Scrutinizing a large piece of leather for scars and scratches, Paul Cunningham drapes the tanned cowhide over a worktable in his Leather Head Sports studio in Glen Rock, N.J. Using a utility knife and a steel template, Cunningham cuts four identical panels, which he’ll stitch together to create what he considers the perfect football— blending both function and art.
“Symmetry is vital so the ball doesn’t wobble,” says Cunningham, 46, who opened his Glen Rock workshop in 2010.
Passionate about both sports and leather craftsmanship, Cunningham creates custom-made baseballs, basketballs, footballs, rugby balls and medicine balls for people who appreciate ruggedly beautiful sports equipment.
“Ultimately, I want a ball that has a lot of sensory appeal,” he says. “It should look beautiful, it should feel supple, and it should have a warm, enticing leather aroma.”
A native of Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cunningham grew up playing baseball and loving all sports. During summer breaks as a student at Drew University in Madison, N.J., he worked in the research library at the famed Cooperstown museum, where he occasionally suited up to re-enact 19th-century baseball games using an old-fashioned ball stitched in a “lemon peel” style. Intrigued by the ball’s historic look and its leather craftsmanship, he began making his own cross-stitched Lemon Balls for fun, eventually starting a small leather-crafting business on the side while working for 13 years as a photo editor for Major League Baseball.
“My favorite day of the week is Monday, when I get back to working with the leather,” he says.
Working with leather is “really satisfying, and I love going to leather suppliers,” says Cunningham, who buys from tanneries in Illinois and Maine. “I look for color, texture, thickness, temper, stiffness and oil content in my leather.”
Cunningham’s products are available online and in retail shops in 10 states. His vintage-style, laced-up basketball is so respected that Converse, Nike and Jeep all commissioned exclusive versions from him.
Footballs, however, are his top-sellers, popular as gifts and souvenirs. Ranging in price from $130 to $150, the balls are smaller than NFL-regulation size so the average person can grip and throw them. Cunningham sells thousands of the footballs each year and attributes their popularity to their tactile quality and America’s love of the game.
It takes Cunningham about 35 minutes to create a Leather Head football—from cutting and stitching together the leather panels to pumping air into the internal rubber bladder that gives the ball its shape. Cunningham uses a heated brand to apply a Leather Head logo, and a needle and strip of rawhide to hand-lace each ball.
His craftsmanship has earned him admiration in the sports equipment business.
“Paul’s sports balls are like museum pieces, but you can play with them,” says Sebastian Kaufmann, 39, who has sold more than 1,200 Leather Heads and Lemon Balls through Kaufmann Mercantile, his online store based in Brooklyn, N.Y. “You do pay extra, but the craftsmanship is excellent.”