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Upcoming projects:
Building a Frame Saw
Forging a Copper Kettle
Making a pair of leather work boots
Forging and Fletching a Bodkin

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Road

They say the open road will carry you home for free.

Another year has come and gone, and with it parts of us we might never have noticed had it not been for that silent reflection that comes from the open road. What people fail to realise is that the world is only as small as we permit. There will always be a path to follow, a door to open, a far distant land to chase, and so many in number do they lay beyond our sight that we accept that blindness of comfort as our only reality.

Perhaps it is a confession of our character in what we see of the world around us. Too often are we content with passing the exhaustions of life with naming rest simply as lack of motion. I would rather say that there lies within us all a tiredness of the bones which no amount of sleep can tame. No number to the hours passed idly waiting for whatever might come upon us next. For that is not rest, and neither does it bring us peace.

To be perfectly composed is to be wholly deposed of that sense of wonder which has driven our kind into the farthest reaches of the earth and so much that extends beyond it. Of late, it has become a theme to chase those wilds into wherever they may lead. Whether to the mountain tops or the thundering seas, adventure lies within us as much as it lies around, and to deny either is to cut away a piece of our soul which we so dearly need.

For those who seek it, the answer is simple. Search, and you will find. It may not be what you intended to become, nor where you expected that passage to end, but it will always be where you needed.

There is something to be said for staring at far away things. Things so close yet impossibly far away as though separated by the vastness of the ocean. When it is the ocean itself that rises out of a turn of the earth, our sense of wonder is bared to the true power of the natural world. An understanding and a realisation comes from the strength of something which has outlived us by as many generations as it has years, and for each of us it is different. That is the beauty of the world around us. It does not care who you are. It does not care where you came from or where you are going. It does not care who you were or who you have become. And to us all, it presents the simplest and most profound gift of all. Opportunity.

There lies an anchor upon the heart; we long for a world we cannot see, heedless of the consequences which might truly bring us there. It is that dichotomy- a hope to better the future, unable to forsake the familiarity of the past- which keeps us from the way of progress.

Yet that is the grandest illusion which we suffer. The only limitations we have for our vision of the future are those which we impose upon it. There is no power in making a new resolve a year after the last one. There is nothing to be gained by waiting for the perfect circumstance or the passing of some old obstacle which has loomed between us and our ambition. In truth, the road which takes us through this journey moves forward by only our own intention, and there is a spectacular world waiting for us there.

The problem is, you think you have time.

Monday, December 5, 2016


"It doesn't matter how many times you leave, it will always hurt to come back and remember what you once had and who you once were. Then it will hurt just as much to leave again, and so it goes over and over again. Once you've started to leave, you will run your whole life."
-Charlotte Eriksson

The wayfærer wanders, but it is neither towards nor away from anywhere that lies at the end of the path. The wanderer finds destination along an unplanned road, some place which satisfies the longing of a heart without a home, however long it stays. There is a journey, but that journey must also come to an end. To the wayfærer, however, it is the passage itself which becomes the destination, and only in the depths of foreign sight and sensation, the thrill of insecurity and strangeness, the lingering question of what really waits just beyond your sight, will there be something to fill in the holes which have been slowly worn away.

Entrenched in the comfort and routine of society, it is dangerously easy to forget how wild and unforgiving the world was. Of what lies out there, waiting to be seen, to be explored, to be experienced. By living off of what you can carry on your back, surviving by instinct and endurance, relying upon your own ability to solve problems, a great deal of that unbidden life returns. Too often, it feels as though the advances we make are merely the illusion of progress hiding something darker. Now and again, the whisper becomes a howl, and there is no choice but to remember what lies beyond the shrinking boundaries of what our personal world has become.

When you need to break through a frozen waterfall with an axe to find water, or hike by the light of the moon across 11,000 feet of elevation and 100 degree temperature swings, modern living suddenly finds a new appreciation. Too often I hear someone proclaim, however thinly veiled behind jest, that it is madness to search out what awaits us in the wilderness. To many, there is no appeal, no desire, no willingness to tolerate the burden of leaving behind the life that has been built around us. Yet to them, I question what it truly means to live. We have come to a time where more is accessable, at any moment, than any other period in history. And yet still we experience from a distance, choosing the parts which are convenient and leaving behind all that makes it real. Without hardship, all that which is beautiful in the world has lost its meaning.

I was, looking back, chasing after that sensation awakened by the finality of true isolation. Atop the peaks, the world lay beneath me with a perspective I have never known. Whether I embarked with that purpose, I instead found another, one which evades even the most relentless pursuit and is often found in search of something else.

Enshrouded by the endless breaks of rock and ice, ridgelines standing thousands of feet around you as impassable as those we struggle to leave behind, there comes a quiet over the land. Echoes of the builders linger, their work remaining long after their hands depart. With the onset of winter, in areas  the snow covered over the trail so heavily that the only place to step was an inch from the sheer face of a cliff plunging half a mile down. Alone, you must be ready to face that which you can never prepare for. It is that sensation which cannot be confined to words, an opening to a doorway that, once ajar, cannot be closed again.

It is not that I found myself simply leaving something behind, nor that I was seeking out something in its stead. Rather, there upon the heights I was looking for the sort of transformation that comes about by its own right, that cannot be forced or demanded or stolen out of the quiet life.

