Shakespeare Update

Every time I come back to this blog, my first reaction is “Yikes, it’s been a long time since I’ve last updated!” So, yeah. This past year has been a hectic one in many ways, and taken a huge chunk out of my time and energy away from the research and making I’d like to do.

But the good news is that I’m finally getting back on that horse, so to speak — and thought I’d share a quick update on my Shakespeare exposure this summer.

King John — I finally went back to this after abandoning it sometime last year and finished the play. The biggest takeaway is that there are good reasons why it’s not performed, largely to do with a few plot holes and awkward transitions. But there is an interesting character in Falkenburg (?), a bastard son of Richard the Lionheart (who cares if history says Richard was gay?) whose irreverent sense of humor gets him a knighthood and position leading Eleanor’s army. He enters the story with a conflict with his brother, the second-born, legitimate son, in a dispute over the inheritance of land and title. It draws an interesting parallel with John’s claim to the throne when his elder brothers both have their own sons. There is also a lot of soliloquy given to Constance (?), the mother of Geoffrey’s son whom John kidnaps. It might be interesting to see a couple of these scenes performed, though I doubt there are that many performances out there to choose from.

Twelfth Night  — I finally saw this performed live this summer, when some friends had a spare ticket to see it at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. All in all, it was an enjoyable performance, set in the 1910s.

Hamlet — We saw this at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival as well — 1 1/2 times, in fact. The first time was canceled just after Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy” because of rain. As much as I was disappointed in the weather interference, it lent to some unique dynamics in the play itself, notably when guards complain of chill even as the actors and audience are suffocating on a very hot, humid evening, and when one of the players describes a storm just as the thunder rumbles in the distance. Outdoor performances have their dramatic advantages as much as their setbacks.

This production is also noteworthy for its casting of a woman as Hamlet, Deborah Staples. This is the first time I’ve seen any performance with a woman in this role, and she played it beautifully. She didn’t try to “butch up” the character by overtly pretending to be a man, but just played the character, channeling the spirit while everyone else used male pronouns. There were notes of outrage that I haven’t picked up in other famous portrayals that fit well with the character and reminded me of a few women I know in real life. I still haven’t seen that many productions, but I’d place this well above Kenneth Branaugh’s and Kevin Kline’s respective movie roles. David Tennant is the only other actor I’d put on this par in terms of making the character and story come alive.

One last entertaining interaction with the greater outdoors came at the very end of this show (when we saw the entire, uncanceled performance). Just after Horatio says “May flights of angels carry thee to thy rest,” a plane flew overhead. I rode home imagining that the plane was taking Hamlet to rest in Cancun. My thoughts devolved from there to imagining Hamlet on vacation in Mexico…

“Oh, that this too too pallid flesh would burn, fade, and resolve itself into a tan…”(Well, he is a Dane after all, and probably burns more easily than tans, right?)

“Alas, poor Yorick! They’ve painted his skull for Dia de los Muertos, Horatio.”

Ahem. Anyway, in other Shakespearean news, I’m rereading Taming of the Shrew, which I haven’t read since college. There’s a lot more that I’m picking up now that I’m not reading it all in a few hours the night before class. There’s still a lot of baggage I’m unpacking about gender roles in Elizabethan marriage, though it’s interesting to note the essay by Anne ___ accompanying the play in the Riverside Shakespeare comparing Petruchio’s method of taming a woman against other practices considered in pop culture at the time that we today would revile as a hundred times more abusive. There’s still a lot of abuse leveled at a woman who’s already powerless in marriage as defined by Elizabethan culture, however, and I still prefer modern adaptations, but there are some comic elements in the original play that help make it bearable.

It’s also come up in conversation a few days ago that it’s been a while since I last read A Comedy of Errors, since I didn’t recognize a passage from it — so I know what I’ll be reading next. After that, I have the Song of Igor’s Campaign cued up and a couple other books on medieval Russia. It’s good to get some reading goals again.

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I first began experimenting with cordials sometime in the early 2000s. For the latter half of that time, I’ve been keeping track of my recipes and notes on a wiki that I threw together for cooking-related stuff.

