Local leatherworker handmakes leather goods that last

When he’s not renovating camper vans, Josh Oakes creates wallets, bags, belts and more.
Green leather wallet on a tool bench
Briarwood Leather Co. was one of this year's "Madison Makers." (June 2021)
Photo by Nikki Hansen

Josh Oakes was pleasantly surprised to be asked about his leather business, Briarwood Leather Co. With millions of views on his YouTube channel, largely dedicated to camper van conversions, he’s typically known for his business transforming vehicles as opposed to his newest venture.

Oakes started revamping vans when he modified his own camper van to travel the country after college. Following the success of one of his videos, he started doing renovations for others as a side hustle while working full time as a videographer for a Madison marketing firm.

In October 2019, he became interested in leatherworking — something that he’d experimented with but he didn’t continue to pursue it. Oakes says he watched a video and it sparked a renewed interest in the craft.

“I think everybody needs some sort of hobby, whether you know it or not,” Oakes says. For him, making leather goods is that hobby, but he decided to take it further and transformed it into a business in March 2020.

Josh Oakes in his studio

Photo by Nikki Hansen

By trade, Oakes is a videographer, but he uses his leather goods business as a way to step away from the digital world and create something with his hands. “I think it helps to have something a little more away from the tech side of the world,” he says.

To create belts, wallets, bags, passport holders and more, Oakes uses hand tools. There are no batteries or electricity involved — his most high-tech tool is a lighter he uses to melt thread.

“Everything I need to make a bag or something is right there, just a little cart. It’s almost therapeutic in a way,” Oakes says. “It seems like a step in the right direction for my self-help. I think we need a break from the hustle and the consumption of social content.”

Last summer, Oakes decided to leave his marketing job and focus his efforts on renovating vans and leatherworking.

When he first started tinkering with leatherworking, Oakes tried to make anything and everything while considering what his audience might like, but he’s since moved on to focus on what he’s most interested in.

“I think it’s important to make sure you’re enjoying what you’re making if it’s a source of revenue, a job,” Oakes says. “I try to make the things that I enjoy the most and, hopefully, they sell.”

leather bag

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Oakes is self-taught via YouTube and trial and error. He says because of this he’s messed up a lot of wallets while trying to master the skill, and he’s still learning with each project. He especially likes making bags. While making a bag requires more steps than other items, he says wallets are particularly challenging, as each is so small.

Part of the appeal of leatherworking is knowing that he gets to work with material that would traditionally go to waste if people like him didn’t repurpose it into something new. Oakes says he aims to source the most sustainable materials he can find.

Josh Oakes cutting leather

Photo by Nikki Hansen

The other element he enjoys is knowing that the products he makes will likely last longer because they’re handmade. He says for things such as belts, you only need one. A handmade leather belt will hold up much longer than an inexpensive item that you could find online that isn’t as well made.

“I hope to see something that I make 20 years from now that somebody is still using,” Oakes says.

Find Briarwood Leather Co.:
Instagram: @briarwoodleather
Website coming soon: briarwoodleather.com

Maija Inveiss is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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