Steve Snyder discovered a lifetime passion for leather artwork when he was 14 years old out of disappointment and necessity.
“I was about to turn 15 in 1969; this was back in the hippie era,” said Snyder, who lived in Topeka at the time. “Kids at schools were starting to wear leather rings and watch bands. My sister, Sheryl, wanted a leather ring for her birthday.”
He stopped in at Nirvana, a local leather and hemp shop near the family home, hoping to buy his sister’s gift.
“When I finally worked up the nerve to walk in, no one even looked up from the counter,” Snyder recalled. “I was really disappointed. I remembered my dad had done some leather work, and I knew his tools were somewhere in the attic. I went home, dug around, and found the tools. I ended up making the ring for my sister’s birthday.”
Today, nearly five decades later, this self-taught craftsman remains inspired to create functional, yet beautiful objects with leather.
From his studio at the InterUrban ArtHouse in downtown Overland Park, Snyder creates a wide array of products, from abstract wall hangings to knife sheaths to bags in countless styles.
From Brazil to Belgium, and Australia to China, Snyder’s handcrafted bags are carried by customers around the world.
Shortly after his project — that ring, which his sister loved — Snyder began making rings and watch bands, which he sold to his fellow students. Toward the end of that first summer designing leather jewelry, Snyder decided to try and make a pair of sandals and visited a local shoe-repair shop for some tips on sandal-making.
At his hometown shoe shop, Snyder not only learned to make sandals, but he also learned the craft and business of shoe repair. For many years, the shoe-repair trade, which also complemented his creative leather work, provided Snyder a means of financial support, as he continued exploring his gifts for leather design.
Snyder relocated to Kansas City in 1986 and continued working in the shoe-repair business, but he never gave up on making art from leather — a passion that eventually spawned the Kaw Valley Leather Company.
Snyder spent years developing the specific process to prepare the leather from which he currently creates his designs. In fact, the leather, a yellow latigo cow hide, is itself quite unique.
“I work with a leather used back in the 80s,” he said. “This is what sets my work apart. The latigo is tanned in a way that makes it like harness-and-tack leather used in saddlery making. With the yellow, you can bring out so many tones when it is dyed.”
It’s not an easy medium to use.
The particular type of yellow latigo Snyder uses was tanned with heavy metals during the late 1980s until the Environmental Protection Agency wrote standards that outlawed using such toxic tanning methods. As a result, tanneries ceased producing the yellow latigo.
Believing it to be the best leather for his creative vision, Snyder spent more than two years searching for a tannery that would not only tan the leather to his specifications but do it using a safe process. He primarily uses material from St. Louis-based Hermann Oak Tannery, which veg-tans Snyder’s latigo using vegetable matter and other materials, such as tree bark, which makes it safe for both creator and wearer.
Once Snyder receives the tanned product from Hermann Oak, he begins the complex process of bringing one of his designs into reality.
First, he traces the objects’ patterns onto the flat latigo. After the tracing is complete, he cuts out the components and bevels all of the edges. This step is followed by tool work and carving.
“Afterward, I dye the leather,” Snyder said. “Some of the pieces will have four different shades applied before I get the look I’m hoping for. I use a technique I came up with in the ’70s. People are curious about how I do my shading. I don’t airbrush, which is common in leather finishing. Once the dying is complete, I use another product to seal, finish, and condition the leather.”
After this intricate finishing process, Snyder finally begins to build the piece. For bags and plant holders, he prefers hand stitching over lacing and uses a harness stitcher for construction. For other products, such as his wall sconces and abstract wall hangings, Snyder uses a wet-leather molding process.
In addition to bags, the cornerstone of his business, Snyder also makes flower clocks with leather petals, knife sheaths, hatchet covers, belts, and more.
“I’ve always been intrigued with shape and I make my own patterns,” he said.
Although he’s traditionally embraced a retro look, Snyder said he is currently leaning toward more contemporary designs.
“There’s a limited retro market today,” he said.
So, Snyder continually seeks fresh inspiration for creating new designs. Two of his current projects are highly detailed guitar straps and custom pool-cue jackets. In fact, his first guitar strap was recently delivered to Nashville to embellish one of several guitars owned by an accomplished Music City musician.
According to Snyder, both the guitar straps and pool-cue cases have wide-ranging custom possibilities, as well as the potential to be developed into an extended product line.
“In today’s world, styles and fashions change so fast,” Snyder said. “It’s been a struggle to find a niche market. I didn’t see creating lines before, but that may be what it takes. When I look to the future, I would also probably like to go back to sandal-making.”
Marketing remains one of Snyder’s biggest challenges, but he keeps at it because the creative joices keep flowing.
“It’s a real learning curve,” Snyder said of marketing. “At the same time, the challenge to design something that will sell gives me inspiration to keep creating. ... I believe there is an obtainable market, but I don’t know where things are a going to go yet. Times have changed, but if I can keep this business sustainable, this is what I would like to be able to do the rest of my working years.”
To see Snyder’s designs or check his work in person, visit his Overland Park studio inside the InterUrban ArtHouse, 8001 Newton Street, or visit his online Etsy retail presence at www.kawvalleyleather.etsy.com.