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.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Feverishly tooling away (with a tutorial), and teaching archery again

What have I been up to?  Finally filling orders!
Last year, I picked up both leather working and archery instruction as business enterprises, and though I lost some money (mostly on tools and a tiny archery arsenal), it wasn't a whole bunch, and it really set me up for this year (besides, I hear that businesses usually lose money the first three years).

Even January was a bit slow, but, since I'd put "getting my business running" on my New Year's Resolution list on the refrigerator (that's depressing -- I don't recommend it)  I stepped up my game.

First, I re-connected with the Jungs, a wonderful couple in town who run Southport ATA, a very good taekwondo dojang.  They are both amazing martial artists, and more importantly, great and loving people who have allowed me to again offer archery seminars.

My first seminar of the year took place last Saturday, where nine kids showed up to learn the basics of archery.  A good time was had by all, and I've been asked back on March 21st.  Sadly, I didn't take any pictures.  Next time, for sure!

Next, I set to finishing an order that had been placed by a friend of mine, J.R., who volunteers for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a group dedicated to protecting our wild places.  J.R. had seen pictures of the bag I'd made for Holly last year, and asked me to carve and tool some arm guards with the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers logo.  I said yes, then immediately became seized with artist's block and debilitating self-doubt.  It's my artistic process.

Three months later, I'd finally worked out my anxieties, figured out how I wanted to approach the job, and set to it.  I also decided to take some pictures and explain the process, since Hippo had asked for me to explain more just how I do it.

It starts with a piece of leather -- in this case, vegetable-tanned leather, the kind you can tool:

The ever-vigilant Rocio... let's all just keep quiet about her being in the house for this part...

I used an earlier arm guard I'd made to trace as my template, and I cut three arm guard blanks with a very precise tool, a "Stanley razor":

Three blanks cut, using the arm guard above as template.  Note the highly precise tool used to cut the leather.
 Next, I printed out a copy of the logo I used, in an appropriate size for the arm guards (it took about one hour to decide on a size... part of my anxiety-ridden "process"):

Note the precision instrument for drawing a circle -- passed down to me by a professional leatherworker.  She didn't say so, specifically, but I am absolutely sure that the flowers are a must.
 Now, I began the process of carving, pounding and stamping the design onto the leather, known as "tooling".  Step 1: Case the leather (a very technical process by which you wet a sponge with water and rub it on the leather).  Cased (or, for you novices, "wetted") leather will look darker.  let the water soak into the leather for a minute or so, then start your work.

Cased leather on the right, dry leather on the left. No biggie.
 I first use a swivel knife to carve out the parts I want to stand out: in this case, the circles and the paw print. Be sure to case your leather when it gets too dry, and strop your blade every few cuts.  The knife should always slide smoothly through the leather, about 1/3 to 1/2 into the leather, not through it.

A sharp knife is vital here; as soon as you feel it "catch" or hang up on the leather, stop and strop.
 After carving out the lines, it is time to pound the leather into place.  A series of specialized tools are very helpful here.  The first one in a beveler.  Push it into the cut line, and hammer down, walking the piece around and along the line.
An edge beveler in action (kinda -- I had to take my own pictures).
 I repeated the process along the outside edges of the paw print.

Next, I used a pear shading tool to put smooth, wide divots into the paw print; then I used a backgrounding tool to stamp out a pattern around the paw print and inside the circle, making the print stand out:
There are many types of backgrounding tools -- this one makes tiny, random dots.
This is the pear shader.
 After this, I made my circles more pronounced.  The two inner circles I pushed down and traced with a ball-point stylus, and the outer circle I traced/cut with a Revlon cuticle tool (that's right).

Stylus on the right, cuticle tool on the left.
 I then used a pyrography pen to burn in the letters.  This took the longest time of any process.

Here are the blanks ready to be dyed and punched.  The pyrography pen is on the left.  Be careful, it is very hot.

Next, I dyed the pieces and cut the edges with an edge beveler:

Pieces dyed and edge beveled.  I then dye the edges a darker color, paint on gum tragacanth, and slick the edges to a beautiful shine.

Following up, I punched holes and attached the hardware: grommets and lacehooks.

Here are two with hardware, and two up next. A rubber or rawhide mallet is a must, unless you like buying new tools all the time.  Note the tiny anvil (a favorite purchase) and the white tool, called an edge slicker (another favorite, since it adds a final touch that makes your stuff look really professional).
 And here they are in all their glory -- four complete arm guards, sealed and waterproofed and ready to be shipped!
Off to Montana with you!
If you or someone you know is interested in an arm guard or perhaps a leather possibles bag or belt bag, let me know!

I am finishing up another website for the two businesses, and will link to it when it is all ready.

UPDATE:  Though still in its early stages, here is a link to my website for archery instruction and leather work:  Wild Spirit & Old Soul.