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Salt + Light Leather

Maker •Chris Lee

Age • 45

Family • Wife, Sandra Lee; Brutus the boxer, 5, model and pet

Home • Carondelet

What he makes • Custom leather goods including wallets, belts, journal covers, dog collars, purses, knife sheaths, chef’s knife rolls, aprons and more

Where to buy • Knife sheaths and chef’s knife rolls at NHB Knifeworks, Maplewood; other items made to order. Contact Lee through Facebook.

Chris Lee hadn’t done any leatherwork since he was a kid when he took up the trade in 2016 after a life-changing motorcycle accident. “My only experience was lacing together one of those pre-cut fold-over coin purses at Boy Scout camp in the 1970s,” he says. “That’s it. When I was in the hospital, a friend of mine, a Renaissance man, also a rider, who works at Harley-Davidson, came to visit. He asked me if I saved my chaps. I had. Without the protection of those chaps, I would have lost my life. My friend made me a knife sheath from the leather. He preserved a part of my life. He led me to a new path.”

The visit, and his friend’s gift, inspired Lee, who had been a premier chef in St. Louis, to pick up leather tools. His business, Salt + Light Custom Leatherwork, turned loss into purpose and hardship into opportunity. The name, from Matthew 5:13-14, inspired his meaningful tagline: “Be the salt to preserve + the light to shine.”

A new reality • Lee and his friend Thomas Trostel were driving motorcycles on Highway 141 early in November 2016 when a driver in a Toyota Camry crossed over the line and hit them. Trostel didn’t survive. Lee’s injuries included a cracked sternum and a collapsed lung. His elbow shattered, his clavicle broke at the shoulder, and he fractured his tibial plateau in four places near the knee. “When I came home from the hospital and after one month in rehab, I didn’t have enough arm strength to cut two potatoes, but I needed to occupy my head and my hands. I was trapped in my body. Leatherwork helped me keep my head about me,” he says.

Learning and connections • Although he’d had no leatherwork training, Lee drew on his life experiences, friends and YouTube to learn the trade. “As a kid, I loved and studied exploded views of objects, so making patterns made sense to me. It’s something I instinctively knew how to do,” he says. “The first thing I made was a journal cover, then a passport holder, a collar for Brutus, a belt and wallets — I enjoy making wallets. These pieces were hand-tooled. Everything is hand-stitched. I watched YouTube videos and just kept making things. ... Industry (restaurant) friends, motorcycle friends — they all visited me — so many people. They saw what I was making. One day, a man came to the house with two totes filled with vintage leather purse panels tooled, cut and ready to make — I didn’t even know him, but he’d heard about me.”

The past meets the future • When knife maker Nate Bonner, who knew Lee from his restaurant days, contacted Lee about making a large quantity of leather sheaths for Bonner’s knives, Lee’s catering experiences kicked in. “Thirty years in the kitchen paid off,” he says. “I planned each step, just as I would work a catering job. Then I put my plan in place. I cut all the pieces, worked the pattern, then dyed them all, stitched everything and, in time, I had enough stock for Nate to sell at the Best of Missouri Market.”

Stitched together and going strong • In the year since his accident, Lee not only started a new leatherwork business, but he also found ways to stay connected to the St. Louis culinary scene. While he can no longer pick up huge stockpots, or stand long hours prepping foods, he uses his skills now as a consultant, developing flavors and new food products for corporate entities. He is still active in the Christian Crusaders, a ministry of men who use the motorcycle culture to bring the word of God to men in need. The first leather project he undertook, a cover hand-tooled with a cross, holds a journal he uses in his faith practice.

Custom leathers • All of Lee’s pieces are hand cut, hand-dyed and hand-stitched. Some are one-of-a-kind, most are hand-tooled, and others have set patterns.