Clint Wilkinson, the founder and owner of the new handmade leather goods store, Bell and Oak, is a cool dude with some hardcore Denton roots. We recently chatted with him about his process, his vision for his new venture and some other stuff. If you don't already know about Bell and Oak, it's high time you did. This guy is crafting and creating some of the most beautiful handmade leather goods around. His Instagram feed alone will make you swoon. We're pretty much feeling like we need all leather everything now. Don't even get us started on the amazing 'new leather' smell that happens when you pick up a new piece for your growing wallet collection - it's addicting. Read on to find out how Clint is honing his craft and sharing it with the world below.
Yo, Clint. Share with us a little bit about your family’s history with Denton.
Well, I believe my Grandpa (Weldon Burgoon) is a 6th generation Dentonite. The University of North Texas did an excellent oral history book on his life this year. It’s 200+ pages about his descendants traveling to Denton back in the 1800’s all the way to present day. It has some really neat pictures in the back of it describing certain locations in Denton and old cowboy stories. We sell them inside Weldon’s currently.
Going back to 1957, that’s when my Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, and Uncle started Weldon’s Saddle Shop. It was located on the east side of Bell & Hickory St. but moved to the west side(our current location) in the 60’s. He started it by making custom saddles, leather goods, and tack but he slowly started carrying western wear to get a little cash flow. As years went on it’s progressed into what you see today, sorta a Denton landmark. We have western clothing for men, women, and kids but what I think makes our shop so unique, is all the Texas Cowboy Collectibles and working leather shop inside. It’s really like stepping into a western museum.
In 2011 my Grandpa got inducted into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame because of the extraordinary Denton Junior Stampede Rodeo that he and my family created in the 70’s that was held at the Denton Fair Grounds. He’s also been inducted into the National Bit & Spur Association Hall of Fame for his contributions.
My Dad grew up in Denton and was a professional calf roper. His Dad died before I was born, so I never had the chance to meet him, but one day I will! Dad was raised a cowboy too and I remember as a kid traveling to rodeos in the back of his truck every weekend to watch him rope. Those were the good ol’ days, not a worry in the world!
So I’ve been a Dentonite for 31 years I guess. I’ve seen it change quite a bit.
Your past in design and your transition into handmade goods is inspiring. What really made you want to make the jump into doing this full time?
I could go on for days with different reasons why I wanted to make the move into this field but, the main reason is because I just had too much stuff going on at one time which led me into an extreme anxiety filled burnout. Some of you may have read My Story on Bell & Oak’s website about how ,in 2007, I helped start the worlds most popular online publishing platform for the motocross industry, vurbmoto.com. I was also working at Weldon’s during that time so one minute I would be designing motion graphics for Red Bull, making web elements, learning code, on Skype calls.. the next minute trying to sell a pair of boots or help my Grandpa fix something. On top of all that I have a lovely wife and two kids who I’m trying to spend time with. I would find myself running wide open from 6am - 1am most days, with little sleep and to much coffee. I did that for 6 years and finally my body had enough and just shut down. I told the Vurb guys I needed a break.
During that break is when I discovered how therapeutic working with leather was. There’s something about working with your hands thats really satisfying. So one day I went back into our leather shop and just made an iPad Mini case. It took me about 2 weeks to complete because I’d never made anything like it before. After that I made my Dad a belt for his birthday, fully tooled with a liner sewn in. By that time a month had passed and I could feel my body slowly getting back to normal because I cut out all the stress I was having. For the next 4 months all I did was go to work at Weldon’s and work on leather, help customers, and go home. It brought me back to when I was young before all the craziness.
After learning how to build things better and getting into a groove of normalcy I knew this was something I would love to do. So I browsed around the internet at some different brands who kinda fit the same style I’d like to create. I was confident in my ability to start a brand by myself because of all the experience I had, so I went for it and here we are today! The guys at Vurb supported me during that time period and I’m forever grateful to all of them for that.
On top of all that, I want to keep my Grandpa’s leather craft legacy alive. I would love to teach my kids how to craft things out of leather and hopefully they’re interested at an early age. I feel like this is my contribution to the foundation that started Weldon’s Saddle Shop.
Your online presence really grew incredibly quickly. What has the challenge been in creating that presence?
