Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Recent Leather Work

Well, I'm back, and trying again to get myself into a regular writing pattern.  For a while, I've been caught up in my day job (advocacy for a non-profit organization working on statewide and regional transportation and land use policy).  I've also been spending time making some leather goods -- belt pouches, possibles bags, knife sheaths and the like.

Here's a bit of what I've got:

Next test: deerskin gusset.
A belt pouch, also called a Rob Roy sporran or a purse for dudes when they wear skirts (kilts).  I'm happy with the way these are coming out.

This one is one I did with the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook logo for my friend, Holly Heyser.  I don't sell this design, it's Hank Shaw's; I just wanted to see if I could do the logo justice.

Something I added to this style are tassels, to be used as game straps for those lucky enough.

The dye job came out better than I'd hoped.  I use a leather dye that is, frankly, difficult to work with.  On top of it, I used an antique gel dye, and rubbed it off, to give it a darker tone.  Next, I applied a sheen, and last, Fiebing's Aussie leather conditioner.

It was hard to be asymmetrical with the ragged flap, but I'm happy with it.
Another one I worked on is this 18th Century-style possibles bag or fowling bag (or, purse for dudes who wear leather pants... don't ask).

I really like this style!  It has D-rings stitched in parallel with the body of the bag, which means it sits flush against the hip, and it has the flap stitched in on the top, so it automatically closes itself.

This particular bag I made with the ragged edge of the leather, and I am happy with how it came out.

I've actually started selling bags and pouches, and arm guards for archery as Old Soul Leatherwork.

I also bought a fine little scian dubh (pronounced "skan doo"), or black knife, at the 150th Highland Games in Pleasanton earlier this year, and designed a knife sheath for it.

Afterward, I got the tooling bug ("tooling" is the name for the artwork in the leather), and made a sheath for my head knife (the knife I use in leather work).  I like quail, and, spurred by my Facebook friend Rebecca O'Connor, I designed two panels, one with a mountain quail (Oreortyx picta), and one with a valley quail (Callipepla californica).

My biggest obstacle in any artwork is confidence.  Finally, I got up the courage to start cutting on a $5 piece of leather.  Here's the first stage of the valley quail panel, with a Perthshire stone knotwork panel.  Head knife in the background.
Here's the valley quail panel complete (but before final stitching and trimming, of course), and the mountain quail in-process.
And here's the final product.  The knotwork panel tab was problematic: I didn't design in the ability to snap it shut without hurting the art on the panel.  Since I'm not taking it anywhere (it stays on the workbench), I'm leaving it as-is.
Leatherwork has been very personally rewarding to me lately, allowing me to express some pent-up art, but in a way that is useful.

(If you are interested in buying something leather, check out my Old Soul Leather Work).

Monday, May 18, 2015

Belt practice: Ranger-style belt

Last month, my online friend Tom asked me to try a new style: a ranger belt.  Ranger belts differ from "normal" belts in that billets are stitched onto the belt ends.

I bought some really nice English bridle leather, and also some decent belt leather straps from Tandy Leather, and decided to make myself a belt as a practice.  That was a good choice.

What I've learned:

Overall, belts can be very hard.  Trying to make a straight line for such a long strip can be challenging.  Being off by a fraction of a degree at the beginning can lead to an awkward end, and the size of your workspace and the length of your arms can be problematic.

Hand stitching a belt is time-consuming.  At this point, I'm definitely in it for the meditation, not the money (and I do actually enjoy it quite a bit).

Hand-stitching takes time to learn.  I'm trying to get a more solid pattern out of the saddle stitch, an angled look to it, and it takes a certain technique.

I always need to go just a little bit slower.

Here's my first creation, almost completed (I added a belt keeper):

Now, it's time to make Tom's belt.  The leather is nicer than the Tandy leather shown here, but really, I'm impressed with the Tandy straps, too.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Improvements, both voluntary and compulsory

This past month has, on occasion, felt like one, big butt-kicking.  We've been hit with sickness (luckily, just variations on the standard kid stuff) plumbing and mice.  Professionally, I've been wrung-out preparing for a giant Summit and Advocacy Day we put on each year.  And in my semi-pro world, we've been preparing for our upcoming archery booth at the Sacramento Valley Scottish Games Festival.

In addition, throw in one or two t-ball games per week for the four-year old and an appearance dancing at a Sacramento Kings basketball game for the 8-year old's dance troupe, and you've got the recipe for our soup of chaos.

