Wooden Cowboy Hat

Wooden Cowboy Hat

A Texas turner travels "down under" to find the perfect chapeau.

By Ray Lanham

From the time I turned my first bowl over 40
years ago I’ve been captivated by the spiritual
nature of creating art on the lathe. I met
many talented woodturners during the ‘70s and ‘80s,
when I taught woodworking in Sydney, Australia, but
at the time, I didn’t take the initiative to learn from
them. Big mistake! Woodturning was about to experience
phenomenal innovation and tremendous
growth, and Australian woodturners and manufacturers
were to be enormously influential. When I
returned to visit Australia in 2002, the advances in
techniques and equipment were so dramatic, I felt as
if I was discovering woodturning for the first time.

Guilio Marcolongo is one of the Australian woodturners
who inspired me and helped develop my
turning skills. When I visited his shop last year, a striking
wooden cowboy hat caught my eye. Being from
Texas, I had to have one of my own, and without hesitation,
Guilio agreed to teach me how to turn one.
Guilio explained that he had learned the technique
a few years earlier from JoHannes Michelson, during
an American Association of Woodturners symposium
at which they both were demonstrating.
JoHannes, of Vermont (www.woodhat.com), is one
of America’s two premier hat-turners. Chris Ramsey
of Kentucky (www.knot-head.com) is the other. This
is the story of my own hat-turning experience.

1. My hat starts out as a green wood, 100-lb. slab of
Australian Coastal Banksia, a gift from my instructor,
Guilio Marcolongo. The first step is to establish the hat’s
crown and brim diameters.

Click on any image to view a larger version

2. A slab of this size and weight requires a heavy-duty
lathe. I attach a faceplate so I can mount the slab on
the headstock. Eventually, the area around the faceplate
will be hollowed out to fit over my head.

3. I discover that “facing off” (leveling)
the end of that huge hunk of
wet, spinning wood takes nerves of
steel. The rough, unbalanced slab
requires support from the tailstock as
well as the headstock.

4. As I true the edge of the blank,
I’m amazed how difficult it is to
keep the gouge steady. Turning a
slab of this size and mass is challenging,
to say the least!

5. This project requires razor-sharp
tools, so I stop often to resharpen.
I’m feeling more comfortable
now, because the rough turning is
completed and the blank is balanced.
The brim and crown are just starting
to take shape.

6. Guilio measures for my hat
size. Since our heads are
oval, he measures the length
and width of my head and
applies those numbers to a hat
size-calculating formula to
determine the appropriate size.

7. Now the curly shavings begin to slice off like butter.
Water liberated from the green wood runs down my
bowl gouge onto my arm and feet. Waterproof clothing,
Guilio says, is fashionable attire for green-wood turners.

8. Nearing the final shape, we pause to measure the
crown, making allowance for the final inside size. Hatturning
may be an art, but it’s an art that requires precise
measuring. Specialty calipers make this task easier.

9. After thinning the brim to 3/8 in., I
establish the top of the crown and
begin to turn down the waste to create
a tenon. When the hat is remounted to
hollow out the crown, a four-jaw chuck
will grip the tenon.

10. Once the dovetail-shaped tenon
is correctly sized, I remove the
tailstock support and pare away the
nib. Thus far, my only turning tool has
been a 1/2 in. bowl gouge with a modified
fingernail grind.

11. I switch to a rounded skew to
shape the crown and smooth
the transition to the brim. You can
clearly see the raised hatband.

12. Brushing on a
mixture
of steel
wool dissolved in apple
cider vinegar creates
the ebonized hatband.
When the ferrous-rich
mixture contacts tannin
in the wood, the band
turns black almost
immediately.

13. A texturing wheel fitted onto a
homemade handle creates a
unique “woven” texture on the blackened
hatband.

14. To finish the brim and hollow the crown, the hat must be turned around
and remounted, while remaining perfectly centered. Guilio explains that
the four-jaw chuck centers the top end by gripping the dovetailed tenon. At the
other end, a cone center mounted in the tailstock centers the faceplate.

15. With the brim thinned to just
over 1 mm, we remove the
faceplate and tailstock. Wall thickness
near the brim must be reduced quickly
now, as the brim is starting to dry out.
To keep the wood moist, we continuously
spray the hat with water.

16. Wet wood is translucent, so
bright light stationed behind
makes it easy to establish uniform
thickness across the brim. Using a
very sharp bowl gouge, I simply “turn
to the color” of the desired thickness.

17. With the brim at final thickness,
I turn my attention to removing
the waste from the center of the crown.
I’ve returned to the 1/2 in. bowl gouge
and positioned the tool rest inside the
cavity for maximum support.

18. I’ve moved the
light
to the side
of the hat and turned
the crown’s wall thickness
“to color,” as
before. The end result
is approximately 1
mm (3/64 in.) thick.

19. I’ve reoriented the hat again to
finish the crown. The hat is
mounted on a “jam chuck,” a foamcushioned
wooden block shaped to fit
inside the crown. The tailstock center
presses the hat against the jam chuck.

20. A light inside the jam chuck
allows me to achieve uniform
thickness while I create the outside
rim and domed center of the crown’s
top. This is delicate work.

21. Light sanding readies the hat
for its final shaping, which is
done off the lathe. When the hat is
thoroughly dry, it will weigh about
eight ounces, over 99 lbs. less than
the original blank.

22. Removing the finished hat
from the jam chuck is harrowing.
The wood has shrunk during the
process and I’m afraid one wrong tap
will cause irreparable damage.

23. Tightening the threaded rod on a homemade bending jig compresses
the hat into an oval shape that matches the measurements we
took of my head. Our continuous re-wetting of the hat during the turning
process has kept it pliable.

24. Installing heavy rubber bands gradually bends and
shapes the brim. The threaded rod has to be
adjusted occasionally to maintain the correct front-to-back
and side-to-side measurements. Is my head too big now?

25. I can hardly believe I did it! The hat stays in the
bending form until it is thoroughly dry—about 150
hours, according to Guilio. Still to come are final sanding
and multiple coats of wipe-on polyurethane.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker July 2008, issue #136.

July 2008, issue #136

Purchase this back issue.