Saturday, August 31, 2019

How to make a signal horn -- a 'toot'orial... also, I think I approached the end of the internet


The slogan for Clan Donnachaidh, "Garn 'nuair dhuisgear!" means, "fierce when roused!"  What a great thing to attach to a signal horn!

I'm an odd duck, I admit.  I'm a touch atavistic, I enjoy working with my hands although I've got nearly zero training, and I seem to look for projects that don't have much practical application.  These projects almost never have local experts that I know, either -- a condition that would have made them unattainable for me in any previous era.

But, today we have a Great Equalizer: the internet.  I have been able to use the World Wide Web to find experts who've taken the time to show what they know, others making mistakes and learning, and even those rare masters who know how to teach something in ways that give you the confidence to try it out for yourself.  The internet is an incredibly egalitarian force when it comes to previously unshared information, or even information that had been difficult to share due to its nature.

For the work I do most -- leather -- the good folks at Tandy Leather had broken down that wall many years before in books and classes, and easily took their expertise to the Web.  Their video man, George Hurst, is great at explaining and showing techniques in ways that make you feel like you can actually do it, too, and his videos at their website have been a great gift to me.

But even other hobbies and skills I've tried -- from transplanting trees to blackpowder shotshell reloading -- have a varied and robust library of YouTube videos and other free online resources.

However... I think I reached the end of the internet when it came to making my latest project.

You see, for some reason unknown even to me, I wanted to make signal horns out of steer horn.

Honestly, I don't know why I picked it.  I feels obvious that I would want to make one, and when I declared my intention, nobody in my house batted an eye, because of course Josh would at some point want to make a signal horn out of a steer horn.  It wasn't a matter of "if" so much as "when" to family.

I jumped on the interwebs, to see some amazing expert with a great YouTube video or Instructables (although, honestly, Instructables has been less than impressive).  But this time, I found almost zero.

Just a couple of guys saying that they were going to try, and they made them.  But, no experts.

When I dug a little deeper, looking for how to work with horn, or Googling how to make powder horns, I found a little bit more.  But signal horns are woefully underrepresented online.

One place I found was (gasp!) a guild that required pay-to-play.  There were a couple of nice looking projects, but very few pictures and almost zero description.  Now, I understand the nature of guilds and trade unions, but a guild giving away its knowledge for money bothers me.

Anyhow, it ain't rocket science, so I dove in and tried one for myself.  I enjoyed the process so much, I bought two more horns to make for the kids, and took some pictures to post.  And so, here's my addition to the ether, on how to make a signal horn:

1.  Buy a horn, preferably from a place that sells them already cleaned out and sanded (Tandy Leather sells them sanded for about $25, but I'm sure there are other places that sell them, too).  I didn't buy mine off the internet, and so didn't have a huge selection.  In retrospect, I'm glad I had a place to look at them, since many of them were cracked and might not have made for a good horn (though I don't know, I didn't buy a cracked one to try out).

Tandy Leather sells sanded horns approx. 16".  I have a local store, so I get to check them out individually.  Here's what it looks like.  Let's put a shine on it.
2.  Sand and polish the horn.  I've seen videos for drinking horns where they start with like a 120 grit and go up through just about all the grits out there... not me.  We aren't trying to remove a lot of material, just knock it down and get a nice shine, and horn is easy to work with.  I start with 220 grit, and after a quick run over the whole thing, I switch immediately to #0000 steel wool.

For illustrative purposes, I've just sanded the black section, and I'm about to start with the steel wool.
See the shiny part?  That's what we're going to get.

And more!  The steel wool gives a quick sense of accomplishment.
It'll feel like it's going fast.  Then it'll get slow, when your muscles begin to argue.  I usually stop at that point and do something else.  Also, pat your steel wool from time to time, to remove dust.

You might have noticed that my pictures are all outside.  That's because horn smells very, very bad when you work with it.  It's yucky. 

After the steel wool, you'll have a nice horn. 
To put a real shine on it, add some brown polish compound to your buffing wheel and run the horn over it for a while.   I like to add beeswax in the end -- just rub a stick of beeswax over the whole thing (like a crayon), and run it on the buffing wheel.  You can also just take some felt and apply it by hand, but the buffing wheel makes quick work of it.

Here it is, all shiny an' purty.
3.  Now, the sound-making part.  If you have calipers, use them to find the part of the horn that is about 7/8" wide, down by the tip.  Take a saw (a bone saw if you have it, or a hack-saw, are best), and cut off the tip (you can use that part to make buttons).  Then, take a 5/8" drill bit and chuck it in your hand drill.  I have found that a spade bit is best for me.  Get it up to a good speed and, holding it tight -- better yet, put the horn in a soft vice if you've got it, but it has to be really, really soft -- drill a hole anywhere from 3/8" to 3/4" deep.  The deeper you drill, the deeper the horn will sound, unless you get too deep and ruin it.  Be careful, though, the horn will buck and you can hurt yourself, if you are holding it (and I make no health nor safety claims here, you are on your own).

Once you've drilled your 5/8" hole, get a 1/8" inch bit (if you haven't already breached the chamber), and drill a hole through the center of the first hole and into the chamber of the horn.

I'm sure you can do a better job making a pretty set of holes here... but, this works, so I'm sticking with it.

Now, go wash it off really good, dry it off, and blow!  You blow it like a brass instrument.  It's a riot.

Three horns in different stages of becoming a nuisance to your neighbors.
If you google "drinking horn", you'll get tons of different designs if you are interested in carving or metalwork.  I don't know how they attach metal to the edges (I'm sure that's a skill "hidden" in the hornworkers' guild, which isn't really a guild because you can pay to see it, so I ain't going in there).  I decided that all I wanted was a leather band for carrying it around.