I’ve had some hits and misses…and sometimes, I’ve lost track what I’ve done with a bottle or notes before I could add them to this page. By and large, however, what I’ve made can be found here.

Posted in Miscellany | Leave a comment

This is the body that I almost buried in the backyard


Viking FAILboots!


So it’s not a real body. By the time I realized that I’d made so many mistakes that I couldn’t do anything to make this pair of boots turn out well enough to give as the gift they were meant to be, I was so embarrassed that I felt like burying them in the backyard as if they were a dead body. Over a month later, I’ve had time to reflect and get over my self-pity and my shame, and think of the failure as a step in a very long learning process…and laugh. This blog post is about sharing the mistakes that I made in the hopes that I, and others who attempt shoemaking, can avoid them in the future.

This lesson in particular is not without irony. Experimental archaeologists can look at a piece of leather that’s been buried in the mud for a thousand years and make a new reproduction based on how the old piece would have looked when it was brand new. I, on the other hand, attempted to make a brand-new pair of boots based on someone else’s reproduction of a Viking find, and inadvertently made a pair that looks like it’s been in the mud for a thousand years.

What were they supposed to look like? Check out the pair on the far left on this site:

*Viking shoes

The design was based on two-toggle boots from the 9th-10th century. Stepping Through Time by Olaf Goubitz shows a pair of this shape from Dorestad. My friend Gunnarr gave me the pieces that he had already cut out; they only needed to be stitched together. Sounds simple, right?


Since the boots were to be a gift for him to wear during his elevation ceremony into the Order of the Laurel, I decided to make them even more special by customizing them. I tooled a laurel wreath onto the sole of each shoe as a subtle decoration that would be hidden from most people, but visible to other laurels approaching him as he knelt in the ceremony. (My wife, who is a laurel, assured me that this was a great idea and not at all offensive to the dignity of the Order.)

Since I couldn’t be there to deliver the boots in person, I got even more creative and decided to decorate a Zappos box and make it look like some sort of medieval shoe delivery service, relayed by friends who offered to take the boots to the event for me. (Soffos — shoes by Sofya!)

My cat, chewing on the box...because of course he is.

My cat, chewing on the box…because of course he is.

The box decorating never happened. By the time I realized that the boots were turning out horribly, horribly wrong, there wasn’t enough time left to start over. Poor Gunnarr had to be elevated without new boots, and I consoled my shame by perusing the failures of others on

What went wrong? I had a variety of excuses:

1. Modern dyes and products didn’t behave as they had on previous projects.
I started with a Fiebings mahogany dye on the uppers. When that turned out much redder than it looked on the swatch I had made of the exact same dye, I added a coat of Eco-flo dark cocoa brown dye. Satisfied with the color, I then added a clear coat of Fiebings resolene to seal the dye and keep it from rubbing off and/or staining things inappropriately.

I then attempted to soften it with mink oil. In other projects, this has worked to darken the leather and make it softer and supple, even on top of resolene. With this project, however, I was using a different brand of mink oil that apparently does nothing at all the same as the old brand. This was “golden mink oil” by Fiebings. The old stuff was a brand I don’t remember, white mink oil purchased at a shoe store. Fiebings is considered a reputable brand, however, so I expected it to be better.

Since the mink oil wasn’t sinking in, and the resolene had made the leather uppers feel more like shiny, hard plastic, I decided it was time to try out some deglazer — which states on its label that it’s supposed to remove glazes so leather can be redyed. This was Angelus, another highly reputed brand among leathercrafters. It smelled like nail polish remover (which makes sense, given its supposed function). It took most of the shine off the leather, so I figured it had worked. I added a fresh coat of dark cocoa dye and some more mink oil, and some neetsfoot oil for good measure.

When the time came to soak the shoe and turn it right-side out, the dye started flaking off. And, since I had used up the last of the dark cocoa dye, I had no way of patching up any bald spots. So, I began frantically trying to rub off as much of the dye as I could so that the boots would at least have an even coating. As the boots dried I ended up scraping and scraping, until some patches of leather looked really dry, scratched up, and dented. And, unfortunately, there were some small dark spots of the original dye that I absolutely could not remove, giving the boots an oh-so-pleasant moldy appearance.

