- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

UNION, Ky. (AP) - Michael Burke of Union began making leather products in his basement as a hobby 12 years ago.

Burke, now 42, and an engineer by trade, had been diagnosed with hypertension. He found that working with leather was a relaxing way to help keep his blood pressure down and quickly discovered he had a knack for it.

“It seemed kind of calming and over the years as I did it more, my skills developed,” Burke said. “I always had a flair for leather and I’ve always been a hands-on type of person, so it just seemed to be a fit for me. I started to have family and friends ask for certain items to be made and then I began making Christmas presents for family.”

As requests for his products grew, Burke did some research and discovered there was a strong demand for - and limited supply of - high-quality, handmade leather items.

Burke’s hobby became the online retailer Irish Leather Works, which recently opened a storefront on Mall Road in Florence.

“We sell all over the world now,” Burke said. “We sell a lot in Europe, where you would think there would be Old World leather craftsmen, but they are buying from us here in the United States. I have even shipped to Ireland.”

Early on, Burke realized that he had an opportunity to fill a niche in what he calls a dying art.

He invested in some equipment and took a course through ArtWorks in Cincinnati to better understand how to run a small business. He also started researching techniques for making Old World-style, hand-crafted leather products.

Burke transformed his basement into a leather shop, had a website designed to sell the products and invested in some Internet optimization programs to drive traffic. He opened the retail shop in mid-January and has an official grand opening scheduled for March 15.

“We built a pretty good online following and really outgrew the basement,” Burke said. “We thought having the grand opening on the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day fit with our name.”

Burke uses the finest-quality bridle leather and all of the products except pistol holsters, which he offers through a manufacturer to provide a reasonable price point, are handmade. He also does custom orders.

The product line includes leather belts, cuffs, dog products, guitar straps, motorcycle accessories and sleigh bells, which are extremely popular during the holiday season.

Burke also offers an extremely popular line of leather mugs, which can be personalized for individuals or businesses.

“That is my pride and joy because we are one of the few shops that do mugs the original way,” Burke said. “It is beeswax and brewer’s pitch that is brought to a boil over an open fire and infused right into the leather. You can drink right out of them.”

Burke is originally from Maysville, but moved to the area when he was 18 and calls Cincinnati his “dream city.” He advertises the region on the website and developed a leather crafting technique he calls Cincinnati-style.

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