Cliff Ketchum (1918 – 1984) approached leather carving as an art form, raising the bar of floral carving for many of his early contemporaries. A true master of the swivel knife, Ketchum’s precise detail, impeccable style, and dedication to finesse made his work the envy of many.
Growing up in Arizona, Cliff loved to watch the stampers at the Porter’s Saddlery. When in high school, he began doing piece work at a rate of 35 cents an hour. He apprenticed under Master Saddlemaker Luis Ringlero and managed to work his way through a year of college at the University of Arizona living off of his leatherwork.
At age 22, he briefly moved to California to start a saddle shop in San Fernando Valley Lichtenberger-Feruson stamping for Ed Gilmour when the war beckoned. Ketchum joined the Army and served in the war effort from 1942 to 1946, before returning to the Los Angeles area where he started his own saddle shop with Art Hugenberger.
The San Fernando Valley Saddlery stamped saddles for the television and film industry, as well as a number of the Hollywood elite, including John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Audie Murphey. Stunt men prized his saddles, and many saddle makers apprenticed under Ketchum’s guidance, including Stohlman Award winner Verlane Desgrange.
Although a likable and laid back individual, Ketchum was a staunch businessman who knew the value of his work. Some of the Hollywood shops tried to pit him against Ken Griffin to drive down prices, however the two organized local leatherworkers to compare prices and agree not to undercut each other. Like Griffin, Ketchum was also a regular contributor to the early Doodle Pages produced by Craftool, regularly sharing insights and tips on mastering floral carving.
In his 30’s, the Los Angeles based Ketchum was invited to try his hand at acting. Slim and tall, he often got cast in Western rolls and went on to appear in Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, 77 Sunset Strip, Pork Chop Hill, and The Young Land.
Fun Fact: As a young man, legendary saddlemaker Don King spent some time cowboying around Arizona. One of King’s regular stops was Porter’s Saddle Shop, where an 18 year old Cliff Ketchum first encouraged him to try his hand at leatherworking.
Multiple images in this article are attributed to the The Leather Craftsman Magazine.