By Lee Mason
Mason Leather wasn’t always called Mason Leather, and my Instagram account @cartridge_cuff_guy was my personal account not too long ago. Over several years both have grown and deserved to be revamped and made better for my incredible customers. Here’s how it all started and how it got to where it is today:
2010: Before I Ever Cut Leather
From 2006 to 2010 I served as an infantryman in the United States Army. I loved every second of it, even if it really sucked at times. “Embrace the suck,” is a common phrase in the infantry and you learn to laugh at anything less than pleasant (which is nearly everything).
From June 2008 to June 2009 I deployed with the 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) to southern Afghanistan. We established an outpost that would later be named after our battalion, “FOB Ramrod.” During that year the Taliban really upped their IED game and my platoon hit countless bombs. During one day alone I recall our lead truck becoming disbled from a blast and the vehicle recovery team sent to recover the truck hit 3 more IEDs just on the way to get it.
To make a long story short, myself and my platoon made it back home to Fort Hood, Texas with only a broken arm to show for it, an incredible stroke of luck (or divine intervention) considering the ridiculous amount of IEDs we hit. That’s a testament to the MRAP trucks we received while in-country. Had we all been in Humvees we’d all have been killed. By the way, you can’t really see IEDs like in the movies, that’s all bull. The guys burying them hide them extremely well. The rest of our unit wasn’t as lucky. The Duke Brigade lost nearly 30 soldiers KIA during the deployment, plus a suicide while in-country. Many of my fellow soldiers went on to deploy again, some multiple times, and many of them gave their lives at the behest of the United States of America.
In October of 2010 my 4 years of active duty was up, and I went back home to Garland, Texas.
2011: My First Leather Project, A Pocket Knife Case
Everyone likes a good Buck knife. I was at the local Academy Sporting Goods store and they had a little Buck folding knife on sale. It looked like a perfect little pocket knife so I bought it.
Wanting a belt sheath for it, I looked online and couldn’t find one for this particular model. I thought that I could make one if I had the materials. Not knowing anywhere else to look I headed to Hobby Lobby.
They had several simple leather kits, including just what I was looking for, a pocket knife belt case with snap closure. I bought it along with some basic tools. That is really where my leather working journey began.
Once back home I opened the kit and followed the instructions. Within an hour I had a nifty little belt sheath for my new knife and it felt good to have made it myself. If I could make that, what more could I make?
When you think of gun leather the first thing most people think of is holsters. I had recently purchased a Glock 19 and figured I’d take a shot at making a holster for it. A quick search on Google revealed a leather crafting store about 30 minutes away, so I headed out.
Arriving at the Tandy Leather store in north Dallas off of Northwest Highway opened a whole new world to me. I had no idea such a place existed. After pursuing the store for probably an hour I bought a simple holster kit, some leather dye and a few other things and set out to continue my leatherworking journey.
My first holster was what I would now call a huge piece of crap, of course I thought it was great at the time. Pretty soon I was buying shoulders of leather (about 5 square feet) and crafting my own designs without kits.
Over the next several years I made a lot of leather holsters for all manner of pistols: Glocks, FNs, KelTecs, revolvers of all kinds, etc. Holsters are tough because every pistol is so different, you have to have a pattern and design for each kind of pistol or your holster is going to turn out to be garbage. There’s a reason why really nice leather holsters are so expensive.
Although I sold a lot of holsters my first few years leatherworking, due to there being so much variance between pistols it was never a profitable use of time and I had to bow-out of the holster game.
My First Cartridge Cuffs
Sometime way back either while I was in the Army or possibly before I discovered these things that slip on the butt stock of your rifle and hold some extra shells. I was doing a lot of hog hunting with my dad’s Winchester 94 30-30 and if you’ve hog hunted much you know that you might need to reload your rifle pretty darn quick!
I ordered a leather Cartridge Cuff (buttstock shell holder, butt cuff, they have several names) from a Texas based leather shop that had been in business a very long time (remember, this was years before I started leatherworking myself). It was great (mostly), allowing me to carry some extra shells and added a nice touch to a classic rifle.
One complaint I had about it was that on the straight grip of my Winchester 94, the Cartridge Cuff would slide up the stock no matter how tightly it was laced on, unless there was a sling stud or something else for the lacing to catch on. I rectified this issue on my designs a few years later.
Cartridge Cuffs - Money During College
Alright, back to 2011.
After getting out of the Army and working in an Amazon warehouse for almost a year, I figured I might as well use my GI Bill and get some sort of education. I wound up getting accepted to UT Dallas and began attending classes in fall 2011. As a full time student, despite the GI Bill covering tuition and granting a small living stipend, I needed a way to make some money while going to school. That’s when I remembered that Cartridge Cuff I had purchased years before, and with my new interest in leatherworking, I figured there had to be a way to make those and maybe sell some for spending money.
