George Hurst speaks with a calm confidence to his loyal YouTube audience as he prepares to demonstrate how to carve leather.
“This is the basis for all leather carving and is only the beginning of unlimited possibilities,” Hurst says, just before he prepares the leather.
The 84-year-old has made hundreds of YouTube videos and racked up millions of views as the digital product manager for Tandy Leather, the Fort Worth-based company, which, according to its website, aims “to teach and inspire the art of leathercrafting, one person, one class, one neighborhood, one community at a time.”
“He’s been the face of Tandy videos for so many years,” said Denton Waddell, who worked alongside Hurst for years in Tandy’s digital media lab. “He’s the first person really doing any type of video how-to from VHS tapes to DVD all the way to online.”
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In November, Hurst put down his leather working tools and retired, saying it’s time to enjoy life, spend time with his wife, Jane, and travel.
He will miss making and producing videos.
“I came to love video production,” he said. “I may not be on 100 percent of the videos but I produced all of them. I wrote the material, the script.”
Hurst also does the videos that come up when someone scans a QR code on any Tandy Leather product.
‘All you’ll ever need to know’
Leather working has been Hurst’s life work since he learned the skill in shop class as a high school senior at Lewisberg Area High School in central Pennsylvania. He served in the Korean War, played some independent league baseball and owned a few businesses before catching on with Tandy.
Initially, the decision to take the shop class had more to do with avoiding homework than learning a useful skill.
The small town boy from New Berlin, Pa., was gearing up to play football at Penn State University next year and had a bad case of “senioritis.”
“I just wanted to get out of there,” he said.
But leather working grabbed his attention thanks to his teacher, a World War II veteran who had spent several years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“I just remember that he really inspired me to do leathercraft. He gave me all the basic skills I needed,” Hurst said.
Hurst worked in Army intelligence during the Korean War and was stationed in Kyoto, Japan.
“And that’s all you’ll ever know about that,” Hurst said.
He started at Tandy in 1961 and worked on and off over the decades. No matter what other venture he did, Tandy always found a way to bring him back, his most recent stint being about eight years of making how-to videos.
The popularity of the videos has surprised Hurst as they’ve gotten views worldwide.
“One of the first people I heard from was a guy from New Zealand,” Hurst said.
‘I was starstruck’
Over the decades he’s made everything from a comb holder and bandolier to elaborate saddles and leather replicas of a knight’s armor and helmet. His saddles alone cost $10,000, he said.
One of the pieces he’s most proud of is a leather carving of John F. Kennedy made shortly after his assassination in Dallas in 1963. Hurst was in New York City working for Tandy as the nation mourned the loss of the president.
“It was completely made out of leather and colored with the right color suit, skin tones and hair color and everything,” Hurst said. “That got the most attention out of everything.”
Jeff Williams, national advertising manager for Tandy Leather, knew of Hurst’s reputation in the leather industry as far back as the mid-1980s and acknowledges he was a bit intimidated when the two met in an elevator for the first time.
“I remember it only being me, George and a third person on that elevator,” Williams said. “I was starstruck and I had no idea what to say and he just seemed to stare at me as if he was sizing me up to determine if I was a manager that had potential or not.”
The two would go on to work closely together over the years. Williams recalls one time where they were driving from Fort Worth to Dallas but Williams’ daughter was in a school program.
“George was more than happy to take a detour off I-20 in Arlington so we could stop by my daughter’s school to see her brief program,” Williams said. “George entered the school with me, took a seat in the classroom and took in the parenting moment with me. And he also took the time to make some charming small talk with my daughter that day during our visit.”
Long before he became a YouTube star, Hurst was known for his memorable sales presentations where they would do skits to motivate the salespeople.
In one skit, Hurst dressed up Dr. Emmett Brown, Christopher Lloyd’s character from the Back to the Future movies.
“I can assure you that George played an amazing Doc with his white lab coat and wild hair wig,” Williams said.
‘A teacher’ in the leather industry
Tandy Leather is still reaping the rewards of Hurst’s inspirational sales pitches from 20 or 30 years ago.
One of his main goals was to encourage salespeople to sell beginner kits with all the tools to start crafting leather, said Jim Linnell, who also retired from the company this year after nearly four decades.
“They really did their job. They went out there and sold the starter sets, putting them in the hands of potential customers,” Linnell said. “Those people are coming in and shopping at Tandy stores today as a result of those seeds that were planted. You have to be continually introducing the craft to a new group of people.”
Linnell said Hurst has above average skills working with leather but he really excels when he’s teaching.
“Without question, he would be known in the leather industry as a teacher,” Linnell said.
Williams calls Hurst a blessing for Tandy Leather who set a good example for everyone.
“George loves sharing his knowledge, teaching others and telling stories,” Williams said. “He is known worldwide in the leathercraft community for his charming personality and creative leather working skills.”
Hurst’s advice to anyone who wants to teach leather working is simple.
“Keep the student in mind. Don’t teach over their head,” Hurst said. “Just keep in mind that they have to be able to understand it.”