There are many businesses in Milwaukee, large and small. Many people find their preferred working style to be in a traditional work-setting – amongst other people, often in an office-setting, usually involving some sort of a commute. Frank Kaiser is not one of those people.
Mr. Kaiser is a leather-worker, specializing in gun-holsters, belts, and saddlery. I first wrote about him some time ago, due to a unique project he and a friend did, restoring a Korean War-era jeep. His business, Rocking K Saddlery, is one of those small, hidden gems in Milwaukee. He works for himself, out of a small studio, where he creates fine leather-work for a discerning clientele. His attention to detail and high level of craftmanship is getting him attention among the creators in his field (see these two video spots from a prominent opinion-maker: around the 6:23 mark and here). People from all around the country, and even a few in Europe, come to him for his hand-made holster, belts, guitar-straps, datebook covers, and horse saddles.
Frank used to be in the Air Force (he did a tour in Afghanistan), and intended to go into criminal justice when he was done in the service. A back injury curtailed any police work though, and Frank found he was craving more “on his own terms” work. He found his way to leatherwork, teaching himself how to make holsters and learning saddle-making out west.
Frank does a mix of hand and machine stitching depending on what’s needed. As he says, “I’m particular…I want the main stitch done well because that’s where there’s the greatest chance of it coming apart.” Most of his work is with hand-tools and he confessed to losing a little bit of sensitivity in his fingertips from the pressure he puts on the tools to work the leather. He says that most of the tools he works with really haven’t changed much since the classic cowboy days. His “swivel knife” is a fairly modern tool for marking the leather, as he said its work used to be done with sharpened nails!
The burnishing of the textures and patterns on his pieces come from the heat and friction of his tool-work, combined with the moisture content in the leather – the burnishing is a permanent effect. The darker tones come from the oils he treats the leather with, and from the protective finishing coat he puts on them. Keeping his workflow uniquely his own, he also makes his own dyes for the leather – from steel wool, vinegar, coffee, and walnuts, among other possible ingredients. While he doesn’t plan to tan his own leather, he does like dying it.
Frank gets a lot of his inspiration from various books on classic cowboy gear, from photos his clients share with him, and from the book “Packing Iron” -‘That’s my Bible,” he says.
I asked Frank what he did to relax, as many times creatives will work in one medium, but relax with another, to change things up. Frank said he relaxes by…working on leather. It’s his work and his passion.