“It’s All in the Alloy, Son”
by Gene Fowler
At the Wickenburg, Arizona, leathercraft trade show in 2007, Paul Zalesak—who runs the Leather Wranglers company, producers of world-class leatherwork tools, with his wife Rosa in Albuquerque—realized he had a problem.
“I had spent over $30,000 and hundreds of hours researching and developing the blade, barrel and yoke for my swivel knife,” Paul recalls. “People responded very well to the new knife at first, but then after buying them and working with them for a while, several people brought them back and said they were dragging and chattering in the leather. I was in a panic.”
Back in Albuquerque, he called Crucible Particle Metals, his supplier for the blade material. “They said they had changed the recipe for the alloy. I told them I needed the old recipe, but they said they would be sticking with the new one going forward. They’d wanted to make the steel harder by raising the carbon content and lowering the chromium content from 21% to 17%. It was a disaster for us.”
Then Paul learned about a small business assistance program at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque. He applied for and received a $10,000 grant that enabled him to engage a metallurgist to run tests on the blades of every leather knife manufacturer he could find. “They ran electron scanning microscope (ESM) tests on all the blades,” he recalls, “and they found oxidation and corrosion at the cutting edges of the blades that had less chromium in the metal.”
The only distributor of metal with sufficient chromium content that he found soon after sold its sheets of metal for six figures. For a time, he bought scrap pieces from them until he was able to find an affordable solution elsewhere, with a similar alloy that worked even better.
“We replaced all the blades that customers had bought from the first batch with blades made from the new alloy,” adds Rosa.
“And we owe a lot of thanks to Jim Hay, who was a central figure in the IILG (International Internet Leathercrafters Guild),” says Paul. “He provided a lot of encouragement. I would send him blades to test them out for me when I got samples from suppliers, and one day he called and said, ‘This one is it. It looks like you’ve got it, bud!’ I also remembered something my dad had said back in 1974. He was a mechanic who worked on the private planes owned by the Farah Manufacturing Company of El Paso, where I grew up. It didn’t really register with me for a long time, but I remembered what he’d said. And after our experience in Wickenburg, I realized the wisdom of his words. It happened when I noticed that he would only sharpen his chisels once and then use them all day, while my swivel knife would go dull before I could finish one belt. He said, ‘Well, Son, it’s all in the alloy.’”
“It’s all in the alloy, Son.”
“My dad’s best friend,” Paul continues after a moment lost in meditative reverie, “was Jim Resley, who was the pilot for Willie Farah’s plane. I was a wild-child crazy kid who used to visit Mr. Resley all the time and I was really taken by his leatherwork. So, I got him to teach me some, on the weekends and during the summers. And I got good enough in high school that I was able to earn some money with it. My sister had cerebral palsy, and so my dad told all the kids we weren’t gonna be getting allowances, nothing beyond a roof over our heads, threads on our backs and food on the table. Anything else we wanted, we had to work for it.”
Paul recalls three main items that were big sellers in his El Paso high school. First, there were the monogrammed belts for couples. “A guy would order one, and when he saw it, he’d usually order a matchy-matchy one for his girlfriend.” The second item was a sheath for a buck knife. “These were really a big deal. You would pull the knife out of the sheath and the blade would automatically open.” The número tres most popular leather item in Paul’s El Paso high school was the snuff can holder. “People wanted their initials on those as well. I can’t even count the number of snuff can pouches I made. Hundreds and hundreds.” Customized notebooks were also very popular.
Paul did so well with the leather biz in high school that he was able to pay for a racy go-cart hobby that he indulged in with his younger brother. He also bought a 1968 Camaro Super Sport and a Honda SL 125 motorcycle. Moreover, his leatherwork allowed him to contribute to his family’s needs. He even assisted with teaching leathercraft in his high school shop class.
Though the hobby leveled off during his college years, he picked it back up around 1986. He moved his tools and other worldly goods to Albuquerque in 2001, where he took a job teaching landscaping and horticulture at a community college. “I taught plant science, soil science, pest management, irrigation, landscape design—all of it.” One day he went into the local Tandy store and the manager there looked familiar.
“Hey, weren’t you the manager of the El Paso Tandy store?”
“Yeah, are you that kid that hung around Tandy in El Paso?”
“Then I saw a carving on the wall and asked who did it,” Paul recalls. “The manager said it was by a local guy named Billy Wootres. So, I got his phone number, called him and took some of my stuff over for him to critique. He was a crusty old curmudgeon who ripped my stuff apart. But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy. It turned out that he was the one who had taught my first teacher Jim Resley.”
Born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Billy Wootres (1927-2009) was intrigued by the floral tooling on saddles he saw at Billy Green’s Saddle Shop at age 10. “So, I started sweeping floors and emptying buckets” at the shop, he told the Albuquerque Journal in 2005. “They just couldn’t get rid of me.” After soaking up some know-how in Las Vegas and a hitch in the Navy, he taught the first vocational leathercraft course at New Mexico Highlands University. Then, after apprenticing with saddlemaker O. W. Jolly in Abilene, Texas, Wootres worked at saddle shops in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. He also operated several shops of his own in the Land of Enchantment. For a time, he worked for Edward H. Bohlin, “Saddlemaker to the Stars,” in Hollywood.
