It’s not too often we profile some of the fine purveyors of DC swag around the country, unofficial or otherwise. For that, I am remiss. Luckily, one of them is just down the street here in Tucson: BlueJay Leatherworks.
BlueJay Leatherworks is the enterprise of Jeremiah Forbes, a self-taught 26-year-old leatherworker who, by day, is one of the crew at Tucson’s Fair Wheel Bikes. I first met the guy back in February at Fair Wheel Bikes’ packet pick-up party for 24 Hours in Old Pueblo. He handed Cupcake and I some sample product — a Drunkcyclist coaster and keychain — which imbued our merry evening with marvel and admiration for a craft that neither of us have experience with.
I realized Jeremiah was for real when he rode the 40 desert miles, punctuated by a flat tire, to 24 Hours in Old Pueblo from Tucson, carrying a bag full of keychains, belts and coasters to sell at the race. Dedication to the cause.
A few days after 24 Hours in Old Pueblo, Jeremiah invited me into his dojo to document his work. I mean, I don’t know the first thing about working with leather (do you?), aside from the obvious necessity of a cow somewhere down the line. So, I took him up on it and pedaled over. [Scroll down for the full gallery.]
Inspired by iconic leather items like cowboy gun holsters, custom biker bags, and belts debossed with elaborate Western patterns, Jeremiah bought a set of leathercrafting tools and hatched BlueJay Leatherworks in 2013. His lady had been calling Jeremiah “Bluejay” as a nickname for years, which made coming up with a business name easy. Initially, it wasn’t too involved — just a basic starter kit with stamps, needles, and patterns. He made a few belts for friends at cost, and experimented with key fobs, belt hip pouches and coasters.
“It was kinda tough at first because I’m all self-taught,” he says. He experimented with leather on and off for that first year, splitting his free time as a guitarist for a band called Back to the Well. “We had an opportunity to play SXSW at one point but things kind of fell off, as real life kicked in for us and we just all decided to put it down,” he says. “Some of the most fun I’d ever had.” The band recorded its only full-length album in a studio located above BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage), Tucson’s non-profit bike repair collective. But the band hit the pause button in 2015.
Fast forward to Fall 2015. Jeremiah picked the leatherworking back up and added more tools as his skills progressed. With a fresh set of lettering stamps, he made a “Western as Fuck” belt for kicks, and shopped it to Dirty. That led Dirty to Cupcake. “We decided to raffle the belt off to the best #westernasfuck pic. From there people just started hitting me up for a belt, and the rest is history.”
Arizona is home
Jeremiah has been living in Tucson for over a decade, by way of Hawaii, California, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Wisconsin (again), Texas, Wisconsin (one more time), and New Jersey. (Catches breath.) But “Arizona is my home,” he says.
Lately, he’s been upping his game focusing on the art side of leatherworking. His workbench and tool arsenal, smartly laid out in his living room, are impressive. The tools have names like chisels, gouges, edge bevelers, pear shaders, stitchers, nippers and lacing cutters — implements that sound like they could be used beyond leather. There’s the maul, which is the cylindrical tool that looks like a lint roller below. It’s used to hammer patterns and such into leather. And don’t forget the beer.
He points to Andy Gilmour, who’s a Tucson-based bike frame builder (since ’74), for hooking up Jeremiah with some extra tools after talking with him about leather in the shop one day. The next time Andy came in, he brought extra bike fabricating tooling that he no longer needed, figuring Jeremiah could put them to use.
BlueJay Leatherworks sources much of his material from Tandy Leather, a leather craft retailer. Leather comes in big, shapeless rolls that he cuts to belt strips. To get that dark, branded-looking hue on some designs, Jeremiah stamps or cuts the patterns and then uses a dauber to apply a dye. The patterns essentially create a channel into which the dyes flow. A good example here is this record slip mat:
Most leatherworkers use a hunk of marble to pound on. Jeremiah looked no further than his backyard for a hunk of patio stone. His work bench, adorned with the Arizona state flag, came from a piece of old workbench at Fair Wheel Bikes.
Watching the man work is a study in patience and appreciation for a hand-made pursuit. As he hones his art, Jeremiah looks down the road to custom purses, saddlebags, and shoes: “I’m open to anything, really. This went from a fun hobby to something I wouldn’t mind doing full time.”
“If I made a few belts each week and sold them, I’d break even,” Jeremiah adds. “You have to do something many times over to get it right.”
Repetition, homie. Repetition. So far, so good.