The dye, as it was flaking off the wet boots

The dye, as it was flaking off the wet boots


What to do differently: Avoid modern dyes and resolene altogether. Save the neetsfoot and mink oils until after the boots have been turned right-side out.

2. Turning the shoe is hard on tooling and dyes in general.
I learned why so few shoes have tooled decoration on the soles: the act of soaking the leather for the turning process makes the tooling really susceptible to damage. Also, I thought that dyeing the leather uppers prior to sewing would prevent me from getting dye on the soles…WRONG! The water kept getting browner and more like tea the longer the boots were soaking in it, meaning that the soles were getting dye, too. And, because I made the additional mistake of drying the boots right-side up, that meant that the tool bench I dried them on embedded further indentations into my tooled design. Check out these before and after shots:





What to do differently: If I use any dye, I’ll carefully add it after turning the shoes — which should be dried up-side down on some sort of peg so they can be suspended in the air. I might try tooling after turning, too. It may be tricky, but there might be a way to get a flat surface in the shoe for it!

3. Sole leather is really hard to bore consistent box-stitch tunnels into, especially when it’s really aged and hardened.
Part of the trouble with ongoing projects is that the materials can sit around for a few years before they ever get made into something. I’ve learned the hard way that thick leather only gets more challenging to work with as it ages. Most of my experience has been on pieces thinner than 8-9 ounces, so 12-14-ounce leather takes more muscle than I’m used to using.

Complicating the issue is that getting the box-stitch tunnels to all have the holes in the sides at a consistent measurement takes some practice and finesse, which is not something that comes easily when I’m trying to hammer an awl through the leather with brute force.

As a result, my sole stitches bring the two pieces together unevenly, creating a gnarled “dumbest ‘gator in the swamp” look to the seams.

What to do differently: use the youngest sole leather possible, or settle for thinner leather — 9-10-ounce might be more workable than 14-ounce. I may have to toss out some large pieces of sole leather that are already really difficult to cut with a knife; if they’re difficult to handle with hand tools, I can’t guarantee that I have much control over the stitch holes.

Another option would be to use a Dremel boring tool attachment, if one exists. Otherwise, I may have to try to make an awl guider similar to the one shown in Frazier’s Compleat Anachronist on The Basic Craft of Turnshoes.

4. You should at least test the fit on the foot, or get a last.
I made this pair without a last — which, supposedly, it’s possible to do, but because I was making these boots for someone long-distance, I couldn’t exactly test the fit when the first pair looked like it might be a little small. I don’t know. I’m still hoping these will fit the recipient, but I won’t know for sure until he tries them on. The toes look a little small. Leather also shrinks when it’s wet. This pair not only got wet, but dried and hardened, meaning that we might have to get them wet again just to see if he can get his feet into them.

I’m starting to realize that while it’s possible to make shoes without a last, the last really helps shape the leather to the foot, especially in creating a rounded shape that makes room for the toes. I’d like to start making lasts, but that’s a level of woodworking I haven’t gotten to yet — meaning I might have to shelve shoemaking until I can figure out how to make lasts, too.


Theoretically, these are shaped for human feet.


What to do differently: either use a last, or use thinner, more flexible leather. I think part of the issue with getting this leather to shape properly was that the upper was already rather stiff (partly because of my own gaffes with modern products, but also because it was at least 5-7 ounce veg-tanned leather to begin with, which is already fairly stiff. That kind of leather would make awesome boots, but it work better with lasts, I think. For lastless shoes, flexible chrome-tanned leather may be necessary to bend with the shape of a person’s foot.

There are other mistakes and regrets that befouled these boots — not re-examining Goubitz’s drawing to see how I should add the toggles, using the wrong type of stitch on the side seams, leaving the Zappos box out where my cat could chew it up — but the lessons there are fairly self-explanatory.

