A local musician gets into leather | Bleader

A local musician gets into leather


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  • doug mccombs
  • A bracelet with a nautical shackle by Doug McCombs
A few years ago, there was an inside joke among the members of Tortoise and their touring crew about having robots replace them in Chicago when they went on tour. John McEntire’s would be installed at Soma Electric Music Studios, sound guy Elliot Dicks’s mechanical double would be seated at the sound booth at the Empty Bottle, and Doug McCombs’s would have a spot at the bar at Lula Café, bringing a cup of coffee up to his mouth again and again, up and down, up and down.

Actually McCombs—who also plays in Eleventh Dream Day and Brokeback—keeps busy when he’s not playing or touring with a new hobby: making leather accessories. Starting from a simple belt for a friend, he’s moved on to ever more ornate designs, like leather harnesses, pick guards and straps for guitars, and bracelets, which he makes under the name Brokeleather. They’re mostly just for friends, but a few of his bracelets are for sale at Apartment Number 9 in Bucktown.

It’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem. McCombs has always been interested in men’s style, developing a fondness for workwear-inspired clothing like New York-based label Engineered Garments. He even looked into learning how to make shoes before deciding it was impractical, despite the relative freedom his musician’s lifestyle affords. “It’s something you probably start earlier in your life, you get to be in some part of work program where you apprentice. I didn’t see any way to do that as an adult.”

Instead, he decided to channel that energy into something with less of a learning curve, and that he already had some experience with: working with leather. As a kid visiting his father in Alaska, he watched his dad repair his outdoor gear. “He always had a sewing machine and leather tools to repair backpacks and contraptions used to tie stuff onto his boat and onto his snowmobile,” he says. Later, in school shop class, McCombs learned how to tool leather and made small gifts for friends and family.

He tools more now, although designs are kept relatively minimal, “sort of traditional, old-school western tooling, like a floral pattern or an oak leaf pattern.” For a guitar strap he made for musician Jim Elkington, whose nickname is—wait for it—Elk, he tooled a skull (a recurring motif) with elk horns. McCombs prefers not to use a sewing machine, so sewing and stitching is done by hand.

A guitar pick guard made for musician Jim Elkington

A belt buckle

He also occasionally incorporates vintage hardware, like belt buckles scored from thrift stores and eBay. Thinking that nautical shackles looked like they would make cool buckles, he figured out how to put them into use: “I had to make a sort of strap-closing mechanism . . . a special strap and button closure to make it work.”

A belt with a nautical shackle as a buckle

As for the leather, he tries to use repurposed pieces, like “a nice belt that had a nice patina.” He also buys leather from a saddler in Montana with high-quality leather that’s precut in straps. If he needs a bigger piece—like for the pick guard—he’ll head over to Horween Leather, the tannery at Elston and Webster. “There is no higher quality leather,” McCombs declares. “They have all these secret proprietary tanning processes that are patented.” That sounds expensive, but he heads for the scrap bin: “Everything is 95 cents a pound. You can find these amazing pieces of leather supercheap.”

Aside from the items at Apartment Number 9, don’t expect to find Brokeleather all over town, even though McCombs has slowly built up his leatherworking toolbox, complete with pieces for cutting, finishing, and adding rivets. For now, “I’m kind of treating it as a hobby,” he says. “I don’t think that I have time or the energy to make enough to sell a lot.”

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