Rafael Hernandez, Lucchese’s master hand tooler, has been a part of Lucchese for over 12 years and has defined the hand-carved details in Lucchese’s tooled boots. Rafael was born in Leon, Mexico, the shoemaking capital of the world. He was raised in and around shoe factories his whole life. His father had his own factory, which is how he learned the business. He said, “There were no vacations when I was a child. I was always a part of the business and thus have always been skilled at leather tooling.”
What brought you to Lucchese?
I moved to El Paso, Texas, and was searching for an outlet and business to become a part of to express my passion and utilize my lifelong skills in leather tooling. I discovered Lucchese and found it to be the perfect company to move forward with my endeavors.
What’s your role at Lucchese? Tell us a day in the life as a leather carver and tooler at Lucchese.
I am a master hand tooler at Lucchese. My job is to turn ideas and art into leather craft. My day starts with compiling the ideas of the client and creating a sketch of the possible works before starting on the tooling process. I usually begin around 7 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. My workday usually consists of constant cooperation with my associates to ensure that their designs are achievable and possible for the size of leather they wish to use. After this, the remainder of my time is used to hand tool various pieces of leather.
Can you describe hand tooling and everything it entails?
Hand tooling is a craft which requires a lot of time and patience. After the design is agreed upon by myself and the client, I begin my work. The first step is to spray the veg leather to prepare it for the stenciling process. After the stencil has been applied, a metal stylus is used to carefully carve the edges, ensuring each line and crease is traced with the utmost precision. After this process, a swivel knife is used to cut and carve out the design from the leather.
In order to achieve a 3D effect and difference in depth, a beveler is used to carefully hit each line and crease to the desired depth and design. This process, depending on the intricacy of the design, can take up to 4 to 8 hours.
After the beveling process, it is time to detail the piece with background imagery consisting of veiners, seeds, camouflage, mule feet and much more. After this detailing process is completed, the swivel knife is used for decoration cute or “deco cuts” to finish of the piece. The final step is to hand dye the design with the colors chosen and antique the piece to give a more finished look.
How did you learn how to tool?
I learned how to hand tool in 1990. One of my siblings traveled to a boot tooling seminar at the Autry Museum in Las Angeles, California. After learning the trade, he passed down the knowledge to myself and other siblings, and we soon became invested in the business and began to practice the trade on our own.
Tell us about your special project with The Joseph.
The Joseph is a hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, which contracted Lucchese for an extravagant leather piece for their front desk in their hotel lobby. Trey Gilmore, the Director of Product Development and Men’s Design at Lucchese invited me to be a part of this extravagant project. I accepted this honor and began the necessary arrangements to begin on the piece.
Describe the steps you took to create this masterpiece?
In planning this project, I knew I wanted to be as detailed and devoted as possible. I began my preparations by meeting with Mr. Gilmore to discuss the design of the piece. It was imperative to ensure that we had the exact measurements and dimensions for the leather. After the measurements were obtained from our associates at The Joseph, we began to sketch the agreed upon design into the leather. The piece consisted of a total of 15 feet of leather divided into three large pieces, the largest piece we have ever attempted to create.
The unique challenge we faced with this project was attempting to piece the various parts of the project together without leaving an obvious edge, in order to give that seamless effect. It seemed as though we measured the piece a million times before we got it right, but in the end, it turned out even more beautiful than we could ever imagine. The design we used were state symbols including various types of flowers, butterflies, and ladybugs. We sketched hundreds of them in order to find the perfect ones for the vision we had for the project. We placed each flower and butterfly carefully to ensure spacing was the same before adding the vines and remaining details. This sketching process was done by hand and took roughly four weeks to complete. After this, it was time to begin tooling.
How many hours of carving and tooling did the desk project take? How long does a boot take?
A typical boot tooling project from sketch to tooling takes roughly 12 hours. The Desk Project took my partner and I an estimated 2,000 hours to complete from the sketching process, planning, tooling process, painting and finally delivering to the The Joseph.
Looking at the final piece for The Joseph, what do you have to say for yourself?
I am so deeply humbled and honored to have been a part of this marvelous project. Knowing that my partner and I accomplished this feat together, through all the trials and tribulations makes me feel extremely proud of our work. I feel as though this project presented challenges to me, which I had never faced. Completing this project has made me feel as though my skill in this trade is the best it has ever been. I recently mentioned to my partner, Trey Gilmore, “Just wait until the world sees this masterpiece.”
Tell us about any special boots you’ve done for Lucchese.
I have been fortunate to have many special projects with Lucchese, but the one that stands out to me the most is a pair of boot tops that I worked on with the portrait of Lucchese himself over top. I utilized my artistic skills to recreate his portrait as realistically as possible on the leather, and the finished product was revered by all.
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