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Turning Wood Into Heirloom Hats

Chris Ramsey has made wearable art in the form of delicately lightweight yet sturdy wooden hats for congressmen, governors, an heiress, and the president of the United States. A data cable specialist and carpenter by trade, Ramsey’s business, Knot-Head: Turned Wood of Distinction, began with a tree slated for the landfill, a spouse’s request, and a touch of serendipity.

“Kathy asked me to make her a wooden bowl with a flange so she could put an ivy plant into it and have the leaves flow over the wood,” recalls Ramsey. “I was already hooked on turning because my identical twin brother, David, surprised me with a small Delta lathe for a birthday gift.”


Several weeks later while sanding the bowl, Ramsey saw another shape emerge in the cherry wood: an Amish-type hat.


In between visualizing a hat in the bowl’s silhouette almost six years ago to delivering the English walnut cowboy hat for George W. Bush last February, Ramsey estimates there are some 1,000 hand-turned decorative, yet made-to-be-worn hats. The first 100 or so pieces were experimental as Ramsey worked with different hardwoods (cherry, walnut, maple, and oak), practiced his skills, and improved his technique. The latter 300-plus are numbered and dated and note the type of wood from which the hat is made.


“The hats are gorgeous, real pieces of art,” says Tom Rathert, a consultant forester in Lexington, Indiana, who met Ramsey four or five years ago at the Kentucky State Fair. As Ramsey turned a hat at his booth, Rathert spied one made of wormy red maple and commented on it.


“It was marked ‘ambrosia maple,’ which sounds better than ‘wormy red maple,”” Rathert chuckled. There is, in fact, an ambrosia beetle–loggers and foresters call it a flag worm–that attacks trees, creating very appealing colors and patterns and making it the wood of choice among Ramsey’s customers for cowboy, ladies’ sun, and Outback-style hats.


Rathert and his wife, Angela, own his-and-hers cowboy hats of wormy red maple, as well as hats made of big-leaf maple burl and red oak. Rathert likes to wear one of his heirloom hats when he goes to horse shows.
“It fits just like a regular hat, feels very light and comfortable, and I usually get a lot of practice taking it off because everyone wants to see it.”



These days, besides wearing Ramsey’s wood creations, Rathert is supplying some of the timber for them in the way of trees slated for a landfill or to be burned or buried. Ramsey himself spends a lot of time inspecting and evaluating downed or felled trees in his quest for the perfect piece.



“You can really show off a piece of wood slated for the landfill with a hat,” says Ramsey.



What Ramsey identifies as “perfect” is called a tree wart among foresters and loggers. But these diamonds in the rough, known as burls, have something Ramsey finds irresistible for his purposes: no grain. He explains: “Inside a burl, or knot, there is no directional grain pattern; the grain swirls around inside itself. You just pick the prettiest spot on the hat and make that the front.



“It’s a wonderful material to work with, but the loggers don’t want it because they can’t sell it. Farmers don’t want it because they can’t split it for firewood. Millers don’t want it because it’s not clean. This is stuff loggers and farmers burn and bury, but it’s a dream come true for me and exactly what I need.”



Ramsey turns green wood–wood that is kept wet in order to keep the wood fresh, pliable, and green.
“Most wood turners would take a piece of wood that has been kiln-dried or air-dried for a year before they would turn it. One thing about doing hats is if you take a dry piece of wood and do a hat, you can’t bend it. If it’s green, you can bend it.



“With the western hats, I can get a piece of wood to curl up inside itself three or four times over. It’s amazing what you can do with an eighth of an inch of wood.”



From each chunk of wood, Ramsey creates a full-size, wearable hat that measures from 12 inches (derby and tops hats) to 20 inches (sunhats) in diameter. The leftover pieces of wood were originally viewed as potential firewood, but in a reversal of the adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Ramsey figured out how to put the cut wood back onto the lathe, “true it up and get it round again,” and make what are now highly collectible miniature hats and mirror frames that he trims with a decorative bead.
“Instead of gunking up our earth, I’m using these trees to create some pretty interesting pieces of artwork.”



“Chris Ramsey’s wooden hats and other items are truly works of art–in the folk art vein, perhaps–and the skill, technical aspects, and the total understanding of wood required to create such marvels are no less than remarkable,” says John Rice Irwin. “I have known thousands of so-called craftspeople, and only one or two are in the same league as Chris Ramsey.”



Irwin is the founder and owner of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, billed as the most authentic and complete replica of Appalachian pioneer life in the world. Here he exhibits several of Ramsey’s hats in the museum’s second-floor folk art section in the Appalachia Hall of Fame gallery. “Everyone is most impressed with these spectacular pieces, but it is the more advanced artisans of woodworking who appreciate the hats most. They marvel that such a feat could be done–and so do I.”



