Sunday, February 7, 2016

Joy of Sectors II: Revisiting "The Arte & Misterie of Coopering"

You may remember this picture of a persnickety Perkins working the angles on a coopering demonstration.


With a bit of math and the able assistance of my consulting engineer, we determined that the eight perfectly-equal staves of my Mary Rose tankard needed to have 67.5 degree bevels so that they would align to form a perfect circle of watertight, oaky goodness.
This assumed if you didn't round off your tankard/bucket/barrel or whathaveyou that you'd have an equilateral polygon. All sides (eight sides in this case) were the same and would be worked with the typically-modern obsession with precision and symmetry.


As we discussed yesterday, that wasn't quite right. Coopers make their staves whatever width their wood allows and it's not always symmetrical and there aren't always an even number of staves. This is important since they were cutting wood straight from the log and doing a lot of their shaping with an axe. (Axes are awesome and speed up woodworking considerably, but they're not really precision instruments.)

All of which throws off my equation a bit. You could still figure it out, of course, but it just got a bit harder.

Part of the problem here is that I tend to think of barrels and tankards as segments of a ring rather than pieces of pie. I've been peeling all these apples, so let's make a pie.


Not a meat pie, you goofball, an apple pie.


Much better. (The ice cream's a nice touch, but we won't be needing it today so I'll just eat it and get it out of the way...)

Like a period tankard or bucket, the average pie slicing cook isn't going to make every slice exactly the same size. The piece for the baker is big and the piece for the kids are small. Also Aunt Agnes, who always says she's on a diet, but takes twice as much ice cream as everyone else.


The nice thing about this way of imagining a coopered vessel is that you could (if everyone can hold their forks for a minute) rearrange those pieces any way that you want and you'd still have a pie the same size as you started with. The pieces would all fit together no matter how you rearranged them in the pie plate.

But with coopering, you're starting with a pile of uncut sticks and an entirely imaginary pie that you're trying to craft out of thin air and oak. So how do you do this when you don't start with a pie?

Enter the Sector.

If you remember, at its simplest form, the sector is two straight pieces of wood hinged at one end. Pretty much exactly like a pair of dividers, except made of wood.

The geometry of the sector is devilishly simple: The two legs are equal, meaning that the legs will form an isosceles triangle. If you place it at the center of your imaginary bucket (or whatever you're making), it forms an imaginary piece of pie. If you want to make a ten-inch bucket (measured across the bottom) you just mark your sector five inches from the hinge.

That's the inside diameter of your bottom.

The second mark you see there indicates the desired thickness of the walls of my imaginary bucket.

Now, no matter where the sector crosses the the outer wall of your bucket, or how far apart the the legs of the divider have to be (to accommodate your rough-cut variations in stave width) the legs form the angle that you're shooting for. 

You found your stave bevel without writing a single number on a single piece of paper.


As you can see, this is also helpful if you decide to repair or knock off an existing bucket.


But wait, there's more!

It's not just a measuring device for finding the angle of your bevel either. It's also a jig you can use to monitor your progress as you create the bevel on your staves. Hold the bevel up to the stave as you work and align it to your marks as you go. 

The angle of the sector will tell you how far you need to lean the stave over as you plane the bevel. When the stave sits snugly in the sector between the marks, you're golden.


The importance of this cannot be exaggerated for the working cooper. And this is the part that I forgot when I was doing my demonstration.

I almost wish that building that bakery at the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire had been the first step in this project rather than happening in the middle. I suspect that I've fallen down on most of these projects simply because I'm thinking in terms of one-off bespoke items rather than the economies of production.

The practicing cooper isn't making one bucket at a time. This isn't bespoke bucketing on Bond Street, it's mass production because a cooper (and his apprentices) gotta eat. So if they're making as many buckets at a time as they can reasonably get away with, there's no room to be fiddling about with equations and making these exacting symmetries that we've become so accustomed to post industrial revolution.

