another room in the warren?
This may start with a camera case - but as I have come to discover, most really great adventures end up in a place that you could not have imagined. This is one of those adventures.
I was lucky enough to be able to buy a friends Leica M9 several years ago. A marvelous camera that is (still) well beyond my skills... but I love it - for a list of reasons that is too long to start compiling here (this is going to be a rather long entry I fear). It came with a wonderful leather case from Luigi - a rather well known case maker for Leica cameras. The only downside to it is that it does not accommodate a wonderful little aftermarket add on by 'Thumbs up' that fits into the flash shoe. This little piece adds a whole lot of functionality to holding the camera... so I was really torn between the two.
(the 'Thumbs up!' installed)
The solution was to find a skilled leather worker who could modify the leather case to accommodate the Thumbs-up. I asked my friend Al at Loop Clothing in Waterloo... he told me to contact Parker Murakami at Benchcraft - he said, “He is your guy... you will love him - into old cars and well made everything.”
So I called Parker and made an appointment to stop in to show him the case. He looked at it and figured he could do it. I went back a week later to pick it up. For some reason, he asked if I wanted a tour of their factory... that is where this adventure took a turn... a big, wonderful turn.
(the new modified leather case)
The Murakami family has been making high quality leather products in Kitchener for over 30 years. I had seen the storefront many times - it is in the same building as Natural Sports - the best fishing equipment supply place in town... but I didn’t really know the scope and scale of what Bench Craft did. It was full of assembly tables, industrial sewing machines and other purpose built machines for leather working. It was pretty impressive and inspiring. Parker gave me a tour, past rolls and rolls of leather and stacks and stacks of belts. We ended up at his bench - at the back of the space, and he started showing me some of his personal work. Thick, full grained black leather made into bracelets, belts and other fine pieces. I guess I “ooh’d and ah’d” enough, because he invited me to another part of the shop - behind a big steel door.
(the limited edition Murakami belt)
Even more personal work, an old Indian Motorcycle he is working on, a fantastic cafe style leather jacket and a particular belt which he promptly handed me. It reminded me of an old black belt I have had since high school - the buckle in particular. He could tell I was interested, so told me about it. The buckles were cast stainless steel - made locally in the 1980’s by the local Mennontes. It was new old stock - the last 50 buckles that were found in a barn or something and were offered to him. This was a limited edition belt - Number 10/50. Bridle leather is vegetable tanned in the States, using Canadian cow hides... and it was gorgeous (and I was already trying to figure out how to get one... it would be perfect with my heavy weight, raw denim jeans!). He said that most stainless steel bluckles are now made overseas and while they kinda look the same - they certainly aren’t. I asked why nobody makes them anymore, and it comes down to price, lack of interest and skill.
We agreed on a price for the belt, and I left home thinking about belts. ‘Thinking’ isn’t really fair - obsessing was more like it. I was lamenting that yet another high quality product was no longer being made in North America - let along locally. I had belts on the brain.
Within a few days, (while wearing my new belt), I was in the shop drilling another hole in a bronze lever cap. For the last 18+ years, all the little twisty bits of bronze that come off the drill press have been collecting in this big coffee tin. A few bronze off-cuts from sidewalls as well - but mostly bits from the drill press. It was overflowing and I figured I should finally take it to the local scrap yard. Seemed like a bit of a waste... bronze is frightfully expensive, and it is ‘worth more’ than scrap... if only there was something else I could do with it (you can see where this is going can’t you?).
Belts on the brain, constant curiosity, and recalling the bronze casting class I took with Stewart Smith at Sandra Dunn’s shop a year ago, and the dots all lined up. A frantic text to Sandra,
‘Sandra, is there going to be a bronze casting class again by chance?’
2 seconds later - another text - ‘Sandra - can you check with Stewart to see if C220 can be cast?. I have an idea...’
At this point, I had forgotten about work... the moment reminded me of that first sketch of what would become the K13. My mind was going faster than my hands could keep up with, ‘Using plane making off-cuts to cast a bronze buckle would be really, really cool... it should be inspired by the very planes it came from...and be made the way a plane maker would make a buckle... it wouldn’t all need to be cast... it could be fabricated... I don’t want it to look like the typical belt buckles that are all rounded over and somewhat ill defined and lumpy. I want this to have purpose, to be designed, to have an opinion - and to look like something I made - the buckle does not need to be an after-thought on a belt.’
Chamfers... there will be chamfers.