Getting the Winchester out of the safe, I examined the piece of leather on the butt stock. It didn’t look too complex, but I also had a lot to learn about leatherworking. Eventually I would realize that there is a lot of knowledge, craftsmanship and little tricks-of-the-trade that go into crafting a functional, good looking piece of gun leather that will last.
Estimating what I’d need, I headed back to Tandy and picked up some supplies. My very first Cartridge Cuffs were a lot like my first holsters: crap. But I persevered and wound up with a design that worked.
After getting a process down and making a few functional Cartridge Cuffs I started looking for a way to sell them, if anyone would buy them.
2012 - 2015: Custom Work and the Golden Era of the FB Gun Groups
When I first started making Cartridge Cuffs and holsters, I did a lot of hand-tooling. Tooling is the designs you see carved and stamped into leather. With patience and practice, you can create some very cool tooling designs and even recreate photos in leather with a surprising amount of detail.
Hunting primarily Whitetail deer and wild hogs in Texas, I worked up a few tooling designs centered around them. I still needed a way to actually sell my Cartridge Cuffs.
By this time (2012) FB (I’m not going to type out the full name here as I don’t want the word to be anywhere on my website for SEO reasons, but you know who I’m talking about) had exploded and everyone had an account. FB groups started popping up about all sorts of topics including hunting, fishing, firearms and shooting. Naturally, I joined many of these groups and noticed there was a lot of trading, bartering and selling going on. I posted a few pictures of my Cartridge Cuffs and said I could make them with custom tooling designs. Before long people were messaging me wanting to place orders, and so truly began my leatherworking journey.
During this stage each order was a full-custom job and I didn’t have a set pricing list. After someone told me what they’d like (which could get extravagant very quickly) I would think about it and quote them a price, then just handle payment through PayPal. This type of ordering system didn’t lend itself to scalability or quick turnaround times, but I also wasn’t making a whole lot of Cartridge Cuffs at this time. One or two every few weeks was the norm, which kept me busy enough between classes and gas in my car.
One of the issues I started to realize about each order being fully custom was how to value my own time. Some cuffs were very intricate, with hand-tooled designs in the leather, border stamping, various quantities of cartridge loops and even fully laced edges. Punching all the holes and lacing all the way around a Cartridge Cuff takes quite a bit of time, the problem is that at a certain point, if you place any value on your time at all, that particular cuff should be priced pretty high. At that point it starts to price people out of wanting to buy them, which is one reason there are so few custom leather workers today: it simply isn’t profitable. Not for what you can charge compared to what people are willing to pay.
Between 2012 and 2015 I sold my leather purely through FB, and mostly in the gun groups. In 2016 FB decided to shut all of that down for reasons we won’t get into here, and my primary avenue for earning money from leatherwork dried up. Most of the groups got shut down, and if you got caught selling anything gun related (even just a piece of leather), your post would get flagged almost immediately. I had to find some other way to get my products in front of people.
Graduated College, Day Job Grind
I had graduated from UT Dallas in 2015 with degrees in Finance and Accounting, so I was able to find a decent job and wasn’t beholden to income from my leatherwork, but I enjoyed it and didn’t want to just quit making Cartridge Cuffs and other leather gear. Having a full time job definitely constricted the amount of time I could spend on leather, so I also had to think about what I could make efficiently while providing a lot of value for customers.
At this point I made the call to stop doing hand-tooling and full custom jobs. It just wasn’t efficient and honestly I was losing money any time I took a custom job. If I charged what it was actually worth in terms of time and material, people wouldn’t pay it and the order would get cancelled 9 times out of 10.
Between 2015 and 2016 my leatherworking slowed down substantially when I started working full time as a Financial Analyst for a small telecom company but it was always in the back of my mind and I wanted to find a way to reach more people and produce better work than ever.
My Etsy Shop and Why I Let it Die
In 2015 I opened an Etsy shop to try and present my work to a broader audience. If you aren’t familiar with Etsy, it is an online marketplace where you can open your own shop to sell handmade goods (that is how it started at least). It is sort of like a mini-version of having your own website, without the up-front cost.
Fairly quickly I realized that Etsy was not all it was made out to be. Lots of the items and stores selling them were sourcing and buying goods in bulk from China and re-branding them as “hand-made.” Also, the people I wanted to reach were not really on Etsy. It isn’t exactly the kind of site where people like me (hunters, fishermen, outdoorsmen) frequent, and sales were slow. Also, it was nowhere near as customizable as your very own website and had other drawbacks.
I made some sales there, but I knew I had to do something else, it just wasn’t working, so I let it die.
Handbags: Yes, I Made Purses for a While
Without spending too much time here, yes, I made handbags for about 3 years. Between 2015 and 2018 I delved into leather tote bags and such. I purchased a large industrial sewing machine and spent a lot of money on leather tanned and finished specifically for bags.
