Harbor Freight is unlike any other store you may visit. Like many stores, it sends unsolicited advertisements in the mail, filled with enticing deals. However, these deals really are enticing: free flashlights, head lamps, utility scissors, sometimes without any purchase required!
In the size of a thrift store, Harbor Freight carries everything from pop-up sunshades to Rambo knives, from solar-powered lawn lights in the shape of hummingbirds to anvils, from hand-planes to arc welders. I bet you didn't even know you needed a 4" table saw, or a 35 watt solar power kit, or a combo disc and belt sander; but for forty bucks? You now realize, in a daze, that these are exactly the things you were looking for! You just didn't know it. And though their motto is fitting ("quality tools at ridiculously low prices"), it should probably be something closer to, "marginally effective products that pretty much do what you'd expect of them, -- with a free flashlight! -- at ridiculously low prices." (No need to wonder why I don't work for an ad agency.) But when you are staring down a bench-top drill press, that kind of nuance gets lost.
In my case, it was an $8 pyrography pen kit that got me (don't ask my wife, or she'd probably add to this list).
If you aren't familiar with the pyrography pen, it does just what you might imagine: it writes with fire (actually, just a really hot tip, heated electrically in this case, but "fire" sounds much better). More commonly known as a woodburning pen, it can also burn other things (like your house down, if you aren't careful). As I looked at this deal, I immediately thought about cutting some leather arm guards out of an old leather shoulder I knew I had in the attic, and shooting tabs, too, in my new role as an archery instructor. With this pen, I could possibly design some nice things to them, add that extra little touch. I knew that other pens go for $30+, and a stamping set for leather tooling would set a person back $40, at least -- and all the hammering would keep my family awake and annoyed. But for eight smackers, who could say no?
I bought the kit, which came with a number of different tips (and can also be used for soldering).
What I didn't know was that something inside of me that had been trying to get out would find a way through this pen.
The next thing I did was head for the local library for a design book by Lora Irish, the, "Great Book of Celtic Patterns" (yes, I'm a cheapskate, which is why this story starts out with a trip to Harbor Freight). I first made a copy of a design by Ms. Irish (an amazing artist, by the way, with a great website) -- an arm guard with what was supposed to be a fierce Viking-styled wolf.
Lesson #1: The mouth is a very important part. Rather than looking like he (and, by affiliation, I) might just eat you alive, an accidental upturn of the pen at the corner of his mouth gave him a rather cheerful look. If you smile brightly while saying, "I'm a wolf!" an octave higher than your speaking voice, you'll catch his look exactly.
Strangely undaunted by my first attempt at "art", I took a trip to my local Tandy Leather Supply shop. ANOTHER WARNING: this place is amazing. Everything for leather work. Stamps, tools, dyes, finishes, little tools for slicking and edging, buttons, conchos, rivets, skivers... everything. And piles and piles of different types of leather, from vegetable-tanned, vanilla colored sides to deerskin with bullet holes in them.
I'd opened a door I immediately knew I should have opened thirty years ago. I'd been into Tandy Leather before, but for some reason, this time was different. I felt like I was just about to start something.
To quote Paul Simon, after "reeling in infinity" in that place, I bought a pack of leather stains in eight different colors, an edge beveler, and a plastic creasing tool that also slicks leather. I ran home, stained my arm guard "bison brown", and finished the edge.
I stepped back and looked at it, and I'll be danged if I didn't make something that didn't just look like a ratty piece of leather strapped to my arm. I saw all the mistakes, but I also saw a potential I hadn't felt in some time...
|Not exactly a fierce wolf in the Celt-Norse style, this fellow just looks amused at my shooting prowess. He also might have gingivitis.|
|Still learning. This time, learning how to dye leather, and learning the effects and interaction of pyrography and dyes -- and getting a small sense of the Northwest style of art, which is geometric and aesthetically amazing in its relationships.|
At the Pleasanton Scottish Highland games, where my brother in-law and I set up a booth to teach basic archery, I also brought along some of my leather work, and sold a couple of arm guards and bracelets -- a wild success for me, considering I'd never tried to sell any piece of art or craft of mine in my entire life.
Trying to solve a fairly complicated, intricate (and small) beautiful celtic border with birds, I reached the end of the pyrography pen's capabilities. I couldn't get the pen to make the very thin lines I needed for the double lines of the birds' tails. Instead, I had to solve for a thicker and "simpler" knot, which came out good, but made me realize that $8 -- in my hands, at least -- has its limits.
|The end of the line for my $8. I can (and will) still use it for larger patterns, but the detail for that border was just too much for me+it. (The eagle and bird patterns are from George Bains' book, taken from the Book of Kells.)|
Why, a leather tooling set, of course! They only cost around $40. A leather-carving swivel knife can cut very detailed, tiny designs, and with some basic stamps, I could make them pop. For Christmas, then, my loving family bought me a basic 7-piece tooling set.
I don't think they quite know what they've gotten themselves into.
|My first real tooled project, Aix sponsa (wood duck). It started out as practice, and became a Christmas present for my cousin.|
If you know anyone interested in leather work, please send them my way and I will do my best to accommodate them.
I just hope my family can get used to all the hammering.
|A deerskin and vegetable-tanned leather possibles bag for my friend, Holly.|
|The front panel of Holly's bag. Some of this was with a pyrography pen, but the more detailed work was a pencil on wet leather.|
|A collection of bracelets. They are quite fun to make! The designs are of the Pict/Celt school -- even those fish are Celtic salmon.|
|My son, Rubén's, sporran (also called a belt pouch, possibles bag, or man-purse). This was my first attempt at a bag, and was a lot of fun to make.|
|An arm guard with a very basic knotwork border and brass lace hooks.|
|A more traditional, long and thin arm guard, with my rendition of a Pictish wolf. Not my best edge work, but the wolf is very savage looking and fun to draw.|
|Arm guard with a Pictish boar and nickel laces and grommets.|
|An arm guard for my daughter, Phoebe. I tried to "Pict-ify" the bird in the fashion that they reserve typically for mammals. Oh, well, I'm learning. Also, she wanted the natural look of the vegetable-tanned leather.|