Wednesday, April 5, 2017

More Making

Master shoe maker Cliff Pequet at his shop in Shipshewana, Indiana.

A song sparrow has laid claim to the brush near our barnyard, and regales me with his morning melody while I busy myself with the manure fork, harvesting the night's crop of cowpies. It's a song I remember from Washington as well. It always reminds me of sitting with my father and sister in our little aluminum fishing boat on Lake Cassidy, feeding worms to the fish that typically evaded capture.

It's always a surprise when the birds start singing again in the spring, as it makes me realize that I hadn't even noticed their absence through the winter. We don't notice the things that slowly fade nearly so much as those which change quickly. The host of a podcast I regularly listen to noted something similar, the fact that his family's annual pilgrimage to their favorite vacation spot no longer involves cleaning the splattered bug-goo from their car's windshield at each gas stop. He said they had exactly 3 bugs smear the windshield last summer.  I've noticed the same thing, now that he mentions it. Seems as if we're getting rid of all the bird food these days, courtesy of Monsanto and Syngenta. When it threatens "nice bugs" like the monarch butterfly, or the honey bee, we create "butterfly highways" or "bee habitat" instead of solving the problem, which happens to be the same problem that's killing bees and a million other critical insects that we know little about. Gotta keep that cheap chemically-enhanced food (or is it Monsanto shareholder returns?)  flowing at all costs, even if it kills us apparently.

The cheap food isn't actually cheap, of course.  Instead of paying full price at McDonalds or the grocery store, we pay it later in ways we have trouble connecting (which is just the way the chemical companies like it). We pay for it with fewer insects, fewer birds, more cancer, diabetes, heart disease, birth defects, and everything else that has slowly become "normal" over the last few decades. Considering that industrial food production is one of the chief contributors to climate change which now appears likely to cost us our future, the externalized cost of our "cheap" industrial food is in fact far higher than that of any food ever produced.

Changes to my work schedule (the work that makes money... not the farm, that is) have opened up a new world for me that I like quite a bit.  Instead of leading a perpetually harried existence, worrying about which neglected project most needs to be prioritized, I'm able to cover most of our farm tasks now as they arise.  I even find time for many the activities I've wanted to do but always lacked the time for.

With this in mind, Rachel's Christmas gift for me was a certificate to learn shoe-making from Cliff Pequet, maker of shoes and leather goods, and proprietor of a truly amazing antique store.  It's indeed rare for a customer to leave Cliff's shop without making some interesting new discovery, as his historical knowledge is unrivaled by anyone else I know.

Cliff makes shoes the way they've been made for centuries -- measuring the customer's feet, making a last to match each foot, and then cutting and stitching everything by hand. They're not cheap by modern standards now that most shoes are glued together in China, but are quite a bargain by historical standards, where a pair of shoes typically cost the same as an ounce of gold (currently $1250).  Now you know why going barefoot was once so popular.

The shoes I chose to make are a pair of "jeffersonian bootees", a style made famous by Thomas Jefferson in 1801.  As I understand it, wealthy people of that time typically owned and rode horses, for which boots were the preferred footwear.  Commoners did not own horses, walked everywhere, and thus preferred shoes.

The leanings of a politician -- towards either the common man or the moneyed class -- could thus be determined by the height of his footwear.  When Jefferson showed up in footwear that was neither shoe nor boot, he was accused in various political cartoons of being two faced.

The shoe project of course revived my interest in working with leather, which got me back to finishing the tanned hide of Gertie, our first "retired" cow.  Her hide has become a sheath for the knife I made Henry for Christmas, and I've learned a fair amount in finishing the hide.

The Jeffersonian Bootees
There are precious few resources on hide tanning, either online or in books.  Particularly lacking is information on bark-tanning large hides such as cowhides, so I've been learning as I go.  While the dehairing and tanning process seem to be fairly simple, the hide softening process on such large hides is difficult.  Initially, I thought that bark-tan would not need softening, but I was wrong.  That's a project worthy of its own blog post someday soon though...


In addition to the new shoes and leatherwork, I had a chance to complete a nightstand I started many moons ago. What started as a bird-poop-speckled pile of rough-sawn black walnut lumber from a farm auction was slowly transformed into my first piece of "real" furniture, based on a design from Aldren Watson's Furniture Making:  Plain and Simple.

Made without a single power tool whatsoever, it features all pinned mortise and tenon joints, chamfered and tapered legs, and a nice little dovetailed drawer (my first ever attempt at dovetails!). I'm quite pleased with the end result.  The top is made from a single plank -- a width that would be impossible to find with conventional lumber.

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