I’ve already promised Gunnarr that I will make him a fresh pair of boots. For that pair, I’m hoping to have him try these on so we can make any adjustments to the pattern necessary, use some fresh pieces of leather, and pray that I will have learned from these mistakes.

My favorite Russian proverb is “The first pancake is a blob.” In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, keep making boots until you do. And then, make boots…like a Viking.

Posted in Leathercraft, Progress | Leave a comment

Norse Rune Belt

Recently, my friend Gunnarr Alfljot was elevated to the Order of the Laurel. I offered to make him a belt and a pair of boots in honor of the occasion. The boots will be addressed in a separate blog post, but for now, let’s focus on the belt.



Gunnarr wanted a dark brown belt with a generic buckle that he can replace, as he is a master silversmith and can make a more customized buckle sometime down the road. This buckle is simply stitched on without rivets (which is a more period-appropriate attachment method anyway).

To suit his Norwegian Viking persona, I decided I wanted to incorporate some poetic reference in runes. My friend Reyni-Hrefna really made this possible, as she not only recommended a few epics but also found the original Old Norse text for the passage I chose, and translated it into runes. I carved the runes into the leather with a craft knife and gave it some depth by stamping one side of the letters with a flat-edged stamp and mallet. The cross marks were handled the same way, and the small circles were added with the tip of a retractable pen and the tip of a modeling tool.

The passage comes from the Poetic Edda, Hovamol — the Ballad of the High One, Stanza 10:

A better burden | may no man bear
For wanderings wide than wisdom;
It is better than wealth | on unknown ways,
And in grief a refuge it gives.

The stanza, in Old Norse:

Byrði betri
berr-at maðr brautu at
en sé mannvit mikit;
auði betra
þykkir þat í ókunnum stað;
slíkt er válaðs vera.

The first part:



Part 2:



Part 3:


Part 4:




Overall, I’m happy with the way the tooling and coloring turned out. I actually used two different dyes, a mahogany and then a dark cocoa brown when the mahogany turned out redder than I wanted. I sealed the belt with resolene and conditioned with a combination of neetsfoot oil and mink oil. If I had to do it all over again, I might forego the resolene and just use multiple coats of neetsfoot, but because this was a gift I didn’t want to risk any of the dye rubbing off on clothing.

Next time, maybe I’ll try getting into some more period dyeing materials!

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Holy Crap, has it really been almost 20 years?!

In August 1995, I discovered the SCA, and it’s been a part of my life ever since. To commemorate this involvement, I’ve started drafting an SCA resume — not because I’m applying for any particular office, but to keep track of what I’ve done so far. I figure I’d better start recording these things before I forget them completely!

After putting together a list of all the offices I’ve held, I might be able to sum it up as “local stuff service.” I’ve held more types of local offices than there are offices I haven’t. There are some that I am not likely to ever hold (cough, marshal, cough cough) — but I’ve learned never to say never! Right now I’m really enjoying being a regional MoAS, but I keep coming back to the local offices because that’s where it seems the need is greatest. At least, that’s how it feels for someone who’s always lived in small local groups. Maybe if I can convince more of our local members to take up the open offices, I won’t feel compelled to raise my hand.😉

This is still a rough (and un-proofed) draft, but it’s a statement of progress for me to blog about it. And, if anyone gives me some feedback, it will be that much more likely for me to refine it a bit more!

Check out my resume here…

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Stuffed Leather Bottles

leather bottles

Over the past couple years I’ve made a few attempts at making leather bottles. I am calling these “stuffed” because they were made by pouring a stuffing agent into the bottle to give it its shape.

My first two attempts had some setbacks that caused me to think I had ruined them with mold growth, and they sat in a drawer until a friend of mine asked me for help making one of her own to give as a gift to her husband. She had found an entirely different set of instructions online — and while I had some reservations about some of those instructions, there was enough good information to fill in the gaps of my knowledge from my previous attempts and make the first two pieces salvageable.

