Ron Sargent said it was through luck and faith that Kyle Wilhelm popped into his Laurel shop, Outback Leather, in November almost three years ago at the suggestion of Alyson Tochterman.
Tochterman met Wilhelm on a hot day at the 2016 Maryland Renaissance Festival a few months earlier. Curious about his leather Wolf Shaman armor, she said she struck up a conversation and Wilhelm mentioned he had done the cross-stitching himself.
When Tochterman heard about an apprentice leaving at Outback Leather on Main Street (next door to the Crystal Fox, a spiritual shop for spells and alchemy, where she then worked), she reached out to her new friend to see if he might be interested in working there.
Sargent wasn’t planning on hiring another apprentice, but when he met Wilhelm, the two struck a chord.
Sargent had developed an interest in design for costume and cosplay — dressing up as characters from movies, games or books — and appreciated Wilhelm’s knowledge in those realms. Sargent had done custom costume work for Lenny B. Robinson, the late charity worker who gained fame as the “Baltimore Batman,” delighting sick kids at children’s hospitals around the country disguised as the caped crusader.
Like Sargent, Wilhelm describes himself as mostly self-taught. He said he trained as a blacksmith and in animal care-taking, and previously worked part-time gigs as an actor, model and stuntman.
For at least a decade, the 29-year-old said he did leather crafting in his basement before landing at Outback Leather with Sargent and finding his calling.
“Ron’s like my second dad,” Wilhelm said.
“This is his dream job if you ask him,” Sargent said. “Kyle’s creativity and my knowledge turn out a pretty good product.”
“If you can draw it, we can make it," said Wilhelm, who believes he comes by his creativity naturally. "We can make just about anything, and we put our all into it,”
Sargent studied with the Society of Master Saddlers in England and worked Gayer’s Saddlery for 15 years before it closed in the late 1980s. Sargent went out on his own at the same Main Street location.
He and his wife, Deanna, have since expanded Outback Leather to offer a wide range of equestrian and motorcyclist services, as well as custom design and blanket cleaning and repair.
Wilhelm has brought his own fan base to the business and “loves when people ask for unique [medieval] armor or masks.”
Among regular Outback customers are Misfits of Mayhem, a stunt company, and Killer Cows Entertainment, an indie film company. Both businesses are owned by Wilhelm’s father, Jeff Wilhelm, who, under his mother’s watchful eye, set Kyle on fire at his request when he was just 15 years old and eager to follow in his father’s footsteps as a stuntman.
Other notable Outback Leather customers include Medieval Times, the Laurel Park racetrack, Montgomery County Park Police, veteran motorcycle clubs such as Nam Knights, Hogs and Heroes, and Warfighters, and people attending the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
Victor Hills, a history buff and Renaissance Festival patron who buys season passes, said this year he plans to wear a leather vest that Wilhelm recolored and reworked and a pauldron (a custom piece of armor covering his shoulder and forearm) that the two designed together.
“They are magnificent,” Hills said. “Kyle’s work is very trustworthy, and he’s more than happy to take care of any repairs occurring from enthusiastic use.”
Hills said he wants to commission a matching pauldron and chest piece from his friend next.
Wilhelm will model his own full leather armor every weekend at the Renaissance Festival through Oct. 20, appearing as Wolf Shaman or Medieval Deadpool (a costume he said “everyone loves”) and switching off dozens of leather masks he’s created.
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In the future, he aspires to run a leather craft booth for Outback Leather at fairs and festivals; Wilhelm currently does leather sheath repair work for a sword vendor at the Renaissance Festival.
Pursuing his passion and networking for his employer, Wilhelm also attends annual conventions such as Katsucon, (an anime convention held late winter at National Harbor), and Otakon (celebrating anime, manga, music, film and video games at the Washington Convention Center in midsummer) in leather armor.
He’s designed and created a mask with a hinged jaw that moves when the wearer speaks, crafted a leather rose, and even refurbished a life-size leather pig for a client’s grandfather’s birthday. He said when his customer saw the restored pig, she cried.
“One of the best things about this job is the hugs I get when I make what a customer has envisioned,” he said.
It took Wilhelm a year to master stitching on a machine, and he’s still learning to measure horses for saddle work, but, he said, “getting to learn that skill is great.”
After starting his apprenticeship at Outback, Wilhelm said he discovered that his great aunt, Joyce Lilly, worked in the office for Gayer’s Saddlery in the same building. He recently found the Outback Leather stamp on the remnants of a belt that needed reworking that his grandfather gave him.
“I had a feeling the universe was telling me this person needed this job,” Tochterman said. “He’s come a really long way from his homemade leather days.”