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On The Case. ~John Barton

The art of decorating leather has probably been around as long as man has been making and using leather. Leather is simply the skin of an animal that has been preserved from decay for some use. While leather can be made to last almost indefinitely, it is skin, and that requires some care so that it does not dry out and crumble.

Before the invention of paper, information was recorded on leather, often using blood as ink. Making highly decorated containers certainly ranks as one of the oldest crafts, and most cultures use leather in a variety of ways.

In billiards, we see leather used mostly in cue cases and of course cue tips. Leather, being the durable and versatile material it is, lends itself particularly well to cue cases. For this article we will explore the world of carving and tooling leather as it pertains to cue cases with a focus on the Sheridan style.

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First let’s look at what tooling and carving is. Tooling leather refers to permanently altering the surface of the leather with a decorative motif. Most commonly this happens by stamping the leather or carving into it with a knife, and then shaping the lines using a variety of tools.

This work can be crude and sloppy, or insanely intricate and precise. It takes a connoisseur to see and appreciate the difference between beginner work and master work.

Anyone can get into working with leather fairly easily and many of us had the beginning kits as kids from Tandy Leather. The craft itself however is quite deep, and it takes a long time to master the many techniques to produce world class work. As with cue making, there are recognized masters of the craft and these men and women stand head and shoulders above the rest of the field with their artistry.

Legend has it that the Spanish explorers used leather carving to preserve the flora and fauna they found in the Americas. This artwork was then incorporated on to Mexican horse saddles and eventually made its way across the border, and we now see it on saddles in the United States.

In the past several years, we have seen a particular style of leather carving showing up on cue cases which is known as the Sheridan style. The Sheridan style is a way of carving wild roses and leaves, so that the flowers are shown with more depth. It is so named because it’s originator, the famous Don King, made his home in Sheridan, Wyoming.

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Don was a saddle maker by trade, and his style of tooling quickly caught on with other area saddle makers. His work eventually spread across the country and—later—even around the world. In Sheridan carving, roses, leaves and vines are portrayed in an unbroken pattern. Using a tool that Don King invented, called a “lifter,” the petals of the flowers appear to lift off the surface. Ron Ross is a living legend in the Sheridan style of leather carving, and he frequently teams up with Jack Justis to produce some amazing cue cases. Ron carves the leather, and Jack builds the case.

The popularity of heavily tooled cases in the Sheridan style has been the spark to bring a lot of new case makers into the business who have been working on carving in styles from mild to wild.

Now, in the past there have been nicely tooled leather cases. These include the J.E.F. Q Cases—commonly known as flowers cases—some nice examples of Fellini cases, the Instroke Saddle Series, and others. However, only a few of these were done in the full Sheridan style.  I would have to say that Jack Justis ushered in the era of Sheridan carving on cue cases with his collaborations with Ron Ross and others.

In my opinion, cue cases are well suited to this style of carving for several reasons. The first is that the “gunslinger” nature of the road player ties in nicely with western lore. Secondly, a cue case offers a very nice amount of surface area to display the work on.

It’s art that is transported.

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Cases without pockets offer an unbroken area to display large interconnected patterns, while cases with pockets allow for themes to be carried to each place on the case. When done right, the wild roses are expressive and deep, well contoured, and have a lively look. Proper carving flows without cutting off any of the work and is fitted to the space.  A carver cheats the customer when he or she doesn’t take the time to properly fit the pattern to the space, resulting in parts being cut off.

Good work has the vines clearly weaving over and under each other and jumping off the leather. When a piece is done right, then each inch is unique and takes the eye on a journey around the case. You can start at any point and follow the pattern in any direction and end up back where you started.

When it comes to western floral carving, the Sheridan style is without a doubt the hardest to master, and also the most beautiful. It offers an unlimited range of expression with the only rule being that the roses are turned up to face the viewer and are contained in circles that flow into each other.

The masters of this craft have continuously turned in pieces that show amazing creativity.  Of course humans will always stretch the rules, so Sheridan has evolved over the years to include other flowers and other angles.

With that in mind, make sure that when you are looking at cases done with Sheridan carving you look at the history of the style and study it as you would a high end cue. Then you will appreciate what you are viewing at a much deeper level. There has never been a better time to be a buyer of custom cue cases.

By my count, there are about 60+ current makers and of those there are many who are producing well-tooled and intricate pieces. Some do all the work themselves, and some do collaborations much the way a lot of the high end cue makers collaborate with talented scrimshanders to carve their ivory.

If Sheridan style floral tooling isn’t what turns you on, then enjoy the fact that a lot of the current case makers have gone well beyond the traditional and are now producing stunning works with some highly interesting designs. However, just because there is a lot of tooling doesn’t mean it’s good. You need to look for the flow, the use of space, and the care and detail put into it.

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In my opinion, when someone puts a rivet or a stitch line over their tooling that shows improper planning and a lack of care. I personally would hate to do carving and tooling and then have to punch holes in it. Planning around strap holders, handles, and latches shows care and proper use of space.

Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed with a lot of busy elements; really study the piece and understand the flow. Doing so will help you appreciate the amazing work, while learning to recognize the mediocre work.

Tooling and carving is a wonderful way to decorate leather, and a finely crafted piece can become an heirloom. It’s essentially sculpting skin, and is a primal way to connect back to the Earth. Leather is a great naturally recyclable material that can give you decades—if not centuries—of use with proper care. Learn to look for quality and you will have a case that you can enjoy for decades.

Until next time…

John Barton, of JB Cases, has been a leather cue case maker since 1991. If you’re interested in leather work, he suggests you check out these resources: Photos: provided by author Editor: Hannah Blue
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