I hate to turn any work down at all, but it took me long enough to learn that it’s ok to say no. When I finally figured that out, it made me so happy. I don’t feel like I’m drowning over projects.”
To provide customers with artwork from the designs they send him, Jesse uses Turner Laser Works in Rockwall, Texas, to produce embossing plates that he can imprint the leather with. Jesse primarily uses vegetable-tanned leather in his projects and he educates his customers on the beautiful patina it attains as it ages.
Jesse believes in social media for networking, especially for isolated artisans. He also has a very attractive website, which is geared towards young professionals…but with a little Texas flavor.
Jesse’s definitely found his niche. He looks at his products analytically and if they’re not making money, then they don’t get made. Jesse is toying with the idea of hiring some help so he could accept some new accounts. He might even be able to fit in some of his great bag work as well.
The penguin is not so lost after all.
To find out more about Lost Penguin Leather Good’s products, check out lostpenguinleather.com, Instagram @LostpenguinLeather, or contact Jesse at firstname.lastname@example.org.