Interview: Bob Schell of Brookwood Leather – Hand Crafted Guitar Straps
Bob Schell of Brookwood Leather makes handcrafted leather guitar straps. Each strap is hand crafted by Bob the old fashioned way- one at a time. In this interview Bob talks about the process of making a Brookwood strap, the durability and how he got started making these hand made beauties.
300guitars: Hi there Bob. Tell us how long you have been making your custom made guitar straps. Did you do other leather work before you started making straps?
Bob Schell: In my college years, my friend Ed shared with me his leather working skills. One summer Ed and I set up a booth at a craftman’s flea market in the old French quarter of Montreal, where we made custom fit sandals, ‘while you wait’. I spent one summer making bags and belts along the shore of Profile Lake at the base of the Old Man of the Mountain, the symbol of the state of New Hampshire. I also had a small leather working studio in the town of Franconia in the middle of the Whirte Mountains. Already an avid guitar player, I made my first straps during these times. My mom and dad had given me a plastic Gene Autry guitar in 1958, when I was six. That started things off. Then, on my 10th birthday, a woman drove up to where I was sleigh riding with all the neighborhood kids and asked “where does Bobby Schell live”? ‘That’s me!!!”, and I ran down the street to show her my house. It turned out that she was my birthday present. Adele King, a guitar teacher, along with a Stella rental guitar. That sealed the deal, I was hooked. By the time I was fifteen, thanks to the influence of my friend Lou, I was listening to Albert King, Shuggie Otis, and some really great players. As long as I can remember, I would get lost in pastimes that involved working with my hands and making things. Beside leatherworking, I have enjoyed custom rod building, sculpture, pottery, oil painting and watercolors to name a few. It feels quite natural that I now combine my love of guitars with my joy of working with leather.
300guitars: What inspired you to start making them?
Bob Schell: In 2006, I moved to Pennsylvania with my wonderful wife Ronda. We wanted a place that would enable us to take in my elderly mom who lived alone. Many of my guitar playing friends had commented over the years that my straps were really nice, and that I should sell them. Suddenly, that seemed like a pretty good idea. It would enable me to be around the house in case my mom needed help. So Brookwood Leather was born ~
300guitars: How long does it take to produce one strap and what is the most labor intensive part?
Bob Schell: Even a basic strap design can take 3 – 4 hours to build. A more complex design involving tooling or stamping can take 8 hours or more to complete. Each step in the process is actually quite time consuming, whether it’s the handworking, the carefull cutting, the attention given to detail, the hand burnishing of the edges, the coloring process, the stitching. It all adds up. But in the end, I think the time spent is well worth it. Anyone can cut a piece of leather and call it a guitar strap. But to make a strap that becomes an old friend over the years takes time, and a little bit of myself ~
300guitars: How many colors are available for a custom made strap?
Bob Schell: I have a nice selection of colors to choose from. Recently, a new customer ordered his first Brookwood strap. Within 2 weeks after receiving it, Mike made my day and ordered 2 more. That to me is a very humbling compliment. He asked for some unusual colors, ones I had never done. He had a Whale Blue PRS, and an amber orange Grosh that he wanted matching straps for. So as I often do, I asked if he had photos of the guitars that he could send to me. That helps me in getting a color to match up well with the guitar. I think he was pretty pleased with how they turned out.
300guitars: What are some of the custom options available like tooling or personalization of a custom strap?
Bob Schell: I had the pleasure of filling an order for Shari and her son not long ago. Her husband’s birthday was approaching and her son wanted to get his dad a special gift. We decided on a special inscription to be stamped in his strap. It’s pictured on my website.
Jim Wagner, maker of the incredible WCR pick-ups, ordered straps for himself and his son with the WCR logo stamped in it. Chuck Sirko of ‘The Smokin’ Section’ needed a strap with a compartment to accommodate a wireless transmitter. That one’s pictured on my website too.
300guitars: How does the type of leather affect the end product?
Bob Schell: A strong heavy leather substantial enough to disperse the weight of the guitar across a larger area on your shoulder will make a more comfortable strap. Soft straps may feel comfortable when you first put them on, but after playing a Les Paul for a few hours, you’ll know it. They are also more prone to stretching, especially around the holes that mount to the strap buttons. Most of my strap designs are made from 8/10 oz. rated vegetable tanned hides. An important step in the making of a Brookwood strap is the hand working and conditioning that I do to leave the heavy leather with a nice ‘hand’, an old leatherman’s term for a good feeling piece of leather. I am working on a strap design that will be a ‘soft strap’ kind of feel, but will deliver the strength, support, and durability that I insist on for my straps. I’ve made a few, and have some in the field for testing. Once I’m settled on the design and construction, I’ll be adding them to my line up.
