Portraits Joe Supple
The Upper Calder Valley has long inspired artisans and artists alike – this stunning area of West Yorkshire has been a muse for the likes of Ted Hughes, Emily Brontë and Sylvia Plath over the years, while in recent times the imposing eastern slopes of the Pennines have provided a suitably picturesque backdrop to various films and TV shows.
Nestled in amongst this beautiful scenery is Hebden Bridge – a charming market town that grew to prominence in the Industrial Revolution, when the fast-running rivers in the area made it a perfect spot for wool mills, leading to its amusing nickname ‘Trouser Town’. The mills are long gone now, of course, but Hebden Bridge is still thriving – in 2005 it was named the fourth quirkiest place to live in the world, mainly as a result its thriving arts scene and its wide array of independent shops and businesses.
One such independent business is Pinegrove Leather – since 2012, company main-man Rod Boyes has been hand-crafting a variety of leather goods for musicians of various stripes, and so impressed were we with the quality of the straps that he and his very small team produce from inside a converted stone-clad factory building at the top end of town, we had to get a closer look.
Rod loves using interesting and unusual leather finishes, such as these ostrich-effect examples
For Rod, everything about Pinegrove Leather started with music, and it’s plain to see when we enter the small workshop and warehouse that he occupies with his wife and business partner, Louise. Guitars of various styles adorn the walls – along with pictures of iconic musicians – and as we sit down with a cuppa and an Eccles cake (we are in Yorkshire, after all) to chat about how this all started, Rod can’t help but begin by sharing with us the huge role that music has played in his life.
“It all goes back to writing songs in my bedroom with an acoustic when I was a teenager,” Rod chuckles. “Course, I would never play them now!”Those early stabs at songwriting lit a fire under Rod, who soon started playing in hard rock bands, then diving head first into the punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s, before disillusionment saw him knock it on the head for a while – “I think I just got bored of pop music altogether, really,” he reflects. Then, in the mid-80s a friend who played banjo was on the lookout for a guitarist. “He needed someone to play along on guitar and do some harmonies with him,” Rod recalls. “So he gave me a shout, we went down town, bought me a new guitar for 60 quid – it was new to me at least – and we formed a band.”
The bluegrass band awakened something in Rod, and he immersed himself in roots music from then onwards, playing bluegrass, Western swing and cajun music far and wide – notably in 90s cajun band The Cajun Aces, who played all over the UK, Europe, the Middle East and even taking the music back to its birthplace of Louisiana.
Music memorabilia is dotted all around the Pinegrove workshop
Nowadays, Rod plays guitar and harmonica in a band called the 309s, and it was while playing in this band that the seed of what would become Pinegrove Leather was first sown.
“My wife Louise made me a harmonica case from some scrap clothing leather,” Rod explains. “It was a bit cruder than what we do now, but the principle was the same – basically that you slot your harmonicas into the pockets and then roll it up like a tool roll.
It so happened that at this point, Rod was at something of a crossroads in his life – he had made a career designing educational software for special needs kids, but the financial crisis of 2008 meant that he found himself out of a job after 25 years.“There were a lot of cuts to education after the 2008 crash, so I found myself without a job,” he explains. “I initially started off writing a Ladybird book about the economic crash – it was a great book, but none of my friends were interested in it, so I thought, ‘Well this isn’t going to have wide appeal to the general public is it?!’”
Instead, Rod decided that he wanted to do something with his hands, which he’d always fancied doing as a young man, but never pursued seriously.“Before the software design I did a cabinet maker’s course,” Rod chuckles. “But I decided not to be a cabinet maker, because all the cabinet makers I knew had fingers missing! I’ve managed to keep all my fingers, which is good when you play guitar!
“But that harmonica case kept getting admiring looks at gigs, and given that I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, I thought… why not give that a go?
“Initially we set out just refining that harmonica case design, but pretty soon after we got into mandolin straps, banjo straps, stick bags and then guitar straps. We used to make all sorts of things, like iPad cases, sunglasses cases and that sort of thing… but I’m a musician, I know musicians and I can talk to musicians, so that’s what I wanted to do. Music is what I know about, and it’s more fun!”
Rod uses this tooling to cut out the strap holes and interesting patterned segments seen on various Pinegrove straps
Show & Tell
If you’ve been to a UK guitar show in the last year or so, you’ve probably seen Rod, resplendent in his cowboy shirt, touting his fine leather goods. But such has been Pinegrove’s sudden appearance on the scene, it’s easy assume that they’ve been something of an overnight success – not so. When he started out, Rod had little more than some interesting ideas and a desire to learn. But there’s not much demand for leatherworking courses in this day and age, and so Rod had to seek out advice where he could find it.
“I have learned an awful lot just from the local leatherworkers,” Rod explains. “One in particular, who made my prototypes for me way back. I designed these pieces, probably made them out of old carrier bags stapled together just to see if they worked! Then I cut them out of pieces of leather, and took them along to him to actually sew together.
“While he was doing that, he just rabbited on and on – I learned so much just sitting there and listening! But a lot of it has been learning from books, good old YouTube, and a lot of trial and error. When you’re doing the sort of things that we’re doing, you just have to learn by doing. “Now we’re very good at making what we make – if I look back at the little wallets I was making when we first started I think ‘How on earth did we sell any of those at all?’ Comparatively, they’re worlds better now.”
This learning through doing approach is sensible, but it was also something that was necessary before Pinegrove decided to move into the crowded and competitive world of guitar straps – after all, if his products weren’t up to the highest standards, why would anyone choose them over a more established name?
