By Pam Windsor | Photography courtesy of Terry Lankford
The faint sounds of tapping start early in the shop behind Terry Lankford’s house in Franklin, Tennessee south of Nashville. He’s usually there by 7 a.m., ready to pick up where he left off the day before, or start work on his latest project. Lankford has been hand tooling leather since 1970. He started while working as a young bull rider, and he says it’s something that came naturally to him.
“I was going to rodeos and I just started doing it,” he recalled. “I was a farm boy and we didn’t have a lot of money, so you had to make your own stuff. Next thing I knew people were asking me to make their stuff.”
He began hand tooling belts, then moved on to chaps, saddles, and other rodeo equipment. Over the years, his focus has shifted from rodeo work to a wide range of other custom leather goods including guitar straps and guitar covers. That seemed a natural progression for someone living so close to Nashville.
“Everybody’s a guitar player in Nashville,” he said with a laugh. “Some of the best ones you’ve never heard of.”
Still, some very familiar names have bought his work.
“In the 70’s, a friend of mine, Richie Albright, started coming by. He was actually Waylon Jennings’ drummer. So, he was getting guitar covers and straps for Waylon.”
Lankford went on to do similar work for Hank Williams, Jr., Charlie Daniels, Marty Stuart, and others. Some of his custom pieces have also ended up in movies, including some he made for Steven Seagal.
Hand-tooling involves using a set of tools to create shapes and patterns in leather. It starts with a design or pattern, usually on paper, that’s transferred to the leather. Lankford’s been doing it so long he sometimes skips the paper, drawing directly onto the leather. Once the pattern’s there, a variety of tools are used to cut and shape it, then raise and lower different parts of the design.
“You draw your pattern and you cut it with these small knives. Then you bevel it. You have bevellers that raise the edges up.”
Raising the edges, by tapping the bevellers with a small mallet or hammer gives something, such as a flower, leaf, or perhaps letter in a name, its depth, its 3D feel. Lankford has more than a hundred different hand tools — many that he’s made on his own — to create a variety of textures in the leather. Every tool has its own special purpose.
“These are called pear shaders,” he explains, referring to one of the tools used to create indentations in the leather. Those indentations are needed to change the color of that piece of leather once it’s stained.
“See these little indentations? When you stain it, the stain will puddle in these little indentions and changes the color of it.”
Lankford usually creates his own designs, but will sometimes duplicate something for a customer.
“Sometimes someone will bring in an old belt Grandpa used to use and we’ll trace the pattern and use the same so it looks like an old belt. We’ll do that, too.”
Hand tooling is intricate, time-consuming work, and something like a guitar strap can take an entire day to make, but the results are worth it. Lankford considers what he does more of a craft than an art and while he’s created some beautiful patterns, he says he never showed much talent for drawing as a kid.
“I could draw stick figures,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t draw now.”
He’s come a long way from those early days. Over the past four-and-a-half decades he’s hand tooled everything from notebooks to saddles, tables to mirror covers and much more. He’s been willing to do just about any type of custom hand tooling possible, including a tour bus interior for a musician. He admitted that initially hand tooling covers for cabinets and TV’s inside a tour bus did pose a bit of a challenge, until he and his son, Austin, who also works with him, figured out the best approach. Lankford said tackling new challenges and the variety of the work that comes his way are two of the things he enjoys most about what he does.