Monday, March 31, 2014

Leather Pyrography

I've been having fun using pyrography tools to do some leather burning lately!  Leather burning is incredible.  It feels more like painting and drawing than it does any other kind of leatherworking.  Leather tooling is a very slow process, and this is downright speedy.  That level of speed also calls for high levels of control - one bad moment with the tool tip and your piece is ruined.  Still, it's an amazing process, and I'm very excited to play around with it.

I started with a basic soldering iron for my first few pieces.  It was slow going, but it worked well.  For my birthday, I got a beautiful professional pyrography tool with adjustable heat and tips.  All of the items in this post were made with the soldering iron - I'll post my exploration with my pyrography tool on another day.

First is a bookmark I made!  This is on veg-tanned leather, undyed.  I don't remember how long it took, but under a half hour.  Just think how long it would take to do a similar thing with tooling...

Next I made four small items for friends.  The top two are the Japanese names of two friends' SCA names.  Then there's a Triforce from Zelda, and a Big damn heroes, sir keychain (this is a quote from Firefly, one of the best television shows ever made).  I burned the edges of the pieces to give them a beautiful, colored edge.  You can see the error I made in the Triforce at the bottom of it - a big black mark from where I accidentally placed the tool tip wrong for a second.

These are also all made from veg-tanned leather.  Leather burning does smell a little while it's being worked, but the smell fades from the items within a day or two.  The color variation on these items are from oiling the pieces after I finished.  They are undyed.

I was curious if non-veg-tanned leather could be decorated with pyrography, so I tried it.  The results were very, very different.

The leather burns, yes, but it immediately curls up around the hot tip of the tool.  It's fascinating.  

The curls stay in the leather, too - I can pull on them to open it, but then it springs back into a curl when I let it go.

I am very interested in playing with this to deliberately create 3D curves with non-veg-tanned leather.  I don't know of any other way, short of sewing, that non-veg-tanned leather can be made to hold a different shape than flopping around.  It doesn't take leather tooling, hardening, or shaping the way that veg-tanned leather does.  This might be a way to get shapes out of this kind of leather, by playing with burning it for different amounts of time at different angles.

Finally, you can burn designs into non-veg-tanned leather, but you have to be fairly quick about it - leave the heat too long, and the leather starts to curl up.  Here is where I burned my maker's mark (L8 for Level 8 Craftling) into a scrap of leather.  I'm planning to burn this mark onto all the pieces I make from now on.

Let the pyrography adventures begin!!!  ~Kelly
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Conditioning Sweat-Stiffened Leather

A problem with fencing gloves is that we sweat in them, and leather doesn't like that at all.  Over time, leather fencing gloves will get really stiff and uncomfortable to wear.  If you ever have leather that gets like this - don't give up on it yet!  In order to clean sweat-stiffened leather, do this:
  1. Soak the leather in a tub of water.  Part of the problem is that the leather has been soaked in sweat, which is salty.  You want to get the salt out of the leather before you recondition it.  I usually leave the leather gloves soaking in my sink for several hours/overnight.
  2. Let the leather completely air dry.  The leather might actually feel even stiffer after this step - don't panic!  The leather might just have lost even more of the oils that keep it soft.  Don't worry about this, because step three is...
  3. Oil the leather thoroughly, only on the skin side (the smooth side, not the flesh side, which is like suede - don't oil suede!).  There are lots of debates that I've heard on leather oils.  Here are my thoughts:
    • Don't use any oils that have silicone in them.  I've heard it will degrade leather over time, and I don't have any reason to believe it won't (doesn't sound like something that should be in leather).
    • I use neatsfoot oil (which is made from the shin bones and feet of cows - using more of the animal!) and mink oil as my conditioners when I oil leather, making sure they are silicone-free (I buy them from Fiebings).  Mink oil is solid at room temperature (like a paste), while neatsfoot oil is liquid.  I use mink oil on my leather boots in winter (thicker oil to repel the snow and make them extra waterproof), and generally neatsfoot oil on things that don't need to be as waterproof.
    • Some people say that animal oil products will degrade leather over time as they will go rancid, and swear by vegetable oils or "specially made for leather conditioning" products, which never tell you what is in them.  Vegetables go bad just like meat goes bad, so I don't understand why vegetable-based products are better for leather (which is animal hide, anyway).  And I'd rather use something that I know the ingredients of, than something I don't.  Finally, neatsfoot oil has been used as a leather conditioner for centuries (it is SCA period).
    • Take all of this with the giant grain of salt that I have done absolutely no testing on any of this - it's the kind of thing where I'd have to try and do some comparison testing over decades of use, and I'm not about to do that (and I've never seen it done, either).  This is all very hand-wavy, so use whatever you think is best, because in all honesty I really don't know what's best for leather.  There doesn't seem to be any really good information out about this, and none of my opinions here are based on any solid evidence.  If someone has evidence-based information on this, please share!
  4. Let the leather dry for a day.
  5. If the leather is still stiff, oil the leather thoroughly again, and let dry for another day.
  6. If you don't see an improvement by now, the leather might be toast.  Otherwise, repeat #5 until the leather is really soft again!
I just reconditioned a pair of gloves that I thought might be goners.  They were so stiff that they were highly uncomfortable to wear; they scraped my hands and crackled and pinched when I tried to make a fist in them.  It took two thorough oilings, and they feel pretty darn soft now - not as soft as butter, like some leather is, but definitely comfortable to wear.  They were in the loaner fencing gear for my local group, and had seen a lot of sweat and no repairing for a long time.  Now they are ready to be used again!  I'm amazed at how well this works.