The big news was the plumbing.  We've had bad plumbing ever since we bought the house from the bank.  The lines were a combination of cast iron, plastic, and orangeburg line, which is basically tar paper, and we didn't help things by buying the absolutely cheapest toilet we could find.  Every year or so, we've had to call out a plumber to clear the line, and this year was no different.

Well, actually, this year was quite a bit different.

The plumber we called out took a wrong turn with the auger (the big, steel-cabled thing that spins), and broke off the end of it (called a "claw") just under the toilet (he was supposed to clean out the opposite direction -- oops).  A fifteen-minute job turned into three hours on Easter night, followed by a day-and-a-half of back-and-forth.  We finally bid him and his company a "fond" farewell, and decided that we should get quotes on just fixing the whole shebang.  We got quotes, picked one (the guy who was cheapest, but also from the company we've trusted the most over the years -- and he said he'd work a couple of hours free to get that claw out of our line), and three days later, we had new lines.

It did take him over an hour to get the claw out of the line.  At first, he shoved a camera down the pipe (I got to see the new line, too!), found the claw, and decided to come in via the toilet line.  We took out the old toilet (catharsis) and set it out in the back yard (confronting, yet again, the sorrows of not owning a pickup truck or trailer).  The plumber then shoved a "blow bag" down the line.  This is basically a rubber oblong ball with a tiny hole in the front.  You attach it to the end of a garden hose, shove it into the line, and turn on the hose, full-blast.  The force of the water is supposed to build up in the blow bag until it reaches a certain point, and then it "blows" the water, preferably out the front hole.  In our case, it blew the blow bag apart on either side.  Regardless, it successfully shot the claw completely out of our line, never to be seen by us again.  Perhaps a wayward crocodile will make use of it in the sewers, or one of the turtles can fashion it into a kama or a couple throwing stars.

Next, we upgraded the toilet to one that, according to its marketing, can flush 12 golf balls in one go.  We haven't mentioned this to my son, so don't tell him if you see him -- I don't need to come home to any experiments.

As for leather work: I've been too slammed at home and in preparation for my work events and haven't had a chance to put anything into the stitching pony (sorry, Tom).  However, I did get to go to the Tandy Leather Open House sale, where I got a free tote and bought a few tools and a double shoulder of milled vegetable-tanned leather.  Milled leather is soft and pliable -- not suede, as it still has a slick side, and so is able to be tooled and stamped. I'm excited to get to build soft-sided bags with it, and if I get adventurous, perhaps a pair of gloves.

I also bought a tool that makes me feel like a professional -- a round, or head knife.  It is pretty and effective -- a knife that can cut corners and smooth curves very well, as well as effectively and quickly skive! (Skiving is shaving down the thickness of the leather on the back side).  It takes a bit of practice, but apparently not a ton, as I've already used it to make a leather arm guard.

As of this post, I'm halfway through manning our booth at the Sacramento Valley Scottish Games and Festival. It is great fun, and our archery booth did pretty well yesterday.  If you are in the neighborhood (it's in Woodland at the fair grounds), I highly recommend coming to experience this great event.  From caber tossing to fiddles and pipe-and-drum-corps to archery (that's us!), there's quite a bit to see and do.

That's Paul, my kilted brother in-law, arming and training children.  Come on out and get your child the training she needs!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sporrans and belts and shooting tabs... and some great companies!

I've made my first online purchases for custom and specialty items this week.  It seems like I may be on the verge of really taking off with this leather work, as well as getting in gear with archery.

Last week, after seeing the work I did for my brother's in-law belt, my good friend Hippo asked me to stitch him up a ranger-style belt.  If you haven't seen one, just Google "ranger belt", and plenty of images come up.

Anyhoo, I don't know if you have ever worked with British/German ex-pats living in West Africa.  If you have, then you know that they are both jovial and particular, and, if it weren't for my day-job as a lobbyist (that's right), I might have even succumbed to his honeyed words.  Heck, I probably did a little bit, anyway.  He plied me with fine vocabulary, weaving in particular requests with the vision of a near-perfect belt and its use to draw in hundreds of fawning customers.

The "particular" about which I speak concerns the type of leather he would like: bridle leather.  I'd never heard of it before, but I looked it up and yes, it is, indeed, an actual item.  A very nice item, as a matter of fact.  I did some further perusing, and learned a bit about it.  I also learned about a wonderful place I'd never before known: Outfitters Supply, out of Columbia Falls, Montana.

You see, a lot of horse packing gear has to be strong, consistent, weatherproof, and still nice enough to not wear a hole in a horse.  Or an Englishman, for that matter.

