25 December 2011

Come they told me, pah-rum pah pum pum...

What do you get a toymaker for Christmas? A drum!
An EMS Renaissance repro drum to be precise.  (The hat was also a gift, lest you think I was going completely beatnik on you.)

My sister is awesome... and doesn't live close enough to us to have to listen to it.

Happy Christmas to one and all. And if you don't celebrate Christmas, happy December 25th.

23 December 2011

Pennywise Peasant: Reenactors on a budget (Updated 01/13)

Should you spend top dollar on period-accurate items if you can afford it? Yes. Especially as a craftsman, I wholeheartedly endorse spending the money on the handmade item from your local potter or woodworker. If you know a local pewterer, them too.

However... Quite awhile ago (has it been ten years? I think it might have.) I wrote this page to guide my guild members on "How To Do Faire Without Mortgaging the Castle". That is to say, how to create a period impression from the thrift stores.

Recently, I was critiqued on its content by a fellow member of a Facebook group dedicated to 16th & 17th Century Artifacts, and his points were fair. Many of the items pictured aren't 100% accurate to the extent items present in museums and woodcuts from the 6th century. However, many of them are. As I say there and elsewhere on that site, the goal isn't to get you 100% accurate, it's to get the new faire persona up and running as quickly as possible with the bare minimum spent on kit.

I have said many times that the simplest concession a reenactor can make to his or her audience is in the manner and style with which they consume thier meals. Assuming you're following all the other rules... nothing will be more jarring to a patron at faire than watching a peasant eat a snowcone out of a plastic cup.

You could wear Nikes with your garb and I think it might elicit less comment.

My philosophy on props is simple: Spend the money and time on the items that are of the greatest impact. Unless eating or cooking is your main gig at the faire, your utensils will probably make at most a 20 minute cameo each day. Spend the money on things that are out and center stage most and work your way outward from there.

Some disagree with me; that is their right.

The renaissance faire isn't reenactment, it's theater. And the goal of any prop in theater is to either sell the performance to the audience and at a minimum to not detract from it. Without a prop budget to work with, my goal becomes and remains verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. In this case, that means choosing pewter or wood over plastic and paper.

I wrote this almost ten years ago. A decade years is a long time and the reenactment community is not what it was, nor are the thrift stores. Goodwill's prices have changed and their selection is variable anyway. So is it possible to be period-accurate while working from thrift stores? 

To add a level of difficulty, can I do it with documentation that connects our finds directly to similar actual museum pieces?

Is that level of accuracy possible on a pennywise peasant budget?

Never one to turn down a challenge, I went through the faire ware and selected out only those items that have joined our collection in the past two years.  This is what I found...

As with anything, it begins with research. What are the appropriate types of item should you be looking for? What is or isn't a period-correct material? What shapes are correct for my period? When in doubt, head to the museum. If there isn't a museum near you with a collection of 16th century household artifacts on display, well there's this funny thing called the Internet.

Here's a by no means all-inclusive list of links to get you started.

  • Surry/Hampshire Borderware - 1480-1650  (Museum of London)
    The kilns of this region supplied most of England with tableware and still do.
  • Tinware - 1480-1650 (Museum of London)
    NOTE: Not made of tin, 'tinware' refers to a glazing/decoration technique where a flat white tin-based glaze is applied and then painted over, often quite ornately. In Italy referred to as "Majolica" these pieces were often coveted above platters made from  precious metals.
  • Imported Pottery - 1250-1650 (Museum of London)
    The trade in pottery across the continent was quite robust, especially the salt-fired crockery of what is now Germany.
  • Potash Glass of the later Medieval Period (Museum of London)
    Appropriate glass pieces are some of the easiest to find, and a great conversation-starter with the public, who falsely believe that glass is a modern invention.
  • Italian Ceramics of the Renaissance (National Gallery of Art)
    Mostly Majolica pieces, which dominated Italian ceramic culture.
  • New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
    The Met has an extensive collection of European artifacts, including pottery and some metalware.
Auction Houses
Collectors Groups & Appreciation Societies
Artwork featuring period pieces
  • Larsdatter.com (Links)
    Karen Larsdatter's site may well be the single greatest resource of links to images from the medieval through renaissance periods, categorized by items that appear in the image. A one-stop shop for practically anything.

Below are two pages from my sketchbook, scribbled while looking through museum catalogs at a college library. I was studying ceramics and pottery for art school at the time.

Note the shape of the period jugs. The same shapes are repeated over and over in metal and ceramic across England and Europe. The jugs shown in the sketches are extremes of the type. now known as the 'Bellarmine' style, after a cardinal of the 17th century. The faces aren't always there, but they often were.

But regardless of whether or not they have a face, the shape is the important thing: narrow at the top, with a big round belly.  Actually, the Bellarmine jugs tend to have a very narrow neck and an enormous belly, but the narrowness at the top is quite variable, as is the placement of the handles as you can see in the links above, especially the one to the Museum of London (MOL).

