Leather brings out his cre­ative in­stincts

CaiHong­hao adds Chi­nese sen­si­bil­ity to a unique craft

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE - By LIU XIN and GAO SHAN China Fea­tures

Flow­ers, ocean waves, an­i­mals, totems: sit­ting in his north­east Bei­jing stu­dio, Cai Hong­hao ham­mers on a piece of cow leather, bring­ing to life a newde­sign.

Cai, 41, is one of China’s fewleather crafters. He uses ham­mers and shap­ing tools to emboss art work on leather.

In May, he came first in the best pictures cat­e­gory at the World Leather De­but in the US, with the work “Spring Deer”, a de­pic­tion of peach blos­soms and deer. An­other se­ries ti­tled “Uni­corn” helped him win sec­ond in per­sonal items.

“Leather craft­ing re­laxes me and slows life down,” Cai tells Xin­hua.

He be­gan craft­ing leather six years ago when he was the cre­ative direc­tor of an ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany. Fed up with the stress of his job, Cai de­clined to re­new his con­tract last year.

He is­nowde­voted to leather craft­ing. “It’s great fun as I try new de­signs and make it more chal­leng­ing.”

Each work un­der­goes many stages, from draw­ing pictures on paper to col­or­ing the crafted leather. He does it all him­self, but some­times his wife helps.

The back of the leather should be pasted on paper to pre­vent de­for­ma­tion, and then cov­ered with tape to seal it dur­ing col­or­ing. Cai also sprays wa­ter on the sur­face to make the leather eas­ier to work.

His 70-square-me­ter stu­dio is filled with leather and tools. De­lin­eat­ing pens are used to carve the out­line of the pat­tern, while the ro­tat­ing gravers cre­ate the in­den­ta­tions on the leather.

The pat­terns be­come vivid un­der Cai’sham­m­er­sand shap­ing tools. “It is an ex­tremely time-con­sum­ing process,” he says. His shoul­ders can ache af­ter bend­ing over his work­top day and night. “But I en­joy it.”

Cai blends dif­fer­ent col­ors of dye and paints them in with the help of a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. “The gloss of the leather tex­ture should be kept dur­ing this process,” he says.

For a bag or belt, he also sews pieces of leather to­gether.

Depend­ing on the com­plex­ity, a work can take a week to sev­eral months, with the prices up to tens of thou­sands yuan.

Leather crafters around the world mostly use “veg­etable leather”, from Ja­pan’s Tochigi Pre­fec­ture. This leather is soaked in veg­etable tan­nic acid for over a month be­fore craft­ing.

“This kind of leather is ab­sorbent and easy to shape,” Cai says. “Over time, it dark­ens and takes on a fine gloss.” He of­ten buys the leather di­rect from Ja­pan. Each whole piece costs around 3,000 yuan.

He shows his work onTaobao, one of China’s big­gest on­line mar­kets, but his cus­tomers pre­fer to visit his stu­dio to or­der customized de­signs.

He dis­dains mass pro­duc­tion: “That means chang­ing art­works into prod­ucts.”

Cai also teaches five-day work­shops for a fee of 6,000 yuan. Col­lege stu­dents, pro­fes­sors and white col­lar work­ers are among those keen to learn the ba­sic skills.

Cai him­self learned from in­ter­net videos and Ja­panese books. He has taken on a 25-year-old woman as an ap­pren­tice.

“We have a chat group onWeChat with more than 500 mem­bers fas­ci­nated by leather craft­ing,” Cai says. More than a thou­sand peo­ple have mas­tered the skill na­tion­wide.

Most early Chi­nese leather crafts were in Amer­i­can or Ja­panese styles. Cai hopes to re­al­ize the aes­thetic im­agery of an­cient Chi­nese paint­ings “full of Chi­nese fla­vor”.

Cai’s fam­ily fully sup­ports his art, “oth­er­wise, they would not letmedo this full­time”.

Cai stud­ied tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ing and sketch­ing at school and dreamed of be­com­ing an artist. “Nowmy dream is re­al­ized,” he says.

His­next project is anex­hi­bi­tion of his work.


Sit­ting in his north­east Bei­jing stu­dio, Cai Hong­hao ham­mers on a piece of cow leather, bring­ing to life a new de­sign.


The pat­terns be­come vivid un­der Cai Hong­hao’s ham­mers and shap­ing tools. Depend­ing on the com­plex­ity, a work can take a week to sev­eral months.

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