Words From a Mas­ter Craftsman

Ford Hal­lam is an extraordin­ar­ily tal­en­ted metal smith trained in the Japan­ese tra­di­tion. A short film was made about his work, Utsushi — in Search of Katsushira’s Tiger which I think every­one should watch. I have watched it many many times and I take great joy in it each time. Oppor­tun­it­ies to watch a mas­ter at work in this way are too rare.

Utsushi itself is a won­der­ful concept for any­one work­ing to recre­ate the crafts or arte­facts of the past but it will be the topic of a future post.

Today Ford pos­ted this on his face­book page, and I am repro­du­cing it here with his permission.

A worker may be the hammer’s mas­ter, but the ham­mer still pre­vails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approx­im­ate idea.“
Milan Kundera

Con­trary to what some may ima­gine I’m not a tool col­lector. In my philo­sophy the most import­ant tool any maker posses is their hands. The skill­ful and sens­it­ive use of our hands is what gives life to our cre­ations. Nat­ur­ally, we need to use tools to manip­u­late the media we choose to work but allow­ing too many com­plic­ated con­triv­ances between our skin and our medium can only stifle expres­sion. Like a game of Chinese Whis­pers each degree of sep­ar­a­tion between fin­gers and metal dulls and dis­torts our voice.

I’m actu­ally dis­trust­ful of what I see as the fet­ish­isa­tion of tools. Is this an inev­it­able aspect of our con­sumer­ist mar­ket­place? If it is it’s pro­foundly ironic given that real makers don’t make to accu­mu­late but quite the oppos­ite. There’s no harm in dec­or­at­ing a favour­ite ham­mer or giv­ing a fancy twist to your chas­ing tools…but when this elev­ates the tool to some­thing bey­ond merely a means to an end than I feel focus has been lost. The tools become a sub­sti­tute for real work, but no amount of these sub­sti­tutes will sat­isfy the genu­ine need to make. There’s no easy way, we’ve just got to do the work. There’s no labour to be saved…saved for what?

Milan Kundera’s quote makes a very import­ant point. Our tools, those most simple and ancient ones, those which served our ancest­ors for thou­sands of years, have much to teach us…if we could only listen. But our tend­ency to be dis­trac­ted by every new gad­get, labour sav­ing gizmo or ‘new and improved’ tool keeps us from get­ting a glimpse of the real poten­tial of the fun­da­ment­als of any art. There will always be some­thing new, some­thing prom­ising an easier way or claim­ing to bypass the need to develop real skill, but these allur­ing Sirens flat­ter to deceive.

It’s not about the tools, it’s what you do with them. Care for them, even hon­our them, but ask your­self this: do you want merely to play with cool tools OR do you really want to cre­ate, to give voice to your most authen­tic imaginings ?

Post­script: I real­ise that most of what I’ve writ­ten may appear extreme or even an affront to some. It’s not meant to offend. I’m merely offer­ing food for thought and a slightly dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive. Namaste all.

For the record, I don’t think Ford’s pos­i­tion is extreme in the slight­est. I think that tool­mak­ing can rise to the level of an art into itself, but the col­lec­tion of such tools is dif­fer­ent from the mere acquis­i­tion of tools in the hope that they will some­how magic­ally pro­duce bet­ter work as a sub­sti­tute for prac­tice, fail­ure, learn­ing and more practice.

Your hands are the most import­ant tools you have, and you need per­haps five oth­ers to make great shoes.

Fine Clos­ing Awl

This is the awl I use for fine work and for round clos­ing 2–2.5mm thick leather. It was made from a small allen key, though 3mm music wire would also work well. I cut the angle off the allen key, stuck it in a drill and tapered it with a sand­ing drum on a dremel while it was spin­ning. The blade is straight, as is appro­pri­ate for a medi­eval awl.

picture of a fine closing awl on a bench with the blade resting on a ruler for measurment

Fine clos­ing awl made from a piece of allen key

The tip is a fine chisel point about 0.8mm wide. The point was made by just rub­bing the tip on a fine abras­ive until it was the right shape. The awl blade maxes out at about 1.7mm in dia­meter at the widest part that usu­ally goes through a clos­ing seam.

Tip of a fine awl blade resting on a ruler for measurement. The tip is approximately 0.8mm wide.

The tip of the fine clos­ing awl I made

Using this awl I can achieve 2mm stitches/12spi in 2mm leather without too much trouble, and with prac­tice and con­cen­tra­tion I can do 1.6mm stitches/15spi.  The seam below was sewn at with 2mm stitches.

Picture of the inside of a reproduction 16th century shoe showing 2mm long stitches in the closing seam.

2mm stitch length in the clos­ing seam of a 16th cen­tury low shoe.

Detail view of the inside of a 16th century low shoe showing the closing seam and the thread attaching the buckle

Another view of the clos­ing seam. The thread com­ing through in front of the seam holds the buckle on.

Some Ran­dom Thoughts on Mak­ing Medi­eval Reproductions

Build­ing repro­duc­tion medi­eval objects for reen­act­ment is an exer­cise in com­prom­ise. There are occa­sions where an object can be recre­ated using noth­ing but accur­ately repro­duced tools and mater­i­als pro­duced and pro­cessed as they would have been for the ori­ginal object, but these are rare oppor­tun­it­ies and often expens­ive undertakings.

For the rest of us try­ing to build accur­ate repro­duc­tions for reen­act­ment or liv­ing his­tory pur­poses, we have to make com­prom­ises in the tools, mater­i­als, and tech­niques we use. The ques­tion then for me is about the com­prom­ises and choices I make in my work.

When it comes to medi­eval shoes we are lucky to have a fairly large num­ber of extant pieces from the high middle ages and early mod­ern period, and a fair few from earlier cen­tur­ies, that tell us quite a lot about their con­struc­tion, but that rel­at­ive abund­ance of extant pieces is tempered by a great lack of any inform­a­tion on exactly how the con­struc­tion was car­ried out in those peri­ods.
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Site Changes

I’m in the pro­cess of migrat­ing the site to new host­ing, which is entail­ing some back end and theme changes.

Please bear with me while I work through the issues that are crop­ping up. I hope the changes will prove worth­while and enable me to post more use­ful con­tent more regularly.

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