Don Overton | Creating functional leather artwork

Don Overton uses one of his bevel tools to stamp an animal figure.

Don Overton is continuing his entrepreneurial spirit, at age 91, creating and selling handmade leather purses with Tahoe Sierra scenes on them. He originally got into leatherwork after he served as a medic in World War II.

After his time in the Army, he became involved with youth clubs from 1947 to 1948. During the 1940s, it was popular to make leather wallets and belts. He started specializing in making handcrafted leather gun holsters. Throughout the years, he pursued other hobbies such as woodwork and photography. Recently, his wife Mary-Anne suggested he get back into leatherwork. However, since every purse is hand cut, stitched and drawn, the time and the effort each one takes to make far exceeds its cost.

“There’s no way I could make money off of them. It takes a week and a half working fulltime to make one and there is $60 worth of material in each purse,” he says of his satchels that retail for $300. “But I can’t stand sitting around, I got to do something.”

As Don’s mobility became more limited, leatherwork proved to keep him busy.

“He’s a doer, not a sitter. If he had to spend the days watching TV that would be awful for him,” Mary-Anne says. “He can’t do that heavy lifting anymore, so I asked him to make me a purse, a Tahoe purse.”

She brings out her Don Overton original: a leather satchel with a blue Stellar jay engraved on the front and a brown bear in a forest scene on the back.

“I get a lot of compliments on it, especially from a lot of younger people,” Mary-Anne says.

Twenty-three years ago, Don and his wife Mary-Anne moved to South Lake Tahoe when she got a job as a lab technician at Barton Health.

Don Overton’s handmade gun holsters lying on top of an Al Stohlman book.

“We always loved the mountains, so moving here was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse. This is a special place, it’s wonderful here,” says Mary-Anne.

For Don, it’s a way to use his photography and leatherworking skills. He also used to teach biology to younger students and would treat them to arts and crafts at times when they were being good.

Walking into his workshop, a leather hide is spread out on a queen-sized bed. He gets rolls of it from Tandy Leather in Reno, Nev.

“We try to stay as local as we can,” Mary-Anne says.

Don He uses an X-Acto knife and a pattern to cut the hide into shapes. He then creates an indented scribe around the side and uses a special hole puncher to stamp out small circles to stitch through.

Next, he has to burnish the edges to seal them. That’s the hard part. Then, according to Don, he gets to the fun point — the drawing and coloring.

“I get a picture from a magazine and make a drawing like this,” Don says, holding up a picture of a Stellar jay.

Don prints it on a transparent sheet and transfers that to the leather. Out of his collection of 30-plus small, metal tools — mostly bevellers — he creates intricate patterns and designs into the leather, giving it a three-dimensional look.

“One of the leading leather workers in the United States, Al Stohlman, is known for doing beautiful picturesque scenes in leather and a lot of Don’s designs come from his books,” Mary-Anne says. “Don did a lot of self-learning from that.”

After using different bevel tools to create textures for grass, fir trees and Tahoe animals and scenes, Don fills the scene in with color and coats it with a shiny sheen or matte sealant. After all of the carving, he stitches it together with a sturdy waxed string.

Mary-Anne, a purse aficionado, shows off a designer-brand leather purse and compares the quality to one of her husband’s.

“This was $350 and there’s barely any leather in it,” she says of a name-brand version.

For people who enjoy leather purses and want a functional, unique souvenir from Lake Tahoe, a handcrafted Don Overton purse is worth consideration.

Don Overton’s leatherwork can be found at Trunk Show in Tahoe City and the Sidestreet Boutique in South Lake Tahoe. Look for his stamp on the inside flap of his purses: “Handcrafted by DonO Lake Tahoe.” | tahoetrunkshow.com or sidestreetboutique.com