I still have a long way to go in order to reach my goals online, but I was shocked at the response I received after putting out the link to My Story on facebook in January. On the first day My Story received over 1600 likes on facebook which was way more than I was expecting. Heck we have over 180K Followers on vurbmoto’s facebook page and it was hard getting that many likes on posts, so it was definitely reassuring.
The biggest challenge I think is keeping people interested in what you’re doing. People have so many distractions in their lives these days, it’s tough to keep them interested in your posts. Think about how fast you can get information these days. People want things as fast as Google gives it to them and then they move onto the next thing just as fast. So I try to not overdue posts on instagram, I try to only post the best images once a day. From my past experience in building a world wide brand, we had to figure all of this out the hard way. So I’m truly taking what I’ve learned building past brands and applying it to Bell & Oak.
Your shop is chock full of beautiful handmade leather goods. Which of these goods are you actually using/wearing right now?
I’m always wearing the Standard Belt with Belt Key Chain because I don’t like keys in my pocket. As for wallets, I’m a Grissom guy during the week and Hickory guy on the weekend. I also love using the iPhone Sleeve compared to those huge rubber bricks that are so hard to put in your pocket.
How do you choose your leather? Can you tell us why you believe in creating a product that uses really high quality leather?
I knew that I wanted to get the best quality leather so people could tell a difference. Since I’ve been blessed to work at my Grandpa’s shop, I get to hear all the stories about how someone’s belt only lasted 9 months or that a wallet fell apart in 6 months yet, they continue to buy the same exact product. I want those people to buy a Bell & Oak product so they can feel, smell, and experience the difference when real quality leather is used. Plus the fact it’s made right here in Denton Texas, I would hope the locals can appreciate something like that. I want the customer to have the opportunity to pass down a Bell & Oak product to their kids or at the very least, be able to enjoy it for years.
If you visit the Materials Page on my website, there is an awesome video interview of the Horween Leather Tannery by Filson that explains why they believe in quality too.
Your Grandfather was an amazing at leather tooling. How has he handed down that craft? What have you had to learn on your own? What is your favorite kind of design to work on?
As a kid I remember going back into the leather shop to watch him but I don’t think I realized what he was really doing. When I got into my teens I started to understand what some of the tools did, so I would get some scrap pieces of leather and mess around with it. From time to time he would look over my shoulder and tell me how to do something right.
Back in his days tooling patterns weren’t as intricate like todays stuff. The tools weren’t as precise and the technique wasn’t as refined. Plus, learning new techniques wasn’t as easy as it is now with Youtube video tutorials. So you really had to learn your own way.
There is a great buddy of mine, Ely Ganzer, who has been a long time family friend that showed me the more modern way of tooling once I started taking it serious. He gave me tips on what tools to buy, what work to look at, and showed me a few techniques he likes to use. Once that was established I just started tooling more patterns so I could get better.
My favorite style of tooling is called the Sheridan style. It originated in Sheridan Wyoming, to me it’s the prettiest and most difficult style to pull off.
What has opening Bell and Oak taught you about the maker community and the challenges of handmade production in the age of the online world?
Well it’s given me a lot of respect towards makers who helped grow this country many decades ago. I’ve also learned that makers like to help one another. I’m talking with a few local makers, who are brilliant in their respected craft, at doing some collab work with me and they’ve embraced it with open arms. I have some cool Wood + Leather stuff I’m working on with Pastrana Studio, special watercolor prints by Mandy Cave, and lifestyle photos by Melissa Barrett.
One of the tough things about selling online is that the customer doesn’t get to experience the product until it’s been shipped to them. They have to completely trust the brand in order to make that type of commitment. I hope that’s something Bell & Oak gains, a solid reputation. Being a one man operation, I’m playing the role of many hats to keep things running seamlessly as possible.
I think if the makers can grab a’hold of the youth so they can get interested in buying American Made products, we’ll be in good shape. Thats a huge task, but technology has allowed us to reach so many different types of people that it can be done.
Where’s your favorite place to pull out that amazing wallet and grab a bite?
You can catch me at Rusty’s Taco, LSA, and The Cupboard most of the time but, you guys keep me posted on new places to try so I need to take advantage of that!