The patterns become vivid under Cai Honghao's hammers and shaping tools. Depending on the complexity, a work can take a week to several months.
Cai Honghao adds Chinese sensibility to a unique craft.
Flowers, ocean waves, animals, totems: sitting in his northeast Beijing studio, Cai Honghao hammers on a piece of cow leather, bringing to life a new design.
Cai, 41, is one of China's few leather crafters. He uses hammers and shaping tools to emboss art work on leather.
In May, he came first in the best pictures category at the World Leather Debut in the US, with the work "Spring Deer", a depiction of peach blossoms and deer. Another series titled "Unicorn" helped him win second in personal items.
"Leather crafting relaxes me and slows life down," Cai tells Xinhua.
He began crafting leather six years ago when he was the creative director of an advertising company. Fed up with the stress of his job, Cai declined to renew his contract last year.
He is now devoted to leather crafting. "It's great fun as I try new designs and make it more challenging."<
Sitting in his northeast Beijing studio, Cai Honghao hammers on a piece of cow leather, bringing to life a new design.
Each work undergoes many stages, from drawing pictures on paper to coloring the crafted leather. He does it all himself, but sometimes his wife helps.
The back of the leather should be pasted on paper to prevent deformation, and then covered with tape to seal it during coloring. Cai also sprays water on the surface to make the leather easier to work.
His 70-square-meter studio is filled with leather and tools. Delineating pens are used to carve the outline of the pattern, while the rotating gravers create the indentations on the leather.
The patterns become vivid under Cai's hammers and shaping tools. "It is an extremely time-consuming process," he says. His shoulders can ache after bending over his worktop day and night. "But I enjoy it."
Cai blends different colors of dye and paints them in with the help of a magnifying glass. "The gloss of the leather texture should be kept during this process," he says.<
Cai Honghao's hammers and shaping tools.
For a bag or belt, he also sews pieces of leather together.
Depending on the complexity, a work can take a week to several months, with the prices up to tens of thousands yuan.
Leather crafters around the world mostly use "vegetable leather", from Japan's Tochigi Prefecture. This leather is soaked in vegetable tannic acid for over a month before crafting.
"This kind of leather is absorbent and easy to shape," Cai says. "Over time, it darkens and takes on a fine gloss." He often buys the leather direct from Japan. Each whole piece costs around 3,000 yuan.
He shows his work on Taobao, one of China's biggest online markets, but his customers prefer to visit his studio to order customized designs.
He disdains mass production: "That means changing artworks into products."
Cai also teaches five-day workshops for a fee of 6,000 yuan. College students, professors and white collar workers are among those keen to learn the basic skills.
Cai himself learned from internet videos and Japanese books. He has taken on a 25-year-old woman as an apprentice.
"We have a chat group on WeChat with more than 500 members fascinated by leather crafting," Cai says. More than a thousand people have mastered the skill nationwide.<
Depending on the complexity, a work can take a week to several months.
Most early Chinese leather crafts were in American or Japanese styles. Cai hopes to realize the aesthetic imagery of ancient Chinese paintings "full of Chinese flavor".
Cai's family fully supports his art, "otherwise, they would not let me do this fulltime".
Cai studied traditional Chinese painting and sketching at school and dreamed of becoming an artist. "Now my dream is realized," he says.
His next project is an exhibition of his work.