Leatherworking with Flowerpots

The stave tankard has reached a point of endless tinkering to get it juuuuusssst right for it to hold water. At this point, it’s still mostly a lovingly handmade oak colander. There’s definitely a reason people devoted their lives to mastering this craft.

I’ll post updates as I progress, or if I throw in the towel. Let’s move on to other ways to get beer from the tap to the table.

One of the first research adventures I embarked upon as I started thinking about this project was chasing down the makers of all those leather bottels, jugs, and jacks that you see in the museums and hanging from the belts of people at renaissance faires. I was curious because I’ve been a leatherworker all my life and I wanted to chase down the authenticity of some of the pieces you see most often.

I was a bit surprised to discover that the advent of glass and ceramics had driven the leather bottellers into the arms of the Horner’s Company in 1467. So we’re going to explore both leather and horn with this project.

Honestly, the alliance makes perfect sense. Horn and leather were the plastics of the early modern world. The methods used to form both horn and leather are very similar. The material is soaked until it becomes pliable and then formed over a matrix, which was usually made of wood. For leather, we use hot water to soften the collagen and for Horn, a weak base solution such as ammonia (probably distilled from urine).

We’re going to start with leather because it’s where I’m already most comfortable. This one will go by pretty quickly because I’m in my element.

A wet leather Commedia del Arte mask mounted over 
a handcarved wooden matrix.

I’ve written a lot about making leather goods, mostly commedia dell arte masks, but I’ve never made any household goods like drinking vessels. Most of the drinking vessels used by the common folk of London right up until the 18th century were leather. Mugs, bombards, costrels, these things are often found in shipwrecks and in the void spaces of old buildings in Europe.

Because I haven’t done a drinking vessel before, I’m not going to start big. The logical place to start would be something small, like a tankard. So that’s what I’m going to do. The thing is, without a lathe to my name (we’ll get to wood turning later in the year) it would take a lot of effort to put together a nice round matrix for a mug that’s just a learning piece.

So to the Goodwill I go.

I was looking for something that was beaker-shaped and found this flowerpot. So we’re going to go with it because – to be honest – it doesn’t matter what you form it over. Most leather commedia masks these days are made on concrete matrices. I’m the only maskmaker I know who still uses wood.

The shape of the final leather piece is the important thing here. If you want to do this yourself, I’d advise that you go to this blog post I wrote awhile back about preparing the leather and then this one about wet-forming that leather.

The upshot is this:

  1. Wrap some paper around your matrix to get a pattern and then cut your leather. Use vegetable tanned leather.
  2. Soak your leather in hot water from the tap. Hot enough to say “Yeow! That’s hot!” but not hot enough to burn you. Leather is skin and if it will damage you, it will damage the leather. You’re reactivating the collagen in the leather, but you don’t want to extract it and dry out the leather.
  3. Find or cut a round plug that is the size of the inside circumference and do the same thing with the leather wrapped over it.
  4. Wrap the leather around your form and secure it in place then set it aside to dry.

For the record, those cable ties will leave marks on the leather but I’m okay with that. In this case, the incised marks will be decorative.


One of the reasons I wanted to do this mug first (and why I don’t care about the matrix material) is because I wanted to practice the stitches I’ll need to make a bombard or a costrel. 
One of the keys to the tight, water-proof seams is the double rows of stitching that are offset as you can see in the picture below. 
There’s a lot of information out there about boiling the leather in wax or whathaveyou. I’ve heard it works, but didn’t try it this time. This one will be lined with either brewer’s pitch or a similar food-safe resin because I want to use it and not get sick. 
But really, it’s just nice to make a mug that doesn’t leak all over the daggum workbench.

Read more in the book Black Jacks and Leather Bottells by Oliver Baker

~Scott

4 comments

  1. I made a bottell last year as a gift for my brother. Sealing it with wax was easier than I thought it would be. It does take quite a bit of beeswax though. For a supply of that, I would recommend a beekeeper if you can find one or a beekeeping supply place. I found them to be cheaper than candle suppliers…

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  2. Sorry, I somehow missed this comment when it first appeared. I have a great farmer's market nearby with beekeepers galore trying to sell me ingots of wax, so I am squared on that front. Much appreciated, as always!

    Like

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