North Dakota rancher creates leatherwork ranging from functional to fashionable for clients across U.S.
Working from his granary-turned-workshop near Amidon, N.D., Max Robison creates leatherwork ranging from traditional (horse tack, wallets, etc.) to fashion-forward (Converse high tops and sandals).
AMIDON, N.D. — You know what they say about bridalwear on your big day.
Something old, something new, something borrowed and something tooled.
That was the case when Haley Robison walked down the aisle with her new husband Max Robison in 2017.
Beneath her floor-length, strapless gown in white lace, Haley wore leather platform sandals, which had been intricately stamped and tooled by her groom, Max, who happens to be an expert leather craftsman.
It goes to show the versatility of Max Robison’s work, which he creates under his Robison Custom Leather label.
On the one hand, the 31-year-old makes the type of western-inspired, built-to-last articles you might immediately associate with leather crafts: belts, spur leathers, headstalls, breast collars, holsters, knife sheaths, chaps and tool rigs for carpenters or anyone who isn’t afraid to work with their hands.
On the other, he designs and creates items that are more fashion-forward than functional: iPhone holders, Apple watchbands, earrings, personalized bridal party sandals and tooled shoe covers for everything from Converse high tops to deck shoes.
Robison Custom Leather has enjoyed success casting a much wider net for clients thanks to a new, user-friendly website designed by Haley, as well as a consistent social media presence.
“That boosted the business a lot, with the website,” Max says. “People being able to get on Google and search what they wanted to buy and seeing products that I’ve made, and then ordering stuff that way.”
Robison’s eye for detail and relatively quick turnaround (anywhere from six to 10 weeks) also hasn’t hurt. He crafts his designs from a converted granary on the Robisons’ Dry Creek Ranch near the tiny Slope County county seat of Amidon in southwestern North Dakota.
He and Haley live a very busy life there, running 100 head of commercial and registered Red Angus on the fifth-generation spread which Haley’s great-great grandparents first established in 1907.
A way to earn cash during college
Born in southwestern Montana, Max was around 14 when his parents gave him a beginner’s leatherworking kit for Christmas. He was being homeschooled at the time, he says, and his folks had decided he needed a hobby.
Max helped out in an expert leatherworker’s shop, mostly by sweeping up and doing odd jobs. But one day the craftsman sat him down and showed him the basics. Max would go on to make a few wallets and belts but didn’t really get serious about it until college.
While studying ag communication and ag business at West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas, Max’s interest in leatherwork was reignited through a friend who built saddles and horse tack. “Like most college students are, I needed spending money,” he says, “so I got into it from there.”
He picked up what he could from his friend and was able to stay busy making and selling pieces throughout college.
But once he entered the work world, leatherwork again landed on the back burner. After graduation in 2014, Max came to North Dakota to work on the ranch of one of Haley’s neighbors. The two young people met and soon found a common interest in cattle and ranching.
They married and bought their home place in February 2019. All the while they worked full-time: Max as the lone NDSU Extension agent in Bowman County and Haley as a southwest field representative for the North Dakota Farm Bureau. She also is working to grow her own direct-to-consumer business with the beef raised on their spread.
They also started growing a family: Hayes, one-and-a-half, and Max, 4, who saunters around the ranch wearing a cowboy hat as big as he is and approaching cattle and horses with the ease of a seasoned cowpoke.
In 2021, the Robisons had an opportunity to grow their operation by obtaining registered seedstock cattle. Max left his full-time Extension job so he could devote more time to ranching and leatherwork.
That’s when Haley’s web-design skills really came in handy. “That was another reason for the push to get the website going to get more business coming in from the leather side as supplemental income I can do from our headquarters,” he says.
From cow-hide wallets to elephant-hide belts
Nowadays, when Max isn’t feeding cattle or planning for calving season, he’s in his leatherworking shop, which is heated by a wood stove.
"I’ve been getting more serious about it and honestly a lot better at my designs over the last few years, because (I'm) doing a lot more and putting a lot of time into it," he says.
He’s found it’s most efficient to work solely by commission, so he doesn’t waste time creating lots of inventory which might sit unsold on a shelf for months.
Fortunately for him, there is no shortage of custom orders. “In the last two or three years, orders have really picked up, thanks to Haley’s work on social media. I started getting a lot of orders right away,” he says.
Max uses U.S.-grown Hermann Oak leather , which is durable, reliable and stands up well to tooling. He’s also been asked to work with some more exotic hides, like the extremely thick and durable elephant hide belt he made for one customer. Another customer wanted him to make chaps out of long-haired cattle hide, but the hide was so expensive that the chaps couldn’t be made affordably.
Many of his orders are for more ordinary things, such as wallets, belts, saddlebags or work gear. His custom-made belts and wallets—$60 and up for no-frills versions and $125 and up for more elaborate ones—are pricier than mass-produced versions, but he says they are built to last. “I was actually talking to a guy who ordered a wallet five years ago and we were talking and he said, ‘I don’t know where else I could order a wallet and it would hold up for five years.’ He carried it every single day and it was a little weathered with age, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with it,” Robison says.
Lately, as Robison watches orders flow in from East to West Coast and from the country’s north border to its south border, he seems to be getting as many orders from fashionistas as he is from farmers. He’s decorated sandals for entire bridal parties and leather lapels for suit jackets. These special orders are often personalized with initials, phrases or cattle brands.
Robison says the western-chic shoe adornments probably stemmed from a handful of leather artists who first started making them. “I’m sure it started out as someone wanted something that no one else had and then it just kind of snowballed from there and now those are really popular,” he says.
Orders take more 'fashion-forward' vibe
While his wife’s wedding sandals required a bit of engineering—figuring out how to attach the decorated vamp to the platform base—most of his other shoe orders are actually leather pieces which can simply be attached to cover the existing shoe vamp.
Even so, they require the same careful artistry and can take up to eight hours to make. Max first draws out the design, based on the customer’s request, then transfers it to the leather. He uses a knife to cut the pattern into the leather and then follows up with professional-grade tools to shade and embellish the basic lines. An antiquing paste helps to give a burnished, more dimensional effect to the overall piece.
“I get pretty OCD about some of that stuff,” he says. “It’s gotta be right.”
Right now, Max is establishing himself for his relatively reasonable price points, as he is always looking for ways to, say, get the most pairs of chaps out of a piece of leather or to speed up his process without sacrificing quality.
“Honestly, I think my prices are lower than a lot of guys, but it’s one of those things, again, where I’m a detail person and I want to make sure the detail of my tooling is going to make it worth what I’m charging,” he says.
One of Max’s frequent customers, Chris Holznagel of South Heart, N.D., believes his workmanship justifies the price. Holznagel has ordered custom gun sleeves, firearm accessories and a wallet from Robison Custom and has been impressed with the results.
Holznagel says he’s especially happy with Max’s “attention for detail while doing custom orders. He really captures what I want or need for what I order.”
“For being a younger leatherworker in the industry, he’s really working to make a name for himself so I encourage others to order through him and give him a chance,” Holznagel says.
Max will continue doing what he does, one wallet, one shoe and one project at a time. His leatherwork has not only helped bring in more money to the family coffers but can even keep his mind occupied with less stressful business than ranch operations or cattle prices.
“It’s almost therapeutic,” he says. “I can really focus on what I’m doing at the time and don’t really have to worry about anything else.”
Learn more about Robison Custom Leather at robisoncustomleather.com .