I've also done this on my own fencing gloves several times, pictured above.  I made my own fencing gloves from leather scraps 3 years ago - they are the first piece of fencing gear I made!  I adore my gloves.  They fit so well that it takes me a minute to wiggle them off after I've been fencing, because the sweat makes them stick to my hands.  About once a year, my gloves get noticeably stiffer and uncomfortable.  I follow the above steps to desalinate and re-oil my gloves, and then they return to being super duper soft again every time.

So don't give up on old leather yet!  Hope that helps.  ~Kelly/Birke
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Tanning a Deer Hide: Part 1

First off, I have to say this - Mom, happy birthday!  I love you!  Now, you might not want to read this post, but go ahead if you're interested.  :)

Warning: the pictures in this post are very graphic.  If you don't want to see pictures of a bloody deer hide, don't continue reading!  :)

Last November, DeForest's brother-in-law hunted a couple deer for his family, and gave me the hides to try tanning!  My initial reaction was holy cow, yes, but what if I destroy them?  I don't know what I'm doing here, after all.  But apparently deer processing plants don't pay very much for unprocessed deer pelts - last year, they were paying $4 each.  So it didn't matter if I destroyed the hides, because $8 wasn't much for him to lose.  So exciting!

The hides were well-salted and folded with the skin-side in (fur out), so that the skin wouldn't dry out and harden before tanning could occur.  They were then put into a big cooler of mine and put into my shed for the winter, since I didn't have tanning supplies yet.  This past week, I started the tanning process, and I took pictures as I did it.

Here is a picture of the second hide, still folded up in the cooler.  I was really worried that the hides would have started to smell over the winter, but surprisingly they didn't - the salt and cold weather did a good job of preserving it.  It did smell like wet dog, but that's not too bad.

The main instructions I'm following were posted on a forum at Connecticut Hunting and Shooting.  I'm going to quote the steps as I go, here.
First, give that hide a wash. Even if its been skinned perfectly it will still have an animal reek to it, and that will get stronger as the hide ages. If you can't put it in the bath, get it on the lawn and shampoo and rinse both sides thoroughly. Hang it up to drain until you can handle it easily. This stage will make you much happier to get good and close to the hide in the next stage!
I actually forgot to re-read the steps before starting the process, and didn't wash it with soap.  It still smells faintly like wet dog, but I will wash it again near the end of the process, so hopefully this won't matter much.  I did do all my skinning the bath, though, so it got well rinsed.

Above, you can see the start of the process.  Some of the hair fell out of the hide, especially around the edges.  The water is starting to change color with the bits of blood that remain.  One of the chunks of fat was cut off of it and set on the side of the tub.
Two: The hide may well still have small scraps of flesh, or a whitish membrane with tiny blood vessels in it adhering to the skin. You MUST get as much of this off the hide as possible before curing it. The easiest way seems to be to use a section of log or similar as a support, stretching the hide hair down around it, and working over small sections of the skin side at a time, picking or scraping off the bits to leave a smooth surface underneath. You will find that the membrane will pull away in sections if you work at it patiently. Do your best to clean up the hide properly, but if you really have a small stubborn bit, don't panic, you will have another chance to scrape it once its been in the pickle- but you need almost all the skin clean for the stuff to work properly. If you are lucky, a hide sometimes needs hardly any work at all, but have a good scrape at it anyway just in case you haven't spotted the membrane.
I'm not sure I actually saw this membrane and got it off.  I did do a lot of scraping with the knife blade to get off all the bits of fat and muscle that were remaining from the butchering.

This process took me over 3 hours to scrape the hide clean (I had my laptop set up and playing Vlogbrothers videos the entire time).  You can see the water getting really bloody as time goes on.  I didn't have a log that I scraped the hide over (it's still really cold outside right now), and so I used my hand.  Below, you can see how I gripped the hide so that I could push against my rolled knuckles with the knife.  It worked pretty well.
Yes, I am in the tub with the pelt.  This was a very messy process.
Three: Make up your solution. In the big bucket mix salt, alum and water in a ratio of roughly 1 gallon water, 1 kilo salt and 100g alum until you have enough to just submerge the skin. Tip the skin in, and splunge it around a bit to get the salt into all the areas. Put the lid on and stand the bin somewhere reasonably cool. If the hide is clean, there will be no smell at all from the bin, so don't worry about distressing the neighbours at this stage!
I used all the rough salt I had (8 lbs, or 3.6 kg) and one bag of alum (1 lb, or 454 g) in about five gallons of water.  So my pickle is a little weaker than the one called for.