A cooper's shop is making piles and piles of rough-cut staves and assembling them into a pile of ten-inch buckets and they all have to fit together no matter which bucket they're getting shoved into.


Yesterday I asked where I should stop. I don't know that I'm going to go back and repeat every experiment and demo that got us this far, but going forward I will certainly be taking a hard look at each of these trades and asking the question that should be obvious: How did they do this fast enough to make a living at it?

Because therein lies the real secret of most of these trades.

Now go eat some pie. You've earned it.

-Scott 


Postscript

The "Aha!" moment for this didn't come from thin air. (They never do, no matter what anyone tells you.) I've been reading about sectors recently, mostly using Jim Tolpin's books and articles so I was in the right mindset when I had the good fortune to catch an episode of Roy Underhill's "The Woodwright's Shop" featuring white cooper Norm Pederson who actually demonstrated many of the things that past coopers on that show had previously waved away as "something you learned with experience."

The episode is not available online anywhere I can find it, but you can download it for $3.99 from Popular Woodworking here: https://videos.popularwoodworking.com/courses/the-woodwrights-shop-s24-ep04-norm-pederson-white-cooperage  

Or you can buy the whole season on DVD like I did. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in trying this out yourself with better results than I had on my first outing.

Further watching...
This is not that video, but it's an excellent demonstration of white cooperage filmed at an outdood event, so the sound isn't always so great.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Thoughts from the peeler: The artisan obsession and where does it end?

There is in just about every artisan, a touch of obsessive compulsion. Whether or not it's a disorder depends on how you feel about being both obsessive and compulsive at the same time with sharp implements in hand.

I don't want to make light of a genuine medical disorder. As someone who suffers the black periods of lost joy and time that is depression, far be it from me to make light of someone else's affliction.

Obsession and compulsion exist on a sliding scale, which is set by the same people who have categorized an affection for coffee as a mental disorder.

So let's ignore those folks for a bit.

For all practical purposes, it boils down to whether your obsession/compulsion is positive or destructive influence on your life.

Be ye moderate in all things except moderation.

So it is with caffeine and beer and so too it is with handicrafts.

But where is that moderate line? When do I stop? How far do I take each of these explorations of a craft? When do I tie it off and call it good? Do I keep going until I've got it perfect? Is perfect the enemy of the good?

I discovered recently when I began exploring the uses of the sector, that I was wrong in a very important way when I discussed the many ways for finding the angle at which the staves of a bucket or tankard meet.

My methodology was modern. For one thing, we started with an equation. For another, it depended heavily upon looking at the tankard as an equilateral polygon and we did some really sweet math based on that assumption.

That was an inaccurate assumption.

Even though it worked.

As I examine more coopered buckets and tankards, it because clear to me that the old coopers didn't think that way. The staves of a bucket are rarely all the same size, and no two identically-sized buckets seemed to have the same number of staves.

My math was accurate, but my method was wrong.

The period method is really cool. It's easier. And it involves a sector and some different neat math having to do with isosceles triangles and dividers.

My assumptions were wrong and even my successful result was... I don't know. Was it a failure to achieve the goal by apparently modern means?

A period item was created, but it was based on best guesses made with a modern mind. My methods of arriving at that item were modern even though I used my best period tools to achieve the result.

I know all of this because I didn't finish exploring coopering when I finished writing about it. I kept going. I kept talking to other coopers. I examined barrels and buckets in antique shops. I made a bucket. Then I made a butter churn. Then I repaired some damaged buckets and barrels and tankards back to working order.

I know I was wrong because I didn't stop.

I made an ale pail that would hold ale, but did I succeed or did I fail.

Sorry, that was Seussical. Sometimes I can't resist.

At some point do I stop going back and adding to these projects?

Or is this exploration of artisans a reflection of artisanship itself in that the learning never actually ends? And if that's so, is my quest really impossible after all? Will I ever have more than the most surface knowledge of any of these crafts if I cannot devote more than the duration of a few blog posts to each of them?

