The Artisans

The Artisans: Shepherd’s Grove

June 12th, 2017 10 Comments

I think it’s safe to say that Americans and the English are the loopiest pet lovers in the world, particularly when it comes to dogs. We gear our homes to our dogs; our cars are bought to accommodate our dogs as much as to get us from point A to point B; our clothes advertise our favorite breed; our bumper stickers extol the virtues of our breed over all others; and we apologize for the condition of our homes and cars and clothes with even more bumper stickers. (“My car is not dirty. That’s my dog’s nose art.”) Television shows about dogs are perennial favorites and some of us even pretend we watch because they’re educational. Dog food today includes delicacies such as pomegranate and bison that many of us like in our own diets, and today’s dog’s bed is probably the same Tempur-Pedic mattress as yours. This is probably because he sleeps on the bed with you, but even if he is forced to rough it in his own bed it’s probably better quality than your mattress. The pet industry generates almost $70 billion—billion—a year. Oh yeah, we love our dogs.

The vast bulk of the dog-related stuff we buy is unnecessary, but so what? If it gives us pleasure, or if it gives our dogs pleasure, well, why not? The problem is that much of the dog-related stuff for sale is pretty tacky. Most of it consists of cheap computerized images of our favorite breed on products badly made in China out of materials that are probably hazardous to both our health and the health of our dogs. Not, in short, the kind of stuff you can take pride in.

Enter Shepherd’s Grove (shepherds-grove.com). Christine Albertini is the unlikely owner and artist behind some of the most beautiful ceramic ware you can find anywhere, celebrating virtually any and every breed you can think of.

Why unlikely? Well, a graduate degree in biology with an emphasis on riparian water quality is hardly a natural springboard for a business in handmade stoneware decorated in traditional Portuguese patterns with custom-painted dogs. But dogs sometimes have a way of altering life-courses.

Christine’s brother was very active in German shepherd rescue and needed to find a home for pup. Christine took the rescue, who became her best buddy. When he died—too young, always too young—she wanted something with his image on it, but she couldn’t find anything she liked. Always artistic, she taught herself how to slip cast. It’s such an easy thing to say, but it is actually a complex process, so it is safe to say that Christine also had a natural mechanical aptitude. “Slip” is the name for a liquid clay that is poured into molds (as opposed to thicker and denser clay that is worked on a wheel), hence the term “slip casting.” It’s a process that may go back to mid-eighteenth-century England, or mid-eighteenth-century France, or over a thousand years to Peru, or to the ancient Romans, or to the ancient Greeks, or… Let’s just say it’s a process that has been around for a while, but it’s still complex, time-consuming, and requires multiple steps and a lot of skill.

Today Christine and her husband and another German shepherd named Dante (a name that discourages entering without knocking first: “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.”) live in the magical, gingerbread, northern-California town of Eureka, where Christine makes a variety of microwave-, dishwasher-, and oven-safe stoneware decorated, in addition to the traditional Portuguese pattern, with any breed your heart desires. She will even match the image’s color to your dog’s coat color. At least, she matched the gifts I bought for my bride to the colors of the two most spoiled, pampered, and loved Australian shepherds anywhere in this world or the next.

The Artisans: Joe Smithson

March 18th, 2017 5 Comments

 

If I were going to make an argument about which man-made item most closely approaches perfection when it comes to the integration between man and tool, I would be torn between a handmade musical instrument and a custom firearm. Both can be mass produced and will achieve admirable results in a competent owner’s hands, but when handmade, either is capable of transcending its basic function. Think of a Stradivarius. Think of what Eric Clapton can do with a great guitar, or what Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix could do.

I’m certainly not going to compare music to hunting, but that same integration, where the tool becomes an extension of its owner’s will, is also applicable to fine, custom-made firearms.

