Andy P. Smith
Justin Waldinger is the founder, CEO, craftsman and sole employee of Tap and Dye, a Brooklyn-based leather goods company that he runs out of his studio space at New York Studio Factory. Established in 2012, the business now serves over 1,000 customers each year, though Waldinger initially started making leather camera straps for himself and a small group of friends.
“That’s how the whole journey began and that was like four years ago,” Waldinger tells me in his studio. “I had been coming off of a steady flow of freelance work because my actual background is in product design and branding. So I did that for ten years prior to this.”
Working mostly in consumer based product design that ranged from electronics to packaging goods, Waldinger moved “in and out of a few consultancies” before going completely freelance in 2012. “I just couldn’t do the grind full-time anymore,” he says. “So I had to find something I really wanted to do and combine that with the skill set I developed over the last 10 years. I’ve been good with my hands, but I’ve also been a huge fan of cameras and photography all my life. So I really wanted to combine both of those elements and that’s how this brand was born.”
The name, Tap and Dye, is an homage to an actual tap and die set he owns. Taps and dies are tools used to create screw threads. “So you tap a hole and then you die it, which is creating a thread,” Waldinger explains. “In one place that I worked I had done a lot of machining and hands on experience like that. So that was engrained in my sensibilities and because I’ve always been pretty hands on and in a shop for most of that time, I figured the name itself would make sense because I essentially wanted to also custom dye the stuff myself. So that’s why I used ‘dye’ as opposed to ‘die.’”
As far as the products are concerned, Waldinger had a very specific vision from the very beginning. “I wanted it to be this kind of homage to mid-century design,” he says. “You know, like the old German designs of straps that were done in the 50s and 60s for the old ranch farmers. That was something that my father had a lot of in his own collection. So I was exposed to that as well and it influenced me in creating the brand and the way it looks.”
“The first year was kind of slow for sure,” Waldinger admits. “And, you know, I consulted a lot of people who also went out on their own and did the same thing and they all kind of said it’s imperative that you get your stuff out to bloggers and reviewers and have them review this stuff and make it for free and send it to them. Get it in their hands and have them review it and essentially word will spread that way. And that’s really how it got to be a viable solution for me.”
Following his initial principles of exceptional craftsmanship, each leather good Waldinger makes is made to order, handcrafted and extremely durable. Sourcing vegetable-dyed, full grain cowhide from U.S. tanneries and Horween Chromexcel from a private, family-owned tannery that has existed since 1905, Tap and Dye supports an ecosystem of American manufacturers and vendors, which in turn is supported by every customer and every order.
Tap and Dye sells camera straps and promotes those products to a largely photographer-based audience on Instagram. Waldinger himself is a photographer, which is what lead him into the business in the first place.
“The whole analog community is definitely a part of my posts for Instagram because I love analog photography,” he says. “I love film photography. I prefer it over digital but I’m not one to say you should never ever touch digital because that’s just like, you know, that whole war is still ongoing and I don’t ever want to be pro or against any style. It’s really what you want personally.”
Justin Waldinger is a native New Yorker, having grown up in Astoria, Queens. And he still lives there. He’s never lived in Brooklyn but loves having a studio in Bushwick. From his first visit to the neighborhood, he liked it immediately. And he loves the coffee at nearby Wyckoff Star. “The owner’s a huge Twin Peaks fan,” he tells me. “Everyday I go there and get a coffee and a slice of banana bread.”
Waldinger comes to his studio to work every day, seven days a week. Previously, he was working out of his apartment but he’s found he’s much more productive in the studio. “I don’t have my laptop here; I just have my phone and I do that for a reason because I don’t want to be tempted to go online and fool around. This is kind of like my fortress of solitude. It’s all about the business when I come here. I crank out orders.”
Nowadays, Tap and Dye is gearing up to launch some new products. Waldinger has already sold out of a collection of pins and patches for his L E G A C Y Shooters sub-brand. And more new products are on the way.
“Yeah, I got some new stuff brewing for sure,” he says. “As far as hardware goes or soft goods, I’m working on a camera bag design and backpack.I want to get more into the higher-end adventure lifestyle area but also, you know, a part that focuses still on photography so it wouldn’t be a duffel or a rucksack but something that you use when you go camping or hiking or something you use when you want to carry your gear. So that’s really where I’m heading.”