These shapes persist from the 14th century well into the 17th.

Below is a salt-fired pitcher and two mugs. The pitcher is tinted red with an iron-oxide wash. The inside is glazed with a green glaze (a popular combination of the period, echoing the 'redware' styles) and the mugs are salt-fired stoneware. Salt-firing was probably a German innovation, and is obvious in a finished piece because of the pitting and color variations you see below. Salt firing was a fiercely-protected trade secret of the German potters, but as noted above, there was an active international trade in ceramics througout the renaissance.

Estimated Cost: Probably $12.00 for the set at Goodwill

Similar jugs, pitchers, and mugs HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

And because thrift shops are the eventual home of many an amateur's experiments with pottery, you might even find faces on some items. No, the item below, isn't period or even close, but I've seen ones that are.

I bought it for $.99 at my local Salvation Army store, just to prove the point.

Other fun items you can often find are the sort that no one else around knows what to do with. The item below is a watering pitcher, obviously. It is also an almost exact reproduction of THIS watering pitcher at the Museum of London. They were used on flowers and herbs, yes, but mostly to water the rushes on the floor to keep the dust down.

The piece below is mostly here because I like it. The glazes are modern, but the designs are timeless and the shape is perfect.

It was also about $6.00 at Goodwill.

Below is a fun piece. It's obviously a watering jar, but what most don't realize is that it's a reproduction of an Elizabethan piece like this one HERE at the Museum of London. The repro is slipcast rather than thrown on the wheel, but the shape and glazes are spot-on. I applaud the maker, whoever they were.

Cost: $2.99 from Goodwill

Plates and bowls of the English renaissance tended to have a wide, flat rim. The most common pewter plates you'll find at thrift stores won't be actual pewter (more on that in a minute) and won't have quite as wide of a rim as the period pieces.

My guild presents themselves as the artisans, yeomen, and other working-class peoples of the renaissance. Therefore most of our goods are unpretentious and utilitarian. That translates to: "cheap and easy to replace". Wood, earthenware, and some limited pewter are the name of the game.

The bowl below (without spoon, I'll get to it later) is as close as you'll usually come to the correct size and shape.

Cost: $2.00 from Goodwill

According to finds on the shipwrecks Mary Rose and the Alderney shipwreck, the porringer is basically a metal version of the noggin. That is to say that it's a bowl with either one or two handles attached to the side.

The porridger below is a one-handled version of the one seen here from the wreck of a ship off of Alderney Island, dated to 1588.

Most feast gear sites focus on wooden items because they are so very cheap and plentiful in thrift stores and so rare in archaeological digs because wood rots and England has a moist climate. It's best to avoid the wood known as "monkey wood" because it's too light and doesn't look anything like the woods of Europe.

Thankfully, the Mary Rose sank and preserved a significant number of everyday artifacts, such as these plates and spoons which are almost identical to these plates (below).

Cost: $2.00 each from Value Village/ARC

While the popular conception of trenchers is that they were square, they were often imitations of the popular varieties of metalwork that were also around at the time, face-turned on a lathe. These were made on a lathe. Here are some lovely and elaborately decorated wooden trenchers from the latter 16th century at the Victoria & Albert museum that you can see HERE, HERE, and HERE

Bowls were similarly styled in a fashion that you and I would find familiar, as seen in these bowls, also brought up on Mary Rose. The bowls tend to be rather shallow, similar to the bowl of an Elizabethan spoon.

Official reproductions of the bowls can be had via a woodturner certified by the Mary Rose trust for £27. They are beautiful. If you can afford one, I encourage you to buy one.

These are mine. Made in an almost identical fashion but purchased at the local thrift stores.

Estimated cost: $.99 ea
(Sand them down and treat them with a coat of food-safe 'salad bowl' finish available from your local hardware store. These need to be re-treated.)

Wooden spoons are used by most people in reenactment. They're easy to come by, read well at a distance and are cheap. Look to pay about a dollar for one at most thrift stores. Possibly less. Many spoons would probably be made from horn rather than wood, but several wooden spoons came up in the Mary Rose wreck.

I have never found a horn spoon at a thrift store since they're something of a commodity to those who have them, so I don't feature them here. I've recently found some good local sources for them and they're not terribly expensive so contact me if you think you need one.

The seven matching "Apostle" style spoons shown below came from the thrift store.

Estimated cost: $1.00 ea (bought as a set) from Goodwill

You probably won't find a set of apostle spoons at your local Goodwill. I was somewhat surprised to see them there myself. That said, there are a lot of repro spoons and a lot of spoon collectors in the world, so who knows? I did.