What’s a leather bottle, you may be asking? What evidence do we have that these were created and used in the middle ages? Most extant bottles that have so far been discovered have been English, from the 16th-17th centuries — before glass bottles became more common for storing liquids. Leather may have been a prevalent bottle material before then, but there is less evidence. A few bottles were found on the sunken 16th-century Mary Rose ship, and the pattern I used for two out of three of these bottles was inspired by one of them. Other bottles were commonly made by shaping the leather on wooden molds rather than stuffing them, but until I get a wooden mold made, the stuffing method will have to do.

Many thanks to HL Tadhg madAedain uiChonchobhair who taught a class at Gulf Wars last spring, from whose handout and pattern I made two of these bottles. Thanks also to HL Earic Orvander, who took some time with me a couple years ago at Pennsic to explain the process and draw a rough diagram of a bottle shape. I took copious notes and made my first bottle based on his recommendations.

For the sake of simplicity, and because a lot of the instructions for making this style of bottle overlap, I will point toward this Instructable for the basics and add my recommendations for altering the steps based on what I have learned from these three. The pattern by HL Tadhg is slightly different, but I don’t have a digitized version to share.

Altering the pattern: Make sure that the seam going down from the mouth of the bottle to the sides (not including the handle) is a smooth line. To stuff the bottle you will need to shove a dowel or tool handle into the bottle to push sand (or another stuffing agent) into the edges along the seams. Having an angle means that it will be impossible to shove the sand into some of the edges because the dowel won’t be able to reach around a corner. (See the “holey water” bottle: my first attempt, made from my own pattern, had similar corners and the bottle is wrinkled rather than inflated in those spots because I couldn’t reach them.)

I also recommend altering the handle holes to be more like triangles or rectangles rather than perfect circles, as that is closer to the original styles. I have seen several patterns that call for creating these holes by using round punches — which is okay if that’s easier for you, but if you have difficulty punching through two pieces of thick leather (as I was taught the method), some quick work with a craft knife is the easier (and more period-appropriate) way to go.

Finally, make sure that the mouth of the bottle has right angles going downward before sloping outward. The second bottle I made (the one with the flat bottom) angles outward from the lip, and it doesn’t seem to hold a cork as well.

Choosing a thickness of leather: Unless you are so strong that you cannot use thinner pieces of leather without having to worry about breaking through the leather when you stuff it (“HULK TEAR!!!”), a thinner weight of leather will be easier to use and creates a more lightweight finished product. This last bit could be important if you are carrying a water bottle around all day along with other items. The flat-bottomed bottle was made with 12-ounce leather and was VERY difficult for me to work with. The round-bottomed one was made with 6-8-ounce leather and the “holey water” was made with 3-4-ounce. Again, unless you are a big galoot with more strength than finesse, you shouldn’t need such a heavy weight. (Not that there’s anything wrong with big galoots — if you know you are, own it! If you’re nice, I may let you carry my tool box.)

Marking a cork area: I don’t really understand the necessity of this step. What I did learn from these bottles was that it’s better to leave the cork in the bottle when it’s drying with the stuffing inside, so that the leather will form to fit the cork. A bit of dowel rod in a width that fits the opening should suffice. Dipping it in wax when you cover the bottle will also help to ensure a secure seal.

Glue: I would NOT recommend adding glue to something that you want to be food-safe.

Stitching: I would also NOT recommend using a drill to bore the seam holes, as that would remove leather rather than just cut it. An awl will create holes that will close themselves back up as the leather relaxes — it is just pushing the grains apart from each other. Drilling or punching removes pieces of leather that will not close themselves back up because the removed leather is permanently gone. Why would you want this in something designed to hold liquids?

My recommendation — use a diamond-shaped awl to bore the holes. A completely round awl will create a round hole, but a diamond shape will accommodate the shape of a threaded needle eye. This means that it will be easier to sew, with less strain on your hands, the thread, and the needles. (In my experience, round awls increase my likelihood of breaking threads and needles, especially with thicker leather!)

The Holey Water bottle has two rows of seams. This may create a more watertight bottle, but so far the single-seam bottles seem to hold water just fine. Time may tell as the bottles get more wear.

