2013 Award winner
Charles Pinnell handcrafts buckles, custom belts, bags and fine leather appointments.
Charles Pinnell is keeping history alive, one stitch at a time. In his workshop—an antebellum railroad depot in the sleepy town of Crozet, Virginia—the leather artisan makes custom riding chaps, bags, belts, and holsters, all individually cut and sewn. Some of the tools he uses are well over 100 years old. It’s a craft he first learned as a young man when, after three months working at a moccasin shop, he landed an apprenticeship at a saddle shop in Colonial Williamsburg. “I made harnesses based on 18th-century patterns,” he says. “And, yes, I dressed in full period costume.” Over the past four decades, Pinnell, 58, has developed an impressive international clientele. Throughout the year, he shows his wares at equestrian events, where individuals are able to see in person what makes a Pinnell Custom Leather piece so special. “Each pair of chaps is exactly made to measure,” he says. “In one pair I might use five or six types of leather so it holds together perfectly.” And when he makes a belt, no detail is overlooked, from the placement of the buckle to the positioning of the keeper. “One man drove seven hours to bring me a buckle from the Civil War,” he says. Pinnell’s great respect for old-time craftsmanship doesn’t mean he’s against technology, however. He has a Facebook page (to announce his horse-show schedule). And if he needs to take the measurements of a client across the country, he says proudly, “sometimes we will do it over Skype.”
Do you remember the moment you decided to start your business? What was it like? Ever since I was a child I knew I was going to make some kind of art. The very first hand stitch I made at the Moccasin Tepee in 1974 I knew my life's work had found me. That thrill is still with me today.
What advice do you have for others who want to turn their passion into a business? Stay true to your work, stay true to yourself, and stay true to your customer. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Not a day goes by that I don't talk to someone who has a story about how something we have made for them ... enriches their life. Charles Pinnell
What advice do you wish you had when you started?The hardest part of my work is the fact that I am self-taught for the most part. To work in a shop with other people with the same interest would have brought me along much faster. The high level of my staff's work is due to the fact they have had the guidance of the years it has taken me to work things out.
What do you think is the key to being a successful startup?The key to being successful at startup is to reinvest what money you make back into your trade. Buy the best materials and machinery you can afford and your work will benefit. The relationship with your customer is very important as is the handling of the business end of things i.e. bookkeeping. Work with others and take as many workshops as you can.
Tell us about your workspace. I have the shop of a lifetime. The building is a pre-Civil-War rail road station; brick walls, post and beam structure, and old maple flooring. It has very large windows that allows natural light to flood the building.
What inspires you? Just waking up in the morning and knowing I am going to have contact with people that are looking for something special for themselves or a loved one inspires me. Not a day goes by that I don't talk to someone who has a story about how something we have made for them or someone they know that enriches their life.
What technology do you depend on to run your business? Do you do anything the “old-fashioned” way? If so, why? All of the work we make is handmade, some of the tools we use are more than 100 years old. Everything from pattern making to cutting the leather is done by hand. Casting and polishing the silver buckle for all our work is done in house with countless hours of old world skills.
What's your next business goal or project? I have so many projects and goals it is hard to say what is next. It all depends on the next order we take.