”Wood meets Felt” aka “Woodworker Meets Hatmakers”
I’ve been trying to fit into my spare time the tedious work of making of several different hatmaking tool prototypes. Each of them has come along as a result of a custom hatmaker asking for one, and so I have met some cool folks that are passionately working at something they love doing.
Hopefully, all of us will get tired of ball caps at some point and look for a style that is better looking, and actually keeps the sun off our faces and ears. It may take a big epidemic of skin cancer before we all decide to try something other than ball caps. The mullet hairdo keeps the neck safe, but doesn’t do anything for the ears and checks. I’m trying to be funny.
The process of engineering a new hat tool starts out by determining what the hatmaker is currently doing, what is not working in their methodology, what type of material they are working in, the hat design they are after, what tools they currently have, the quantity of hats they want to make, and the speed that they want to make them in.
This may come as a surprise, it did to me, that custom Hatmaking is also a growing hobby. There appears to be way more hobbyist hatmakers than there are professional hat shops, but each of them has a real passion for the craft. A couple of locations where they hang out together on the internet is the
www.fedoralounge.com & www.gladhatter.com/forum.
Another nice website is: http://glorioushats.blogspot.com
(if you are a hatter and want your forum listed, let me know and I’ll add you.)
I’m sure there are other websites, but that is the two that I know about and recently joined.
I’m no hatmaker, or expert in hatmaking by any means. But, I do like hats, and also like to work wood, and so it has been an interesting diversion from the other work that I do, and I’ve discovered a market ripe for someone to spend some time making hat tools. I say “spend some time” because that is what it takes. There’s no fancy woodworking tools used here, a bandsaw, carving tools, and a lot of sandpaper.
One tool that several hatmakers have been asking about is something to curl up the edge of the hat brim. One style of curl is called a “Kettle Curl” on western hats, the type you might see on a Montana region cowboy, or cowgirl. There were also Fedora hat styles that were curled back when folks wore cool hats in the President Roosevelt and President Truman era.
The brim curl looks simple, but making it is another thing altogether. The curl must be smooth, and consistent, and it must stay in place once the hatmaker is finished with the shaping. All of this work is done by hand with hand tools by the hatmaker.
These photos show the first stages in designing a Curling Iron for the hat brim. The example on the right side of the photos is the old cast iron curling iron that is rusted, pitted, the handle is broken off, and the mounting bolt has broken off in the body.
Hatman Jack at Wichita Hat Works has a boat-load of hat tools, and I found this one in a big box of broken tools in his back room warehouse. He lets me borrow tools when I need them, and it helped me put together the concept. He’s been selling my walking canes in his shop on consignment for something like 5 years now, and I really enjoy working with him and his team, and he sells quite a few canes for me.
My wooden prototype was made from a scrap piece of knotty alder, and so some cracks had to be stabilized, and I made a couple of mistakes with the bandsaw that had to be patched. But, the concept is complete, and can now be tested on a real hat.
Going from what has been explained to me, in the old days, the cast iron curling iron would have been heated on a hot plate, and the brim curled when the iron was hot. The downside of that work methodology, is that you can burn your fingers, or scorch a $150 hat felt blank, ruining it.
The other problem is that few of the old tools are workable without leaving rust stains, or changing the texture of the hat felt. So, it seems that today’s hatmakers must “make-do” with the old tools they find on eBay, or use their hands for the shaping (the oldest tools on the planet).
What they tell me is that they first steam the hat felt, and then quickly, use the old tools “cold” to roll the curl, cycling through several times, hoping their old curling iron won’t leave rust stains on the hat. One small smudge of stain, and the customer won’t want the hat. The hat felt blank is very expensive, and constitutes the majority of the cost of the finished hat. So, stains, and smudges, and scorched spots are a bad deal indeed. There are some versions of the curling irons that were made in aluminum, which also “rusts” and leaves stains on a hat felt. Brass can do the same thing.
One custom hat maker Mike Moore at www.buckaroohatters.com discovered on old wood curling iron that he uses with the steamed felt, and rolls the hat brim easily, and without worry. He loves it, and wanted another one, but couldn’t find one available. I’ve made some other hat tools for him, so he asked about my designing and making a wooden curling iron for him. As he talked about the concept with his contemporaries, there are several hatters that want a wood curling iron as well now. Cool for me.
Mike is going to try out the prototype curling iron I made, tell me what modifications to make, and then I can make the changes, and come up with a production version of the tool for him, and for other hatmakers to order. The production version will be made in hard-rock maple.
Thanks for reading, more information later as this project gets legs,
(this text and photos, and project design are protected by copyright 2008 by the author M.A. DeCou, all rights and privileges reserved, no use, or copying of any part of this information is allowed without permission from the author in writing.)
-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com