Stuffing the wet bottle: I’ve found sand to be best so far. I tried using lentils on the holey bottle, but ran into a major problem — once the lentils were wet, they swelled up and became impossible to remove. And, because I had made that pattern with a smaller mouth, there was less room to remove the grains. In the end I was shaking them out over a few weeks and they started to mold. That was enough to put me off the project for about a year and a half until I made the second bottle in a class using sand. Based on my experiences I wouldn’t recommend using any type of dried food to stuff a bottle.

I filled up my bottle and kept shoving in more sand, then filled it with water and shoved in some more. Because it was then dripping wet and couldn’t stand on its own, I dried the round-bottomed bottle by suspending it inside a utility sink with a pair of long cooking chopsticks. The flat-ish-bottomed bottle was made at a camping event without those amenities, so I kept dropping it down on a picnic table to flatten the bottom. Because of the seam, it’s still not flat enough to stand on its own. For this design, if you are going to make a bottle with a seam on the bottom, you need to account that it will never stand on its own and prepare to suspend it to dry so that it will fill into a nicely rounded shape and thus fulfill its destiny.

Waxing: You can mix in paraffin with the beeswax to cut expenses, but beeswax gives it the best luster in the end product. You can also cut expenses by melting Crayola crayons to pour inside — apparently they are food-safe to protect all the kids who like to eat crayons, but only Crayola brand. And, inside the bottle, you don’t need it to be pretty.

The flat-bottomed bottle was first covered with crayon wax on the inside and a mix of paraffin and beeswax on the outside. This produced a mostly brown color on the outside but it had some whitish discoloration that made me worry that it had not been completely dried when it was waxed, and that water was mildewing. When the other two bottles were waxed (the Holey bottle sat unwaxed for a couple years until I could get around to waxing — this project forced me to finish up!) I went ahead and re-waxed the flat-bottomed bottle.

Putting the bottles into the oven after waxing seems to be a crucial step. Not only did it help the wax seep into the leather (as opposed to sitting on the surface) but it gave them all a beautiful chocolate sheen. Even the flat-bottomed bottle lost its whitish discoloration.

Using the oven, we put the bottles onto a board that had pegs to help them stand upside-down. This helped them melt the wax mostly evenly, but the bottles with the thickest amounts of wax finally had to be turned right-side-up to get the wax around the mouth melted — and because the wax was starting to melt out of the seams where we needed it most! When we tested our bottles with water they each needed a squidge more wax in a couple spots (sure, that’s a technical term…now) on the inside.

I’d argue, based on the bottle I made while camping, that heating with an oven is a crucial step in the waxing phase for ultimate hardening of the leather and absorption of the wax. To finish, take the hot bottle out of the oven and polish with a soft cloth. We used pantyhose — I’m not sure where this recommendation came from, but it seemed to work.

Final notes: Making these bottles gave me a better understanding of the process and how to recover the first two projects. Plus, it seemed to create a “bug” in my local group, as a couple more people have decided they want bottles, too.

I wasn’t feeling terribly inspired with the tooling on the final bottle, but if I create another one, I’d aim for something inspired by the character of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. He is someone I associate with an affinity for bottles, anyway. I’d also like to attempt a few stand-on-their-own molded bottles, but that will have to wait until I have better woodworking capabilities. In the meantime, I’m more tempted to create a leather mug. I think I’d get more use out of that than a canteen, anyway. These have been fun projects, but there are so many dozens of others on my to-do list. For now, I’ve finished up a couple of unfinished works, and perhaps gained another “dot” in leathercrafting.

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Experimenting with Cuir Bouilli, Part 1

At this stage of my leathercrafting hobby / habit, I’ve made a few things that I’ve hardened with hot water using a cuir bouilli method — a couple knife sheaths and a small cell phone pouch. None of these projects have been terribly scientific; I made sure to use an exact temperature of water, but haven’t known how much to account for shrinkage. The sheaths were dipped in water with the knives included (encased in cellophane) so that the leather would shrink to shape around the knives.