I got on the phone with the good folks at Outfitters Supply, and in two days had two fine pieces of bridle leather, finished on both sides.  The stuff is beautiful, and pictures (especially the ones I take) do not do it justice.  Oh, the ideas it inspires, constrained by finances!

Some beautiful bridle leather!.
The big difference between Hippo's belt and my brother's in-law is that Hippo wants no tooling, but he does want stitching.  Ranger belts require stitching the billets, and I've opted to add stitching along the belt edges for the length of the belt, in order to minimize stretching (although I'm sure that this bridle leather will do a good job of keeping its shape).

I'm okay with stitching, but, like the tooling job on Pedro's belt, I've never done it for over three feet in length.  So, I got back on the horse -- or pony, as it were, and stitched up a sporran for practice.  I practiced the saddle stitch (appropriate, considering I'll be working with bridle leather and sitting on a stitching pony), and I feel comfortable.  I also know that I need to upgrade my stitching awl.

Another box in the mail!
I also had a great time looking up a custom order for me... in a way.  A couple of months ago, an archery shop up in the foothills had asked me if I could possibly make leather shooting tabs, as the ones they currently purchase are made of the suede side of split leather -- which means they are flimsy, as well as sticky.  I make my shooting tabs out of vegetable tanned leather, complete, and he said that, if I could get a stamp to cut out the shape, he'd be interested in buying tabs from me.

I poked around and found Pro-Dies.  They are great people, out of Colorado, and custom make dies and punches for saddle-makers and people like me.  I sent him my pattern, and he got me a die at a good price.  I have to really wail on it with my mallet, but I get a consistent shooting tab that I can send up for sale.

The sporran I made is officially the first real quality leather item I've made for myself (my leather-clad mug was commandeered for a pen holder, and my mug and dagger frogs are too, shall we say, 'utilitarian').  I designed a cross pattern with knotwork inside it.  Here are some pictures of the process:

Here is the sporran in the stitching pony (a third hand, very helpful). On the table is the front panel of the sporran, and a panel for attaching the drawstring, to be stitched onto the front panel. 

Here is a view of the back panel and flap (this was in the stitching pony).  Note that I've tied the corners of the flap temporarily onto the back panel (the lighter colored thread).  This is because the soft deerskin stretches quite a bit, and if you don't put your corners in place, you will end up with a lopsided bag.

Here is a picture of the front panel in the stitching pony.  You place the pony on your chair, and sit down over the horizontal bar.  I'm using a saddle stitch, with a needle on each end of the thread.  Note the cash register for all the sales I'm making!

Here is the Rob Roy sporran, ready for a button on the top flap.  If you are interested, I'll be selling sporrans like these starting at $100 -- you can check them out at my other webpage.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Latest leather project: a belt

My brother in-law Back East commissioned a belt from me a few weeks back. Talk about a teachable moment! I'd never tried a belt before -- well, I'd recycled a thrift store leather belt for my three-year old son, Ruben's, kilt, but I hadn't tried any tooling.

In talking over what he wanted, he expressed an interest in some kind of Nicaragua-themed pattern on a simple leather 1 1/4" belt with no fancy buckle
I skipped down to my local Tandy Leather, picked up a vegetable tanned belt blank (my leather wasn't long enough for a belt, or I would have tried cutting a strip). Their craftsman blanks are plenty thick and good quality.  I also bought a solid brass buckle, an adjustable groover, and some tracing paper.

Then, per my process, I seized up with fear and anxiety for a few days as I considered some pattern.  Unfortunately, when I look at a blank piece of veg-tanned leather, I don't see any possibility other than the very likely one that I will screw up a valuable piece of leather with a hideously ugly pattern and a few slips of the hand with a knife.

I flipped through the Google for good images from Nicaragua. My brother in-law's style is understated.  Without getting too far down into a stereotype, he is a professor at a prestigious East Coast liberal arts school: Katherine Hepburn's alma mater, as a matter of fact. He is also, as a geologist and paleontologist, a man who gets out in the field, so something rugged and natural would be important. Earth tones.

Also trying to avoid stereotypes, it seems safe to say that, "understated" is not a cornerstone characteristic of Nicaraguan visual art. "Vibrant" may be more appropriate. There is a strong leather craft culture, and I would love to go visit and learn from some of their masters, and there is an eon of human history and art remnants, as well as rain forests, lakes, the ocean, and volcanoes for inspiration.

