by Liisa Andreassen
When Joe Schussler was a kid, his father would take him to a little café for breakfast in their small Idaho hometown. It was there that he first got inspired to create art. While the inspiration was a simple can that had been converted into an airplane, Joe thought it was just about the coolest thing he’d ever seen and set out to create one of his own. He went home and started cutting stuff up. It didn’t quite work out the way he wanted, but from that day forward he knew he wanted to make things. Today, that passion has turned into a full-time career where he makes world-class chaps and other leather goods.
“I didn’t quite know where it was going to lead, but I knew there was always a plan in place for me,” he says.
Fascinated by rodeo, Joe used to ride bulls, but said he just wasn’t good enough to make a living from it. So, when he met his wife in 2005, he began thinking about ways he was going to provide for his family. He started to apprentice in leatherwork and in 2007, he opened his own shop. But it wasn’t really enough for full-time work, so he also did odd jobs such as fence repair. One day, while out doing some fence work, he started thinking about his next move.
“How do I make this work?” he asked himself. “What’s my next move?”
As he always knew, there was a plan. The idea came to him to go to the local boot shop and ask for a job.
“So, that’s what I did,” he said. “I got myself cleaned up and headed over there. The gentleman who owned the shop hired me and a week later, he asked me if I wanted to buy the shop. I said, ‘Yes,’ and then business really started booming. I was juggling everything and had a very successful business on my hands, but I was beginning to burn the candle at both ends, as they say.”
Joe felt he was spending way too much time away from his wife and two children, a seven-year-old boy and two-year-old girl, and seeing the towns around him grow so much that he felt a bit crowded.
“I was beginning to get frustrated with the way my life was headed,” he says.
So, he and his wife decided to make a move. In August 2021, they sold the shop and moved to Oklahoma where they bought a home in the small town of Sayre, that sits on a half-acre lot – just enough land for him to have his workshop behind the home where he’s “not in the way,” as he says.
“No neighbors have yelled at me yet,” he jokes.
Now, before Joe goes to work, he sits on the front porch with his wife and kids and enjoys a cup of coffee before walking a few yards to work.
“Living here is kind of like stepping back in time. There’s a slower pace and my wife and I are kind of old fashioned that way. I’m just a family man who enjoys beating on cowhide,” he says.
Today, Joe has his dream shop – an 800-square-foot workshop – where he can really focus on making things he loves. People pop in, typically by appointment, and he’s just as busy as he wants to be. Right now, he’s backlogged about five months, but that’s okay. Eighty percent of the work he does is custom and the rest is basically to show people what he can do. He displays at trade shows and does a lot of work for the NFR, too.
When he gets too backlogged, he calls on an old friend he met at the boot shop nearly 10 years ago who helps him to get caught up. He has no employees to speak of and seems to prefer it that way.
“It’s not really practical to have too much inventory,” he says. “Chaps are really very customized items – whether rodeo chaps or working chaps – the sizes are so exact.”
He showcases most of his work on Instagram, @chapshop82, and says that he relies on social media and word of mouth for his job orders. He finds Instagram is the most effective form of social media for his business because “you don’t have to weed through all the other noise found on many other platforms.”
Joe’s chaps are beautifully crafted with intense colors that are artfully assembled. He says that a great deal of his inspiration comes from cartoons and animation. He appreciates the colors and the movement. A Bug’s Life, a Pixar movie, is a personal favorite.
“You watch a lot of this stuff when you have young kids,” he laughs.
He truly finds inspiration everywhere – for example, the shading in tattoos and the scrollwork from silversmiths.
“I get inspiration from so many things,” he says. “I’ve also had some great mentors and people who have helped me understand the business side of things along the way – Dean Randolph, Brody Bolton, Dan Baca and Bubba Crouch – to mention a few.”
So, what’s the overall chap-making process like?
When Joe first gets an order, he asks about colors and tries to steer the client in the right direction if he doesn’t think the colors work well together. He gets their measurement by either asking them to do it or doing it himself, which he prefers. All the details of the order get placed into a form and then it goes into a queue – first come first served, though NFR orders often do get priority.
Next, he ensures that he has all the supplies he needs and begins the building process. He starts laying it out in his mind, draws on the leather and cuts it out. It takes about a day to carve. Then comes the dye, filigree work and antiquing. He cuts out the bodies and does the stitch work.
“It’s kind of like baking a cake,” he says.
The whole process for a pair of chaps typically takes anywhere from two to four days and the cost starts at about $800.
So, does he have a favorite pair?
“Not yet,” he says. “Every one is different. I guess I should say I have yet to make a favorite. Each one seems cooler that the next. I can really see a growth in my art and that’s a good thing.”
He’s also starting to branch out into other areas outside of chaps, which include items such as wallets, handbags and briefcases.
“I really love making briefcases,” he says. “They take a lot of time, but there’s great reward when they’re done.”
Joe built a piece last spring which he calls, The Business Man’s Package. It’s a briefcase that includes a host of individually carved accessories inside, such as a checkbook and portfolio. The interior is fully carved and there’s engraved silver. It recently sold at a Pendleton for $5,000.
“I’m getting more into creating items for collectors,” he explains. “For example, if someone buys a briefcase, then they’ll buy the checkbook and so on. They’ll want to keep adding on.”
He knows that this new market he’s exploring is a totally different ballgame and he’s up for the challenge. He’s planning to do more art shows in the future and is working on educating buyers about the value of leatherwork.
“It’s helping me to push the boundaries of my creativity,” he says. “We’re all created for something great and I want to encourage people not to be afraid to do what makes them happy. Go at it with all you have and the reward is well worth the sacrifice. I know it is for me.”
Contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 208-447-6770.
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