“To people in the guitar world it probably looks like we’ve come out of nowhere, but there’s more competition in the guitar strap world,” Rod observes. “So it made sense for us to go for the smaller markets, such as harmonica cases, to establish ourselves and build up our expertise and skills and then move up. You might think to look at it that a guitar strap is easy to make, but it’s really not – not the straps that we make anyway! It’s a difficult process, so it’s taken us a while to get there.”
Rod using a strap cutting tool to carefully cut a strap from a large piece of leather
But get there they have, and over the last year the company has focused almost exclusively on producing guitar straps that are made from the best materials, as evidenced by what’s being used in the workshop while we’re there.
Rod gets his leather almost exclusively from Italy because, as he says, “They make the best leather in the world, basically!” The unusual buckles seen in his newest straps were sourced from a boutique supplier Rod found in Paris, while the thread used to strap it all comes from Coats – one of the biggest suppliers of zips and threads in the world, but whose history can be traced back to Paisley at the end of the 18th century.
These high-quality materials are being used in a variety of interesting and creative ways – from unusual colours to distinctive effects, bold new designs and unique twists on the classics.
“We really do enjoy playing with different leathers, mixing them sometimes to create interesting designs” Rod enthuses. “I think there’s no use making a boring, standard strap – there’s millions of those out there – I’d rather do something interesting in the design, or do something with really unusual and fantastic leather that just looks great.”
When it comes to crafting the straps themselves, it’s refreshingly old-school and analogue – the walls are covered with arcane-looking hand tools used to tease and coax the leather into the comfortable and ergonomic form of a Pinegrove Leather strap, and when mechanical aid is required, it’s the sort that still requires a great deal of skill and precision to turn out such good results. It’s a process that Rod is clearly hugely proud of.
“I think some of the boutique strap makers are using good leather like we are, but I think the thing about Pinegrove is that we really do find the best of the best – we’re perfectionists, but at the same time it’s hand-built. We have some machines, but none of it’s computer controlled like with some of the big strap makers. They basically put a bit of leather in a series of machines and press a button – we’re crafting all of these straps by hand. We’re trying our best to create interesting and unique designs, which doesn’t mean they’re all flashy looking. They’re just comfortable and look good – you can get some comfortable straps out there, but by god they’re ugly!”
Hand tools are used to remove thickness from the leather before it’s ready to be stitched
On more than one occasion in our conversation, Rod describes himself as a perfectionist – and it’s no idle boast. There’s a box of rejected straps in the workshop that will only ever be sold at a discount because they haven’t passed muster, but you’d be hard pressed to spot why – mere mortals such as us might not even notice a stitch hole that’s slightly in the wrong place, but Rod knows, and to him it matters.
It’s this relentless and obsessive desire to get it right that has led Pinegrove to offering a lifetime guarantee on all its products, as well as a no-quibble free returns policy, for every strap sold. Simply put, Rod believes that the customer should be 100 per cent satisfied with the product when they order it, and that his workmanship and materials are good enough to stand the test of time – if that wasn’t the case, he wants to make it right, because so much of the satisfaction he gets from Pinegrove is making his customers happy.
“It’s just so enjoyable to do – it’s never going to make me a lot of money, but it’s great to give pleasure to people,” he admits. “You send something off to the other side of the world, and you’ll get an email back from a customer saying, ‘Oh my strap’s just arrived, I absolutely love it! What beautiful work, what beautiful leather – thanks for making it.’ That makes it all worth it – that’s worth more than the money, happy customers using great products.”
Rod inspects some recently finished straps
It’s not just positive feedback that Rod seeks out from his customers, however – one of the reasons Pinegrove is such a fixture at guitar shows in the UK is that he’s constantly seeking feedback from customers so he can continue to improve and evolve the products he makes.
“The good thing about going out to the shows is talking to people, trying to find out what people like and don’t like,” he elaborates. “We’re small enough that we can come back and try things… when we have time, anyway! Not a lot of our straps have any exposed metalwork, because the feedback we’ve had from guitar players is that they don’t like straps with metal on them, because it can damage the guitar. Our Western-style strap is probably the only strap of that kind in the world that doesn’t have a big chunky buckle on it for the adjustment.
“Feedback is hugely important to what we do – we improve the straps as feedback comes in. That comes from my software design days really – it was always the case where you’d do a little bit, get some feedback, then do another little bit… always trail it, then improve it. I’m a perfectionist at the end of the day, and I just want the product to be as good as it possibly can.”
Rod punches the rivets for this strap’s buckle using his rivet press
Best Laid Plans
When it comes to the future of Pinegrove, it’s unsurprising that Rod has plenty of interesting ideas, including laser-etched designs, custom-smithed metal parts and more, but he’s also keeping his ears and eyes open when talking to customers, and often that approach bears fruit.
“We’ve got some great suggestions from our customers,” Rod agrees. “What often happens is that people have some ratty strap they’ve had for 30 or 40 years and they say, ‘Oh this has never let me down, but it’s getting worn out now and I can’t find anything like it’. So I’ve got some interesting ideas from that kind of conversation, and we may do something with it.
“We’re not hemming ourselves into one small area of design – I’m quite arty, really, I make music! I want to do something creative, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t – but the good stuff makes everything worthwhile!” Ultimately, that seems to be the thing that’s driven Rod to build Pinegrove Leather from one harmonica case to a business that sells products to guitarists, drummers, mandolin players and more from all over the world – making people happy, and making them feel better about their instruments.
“Our bottom line is that if you’ve got a beautiful guitar, then you really need to have a good strap to go with it,” Rod concludes as we polish off the last of our tea and cake. “It might sound corny, but I think the guitar deserves it.”
Another Pinegrove strap begins to take shape as Rod begins stitching a GS-60 two-tone strap