Clint Wilkinson walks around his studio on E. Hickory Street, surrounded by thick rolls of leather, various paints and earth-toned threads. He dons a moss green vest and cowboy boots, double sleeve tattoos peeking out under the cuffs of his button-down shirt.
Occasionally, Wilkinson shows off a tool, like a custom-made device he bought from a Japanese craftsman or a delicate container for pins and needles.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” He says.
Here, in the same workspace his grandfather operated in for 60 years, is where Wilkinson is continuing his family’s longstanding legacy.
“When it comes to leather work, it’s almost my duty to preserve the true craftsmanship and preserve my family legacy,” Wilkinson said. “Even though me and my grandfather are on two different wavelengths as far as products go, I still feel like people need to understand true quality craftsmanship.”
As the owner of leather-goods business Wilkinson, Wilkinson is a descendant of leather craftsman that goes back decades to his grandfather’s business, Weldon’s Saddle Shop.
Wilkinson’s grandfather, Weldon Burgoon, built the building in 1957 as a custom saddle maker. Right on the corner of Bell Avenue and Oak street, the business grew and expanded into what is now Applejacks Liquors. As a child, Wilkinson says he naturally grew up around cowboy culture, Western art and the family business.
“Back in my workspace area, [was] where he did all his saddle work, so I spent a lot of time in that section pretty much my entire childhood,” Wilkinson said. “As he was keeping me busy, unbeknownst to me, I was learning the craft.”
As he grew up, family members expected Wilkinson to fall in line with the same lineage of work. Both his grandfather and his father were professional calf ropers who often competed in rodeos. So at the age of 10, Wilkinson was placed on his first horse to practice roping.
That went terribly.
“When you’re roping, you have to sprint on the horse to chase the calf and I was terrified to do that,” Wilkinson said.
Family members soon gave up and instead, gifted Wilkinson a motorcycle in his teens, which he promptly fell in love with. Soon, Wilkinson was racing dirt bikes with his friends, taking photos of their trips, and immersing himself in a world far away from the wares of Weldon’s Saddle Shop.
“From my teenage years into early twenties, I totally got away from that work,” Wilkinson said. “I would race motorcycles but I was also interested in art, because I grew up around it, and photography so I would take my camera and take photos of places me and my friends would go out to ride.”
His interest in photography and motor-crossing grew into a career, as Wilkinson got a job as a graphic designer for an online publication. He later began one himself, which grew to be the biggest online motor-crossing publication in the world.
Granted, he still worked out of the saddle shop to help out, but the graphic design world was demanding- both skill-wise and time-wise. Wilkinson was teaching himself how to code, how to design pages and maintain a business all at once.
And soon, the fast-paced career caught up to him.
“The pressure of trying to stay ahead of everybody got to be too much for me,” Wilkinson said. “Even though we were one of the largest online publications, we didn’t have very many people that worked there.”
So he left, and turned to the business that had been there all this time- Weldon’s.
“[I thought], ‘Is this business that I’ve started more important than family tradition, that has pretty much kept my family above water for a going 50 some odd years at the time?’ ” Wilkinson said.
In 2014, Wilkinson launched Bell and Oak, an Americana-esque brand that paid homage to the Denton streets it resided on. It was Wilkinson’s venture into his own title, a new chapter.
However, amidst a revival of the “maker” movement, Wilkinson says he saw his work become just one of many.
“I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into that [look] and it got to that point where so many crafters were getting into the trade that all the work started to look the same,” Wilkinson said. “I get it- that’s just a part of the vicious entrepreneurial creative cycle. You have to look at somebody for inspiration but it got to a point where it was getting overly done and I wanted to get away from that.”
People saw him as the “Bell and Oak” guy, a move that Wilkinson says felt restrictive. It’s what pushed him to produce work simply under his own last name, where he can explore different planes of artistry. Wilkinson says narrowing what that truly means is his focus this year.
“As an artist, you can have the freedom to do that,” Wilkinson said. “I am trying to narrow that style down. At first, it was all over the place, like do I want to be like Louis Vuitton or a high-end western look? so I’m trying to marry those two together.”
With this new name, Wilkinson has been focusing on high-quality, fine leather craftsmanship. Unlike his grandfather, his expertise is in accessories, like wallets, belts and handbags.The products that he produces, significantly custom pieces, take up long periods of time.
A regular, Model 2 bifold wallet takes about six hours whereas bigger products like briefcases can take an average of 50 to 60, sometimes 70 hours to complete. Wilkinson says he could knock out a wallet in 30 minutes with a machine but insists on hand sewing almost everything.
“The reason why is because it’s a stronger stitch,” Wilkinson said. “Machine stitches aren’t able to interlock themselves in each little stitch holes. But it’s the best stitch you could do for your products.”
Wilkinson says a vast majority of the leather used is sourced from Europe, mainly France and Italy. He also buys from the same vendors that sell to Hermes and other high-end brands.
The price range is, as a result, tricky. Wilkinson’s products start from $180 to up to more than $1,000, which results from the amount of time and material quality that he produces. He customizes many pieces but also has a collection that clients can choose from. He says, due to this, connecting with the right customer base is still something he is trying to figure out.
‘I’ve kind of pigeonholed myself into a certain price bracket which I don’t necessarily like but at this level, you have charge what you have to charge,” Wilkinson said. “So that was another thing that was really difficult last year, was [finding} that right customer who appreciates this type of work and that’s an ongoing adventure for me right now.”
Despite this, Wilkinson seems to be off to a solid start. His client list includes Stetson, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Montana Watch Company and interestingly, singer Leon Bridges.
“[Bridges] came to my grandpa’s shop and he wanted to put his grandma’s name on it,” Wilkinson said. “I said, ‘I want you to stamp it on there,’ so he’s really nervous to hit the little chisel I had, and I was thinking to myself, ‘man if he misses and hurts his hand, Columbia Records is going to freak out and be like, ‘what were you doing at this guy’s place?’ but he wore that strap in a music video.”
Beside the big names, the locals who have seen Wilkinson’s work appreciate its quality.
“When he was working out of Weldon’s, it was good quality but it was of a pretty standard quality,” close friend and leather craftsman James Morlock said. “You could go to Etsy and find hundreds of products of a similar look. This past year, he’s transitioned totally stepped up his game to another level. He’s not just doing this as a hobby or as a side job - he’s doing the kind of work that you would expect from someone that’s been doing this for decades.”
Fielder Whittington, a local Denton customer who has bought from Wilkinson since 2014, says it’s hard to find products that slow down and are personal to the owner.
“He’s always thoroughly covering every base of the process so that you don’t feel left out,” Whittinger said. “When you look at most of today’s products in the market, you don’t get that luxury. You don’t get to know how it’s sourced, how it’s made, machine made versus hand stitching, and all the mechanics that go into the final product.”
It has been a long time coming for Wilkinson but what matters is that he has come full circle. As the sounds of cars sputter by on the square, Wikinson sits in his studio, spending another day with his family craft.