Saturday, February 13, 2016

How to be cool...?

 © 2016 Joshua Stark

I'm going to need some help from cool people.  You see, I may have just discovered that I am, in fact, cool.  Hip.  With it.

I am a hep cat. And I don't know what to do with it.

Two recent experiences took place to lead me to this inevitable conclusion, and now I am at a loss as to what, exactly, I am supposed to do with this power.

The first experience involved a gigantic bicycle, Amtrak, a West German Army surplus jacket, and the city of Oakland (see?  Even that sentence is just so dripping with cool).
A couple of months ago, I had to get to my organization's headquarters in downtown Oakland for a strategy session for 2016.  Since we are a nonprofit focusing on sustainable and equitable transportation, I'm encouraged to take the train, and this time I thought I'd take my new cargo bike and ride the last two miles.

In typical fashion (for me), my humongous bicycle didn't quite fit, but I forced it.  I got an evil stare from a conductor as I worked at it, but she let me on.  Of course, I spent the trip wondering how I could possibly get home if they didn't let me on the return ride, but I was in it for the long haul.
The cargo bike, in its natural defensive posture

Once I got off the train, I hopped on my bike.  Mind you, when I say my bike is humongous, I mean it.  It's a cargo bike, a Yuba Mundo to be precise, over seven feet long and 50+lbs.; built to haul up to 440 lbs. plus the rider.  I have dreams of hauling out decoys to a local marsh with this beast, but I mostly use it to haul the kids to and from school, and then bike to work.  Bonus: it's bright orange.

It being a chilly day (in the mid-40's), I donned my weather jacket -- a drab green, 25+ year old West German Army surplus jacket that has made it through the years looking really good.  It's one of those coats that is pretty heavy, but when you put it on, you feel like you are wearing a sleeping bag, and the weight distributes perfectly. 

So here I was, pedaling through Oakland -- a city with blocks spontaneously gentrifying in such short order that they should have ribbon-cutting ceremonies or dry ice and light shows -- on a cargo bike, with a four day-old beard (if I shave regularly, I look like I've been attacked by wasps), wearing a German Army surplus coat.

I wanted to yell, "I'm not a hipster!  I'm not paying $2300 a month to live here in a flat above my micro-brewery!  I promise I'm not delivering crates of kombucha!"  I wanted people to know that I was a small-town California Okie, raised in a little Chinatown; that I went to community college in Stockton, where I'd bought this actual coat over twenty years ago at an honest-to-God army surplus store...

I felt helpless.

The second experience took place outside my local library, as I passed the time waiting for my daughter's dance class, and it came with a horrible epiphany concerning the extent of my hip-ness.

I was sitting there, and one of those Facebook memes popped into my head.  You know the one about how "you" may be cool, but you'll never be as cool as blah blah blah?  Well, I chuckled to myself as I wrote out my own version.  It started out innocently enough:

"You may be cool, but you'll never be sitting in your Prius, waiting for your daughter's urban jazz class to finish..." I chuckled; some people do realize that it is pretty cool... "hand stitching a man-purse for..." flashes of fully-bearded, wavy-haired hipst-hipst- "... your Vogue-published writer-friend."

At that instant, I knew that there were entire communities who thought that was cool.

Damned cool.

Images of me, bowhunting with my recurve, hunting with my cheapie double-gun and a rescue spaniel.  Pokepoling for pricklebacks. Tying flies from birds I'd shot.  Videotaping a "how-to" on acorn processing.  Working for an environmental nonprofit.

Raising ducks.

Teaching archery.

Knowing what, "pokepoling for pricklebacks" means.

Making nocino and walnut ketchup.

Hand-carving leather arm guards.

I heard the voice of Sewer Urchin, a super-hero from one of my all-time favorite cartoons, echo in my head:  "Down here, I'm the apotheosis of cool!"


Now, I know I'm not cool.  In my heart, I'm not cool; by my age, I cannot be cool (because I'm not a musician).  I've never minded coolness, or being cool -- shoot, I've seen some really cool cats in my time, and I've never begrudged them their cool.  But, I've never envied it, either.

All I've ever done, in all honesty, has been without a care about looking cool. (my continued willingness to go hunting with other people, despite my track record, attests to this fact).  I've not tried to be cool or uncool or different.  I've just liked what I've liked and haven't thought much about it.

Part of this probably has to do with being painfully shy as a kid, and growing up in a small California town.  Since I only interacted with a couple of people, and they sure didn't represent any one clique (you get who you get in a small town), I just pretty much kept to myself, developed my own interests, and had the blessing of a very diverse group of friends and family.

But, lately, I'm getting the sense that people have been following me around, and taken up what I've done for years as a goofy guy, as a set of cool things to do. 

If this is true, here are some other things you can expect to be cool pretty soon:

-Pulling an abdominal muscle as a result of the extra exertions of the flu will be all the rage really soon;

-Stock up on Buffalo Bills merchandise, because it'll be flying off the shelves in no time;

-According to my wife, it'll be a hit to let the recycling pile up in the kitchen, rather than taking it out;

-So will waiting six months to fix the running toilet;

But back to my original question: for all my cool friends out there -- what should I do with this power?  What can one do with coolness?  MallardSBW? Phillip? Chanell? Hank?

Not ever having had it before, I don't know where to start.

Oh, and I have an Etsy Shop. (Facepalm):

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas, y'all -- from a man who worships a refugee

Just a quick note, a Merry Christmas to all.  We at the Stark House have been giddy, preparing for Santa's arrival, and watching presents pile up under the tree (which, by the way, seemed to have a three-foot thick trunk, quite unusual for a seven-foot tree... there was much trimming).

The weather turned cold today in California, dropping from the mid-fifties yesterday into the low forties today, and feet of snow are piling up on the Sierra Nevada.  A great Christmas miracle, if you ask me.

Tomorrow is the day we celebrate the birth of our Savior, and I am reminded that we are blessed to live where we do, and to have what we have.  As a Christian, I know it isn't because of my hard work that we are blessed, and I do not believe it is karma.  I believe that the sun rises on the evil and the good; and the rain comes down on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt.5:45).

I am also reminded that His family were forced to run, in fear for their lives.  They were hunted in their homeland, and had to go into exile as refugees into Egypt.

Nor did Joseph take up arms to defend his home.  I've seen some call those men who get their families or themselves out of war zones cowards for leaving war.  I can never make such a sweeping claim with confidence, because I don't know each person's situation, and I know that, before anything else, each one is unique.

As a Christian, I must admit that none of us knows perfectly of God's will. I know for sure that I am a sinner, that I fall short of the Perfect Good, of Love, constantly.  Like C.S. Lewis points out, we can be sure that we know good, and that we don't do it.

But I worship a God who became a man, and who, as a child, had to flee with his family as refugees.  I worship a God who commands me to make a place for all, even those who worship differently than I do.  I worship a God who calls me to defend widows and orphans, to care for the poor, and the imprisoned, to give to any who ask of me.

Nowhere am I commanded to only do these things if I am not afraid.  In fact, I am told to fear not!  I am commanded to not cower, but to open up even to those who may do me harm.  Christianity makes no room for cowardice to determine our actions. 

I almost never meet these requirements, but I cannot for a second pretend that they don't exist.

So Merry Christmas from our family to yours.  Please take a moment to consider those who are forced to flee, and if you do, pray for them. 

"And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?" Matthew 5:47.

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.