Some people get into leather work because they need a hobby, others are introduced through necessity. And then there are those that are brought into the world of leather through family at a young age.
Andrew VanZyll, owner of Grimbeard Leather, falls into the latter category. When his father went to prison when he was 12 years old, a family friend brought Andrew under his wing and introduced him to the craft. Cal Olson was a friend of Andrew’s father and was really good at tooling, so he would hang out with young Andrew and show him the ropes.
Eventually though, like most teenagers, Andrew’s interests migrated toward Magic the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons and other games that his friends were playing.
“He (Cal Olson) was really really good at tooling and kind of just taught me a little bit about it, and I got into it and then slowly it went away when I became a teenager,” VanZyll said. “I just wanted to play Magic the Gathering and D&D and all these other games.”
It wasn’t until Andrew got married that he started picking it up again. The urge to create something cool took over and he tooled a Celtic design that he still has today. Then he started making journals where he’d have a store cut a ream of paper in half, drill holes in the paper, add some twine, and then wrap it with leather.
But as life often does, it had other plans for Andrew, but it eventually led back into leatherwork.
“From there, I just kind of let it fly off the radar a little bit, got into web design, became a police officer and did that for about seven, eight years. And as an officer, those guys use a lot of leather stuff. So I got back into it. I was like, hey, I kind of enjoy this. So I started making all sorts of stuff out of leather, but it didn’t really bring me any joy.
“I wasn’t having fun with it. I made a few bucks here and there. But once I made the jump and figured out that I need to make stuff that I like not what other people like, that’s when my brain just exploded with creativity, I’m starting to focus on more of the nerd culture, making dice bags and dice trays and journals with like eyeballs all over them and stuff and just just really cool weird stuff.”
All of that creativity culminated on August 10, 2020 with the creation of Grimbeard Leather.
“I spent about two weeks coming up with the name. We just wrote down different words. I still have the papers that we used. We just wrote down all these different words that I liked and came up with misty mountain leather and white dwarf leather.
Grim was one of the words and I had a beard. And so they just kind of messed together. So it was kind of a cool thing that we thought was a perfect fit.”
Between stints working for a large pharmaceutical company and at the nearby Springfield Leather Company, Andrew worked on Grimbeard. The process, the inventory, the structure. Eventually he decided to make the jump and run Grimbeard full time.
“I said, ‘you know what I can make this work. I can do this,’” VanZyll said. “My shop started picking up, I started getting more shops where word-of-mouth spread around. People are contacting me for stuff, like game shops and comic book shops and it was really cool but it took a lot of effort on my part. I started out with a little shop here in Republic, Missouri, called Cards and Stripes. Steve is the owner’s name and Brandon is the manager, and they both kind of took a chance on me.”
Armed with a few journals and adorned with three or four dice bags, Andrew walked into Cards and Stripes and asked if they could sell his stuff.
“And I was like, hey, I don’t know if this stuff will sell, but if you’re willing to take a chance on me and throw it in your front case, that would be awesome,” VanZyll said. “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing and it sold in two days. All of it, just gone. So they contacted me back up and I’m like, yeah, I have a few more things. And I was like, all right, I’ve got something here.”
Andrew spent early mornings and late evenings working on his products to continue to craft fun and nerdy stuff that he liked.
“And then after work, I came home to work a little bit more so it was very time intensive but I loved it,” he said. “So it didn’t feel like work to me. I made a bunch more stuff, made some more journals and dice trays and I brought them up to Metagames in Springfield and started selling them there.
The highest form of flattery to me is when I walk into a game shop, I’m spreading my stuff out and they give me money for the stuff that I just made. Like it’s just like, you appreciate it enough to give me cold hard cash for what I just did. And this is a pretty stinking good feeling.”
Now when Andrew walks into a game store, he lets them know he’s coming and people show up to look through his stuff before the store buys it.
“When I walk into these stores there’s my name,” he added. “It just feels good. It’s very humbling to me. And it’s very, I don’t know, I never expected that to happen. That’s really cool. Yeah, so that’s how I got to full time in a nutshell.”
But with all the success, there were definitely lessons to be learned along the way.
[I learned to] not to be too hard on myself with the output of products,” VanZyll said. “A lot of the things that I make, every single item I make is unique.”
I may have a tray that has a gold foil embossed dragon on the front. All black leather and white stitching and the next tray is going to have blue stitching and maybe the same pattern and same leather. But the stitching is different or I mix up the leather and I’ll use different embossed leathers.”
In addition to the dice bags, backpacks, journals, and keychains, Andrew adds a foil design to his products by using a foil embossing machine–each time embossing the designs personally like a chef adds a bit of garnish to a plate tying it all together.
“That took me over a year to figure out the leather because it is a challenging thing to put on. It’s not just getting a stamp and stamping it on the leather,” he said. “Every single leather is different. Every stamp is different. The size makes a difference. [I have] two machines here that I’ve kind of rigged up like with full beds on them, they’re adjustable heights, I can move the beds around based on my jig.”
Another selling point for Andrew is the unorthodox method of buying back his merchandise if it doesn’t sell.
“I tell all of my shops and all my customers, I have no issues buying back merchandise from you,” he said. “Almost every time, I go to game shops, I buy stuff back or trade it out. One shop sells out of journals and dice bags and another shop sells out of wallets.I can just give them to the other shop and they’ll sell them, they’ll move. So it’s a business tactic. It also lets me know what stuff isn’t selling, what isn’t going to move and I don’t want to put product into a business or into their hands that aren’t moving, that doesn’t do them any good, it doesn’t make them profit and I don’t want to be producing things that don’t sell.”
When you ask Andrew about what makes a business successful, it isn’t the amount of dollars on the books.
“Honestly, being different,” he said. “I’m developing relationships, I’m not trying to sell you as many journals and dice bags as I possibly can. I’m more there to be about them. I want them to be successful. I want to be successful too, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
Fortunately for him and nerds everywhere, it’s a model that definitely seems to be working.
For more about Grimbeard Leather check out his website.