In the meantime, a wooden spoon will suit you just fine. Are they perfectly period correct? Probably not. Most are the wrong shape. If anyone's interested in a spoon-carving demo, I can provide one. The proper shape for a renaissance spoon tends to be very shallow with a fig-shaped bowl (shown below).

Once again, it's the shape that's important.  Wooden spoons ape their betters.


Here's where most of us sin and fall short of the glory and I for one, could not possibly care less. The price of 16th century reproduction pewter tankards is so exorbitant that it's absurd. Especially when there are alternatives that meet the 'Close enough' test easily at hand.

This is evident in the complete lack of period-correct tankards that I found in my search. The closest I got is this one. It's similar (though much less adorned) to some German ones that I've seen from that period like THESE. Note that it is essentially a metal cast replica of 16th century wood and leather tankards like this one from the Mary Rose and this reproduction sold by the Tower of London.

Nevertheless, it's still a 17th century reproduction. And it doesn't matter to me. I refuse to haul around a hundred dollars worth of pewter at faire.

Cost: $6.00 at Goodwill

And these are reproductions of American Colonial pieces... except the horn-shaped one. I'm pretty sure those are fantasy.

Average Cost: $4.00 each

Want to be accurate and cheap? Stick to the ceramic mugs that I showed you above.

Want to make your own leather one? I can show you how. Get together with your friends and buy a share of a vegetable tanned hide. We'll make a leather jack sometime in the first quarter of 2012.

Wood is good too and wooden tankards like the Mary Rose tankard I linked to earlier are certainly plentiful at the faires.

All of them perform the function of getting beer from the tap to your mouth quite well. (I checked it out for you, no charge!)


For "pewter" items, I generally seek out the work of the Wilton Armetale foundry of Columbia Pennsylvania. They do fine work and most of the tankards you see here are theirs. If you buy one of their tankards, you can rest assured of its lack of lead. Look for their hallmark which looks approximately like the one below.

Wilton-Armetale is still a thriving concern and available new from their website and at retailers everywhere. (Though some of the designs shown are no longer made.) We are not paid for this endorsement or we wouldn't be telling you to hunt them down at Thrift Stores and Flea Markets. Buy them where you can find them. They're functional, durable, lead-free and we're enthusiastic consumers and collectors of their wares.

If you buy it new, it comes with a sticker like this one affixed to the bottom. Take heed.

So... did I succeed? 

Well, that depends on the level of authenticity you demand. Personally, I think these wares are as close as needs be. Certainly within my acceptable fudge factor.

Other items will occur to you the more you eat at faire and you may decide down the road that a fine polished pewter tankard is what you want. Or some forged utensils to replace the wooden ones. It's up to you and it's your money, honey. The things found here are simply a good way to get you on the road to where you want to be.

18 December 2011

The Fez of Christmas Future

I haven't forgotten about you, dear friends. It's winter with a vengeance here in the Pacific Northwest, so anything involving outdoors is curtailed until the dank weather recedes a bit. Every iron I have in the fire at the moment will require a bit of the great outdoors, or at least not so much with the great indoors. In fact, a couple of the things I've got going will require actual irons in an actual fire... but more on that another time.

We're putting together a proper workshop here at Fool's Paradise, so we can work in all weather conditions. Starting in January, we'll be stretching and forming more leather, hand-building and blocking felt hats, and otherwise getting our hands dirty.

In the meantime, it's the only time of year you can walk around wearing jester's bells and not get stared at... um... as much. So enjoy it!

I doff my fez to one and all. May the seasons be merry and bright.
See you in the new year!


19 October 2011

Maskmaker, Maskmaker V :: Making the Final Cut

Apologies for the delay. Ren faire was followed closely by the chronic-but-mostly-annoying illness that dogs my footsteps. When it rears its ugly head (and swells mine to an uncomfortable degree) there's not a lot I can do. 

And then there was a steampunk convention.

Anyway, a deluge of posts is in the pipeline covering all those things and more. But first... let us finish the mask that we left drying on the matrix back in August.

When I left you, we'd taken our wet leather and by pushing, pulling, poking, prodding, and pounding, we got it to conform to the dimensional planes of the matrix that we had carved.  In the areas that don't matter we have used staples and brass nails to affix it to the wood. In areas that we can't poke holes in, we have used bands of cloth to hold it in place as it dries.

Ironically, the larger you work, the less you need the cloth strips and the more you will use the horn mallet that I will show you how to make sometime next week.

It has been sitting in a sunny spot for a day at most (not for a month and a half, that would be crazy) or if you are in a hurry, you have carefully applied a cool hair dryer.  Carefully remove all of the nails, tacks, brads, and whatnot that you used to hold the leather on the matrix.

The dried leather will hold itself in place on the surface of the matrix. The consistency of the leather will remind you of thick, heavy cardboard.

It is time to set it free and for that, you will need a pencil and a sharp shop knife or razor blade.

Examine the mask and use the pencil to draw a line where you are going to cut. This is not the final cut, but you should be thinking already about how this mask will follow the contours of the wearer's head.

Photo by Chris Yetter, CJYPhoto.com
Used with permission.
Take a good look at this mask's edges where it meets my face. Note how far back along the temples it comes and how far down around the mouth. Note that traditional Italian masks come even farther down over the upper lip, but I don't really like the way that feels, so mine generally do not.

How it fits is up to you, and it starts at the point where you are removing it from the matrix.  Slice carefully. Go slowly. Use a sharp knife. Don't cut yourself with it.

To start the eyes, you might need to use a smaller blade like an Exacto knife or even a hole punch. Just take your time.  When you are done, it should look like this.

The nose is the hardest part of this operation.  Click on the first picture above and look at it large-sized. The flap of the nose overlaps the end. I used an Exacto to skive the leather even thinner than it already was and then used contact cement to adhere it into one solid piece.

Don't forget to punch holes at the temples if you want to have ribbons to tie it to someone's head.

Red leather dye and a coat of brown shoe polish for aging, and it looks like this.

That's maskmaking!


  1. Start small. Practice wetforming smaller pieces of leather before you commit larger and more expensive portions.
  2. Mold something else. You can start leather molding on anything from a soup bowl to your own face. (Fair warning: this feels kinda funky). This will help you get a feel for it before you commit to a more complex shape or project.
  3. Skive your leather to a workable thickness.
  4. Wood matrices are more forgiving, but require more work. Choose your molding method to fit your available time and talents.

23 August 2011

A Fool In Spite of Himself

Chia pays Calabash's nose a visit Sunday
afternoon. (Photo by Kristin Perkins)
About halfway through my Sunday routine, it occurred to me that I've been a fool for ten years.  That is to say, it was ten years ago that my character Calabash sprang, fully-formed, from my forehead.

Not bad for a character that came entirely off the cuff... or perhaps just out of a mask.

I won't go through the full story. If you want to know how Calabash came into being, you can read the full story here: Years of a Clown.

Next year, the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire will be an entirely new place. The location will shift to England, under the rule of Good Queen Bess (to be portrayed by Victoria Dzenis). Calabash was the MC of many a morning atop the front gate, and now his voice will be replaced by another.  So too will we lose the stern presence of our John Knox (which only makes sense, really) and many other large and vocal street performers are taking the opportunity to either switch characters or downshift to a less active role.

New queen, new fool (at least I hope someone takes up the standard) and a whole new cast of characters in need of actors to fill them.  A whole new faire indeed.

Never one to leave quietly, Calabash got in one last run, capering before the village gates, haranguing the privateers and pikemen. Even got to deliver his spiel with a sound system! (Luxury!)

Then he wandered the faire and bade a quiet goodbye to his friends and supporters.  On the final day, I delivered two tiny masks of Calabash proportions to the two ladies who made the world safe for fools, his beloved queen: Melissa Haffly, and Mary Dixon, she who first recognized Calabash and called him out "I know you, mischief maker!"

I will miss him more than even I can say.

Then it was a round of hugs and back to the workbench to take up my new role as the village toymaker.

After all, there are are marionettes out there, waiting to be made and fairies aplenty, lying in wait to turn them into real boys.

Like I need the extra mouths to feed.

Toys won't make themselves, after all.  (Photo by Greg Martin)

20 August 2011

Maskmaker, Maskmaker... IV :: Molding the mask

I wanted to see how much thickness I took out of the leather, so I grabbed the calipers... er... rather, I asked the engineer to loan me her calipers.

The image below was taken before skiving.  The leather is .116 inches thick.

The second, bottom image is after.  The thickness if .0785. It's only a difference of 0.0375 inches, but what a difference that makes when it comes time to sew or fold the stuff.... or get it wet and work it over a mold. 

What I'm about to tell you to do doesn't lend itself to photography, but it's pretty easy to explain.

Fill a sink with water as hot as your tap is able to produce. Keep in mind that you're going to have your hands in this water soon, so don't burn yourself. You want a nice hot bath for your leather, but DO NOT BOIL IT. That's a different thing and it may make dandy Roman armor, but not so much for masks.

Toss the piece of leather you've cut and skived into the sink. If your sink is not deep enough or large enough for the leather to submerge completely, use a washtub or bucket.  I've been known to use a large mixing bowl.

Go and get a sandwich or trim your fingernails; you need to allow the leather to sit in the water for a good ten minutes before you start to play with it.
REMINDER: Once it is wet, everything that comes in contact with the leather might leave a mark. This includes your fingernails and your rings.  Trim your nails and remove your rings before you begin.
When you come back, it's time to get your hands wet.

Start working the leather with your hands in the water. Crumple it up and squeeze it. Keep doing this until the leather is fully saturated with water.

You will notice that the leather has become elastic and just a little spongy. That's the collagen warming up and leaching out into the water. Time to take the leather out of the bath and roll it up and squeeze as much of the water out as you can.

Because you followed the principle of mise en place your mold is sitting right next to you as well as some brass nails, a stapler, and a tack hammer. Right?  Good.  Remember not to put any nails or staples anywhere that you don't want to cut away later. These holes won't heal.
  1. Drape the leather over the mask and arrange it so that its oriented just as your pattern (piece of cloth) was.  Pull one edge or corner over and staple it to the back of the mold.
  2. Push the leather down into the eyesockets with your fingertip or a piece of wood and nail them in place.
  3. Working quickly, start stretching the leather over the mold, and nailing or stapling it to the back of the form.
  4. Do one widely-spaced circle and then come around again, always pulling the leather taut across the form.
  5. If you have an extra-long nose like mine, you will need to have a fold where the bridge of the nose meets the eye brows. This is okay, it lends to the maniacal look of the mask, which is desireable.
  6. You might need to use a strip of cotton or (as I did below) even a wire tie padded by another piece of scrap leather to get the desired drape and tightness, especially on a long nose like his one. Remember to pad it, because the ties can mar the leather.
  7. Italian trained maskmakers use a mallet whose head was made from the tip of a cow horn to lightly pummel the mask down into the creases and grooves of the mask. This also helps drive water out of the leather and compacts it, making for a stiffer mask.  On a larger mask than this one, I would do that.

When you get to a point where the mask is fully nailed in place, pummeled and/or lashed into place, put the mask out in the sun to dry.

Some maskmakers use a hair dryer at this stage.  You have to be careful doing that, because you can dry out and crack the leather with that much heat.  Best to let it sit in the sun for a few hours while you make the next mask or go do something else.

19 August 2011

The Toymaker's First Weekend

Last weekend was my first full weekend as the toymaker. My friend Christa snapped this picture of me using a small trim plane to shape my new marionette.

Photo by Christa Smiley
I set up my table and tools on the edge of the main path, not far inside the main gates.  Just sat down and started making wood shavings.

It's been a long time since I sat still at faire. I'm reveling in the opportunity to really talk to the patrons rather than just making a quick joke or teasing them as I fly past on my way to the next place where the queen will need me.

It's a lower-key experience, to be sure, but I am enjoying it immensely.  And it tickles me a bit how many people tell me that they didn't know anyone knew how to make things with hand tools anymore!

And when I get bored sitting still, I grab that cage you see on the ground next to me and shoulder my large net and go looking for all of my many escaped marionettes.  (Bloody fairies never ask permission before turning them into real boys.  Like I need another mouth to feed...)

A trip to our faire inspired a series of renaissance faire related comics over on Scott Kurtz's PVP webcomic.  Check them out over at PVPonline.

Yes, we really are that close to Target.  Well... almost.

This weekend is the final weekend of faire!  Come one, come all!

Maskmaker, Maskmaker Part III :: Preparing the Leather

At the start of this sequence was a post called "Tools of the Trade :: Garb Carpentry" which laid out and discussed the supplies needed in order to complete the mask project.

If you have gotten this far without reading it, it is time to go back and read it now.

The leather used for our mask is a "vegetable tanned" cow hide. Most mask makers prefer the bellies because the leather is stretchier at that end of the cow. Bellies are often cheaper than tooling leather because it is thinner and doesn't take well to tooling and impressions. It is mostly used by folks who make knife sheaths, holsters, and masks: all things that benefit from the stretchiness of the bottom of a hide.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Once it is wet, everything that comes in contact with the leather might leave a mark. This includes your fingernails and your rings.  Trim your nails and remove your rings before you begin.
How do I know how much leather I need?
Take a scrap of cloth and drape it over your form so that you have a generous amount underneath. Cut away the excess and then spread the cloth out. That is the amount and shape of the leather piece you will need to cut.

Skive (thinning) the leather
In the aforementioned post, I ranked a skiving knife as "nice, but optional".

I'm rethinking the "optional" part, but I will still leave it up to you. If you buy carefully, you won't need to do much skiving, because you can chose he thinnest hides you can find.  It depends on how much use you want this mask to endure.

I tend to buy entire hides or bellies and worry about thickness when I decide which project I'm going to use them on.  One end of a hide may end up as a mug, and the other a mask.

Skiving is the act of scraping away the back of the leather to make it thinner and more flexible. There are an astonishing number of types of blades used for skiving leather, ranging from half-moons of steel to something that looks like a vegetable peeler to a sharpened butter knife.  There are also complicated machines to do it for you.

Ideally, when reducing the thickness across the entirety of a piece of leather, you would use a splitter, essentially a wide blade that can split a hide in one big swoop. If you haven't the room for such a contraption, do as I do and stick to either a knife or what I call the razor blade style.

Razor style: Pictured at right, the razor blade style has interchangeable blades so that you never have to sharpen it. You just drag it across the back of the hide in exactly the way you wouldn't want to if you were shaving hair off your skin. The blade will dig in and shave away thin layers with each pass until you've achieved the depth and consistency you desire.  (All the shavings next to the hunk of hide in the photo are leather shavings.)

A lot of leatherworkers don't like these because they're not as quick as a splitter, and consistency can be a bit of a problem until you get used to using it.  Nevertheless, for the hobbiest, it is an inexpensive, serviceable option for you. The holders and replacement blades are sold at most leather stores and suppliers.

Knives: There are almost too many varieties commercially available these days to enumerate them. They are mostly used to pare edges to make stitching easier. To skive a large piece with just a knife would be a feat. Not impossible, mind you, just difficult. Most of the people I know who use these are bookbinders, because the edge of a piece is the main concern with leather book covers.

Mine began its life as a butter knife that was subjected to a series of files, sharpening stones, and emery cloth until you could shave with it.
  • Whatever you choose to use, be careful with it! These things are, by necessity, very, very sharp.  If it's not sharp, sharpen it or change the blade. Dull blades skip and skitter and the cuts they deal out are far worse than the cuts you might endure from a sharper blade.
  • Practice on a scrap before you screw up your nicer stuff. Use the thing like you would use a razor on your skin and begin pressing down until you get a feel for how hard you can or should press to take off just enough leather. It may take some practice
DIY Skiving/Paring Knife
If you want to make your own paring knife for your leather working toolkit as I have done, this video from master bookbinder Peter Goodwin will show you how... 

Next Step: Mise en place
Mise en place usually shows up as a cooking term used to remind cooks to have everything in place before you start. Before you begin any recipe, you have to make sure you have all the ingredients ready and easily at hand.

Leatherworking is no different and in wet forming, this is especially important. While you can skive your leather out on the back porch to avoid a mess in your living room, you need to have your mold and tools at your elbow before you begin wetting the leather.  So, sometime between steps one and two, you need to acquire the following and lay them out so that they come easily to hand.
  • Your mask form
  • Some kind of skiving knife
  • Tacks, preferably brass
  • Tack hammer
  • Stapler with extra staples
  • Box knife
  • Some strips of cotton cloth or gauze bandages
  • Extra leather
 The next step will be to get the leather wet.  Once that happens, it's a race to the finish, so get everything together, get your leather prepared and get ready to spend up to an hour manipulating wet leather with your hands and tools.

17 August 2011

The implicit agreement between the actor and the audience.

Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play. It is most often remembered for the Saint Crispin's Day speech given by the king ere the close of battle on the field of Agincourt (and re-cast by Captain Splinter at opening gate, I might add). But as a writer and an artist, good as it is, that is not my favorite Shakespearean speech from my favorite play.

There is another.

I was reminded of this recently.  On a Facebook group for ren folk, a fellow from California posted a complaint: Why should we even bother trying to breathe some life into the sixteenth century when our efforts are beset on every side by port-o-potties and ice cream vendors and patrons on cell phones?

Why even bother?


Oh, ye of little faith.

Shakespeare would have understood as well as anyone what we're trying to do. Better, I'd wager.  If you do not believe me, look no further than my favorite part of my favorite play: the introduction.  Right there at the beginning, he implores the audience to multiply the one actor into multitudes, to see a man in a paper crown and clothe him as king, to see a wall of canvas and supplant it with a castle.

Everything you need to know to write a novel, short story or play is encapsulated in those lines. And more importantly for our purposes, it contains everything you need to know about the implicit agreement between the actor and the audience.

As we gear up for third weekend, entering our third act if you will, these are words it would do us great service to remember, to hear echoing in our heads when doubts assail us or if we hear someone mumbling about tents and Honey Buckets.

Earlier this week, my wife asked you to post your favorite memories of faire from the first two acts.  Use those memories, siphon the energy from them and close your eyes for a moment. Paint over the popup tents and the stages and the smelly blue boxes and patrons in Stargate uniforms.

Even Shakespeare had to do this. Even he had to remind his audience to help him out. So can you.

O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unrais├Ęd spirits that hath dared,
On this unworthy scaffold, to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O pardon, since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million,
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high, uprear├Ęd, and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hooves i' th' receiving earth.
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times,
Turning th' accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history,
Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.

Or you can always watch Derek Jacobi do it from Branagh's Henry V movie:

10 August 2011

Maskmaker, Maskmaker Part II :: Carving and Completing the Form

 To make the mask mold for this project, I've been using carving knives like the one shown at left. You don't have to. My grandfather would have made this entire project with his pocket knife, been quite content doing so, and done a better job than I have.

Use what is most comfortable for you. Carving knives that are worth your time start at about $20.00 and go up from there. Spend less than that at your own risk. The carving knives I use are "Flexcut" knives sold by Rockler woodworking. It's a nice level of tool for the serious hobbiest.

It's been pointed out elsewhere that when I talked about doweling a nose-piece in place last post, I did not complete the thought.

Why didn't I just use a larger piece of wood and carve the whole thing in one piece?  The short answer is grain lines.  Whenever you are carving, life is significantly easier if your blade is moving parallel to the grain.
Also, if I was to carve from a larger block, I would have to remove several times more material to get to the final shapes I wanted.

In order to keep the grainlines aligned to the path of the blade, it's sometimes better to make the wood match the carving rather than vice-versa.  When your goal is to have a finished display piece, this might not be a desirable thing to do, but in this case, we're just making a form for leather to stretch over.

I did this by doweling a nose piece perpendicular to the face so that whether I was carving the cheekbones or the nose, my blade is carving cross-grain as little as possible. 

Once I was finished with the blade, I used a sanding wheel on my Dremel tool to round and smooth the planes of the face.  If you don't have a Dremel tool, you can do this with sandpaper, it will just take a bit longer.

Honestly, you could probably just skip this part, because theoretically, the goal here is to have something to stretch leather over, not to make something to sit on the shelf.  I like to make them suitable for the shelf because the more of these I make, the harder it is to avoid looking at them, so I might as well make them pretty.

This is the final form once it has been sanded and finished with spar urethane (above).  I used spar urethane because the leather is wet when it's applied to the wood and the added protection helps the mask form to last longer.

I then traced around the mask on a 1X4 and cut it out, attaching it to the back of the form with screws so that I can change it out.  This is a waste piece of wood into which many nails and staples will be driven, so it's important to be able to swap it out if you want to make more than a couple of masks from the same form.

NOTE: If you watched that video and chose to work in concrete for your form, Thurston James advises leaving a hollow in the back of the form and in the eyeholes to be filled with Plastic Wood for the same reasons.  You will periodically have to refresh the plastic wood in that case to allow for future nails to be set. 

Maskmaker, Maskmaker, Make Me a Mask :: Part I

The number one most requested thing for me to teach is leather maskmaking. I learned by reading books and screwing up a lot. With any luck, I can spare you some of that.

Commedia del Arte is a form of theater designed to be performed by a limited number of actors in a setting that is less than ideal for theater: The Renaissance marketplace. Each actor wears a specific mask and adopts certain prescribed poses that are universal to the form.

The characters bear names like Pantalone, the unscrupulous and grasping old man; Capitano, the strutting braggart; Arlechinno, the clever and (more or less) innocent servant... The iconic masks, poses and well-defined characters allowed the actors to perform amid the bustle of marketplace and festival in a time before microphones. The cavernous noses of the masks have even been alleged to magnify the voices of the actors. . . though I've worn one for years in performances and I can't say as I buy that argument entirely.

Even if you could not hear every word or see them clearly, you knew who was doing what. Even from a distance, there was no question which actor was playing which role, so well-known were the archetypes they portrayed. Even today you would recognize them whether you realize it or not. Harlequin came from commedia. Punch & Judy as well. Shakespeare borrowed shamelessly from his Italian counterparts. Pants are called "pants" as a short form of 'pantaloons' named for the costume worn by Pantalone.

In more theatrical and modern(ish) terms, The Marx Brothers, Monty Python and the Muppets all owe an enormous debt to their frenetic forbears in commedia del arte.

Traditional Italian commedia masks were leather like the one I am wearing above, wetformed over wooden forms.  That's the sort that I'm about to show you how to make.

If you don't have the knack or the interest in carving, rest assured that you can create a mask in clay and then make a positive mold as shown in the YouTube video below, only instead of using fiberglass, fill your mold with the fine concrete used to make stepping stones.  You can then form your leather over that.

The video...

Not only is that okay, it's how Thurston James advises you to proceed in his book The Prop Builder's Mask-Making Handbook (sadly out of print, but still available here and there if you look hard enough) which many consider to be the book on the topic. He hates carving things out of wood, but advises leaving hollows in the back of the mask and eyes to fill with plastic wood for the later steps involving nails.

Unlike Mr. Thurston James, I actually enjoy hand-carving and own all the necessary tools to do so, so that is how I intend to proceed.  If you don't care to join me, you're on your own, I fear, though later lessons about the molding are universally applicable.

But I'm getting ahead of myself already.

So many people protested when I said I was giving up fooling, I wanted to create a poppet or doll in the costume of Calabash.so that he'd still be around. So I'll be making a 1/3 scale version of my mask (pictured below).

All of the following steps will be identical on a full-sized mask, or even for a smaller one. These things can get as small as you choose to make them, though the smaller you get, the less you shall be able to attain intricate details. 