Below is the plastic tub I'm using to tan the hide.  I'm several days into the process, and it still smells faintly like wet dog when I open the tub, but nothing more than that.  My house smells normal when I return to it after being away for a while.

Four: Splunge the hide every day or two , making sure you turn it over and giving the solution a chance to work. It needs at least two weeks, but after a week or so you can pretty much ignore the bucket until you are ready to continue.
Other sources about tanning say to mix twice a day for two weeks, and then it's finished.  I'm mostly doing it twice a day (one day I only mixed it once).  I started by stirring the hide by using a stick, but I found that I splashed myself doing that - I'd rather not splash myself with tanning solution, even if it is the mildest form of tanning.  Instead, I put on disposable nitrile gloves and mix it by hand.

The underside seems like it's getting tougher, and you can see how it still has some of the membrane on it.  I'm currently debating whether I want to take it out and scrape it again in the middle of the process, or if I want to wait until the end to give it a final scraping.  Later instructions say that more membrane will come off in the final scraping.  I'm leaning towards waiting.  If worst comes to worst, I can always put it back in a tanning solution again later.

Here you can see where some parts of the hide lost the hair.  I'm really interested to see how the hair part vs. de-haired parts compare.

That's where I am now!  I'll continue with the rest of the process when it's finished in a couple weeks.  I'm excited to see how this turns out.  ~Kelly
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Thursday, March 20, 2014


I've been playing Minecraft since August of 2010 - since it was in alpha (first testing mode).  I adore this game.  What is Minecraft, you ask?  Well, it's essentially Legos, on your computer, with the mystery and excitement of exploring as the world randomly generates around you.  You have to harvest all the blocks you want to use, and then you BUILD ALL THE THINGS.  It's also like Knex in that you can use "redstone" to build electrical circuits to power devices in the world - I've made working showers inside my lodge (flip a switch and water pours out), a portcullis that raises and lowers at the touch of a button, and more.  One of the most brilliant things about this game, too, is that there are monsters that you can toggle the difficulty of on and off at any time.  I usually play on "peaceful" mode - with the monsters turned off - but if I decide I want to build some armor and be wary of my surroundings for a different kind of game, I can turn the monsters immediately back on.  The game also continually comes out with updates.  Mojang (the indie game company that started with Minecraft) is still adding to it!  The game has changed drastically since I started playing.

I tend to play obsessively for a couple weeks or months, and then not play for several months (lurking around the SubReddit for ideas).  Unlike anyone else I've spoken to, I've essentially played in the same world since starting.  My world is called "World2" - it's the second world I ever launched in Minecraft, 3.5 years ago.  Every time I give someone a tour (which takes at least a half hour now), I get amazement.  :)  I've never actually posted any pictures of my builds, though.  This is going to change, starting with this overview post.

As you might expect, World2 is huge.  I've played "vanilla Minecraft" since starting - that is, without any mods.  Mojang allows the gaming community to make mods that change game play (lets players fly, or adds tons of different blocks, etc - no limit to the imagination of mod creators), but I've never played with any of them.  My joy in Minecraft is being able to say that I have built it all myself, block by block, mining all the resources and doing it the long way.

There are a couple exceptions to this.  The first is obvious from the image above - I love using map-makers.   It makes it easier to design minecart travel systems through the Nether (an alternate dimension in Minecraft that is quicker to travel through) when I can count distance by mapping my world, and also means I can find where I am if I get lost exploring.  The Minecraft Wiki has a lovely synopsis of Mappers.  The one I'm currently using is MCAMAP.  I still miss Cartograph G - if anyone out there wants to update that so it's compatible with the current Minecraft updates, I would be so happy with you!  

The second big exception involves the island with the box labeled #2 on it in the picture above.  I didn't decide that I only wanted to play in one world until the beginning of 2012.  I had built almost all of my best work in World2, but I had this lovely island with a lighthouse, several houses, and a mob grinder on it in another world.  I used MC Edit to drop that island into the middle of the open ocean in World2.

Other than that, I have not edited my world at all, though this might change soon.  That entire bottom section of the map covered in ocean (below #2)?  That was all to find a Mooshroom Island - block #5.  I found it at the end of 2011 after spending several very boring days traversing back and forth over the ocean.  Now, though, there are a lot more biomes in Minecraft, and I want to be able to explore to find them, and all that ocean is really boring and taking up data space.  I am contemplating cutting off the entire bottom half of the map with MC Edit (or similar program) so I can explore the new biomes more.  Plus, I just found another Mooshroom Island (circled, with a star pointing to it, on the left side of the map) a couple days ago.  This one is much closer to everything else.  Before I do this, though, I want to document the giant minecart system I made to get to that Island, so it probably won't be destroyed until I finish writing up posts about it here.

Let the Minecraft posts begin!  ~Kelly
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Monday, March 17, 2014

Handkerchiefs Are Freakin' Fantastic

Handkerchiefs get a really bad rap.  I understand why, because I used to think the exact same thing everyone does in our culture.  Just, ew, right?  You blow your nose into a piece of cloth... and then you're supposed to blow your nose into this goopy cloth again?  Ick.  Gross.

