Northern Story #8 · Luis Roldán, LEATHER CRAFTER


Fotografía: Noemí Elías

We are two cowboys galloping on our horses.
No, we are Dani and Joan, and we are going to pick up Noe in a Renault that might be from the time of old westerns.

We hadn’t met Noe in a long time, when we see each other, we agree that we all look younger.
It’s Sunday during a Summery November in Barcelona. And we go north, towards the Maresme. The sun in our eyes makes us blind. We feel like day trippers in the month of July.

Hello Cocuan
Near the ring road of Mataró, to the west, Luis Roldán has his shop. We find him there, working, and listening to the news in the radio.

He did everything in his workshop: “my father was a carpenter and he taught me the basics”. Thanks to “the basics” he built up his shop, did the panels, some furniture and even a small set to take pictures to his products.

"My farther was a carpenter and taught me the basics".

We spend our time going from the storehouse to the workshop and back.
Luis seems to be a very tidy person: every spot has a function and everything has its place. He shows us his shelf, it’s full of rolls of leather. He explains to us the main differences and characteristics of each type of leather: the most obvious differences depend on the type of dying. He explains to us that the traditional brownish tones come from the bark of different trees, which is used to dye the leather. We like the light brown. It’s the same color as whiskey. We are 2 cowboys and this is the color of our drinks.

We choose this roll: veal neck full-grain leather 100% vegetal tanned. “Vegetal” means that in the process of tanning no chemicals were used, only plant material. Thanks to the lack of chemicals in the tanning process, the leather doesn’t have that strong smell which we are used to. Furthermore, it has a texture, hardness and flexibility, that makes it the suitable leather for the surface of the piece (this is what full-grain means). Luis explains all this with a grin: the face of the model pupil. Though he seems to be more into intuition than into theory.
Luis is exactly as he appears to be: he is downplaying his work all the time: “I learnt by searching for information everywhere. Yes, you could say I was self-taught”. He says this as if self-teaching was an easy thing. As if skill and perseverance were not a thing.

Work table
We start working on a huge table, between the storehouse and the shop.
We point out to Luis that some people are peeping through the glass of the door. He doesn’t care, today is not a selling day.

We spread out the veal neck. There is something with Luis’ grin: the smile in his face when he talks makes us doubt wether “veal neck” is the real expression for it or he just made it up. It doesn’t matter, it is what it is, I guess that’s how he thinks about it.

Alright: we start cutting with the strap cutter (“tallatires” he calls it in Catalan with a grin), we have to change the blade. “I’m changing blades all day. One blade might work for up to ten cuts”. He knows what he’s talking about: Luis started using the cutter much before starting to work with leather: he has a long career as a graphic designer which he’s still continuing to do together with his more artisanal work. “Working with your hands after a whole day in front of a screen is a relief. Possibly my artisanal drive comes as a counterpoint to my other job”.

We have already decided that the belts will be 3.9 centimeters of width. The length, we decide it at a rough guess. Luis tells us that he has two standard lengths, but this two will be custom-made.

We take out a small part of the leather, we will work on it seperately. We’ll fold this small piece and sew it in the form of a ring. It will hold the part of the belt that comes out of the buckle. Dani rounds the edges with the cutter, he thinks that it looks more western-like. I prefer straight edges. Then, we polish the edges with a dremel machine in order to take out the natural filaments and finish our work with good workmanship.
Afterwords we carve the inside of the leather ring, so the belt won’t get stuck inside. “What do you call this machine, Luis?”. “This, it is a ‘chunkmaker’”. Fine, Luis, take this grin off your face or later I won’t know what to write. And Dani and Noe are laughing at the situation. Meanwhile, the sun hides behind a cloud because it’s Autumn, and that’s what’s supposed to happen.

The visible end of the belt will have a round and pointy shape. We make a straight cut on the other end and, again, we polish the edges with the dremel machine to avoid an uncomfortable brush. Even if this is a hem inside the buckle. Details. Now, we hold the leather strap with a a wooden bracket that Luís made himself. We burnish the sides of the belt with beeswax and then we iron it with the dremel to burn the wax and fix it to the skin. Fix it, strengthen it. We are not doing it right. Luís corrects our position: “do not lean that much”. We are putting too much weight on the belt. “If there’s smoke is that you’re burning the leather”. Intuition, sure, and discipline as well. Actually, I think that it is not a complicated process but it requires a lot of concentration to avoid mistakes.

A cloth. Luís gives me a cloth and a can full of horse grease.
We are going to strengthen the leather with this natural nutrient so it will age well. A real cowboy wouldn’t admit being tired, but actually, administering the grease isn’t an easy task, it requires some strength. Yes, I’m tired and time flies.

That’s what we’ve said when we’ve seen it.
We’re going to make a logo to identify the Norte belt. We sew a triangular arrow which is part of the logo. We say “navajo” because it looks like a symbol that could have belonged to the “navajo” culture, a very tribal look. We mark the limits to place the triangle on the belt. We will perforate the places that now we are marking with a huge nipper. But still, the size of the holes is too small and we make them bigger with a hammer and another specific tool. Now it’s better. We let some steam off with the hammer.
Later, we sew through the holes with 1mm wax-coated string, crossing alternatively through the holes. To finish the belt, we sew strongly in the last hole and we burn the ends of the string. Something makes us think of previous experiences: Dani says that there is something common in all the people with whom we have been working. After thinking about it, we decide that it is their patience and a very straightforward attitude.
Noble and solid.
The belt is done.

I'm a poor lonesome...
We stamp the image of an old cowboy on the bag for the belt. A cowboy that looks at us with a rough expression. We have finished the piece earlier than we thought. Maybe we are getting more and more skilled. I like to think about it that way. Luís says that we could go out and eat a burger. We meet Marta, his partner, and their daughter Nora. They talk about their home, about how they decided to get away from the multitudes of Barcelona to find a quiet life. The environment builds the character. I wonder if Luís was quiet in his previous life.

Later we talk about kids, urban tribes (there are not so many of them now a days… sweet old times). We also talk about the half life crisis. And the time goes.

We say goodbye to the family; Luís says goodbye while caressing his beard. He is in the porch of the house, he smiles and we hear a sweet old tune.