How do I know when to stop?

And if I'm honest with myself, can I stop even if I want to?

- Scott

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Breaking the shackles of time: Books, Writing, and Practical Paleography

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are printed lots of funny squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."   
                                                              - Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)
You knew we'd get to this eventually, right? Before any other label I may affix to myself, I'm a novelist, a writer, a storyteller. The world I see around me isn't a world of atoms and elements, it's a world of stories waiting to be told.

And we have unfortunately forgotten more stories than we remember. Because we only remember what was recorded.

The constant struggle with this project isn't tracking down the right tool or the correct material. The real struggle can be forced into the old Journalistic construction of the W's: "What do we know? Who recorded it? When did they record it? How did they know it? Why was this saved when all else was lost?"


This was almost a "Thoughts from the peeler" post, but then I remembered that there was an actual guild or two involved in the transmission of the Elizabethan Culture from pen to posterity. The "Who" in the above question is primarily focused through the Worshipful Company of Stationers and the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks. These two groups are responsible for the lion's share of what we know about our period of study.

As Carl Sagan said at the top of the page, it all boils down to dark squiggles on dead trees (or dead animals in many cases).

Most of the information we have from the 16th century was recorded under the auspices of two groups: The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks (who aren't really a livery company at this point), and the Worshipful Company of Stationers.

All records of births, deaths, and christenings were recorded by the local parish clerk. Books and broadsheets were printed on the presses of the Stationer's Company.

Yes, I'm working on a letterpress demonstration, but I'm not sure what form that will take. I've put some feelers out locally and will probably be working with someone who has already built up the necessary setup for printing with movable type. I'd wager though, that we're going to be extrapolating from a modern setup.

To keep things within the period constraints we've set for ourselves, I'll be binding a book in a manner that's correct for our period. There's an astonishing amount of gear involved in binding, though, so we'll be doing some preparatory projects in wood and metal just to get us to the starting point for that project.

In the meantime, I am at work preparing quills and teaching myself a new hand.

The preparation of a quill will be the focus for a near-term post, but I've demonstrated that craft many times at renaissance faires and events, so I'm not really learning anything new while doing it.

Yes, a new hand. This is where the "practical paleography" comes in. For our purposes, a hand is a method of rendering the alphabet in a culturally-specific way. I'll write more about this as I go along, but the method of writing used to record important documents in the 16th century was known as the Secretary Hand and it's damn near illegible to modern eyes.

Translating any manuscript documents from the period into is so time-consuming that the Folger Shakespeare Library and Oxford University have  put out a call for help from the internet to translate more period documents faster than they can alone. Part of my goal with this specific project will be to help in that effort. Not only will this effort increase the number of available records from the time of Shakespeare, you can also contribute to the new edition of the Oxford English dictionary!

You too can help out and learn more about this project at shakespearesworld.org

Anyway, that's where I am at the moment and what I'm working on during the rainy season which is in full effect hereabouts. My old back injury flared up this week as the result of a minor mishap, so I think I'll be spending some time indoors anyway, cutting quills and reading about the chemistry of ink and the denaturation of collagen in parchment... nerd heaven.

- Scott

Further Reading:

Advice for Reading Secretary Hand, Folger Shakepeare Library
(PDF)
http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/mediawiki/media/images_pedia_folgerpedia_mw/2/21/Alphabet_Abbreviations.pdf

Bonus Video:

I thought this was especially appropriate since we kicked off this project with a quote from Anthony Bourdain. As part of a project he's working on with Balvenie Scotch Whiskey, he paid a visit to Arion Press in San Francisco. They are one of the last of their breed, printing and binding fine books with movable lead type. Their methods are modern by our measure, but very old fashioned and very cool by modern metrics.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Joy of Sectors: Getting our Galileo on...