But this reaction is dead wrong.  And it's impossible to really know how wrong it is until you actually try to use hankies yourself.  When all you've experienced with blowing your nose is the goopy wet mess of the tissue right after you've used it, how could you know anything else?  I had a couple friends try to get me to use hankies for years, telling me that they were wonderful, and I never believed them.  I always had this visceral shudder roll through me at the idea.  It wasn't until I was living with someone who used them (and let me borrow one when we didn't have any tissues in the house) that I realized how awesome handkerchiefs really are.

The key piece of missing information is this: snot is mostly made of water, and that water evaporates quickly from a hankie (within a few hours).  If I blow my nose in a hankie and then go to use it a few hours later, I usually just give it a quick snap with my wrist to unfold the hankie completely, and it's often hard to tell that it was used at all.  Slowly, it's true, there will be a residue left (either a thin dry film or small hard knots where boogers have dried), but that's the point where you just throw that hankie in the laundry and grab another one.  It really is astonishing just how not-gross the hankies are for quite a long time with repeated use.  Another tip for non-icky hankie use: fold over a couple inches of the top of the hankie, and then blow your nose into the double layer of fabric.

Reasons to use hankies:
  • Environmental friendliness: we add so much to landfills all the time, and so much of it is completely unnecessary - like using disposable tissues instead of hankies.
  • Hankies are small and take up essentially no room in the laundry.  Very easy to clean.
  • $$$ - you don't have to spend money on tissues once you have a good stock of hankies!
  • Ease of use - I often will stash a handkerchief in my purse, in various craft project bags, on the edge of various tables around the house, in the pockets of my coats... pretty much all over the place.  I no longer have boxes of tissues taking up horizontal real estate on my tables, or have those crinkly-sounding little plastic-covered portable things of tissues in my bags (ugh, the crinkle of plastic is so annoying).
  • Easier on your nose: if you have hankies that are sufficiently soft, they are nicer on your nose than tissues are.
Speaking of making sure your hankies are sufficiently soft: the source of your handkerchiefs is very important.  If you buy them new from the store, they will most likely be stiff - those ones are not easier on your nose than tissues.  In fact, I'm betting if you tried those ones, you'd be cursing my name and calling me a liar, because they can be quite uncomfortable at first.  One solution is simply to wait it out with time and wash them a lot until they soften, but that can take a loooong time and be uncomfortable in the meantime.  Instead, I recommend these methods of obtaining soft hankies:
  • Buying second hand!  I adore second hand things, and while at first it might seem squicky to buy used hankies, you'll find that they are thoroughly washed and not icky at all.  I've found some at garage sales, it's true, but my favorite place is the Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop.  They have an entire section for both cloth napkins and handkerchiefs, and whenever I'm there I comb through them to find the softest hankies I can.  Used handkerchiefs are always better than new ones, because they are already softened for you!  Check thrift stores that have linens sections for soft hankies.
  • Make them yourself out of some old flannel or other soft, breathable material, like I'll show you below.
One caveat with using hankies: when you are actually ill and need to blow your nose constantly, you have to have a lot of hankies in order to make it not be really gross.  I find that when I have a bad cold, I probably need at least five hankies, if not something more like ten, in order to have the first hankie be dry enough to use when I need it again.  So if you're just starting your hankie collection, don't have enough clean hankies when you get sick, or you have new hankies that haven't softened enough yet (stiff hankies will hurt your nose if you use them constantly during a cold, just like tissues will eventually hurt your nose with repeated use), you might need to buy a box of tissues to get through being sick.  I did that for a while, until I discovered that the PTO shop had soft hankies that I could stock up on.  Now, of course, I realize just how easy they are to make myself, so I doubt it will ever be a problem again.

On to making hankies: it's really easy!  I just made twelve handkerchiefs.  DeForest had an old, well-used, very soft flannel pillowcase that had a couple holes worn in it.  I don't remember what he was going to do with it - it was sitting on his project shelf in the craft room, waiting to be made into something.  I looked at it a few days ago, and thought it would make great hankies (another friend of mine makes her hankies out of old flannel).

Artistic angled photo, ooo...

I didn't have a set size I was aiming for - just kind of cut it up into whatever sizes fit around the holes.  I'm actually curious as to which sizes I will like best.  The hankies I have picked up from thrift shops have ranged from roughly a square foot to a square... maybe eight inches?  (I'm not going to go measure - this is ballparking it from memory.)  

12 hankies, spread out on the floor!

After cutting the pieces into rectangles on my cutting mat, I used the iron to turn the edges over twice and pinned them.  I just turned them over the smallest amount I could comfortably do, which was about a quarter inch each turn.  I then sewed the edges up with a simple straight stitch, and ironed them again.  Bam, nicely hemmed edges.

Backside of one of the hankies, so you can see the hemmed edge.

I hope I've convinced a few more people just how easy and wonderful it is to use hankies.  The disposable paper hygiene industry (paper towels, paper napkins, tissues) is completely unnecessary in most situations and is incredibly wasteful.  When I switched over to using cloth towels, napkins, and hankies, my trash reduced dramatically.  More on cloth towels and napkins another day, I think.  :)  Happy hankie using!  ~Kelly
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Friday, March 14, 2014

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

A friend recently put this on Facebook, and I thought it was a great question. At first my answer was just "high end leatherworking projects," but after another friend elaborated, I rambled on with a longer answer. At the moment it seems to sum up a lot of my dreams, so I thought I would post it here (both so I can remember it and because I find it interesting to see what other people's dreams are).
I would make things all the time. I would be a part time stay at home mom to one kid. I would make clothes and leather goods and whatever art strikes my fancy. I would be heavily involved in hackerspaces, sci-fi/gaming cons, and the SCA (already mostly true, but even more so). I would design my own lovely little home, just outside of Ann Arbor, that includes things like a barn with a huge crafting area with a forge, woodshop, medieval oven, etc. I would raise rabbits for meat and fur, and learn how to make things with all parts of an animal and do all parts of that process humanely. In my perfect world, my home would have several little houses in it, where people I liked and respected also lived and added to the little commune, with the crafting barn and forge being communal space to do collaborative art and learning. They would add things to our space (be that gardening, or raising goats, as one friend wants to do, or something else), and we could share childrearing duties and have weekly board game nights. I would have a small, part time gig (10-20 hours a week) doing something with science, be that research, STEM outreach and education, science writing, or political outreach to make things more scientifically accurate in politics (something that would use my engineering/science knowledge for good in our country). I think this is edging over into "knew I could not fail AND somehow had a couple million dollars to build my dream space." But this is a lot of the thoughts swirling around in my head over the past couple years. I want a slow paced, nerdy life in the quiet countryside near my favorite city, where I can get enough sleep and do my art and science and have my community come surround me.
What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Leather Tooling Basics

Here are my notes so far on the basics of leather tooling (making impressions into leather).  I'm going to be teaching a class at Northwoods Community College, which is an SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) event next month.  Interested in attending an event near Michigan/Illinois/Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio?  Check out the Middle Kingdom's Event Calendar!

Leather Tooling Basics
  • Draw a design on paper.
  • Get your leather piece: vegetable tanned leather only!  This won’t work on leather tanned other ways.
  • Wet your leather.  Each of the methods below works, but the longer ones work better - you get deeper impressions in the leather.  The leather will darken as it gets wet.
    • Spritzing/wetting surface with water: super quick cheating method
    • Short soaking: hold the leather underwater for a little while - maybe 20 seconds or so - until bubbles come out from the edges.  Water will have started to soak through the leather, and the leather will become floppy.
    • Long soaking: First, follow short soaking method.  Then place leather in a container with about an inch or two of standing water in the bottom of the container, with the leather raised above the water.  Leave it in this closed container for at least 4 hours.  This will give the fibers in the leather time to fully swell in the damp environment.
  • Once your leather is wet, handle it with care.  If you scrape your fingernails on the surface or otherwise ding it, those marks will be permanent (though you may be able to cover them up with background tooling).
  • Impress your design by tracing through your paper with an inkless pen/pencil/blunt awl.  Before placing the paper design on the leather, wipe off excess water.  Your leather should be damp, but not have water beading on the surface.  As you trace your design, carefully lift one edge of the paper to check that your design is deep enough to see.  If not, press harder when tracing.
  • Cut your design with the swivel knife.  Rest your index finger in the top U cradle.  Grip the textured area with your thumb and middle finger.  Apply downward pressure with your index finger, keeping the knife upright.  Change direction by rolling the blade between your thumb and middle finger.  Try not to tip the blade from side to side.
  • Use bevelers to raise one edge/stamp down the other.  Put your leather on a hard tooling surface (you want the impact to go into the leather, not the surface below).  Place tip in the groove cut by the swivel knife, with the butt of the beveler on the side that will be pressed down.  Tap the top of the beveler with a mallet.
    • Do the lines in the correct order - with the "lower" edges first wherever two lines meet.
    • There are differently sized/shaped belevers for different amounts of raising/lowering, and for tooling different spots, like tight corners.
  • Use background stamps to stamp the background even.  There are smooth background stamps, straight lines, cross-hatched lines, small circles, and random pebbled designs.
  • Use specialty stamps to make patterns in the leather.
  • As you work, you will need to periodically re-wet the leather, especially if you notice the leather getting lighter (drying).  Spray the top of the leather or wet it with a damp cloth.  As long as the leather soaks up the water, you can add more water.  If water starts to bead on the surface, wipe it off - it's wet enough.
  • Note:  Leather that has been wet (and then dried) will dye differently than the same leather that has not been wet at all.  The leather will have lost some of its oils.  So if you plan on dying multiple pieces the same color, but are only tooling on one section - wet them all the same amount anyway.
  • Paper/pencil for making design
  • Water source: spray bottle or a rag to wet the leather with + bowl of water.  Also, container for the long soaking method, if you're using that one.  I use a big plastic tub with a baking cooling rack set inside (to keep the leather out of the water).  Professionals often have a special wood container that has space for water beneath and a wood rack above for resting the wet leather on.
  • Swivel knife
  • Stamps: beveler(s), background, specialty
  • Veg-tanned leather
  • Hard surface to tool on
  • Mallet
My current plan is to have a very simple design drawn on paper (maybe a star or something) for people to try tooling, along with scraps of leather (pre-wetted) for them to try this with.  I have about five sets of tools for people to try doing this, and other people can watch.  Students will get to keep their scrap of leather, but not the tools.  It's going to be a one hour class.  We'll see how it goes!  It may ideally need to have a different length, but this is my first time teaching this class (first time teaching in SCA was at Pentamere Academy of Defense last month).  Not only that, but I'm teaching two classes (both new!) that day.  I'm keeping them both to one hour, because I want to do some other things that day.

It just occurred to me: because of this class, I now have (almost) full sets of leather tooling tools for others to borrow.  (I need to go get a few cheap mallets, and then I should be golden.)  That would probably make it easy to do leather tooling at an Artisan's Row at a future event... intriguing.  I wonder if my weaving/Japanese braiding friends would mind having the noise of leatherworking going on next to them, so I could sit next to them at Artisan's Row and just hang out and craft... I need to think about this (and how it would conflict with fencing, etc).

Yay, teaching!  I still remember being taught tooling after fencing practice a few years ago, and how amazing it was that someone would just bring their tools and teach me how to do something so awesome.  I'm looking forward to spreading that joy further.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Making/Refashioning Tank Tops

Here are a few of the shirts I've made or altered!  One of the coolest things I realized a couple weeks ago is that I'm wearing something that I made or altered almost every single day.  This trend will likely slow down a bit in summer, when I'm layering less, but it's still really, really neat.  In addition to posting about new projects I'm doing, I'm hoping to go back through my clothing and take pictures of things I've already made to share.  :)  Here is the start of doing just that!  

This first one is made from one of DeForest's tshirts.  I frequently make clothing out of clothes that I get from thrift stores.  When DeForest passed, I knew that I would probably eventually be re-making most of his clothes into things I could use, as it's what I do.  So my stash of thrift store clothing to be re-made has largely been donated back to thrift stores, as I have a large stash of DeForest clothes to make things out of now.

I really need to make myself a tank top pattern that I like, since my tank top making has been really hit-and-miss as to whether things fit exactly how I want them to fit.  The neckline is not my favorite on this shirt.  The cool part of this shirt was actually a happy accident, though, like a lot of my more innovative clothing.  When I originally cut this out, I didn't stop and try it on before cutting (always always a mistake!!!), and it was waaaaay too tight.  I didn't stop to think that the tank top I had measured this one against was a stretchy ribbed knit, and this was much-less-stretchy tshirt cotton.

So I cut a slit up one side of the shirt and couldn't figure out what I wanted to do with it.  Like a lot of my projects, I put it on a shelf, figuring I would have a Eureka! moment later.  And I did!  When I saw a post online for a tshirt with a basketweave front, I knew I wanted to do something similar on the gap in this shirt.  So I cut up another shirt that matched well into a bunch of strips of varying lengths and widths, and wove them together, pinning it like crazy.  Then I sewed down all the edges (that took a while).  Once I had a workable block of woven strips, I put the shirt on my dressform and pinned it to the shirt.  This time I made sure I tried the shirt on before sewing, too!

Besides the wonky neckline, I'm really happy with how that tank top turned out.  If you ever make a big mistake in a sewing project, don't give up immediately!  Put the project to the side and let it percolate in the back of your mind for a while.  Something might come to you!  And if it doesn't, you can always recycle/donate the fabric later.

This next shirt/tunic/very short dress I didn't make myself.  It's one of the few new items of clothing I've purchased in the past few years (most of my new clothes I make, nowadays).  

But it was originally a lot looser than I wanted (not pictured), so I altered it!  I set a bunch of grommets in the back, and used a piece of leather I had to lace it up.  Also, the leather ties in the middle of the straps were a mending job - those used to be little plastic circles holding the straps to the back of the dress, but one broke last year.  When it broke, I just replaced both circles with bits of leather to match the lacing in the back.  I love this shirt and wear it all the time.  It's a fun length in winter for layering, and goes perfect with a pair of thin leggings in the summer.

The last shirt I'm showing off today is one of my favorites!  This also was a happy accident moment.  I picked up a striped turtleneck at a garage sale because I loved the fabric (and it was something like $2), planning to just cut the neckline and armholes to make it into a simple tanktop.  But when I did that, it was super short.  I like my shirts to come down a couple inches over the top of my pants, as I don't feel like I have to tug down my clothing as I move around.  This shirt was barely riding the top of my pants.  Not okay.  So I played with it for a while, and this is eventually what I came up with!

The fabric that originally made the bottom half of the shirt became a fun asymmetrical triangle!

And there's a pocketses!  Love pockets!  The black is a thin knit fabric I had around, leftover from making a black pair of leggings.