I knew I'd use images from stone carvings, Granada tile, pottery, and also some images from nature. I looked through the list of national symbols and picked the flower and tree, and also a jaguar and a snail, the latter recommended by his good friend.

Finally satisfied (mostly), I settled in to the actual work.
Alright, here's a quick tutorial, in case you'd like to make and tool your own belt:

First, after a few days of trying out different pattern ideas, finally commit, dammit!  This is the pattern I drafted: Steps and swirls, some native flora and fauna.

Thanks to Mr. Fashion House for the snail tip -- they look cool!
Next, bevel the edges of the belt to round them out (don't forget to wet your leather and let it dry just for a minute or so), and then groove the edge to frame your pattern. You can also cut grooves with that grooving tool, if you want to deepen the background of your belt to make your tooling marks really stand out, but, since I was going for "understated", I kept the grooves shallower.

My newest tool: a groovy adjustable groover with interchangeable tips. 
Now, it's time to trace your pattern.  I finally bit the bullet and bought honest-to-goodness tracing paper, simply because I couldn't see the pattern through regular white paper well enough to keep it in line.  Belts are long, and (especially with skinnier ones like this one) if you veer off course on your pattern, it's visible.

With wet or "cased" leather, all you need is light pressure with the stylus.
Now, it's carving time!  Again, make sure the leather is cased. Keep your knife sharp (the Tandy instructions say to consider your strop a part of your knife, and it's good advice).  If your knife starts to drag or catch, stop and strop.

Carving sets the stage for the tooling.  Note strop in the upper right.

Tooling is next.  For this project, all I did was use a beveling tool to make the cuts stand out.  I could have also use a pear shader on a couple of spots if I'd chosen.

Tall end of the beveler goes into the cut on the outside of the image. Hammer lightly.

 After carving and stamping, it's time to dye... I learned a lot from this belt, dyeing being one of them.  My dye didn't go on as evenly as I'd have liked, although it gave an impression of age that the owner really appreciates (whew!).

For more even dye applications, make sure to thoroughly clean the oils that have accumulated from your hands onto the leather -- I believe you are supposed to use some sort of denatured alcohol or oxalic acid, and I think Tandy Leather sells a "deglazer" that does the trick.  I'm looking into it.

Almost finished.  What's left?  Edge dyeing and slicking, hole punching, adding the belt keeper, and shipping off.

And here are a couple of pictures of the final product:

Solid brass buckle so it won't rub off to steel, a darker brown edge dye, and Fiebings Aussie leather conditioner applied.

The part I'm happiest with -- the belt end keeper.  The dye went on beautifully, and the stamping was just a simple and very traditional leather veiner tool.
Lesson learned:

--Belts are long and narrow, which creates some issues with design (patterns are easier to carve if they flow in a shallow diagonal), casing (keep wetting it!), and the build-up of oils and dust (keep your workspace clean -- even the floor).  

In all, it was a great experience, and now I can add belts, straps and slings to custom projects at my other website.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

There are still good blogs out there! and a business update

Sadly, I'm not one of them, though I'd love to be, one day.  I might lack the courage required of the wordsmith to post really flaying, soul-searching thoughts, or the depth required of capturing philosophical monologue. Perhaps I'm not well-read enough to know how to turn a phrase, or worldly enough to have any real stories to tell.

Whatever it is, I ain't got it.

However! I still read a number of blogs written by some amazing writers, folks who do have experiences and the skill to craft amazing mental pictures, tug at heart-strings, and occasionally make you pee your pants.

I hadn't realized that, perhaps, blogging is on the verge of becoming a flash in the pan, another medium corpse on the path of digital communication, since I've always thought it, basically, just people writing public journals (something that has gone on for quite a while, I gather).  But a blogger I read, Chad Love at "Mallard of Discontent", posted a melancholy piece on a recent trip to Vegas, and in so doing, mentioned that a number of other media seem to be taking over.

So, to do my part to help keep the medium alive (for the three or four of you who actually read this), here is a short list of some well-crafted blogs:

--Of course, the aforementioned Mallard of Discontent.  Chad Love always writes as if he is apologetically trying to capture the glory (or bemoan the loss) of the profound and nuanced outdoor writing of the early- to mid-20th Century, but what he really is doing is very clearly and articulately representing the kind of profound and nuanced outdoor writing that continues to exist, nearly timelessly, because he and a few other great writers continue to write. 

--My 2nd longest-distance online friend, Tom Gowans, at Hippo on the Lawn, who writes about his life in Angola.  Amazing, funny, sad, and a bit on the bleeding edge of life. 