"For the eye is always in search of beauty, and if we do not gratify its desire for pleasure by a proportionate enlargement in these measures, and thus make compensation for ocular deception, a clumsy and awkward appearance will be presented to the beholder."   
- Vitruvius, De Architectura 
Of course, a major part of the "rebirth" heralded by the renaissance was a revival of the mathematics and geometries of the Arabs and the ancients. By harkening back to the glories of their Hellenic ideal with their domes and pillars, the Renaissance brought with it a new and almost slavish devotion to finding the sacred in geometry and symmetry. Not just buildings, but furniture and textiles began to push painted, woven, and carved decorations to ostentatious heights.

I'm not particularly well known for being good at math and certainly didn't receive high enough marks in school to give one the feeling I would go on to write fluently about engineering and architecture. Thankfully, our typical renaissance artisan wasn't particularly well known as a mathematician either.

Please note that here I am drawing a line between the theory and the application of maths. Although the loftier theories may have passed him by, the practical maths of proportion and symmetry were alive and well in 16th century workshops. The average Elizabethan joiner may or may not have known who Euclid or Pythagoras was, but he could apply their theories well enough to please the eye and the customer.

We've discussed some basics of dividers before, when we were coopering. Add a sector and by their powers combined, you can accomplish an amazing number of tasks with very little actual number-crunching.


I first learned the magic of the sector in the same math class where I learned about the Fibonacci and the various permutations of the Golden Mean. Then I didn't think about it much for several decades.

Like most woodworkers, I've always kept a set of dividers. Dividers are handy for drawing circles and arcs for those fantastically symmetrical carvings I mentioned, also transferring dimensions from a ruler or a drawing to the wood. I've used them for laying out dovetails and for finding center and a host of other simple tricks.

But when they're accompanied by a sector, they can do much, much more.

My geometry teacher knew that the wickedly-sharp compasses we were equipped with as part of our standard kit were capable of more than stabbing us through our canvas bookbags. When paired with a sector, they could be used to accomplish great feats of proportion and scale

And she had no less a personage than Galileo Galilei backing her up on that.

I didn't care, I was nine; I wanted to draw circles and stab ants with the damn thing. Education is wasted on the young. Sometimes, I think adults should be required to repeat primary school periodically to pick up all the sharing and math and social studies that we missed, never mind the history. We seem so determined to keep repeating our history anyway, it might as well be in a classroom.
"I'm sorry, boss, I can't come in today, I have geometry class and then detention because I said I was thinking about voting for Donald Trump..."
Anyway... flash forward to a 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking magazine I picked up at the newsstand because of a cool cover article about Thomas Jefferson's stacking bookcases. Inside was an article by Jim Tolpin on the use of the dividers combined with a sector (see the video below) to derive a host of useful proportions and measurements for cabinetry design.

Like my teacher before him, Jim attributed the invention of the the sector to Galileo. I'm a big Galileo fan, going way back, and ere the end of things, we might even get into some of his experiments with optics because I enjoy that sort of thing.

Galileo's Sector displayed in the Putnam Gallery -- Image via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0
They were both likely wrong about the inventor. The basic principles were first proposed by Euclid and put to various uses since. It seems more likely that he was the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of the late Renaissance. He was a technological entrepreneur who envisioned new and popular uses by combining existing technologies and concepts in unique ways. That said, who initially turned a compass into a more complex instrument matters little, because ere the end of the 16th century, the concept broke out in a Big Way in the manner that technological leaps always seem to.

The sector as Galileo created it is partly well known because of who he was, and partly because it was enormously successful as a commercial product. The sales of the instruments made his fortune long before he started tweaking the beards of the Inquisition with his planetary models.

Galileo primarily sold his sector as a military tool, an instrument which in addition to its more basic Euclidean functions carried additional scales useful for the gunner in the trenches.

I have no use at the moment for determining powder loads and trajectories. There just aren't that many armies out there right now that need that sort of thing done the old fashioned way. I will be making a simpler, significantly less schmancy, workingman's sector along the same lines as Jim Tolpin's.

