The artists behind our hat blocks
These days I get excited by craftsmanship. Not just the beauty of the end product but the individuals, processes, the tools, and the stories behind each piece.
Becoming a bespoke hatter, and thus a maker myself has given me a greater appreciation for the skills involved, often handed down from one maker to another; the labour of love involved on a piece by piece basis, the frustration of trying to create the actuality of your mind's eye, the continual problem solving when someone or something (namely what you're trying make) poses a challenge which requires you to do something different without showing you how... and the time, the time, the oh- so- much- time- involved in creating something by hand.
In a world of time = money, volume = cash, craftsmanship is at odds with commercialism. Ever heard of a wealthy craftsman or woman? Me neither... not yet anyway. But as woodworker Richard Maguire points out in his excellent post The price of a craftsman
All bespoke artisans, from hatters to tailors, from jewellers to bag makers rely on their fellow craftspeople for tools and materials of the trade. For example, the hat you commission from The City Milliner will - depending on whether it is panama, fur, wool or cloth- have included a weaver, a feltmaker, a block maker, a leather worker, a stamp maker to name a few. The tools used to create your hat may have included the handcrafted brim cutter, the hand carved tolliker, puller downer, stretcher and most probably a hat block.
It's particularly hard as a milliner/ hatter to find the tools for your trade. An industry which created thousands of patents for tools has all but died, and with it many of the tool-making skill sets. We hatters scrabble for tools on eBay, or we commision the few remaining tool makers who are scattered across the globe. And it's not cheap. In the image above you have probably the best part of £2300 worth of tools and several days of work from each of the artisans involved. Worth every single penny.
Those of you following us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook were made aware of our excitement when we knew our bespoke hat blocks would be delivered last week.
Hat blocks are one of the most important parts of a hatter's tool kit. These are the forms which the felt or panama body is stretched over- creating the mold of the hat. Hatters like myself use the wooden forms - larger manufacturers use metal blocks. A hand carved wooden block start from £95 ranging into the upper hundreds of £s.
The particuarly squeak worthy delivery of blocks were from Boon & Lane, one of the last surviving hat block makers in the world. Is it workshop of 10 or even 5 people? - nope it's a team of two- Alan Davies and Steve Lane.
In their Luton workshop and foundry they make both aluminium and wooden blocks for hatters large and small across the globe. Christies, Frederick Fox, Philip Treacy, the who's who of the hat world are amongst their past and present client list.
For our hat-blocks I'd briefed Alan with what I thought I needed- 3 crown blocks and 4 brim blocks so I could handshape open crowns fedoras, trilbies and homburgs. He helped me to glean what I actually needed- we shared some doodles via the net- talked a little more- and then I left him to it to do his magic. Tania and I have been to their workshop, we've seen the hundreds of shapes in his studio, I know his client list include the great and global, and in a dwindling trade- they've survived. I knew we were in good hands.
Each block, whether aluminium or wood requires a mixture of skill and precision, coupled with years of experience and patience- from being able to translate the customers vision into a form, to creating the form to the exacting shapes and sizes required and managing the multiple variables of wood, plaster, metal, weather, glue, varnish.
The Making of our Hat Blocks
I asked Alan to document the process of our hat blocks with photos.
As the wood used by Alan is kiln treated Obeche wood the story starts not in Luton, but Africa. Triplochiton scleroxylon (for the tree geeks) these tropical trees are found in Benin, Cameroon, Congo, DRC, Côte d'Ivoire; Equatorial Guinea; Ghana; Guinea; Liberia; Nigeria; Sierra Leone. Recognisable for their long trunks and highly elevated crowns, popular in the timber trade, the wood from these are particularly good for making hat blocks due to the absence of knots in the wood, and the wood being lightweight but strong (us milliners have a habit of sticking hatblocks with pins which requires resilience yet they need to be light enough to be carried from work bench to work bench).
Depending on the height of the finished block, 2/3 pieces of wood are glued and compressed together before being left to dry. Once dry the basic shapes are cut out with a band saw and then the chiselling, measuring, carving, measuring, sanding, measuring process begins to get the exacting curves and shape of the block.
As our hat crown blocks need to fit within the brims block as seen below taking into account the hat body whether it be panama or felt- it is vital that their sizing is precise.
Once sanded the blocks are then varnished with up to 5 coats of yacht varnish- each requiring drying time between. I asked Alan how long it takes- 'it depends' he said 'on the wood, the weather, the complexity of the piece...'
I asked Alan what was the most frustrating part of his work 'its the money, we're not charging enough...' yet he's aware milliners can't afford more.
Its amazing how some of the merest transactional services can cost thousands yet an object created by hand barely covers the time and effort spent on it. Which is why the heart has to be involved.. and why Francis Assisi quote rings true- it's more than craft- it is art.
And Alan & Steve are artists. The finished result, the beauty of these blocks, built to last hundreds of pins, strings, the onslaught of steam, stiffener..means these tools- their art will be around long after Alan and Steve. The tools will outlast their makers, having formed hundreds of hats, worked on by dozens of hatters and milliners - just like this one which we found this weekend dating from 1939.
This was made by William Plant a hat block turner which ran from 1828 and finally closed in 1976.