Where local apples once were sorted into giant barrels and crates, Chuck Pinnell operates Pinnell Custom Leather, producing work of great usefulness and beauty. Without an advertising campaign or even a sign on the old packing house, Pinnell expects his customers to find him. That’s how he’s always worked and it’s intentional. “We make most everything to order, start-to-finish,” he explained. “It would be a wasted trip for someone to come here expecting to browse.”
He’s upfront, even ironic, about his appeal to the people who can afford hundreds of dollars for a bag, thousands for a pair of chaps: “I couldn’t afford my products,” said Pinnell, who lives above the workroom with his wife, Jinny. Working with him are a handful of artisans who’ve been there for years, learning the painstaking cutting, shaping, punching and stitching that transforms a flat piece of leather into a work of art. Most of them have learned from the ground up, from him. “They’ll be much better than I will ever be,” he said. “I had to teach myself.”
It was no surprise to Pinnell that he ended up as an artisan rather than an academic. In school in Newport News, he had trouble with conventional learning: “I was taking three art courses, though,” he said. “Art saved me.” He was forever tinkering with forms and sculpture, preferring materials on a small scale that felt good in his hands. In high school, he taught weaving to adults in night classes. One of his art teachers sold Pinnell’s jewelry to his own customers.
After dabbling in a little bit of everything, there was a dazzling moment when, as a teenager on a trip to Colorado, he first put a needle to a piece of leather and realized he’d found his life’s work. Once home, the timing and location was right for the young man to pursue the ancient craft. Williamsburg was gearing up for its bicentennial. “I thought I’d probably work in the shoemaking shop,” he said, “but they were full.” He worked instead at the saddlery, which introduced him to the equestrian world, full of people willing to pay a lot for high-quality leather goods: “A lucky break,” he said. He set up shop in Middleburg first, then eventually found his way to the east side of the Blue Ridge.
He has an eye for detail that borders on the obsessive. He sees the length of the belt that protrudes after fastening, the microscopic scrapes and nicks that may have happened in a feed lot, the way leather chaps work differently for older and younger riders, the finish on a silver buckle, the exact color of paint that will match the cut end of the leather to its length.
With American tanneries long disappeared, his leather is tanned in Europe where, he says, a French or Italian craftsman might be the fourth or fifth generation of tanners from the same family. Pinnell takes all of the orders and does most of the design. Conversations through Skype help him determine how the product will fit the unique proportions of his client. If the design is new to his shop, they’ll talk the whole process through, including the leather selection, before making the first cut. There’s no assembly line: each item is seen through from start to finish, with even the buckles and other ornaments custom-made under Pinnell’s eye. On a leatherworker’s bench you might see tiny hand-made tools designed especially as a work-around for a difficult project.
Besides his love for the process, Pinnell has a feel for leather that few of us can even imagine. Walking through his shop, he squeezes leather in his hands, observing that one hide is full of life, another has a lackluster look and feel. He loves working with the skins of American alligators, and might use them with other, less exotic skins in a bag or a pair of chaps, with stunning results.
Pinnell once had an offer to take over a New York furniture operation and toured the multi-story building with its owner. “There were huge piles of leather on every floor,” he recalls. “I could see that a pile on the second floor was from the same batch as a pile on the fourth floor. The guy was amazed.” Pinnell ultimately declined the offer and continued to concentrate mostly on equestrian-related custom leather items.
It has all paid off. He was honored by Martha Stewart, was chosen to repair the leather of Olympian riders, and has been featured in countless tributes to world-class artisans. Knowing that his work is out of the reach of most local people, he involves himself in the community in different ways. He teaches a book-making class at Western Albemarle High School, donating materials and time. He recently helped a local farmer by hauling his employees to a cattle roundup. Every so often, he cooks brunch for his crew or treats them to live theater. He’s taught young people with promise, giving them advice and a spot at a bench to see if leatherwork is for them.
In the winter, he’ll head south for the Florida horse shows, but he says it’s getting harder to leave his spot on White Hall Road. In back of his shop he has a garden, lush with fall and winter vegetables. His bee hives are nearby.
Chuck Pinnell has anecdotes. People come by with hides of animals they’ve shot during Virginia’s hunting and trapping seasons or taken on safari, although one man with a suitcase full of elephant hide was banished from his shop. A woman who had just the tiniest remnant of a leather key case from her father wanted it remade. Others want to incorporate old bits and pieces into a leather keepsake, or re-do a favorite item that time has treated cruelly. Pinnell welcomes these requests, no matter how challenging. He loves the personal connection. “When we see what our work means to these people, that’s what makes it worthwhile,” he said.
Find Pinnell Custom Leather designs, history and small pre-made items online at pinnellcustomleather.com.