Born in New York City, Ramsey was educated in Utah, California, and Kentucky. Before he began turning on a Delta lathe, he worked as a technician in the electronics industry, a manager for a construction company, a builder, and a facilities manager of a major bank. Until January, he operated his own business, American Network Cable. He is now an award-winning master turner whose work has been shown all over the United States and in Japan and Italy. He is a member of the American Association of Woodturners, Southern Highlands Craft Guild, Sheltowee Artisans, Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, Louisville Area Woodturners, Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation, and Kentucky Craft Marketing Program.



“Chris’ turned hats represent a truly unique style of woodturning,” says Fran Redmon of the Kentucky Craft Marketing Program. “Kentucky boasts many highly talented woodturners, and his fanciful designs present this craft in a totally innovative way and are an exciting thing to see. We were thrilled to have him join the Craft Marketing Program and participate in Kentucky Crafted: The Market. In his first show, his hats were purchased by both Governor Paul Patton and WHAS reporter Barry Bernson.”


These aren’t the only people Ramsey would like to see sporting his hats. His dream heads to fit are Kentucky natives John Michael Montgomery and actress Ashley Judd. Montgomery saw the hats at his concert in Somerset last year and brought Ramsey backstage to learn more about them. Due to the country music singer’s busy schedule, though, Ramsey has yet to measure his head. For Judd–a well-known University of Kentucky Wildcats devotee–he envisions crafting a baseball cap with a blue UK logo.


“She’s always busy with a shoot, but I’d really like to get her a UK hat because she’s such a fan,” says Ramsey, who happens to be a distant cousin of Judd’s. “I’d actually like to do one for all the Judds.”



Ramsey uses a variety of woods and finishes (matte and low, medium, and high gloss) and designs a number of styles: cowboy, derby, top hat, baseball cap, fishing, Outback, golf, and garden hats. Brim sizes range from 12 to 20 inches and crown sizes range from 4 to 8 inches, depending on the style of the hat. Approximate weight is 7 to 12 ounces. Carvings are available as are one-of-a-kind hat stands. Prices vary according to choice of wood, carving, and style.
“The hats are so different and so unique,” says Ramsey. “When people hear that you make wooden hats, their first thought is, ‘They must be so heavy,’ but it’s the kind of thing you have to touch. They really hit a note with people.”



For more information about Chris Ramsey’s wooden hats, contact Knot-Head: Turned Wood of Distinction at 212 Ohio Street, Somerset, KY 42501, (606) 677-2466, e-mail artist@knot-head.com, Web site: www.knot-head.com.







THIRTEEN STEPS TO SCULPTURE ART


In crafting each wooden hat, Chris Ramsey follows 13 steps that begin with a customized sizing of the head using a curved flexible ruler and end with the application of about 20 coats of lacquer to bring out the beauty of the wood.



In between, Ramsey selects the wood–with an eye to grain, burl, imperfections, and inclusion of bark–prepares the “blank” (the piece of wood from which the hat will be cut), then rounds it on his lathe. Ramsey then shapes and hollows the hat, striving for his benchmark 3/32 of an inch thickness. If there is to be personalized carving, such as a sports team logo, this is done next, by hand, just before the final removal of wood.



The final steps are mechanical sanding, burnishing the hatband, bending, and final shaping–an intensive hands-on process that lasts for three to five days–and a final sanding by hand.






FAMOUS “KNOT-HEADS”


Chris Ramsey has fit heads of state and crowned heads of industry: An English walnut cowboy hat for President Bush. For Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers of the fifth district office in Somerset, two cowboy hats: one of wild cherry, the other of wormy red maple. And for Elizabeth Goth, heiress to The Wall Street Journal, a dressage riding top hat.



“Most of the celebrities are finding me through the Museum of Appalachia. There are so many people who roll through there.” Museum founder and musician John Irwin is so impressed with the hats that he wears them onstage and in galleries around the world. Other people find Ramsey by surfing the Internet.



Other “Knot-Heads” include: Former New Jersey governor (and present administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency) Christie Todd Whit-man ordered a red oak cowboy hat.



Another cowboy hat went to horsewoman Misdee Wrigley of Wrigley’s Gum fame.


Ruth Summers, director of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, possesses a cherry baseball cap. Jim Shugrue, volunteer coordinator for the guild, requested a cherry cowboy hat.


Governor Paul Patton has several of Ramsey’s hats, as do his daughter and two of his brothers-in-law.
“Hank Williams Jr. saw my hats at the Museum of Appalachia and wants a top hat,” says Ramsey. “He needs to be measured, but he travels a lot so I have to figure out how to make it happen.”

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