Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Leaders In Leathercraft: Dick McGahen

Dick McGahen founded the Craftool Company in 1947 with an aspiration to introduce leatherworking tools that could be afforded by millions.  At that time, stamping tools were made individually by hand and were very expensive; not something a hobbyist could afford.

Dick McGahen of the Craftool Company

McGahen approached Oliver Sturdy, a tool machinist based out of Los Angeles, to create the first set of Craftool stamps.  He brought Sturdy a handful of saddle stamping tools and asked if he could replicate them.  His initial order was 5,000 sets of tools, to which Sturdy balked that “There aren’t 5,000 people in the country who would buy those things.”

Fortunately for Craftool Company, leathercraft caught on and business boomed.  With the help of leather carvers, engineers, artists, and other technicians, the Craftool Company created a business where none had ever existed before.  Many of the very first Craftool stamps were based off of tools designed by saddle maker Ken Griffin from Southern California.   McGahen knew that you couldn’t just sell tools and supplies; you had to teach the world how to do leathercraft.  He collaborated with Griffin on low cost ways to encourage practice and the concept of Doodle Page was born.

In 1952, a young California leather artist caught McGahen’s attention with leather carving of a palomino wearing an ornate saddle.  Al Stohlman was hired by McGahen to design leatherworking tools and write publications for the Craftool Company.  Stohlman began earning national attention through Craftool Company with his first publication, “How To Carve Leather”.

Dick McGahen with Al Stohlman

Another major contributor to the early Craftool Company was an inventor named Lou Roth.  He is credited with creating the modern skiving knives, adjustable V gouge, and a number of other tools that we still use today.  Roth was also the creator of the Craftaid.

The Craftool Company was bought by Tandy Leather in 1959 and was moved to Fort Worth, TX in 1962.  Craftool stamps still serve the same purpose that they did at their inception: to provide leatherworking tools at an affordable price to introduce new people to the love of leathercraft.

The Craftools of today have benefited from technological advances.  Hand grinding tools is labor intensive, expensive, inconsistent, and a very time consuming process.  To keep up with the demand for affordable stamping tools, die casting and cold stamping are now used to produce uniformly designed tools.

In 2013, Tandy Leather also introduced the Craftool Pro Series to offer handcrafted, stainless steel stamps for professional leatherworkers at an affordable price.  Each tool goes through a 15 to 20 step crafting process to stand up to the demands of daily use and still give crisp and clean impressions every time.

Fun Fact: Many people try to determine the age and origin of a Craftool stamp by the numbering and labeling.  Although modern Craftools have a letter and a number for identification (i.e. B893), the letter prefix was not introduced in the Tandy Leather catalog until 1963.

Over the years, the label on the tools has also changed a number of times, including Craftool, Craftool USA, and others. Although some believe that this is a way to identify the age of a tool, it is unlikely that all of the plates were changed at once.  As the die casts for tools wore out, it is reasonable to assume that they were replaced with the updated labeling.  The transition between different Craftool labeling likely happened over the course of many years.

Ken Griffin Doodle Page Available on the Leathercraft Library

Original Doodle Pages by Ken Griffin, Al Stohlman and many others are still available through the Leathercraft Library!