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.

25 July 2011

The Clown and the Toymaker :: Exit stage left, pursued by bear.

As I mentioned, I've been having back problems. Between May 5th and July 3rd, my spine went into meltdown until I was walking with a cane. Since then, the cane and the pain both went away, but it was an eye-opening experience.

I can no longer keep up the level of physicality that my role as fool requires of me.  Or -- more to the point -- that I require of me. I cannot meet my own standards and that means it's time to hang up the mask.

This year, my fool will play his usual role of Master of Ceremonies atop the castle gate for the opening ceremonies at the Washington Midsummer's Renaissance Faire, but that will be it for me.  

Next year, Calabash the fool will be retired completely.

That is not to say I'm going anywhere, but I just can't caper like I used to or rely on my body to carry me through the run of a faire without crapping out on me.

In the immortal words of William Shakespeare, "Exit stage left, pursued by bear."

What's next?

I needed something to allow me to keep doing the stuff I love, but also to take my time about it. To be able to entertain and interact as I always have, but at a rate and level that will accept whatever is happening to me at that moment. And I also wanted the flexibility to take my inner Davinci out and take him for a walk.

I toyed with the idea of doing a potter or carpenter/joiner sort of thing, but those involved hauling too much crap out of the faire every weekend. But I still wanted to do something artistic, or at least artisinal. Something that incorporated all the stuff I really love to do...

Enter the Village Toymaker.

Forget Davinci, I'm about to let my inner Jim Henson out to play.

How it impacts this blog...

This is to your benefit, dear reader, because this blog is about to get active again. The next series of posts (beginning with the long-promised leather-working tutorials, I promise) will be about creating the toys and oddments that will sell the role of toymaker to the crowds.

I need to make shoes, toy drums, little leather masks, and a boatload of period encampment stuff that I've never really worried about because Calabash was a mobile character. He didn't need a work table, a leather bottel, or a marionette...

Well, maybe the marionette.

So coming soon will be costuming for me and for dolls. (Shoemaking post coming soon!) Discussions of period toys, marionettes, and the clothing of the merchant and artisan class of the renaissance.

I hope you will join me.


12 July 2011


Technically, I'm no longer a member of a guild at WMRF, in the parlance of this particular faire, I'm an  independent player. However; I still retain close ties with the guild I helped create, Hearth of Saint Brigid, and when they need set pieces or camp furniture, I'm always happy to help out.

For myriad reasons, this year they were facing the unpleasant choice of either bringing modern chairs and trying to disguise them or sitting on the ground. As an alternative, I offered to make them a pair of long benches and to take apart a table they already had to make it usable as a dining table. In the end, we decided the old table was far too heavy to do anything with (the previous carpenter was a bit too enthusiastic about heavy materials) and that two 8-foot benches would be less useful than four 4-foot benches.

There are a number of period images depicting people sitting on simple "five board benches" and the inestimable Karen Larsdatter has cataloged most of them (at least the ones available on the internet).  I had my pick of designs to choose from.

Five board benches are a standard of basic carpentry, so I was confident that they would knock together fairly quickly.

Since these would see heavy use and be used primarily outside, it was requested that I make them sturdy, so rather than the more typical 1X lumber, I chose to make them out of 2X stud lumber. This meant a bit more work to shape them, but the end result is a very sturdy piece of camp furniture that will weather any storm or any butt that comes along.

These are doweled together with hardwood dowels and once the trestles are complete, they will be stained a dark brown to make them look a bit more appropriate to the setting.  The tabletop will be given a matte polyurethane finish since it will be an eating and food-prep surface and the rest will be sealed with an eye toward minimizing shine.

This has been fun for me, if for no other reason than the fact that I've never tried to make a matched set of anything before. At least not out of wood. As is the case when trying to throw a set of mugs or goblets, getting them all to match without making them so plain as to be forgettable is the challenge here.

More pics when I have them stained and paired up with the new table.

11 July 2011

Art, Ideas, and the Approaching Flood

Most of the things which delineate between "art" and "craft" is a judgement of the results, rather than the creation of them. In the end, it boils down to this: Craft is useful and art has no function. Nevertheless, all acts of creation are essentially the same.

I've said before that I view writing, painting, sculpture, sewing and carpentry as different faces of the same mental process.  Somewhere in the great echoing catacombs of my brain is a largish room that is crowded with ideas, each shouting to be heard above the din. Each of them carries a notebook or a roll of plans that they are waving in the air, hoping to be noticed, hoping to be next, striving to be realized.  Because an idea unrealized is a wan., pathetic thing indeed. And to go unrealized until it is forgotten entirely is a fate worse than death.

I can write or sculpt or paint with equal amounts of training and love.  But just as writing a story is to execute a painting in the reader's mind, sewing a jacket or blocking a hat is to execute a sculpture in cloth. The only difference is the usefulness of the results.

In truth, they are all ideas realized, one voice in the din that falls silent because it has retired to make room for the next.

I was reflecting on this recently when a back injury laid me up for three months, forcing the conference of clamoring ideas to wait until  I could do something about them. Notebooks were filled, stories scribbled, and deadlines pushed back as I tottered around with my cane and wished I lived in the future we all dreamed about when I was a kid, the one where malfunctioning bits would be replaced with shiny titanium and whirring servos.

Last week, the back problems evaporated. All of a sudden, it was as if they had never happened.  Back injuries, their causes and cures, are some of the great mysteries of medical science. I don't know about you, but I'm personally keeping a list in case God ever asks my opinion when the human race comes up for a design overhaul. I have a great deal to say on the subject of spines, knees and shoulders.

And now all of the ideas are shouting again, demanding to be heard at once.

So get ready for the flood as I try to keep up with documenting all of these projects and try desperately not to screw them up just because more ideas are jostling in the queue behind it. That's is where my viewing these things as art comes in handy. If there's one thing art school taught me, it's how to ignore the next idea and focus on the one in front of me.

I hope...