Post 45: A primer on the Mexican carving of collectible gunleather
Updated: Jun 13
The makers whose carved artifacts are priced within the reach of the ordinary man can be the equal of their antique predecessors. Despite Heiser calling this 'finish' Mexican carved, on the evidence these carvers (also called engravers, and stampers) were Anglos. We have the names, for example, of both Heiser's and Myres' carvers. The art originated in Spain as far as we're concerned but their predecessors were the Moors according to Sam Myres; and their successors indeed were from Mexico that like all of Central and South America was taken over by Spain (and Portugal for Brazil).
This one is by Myres for a mining magnate named Jackling. Letters by and between Myres and Jackling are in the Myres papers held in Lubbock and it seems that Mr. Jackling was unhappy with the metalwork on it:
Gunleather carving is heaps easier to appreciate because it is in a very small area. And yet not all of carved gunleather is particularly good. Some Myres gunleather, for example, is among the very worst of carved holsters.
And it will surprise you, that as good as Heiser's men were, Lawrence's were even better.
Let's start with a Myres. Consider that first the basic lines of the ornamentation are transferred with one of these patterns. Perhaps I have one of his in an image somewhere but these are 'late' Brills; that is, Rabensburg Brills:
These basic lines were cut deeply into the wet leather pattern with a swivel knife and then the pattern dried in high heat to both split open the cut lines and also to raise the edges of the cuts. Now, laying one on a wetted holster and hammering or rolling the pattern, transfers the basic lines to a fresh holster vs. tracing it repeatedly with varying accuracy.
These new lines are cut with the same type of knife but not so deeply. Lots of variables are involved in doing this beautifully and it appears that Myres at least did not always adhere to them. Then stamps made originally of giant fence nails of iron but nowadays purpose made of plated steel, are 'hammered' with skill to create a three-dimensional effect to 'erase' the cut lines. This then is enhanced by the ideal dampness of the leather because this veg leather will discolor as the tools are moved around the knife cuts, now adding a fourth dimension to the design: color (the leather darkens). The finish goes on and the result 'pops' as a graphic artist once described it.
With that in mind, let me show you 'handsome', a vintage holster that is by Ernst. We can see the delicate cutting with the knife, the discoloration of the stamp being moved over the surface, and the shadows indicate that some areas have been skillfully raised. In a moment I'll show you the most magnificent method that is associated with the Sheridan school: 3D using a 'petal' tool.
Now compare it with an everyday Myres. Bear in mind that Myres did produce some magnificent carving on their gunleather; but this one simply isn't "it". Notice, too, that the background has been dyed black or brown to create a further contrast. It's almost two dimensional:
Now a really handsome Myres, and because we know that F.O. Baird, master carver and noted teacher of same, carved some of Sam's gunleather, I expect that this is his work, not least because these were incredibly expensive for a holster: $25 when a Model T was $250! We have LOTS of images of this model done in just this way including the geometric down the center of the 'cuff' and the black lacing, too.
Heiser examples are very, very, very good. I have some images showing that their 3D effect is so pronounced that the Mexican carving actually casts it own shadows:
Bohlin is also noted for his leather carvers (don't for a moment imagine that the founders made any of these magnificent sets, much less carved them). The shading effect is done with a tool called a 'pear shader' because its head is that of a pear' over them has been applied what are called 'fancy cuts' with the swivel knife:
Much of Alfonso's work is stellar, too.
The most magnificent sets, though, come from a maker that we are only beginning to think of a valuable collectibles; because without carving their products are more like masterful editions of Hunter. And that company is Lawrence; notice the pronounced depth and discoloration of the pear shaders:
'Nuff said. My own carving is not in this league at all -- but when it's covered with silver and gold and the centerfold of a glossy magazine, who notices?! 1974 Guns & Ammo and I'm just starting out as a carver:
Unmarked but likely a Varga: