Rejuvenating a Leather Shearling Jacket

Of the many possessions my brother’s godfather owned that were handed down when he passed-on several years ago, one thing that really stood out had to be an old sheepskin shearling jacket. You can tell a lot about a man (or woman) about the clothes he (or she) wears. He had an eye for quality, he spent a pretty penny to acquire the best he could get, and he took care of his kit.

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This is the jacket, and as you can see the leather is worn, dry, and in need of reconditioning after sitting in the basement for nearly a decade. I could not see any brand label embossing on the leather or inside the jacket, but a tag on the neck read “Made in Turkey, size M”… I presume the “M” stands for medium. There was also a leather label inside on the left pocket.

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As far as I can tell, this inner lining doesn’t appear to be real fleece, but rather a “Sherpa” style of artificial synthetic fleece. But I could be wrong, as I don’t have any real fleece to compare it to.

So, for rejuvenating leather, I prefer a simple beeswax and lanolin oil cream. I would avoid the conditioners used on fancy dress shoes, because those leathers are typically made from cow hide. Sheepskin is more delicate than cow hide, and as such, requires a more mild approach. I use LL Bean Boot Guard, it does the job just fine.

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Starting with the collar. The darkened bit is the reconditioned leather.

Using bare hands, take some of the cream onto your fingers and rub it briskly into the leather. The heat from your hand combined with friction will help the conditioner soak in better. Apply liberally to particularly dry areas and stress points (shoulder, under arm, and elbow). Do this over all the leather surfaces, including any straps or pockets.

When the entire surface is completed, let it sit for about half an hour. If there are any dry spots left, repeat the process on those areas. Then go over everything with a clean, soft bristle brush or a rag to wipe away any excess conditioner and to bring a light sheen to the leather.

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And here we are, all finished :). Notice how much darker the leather is now that it has been reconditioned. This is what the jacket would have looked like brand new. Compare this photo to the first one in the post, and you can see tiny dark spots that reveal the colour it used to be ;).

That said, the jacket is a bit roomy across the chest, but otherwise a great fit for me. It won’t be waterproof, so I would need an outer shell for protection from precipitation.This jacket will of course need continuous care and maintenance – depending on the level of activity, I would recondition the leather twice a year, once at the beginning of the cold months, and again before you put it away for next winter, or once a month during winter. Be mindful of abrasives and sharp things coming in contact with the leather, and steer clear of thorns. Store your leather clothing (including boots) in a cool place with relative humidity, not too dry nor too humid. Like all quality kit, if you take care of it, it will last a lifetime and possibly more, perhaps becoming a “hand-me-down” or heirloom for the next generation :).

There is much talk and popularity of “old-fashioned” canvas and leather gear for Bushcraft, but the fact remains that these materials are outclassed today by modern synthetics which are arguably stronger, more weather resistant, and certainly lighter. Weighing-in at about 5 pounds/2.3 kg, this is not something I would take with me for backpacking. Even my wool sweater weighs less and isn’t nearly as bulky. I could achieve the same insulation value with my fleece pullover and my cycling jacket, which would weigh less than half as much, and take up half the space in my pack. Just something to consider.

But for chores around the house and short day hikes, it will suit me well when the mercury falls.

 

Let it Snow

Oh, the weather outside is delightful :). 3 inches/7.5 cm of new snow on the ground with more to come, and the woodland was still and silent, no other biped but me. This winter has turned out to be a good one, we’ve now just topped our seasonal average for snowfall accumulation, reaching 40 inches/102 cm.

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There’s nothing quite like the feel of fresh powder beneath your snowshoes ;). Just out for a short day hike to enjoy the snow, but I also took my newly refurbished full-sized axe with me.

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This plastic bag kept the snow off.

Winter is prime-time to hone your tracking skills, if there’s snow on the ground, that is. Not only is it good to read the landscape and see how the wildlife are living day-to-day, but it can be very useful for pointing-out abnormalities. Just the other day at work, one of the park rangers showed me the footprints from a rather grisly encounter. Closer inspection revealed a fight between two dogs, or perhaps a dog and a coyote. There was a trail of blood and canine prints leading away from the spot where the fight had occurred, but it was impossible to tell much else because the snow had been cleared along the adjacent path where the prints originated. The ranger and I found two canine hairs, but we are both unsure if they belong to a domestic dog or a coyote.

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These are the prints of a Grey Squirrel coming from either of those two trees.

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One of many deer trails in the area, these tracks are relatively fresh. And nearby I spotted an antler rub on a young Black Oak.

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This is a dead giveaway that there’s at least one buck in the area. The stags do this to scrape off the velvet from their antlers.

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Holy smokes!! Bigfoot tracks!! Oh wait, they’re mine, hahaha :p.

