“My work is slow. Leather does not invite speed.” The contemplative craft of Honey Bird Leathercraft

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Max Jones of Honey Bird Leathercraft has a way with words as well as leather:

“Perhaps every man comes to a point in his life when he looks around at what he has created for himself and is thus afforded an opportunity to really consider the authenticity of it all. It seems we can so easily fall into roles and jobs that are not necessarily aligned with our true authentic selves. This was revealed to me a couple of years ago and there was no denying the truth of it.

I accepted my fate, and the challenge of following my destiny. Playing the Fool card, I leapt off the proverbial cliff into the relative unknown of becoming a leatherworker. I have not looked back since then. It has been such a fulfilling journey. And yes, it feels authentic; a true and inherent expression of who I am and what I “really” came here to do.

My love for the smell of leather, the sound it makes when being cut, the “ping” of a solid brass rivet being hammered upon an anvil, the energetic weight of a hand tool forged 135 years ago and the smiles on people’s faces who appreciate the quality they hold in their hands and wear on their feet, are a few of the ways that I measure the authenticity of it all.”

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honeybirdchaser
honeybirdchaser

honeybirdchaser matariki

What do you make?
I make things from vegetable tanned leather. At the moment, I am focusing on sandals, belts, and bracelets.

How did you get into your craft?
I needed a new lease on life. I really wanted to do something with my hands. Something noble. One day last winter, while I was polishing up a pair of old Italian leather boots, the idea came to me that I would like to work with leather. That was it! My “A-ha” moment. I just knew it was right. I just went for it! That’s my style. That’s how I roll.

Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I have had no formal training. I am mostly self-taught. I did have the honour of spending five days with one of New Zealand’s oldest shoe makers. He taught me how to make a particular style of sandal, what we now call the WayFinder. Before this I had, as most people, only worn leather.

Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
My favourite material is the vegetable tanned leather that I use for my work. Prior to becoming a leatherworker, I was unaware that there were different ways to tan leather. In fact, 95% of the leather products on the market today are made from leather tanned using Chromium Sulfate. This is a rather “dirty” i.e. toxic way to go about it. I don’t want my children, or my customers, absorbing this “salt” into their bloodstreams by wearing my sandals. For this, and other reasons, I use veg-tanned leather exclusively.

My most prized tool is a Joseph Dixon Plough Gauge made in 1884. It allows me to cut straps up to 6” wide. I love just looking at this ancient piece of art.

One of my favourite processes is burnishing the edges of the leather. It gives a nice slick effect to my sandals.

honeybirdchaser
honeybirdchaser

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Tell us about the techniques involved in producing a pair of your sandals
I start with 10 ounce veg tanned leather. The upper is cut from this. I use a 7 ounce leather for the straps which I cut with my beloved plough gauge. These are saddle soaped and conditioned with a beeswax polish to replace some of the fats and liquors which are removed during the tanning process.

Then there is bevelling and burnishing before the dyeing takes place. The holes are punched in the soles for the straps to pass through. These are fixed to the uppers using solid brass rivets.

I use wooden shoe lasts to build the sandals around to give me a three dimensional form to work with.

I use a non-toxic, water based glue to adhere the uppers to the soles. I nail the leather soles on using brass clinching nails and for the rubber soles we sew them on with our antique sewing machine. The edges are hand burnished and everything receives one more lick of beeswax conditioner before they are ready for their adventure.

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What inspires you?
I am inspired by so many things. My wife’s incredible artistic abilities. My children’s enthusiasm and zest for life. The smell of leather. The way water always finds the path of least resistance. The vocal range of the Tui. The timelessness of the mighty Totara. The flight of the kereru. Silence.

Is there a philosophy behind your work?
My work is slow. Leather does not invite speed. It demands that you are attentive and calculated with your movements. It’s a good teacher that way. It affords me a lot of time to contemplate the fact that life has gotten too fast for most of us. My intention with everything that I make, is that it enables the person who buys it to slow down; to be more attentive and connected to the Earth and their fellow humans, animals, and plants.

I don’t look for short cuts along the way. It’s those little, and often time consuming details, that make such a difference in the end.

Describe your creative process:
My creative process begins in the realm of The Visual. I “see” the finished piece and then work backwards. I don’t look for short cuts along the way. It’s those little, and often time consuming details, that make such a difference in the end. I enjoy the work. I am not rushed by the world around me. I am now in the realm of The Creator.

Describe your workspace:
My workshop is located on the Motueka River in the lovely wee hamlet of Ngatimoti. It’s in an old shed that was once used to make wind chimes. It’s got good vibes. I have old photos of my ancestors on the walls. They help me do the “mahi”.

There’s a huge table in the center that I can lay out a hide on. Some of these skins are over 2.5m long so its really nice to be able to accommodate them completely. My beloved outsole-stitching machine has a nice home here. His name is the Chief. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1940. He’s a bit fat, weighing in at 450kg, but we love him just the same.

There’s always music. And yerba mate. Lots of yerba mate.

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Five words that describe your mind:
Ancestral, connected, open, deep, precise.

Your favourite feedback from a customer:
“Son, look at this. This is quality. This is going to last!”

What are you currently listening to?
Xavier Rudd.

Recommend an album:
Live at the Old Quarter by Townes Van Zandt.

What are you reading now?
The Wayfinders by Wade Davis. This is a great book about why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. I’ve read it several times now. We named our first pair of sandals in honour of this book’s message.

Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
My heroes and heroines are all those who have walked this path before me. My ancestors enrich and enliven me. Their stories inspire me. I endeavour to make them proud. I am forever making more space for them in my life.

A favourite quote:
“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell. Don’t go back to sleep.” – Rumi.

honeybirdchaser
honeybirdchaser

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If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
I am Kitar Valentine. I am a World Bridger Extraordinaire. I journey to other dimensions, galaxies, and universes to seek out mystical nuggets, which I bring back to Earth in my Super Flash Time Capsule.

What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the beginning I wrote to people all over the world asking for advice with various things. Virtually everyone I have written to has responded. And quickly!

I found my mentor this way. He lives on a tiny island in British Columbia and has been making leather sandals for 55 years! He’s awesome.

What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
I rescued a beautiful ceramic cup at an op-shop recently. It was on a table surrounded by heaps of mass produced coffee cups. I heard its cry for freedom. It was 50 cents!

What’s in store for 2017?
We will begin making wallets, journal covers, bags and camera straps. We will be saddle stitching these items together. We will refine our sandal making skills and be offering a few new designs. And we will enlist the help off others to achieve all this. We are building a website and will continue to offer our wares at local markets and festivals.

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