Chris Kravitt uses a harness-style sewing machine, operated by hand, to stitch his leather knife sheaths together with nylon thread. PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER

Waltham craftsman Chris Kravitt creates with leather

WALTHAM — Driving by Chris Kravitt’s shop on Route 200, it is not obvious at a glance that the leather craftsman’s work winds up all over the country and around the world and that he sometimes works with incredibly unusual material while doing so.

As proprietor of Treestump Leather for close to four decades, Kravitt has made knife sheaths and other leather goods for people in all 50 states and a dozen different countries. In addition to leather, he has worked with exotic animal skins ranging from stingray to the Malaysian horned frog.

It all started on a much smaller scale, though. As a 17-year-old in Connecticut, he was introduced to leatherworking by his younger sister, Merry Jane, after she learned about it at summer camp. He picked it up as a hobby and stuck with it, making things when he was not at his full-time job as a technician in the electronics field.

Kravitt uses metal stamping tools (such as the one seen here) to help create the designs on his leather products such as knife sheaths and gun holsters.

In the fall of 1970, Merry Jane encouraged him to go to a craft fair with her and sell his handiwork there. He still recalls making $150 at the fair from selling belts, vests and other leatherwork that was in demand at the time.

“A lot of fringe, beads and flowers,” he said, adding, “I was your standard hippie type.”

In 1976, he came to Maine to do leatherwork and work as a clerk at the Mud Mill Pottery shop on Route 3 in Trenton, just shy of the Ellsworth city line.

“I thought it would be a good summer job,” he said. “Been here ever since.”

While working at Mud Mill he connected with Rick Cegelis, who at the time ran Treestump Leather in downtown Ellsworth. Given their shared interest in leather, Kravitt said it was natural they would become friends, and in short order they also became business partners.

Kravitt bought into Treestump Leather in 1978 and then bought out Cegelis in 1981. In those days, shoe repair was the shop’s bread and butter, and it was work Kravitt liked.

“I always considered it an honorable trade,” he said. “People would come in with their shoes and I was keeping them going. It felt good. But it didn’t give you the outlet for creativity.”

In 1985, he moved the business into larger space on State Street in Ellsworth, where Pyramid Studios is today. He sold the shoe repair part of the enterprise in order to focus on custom work, which had grown to include making knife sheaths after he started selling knives.

A hard surface (in this case a granite block) is necessary to have beneath the leather when doing stamping work with a stamping tool and mallet such as the ones seen here. The business takes its name from another hard surface that has traditionally been used by leatherworkers: a tree stump.

Any of Kravitt’s creations start with the leather itself. Most — around 95 percent — of what he uses is called vegetable-tanned leather. He used to get his leather from a supplier in Lewiston, but now gets it from Kentucky after the Maine location went out of business.

Leather, said Kravitt, is like meat in the sense that there are different cuts. He uses what are known as double shoulders, which average about 12 square feet in size. Each cut has its own advantages, Kravitt said, such as backs being good for making belts because they can easily be cut into long strips.

When making a sheath, Kravitt begins by cutting a piece of leather into the shape he will be working with. He will then wet it in order to make it more pliable so he can shape it to the knife that will be stored inside. Customers ship Kravitt their knives or guns so they will be an exact fit in the sheath or holster, and in order to ship the latter back he had to obtain a federal firearms license (which also allows him to sell guns at his shop).

Kravitt uses a piece of deer antler that he has shaped and polished to help him give the leather its desirable form. He said that shaping must be done at just the right time after the leather has been wetted, or otherwise it will not retain the shape he has given it.

Putting designs on the leather comes next, and Kravitt uses carving tools (such as a swivel knife) and stamping tools to do that. Most of the designs, such as the scroll work he often does, “come out of my head,” he said. With more elaborate patterns he will sometimes draw them on paper first to give himself a guide to work from.

Some customers have specific requests of what they want on a sheath or holster — maybe their initials, for example, or a certain geometric pattern — while others give Kravitt free reign for coming up with a design.

“I love it when customers give me that kind of freedom,” he said.

Kravitt said he has more than 100 different carving, molding and stamping tools he can choose from in his shop, but he can do most of his work with about a dozen. The others are for more specialized or specific work.

Kravitt has worked with many exotic animal skins as accent pieces, overlays or inlays in his years of making sheaths, holsters and more. The exotic skins range from anteater to shark, Kravitt puts a thin layer of foam underneath the exotic skin to give it more texture and dimension.

After the design work has been done Kravitt uses dyes to add color and shading differences to the sheath. He also can use what is known as a “resist,” a sealant that will keep the dye from being absorbed by the leather, to give different parts of the sheath a different shade or color from the rest.

What also can make the sheath stand out or pop is the use of an exotic animal skin as either an overlay or inlay. From anteater to ostrich leg to chicken foot to iguana, elephant or shark, Kravitt has worked with just about any skin one can imagine.

As a result, he knows the advantages and disadvantages of each. Snake skins are thin, fragile, and strictly for show while stingray skin is difficult to work with but looks beautiful and is very strong.

“Just elegant stuff,” he said.

Obtaining those exotic skins is a matter of “when and where you find them,” Kravitt said. When using them on a sheath, he puts a 1/8-inch layer of foam underneath it to give it a puffier look and add dimension to the sheath.

The last step is stitching it all together. A narrow piece of leather known as a welt is put in place on the side of the sheath where the stitching will be done, in order to protect the thread from the blade once it is in the sheath.

Kravitt uses a harness-style sewing machine that is operated by hand. He uses nylon thread, which he said is more expensive but will not rot.

“So much of the repair work I do is because thread has rotted out,” he said.

A longtime resident of Waltham since coming to Maine, Kravitt moved Treestump Leather there in 1997. His reputation as a sheath maker had grown to the point where he did not need to rely on foot traffic for customers, thanks in part to “some really good press from what I refer to as the ‘knife media.’” That included a four-page spread in Field & Stream.

The move fulfilled Kravitt’s vision of having a shop next to his home. His timing proved memorable, however.

Kravitt works on smoothing and finishing off the edge of a knife sheath, one of the final steps in the sheath-making process, in his Waltham shop. The sheath is made of one piece of leather, and the two outer edges are brought and sewn together to create the sheath.

“It was the very end of 1997, just after Christmas,” he said. “Just in time for the ’98 ice storm.”

Waltham is not simply a place for Kravitt to hang his hat and earn his living, though. He is an active member of the community, having served as a selectman “off and on, but mostly on” since 1982 and is a former member of the town’s fire department.

He also has worked with 4-H groups for decades, did shooting sports and archery with the Blue Hill Gun Club and has taught archery at the Down East Family YMCA’s summer camp on Webb Pond.

For those wondering where the name “Treestump” comes from, Kravitt has the answer ready. It’s a traditional leatherworker’s tool — “you need a good solid surface to work on,” he said, but it’s also tied to Cegelis specifically.

Kravitt said when his former business partner was first starting out on his own he went to open an account at the bank and was asked what the name of his business was.

“I don’t know,” Cegelis is said to have replied before offering the first thing that came to mind. “Treestump Leather.”

There is a large piece of tree stump in Kravitt’s shop, but when asked he said it is not the original one used by Cegelis.


Treestump Leather

Who: Leather craftsman Chris Kravitt

Where: 443 Cave Hill Road (Route 200), Waltham

Contact: 584-3000, email [email protected],

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller has worked at The Ellsworth American since 2012. He covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland. [email protected]