by Liisa Andreassen
When the colts she was riding started breaking her stuff, Dee Dee McGraw took matters into her own hands. She knew that making her own repairs would save her money, but what she didn’t know was that it would eventually lead to a full-time gig. She started out doing patch and repair work, and her mom quickly recognized how much she enjoyed it and offered to buy her a whole hide. That was just the beginning. Not too long after, Dee Dee stopped into Tandy Leather in Montgomery, Alabama, to buy some fancier tools and reference books and it just snowballed from there.
She became a frequent flier at Tandy and, as luck would have it, met a manager named Chance.
“Chance really moved me into carving and the art end of the craft,” she says. “Until then, I didn’t know that I should rub my edges or go over my bevel marks with modeling spoons. He really helped me to take my game to the next level.”
In 2008, Dee Dee decided it was time to quit her job. She was traveling a lot and wanted to be closer to home. It took a while for the business, DND Leather, to turn into full-time work, so she continued to give some riding lessons to supplement the income.
Today, her favorite thing to do is tooling. Drawing? Not so much. She admits that drawing was taking much more time than it should until Britt Nantz, a well-known tooling artist, came along to give her some tips.
“He put me over the tipping point,” she says. “And once I learned more about how to draw, the production got so much faster. It used to take me anywhere from four to 16 hours to just draw out a new belt design. It should take about 30 minutes. You just can’t make money doing that. Now, it takes me about five hours to complete the whole belt job – start to finish (with no dye or super fancy tooling).”
While Dee Dee is self-taught, she’s had many mentors along the way that include Cary Schwarz, Whitney Blackwell and Becky Scovill.
“Becky’s beading is phenomenal,” she says.
Dee Dee also does all of her own beading, except sometimes around the holidays when she gets super swamped. Then, she’ll have a girl she’s trained in beadwork to step in and help.
Right now, her business focuses on mostly custom orders, but if she has some inventory as the result of practicing on some pieces, she’ll sell those online. In addition to making all the items by hand, she also manages the other parts of the business, such as customer relations and marketing from her in-home studio.
She used to do Google and Facebook ads to promote the business, but now business is moving along well that she really doesn’t need to do those things anymore. She’s got good SEO (search engine optimization) and pops up on Google pretty quickly.
Working in her studio at least 40 hours per week, Dee Dee has had the opportunity to work on many fun orders over the years. Some of her favorite pieces of all time are a rifle sling she made with a naked cowgirl on it and a saddle for her son; the first saddle she ever made. She says the tooling was just so much fun. She’s also had some unusual orders that include some crazy cases for utilitarian purposes, as well as a holster that’s slung over the shoulder for the main purpose of carrying a Bible and glasses. A leg rifle holster was also among the mix of the more out-of-the-box type requests.
“I don’t ask questions,” she jokes. “I just take the order and hope for the best.”
Her most popular requests are for belts, knife sheaths and rifle slings.
When she’s not working on her leather, she spends her days homeschooling her nine-year-old son and helping her husband on the ranch with their herd of cows. They all love to fish, go boating and tubing. And, she thrives on gardening and has flowers everywhere you look.
“I swear, I live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth (Roanoke, Alabama) and I get many of my design inspirations from just going outside,” she says. “The most important thing is that I have the freedom to do what I want to do. I make pretty things out of leather and I love what I do.”
So, what’s the future got in store? Dee Dee says that time management is always a challenge and she hopes to narrow her scope a bit when it comes to making products and to focus more on belts, bags and shoes.
“I just made a pair of shoes and they were so much fun,” she says.
Right now, she’s working on a saddle that she hopes to bring to the Wichita Falls Boot and Saddle Trade Show.
“We’ll see,” she says.
For more information about DND Leather: dndleather.com/