300guitars: How long should a Brookwood leather strap last?
Bob Schell: One of my favorite straps I made back in 1972. It’s been on the journey with me a long time, and gets better every year.
300guitars: What do you recommend for the “care and feeding” of one of your straps?
Bob Schell: Once or twice a year, a small amount of good quality leather conditioner worked into the leather will help keep it looking and feeling good. If you own a Brookwood strap, and would like to send it back for a conditioning, I’d be glad to do it at no charge other than shipping costs.
300guitars: How many tools do you use to produce one strap?
Bob Schell: I have some fine old tools that I love using. Razor sharp knives are essential. An assortment of unusual hammers and punches, bevelers, tools for adding details, some deer antler, wooden spools, a spoon, a rolling pin— you’d be surprised at some of the things I use to make a strap.
300guitars: What are your favorite guitars and amps?
Bob Schell: Wow! That’s a tough one ~ I have some fine old guitars, some unusual ones too. Last count there were about 15 guitars and a jazz bass here in my studio. I tend to prefer small low wattage tube amps. I don’t really use any pedals or effects, just a good cable, a good tube amp, and a favorite guitar. I have a Richter 5E3, a collection of 4 Gibson Goldtones, a few old Gibson amps from the 40’s and 50’s, a ’67 Super~Reverb, a Vibro~King, a Custom Vibro~Lux Reverb, a DRRI, a tweed Blues Jr., and an Ampeg bass amp. Guitars, amps, and motorcycles are my vices ~
300guitars: What kind of music do you like? Who are some of your favorites?
Bob Schell: Blues is my music, blues with an edge, and with dynamics. If it’s a bit funky, has a swing feel, or is old school, that’s all good too. I love to sing as much as I love to play. I’ve never tried to copy anyone’s style, I’m just inspired by players that are emotive and play and sing with raw emotion and energy. I love hearing Albert and B.B., Chris Cain, Coco Montoya, my friend the late Bill Perry ( I miss you Bill ~ ), Michael Burks, Little Dave Thompson, Jimmy McGriff —– It’s a long list ~
300guitars: Have you made any straps for any of your favorite players?
Bob Schell: I haven’t made any straps for anyone I would call ‘famous’. But everyone that has purchased a strap from me is considered a ‘favorite player’ in my book. One friend from the Central Pennsylvania Blues Society has purchased 8 Brookwood straps to date. In fact, Bruce will sometimes order a belt to match his strap. He’s definitely a ‘favorite player’!
300guitars: About how many straps do you produce in a year?
Bob Schell: I don’t build nearly as many as I would like to as yet. I’ll never be building at any kind of volume, since as I had mentioned, they can take anywhere from 3-4 hours to an entire day.
300guitars: Who makes up most of your clientele? Are they domestic or world wide?
Bob Schell: I have had the pleasure of making straps for people in France, the Netherlands, Canada, and all around the United States
300guitars: How can someone order one of your custom straps and what are the price ranges?
Bob Schell: Log in to www.brookwoodleather.com Send me an email, or use the phone number listed there and give me a call. Prices can range from around $75.00 to $225.00.
300guitars: What are some of your future plans for Brookwood Leather?
Bob Schell: Right now I’m finalizing the design for my new ‘soft strap’ model that I mentioned. That will require the acquisition of an expensive industrial grade sewing machine. But I feel it’s a good move that will enable me to broaden my product line.
Networking and getting good word of mouth is my goal at this point, so your interest in Brookwood Leather is greatly appreciated. 300Guitars.com is a great site and resource for guitarists worldwide, and I’m eager for the visitors of your site to learn about Brookwood Leather. This past May I was an exhibitor at ‘The New York Amp Show’ produced by Loni Spector. It was a terrific event. Loni also has shows in L.A., and there’s one scheduled for Oct. 4 & 5, 2008. I hope to be at the Great American Guitar Show this fall in King of Prussia, just outside of Philly.
Your question makes me think of my favorite movie of all time, “What About Bob?”, starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus. Bob’s motto was ‘Baby Steps’ ~~~
My way of doing things is simple. Take one day at a time. Do what you love. Do each day what you think makes the most sense. Do it as well as you possibly can. And always treat people like you would hope to be treated. I figure if I follow these simple guidelines, everything will work out just fine.
300guitars: Thanks a lot Bob for this informative interview on guitar strap making! I wish you continued success in the years to come!
Bob Schell: It was my pleasure Billy, thank you for your interest in Brookwood Leather. As a craftsman dedicated to making a quality product, I truly appreciate your recognition of my efforts.
Play well, play often, and play it like you mean it ~ Bob Schell
Here is a video clip of the procces that goes into making a custom Brookwood leather guitar strap. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWgCvovXugg