27 February 2011

Gearseye :: Her Mechanical Majesty's Royal Aeronauts

Shoulder flash design...

26 February 2011

Painting Phase One: Right Sleeve

Painting the Jacket

Because it looks like this outside...

I decided to break into the paints and try my hand at decorating some leather.  

To recap: Because I wanted to do a steampunk jetpacked soldier, I decided I would commit to it one degree further than the others I've seen recently.  This meant thinking out the livery of the sky marines to a further degree than just colors and shoulder braid.

Anyway, having grown up admiring the painted ponies of the Confederate Air Force and the brightly-painted crop dusters that came to do tricks at the local air shows every summer back home.

The design is based upon Royal Air Force thought process for airplane livery and designations of the First World War.

My jacket will have a chequered design on the right shoulder and my number running down the sleeve in white.  

For the left shoulder, I plan the design to the right.  At the top, we'll have the British RAF bullseye superimposed by some sort of very steam punked air force design.  (The air ship shown in just a place-holder.)  Beneath that, the blue, white & red stripes like the tail of the Sopwith Camel up there.

On the back, I plan something elaborate and bold, but I only have the faintest of ideas as yet...  More on that once I have some sketches done. 

23 February 2011

Beyond Borders - The Borders Bankruptcy As Seen By a Former Bookseller

A bookish boy & his boyish books
It may surprise you to note that I haven't yet said anything about the Borders bankruptcy.  In part this is because I've been focusing my writing on other things than chasing the latest business debacle down the rabbit hole.  Honestly it was mostly because it's just too painful to think about.

As most of you know, I've worked for both of the major bookstore chains at one time or another and spent the longest time with Borders.  I worked for them in various capacities for the better part of nine years, mostly as a manager in one of their larger stores.

It was unlike any other job I've ever had.  I loved and hated it.  I formed friendships there that have persisted well beyond the walls of the bookstore and I formed ideas about books, publishing and bookselling that I carry with me to this day.  I also acquired the bulk of the library that currently weighs-down my house.  I think every writer should serve such an internship.

It genuinely pains me to see what is happening now.

I was in my local Borders last night.  My friends and I meet there weekly in the cafe to decide where to take our wandering 'supper club'.  They're closing our local store, meaning there won't be a bookstore of decent size within easy driving distance anymore. It's sad to see a town lose its bookstore.  Chain or independent, bookstores are the repositories of our cultural aspiration to be well-read and literate.

My wife and I usually buy a book or at least a magazine while we're there -- sometimes with a coupon, sometimes not.  Last night I picked up a nice book about cheesemaking and another one about gardens and a baking book I'd been thinking about getting anyway, and for the first time in a very long time, I had to wait in line to pay.  A friend of mine works nearby and she stopped in on her lunch break and she said at that time, the line stretched out the door.

A line at a bookstore that stretches out the door.  Imagine such a thing.

And here's the thing: the discount was only 20%, which is less than the weekly 30% off coupon that Borders has sent out to subscribers to their email list every week in recent memory.  Obviously people still value books.  They were shoveling them off the shelves with an impressive zeal.  And they were paying more for them than they would have a week earlier if they were really paying attention...

I wish I could tell you what that means, but honestly I don't know. Probably that people don't value something until they lose it, which is both cliche and true.

The other day, the Writer Beware blog posted a link on their Facebook page to an article written by a former Borders CEO which listed several systemic failures to manage resources and people and then argued vehemently that this wasn't management's fault.  Oh, and the dog ate his homework too.

Follow the link.  Read his story and tell me what you think.

To summarize his argument: Borders made a series of disastrous decisions that positioned them poorly to compete in the changing market.  They built a business to compete in the 20th century and not the 21st.  But it's not management's fault?

It's the same song we've been hearing from collapsed banks and other failed corporations.  Apparently that "Not Me" ghost that used to haunt the kids in Family Circus cartoons went back to school and got his MBA.  I hate that.  Those were management decisions and management failures.  You screwed up, own it, learn from it, make corrections and keep fighting.

If I had a publicist, I'm sure they would point out to me that it is ill-advised for an aspiring author to take a swipe at what will still (theoretically once they come out of bankruptcy) be a significant distribution node for my books.  Maybe.  But I started this blog to give my unvarnished take on publishing, writing and writing culture and here we are.

I hope Borders emerges from bankruptcy as a stronger, leaner and more agile company that learned from past mistakes.  Looking forward, I don't know if there's an ongoing place for bookstores the size of barns stocking enormous stacks of whatever the next Harry Potter novel will be.  I think probably not. While I don't think that print bookstores are the equivalent of buggy whip emporiums as some commentators are depicting them, I think that the day of the massive book barns is over.  If the national chains have a future, I believe it means getting to a smaller, lighter, faster vision of bookstores that encourages the passion and expertise of their booksellers and makes that their mantra.  Which means upper management that knows the book trade, not the grocery trade as Borders did.  Books aren't just another product, they're a thing unto themselves and those who do not 'get' that are not destined to succeed in this peculiar business.

As a bookseller, I saw the first signs of the approaching wave in the droves of browsers who used the booksellers' knowledge and expertise to find the book they wanted and then put it back, saying "Cool, I'll go order it from Amazon."

I'm still in contact with one of my former store managers and he said his partner had to talk him out of standing at the top of the escalator and shout "Where were all you people six months ago?!"   The answer, of course, is they were at their computers, pointing and clicking.

Last night, as I watched people shoveling books into baskets and hauling them up to the counter at Borders like they were stocking-up for the apocalypse, I wondered what it would take for a bookstore to inspire that kind of zeal all of the time...  but no answers came to me.

21 February 2011

Speaking of Jetpacks...

This might just be one of my favorite cartoons ever. The artist is the wonderful Tom Gauld who also draws a lot of cartoons about writing and mad scientists and robots and other things.  Check him out. .http://www.cabanonpress.com/Gallery/gallery82-letters.htm

Arbuckle Rogers -- Steampunk Flying Ace

My house getting torn apart to make it more hypo-allergenic.  At the end of this, I'll supposedly have a happier, healthier me to share with you and 80-90% less Lego Head to worry about.  Unfortunately, this has also put some of my leather-sculpting plans on hold. 

In the meantime, let us digress somewhat into the realm of science fiction for a leather working project of a wholly different sort...

One of the iconic pieces of hardware in the science fiction arsenal is the jetpack. So much so that it has become an item worthy of simultaneous homage and lampoon.  Every kid wants one, every futurist, science fiction author and movie director is simultaneously frustrated and bemused by the insistence that the future just isn't the future unless it includes rocket belts.

I'm as guilty as the next for reminiscing fondly of the days of yesteryear when commuting by jet pack was always just around the corner.  I featured them in my humor-laden paean for golden-age sci fi Howard Carter Saves the World (click to read it free online).

All of which handily ignores the that you can now buy a "jet pack" from these guys for roughly the price of a decent sports car.We'll bow to the zeitgeist and keep pretending that the future is still just out of reach.

Enter the Steampunks. Not content with reenacting actual Victorian history, we've made it something of a mission to imagine the greats of modern science fiction as if they'd been written by Jules Verne instead of George Lucas. I did this with my "Arbuckle Rogers" costume, which brings us back to jetpacks and leather working.

Since WWI comes right on the heels of the Victorian era, as you might imagine, there's quite a bit of bleed-over into steampunk. This is in part owing to the fact that Steampunk relies heavily on the conceit of the "Airship Pirate" which itself often means the application of 1920's level lighter-than-air rigid airship technologies.

And since the Victorians didn't have a fully-developed aviation tradition of their own to speak of (well, they did, but it didn't come with snappy uniforms) and in the adoption of the so-called "Punk" aspects of this, a certain raffish WWI Flying Ace demeanor has come about.  That's where the leather biggin caps and goggles come from, mostly.

And indeed, my chief dissatisfaction with the Arbuckle Rogers costume is that I didn't -- at the time at least -- have a decent leather jacket appropriate for the milieu.  But the other day, I was wandering the aisles of a thrift store when I discovered the perfect jacket to rectify that problem.

It was decent leather, a little weathered and minus the liner, so it came to only $15.00

 A lot of people do the steampunk jetpack schtick.  I plan to do it differently.  Because I said to myself: If you really had flights of jetpacked soldiery winging their way across the skies, how would you tell your guys from the other guys?  With planes it's a bit easier because since they're coming from different engineers and different factories and design traditions, etcetera, you can spot them from afar and know a Fokker from a Sopwith.