Lessons from making tank tops:

  • Don't cut before I try it on!  Jeez, I should know better than this by now, the number of times this has caused problems.
  • If there's a problem, simply try different things.  If nothing inspires me, wait.  Something will come up on a blog post or Pinterest to spark my interest in solving the problem, and it will often be better in the end.
  • I really need to make a stock tank top pattern for tshirt material, as I want to make a lot of DeForest's clothes into some tank top dresses.  I love dresses, and I love tanks, as they help me not overheat (and aid in the fun layering of outfits!).
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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Gourmet Pop Review 1

I love gourmet pop.  You know all the people who love to try all the different local microbrews or brew their own beer or go wine tasting?  Well, I'm like that, but with pop.  I haven't started brewing my own yet, but I have a book on it and it's on the list of projects.

I've tried a fair number of different birch beers, ginger beers, root beers, and more (all non-alcoholic, if that's not clear).  A lot of the time, though, I've forgotten exactly which ones I have tried, and my opinions of them.  So I decided that I would start blogging about the ones I try, and review them.  That way I will be able to look these up later, and spread my love of gourmet pop at the same time.

Here are the two places I currently get my new gourmet pops to try on a regular basis:
  • World Market: This is a chain store, but it's such a fun place.  They have quirky furniture and kitchen supplies, along with amazing food from all over the world.  I go here to get the best chocolate bars I've ever had (Maple Bacon from chuao and Alpine Milk from Milka, currently).  They also have an extensive selection of gourmet pop.  
  • Cravings Gourmet Popcorn:  This is a fantastic mom-and-pop store in Lansing, Michigan.  If you have the ability to go here, go.  They make their own gourmet popcorn, and it is unlike any popcorn I've ever had before.  It ranges from classics like their Premium Signature Gold, which is a mixture of kettle corn and caramel corn, to really unique flavors like Dill Pickle Popcorn.  They also stock tons of gourmet pop.  Yum!
Both of these places are dangerous for my wallet.  I never leave World Market without having spent at least $30, and Cravings isn't much safer.  But they are both so delicious that it's worth the occasional treat, and I highly recommend them.  :)  I also love picking up random ones I find when I come across them in unexpected places.

I'm starting with the four I just purchased last week.

Plantation Style Mint Julep:  This one was new for me (which is why it's empty in the picture - I drank it first!).  The liquid was originally a light turquoise color.  My reaction from one sip: it tastes like the mint in toothpaste.  Which is not my favorite flavor of mint.  Matt finished drinking the rest of it, and his main response was "it doesn't taste like a beverage."  So this one wasn't a hit.  If you love the minty flavor of toothpaste, though, this might be for you.

Bundaberg Ginger Beer:  This is my favorite ginger beer to date.  I love the burn.  It's very strong and ginger-y, but not so strong that it is painful.  I've had other ginger beers that hurt my mouth, almost like capsaicin.  I've also had other ones that are pretty weak and don't taste like much of anything.  This is neither of those things.  It is delicious.

Hippo Size Burley Birch Beer:  This might be my favorite birch beer I've ever had (it wars with another one, which I'll mention in an upcoming review).  I have a special place in my heart for anything related to birch trees, as my SCA name means birch in German (Birke), so I'm always so happy to find more birch beers to add to favorite beverages.  I'm not sure how to describe the flavor besides awesome - hints of wintergreen and that lovely birch taste that's so different and tasty.

Bundaberg Lemon Lime & Bitters:  Another wonderful beverage!  The citrus is perfectly balanced with delicious bitterness.  It's like a more nuanced version of lemonade, and I highly recommend it.

Hope you enjoyed!  ~Kelly
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Monday, March 3, 2014

Leather Coronets

Last year, I was honored to donate my leatherworking skill to my local SCA group, the Barony of Cynnabar, by making our Baron and Baroness leather coronets (they provided cost of materials; I provided labor).

Before getting into the beautiful photos that Ann took as I was making them, I want to say this: I happily take commissions!  If you are interested in having custom-made leather coronets, or any other custom leather work (including repairs), please let me know.  I will discuss the design with you, and once a design is set, the price of the piece(s).  

Here is a photo of me, working on the tooling of the elephants.  At this point, the outline would have been cut out with the swivel knife already, and I would be using a beveler to pound flat the edge on one side of each line (making the other edge stand out).  This must be done with the right size beveler for the space, and in the correct order, so that the lines overlap the way I want them to.

During tooling, I will also often set the mallet down and use the beveler to smooth out lines.  This also sometimes involves using it to gently re-lift some of the lines that have been pounded more flat by the overlapping lines (where one part of the elephant goes over another part - at the point where two lines meet, the one tooled first will get pressed down when the second line is tooled).  

Here is the elephant when the outline has been cut by the swivel knife.  Before this, my pattern (I drew the elephant on a piece of paper) is laid over the leather, and the lines pressed into the leather with a pencil or pen with no ink in it.  Then, I go over the lines with my swivel knife, cutting a groove into the leather.  This is all done on wet leather.  Wet leather swells and softens, which means that all impressions/cuts go deeper and look better on the finished piece (they stand out more).  This picture is taken when the leather had already dried, I believe (the tracing and cutting done on a previous day).

Next, the lines are all tooled with various bevelers.  A beveler is a tool that is like a tiny wedge.  I put the tip of the wedge in facing the side that will stay lifted, so the butt of the wedge will press down the other side when the belever is tapped with a mallet.  All tooling is also done on a very hard surface - I have a hard plastic tooling square that all my tooling is done on.  This way, all of the force goes directly into the leather, shaping it, instead of being absorbed by whatever soft material is underneath the leather.

There are six elephants on the coronet (underneath the six points on the coronets that landed Barons/Baronesses get).  If you think that the elephant above is not the same as the elephants below, you are correct.  I took pictures of the different elephants as they were in different stages of the tooling at the time.

Below is the tooled elephant once it has dried.  Now, you can see a little the lines where the beveler was hit (the little lines perpendicular to the cuts, on the impressed side).  I did smooth them out some with my beveler by hand.  These can be gotten rid of in two ways:  Either by tooling the groove over and over very carefully to try and blend out the line perfectly (difficult to do, but will probably become easier for me as I get more practice at is), or use a background tool to completely pound down the background and fill it with random noise (cross-hatches, dots, little lines, etc) so that these lines aren't noticeable.  

I did do some of the first method, but not enough to completely smooth out all the lines.  I didn't want to fill in the background completely for two reasons: it would've taken a long time, but mostly because I was trying to make the leather coronet look as much like metal as I could.  This meant that I wanted the surface to be smooth, not textured with background tooling.

Here are some pictures of the coronets completely tooled.  They have also been thoroughly soaked in water, and then dried in the oven (at 200 F with the door propped open slightly by a wooden spoon, since some of my sources on heat-hardened leather say to do it at about 170 F) laced to a flared pyrex pie pan to make it rounded and flared.  This caused the coronets to shrink slightly (expected) and darken a little.  They are also now fairly stiff to the touch and hold this shape, though they give when pressure is applied, like I wanted them to.

Then I very carefully painted them.  I used the shiniest gold paint I could find.  I cut a shallow groove behind each point and glued in a metal pin attached to a 'pearl' bead.  I glued a piece of soft leather over the pins, to both hide them and secure them more firmly.  After the painting was done, a glossy clear acrylic finish was painted over all of it to add even more to the shine of the coronets, as my goal was to try and make them look like metal at a glance.  I wanted these to look rich.

I really need to print some of these photos and start a portfolio of my work.  They are really pretty!

Project Synopsis:

Materials:  Vegetable-tanned leather, acrylic paint, non-veg-tanned leather (to hide and secure metal pins), thin metal rod, pearl beads, glue, lacing.

Tools: Rotary cutter/mat and swivel knife for cutting out the initial leather shape.  Rounding tool for making the edges smooth.  Tooling: water spray bottle, rawhide mallet, several tooling stamps (different sized bevelers, mostly), swivel knife.  Shaping: pyrex pie tin, oven, leather lacing.  Painting: tiny paint brushes for detail work, larger paint brush for gold areas.  Attaching pins: needle nose pliers to cut the metal rod and turn the end, swivel knife to cut groove for pin to rest in.

Cost:  If I remember correctly, materials cost about $40.  In reality, they probably cost a little more than that - I already had most of the paint and the tools, and I usually manage to get my leather on sale (I pay close attention to leather sales).

Hours:  Maybe 40?  I didn't count.  A lot.  About half of that went into tooling, and the other half into shaping and painting.  

What I love:  How beautiful and shiny they are.  At a glance, they almost look like metal, which was my goal.  I also love the detail work in the paint and tooling on the elephants - they look three dimensional and wonderful.

What I would change next time:  
  • Making the lacing try to look the same as the rest of it didn't work very well - the painted leather lacing just was sticky and stiff.  I would replace the lacing with something else that works better (Their Excellencies replaced it with simple white ribbon).  The coronets were also made to be adjustable (for future Baronial heads to wear) - custom coronets for a particular person could be fit to their head size.
  • Speaking of fitting to head size: these were shaped by hardening them on the edge of a glass pie pan, in order to make them rounded and have the flared slant.  This circular shape fits decently, but not perfectly.  Next time, I need to do one of two things: either pad the inside rim of the crowns so the padding is more comfortable, or get myself a mannequin head to shape the crowns on.  That would have a more appropriate oval shape, and I could hopefully build up the flared slant by adding cardboard to the mannequin head to get the shape I want.  Or I need to visit a milliner and figure out what more appropriate tools they use to get the nice head shape.  Anyone know any milliners I could learn from?
  • Use barge cement to glue down the leather around the pins.  When I made these last year, I was not familiar with what types of glue to use for leatherwork, and guessed.  I guessed wrong, and the leather was not sticking well over time, I'm told.  Now I have spoken to other leatherworkers, and found that barge cement is the glue of choice to make sure leather never becomes unglued (used by shoemakers and leather maskmakers).
That's what I know!  Please contact me if you want to commission some leatherworking, be it design work or repair work.  :)  ~Kelly/Birke
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