by Gene Fowler
“As long as I get to mess with leather,” jokes artisan Duane Ballard, “I don’t really care what I’m making.” To prove it, he sports tattoos of a swivel knife and a traditional oak leaf tooling on the back of his right hand.
But, while he does find leatherwork of any kind to be a satisfying activity, Duane generally concentrates on custom motorcycle seats and other biker culture items at Duane Ballard Custom Leather, his home workshop in Lake Elsinore, California. His product lines also include unique wallets, belts, purses, motorcycle bags, grips, straps and other hand-tooled creations.
It all started when his family moved into a new home in Phoenix and Duane’s mother found a large box of leatherwork tools the previous occupant had left in the attic. At the time, 10-year-old Duane had no idea that his mother and grandmother both had leatherwork experience. “My grandfather had owned a gas station in Florida that catered to truckers,” he explains, “and my mother and grandmother made wallets to sell to the truck drivers, though my mother was really more of a hobbyist leathercrafter.”
Taught the basics by his mom and grandma, young Duane began trying his own hand at the art and craft, making Christmas gifts for family and friends. “I remember making a wallet for my grandfather that he was very proud of.”
He continued working with leather, off and on, as he grew up. After marrying and starting a family, he was based in New Hampshire during his kids’ growing years, near his wife’s folks. After the kids’ graduation, Duane and the missus headed for sunny California. But before he went full time with Duane Ballard Custom Leather about 25 years ago, at the age of 30, he worked in a warehouse and as a land surveyor. He also logged some employment in the auto upholstery field.
He made leather pieces for a few years, though, before jumping in 100 percent. “Luckily, it’s worked out,” he says. “In the early years, I emailed and called hundreds of shops I thought might be interested in my work. And my wife, Lisa, was really the one that pushed me to get the tools and everything else I needed to try this as something more than a hobby. She’s my biggest fan and I’d probably still be doing some job I hated if it wasn’t for her support.” Today, some 18,400 followers marvel at his creations on Instagram. “And I think about half of those are fellow leather workers.”
Along the way, Duane developed a passion for 1960s and ’70s pop culture and sci-fi that has influenced some of his own design work. He got into hot rod iconography, Rat Fink, and the art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. “My fixation with Star Trek and bad movies just drives my wife crazy,” he jokes.
Influenced by his mother, a painter, and his architect father, he also made art. “I always drew stuff,” he says. “And I was the guy at all the local punk shows, creating the flyers and sketching designs for t-shirts.” Duane’s dad was also a motorcycle rider and his son picked up that enthusiasm big-time, building several of his own custom bikes in addition to his leatherwork for the biker world.
Skulls, flames, lightning bolts, eagle wings, horseshoes, dice and traditional floral carving adorn Duane’s hand-tooled motorcycle seats. The word MIRACLE is tooled on one seat, HOT DOG KUSTOM on another. RINO’S RIDE, STAND FOR SOMETHING, HIGH SPEED DEATH, PEACE & LOVE, BAD APPLE, LUCKY PUNK, ****IN’ SCHIZO are emblazoned on others. One seat, likely made for a veteran, depicts a map of Vietnam.
Duane’s custom work always caters to the client’s wishes, but a customer often suggests a certain style and asks the artist to “do it your way.” For a pair of hand-tooled, dyed, laced and sewn seats he made for a customer’s 1930s Ford “Rat Rod” project, the customer first brought Duane a pair of old cowboy boots with the shanks cut off. “He said he liked the old western style of the boots’ carvings, the flowers and scroll work,” Duane explains, “but he said he still wanted me to ‘do it my way.’” The leather artist will follow up the car seats with a cup holder and door panels.
He points to a “hippie purse” re-creation as “one of the most fun projects I’ve done.” The customer sent Duane his mother’s sagging handbag after “stealing” it out of her closet, saying that she had carried it every day long after the fabled 1960s. Duane had to unshrink the pattern for the purse to remake it. The colors had to be just right and he also had to re-create a horoscope symbol on the front. The customer gave it to his mom for Christmas and she was blown away.
“At 74 years old,” she wrote to Duane, after receiving the bag, “it takes a lot to overwhelm me. Upon opening the box containing the handbag, which you re-created from my old one from the late sixties, I sobbed like a baby. I carried my old bag every day, for every occasion regardless of how formal or informal. You were spot on with replicating it and words to describe my emotion fail me. All I can say is AMAZING work.”
In a similar project story, the customer’s dad had made a Tandy wallet when he was stationed in Alaska. “He sent me the wallet and I found the original Craftaid pattern it was made from and re-created the wallet,” says Duane.
A commission he was working on when we spoke in mid-March, also had that personal element. The client’s mother had passed away and he sent Duane one of her purses. The artist cut up the purse and made 10 key chains, a wallet and five card holders from the leather. Spots of the leather from inside the purse still exhibited her pen marks.
Along with all the motorcycle enthusiasts, hot-rodders, the occasional homicide detective and military veteran who request bespoke items from Duane Ballard Custom Leather, the artist creates one-of-a-kind pieces every now and then for a rock star. He was introduced to Steve Jones, guitar player for the archetypal British punk band the Sex Pistols, by a buddy who makes custom helmets in Los Angeles. “Steve is into 1950s and ’60s TV westerns and he really likes the old-style flower carving and scroll work,” Duane explains. “So, I’ve made him a wallet and several guitar straps, including one that’s a copy of a Jimi Hendrix strap. And now I’ve made a strap for the guy who’s directing a miniseries based on Steve’s autobiography.”
Addressing folks unfamiliar with the pricing of custom work, Duane assures potential customers that any hide he utilizes to fashion a bespoke item is “not some mystery leather from Pakistan.” Instead, the upholstery leather he uses for motorcycle seats is sourced from Eureka Leather of Sacramento, a company that distributes premium Italian leathers.
“And all my veg tan comes from Leather Plan of the Los Angeles area, a local outlet for the high-end Sepici Tannery of Turkey,” adds Duane. “I’m very picky about my leather and I used to go over there to make selections from their unbelievably flawless hides in person. But I quit going because it’s always so good and just order it sight unseen.”
For his kangaroo needs, which he uses for lacings, Duane relies on Springfield Leather out of Springfield, Missouri.
The maker’s mark for Duane Ballard Custom Leather is a fist with a “D” on one knuckle, adjacent to a “B.” It was designed by Duane’s brother. “He remembered that I was always getting into fights in high school, so that’s why he designed the fist.”
Talk to Duane at one of the two trade shows he attends each year: Born Free in Silverado, California (June 25-26, 2022), and David Mann Chopperfest in Ventura, California (Dec. 11, 2022), or call him to talk about a custom job and you’ll find a laid-back Golden State hombre with an interesting, biker-culture edge. He’s even polite to the occasional off-the-charts request, like the caller who wanted him to carve elephants with dragonfly wings (“It was somebody’s 1970s album cover”) or the customer who asked him to tool two turtles goin’ full-out Adam-and-Eve.