If nothing else, I have a lot of period carving and surface decoration on my project list, so we can look forward to seeing great granddad's dividers and sectors come out for that.


And for now -- since sectors weren't all that widely used until the 17th century anyway -- that will be the soft limits for our use for the things. I'll make a couple in different sizes and we shall see what use can be made of them without gunpowder getting involved.

That said, the Honorable Artillery Company was knocking about, but they weren't really what you'd call a trade guild. Nevertheless, I picked up a copy of Galileo's instruction book that was sold alongside his sector because you never know when you might need to hit something a long way away with a ball of something fired out of a tube full of grey powder.

- Scott

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Sewing leather revisited - Making a sheath for my Frost Mora carving knife

Historical Note: I'm not sure who made the knife sheathes. There's no 'Scabbard Company' on the livery rolls in the 16th century. Possibly the Worshipful Company of Girdlers or they were a sub-group of the Leathersellers, who handled most of the miscellaneous leathergoods that made up Elizabethan life. It might even be the Cutlers, who were responsible for all the other bits and bobs associated with knives. Any way you cut it, there were a lot of knives in Elizabethan England. Every knife needs a sheath and mine are no different.
Looking at the projects that have been collecting dust, I think the shoes are probably the most annoying thing to have lingering overlong in the workshop. For one thing, the leather and lasts and tools take up a lot of room and for another, I just really need to get them done because I need a new pair of shoes. (Also, I hate leaving things half-finished.)

Unfortunately, while I haven't been completely idle since I parked this project in the driveway awhile back, I also haven't been doing any leatherworking. Cordwaining involves some pretty heavily-developed leatherworking skills, especially sewing, so I need to practice.

You might recall the costrel project, which is a study in heavy-construction sewing techniques. I also need a practice project that uses some of the more subtle stitches and techniques for closing the uppers of my new shoes.

As it happens, my preferred style of knife sheath uses the round stitch to close the seam up the back. And since that's a fiddly piece of business to learn and I'm in need of practice, methinks I hear a knife calling for a new leather home.

My favorite woodcarving knife has to be this Swedish blade made by Morakniv simply called "The Woodcarving 106". They sell on Amazon for about $25.00, which is a pretty good price for a knife you won't want to put down.

It's a strong little workhorse and can hold an edge like nobody's business. You couldn't ask more from a knife.

The problem: they come with a crappy plastic sheath. And that just sucks on a deeply aesthetic level.
The solution: make a new one, of course.

Parts List:
  • A knife
  • 2 poplar scraps slightly larger than the knife blade
  • Shaping tools for wood (knives, spokeshaves, rasps, files, sandpaper... etc.)
  • A piece of vegetable tanned leather large enough to wrap around the knife
  • To make the pattern: See this post about patternmaking
  • Wood glue
  • Quality, long-staple linen thread
  • Two large-eye long darning needles (or boar bristles if you can get them)
  • beeswax
  • sticky wax (if you have boar bristles to use)
  • Stitch marking wheel or ruler
  • curved awl 

A truly razor-sharp knife will eventually cut its way out of any all-leather sheath or die trying. If you make a standard sheath by sandwiching the blade between two pieces of leather as we used to do in Boy Scouts, the knife has an even easier time of it because it can just slice the stitches. Some leatherworkers use rivets instead of stitches and that's fine, but hardly traditional.


First, some woodworking...

I prefer wood cores (of course), so step one is to make a wooden house for the blade of the knife. I used a bit of poplar I had lying around, but any hardwood will do. We're going to use two pieces with a knife-shaped void between them to house the blade.


Cut two pieces of wood, slightly larger than your knife blade. Trace around the blade of the knife on one side of each piece of wood.


Use chisels and a router plane to remove the waste from one side (and one side only) leaving a void where your knife sits flush with the wood, like so.

