Terrence Robbins was commissioned to carve a leather notebook cover for Stephen Harper.

Terrence Robbins was commissioned to carve a leather notebook cover for Stephen Harper.

OUR TOWN: Robbins carves stories into leather

Terrence Robbins of Hazelton turned the tables on dyslexia when he took up leather carving.

Terrence Robbins, 59, feels he is fulfilling a destiny that was handed to him many years ago.

Robbins, is dyslexic, and doing anything that requires much reading or writing is difficult.

“I needed to be an artist,” Robbins said.

“I wanted to do something I was good at.”

It was in Grade 8, at a special school, Robbins was first introduced to the art of leather carving.

“It was calming and I had to focus,” Robbins said of his initial reaction to what eventually became a passion.

Robbins also appreciated the fact he was only one of a very small group interested in the craft.

Carving leather in Hazelton, Robbins said, is exactly what he wants to be doing and it is a far cry from his life when he first returned to British Columbia from Seattle, WA., in 1974.

Back then, Robbins made ends meet roofing and painting houses, he even tried his hand at painting skyscrapers, although his memory of that is a scary one.

“I was working on the 24th story, there were no safety ropes, everything was OK until the wind came up,” he said with a laugh.

Robbins decided it was time to do something closer to the ground and took an auto mechanics course which today, working at the gas station in Hazelton, leaves him time to pursue his passion of carving leather.

The dedication to the craft has certainly paid off for Robbins.

Without hesitating, he said his biggest challenge as a leather carver is a notebook cover he carved for the city of Trois-Rivieres in honour of their 350th anniversary.

The gift was commissioned by Stephen Harper, who was so pleased with the final product, asked Robbins to carve one for him.

The detail in the carvings is impressive and the smoothness of the carvings hides the detailed work involved, a process which has seven steps, Robbins said.

Drawing is the first step.

“I try to tell a story,” Robbins explained, adding he often seeks inspiration in nature and First Nation’s stories, or on occasion he refers to man’s progress.

While drawing he takes particular care with perspective, making sure the vanishing points are lined up, a task that might see him redraw his original idea two or three times over the course of a week and sometimes longer depending on the difficulty of the drawing.

Then, using a pointed tool, Robbins inscribes the tracing onto the leather and once done it is time to carve.

Using a swivel knife, Robbins carves the leather, making adjustments to the curves and the lines as the drawing takes shape.

The cuts in the leather go no deeper than halfway through the hide and variations in the depth of the carving add relief.

The next step, tooling, Robbins said is his favourite.

Tooling involves bevelling of the carved leather, which adds relief and other tools bring out highlights and shading.

“Tooling is my favourite part, I get to use my imagination and even add new ideas,” Robbins said.

Following the tooling, the leather carving might be embossed, which is pushing the leather out from the back, which adds additional relief.

If required by the design, Robbins will add some filigreeing, the cutting out of pieces to add a background effect.

Finally, the leather is dyed.  This is the most advanced stage in the craft of leather carving, and can require up to five coats, each applied sparingly as mistakes are hard to fix.

“Dying is definitely the most difficult part, it’s very intense,” Robbins said.

“One mistake can ruin the whole piece.”

Using alcohol-based dyes, Robbins uses the colour to add more depth to the carving.

The choice of colours is dictated by the subject of the carving, although any background spaces are usually dyed black.  For carvings with a First Nations theme, Robbins said he tends to stick to the traditional colours, especially black, red and green.

If the carving is for a purse or book cover, Robbins sews the pieces together by hand, then pounds the lace down flat.

On the horizon, Robbins is planning a piece on the story of the burning of the Kispiox village some 200 years ago.

“It will be quite the challenge,” he said.

“Getting fire and smoke into a carving is very difficult.”

Regardless of the level of difficulty, Robbins said he looked forward to the challenge, carving leather is what he does.

“They’re my pride and joy,” he said.