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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pandemic project: Mementos from ‘Uncle T’: Thomas Grieb makes leather sheaths for knife collection, gives to relatives

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Thomas Grieb’s pandemic project combined the three things he loves the most: family, hunting and leatherworking.

He first learned leatherworking in 1982 while on patrol aboard the USS Parche (SSN-683). A fellow sailor had brought some tools and leather to help pass the time in the submarine.

“I made this checkbook cover,” Grieb said in his workshop at his south Spokane home. “I used the plastic one from the bank as a pattern.”

He traced his fingers over the word “Doc” on the checkbook.

“I was a Navy corpsman for 22 years, six months and seven days.”

It meant he didn’t get a lot of hunting in during those years.

After retiring from the U.S. Navy, he and his family moved to Spokane, and Grieb went to work for the Veterans Administration and earned a master of social work from Eastern Washington University.

In 2006, a serious motorcycle accident cut his career short. His recovery was slow and painful, but eventually, he was able to hunt again, and in 2010, he revived his leatherworking skills.

The pandemic gave him a new focus.

“I stayed home most of 2020,” he said. “I have a heck of a knife collection that I’ve amassed over the years. I don’t know how much time I have left, and I wanted to be able to give them away.”

So, last year he set about choosing knives to give to his many nephews, nieces and extended family. Then he personalized the gifts by creating leather sheaths for each one.

After soaking the leather in hot water, he selected the knife that was to be gifted, and then carefully cut it to size, leaving three-quarters of an inch for the lacing.

Most of his supplies come from locally owned Tandy Leather on North Monroe Street.

“They’ve been good to me,” he said.

Using a leather mallet, he taps the selected stamp into the softened material. Grieb has dozens of stamps from which to choose, making it easy to personalize his designs.

The leather rests atop a small piece of marble as he works.

“Marble doesn’t give,” he explained. “Wood has too much give.”

Each sheath is embossed with his signature, “Unk T.”

“They call me ‘Uncle T,’ ” he said.

Notches on his wooden work table help him measure the length of lace needed for each sheath.

“The double-loop stitch is my trademark,” Grieb said.

A coat or two of stain, followed by a clear coat, completes the process.

He made and gave away 17 sheaths last Christmas, but he’s still working.

“I’ve got five more to make and then all my nieces and nephews will have them,” he said.

Each hand-tooled piece takes him four to five days to complete, but it’s a labor of love.

“I really enjoy it,” Grieb said. “I can sit down here for hours. Time just flies.”

The embossing work is deeply fulfilling for him.

“It’s the satisfaction of making something for my family that they’ll have long after I’m gone,” he said.

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Correspondent Cindy Hval can be reached at dchval@juno.com.

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