 It doesn't have to be beautiful, but it needs to fit.


Why did I carve only one side of the sandwich? Because in any joinery project, it's unwise to leave a wedge (like a knife blade) sitting against a seam. You're just asking to get that seam split apart.


Glue your sandwich together using the glue of your choice and clamp it gently while it dries (or use rubber bands as I have done). 

You can use hide glue for the period touch. For knife sheaths, though, I prefer Tightbond III because it's waterproof and I'm more concerned about rust than turning out a period-perfect piece. This isn't really a reproduction of a period piece anyway, though the techniques are sound and were used during our time frame in this capacity.

Note that my pieces are rather thick. Partly that's because I'm using a scrap and partly it's because I wanted lots of room to maneuver when I got around to shaping the glued-up piece. 

Let it sit overnight to cure.

Make sure the knife sits securely in the void you carved out and then use spokeshaves, chisels, rasps, and handplanes to cut it down to the bare minimum of wood. I left roughly 1/8 inch of wood on every side of the knife blade.


Seal the wood. You can use an oil finishes for a period-appropriate sheath, or you can cheat and use polyurethane like I did. The next part of the process will expose this wood core to the damp and my woodworking often takes place out of doors in less-than-ideal conditions. It's your choice. 


Insert the knife into the wood sheath and wrap it in paper and masking tape as we did when making the pattern for the shoes last year. Note that the sheath goes about halfway up the hilt of the knife. That's on purpose. It helps protect the knife and will keep it from slipping out of the sheath quite so easily.

There's only one seam, up the back, and the edges should just meet. For more information on this style of patterning, see this post here: Wrapping Peasants - Pattern Drafting Part I and this post here: Drafting patterns for leatherworking.

Note #1: Remember to decide how you're going to attach it to your belt before you get to the cutting leather stage.
Note #2: If you want to incise, tool, or otherwise decorate your leather, do so before you begin sewing. I admit that I have at least once forgotten to do that. For tools like this one, I like mine a bit plain.

This is where we begin practicing our cordwaining in the guise of sheathmaking...

Boar Bristles and Closing Awls

Waxed Ends (skip if you don't have boar bristles/just want to use needles)

I'm going to sew this up using boar bristles instead of needles. This is the period-appropriate method of work for shoemakers and bookbinders. The sharp, flexible bristles are attached to the end using sticky wax and cleverness. I'm rubbish at it and need lots of practice, but Francis Classe is great at it and provided us with a great tutorial on how to go about it.  I do a lot of reinventing the wheel on this project, but I can't best Francis at something that he taught me, so if you want to go the bristle route, you should follow that link and learn to do it right.

Some modern shoemakers have good luck using heavy-test fishing line in lieu of the boar's bristle. If you don't have access to a boar or its bristles, there are those who swear by it. I've never tried it, though, so I trust your Google-fu to let you figure it out. I tried to find a link to a tutorial I could share but only found references to a dead site.

Your mileage may vary.

Why boar bristles and fishing line?

We're going to perform something called the "round stitch" which follows a curved path through the leather. In order to pull that off, you use a curved awl to create a tunnel through the leather from the top to the edge. Then, you need to be able to push your 'needle' through that tunnel. 

You can do this with long, slightly flexible needles like long darners and I've had decent luck doing so in the past, but a piece of sharp, flexible, keratin like a boar bristle or a similarly flexy bit of fishing line are a godsend and speed things up.

I'll get more into the boar bristles and waxed ends when we tackle the actual shoes. This is really just a test run...

Curved awls


The two outside awls are the same as in the previous photo. They are made from antiques, which I bought from the extra stash of a cordwainer friend of mine. You don't have to haunt antique stores and bug your shoemaking buddies for their tools, though. These closing awls are still sold new by some specialty retailers, or you can get by with that middle awl with the knurled piece for changing the blades. It was purchased new from Tandy Leather, just last year. Just make sure the cross-section is oval rather than round to prevent tearout.


