Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 18, 2022

Realtor O’Dell finds his ‘Tribe’

Part of worldwide group creating handcrafted goods

Brandyn O’Dell brandishes a handmade knife he purchased. - Photograph provided

When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1798, he forever changed the way products would be made. But even Whitney’s 224-year-old machine would be too modern for Brandyn O’Dell, who prefers to make things the really old way – by hand.

In a world that values the speed and volume of mass production, O’Dell, 43, enjoys spending several hours making one thing, whether it’s a sheath for a knife, a journal or a tote.

“Turning a piece of leather into functional art is very gratifying,” he says as he picks up a crossbody bag he made like it’s a newborn baby. “The world is all about cheap, disposable products. This bag might cost you $300, but it’s going to last you the rest of your life and you’ll be able to pass it on to your children.”

As a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Kinard Realty in Ringgold, O’Dell spends his days – and many of his nights and weekends – keeping up with the dizzying pace of the local housing market. But in the cracks and crevices of time between calculating comps, writing offers and showing properties, he likes to slow down and put his hands to work.

O’Dell spends these moments in a cavernous 2,400-square-foot steel edifice located on his homestead in Ringgold. He spent nearly three years building the space, which not only serves as a craftsman’s refuge but also provides a hint about who he is.

O’Dell has decorated the main room with various handmade goods, including a set of old-world battle armor he assembled from pre-cut pieces of red leather, a Scottish dirk and a Viking shield.

Keeping these items company are O’Dell’s big game conquests, including a Dall ram, a red stag and a whitetail deer, all of which have been taxidermized. A black bear he put down in Newfoundland, Canada, stands close to a fireplace made of thin shards of stone. The chimney reaches 22 feet to touch the ceiling above.

“I had a hard time deciding on the dimensions of the fireplace,” O’Dell says, his voice bouncing off the walls and ceiling. “If it wound up too small, this room would have dwarfed it, and if it wound up too big, it would have looked like Citizen Kane’s.”

O’Dell crafts his leather creations on a massive wooden library table placed near the back wall. Despite being huge (Kane would approve), the table barely fills a small patch of the gaping space in which it’s placed.

This suggests a picture of O’Dell toiling by himself late at night while his wife, Andrea, sleeps in their nearby house. But he’s not alone in his endeavor. Rather, O’Dell is the leader of his very own community of old-world craftspeople.

Called The Tribe, the group spans the globe and consists of more than 40 artisans who cross geographical and cultural boundaries to sell items they make by hand.

The Tribe includes Anton, an Italian bowmaker, Daniel, a pipe maker from Australia, Will, an Irish carpenter, Corey, who makes baskets in Maine, Roman, a knifemaker from the Czech Republic, Renee, a Pennsylvania resident who sews outdoor clothes, and others.

Their only unifying principle is they must make everything by hand. Or close to it.

“A product doesn’t have to be completely handmade,” O’Dell clarifies. “At some point, a machine touches almost everything we make. We have guys who forge knives out of bars of steel, for example. They don’t use a crucible of iron ore they mined from the earth.”

That said, O’Dell does hand sew most of his leatherwork. And others in The Tribe go to staggering lengths to create authentic items.

Iron John, a Michigan resident who made the Viking shield on display in O’Dell’s man cavern, is one such craftsman. To create the shield, he chopped down a basswood tree, split the wood, mixed the paint the way historians say the Vikings did, forged the “boss” (the middle of the shield) by hand and then assembled it using the steps one would have taken a thousand years ago.

“Some guys buy a piece of plywood, cut it in a circle, spray paint it, make it look cool and then sell it,” O’Dell adds. “I’m not against that but I don’t want my people to make things faster and easier. I want them to make things that will last longer and have greater value.”

Such items tend to cost more, so turning his zeal for handmade products into a viable business has been challenging, O’Dell says.

The difficulty revolves around the cost of labor. While a craftsman might not spend a great deal of money on the supplies he needs to make a knife by hand, he will pour a great deal of time into making the knife – and O’Dell says he deserves to be paid a fair price for his efforts.

“If you want a knife, you can go to the store and buy one for $20. But if you want a knife someone spent three weeks forging out of blood, sweat and tears, it might cost $600.”

The blades on The Tribe’s website at thetribecraftsmen.com range in price from $285 for a chef’s knife to $735 for a Northmen Scandinavian forest knife. But cost isn’t the only hurdle O’Dell’s customers have to overcome; they must also contend with a limited inventory.

“We might develop a knife someone loves and wants to buy for all of the guys at his bachelor party,” O’Dell speculates. “Well, making eight of those will take six months, so when is your party?”

The key to selling handmade products is finding customers who are just as avid about the product as the artisan and are willing to pay for the maker’s time and skill, O’Dell adds.

“I sold one of the first bags I made for around $300. Making it took forever because I had to get the design right, and when things didn’t line up, I had to scrap it and start over. So you have to love it to do it, and your customers have to love it to buy it.”

O’Dell says his appreciation for handmade products grew out of his desire to use only quality gear on his hunting excursions.

“If you buy a tool and it breaks in the middle of Alaska, there are no Craftsman dealers in the bush and they don’t do airdrops.”

As O’Dell dug deep to unearth the best possible gear, he noticed most of it was specialty made, not mass produced.

“I realized I could buy an affordable jacket at a store, or I could buy an expensive jacket from a guy who uses wool from the finest source in the world. So, I had to decide how badly I didn’t want to be cold.”

After purchasing a couple of handcrafted knives, O’Dell wanted a sheath worthy of housing the finely crafted blades. Unable to find a case that met his rigorous standards, he made one.

“I purchased some leather, grabbed a few tools and took over my aunt and uncle’s kitchen table,” he says, referring to his temporary quarters in 2016 as he moved from Illinois to Georgia to be with his wife. “It turned out better than I thought it would.”

O’Dell says persistence, not skill, brought about the good result.

“I’m not a handy guy, so the success I’ve had with my crafting is the result of pure tenacity.”

The skills of the people who made the custom blades he purchased, however, astonished O’Dell, so he decided to apply the business savvy he’d developed as a Realtor to an online endeavor.

“There are a lot of talented people out there who can grab the most rudimentary tools, go into a shack and come out with a product I couldn’t make with the finest tools,” he says. “They’re really good at their craft but some of them aren’t skilled at marketing or distribution, so I stepped in to help with that.”

Although O’Dell is happy to supplement his income with his handcrafted leather goods, he says money is the last thing on his mind when he sits down at his library desk to make a new backpack. Turning a profit is also low on the totem pole when it comes to spearheading The Tribe.

Instead, the time and resources O’Dell devotes to his craft and side hustle are about the mission.

“I don’t charge the markup I should. If I quit real estate to do this full time, I’d have to think more shrewdly about pricing,” he says. “This is about reviving the handcrafted culture and bringing craftsmen together to share their functional works of art.”

It’s also about the friends he’s made along the way, O’Dell adds.

“I’ve met good people from all over the world and enjoy the relationships I have with them. I cherish those more than anything any of us have made.”