I know that cuir bouilli will shrink leather, but essentially, I don’t know how much. The answers I’ve gotten from fellow leathercrafters has been as varied as their methods for cuir bouilli itself. So, I’ve decided it’s time to conduct an experiment.

The two main questions I’d like to answer:

a. How much does leather shrink? and

b. Do different weights / types of leather shrink or react differently under the same method?

What I hope to gain from the answers to these questions is a better understanding of the leather and whether thinner pieces can be hardened and used in place of thicker pieces.

There is a more practical purpose in this knowledge, too, which leads to another question. In conversations with fellow Slavic Interest Group members, the subject has come up regarding the use of leather as a stiffening material in hats. It’s been suggested that a thicker, heavier leather is necessary in order for the hat to hold its shape and support the weight of beaded, embroidered outer fabric. The down side to using this material is that the thicker leather combined with a liberal dose of pearls and other beads can make the hat uncomfortably heavy to wear.

I’d like to find out if I can use a thinner weight of leather by hardening it via cuir bouilli. How thin can I go? If the leather is so lightweight that it’s very flexible when it’s soft, will it harden into an unpredictable shape? What’s the needed weight for a cylindrical piece to harden without distorting itself? Could I use chrome-tanned leather (as it’s not useful for much else and will be hidden inside a hat so it doesn’t need to look pretty) or is chrome-tanned leather immune to cuir bolli? Furthermore, how much larger would I need to cut a piece to account for its size after it’s hardened and shrunk?

Lastly, it’s been suggested that water-hardened leather should not be used in a hat because if the hat were to get wet, the leather would lose its shape again. Based on my previous experiences with hardening leather, I have a suspicion that it would not change shape with re-wetting — but I don’t know for sure.

So, let’s find out!

My method:

I’ve cut several pieces of leather into three-inch squares. I’ve tried to get a sample of every weight that I have in my personal stock, including both vegetable-tanned and chrome-tanned leather. I plan to dip each piece into 180-degree F water for 20 seconds each, then examine them for hardness, shape, and size.

This is the cuir bouilli method that I’ve used in the past and it has successfully hardened 5-9-ounce leather. This includes a 5-6-ounce leather that I made into a small phone pouch, which had some slight dents from the process, but I think that happened because I fumbled with it during the dipping.

Because any indentations that happen to leather while it’s being dipped become permanent once it’s hard, I need to account for those indentations in this experiment. I will dip each piece with a pair of metal tongs and hold it along the middle of one side. That will still give me three other sides to measure for shrinkage and I can compare the dents between pieces to see how different pieces might be affected differently by the same tongs. I am also noting here which pieces have imperfections in the raw state. Especially with my chrome supply, these are scrap remnants that already had markings when I got them.

The pieces, and the results:

I wrote the descriptions for the soft leather below before conducting the experiment, but the before and after photos here should tell the bigger picture:

leather experiment 1

leather experiment 2

1. 1-2 oz. veg
Soft: very thin and flexible, smooth, pale pink color. This sample was cut from a relatively new hide, ordered just a few months ago. The sample is slightly wrinkled because I cut it from a narrow corner, probably from a leg.
Hard: Shriveled and curled, darker. It shriveled vertically more than horizontally. It’s stiff but still bendable.

2. 2 oz. deerskin (probably  chrome-tanned)
Soft: very thin and flexible, supple texture, milk chocolate color. Stretchy. There is a wrinkle running through the middle that is thinner than the rest, possibly scar tissue. This sample is from a hide I purchased a few years ago and is mostly depleted.
Hard: No significant change.

3. 2-3 oz. pigskin, veg
Soft: very thin and flexible, slightly bumpy texture, slightly tan color. This sample is at least a couple years old.
Hard: No significant change, except for a scorch mark from the tongs.

4. 3-4 oz. elk hide (probably chrome)
Soft: thin and flexible, supple texture, black. Slightly stretchy. I bought this hide at the same time as the deerskin. This sample has a couple small indentations.
Hard: No significant change.

