Carmel Valley artisan makes an impression with leather
Mar./Apr. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Christine Souza, Photos by Paolo Vescia
Bob Mattson makes saddles and maintains a link to ranching's past.
Monterey County leather artisan Bob Mattson owns a small but lively saddlery where he transforms worn-out saddles into works of art. He also does a variety of custom leather work, including home design.
Against the backdrop of the Carmel Valley's rolling ranchland and scenic riding trails, a visit to the Bob Mattson Saddlery is like a visit back in time.
The leather-scented shop is crowded with treasures, including a 19th-century Singer sewing machine, antique saddles, leather carving tools and—most importantly—the leather artisan himself.
"Bob is a treasure. He can fix anything and he does it right," said equestrian and longtime customer Susan Pius. "If it is in leather, he can pretty well do it. We are lucky to have him here because so many of the saddleries have closed down. What he is doing is almost a lost art."
The Carmel Valley resident said she appreciates Mattson's craft, whether he is restoring an antique saddle, designing holsters and belts or repairing the luggage rack on her daughter's car.
Mattson works six days a week at his shop, typically perched intently over a scarred workbench. With each succinct and purposeful tap of his hammer onto a steadily held stamping tool, he painstakingly builds a pattern onto a Western belt, stamping into the leather until a wild rose design appears.
Bob Mattson uses a rawhide hammer and beveling tool to carve a floral pattern into a leather belt.
From the simplest repairs to elaborate custom projects, the 66-year-old Mattson has been using specialized carving tools and leather as his medium for more than half his life.
"What I do is solve problems for people. When it comes to repairs and things that are worn out and old, I find a way to bring them back again," said Mattson, standing in his workshop—an epicenter for equestrians and people in search of quality craftsmanship. "Everybody that comes in the door has got a different problem. It is a challenge and I love doing it."
Born and raised in St. Louis, Mattson realized his appreciation for art when he was just a young teen and spent many hours perusing the St. Louis Art Museum. However, as one with a creative streak, he had not yet found the perfect medium. This "ah-ha" moment wouldn't come until 1972, when a business venture led him to a saddlery in Spokane, Wash. At this point, the 30-something Mattson had never stepped foot inside a saddle shop.
Mattson has at his disposal an assortment of stamping tools for creating patterns on leather.
"I walked in the door and that was it. It just exploded. I had an epiphany right there," Mattson said through his cowboy mustache. "I thought, this is for me. I wanted to know what to do."
After talking to the shop owner, he realized this wasn't a craft that he would pick up right away.
"The owner said he would teach me how. I spent a year there learning how to build saddles. I left for a year to make some money and then came back and spent six months learning the repair side of the business," Mattson said.
As a budding craftsman, Mattson relocated to northern Idaho and opened his first saddle business. He made some more moves and spent about a dozen years specializing in Western boots before a friend encouraged him to try California. In 1985, Mattson had the chance to continue his pursuit of saddle stardom inside a Western-wear store in Salinas—home of the famed California Rodeo Salinas.
Mattson using a swivel knife to fine-tune his designs.
While he once built saddles from the ground up, today Mattson limits his saddle work to restorations. One noteworthy restoration project, he recalls, was for the family of late media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Mattson was hired to refurbish four Charro-style saddles that Hearst's mother had brought back from Mexico in 1881.
"On the Hearst Ranch, they have a building called the bunkhouse. The room contains a giant dining room, library, overstuffed chairs and a fireplace, and one of these saddles is in every corner," Mattson said. "After 125 years, and fireplace and cigar smoke, they basically turned black. The Hearst family came to me."
Mattson devoted about 100 hours and three people's labor to the project. Such a job involves stripping down the saddle as much as possible, followed by a deep cleaning and conditioning process to hydrate the leather so that it becomes flexible again. Once a saddle is refurbished and put back together, Mattson typically applies a finish to restore the leather's soft glow.
Noreen Ray, a Salinas Valley equestrian and friend, sought Mattson out years ago to restore a vintage saddle she had discovered in an old barn.
"It needed extensive reworking. The end result was a work of art," Ray said. "It looked exactly like it was supposed to look. It was seamless. It looked like the saddle had looked before the rats got to it. It definitely takes artistry to blend new work on a vintage piece."
To spread his knowledge about the craft of leather working, Mattson has, on occasion, taken a few young equestrians under his wing to teach them how to stamp leather. Ray's 8-year-old daughter, Erica, is one of Matton's eager students.
"Bob has a lot of interesting information to pass on. This is a study of work that is centuries old, and you can invent millions of new designs with old stamps," the girl said. "This is a good way to be creative."
Erica and her mother, Noreen Ray, are longtime customers.
The residents of Carmel Valley have kept Mattson busy all 16 of the years he's lived there, outfitting themselves and their horses. But in the last 10 years, their requests have led him to expand his artistic repertoire to include home design.
"I do a lot of work on luxury homes in the Santa Lucia Preserve or Tehama. These homeowners are looking for something that nobody else has, and leather offers lots of different textures and colors," Mattson said. "In a house in the preserve, I did work on a circular staircase where I covered the treads and risers in leather, plus I did the whole library in leather—top to bottom, including behind the books and around the columns. I also inlaid leather into the top of a built-in desk."
Mattson said he loves living and working in what he calls "a horseman's paradise."
"I get my personal satisfaction from doing the work, but the feedback from the customers is very important to me. Those are my pats on the back that keep me going because the people are happy with what I've done," Mattson said. "I appreciate all of the people here very much and the fact that they are always dreaming up new things for me to do."
Bob Mattson Saddlery
24004 Robinson Canyon Rd.
Carmel, CA 93923
Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.