I love the smell of leather. Why? If you get me anywhere near fine leather, the scent transports me back to my Grandad’s harness-making shop.
Isaac Baker lived his whole life on a farm north of Toronto, bounded by Dufferin and Bathurst Streets on each side, and Hwy. 407 to the south. Now, the only part of the farm not under house-filled subdivisions is the eighty acre sugar bush, still standing tall and proud at the corner of the 407 and Bathurst, and Grandad’s shop and house closer to Dufferin.￼
Although the sugar bush, with its many maple trees and hundreds and hundreds of gallons of sap collected each spring, figured large in my mother’s childhood it never did in mine. Instead, I remember the leather shop and the tall west windows casting light over the main workbench. It was here that he’d let us play.
Dangerous tools like awls, and these half-circle knives, which cut through leather with one smooth roll, were off limits,
but we were allowed to use the punch.
We’d rotate the wheel, choosing different-sized holes, and we soon learned it was much easier to punch a small hole in the leather scraps we were given, rather than a large one. The punch-outs looked a lot like leather rabbit pellets.
Loops attached to the wall behind the workbench held the knives and punches, along with channelers, creasers, and awls in many sizes. Small boxes lining shelves on the wall held pieces of hardware used for the harnesses Grandad made.
Wide cutting tables stood in the other part of the L-shaped shop. Here, heavy rolls of leather could be laid out and cut. Saddles, horse collars, and full sets of harnesses began here, each piece cut following the contours of a metal pattern.
This sewing-horse, which now stands in my living room, was used when sewing together two pieces of heavy leather. The strap attached to the foot pedal made the upright pieces clamp the leather tight. Sitting astride, Grandad held one sharp-pointed awl and a needle in each hand. They were threaded at either end of a thick, waxed thread.
First he made a hole with the awl. Then he poked a needle through from one side, and the second needle from the other side. The threads were pulled all the way through before being given a quick tug to pull them tight. ￼Them his awl would make another hole. Thread, tighten, new hole. Thread, tighten, new hole. Over and over, until the seam was sewed. The process looked something like this:
Grandad’s treadle sewing machine stood near the wood stove that heated the shop in the winter. The combined scents of wood smoke and leather bring memories too wonderful to describe with words.￼.
I always liked to hear stories of the special things Grandad made out of leather.
Somewhere, there’s a picture of the harness he made so my uncle’s dog could pull a small sled.
One time a man pulled up in front of the shop with a bear in a cage on the trailer behind his car. He wanted a muzzle made for the bear and suggested that Grandad get into the cage and measure the bear’s snout. Grandad told him that the muzzle would only get made if he measured his own bear!
And Grandad made the harness for the Carlsberg horses.
I was in my early twenties when Grandad retired from his shop. How I wish we humans were wired to appreciate our elders and understand their lives more deeply, before it’s too late. How I wish I had learned a bit more about his trade and taken more pictures of him at work in this white clapboard shop.￼
I’m thankful for the memories I do have though, and if you wear your leather jacket when I’m around, please don’t be offended if I get a far-off look. I’ll just be taking a little trip back to a small shop on Langstaff Sideroad, where my Grandad will still be stoking the fire and doing fine leatherwork.
P.S. One of the first “sayings” I ever remember reading was on a small postcard tacked to Grandad’s shop wall:
If you want something done, ask a busy man. A man of leisure has no time.
I never knew what that meant, but when I came to know that he formed every single block for this house, and then built it himself, in addition to doing his job and raising a young family, I began to understand.