Editor’s note: This is the second in a series titled “Tools of the Trade,” about things islanders use in their everyday work. This week, William Cleaver talks about his edger, made in Tennessee, and how it helps him shape leather into works of art.
By Andy James
For The Beachcomber
William Cleaver has traveled a long journey in leather work, from the most authentic Western gear to his current-day explorations in sculptural leather.
For nearly 30 years of that journey, one faithful companion has been a little edger — a tool that’s like a chisel, but with a notched edge. It’s the size of a small fountain pen.
“That’s just one of several tools I use, but I use that on every project. It’s just something that’s overlooked, but just makes such a big difference,” Cleaver said.
The tool, made by hand, was a gift from the owner of a factory Cleaver was visiting in Boulevard, Tenn.
“Here I’d been switching between all these different commercial [edgers] I have,” Cleaver said.
But the Tennessee edger, “just stays sharp forever,” he said.
“It’s so easy,” Cleaver said. “It just really blew me away how that worked so much better than anything I could buy.”
This particular edger was fashioned from an old nut pick, used for picking out the meat from nuts. The tapering end was beaten a bit wider, then notched and sharpened. The result is a simple tool that rounds over the edge on a piece of leather, transforming a sharp edge into a smooth one.
Cleaver demonstrated by ripping a thin, even strand of leather from a strap of stock material.
“You do that all the way around, and then you burnish that stuff like glass after you put color and stuff into it,” Cleaver said.
What comes before, of course, can be mind-boggling and complex. Cleaver made his name restoring and recreating rare Western gear: ornamental saddles, holsters, and other bits of leather work that represented cowboy culture at its most ornate.
“I restored some of the rarest Western saddles in existence,” Cleaver said. “They would be missing a component and I didn’t have the tool, so I’d have to fabricate that pattern to do the restoration on a piece. It’s being innovative … and experimental.”
Cleaver put his own stamp on Western styles — often quite literally, as he has fabricated a library of stamps and embossers made from old tools. His variations on cowboy styles landed in galleries and even on the runway in Ralph Lauren’s fashion collections.
Now Cleaver is taking a risk by moving from gear and fashion and into sculptural work, much of it featuring crows and Buddha figures. Through it all, Cleaver relies on his little Tennessee edger, and a slightly larger version he made for himself last year.
The edger Cleaver made shows meticulous marks where the metal has been hammered, smoothed and tapered to the razor-sharp edge he relies on. At the point of that razor-sharp edge, Cleaver applies decades of experience and a true feel for the material.
“To know the techniques to make that edge like that, and read the material for the application, is where a big part of my strength is,” he said. “A hide’s like a book. It’s rock hard on one end and belly-soft on the other.”
The edge of the edger is one thing, according to Cleaver. The art of using it, however, is another.
“You have to feel with your tool what it’s going to do,” he said. “So when someone starts, they’re going to put a lot of pressure and that tool will probably dive in — or not enough. And then you can’t take a second pass, usually, very successfully. It’s gotta be a one-shot deal.”
Cleaver no longer feels nervous when applying a finishing edge to a work he’s devoted many hours to. His technique is solid, but he also cites his ability to handle mistakes when they happen.
“When I started, I was such a perfectionist I’d just throw the thing into a box; I’d get frustrated,” he said.
Cleaver said being artistic involves learning to work with the mistakes he makes.
“If something screws up, it kind of is telling you it wants to go in another direction. And then you have to look at how to take it there,” Cleaver said.