--Phillip Loughlin's Hog Blog.  You may be cool, but you'll never be Carolinian GQ-published hunting guide who writes his own great blog about hunting feral pigs.  Seriously, don't let the title fool you, Phillip Loughlin can write.

Steven Bodio's Querencia.  I know more people are aware of his history and authorship than I am; I know that he writes a fascinating blog of snippets about dogs and dog breeding (from a wonderful angle), hunting and fishing, bird-watching, anthropology and the natural sciences, falconry, and intellectualism. 

If you've got blogs of the style and quality you see from these gentlemen, please let me know. 


On the business-side of things around here, I continue to work on my brother in-law's belt.  The biggest -- and most nerve-wracking -- part is next: cutting the pattern I've designed into the belt.  Yes, aside from the panic that grips me for hours on end as I try to actually design the art work, it's almost the entire job...

Thanks to Dave for the snail inspiration.  More on the meaning later...
I've also almost got my first business for archery instruction via my online presence... almost.  Fingers crossed that the gentleman will call back.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Silent Spring? Try, a too-early Spring for California. Also, a quick update on the leather work.

What with climate change and a drought, Spring sprung in California in early January.  However, that just means that the time between January and April is fraught with chaos: we may get no rain, and highs into the 70's for a couple of weeks, to be replaced, overnight, by three days of precipitation in which we get 5 inches of rain; or, we may instead get visited by a cold snap into the 20's for ten straight days.  Of course, we could get days and days of deep, thick fog.  Or a wind that blows everything dry as toast and lights Southern California ablaze...

It means that planting times really don't change all that much due to the weirdness of the jet stream and pressure ridges.  Just don't talk yourself into a false sense of security about an earlier planting time.

But they do change due to a warming climate.

This graph from the US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, shows that the average length of the growing season in the U.S. has increased by nearly two weeks during the 20th Century.  And this animation by the Arbor Day Foundation shows the shift in hardiness zones in the U.S. in one decade.

The California portion of that map just barely covers it, since California has so many climate zones and microclimates.  It is interesting to note the creep of hardiness zone ten inland from the coast... also, keep in mind that California is in a drought now approaching four years long, and well past the data of that hardiness zone map.

For our region, it means watching our plants bloom and leaf early, and then hope for enough water while dreading the dramatic shifts in temperature that tend to come with our precipitation.  You see, the lion's share of California's water is supposed to arrive in the form of snow blanketing the Sierra Nevada (which is right now at about 25% of its average for snowpack, a terrible irony if you look up the meaning of its name). But, blooming fruit trees are especially susceptible to damage from hail and freezing.

If we only get our precipitation from what people are now calling "atmospheric rivers", but what we used to call pineapple expresses, we get a LOT of rain, but warmer rain.  In a typical year, that could mean a really bad rain-on-snow event, leading to flooding.  However, with no snow, at this time we are hoping for just about anything.

Sadly, the warmer weather also brings out the nasties -- in our case, mosquitoes, ticks and fleas.  Yea.  Even worse, a longer hot season will mean more West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes, which is only a small trouble for people, but may potentially lead to the extinction of our endemic yellow-billed magpie, as well as wreak havoc on multiple other avian species.

As I type this, I'm watching one picking up sticks for its nests.  They have two in the walnut tree from last year, masses of twigs about 2-3 ft. in diameter.

Updates around the grounds:  Our walnut has a slight case of mistletoe, and I am contemplating just what to do with it.

Our pomegranate, fig, and boysenberry, and my wife's japanese maple (that I feared had died) are all budding and leafing.  I'm tempted to try to plant cuttings of the fig and pomegranate to make hedges (if anybody has any advice, let me know).

As for the leather shop, I've picked up another customer -- my brother in-law, who has commissioned a belt.  Having never made a belt, I looked up "custom tooled leather belts" and, after taking recovering from the shock of seeing how much people are willing to pay to hold up their pants, I decided to only charge this one, being an experiment, for materials and the cost of one new tool (an adjustable groover).
I can feel the possibilities in it, including the possibility that I will royally screw it up.

I also banged out another arm guard, this one a birthday present for a good friend, Mr. Jung.  It was really nice to get a sense of the speed I've picked up, having cut arm guards for two other clients (one of which I haven't yet delivered, due to my shipment being drawn on by a four year-old).  Mr. Jung has a great story, having just recently reunited with his family in South Korea after having been adopted as a baby.

The Jungs can take some really nice pictures.