Al Stohlman (1919-1998) was a pioneer in leathercraft and continues to influence hundreds of thousands of leathercrafters worldwide. He and his wife Ann produced 100’s of magazine articles, Doodle Pages and other valuable tools still used in the leathercraft industry.
As a young boy, drawing came naturally to Stohlman and he aspired to become an illustrator for western stories. Growing up in the Santa Ana Canyon, he would trail along on his horse after the cowboys from Bixby Ranch as they drove cattle down the dry Santa Ana River bed to the railroad pens in Olive, CA. During this time, he learned a lot about horses and cowboys that became invaluable to his work, both as an artist and saddle-maker.
In 1941, Stohlman was called to serve in the Army’s 46th Engineer Regiment. He was an excellent shot with a rifle, firing Expert with the M-1 in the army. While in Milne Bay, New Guinea, Stohlman had his first encounter with leatherwork when he saw natives creating decorative designs in leather. Returning home from the war 4 years later, housing was difficult to find, so Stohlman lived in a little shack and traded horses in Laguna Canyon.
After viewing a poorly executed reproduction of a bucking horse on a saddle, Stohlman thought saddle art should be held to a higher standard; if he could do it on paper, why not leather? He began to study other saddles very closely and developed his own techniques and procedures through trial and error, occasionally picking up tips from a local saddle shop. He began making own tools to fit his needs and progressed rapidly.
“Doing things the hard way is not always the best, but it gives you a certain amount of experience and knowledge that would be very difficult to learn otherwise,” Stohlman once said. “If nothing else, it does develop your ingenuity.”
When down at the auction yards trading horses, he would bid on plain saddles, tool them, and sell them the next week to the highest bidder, affording him enough money for another used saddle and a modest living for a few weeks. People liked the picture work that was featured on the saddles and, before long, he had quite a bit of business going.
Stohlman went on to take a job as a barn boss at a dude ranch in the San Bernardino Mountains. Stohlman’s free nights were spent in the bunkhouse working on leather. While buying leather one day at Schaff’s Leather Company, he met Guy Lauterbach, who took him in as his apprentice in 1947. Lauterbach imparted his 40 years of leather working experience to Stohlman over the 5 year apprenticeship, advancing him from merely carving leather to building leather projects from the ground up.
After several years in the shop, Stohlman was offered the privilege of carving a Doodle Page for Dick McCahen, owner of the Craftool Co. One page led to another and he then moved to Los Angeles to work full time for Craftool, producing books such as “How to Carve Leather” and “Figure Carving” and developed many of the figure carving tools still carried in the Craftool line.
After two years in Los Angeles, Stohlman moved to the hills of Hemet for some peace and quiet. There, he became a freelance artist and produced a number of patterns, tools, projects, and instruction books for Tandy Leather Company.
Stohlman met Ann McDonald at a leatherworking demonstration he was performing and the two went on to marry in 1963. The Stohlmans moved to Cache Creek, British Colombia in 1969, where they spent the next 29 years creating the bulk of their life’s work. Al specialized in custom-made leather work and inking illustrations for the instruction books while Ann typed all of the instructions. Ann became quite an accomplished leatherworker herself, having her work featured in a number of publications.
In 1983, the Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft was established to recognize an artist whose accomplishments in leatherwork and dedication to the promotion of the craft follow the example set by Stohlman. Awarded annually, recipients of the medal are recognized on the basis of their overall achievements in leathercraft.
Al Stohlman passed away in 1998, however he left behind a legacy of teaching and beautiful leather work. Many pieces of original Stohlman art are on display as part of the Al & Ann Stohlman Collection at the Tandy Leather Museum & Gallery in Fort Worth, TX.