Ken Griffin - Leatherworker and Magician

Ken Griffin (1914-1988) was a key contributor to the birth of the modern age of leathercraft, helping bridge the gap between an era of vocational leatherworkers to a craft that is available and accessible to the leather hobbyist around the world.  A renowned master of his time, Griffin’s handmade stamps served as the models for many of the original Craftools. His books and his introduction of the Doodle Page helped teach the masses the love of leathercraft.  His success in the leatherworking industry provided Griffin the opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a magician, also earning he and his wife global notoriety in a second vocation.

Born in Magnum, Oklahoma, Ken Griffin was the youngest of 10.  When he was young, Ken loved to draw and read, his favorite being Western Americana.  He took his first job on a ranch in Deming, New Mexico as a Cowboy for the summer when he was fourteen and spent his summers rodeoing and working on ranches.

Ken regularly visited a local saddle shop for leather goods or to get his saddle repaired and always admired the hand carved leatherwork.  The shop owner offered him a job and taught him to build saddles, repair harnesses, and stamp leather.  Ken went on to work for a number of other saddle shops, eventually finding himself working for Hollywood’s Ed Bohlin, “Saddle Maker to the Stars”.

Ken began commissioning small piece work in the evenings, which evolved into a small manufacturing business.  The shop he was working with hired a young local actress named Roberta to wear their products out to shows and meetings to promote the business, and Ken began teaching the new shop assistant about working with leather.  Not long after, Ken and Roberta had planned to marry.

The manufacturing business began to grow and Ken oversaw the manufacturing team.  Ken continued to fulfill specialty commissions for Ed Bohlin as well as creating pieces for some of Hollywood biggest stars including Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Sammy Davis, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers.  He became running buddies with legendary saddlemaker F.O. Baird, and began to organize the local stampers to make agreements to never undercut each other’s prices.  Many attended, however some artisans such as Al Shelton had a tendency to keep to themselves.  Young Al Stohlman was just starting out and was more dependent on special orders; no one considered him a threat at that time.  He was a good artist, but the group jested “Do you think he’ll ever learn to stamp?”

Ken found it more lucrative to stamp commissioned pieces rather than producing finished goods, so the majority of his work was on consignment from local leather shops.  In addition to raising their 5 children, Roberta became the pick-up and delivery person for merchandise.  She also began taking classes on lacing and braiding from Joey Smith, bringing another feature to their family leather business.

During that time, saddle makers and carvers thought “crafty” stampers where a flash in the pan; however, Dave Tandy did not.  When Dave started his craft store devoted to leather hobbyists rather than professionals, the first Tandy catalog cover featured a carved border of Ken’s stamping that had been designed as a belt pattern.  Ken admired the creativity that leather hobbyists brought to leatherworking, becoming good friends with early leather innovators from Southern California such as Christine Stanley, Lou Roth, and Cliff Ketchum.

Ken had always designed his own stamping tools and attracted the attention of Dick McGahen.  When McGahen founded the Craftool Company, Ken’s tools became the models for the original Craftool stamps.  One afternoon, McGahen was contemplating how to advertise the new stamping tools, to which Ken suggested that perhaps they put sketches in each flyer that will show how to use a particular tool.  “Call it a Doodle Page, or something like that.”

Ken created many of the original Doodle Pages, as well as writing The Ken Griffin Scrapbook and Art of Leather Carving  that were sold by the Craftool Co.  He is also responsible for coming up with the idea for the Lucky Seven starter kit and the Lucky Eight Belt Book features an original Ken Griffin foto-carve belt pattern.

Ken always secretly loved magic and even carried cards in his pocket as a young cowboy to practice card manipulations.  With his success in the leather industry, he was afforded the opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream of being a magician.  The Griffin’s sold their house and hit the road as a family, all of whom worked for their show,“Navo, American Indian Magician”.  During their tours, the Griffins would visit leatherworkers around the United States and Roberta would regularly share industry updates in her column Leather Skivings published in The Craftsman magazine.

The family toured around the country, teaching the children through distance learning programs, until the oldest were approaching high school in the mid-1950’s.  Having shared his talents at a vast number of different saddlery’s during their Summers, Ken had his pick of where to settle down.  The first on his list was the Miles City Saddlery in Miles City, Montana.  Owner Joe Conway excitedly invited him to make Miles City his home.

After the children had graduated, Ken and Roberta hit the road again with their magic act, “The Ken Griffin Show”.  The show featured scenery, props, and costumes, becoming one of the largest of its kind in the US at that time.  The pair spent the rest of their lives touring as a magic act, being featured on the Ed Sullivan show and performing in at least 8 USO tours.


Fun Fact: Ken and Roberta Griffin were awarded the Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft in 1984 for their contributions to the leather industry.  They were also honored with the Award of Merit by the Academy of Magical Arts in 1979.