 

Joe Smithson is one of the preeminent custom rifle makers in the world today. He is a graduate of Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, the school renowned for the gunsmithing program started in 1947 by P.O. Ackley of Ackley Improved cartridges fame. Smithson was able to study under some of the best gunsmiths in America, and went right from college to an apprenticeship with the legendary Jerry Fisher. Then he opened his own shop in Farmington, NM, before ultimately moving up to Provo, Utah where he now turns out works of functional art in wood and steel.

 

These are the kinds of rifles that are reminiscent of the guns the legendary and intrepid explorers of Africa and India carried, only those men would have been unable even to imagine the degrees of perfection and the technological advances that have come since those long-ago days.

Take a look at some of Joe’s masterpieces at http://www.smithson-gunmaker.com/

The Artisans: Horsewright Clothing and Tack

February 18th, 2017 6 Comments

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The Industrial Revolution and its handmaiden, mass production, transformed the lives and raised the standard of living of most of the world. That’s a good thing. But every form of progress has its price, and more products for more people for less money was paid for by the loss of something indefinable, something that cannot be measured or quantified or even easily expressed. The best I can do is compare two gun companies.

Remington and Boss were both founded in the early eighteen-hundreds (1816 and 1812, respectively). Remington’s Model 870 shotgun, which wasn’t even offered by the company until 1951, has been manufactured in numbers well north of eleven million. Boss has painstakingly hand-built fewer than eleven thousand shotguns, total, since it was founded. The 870 will break a clay or bring down a bird just as effectively as a Boss and it costs less than a thousand dollars. A Boss is no more efficient than an 870, yet even the well-heeled King George VI considered it too expensive for his budget, and a new one today would start around $75,000, more if you want a 28-gauge or a .410, and far more if you want customized engraving. One is a perfectly useful and inexpensive tool, while the other is a work of functional art that has that indefinable something that can only be described as soul.

It’s the difference between a Buick and a Bugatti. A Buick will move you down the road with comfort, safety, and efficiency. A classic Bugatti will move you just by looking at it.

What follows is a series of blogs about the men and women in America who still devote their lives to making useful things by hand. Nothing will be described in this series that couldn’t be made by machine in China, and bought cheaper at (fill in the name of your favorite mega-store), but all the products written about here will offer a link to a human mind, a human hand, a human heart, and a very human passion for perfection.

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I will start with Dave and Nichole Ferry, proprietors of Horsewright Clothing and Tack, because they are beloved and longtime friends.

Dave is a retired California Highway Patrol officer who started training horses and conducting horsemanship and vaquero-style roping clinics many decades ago while he was still on active duty and his hair was still jet black. He discovered he didn’t like many of the tools of the cowboy trade that were mass produced, and about the same time he discovered he had an innate skill for making things. Today, he and his wife Nichole hand make, one item at a time, a wide range of products: exquisite knives (which include the finest sheaths anywhere in the world, and many famous and gifted knife makers couldn’t make a decent sheath if you held them at gun point), wool vests, belts, purses, wildrags, chinks, chaps, charmitas, and a wide range of holsters.

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Each of Dave’s knives, working, sporting, or cooking, is specially designed for a specific purpose, but almost all good knifemakers do that. What sets Dave apart is the time he spends painstakingly testing different steels for different purposes. New steels are constantly being developed, new forging techniques are being refined, and in some extreme cases, entirely new ways of thinking about steel have changed the knife-making process. The molecular structure of the steel, the Rockwell hardness, the profile of the blade, the ricasso, the curve, the bevels, the taper, the balance, how the blade is sharpened, the size and shape of the handle, even the choice of handle material, all these influence a knife’s suitability for specific task.

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To give you an idea of the pride Dave and Nichole take in their craftsmanship, they offer a lifetime guarantee on everything they build, no questions asked. And to give you an idea of how seriously they take this, they built a brand-new knife for a gentleman who managed to run over his original Horsewright blade with a mower-deck. That’s customer service.

Contact them here: http://www.horsewrightclothing.com/

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