Normally I wouldn’t advise bringing along a full-sized axe for general outings, but for trail maintenance, the extra weight in the head and longer helve give it an advantage when cutting large timber. There weren’t any downed trees blocking the paths, so I chose a fallen oak log about 8 inches/20 cm diameter off trail to test the axe’s performance.

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The wood was well seasoned and frozen, which made it quite hard and a bit difficult to chop. I got through it, but I can tell that swinging an axe this size will take some getting used to. It is important to flex your knees when you bring the axe down to chop so that you change the circular swinging motion into a straight, parallel one – this minimises injury and allows you get more momentum with each chop. Don’t force the axe down onto the wood, let the weight of the head do the work. Nevertheless, my arms were tired afterwards :p. But the edge stayed perfectly intact, no rolling, chips, or blunt spots to be seen, still hair-popping sharp – I am quite happy with that :).

And to end my wander…

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…here’s some frosty epic beard-ness :D.

Beards and moustaches provide a natural means for preventing frostnip and even frostbite on the lower face (and neck, if your beard is long enough) by shielding the skin from wind and snow. Inuit men grow moustaches for exactly this reason.

 

Restoring the Family Axe: Part 2

Now that the axe head itself has been refurbished, all that’s left is to fashion a sheath and hang a handle. My personal goal for this project was spend as little money as necessary. My leather supply was low, but fortunately it was just enough to get the job done. I don’t have rivets, so I decided to make a simple stitched sheath.

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Measure twice, cut once ;). When making sheaths for edged tools, it is important to include a welt for safety purposes, both for the user and the tool itself. It protects the blade from cutting through stitching and becoming exposed, and it saves the edge from being damaged by rivets.

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Here’s the completed sheath – the strap came from an old mess kit.

For the helve, my search led me to the local hardware store, but I was very disappointed to find that almost every handle (except one at 28 inch/71 cm for a boy’s axe) was cross-grained. They were also heavily coated in a shellac. I do know that there are reliable online sources for purchasing axe helves, but then again the forests here offer a variety a hardwoods from which to construct a suitable handle; among the choices are American Ash, American Beech, and a selection of hickories.

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This Shagbark Hickory provided me with deadfall from which to create a helve, though it didn’t turn out the way I expected. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but no worries, I would just have to search a bit harder for a suitable handle. I finally found a good selection of axe handles at another hardware store out of town for reasonable prices, and so I bought a 36 inch/91 cm helve that fit my hand comfortably and had decent grain orientation. It is fairly straight with a slight fawn’s foot at the knob.

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Yes, there is some heartwood, but in my experience, this is not much of an issue. The helve on my Gränsfors is almost completely heartwood, and it has never cracked or split on me. The USFS does not require their axe handles to only have sapwood, and heartwood is not considered a defect.

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I prefer to “pick and choose” by going to a store rather than buying an axe helve online because you never really know what you may get. You may receive a spectacular handle, but then again, you may get a cross-grained, misshapen piece of junk. Some websites do offer a “hand-picked selection” option, though you’ll be paying premium, and combine that with the shipping, and you’ll be spending a considerable amount of money. I paid $15.

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This handle was coated in shellac, so the first job is to remove it. You can use a coarse grit sandpaper, but using a knife speeds up the process much quicker and doesn’t leave heavy marks. Simply bring the blade perpendicular to the helve and push down. With a light, you should be able to tell the difference from the bare wood and the shellac. After I scraped it off, I sanded the helve first with 40 grit sandpaper, and finishing with 100 grit.

The wedge slot also needed to be a bit deeper to accommodate the wooden wedge, so I carefully sawed about an inch/2.5 cm further. Next comes the tedious process of shaping the cheeks to fit the axe’s eye. I used an old Simon’s four-in-hand rasp. After about seven test fittings, I got the head seated on the helve just above the shoulder. There was an inch/2.5 cm or so of wood protruding from the eye, so I carefully sawed-off 3/4 of it to leave 1/4 inch remaining. You can cut it off flush, but this method gives some added security because it allows the extra bit to mushroom out above the eye.

Now it’s time to hang the axe :). I carefully poured a touch of linseed oil onto the end grain at the eye and down the wedge slot. This allows the wood to expand while also helping the wooden wedge slide in easier. I don’t have a wooden mallet, so I used the poll of my Gränsfors as a hammer, carefully pounding in the wooden wedge. Sometimes, it helps to hold a flat piece of wood on top of the wedge as you hammer so that it does not split. The entire wedge made the fit, so I did not need to saw off any excess.

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And here it is, all finished with a coat of linseed oil, project completed :D. Final overall length is 35 inches/89 cm.

Over the next week, I will continue to put on a layer of linseed oil everyday until the helve doesn’t absorb it anymore. I must say this was quite a fun experience, though I could not have done it without the information provided by the USFS, Ross Gilmore at Woodtrekker, and a few forum friends, you know who you are ;). Thank you all, this axe will certainly come in handy for heavy-duty trail work :D.