Sandra, ‘Yeah, funny you should ask, there is a class in 3 weeks - what’s going on?’
Lots of texts back and forth, and a spot reserved in the bronze casting class.
(a few of the buckle sketches)
Some back and forth between paper and the computer, a mock-up V1 that didn’t work and then a V2 that seemed promising - enough to generate a pattern.
A few pics of the V2 mock-up.
This is the Maple pattern I ended up with. Everything was left oversized - to allow for the odd pit here or there, and for the simple fact that it is easier to remove material from a casting... a lot tougher to add it after the fact.
I took the mock-up to show Parker and he placed it on one of his limited edition belts straps so I could see how it would look and how flat it would lay. The relationship between the leather strap, the tongue and the body of the buckle is a complex one - the leather should be as straight as possible to keep it from bulging under a shirt or sweater... or catching on anything. There are also weight issues - too heavy and it will sag and not sit straight, and if there are sharp edges, it can ‘pinch your fat’ (as my friend Jameel calls it:). As with most things... so many little details that you don’t even know exist until you are designing something. It was a great exercise, and I was pretty pleased with this first attempt.
(kinda weird taking a crotch-selfie... but whatcha gonna do? :)
There were a few changes to make to theV2 mock-up and the pattern, but nothing earth shattering that would require a V3 or new pattern.
It was a good thing too... because the casting class was right around the corner.
(File roll from Jason @ Texas Heritage... awesome tool roll!)
Sandra and I had stayed in touch, and one of the bits of information was that Stewart had never cast c220 bronze before... but he looked into it, and there wasn’t anything harmful (lead) in it, so it should be ok - ok enough to try it at least. This was good news mostly... at least we could try it.
I sorted through the scrap bucket and organized based on material. The brass bits were waste, and the old cast lever caps were a different type of bronze, so they weren’t going to be used either.
I packed the car early Saturday morning and just as I was about to leave, I went back into the shop and decided to bring the scrap with me... just in case. Really glad I did, because Stewart brought a second crucible specifically for testing my bronze! Things were looking very promising!
This is a series of shots showing most of the steps needed to make a sand casting of a pattern. I took these as much for myself as anything - so I could review the steps at a later date (and hopefully, more castings).
We were all totally shocked at how well these first 2 castings worked. They were clean, very few imperfections, and held detail incredibly well. It even picked up the scribe lines I had made when I was laying out the Maple pattern. I had always assumed sand casting was fairly crude... how wrong I was! Even the nail that was used to form the tunnel for the sprue ended up being cast.
When I returned home that first night, I took one of the castings and cleaned it up - I was dying to see how square it was, how clean it was, and if this was going to be an adventure - or a misadventure. I was thrilled with how clean it was, and returned the next day for show and tell. There was some very slight pitting where the sprue attached to the casting, so we made a few modifications to the set-up on the second day to see if we could get rid of it. We ran into issue after issue and the next time we cast these, we will return to the original layout and plan. It was a good reminder of how much experimenting it can take to figure things out... and just how lucky we were on the first day. I was able to get 5 good castings to work with - more than I had hoped for, and certainly enough to make a prototype buckle.
This was an early version of the prototype - where I shouldered the chamfers on the front corners. It wasn’t right, so I filed the chamfers all the way down. It looked much better.
I used a stainless steel cross pin to hold the tongue. Most buckles are cast with the pin integrated into the main casting. This works ok, but it means the tongue needs to be bent around the pin - a look I wasn’t crazy about, and by fabricating the buckle with a pin, it allowed me to make a tongue with a drilled out hole - a much cleaner look and more accurate movement.
The design language of this buckle is pretty obvious to me... but just in case...
The finished cast bronze buckle along with a completely fabricated stainless steel buckle I made... based on the stainless steel buckle made by the Mennonites in the 80’s. More on that one a little later on.
I kept in pretty close contact with Parker as I was making these - he was pretty curious and excited to see what I would come up with. I dropped off the two buckles last week and he gave me a tour of the leather he had available and that he recommended for these buckles. He very keenly understood my goal of ’pulling out all the stops’ for these. There isn’t much point putting all this time and effort into something if you aren’t going to try and knock it out of the park in every way.
The leather was stunning... dark brown for the bronze buckle, and natural for the stainless buckle. We decided to use Chicago screws in the construction - which would allow me to take the belt apart and remove the buckle if I needed to make any modifications to it, and to remove the keeper - so I could stamp it with a logo or some other mark at a later date. Time for something I am not good at... patiently waiting.