Closing: The Round Stitch

Use your marking wheel (or a ruler, dividers, etcetera) to mark an even stitch distance all around the edge of your seam on both sides, 1/4 - 1/8 of an inch back from the edge. 

Make sure that the marks on each side a exactly parallel to one another.

My depth is wandering quite a bit here. You can see why I feel like I need the practice.

Use your curved awl to create a hole that angles from the mark made by your stitch marker curving toward and out the edge of the leather. The depth should be just a bit deeper than half the leather's thickness. THIS TAKES A BIT OF PRACTICE. I'd advise using some scraps to practice.

Too deep and your seam will pucker. Too shallow and you'll tear out.

Al Muckart -- a reenactor and craftsman who writes the Where Are the Elves? shoemaking blog -- created a tutorial that illustrates quite well how to do this. I've linked to it in the footnotes at the bottom of the post.

Wet the leather in warm water to make it a bit stretchy. You don't want to soak it too long or to use boiling water. This is not "cuirboulli", which would be too stiff for this particular purpose. Just hot tap water is fine and don't soak it for too long. (You just want it pliable and a bit stretchy, but don't want to leach all the collagen out of the leather.)

Roll the leather between towels to get the excess water out and then wrap it around your wooden core with the knife still in the sheath. Oil the blade and seal the wood and you should be fine for the amount of moisture we're talking about, but now you know why I sealed my wood. (Some sheath makers wrap the knife in plastic wrap, which isn't a bad idea.)

Either create your waxed ends or thread two flexible needles on either end of a piece of strong hemp or linen thread. I stipulated "long staple" which refers to the length of the fibers that were spun to create the thread. The longer the staple length, the stronger and more durable the resulting thread.

Working from both sides at once, sew back and forth across the gap. Note: people who make puppets and stuffed animals refer to as a "ladder stitch" while other leatherworkers may call it a "butt stitch". Shoemakers call it a round stitch, so we're going with that from now on.

The rest is stitching and letting the leather dry.


That open end is on purpose. It's traditional for to leave that little curled fishtail on Scandinavian knife sheathes.  I'm not sure if there's a practical purpose to it other than making the sewing easier because you don't have to ease the pattern around the point. It will be cut back a bit when I'm finished.

A lot of Nordic fishermen settled along the coast in Washington state, and I've seen antique fileting knives that have sheathes like this where the tip was cut to a little fishtail shape.  I'll just be slicing mine off at a pleasing (to me) angle.


Yes, that's blood on that bit of tissue you see above. Remember to respect sharp tools. And remember that the sharper the tool, the less damage it does when it does cut you. 



Now we just have to let the leather dry, then dye it to our desired color and finish it with a bit of wax and polish.

Further Reading:


  1. Cordwhatnow? A layman's guide to shoemaking tools & terms School of the Renaissance Artisan, posted January, 2014
  2. Basic Techniques of Construction (Including waxed ends and how to use them)
    by Francis Classe at his Raised Heels cordwaining blog
  3. The Round Closing Seam in Shoemaking (PDF)
    by Al Muckart of the Where Are the Elves shoemaking blog


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Drafting patterns for leatherworking

Note: This post isn't really about 16th century methodologies.

I've shared a few of my favorite "hacks" (as the kids say) for making leather items with a bit of improvisation in the tools department. We've used flower pots to build mugs, we've used butter knives for skiving, and my favorite cheap woodworking chisels for cutting.

So let's talk about pattern making.

If you've ever followed my maskmaking tutorial or done any other leatherworking without a pre-printed pattern, you've noticed that there's often a size discrepancy between any paper pattern you've created by wrapping the item in paper and marking seams (as we did with this shoemaking post) and the leather you're going to use.

This can cause some real fit issues.

The problem stems from the difference in thickness between paper and leather, combined with the fact that paper doesn't stretch around a form and leather does. You could use some math to account for the thickness, but the stretch is a bit more difficult to guess at, which can result in some wasted materials.