I did manage to sell a few bags and other similar items, but it was slow and there is a ton of competition in the bag market, competition with brick and mortar stores and tons of money for marketing and branding. Plus, I didn’t enjoy making the bags and I REALLY didn’t enjoy using the sewing machine. I could run the machine fine, but there was just something soulless about it to me. Hey, we gotta try things to see if we like them right?
Later in 2019 I finally sold that sewing machine (luckily for nearly what I paid for it). I still have several rolls of that handbag leather taking up space in my workshop. When I look at it, it reminds me of not being afraid to try new things and not being afraid to move on when they don’t work out… but I do need to get rid of that leather.
2017: Going to Work in the Defense Industry
In May of 2017 I got a call from a company that I had been applying to for years. Having served in the military, I figured if I was going to have a “day job” it might as well be for a company that supports the troops and helps keep them safe while in harm’s way.
The short version of the story is that I got the job and went to work for an incredible company that develops and produces some of the most amazing technology in the world, technology that gives our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines an advantage on the battlefield and helps them to come home safe.
2018: Mason Leather & Cartridge Cuff Guy
Late in 2018 I finally went for it and built out my own website. I had never built a website before so there was a bit of a learning curve, but I got the hang of it and before long it was looking decent.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Mason Leather wasn’t always called Mason Leather. Back in the FB days, I called it “Double-Tap Leather,” and even had a cool logo stamp made of a skull inside a spade. Later during my handbag foray I changed the name to “Novoa by Mason,” an artsy-sounding play on my name and my wife’s maiden name. Finally I did what should’ve been done and put my name in it, after all I was the maker. Sometimes we go through a lot of silly ideas until we get to what works… remember the handbags?
Before Mason Leather I decided to revamp my personal instagram into a way to show my leatherwork. I don’t remember how I came up with it, but being that I made Cartridge Cuffs I thought “@cartrdige_cuff_guy” sounded pretty cool, so I went with it. After founding Mason Leather I never did change my Instagram handle, I like it too much!
2019 was Mason Leather’s first full year in operation and it was a great learning experience. I finally had my own website and could show my leatherwork how I wanted. Shipping was made enormously easier because my site order system was tied-in to a shipping postage provider, so I could print domestic or international postage right in my workshop.
Throughout the year, now having an order history I could look at, I started to get a feel for what most people liked and I was able to modify my pieces to provide the best value for customers, with the features they liked.
Also in 2019 I found a new leather provider. Since 2011 I had been using a local supplier (I’ll withhold the name because I don’t have much nice to say about them). They were fine, but I spent a lot of time at their stores sorting through huge piles of leather sides trying to find sides of good enough quality to provide my customers with the best possible pieces. The quality control really was horrible, and I had to find a better source for leather.
Searching online I found Weaver Leather out of Ohio. After some online research it seemed they had a good reputation among makers, so I rolled the dice and placed an order. In the past I had been hesitant to order leather online, I wanted to actually see it first, but I had to take the chance. A few days later a huge box arrived with my first few sides in it. When I opened it and rolled them out on the floor, I was amazed. The flesh side (underside) on each piece was smooth and clean, not nappy as lower quality sides could be. The grain side (top) was clean, consistent and didn’t have random scars, holes or other defects.
I have used Weaver Leather ever since and every single side has been top quality. I’m very pleased to say that Mason Leather customers can expect nothing short of the best leather available, bar none.
2020: Closing & Re-opening; Optimization, Streamlining, Tooling-up
Christmas 2019 was amazing, but very busy. I got more orders than ever before, using Instagram to get the word out as well as having some of my Cartridge Cuffs featured on the Wolf’s Prairie Outdoors YouTube channel.
After the Christmas rush in January 2020, due to some personal reasons, I closed the website to new orders and went on a hiatus. During that time I took a hard look at what people ordered and what I offered and made a few changes to the customization options available. I did this so that when I reopened the process could be smoother and I’d be able to fill orders faster.
I reinvested everything made during 2019 into some new equipment, allowing me to be more productive and provide the best value and service to customers.
The website also got a solid update during this time. I added a photo gallery, FAQ page, updated photographs and even started the Mason Outdoors Blog (where you’re at right now!).
On April 10, 2020 the website was relaunched and the support from both new and returning customers has been incredible. I’m very proud to serve hunters and sportsmen through my leatherwork, and knowing my Cartridge Cuffs, Slings and other gear are on the hunt with hard working, outdoors loving folks means the world to me.
As far as the future goes, I look forward to providing the best quality, best value, handmade in the USA leather gear available.
Wow. I did not start this article thinking it would become the entire biography of Mason Leather, but I’m glad I wrote it! Hopefully it has allowed you to get to know me better and how Mason Leather came to be. I look forward to constantly making my products better for you, and getting to provide incredible handmade leather Cartridge Cuffs, Slings and more to hunters and outdoorsmen across the United States and around the world.
Check out Mason Leather’s current product lineup here: SHOP
Lee Mason is the owner and craftsman at Mason Leather and has been leatherworking since 2011 and hunting since he could carry a rifle.