5. 3-4 oz. milled
Soft: Tandy advertised its milled leather as a type that “acts like vegetable-tanned leather.” This hide is thin and flexible with a smooth texture almost as supple as the elk hide. Beige, very slightly stretchy. In past projects I have NOT found this hide to dye evenly or take tooling as well as veg leather in its weight. It is more flexible than its veg equivalent.
Hard: It shriveled and curled more vertically than horizontally. It’s stiff but still bendable.

6. 4-5 oz. veg
Soft: Flexible, yet stiffer than the lighter weights. It’s at least a couple years old and slightly tan. Mostly smooth, but with a few tiny wrinkles. We’ve used this hide for multiple bags and other projects that need a toolable, flexible leather.
Hard: This piece shriveled more than any other, and is stiffer to uncurl. It also darkened considerably and became slimy on the surface, perhaps a symptom of the leather dissolving.

7. 5-6 oz. veg
Soft: A little stiffer, yet still slightly bendable. Slightly tan, smooth. At least a year or two old. We’ve used this leather for pouches, leather bottles, cuffs, and other small projects. Easily toolable.
Hard: Very stiff, curled and shriveled. Much darker. This was the piece I thought would most likely work for hat shaping. It’s stiff enough now, but there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to its shrinking.

8. 6-8 oz.  veg
Soft: Stiff, very slightly bendable, tan, very smooth. This hide is at least a few years old. We’ve used this leather for knife sheaths and other encasements for sharp objects, bottles, pouches, tool storage cups, and other items that need a bit more durability and stiffness.
Hard: Stiffer, yet still flexible, uncurled but with sharper edges. I had hoped this piece would be a second likely candidate for hat shaping.

9. 6-7 oz. chrome
Soft: Slightly more bendable than #8, supple texture, burgundy/gray. There are a few very slight wrinkles in the surface. This piece came from some remnants I bought a few years ago. It’s been used in a pouch that has gotten some wear and tear, yet retained most of its shape.
Hard: No significant change.

10. 7-8 oz. chrome
Soft: Stiff, yet slightly bendable, not as smooth surface, walnut brown/gray. Another remnant, a couple medium-sized wrinkles through the length of the sample.
Hard: No significant change.

11. 8-9 oz. chrome
Soft: More flexible than #10, very slight suppleness, dark chocolate color all the way through. Another remnant.
Hard: No significant change.

12. 9-10 oz. chrome
Soft: As flexible as #6, slightly supple texture, black all the way through. Another remnant.
Hard: No significant change.

13. 12-13 oz. aged veg
Soft: Very stiff, barely bendable at all with bare hands while dry. Very smooth, darker brown similar to red oak or brown cheese. This hide was donated from a friend and I have no idea how old it is, but I’d guess at least a few years. This leather is very difficult to cut with a knife, almost impossible with leather shears. A power saw might be the easiest option.
Hard: No significant change. The edges are sharper, the color is slightly darker.

14. 12-13 oz. mystery leather
Soft: As flexible as #8, supple, dark chocolate on the outside and graham-cracker-colored on the inside. My original guess is that it’s chrome-tanned, possibly oil-tanned, but I usually see chrome leather as being gray on the inside or the same color throughout. It’s possible this is a pre-dyed veg leather. It’s another remnant that I bought at the same time as the other chrome-tanned pieces.
Hard: This piece curled slightly, but retained its flexibility.

Conclusions: It’s safe to say that chrome-tanned leather is not affected by cuir bouilli. Of any of the pieces, the biggest surprise was the lack of change in the pigskin, because I believed this to be vegetable-tanned. Maybe there is a difference in the types of animal leather (most of the other pieces were cow hides).

Of the vegetable-tanned pieces, I expected the thinnest pieces to lose their shape. What I did NOT expect was that the rate of shrinkage in the other pieces would be so inconsistent. I cannot, based on these results, choose one to make into a hat band, because I need a consistent rectangular shape that will support the weight of beaded embroidery and provide me with a reliable size upon which I can design said embroidery.

For now, my science is wrong and it’s time to start over with a different sort of experiment.


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