When asked how he sculpted The Thinker, Rodin said he just cut away everything that wasn't his statue and when he was done, voila! I'm not sure that a blog like this is the place to learn woodcarving, but I shall do my best.

The tools I used were a saw, a rasp, and a knife. Keep them all sharp. Be cautious. Wear protective gear as appropriate. Proceed at your own risk.

All carvings begin the same way as Rodin. Woodcarving is just sculpture in a reluctant medium... with a simple block of wood. In this case, I used a chunk of scrap pine.

As the Maestro said, the first thing is to draw the shape on the block and then cut away everything that is not mask. Use a coping saw if you're attached to the notion of period perfection or a power saw if you have one.

 Use a rasp or file to begin beveling edges and beginning to shape the cheekbones, making the mask into a three-dimensional form. 

Once I had the basic shape, I used dowels to attach a piece of 2x2 to make the nose as shown in the profile plan below. I don't have any pictures of that, but the it's really just drill a hole and insert wood and a dowel.

Then continue carving until I had this...

Next, we'll get into some leatherwork, at long last

27 July 2011

Tools of the Trade :: Garb Carpentry

Things you need to make garb: Cloth, sewing machine, needle, thread, scissors, coping saw, drill, hammer, drawknife...

We're not going to build a house, but we are about to get into some fairly involved leatherworking here. "Wet forming" leather requires something to form it around. Usually, this is made out of wood. So, a certain amount of miscellaneous carpentry will be necessary.

It's either that or cast your molds in concrete.

I'm an avid woodworker, so I already have a lot the tools I needed to make the things we'll be talking about in the next month or so.  Some of you will too, or someone in your family or close circle of friends will have tools you can borrow.

There are always things that will make a task easier. A jigsaw is faster than a coping saw just as a lathe is faster than whittling. I'll stop periodically and talk about tools if it's necessary, but here's a very minimal list of what you'll need from the hardware aisle.
  • Wooden or plastic mallet
  • Coping saw
  • Scratch Awl
  • Tack hammer and/or staple gun
  • Sharp pocket knife or woodcarving knife
  • Sandpaper
  • Care, patience, and a First Aid kit
Universal Caveat: If you're not sure how to use a tool, don'tFind someone knowledgeable to help or show you how. Keep all of your tools as sharp as possible. Be careful. Think twice, cut yourself not at all.

If you're really lucky, there's someone you can show a picture of what you want and have them come back in a few hours and hand it to you.
NOTE: None of this is terribly complicated. I was 13 when I learned most of this in a shop class at school. If dorky, awkward, 13-year-old Scottie can do this, you probably can too.

As always,
if I can think of an easier way to do anything, or find a shortcut for you, I will post it. Even if it's a link to what someone else did.

As far as leatherworking tools go, a lot of what you need you'll already have in your sewing kit. Even if you decide to tool any of the leather, a nailhead or anything can be used to make marks in the leather. Tools specifically to leatherworking can be expensive and if you're not going to use them again, you can skip them.

Yes, you can do leatherworking without buying stock in Tandy. There are some specialized tools that will make all of this easier if you have them, but they're not strictly necessary. You cannot, however, do it without buying leather. For that, you will need to find a local supplier or order it online. I encourage you to check online or in your local Yellow pages (remember those?) and see if you can find a local leather supplier. Most larger cities have them. Here in Seattle area, we have McPhereson's leather.

The leather used for all of these projects is "vegetable tanned" leather. That means the tanning process used tannins from natural vegetation to effect the tanning process. Some places sell it as "tooling leather" because it's perfect for these projects because it's non-toxic, easy to work with and takes tooling and shaping well.

NOTE: Leather is not sold by the yard. The price on the wall might tell you how much per square foot, but that doesn't mean you can buy one square foot of leather. Leather is sold as hides (whole animal) sides (half the animal), bellies (just the belly bits), and scrap. Scrap is usually sold by the pound.

At the moment, a mid-grade full hide (veggie tanned) will probably run you about $140 online. Many if not most of the projects here can be done with large scraps, so you might not need to buy an entire side.

If you want to do a lot this, it's more economical in the long run to buy the entire hide, but it's up to you and your budget.

Go ahead and select some dyes and a sealer as well while you're there. Tell the folks who work there what you plan to do and they'll advise you. Generally, anything that will touch food or your skin should probably be a non-toxic as possible, so pay attention to what's in the dyes you buy and think about how you'll use them.

To work the leather, you will need a couple of tools, some of which you'll already have:
  • A knife (I usually use a box knife)
  • An awl
  • A plastic spoon (yes, really)
  • Glover's needles (available at most leather or sewing stores)
  • Sinew or strong thread
  • A ruler.
Things you might want that will just make your life easier:
  • Skivving knife
  • Stitch-spacer

If you have those things, you're ready to start.