That would be a bit harder with people.  Which brings us to the painting.  Even though both the Germans and the Royal Air Force allowed their pilots a lot of latitude on decorating their kites during the early days of flight, they quickly devised a system of painting and numbering to keep track of them and to tell quickly and easily from the ground who was who.  (At least theoretically)

I posit that this would be even more necessary with flights of jetpacked humans.  So I'm devising a paint scheme for my jacket that is inspired by RAF paint schemes used at the dawn of aviation.  Why?  Because as far as I can tell, no one else has yet done so.

I have some remodeling work to do.  I apologize for the delay in the leather sculpting demo.  And I'll be back soon to discuss paints and designs.


12 February 2011

Leatherworking: Wetforming Leather

Ok, so I promised a tutorial on wet-formed leather goods.  I have three leather projects on my docket right now that will call for wet-formed leather: another holster, a jack, and a new commedia mask.  But first, let's talk about leather for a minute.

Because leather had the previous job of holding a cow's insides inside, even after tanning, it contains a significant percentage of elasticity. Just like our skins, leather is primarily made of a group of proteins called collagen.  When you generally hear about collagen it's in one of two spheres: cooking and skin care.  In cooking, collagen is that which gives broths and gravies their unctuous mouth feel and in skin care, it's what contributes to elasticity.

It's this last one that we're concerned with.

Though these projects can be done with other sorts of leather, we'll be working with leather from cows that has been "vegetable tanned", which is to say it was treated using tannins taken from plant sources, usually the bark of trees.  The proteins in the tannins protect the proteins in the collagen to keep the animal skin from rotting as it normally would.

Using water -- the universal solvent -- we're going to weaken those tannins' relationship with their collagen friends.  And then we're going to use that to our advantage, because the weakened bonds will tighten up as the leather dries.

Wet forming leather - to one extent or another - is used in just about every durable leathercraft from purse making to shoemaking to book binding, so its a good skill to have in your toolbox.


Leather holsters are made using essentially the same methods as masks, wet-forming the leather around a form (or the gun itself in some cases).  Pictured at right is a holster and gun belt I made for a brace of retro-scifi laser pistols (cough-NerfGuns-cough) worn for the Arbuckle Rogers costume that debuted at Steamcon II in 2010.

For Steamcon III, I'm expanding the costume and for that I have a new ray gun which needs a holster and harness.  Because the people who make commercial gun tactical gear don't tend to market holsters for Monsieur Buck Rogers and his friends.

The Jack

Of all the odd things said of the English, one of the oddest (at least in my opinion) is their habit of drinking beer from their boots.  Which is silly, because everyone knows that's the Germans.  Anyway, what they meant was that the English were fond of their leather bottels and jacks, long after the rest of Europe gave up that sort of thing.  I suspect that the continent had a more abundant supply of clay.

And they looked little or nothing like the image to the side, but I didn't have a better one handy, so it'll have to do for now.

On the Mary Rose, a number of wooden tankards were recovered and one day I'll probably put one of those together too.  There many leathergoods found, however, among them a leather bucket and perhaps a bottel or two as well, though I can't find the pictures online to link to for those.

I've never made one of these before, but the science is straightforward enough.  The standard approach is to cut a wooden form and then wrap heavy soaked leather around them and let them dry.  Then sew a bottom on and seal the whole thing with beeswax or brewer's pitch.  Not all that dissimilar to the holster, really.

We'll see how it goes.

The Mask
I've been planning to make a Pantalone mask and after that, who knows?  I have made a number of masks now, so I know what I'm doing.  Pantalone, however is bit more expressive than the others I've made and I'm waiting for the right bit of leather to come along for this one.

Yes, I really am that finicky.,  I have to see the mask in the materials or I won't make it.  The mask shown at right is my wife's "bubble mask" in its infancy, though I didn't know she intended the bubble wand at the time.  And I'm not sure she knew it either just yet.

Pantalone is a standard Commedia character, the grasping, plotting old miser with great flowing eyebrows and warts and all the things that a 16th century mask maker would use to ape old age.  This is going to be fun because I intend to get quite crazy with it.