Here's my Not Even Remotely Period (NERP) approach to leather patterning that saves me a lot of time and leather when I'm winging it with a pattern: craft foam.

In the image below, I am preparing a knife sheath for one of my carving knives. I've wrapped the knife in paper and marked the seam, but to get a better handle on the actual shape of the final piece of leather, I made the pattern in the back on thin white foam which I purchased from a local Michael's craft store.


It's not quite as thick as the final leather, but it's close. More importantly, it stretches a bit in a manner that is very reminiscent of damp leather. And since this is a pattern where the fit is precise and the seams have to just meet with no seam allowance, fit is so very crucial.

It's NERPy, sure, but it works a treat.

- Scott

Monday, January 4, 2016

Thoughts from the peeler: What am I?

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Not even this curious obsession of mine. The artisans of the 16th century were part of a larger society and so too am I one cog in a 21st century gear.

I'm not a big fan of most modern labels, but one that I rather like is "Maker". It's incredibly general and yet incredibly specific at the same time. It's a person and a movement. A maker is one who has joined with others in stepping back from the mass-produced and plastic, disposable world that says: "Hands off! If it's broken, throw it away. Don't make things, we're here to do that for you. We can do it incredibly cheaply and out of sight in factories overseas, under conditions we don't like to cop to."

Makers stared at the tamper-resistant screws on the back of a device and wondered what's so special under that lid. Makers felt the inexorable pull of the workbench, or the kitchen, or the garage.

"The Maker Movement." It's not often you can encapsulate such a disparate group of artisans into one category like that and have almost all of them nod and say "Yeah, that's cool, that's me."

It seems too general, on the face of it, but artisan is no less general, and no less co-opted by society at large. When you say 'artisanal' it draws images of tattooed foodies in Seattle or Portland, making weird beers, and odd sausages, and stinky cheeses that only a very few taste buds can tolerate. I feel a kinship with these oddballs and their obsessions, and I never lack something to talk about when I step into their atelier or welcome them to mine.

We're all similarly obsessed. As happy to learn as we are to teach, and eternal apprentices all. Even if I don't understand their particular Thing or they mine, we are kin. Because who cares? We're not doing it for each other, we're doing it for ourselves. We're sharing it with Those Who Understand.

As long as you are willing to do instead of being done for, and to teach as much as you learn, you are in the fraternity of makers.

Walk through any modern Maker Fair and you will see no fewer subcategories than you see in our project list here. There are certainly areas of the Maker Fairs where I would be very very lost. Despite the robots of my fictional worlds, I'm no friend to electricity. Microcontrollers and circuit boards rarely grace my bench except accidentally and often tragically.

If it's a question of taxonomy should we create our own taxonomic paradigm? Are you Homo sapien maker cooper? Or are you homo sapien maker roboticist?  Maybe not. Maybe that would be too confining and imply walls where none exist and stifle cross-pollination.

And down the rabbit hole we go and I find myself back where I started, looking askance at modern labels. So in the greater framework of modern society, am I a maker or an artisan? Do I really need to choose?

Maybe I am happier unlabeled except as the Eternal Apprentice. Student to all, master to no one. Under that title, you will find me in every corner of the internet's Maker Fair from Tested.com to Modern Woodworking. Poking, reading, asking questions, watching, learning.

No matter what is happening in my life, no matter how fraught my circumstance, one thing always remains true: I will compulsively gravitate to the nearest pile of raw materials and begin turning them into something else.

If it's a pile of cloth, I will make clothing.
If it's lumber, I will make furniture.
If it's leather, I will make shoes.
If it's metal, I will probably fail in hilarious and epic fashion to make another thimble.
If it's yarn... I will give it to my wife because I really don't like knitting.
And if left alone in a dark room, I will pull words from the aether and I will make stories.
Because a writer is never without raw materials.


- Scott