New Mexico saddlemaker Slim Green told Paul and Jim Resley that Wootres’ working for Bohlin had been a big mistake. “He said that Bohlin was the front man, but Billy was the man behind all those Rose Parade saddles,” Paul recalls. “And he said that one time Billy took all his patterns and put ‘em in a 55-gallon barrel and set ‘em on fire. Slim said Billy held Bohlin off with a .357 so he wouldn’t put the fire out.”
All told, Billy Wootres—a posthumous recipient of the Don King Lifetime Saddlemakers Award—made some 3,000 saddles. Under the weather for a time in the 1990s, he sold off his equipment. But when he perked back up, he bought whatever tools he could find and had to make some of his own. Then in the 2000s, when his health again took a turn for the worse, he inspired Paul even more. “He became very introspective,” Rosa remembers of Billy’s last years. “He told Paul that even though a lifespan of more than 80 years may seem like a long time to be on this Earth, it’s really short. He said you shouldn’t waste time; you should get down to the business of doing what you’re really passionate about.”
And what Paul was really passionate about was the swivel knife and other leathercraft tools. He had been making boot tops for El Paso’s many bootmakers under the name Leather Wranglers and when he segued into making knives and other tools, he carried the name along to the new business.
After the problems in Wickenburg in 2007, and the successful quest for the proper alloy, Leather Wranglers took their reborn swivel knife to the next Wichita Falls Boot and Saddlemakers Trade Show. It created a sensation with members of the Lone Star Leather Guild. One attendee exclaimed after trying the knife, “Holy #%$! I don’t care what this costs; I’m buying it!”
The Wranglers got the same positive response at Wickenburg in 2008, and their SK-3 Swivel Knife remains the company’s flagship tool. At 9/10 of an ounce, it’s said to be the lightest on the market, yet it’s also praised as “strong enough to handle even the roughest leather carver.” And with a barrel made of aerospace aluminum, the SK-3 is customized to fit one’s hand.
Paul and Rosa introduced their Round Knife in 2009, at the Wichita Falls gathering. In one of the videos posted on their easy-to-navigate and super-informative website, Wrangler Paul details one of the knife’s unique features. “We have put a cutting edge on the bottom back side,” he explains, “so that you can do pull cuts as well….We also changed the geometry of the knife. The handle comes off of the cutting head at a certain angle so that when you hold it the knife lines up much better with your wrist and your hand and the way that you hold the knife, so that when you do your cuts you have much more direct control over that cutting edge.”
Paul says he came up with the design of another heavy hitter in the Leather Wranglers line, the LW Guppy Knife, “while watching one of my favorite sushi chefs do his little fruit carvings….cute little ducks out of apples, flowers out of radishes and carrots.” The Wrangler design adds “a little bit of tail to the Guppy so that it tucks in behind your thumb and gives you a little more stability.”
The more than three dozen items you’ll find via the “shop” button at leatherwranglers.com include blade sharpening materials, as well as Paul’s book, On the Edge: The Theory and Practice of Staying Sharp, a collection of articles originally written for Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal. There’s also two volumes of Doodles, Designs, and Patterns by Billy Wootres. Another book, Floral Pattern Drawing for the Artistically Impaired: A Systematic Approach to developing patterns for Western Floral Carving by 2007 Al Stohlman Award recipient Pete Gorrell, offers exactly what its title says.
The folks at Leather Wranglers say the year of Covid has actually been good for business, as people stuck in quarantine have had more time to work on their leather skills. As the shutdown begins to end, however, they look forward to getting back on the road and attending leather shows where they can re-connect with their extended family of leather world friends in person. Look for them August 6-8th at the Heart of Texas Leather Show in Waco, Texas; October 1-2nd at the Boot & Saddle Maker’s Round Up in Wichita Falls; November 5-6th at the Pendleton Leather Show in Pendleton, Oregon; and February 25-27th at the Southwest Leather Crafters Trade Show in Prescott, Arizona. And on October 29-31st, they’ll be across the pond at ELWAT, the European Leather Workers Artists Trade Show in the Netherlands.
Even the testimonials on the Leather Wranglers website are fun to read. I came away with several favorites, but I’ll end with the testimony of Justin Aragon, owner of Whiskey Bent Leather in Queen Creek, Arizona. “I am going to go out on a limb here,” proclaims the Whiskey Bent proprietor, “and say that this round knife could very well be the nicest in the world!! Thank you, Paul, for building me the last round knife I will ever need! It is an amazing piece of functional art! I will be proud to pass this heirloom quality knife on one day! It will outlast me for sure.”
We hope that ain’t too soon, Mr. Whiskey Bent. Meanwhile, enjoy the knife.