Too often, we permit our work to define our identity rather than affording our identity the opportunity to define our work. Our labours become our nature rather than our nature shaping what we must overcome. Whoever we are, we are all in pursuit of something. For the wayfærer, it is seeking out the road itself. Towards no destination beyond the changing face of what lies around us. To wander into those far corners of the world yet leave them before the sense of wonder which brought us there is lost.

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 Hávamál

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Leather Toolbag Preservation

Recently, I was able to begin working in a traditional blacksmith's shop on one of California's state parks, and part of the involvement as a demonstrator/educator means I must also wear traditional ~1860s era clothing. Since there are a good many tools which I transport to and from the shop, I decided to make a leather toolbag. Cut and stitched from a single half hide of leather with forged buckles, the bag promised a great deal of use but needed a bit of treatment and preservation from the unstained vegetable tanned hide which it came from.

To begin, I made a vinegaroon solution. In essence, it is an acidic ferrous solution which reacts with the tannins in the leather. In addition to leather, a variety of other materials react with a similar darkening when exposed to the iron, including several species of hardwood. This solution turns the leather from its normal tan brown to a dark grey/blue and then black.

Making vinegaroon is extremely easy in its simplest form. I took a handful of metal dust from the belt sander and poured white vinegar over it. As the iron dissolves into the vinegar, it forms what I later used. Shavings from a file or steel wool, anything iron or non-stainless steel with a good amount of surface area will work.

For around three days, the vinegar-iron solution sat on the counter and worked its breakdown of the metal dust. A funky skin began to form on the surface of the vinegar as a result of the oxidation and lifting out of impurities trapped in the metal dust, likely wood and abrasive particulate. That scum was skimmed off the top and disposed of. Once no more of the metal dissolved in the vinegar, it was time to strain the mixture. This is not the first vinegaroon I have made, but it was by far the strongest. I suspect that the more saturated the solution, the stronger it acts. Diluting it with additional vinegar would have left the leather surface a paler blue grey rather than the dark black it ultimately became.

Trying to use a coffee filter to strain the mix, the progress was so slow that I eventually gave up on that and used a sponge to absorb the liquid, leaving at the bottom of the original container a layer of particulate at the bottom where the metal and other stuff did not dissolve or rise to the surface.

In the end, I was left with a good amount of vinegaroon. The liquid is not very turbid and should not separate after sitting for a time.

Here is the bag after constructing it, before applying the vinegaroon. I would recommend that, in most leatherworking endeavours, that the entire surface be treated (or at the least dyed) before assembly. Since I did not have a pattern or template or really even a general design idea before beginning the stitching, I decided not to treat it until after I was finished. As a result, the deeper cracks of seams are unfinished and present a slight feel of mediocrity to the approach, but there is nothing I can do about it now.

To apply the vinegaroon, I usually use a cutting of sponge. Rags will probably work just as well if not better for large uninterrupted pieces, but I find that this does a banger job at getting into tight spaces.

Almost immediately after contact with the vinegaroon, the tannins react and the leather stains black. That small patch was one quick wipe, the photo taken only a second or two after application.

After one coat, the surface is fairly representative of the final shade. I went back for a second pass to even out any spots and catch places I may not have gotten thoroughly the first time, and addressing the hard to reach seams. It did manage to darken the shade just slightly, but the deeper black colour comes later when the surface is treated with oils and wax.

Because the process is chemical and not merely the absorption of stain or dye, the leather's colour is a bit more durable and better able to highlight the natural grain. And it is a simple process that does not require anything dangerous, is easy to do, and could have been done for hundreds of years to the same effect.

Now that the leather is dyed, it's onto the preservation side. For this project, I modified a recipe I came up with a while back in the effort of making the treatment a little easier to apply. Before, there was so much wax in the mixture that it was too solid at room temperature to apply. For this round, I used a mixture of

-Neatsfoot Oil
-Olive Oil

The actual proportions varied a bit, but trying to compensate for the beeswax as it solidifies. Really it's trial and error to get the consistency you want. In the end I had something like 75% oil : 25% wax.

Rigging up a little double boiler, I started by melting the wax. This took a little while, so in the meantime, I began the process by giving the entire surface a coat of the neatsfoot oil.

Wiped on with a rag, the oil absorbed fairly quickly into the leather, which is what I am after. Having that deeper oil penetration will help later with it drying out and becoming brittle. Since the wax is a bit more solid, it tends to remain closer to the surface and keeps the intermixed oils there with it. Also, you can see that even that little bit of neatsfoot oil significantly darkens the shade left by the vinegaroon.

Once that oil was applied, the wax melted and I was able to mix in the olive and neatsfoot oil. While it was still hot, I gave everything as many coats as I could without having a visible waxy accumulation. Had I a heat gun, I would have used that to help the leather absorb the mixture better. Even still, the hot mixture went on easily and with a bit of buffing resulted in a reasonably effective surface penetration.

That's about all I did to treat the leather for the time being. When I see it beginning to show signs of wear or dryness, I will go back with the oil/wax mixture and seal it up again. With the wax, the leather tends to have a decent moisture barrier, and from the oil it stays supple. Together, they give a naturally durable surface that will hopefully withstand the abuse of a 150 year old shop.