Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mr. Fixit

My father always used to say "I hate buying used cars" and I couldn't agree more.  You never know what you're going to get and unlike any box of chocolates Forrest Gump ever considered, it's probably not going to be sweet and delicious, not even metaphorically.  If a used car WAS like a chocolate, it would probably be one of those chocolate-dipped candied ginger slices favored by old ladies whose faltering palettes were so dulled by wartime rations that only ginger can provide the startling culinary jolt necessary to register on their tastebuds.

So when I bought my used Jeep Liberty a few years ago I didn't even bother with a mechanic's inspection.  I figured I could tell if there were any major problems myself and anything more than that was a roll of the dice anyway.  After purchasing it for $6000, I immediately drove it down to a dealership and dropped $2000 having everything fixed that they could find wrong and put in a new clutch just for the heck of it.  I figure if it's worth owning, it's worth having everything in good repair.

Fast forward about a year and a half and I noticed that the air conditioning isn't very cold in the Jeep.  Since the AC runs 7-9 months of the year here, system failures are common and regular.  I got it diagnosed and was told that there was a leak in the cab, which meant two things:  one, I've been breathing R134a refrigerant which the crusty old guy at the auto parts store swears will kill you, and two, my evaporator core is shot.  The quote to replace the evaporator core is $1100.  As usual, most of the cost is labor since the core itself is about $300 but it's buried in the dash and the mechanic said it takes about a day to change it out.  But the leak seemed slow and financial concerns outweighed personal health concerns and I opted to buy a few cans of R134a and just charge the system up now and then.  I quickly calculated that at $10 a can for R134a I could charge the system once a month for the next 20 years for the same price as replacing the evaporator core. It seemed like the logical choice so that's what I did all summer and much to the surprise of Old Mr. Autoparts I didn't die, not even once.  The downside was that the AC was in a state of perpetual mediocrity except for about a day and a half after a fresh charge.  I resolved to fix it before the next summer in 2011.

When I first bought the Jeep I had the good fortune to find online a PDF copy of the entire factory repair manual, all 2145 pages of it.  I flipped through the appropriate sections of the manual describing replacement of the evaporator core and finding it particularly complex I decided I'd better just pay a mechanic to do the work.  In the coming weeks I pondered on the repair job further and it dawned on me that although the job had a zillion steps and required me to dismantle half the interior of the Jeep, it was essentially a giant puzzle with well laid-out steps and didn't require any specialty tools.  Having convinced myself that I could do the job at home I started ordering parts.  And since I wouldn't be paying a mechanic for labor, I decided to open up the budget a little and replace the compressor and drier assembly while I was at it.  The evaporator core was $35 on eBay (they're all made in China no matter where you buy them so why pay $300 at a dealer?), and a genuine OEM compressor and drier assembly kit was about $300.  I also bought a digital AC manifold gage ($150) and several cans of R135a ($50) for recharging the system once it was all back together.  I already owned a good vacuum pump for evacuating the system before recharging so I ordered a few brass fittings ($10) for connecting it up.  For less than $600 I would basically have a whole new AC system and some tools I can use in the future.  I figure that getting the work done at a dealership would have cost close to $2500.

With all the parts in hand and tools at the ready, I started the repair work early on a Friday morning just in case I totally screwed something up and needed Saturday to finish the job.  It went better than I expected and  took me 6 hours start to finish.  I think I could do it in 3 or 4 now that I know a few tricks, but with any luck I'll never have the opportunity to improve on my time.  After everything was back together and all the leaks identified and fixed I charged the system up with my fancy manifold gauge and that was that.  I had one leak show up a few days later but it was just a connection that hadn't been tightened enough.  10 seconds with a wrench took care of it and it's been working flawlessly for several months now.

Pictures of the repair job:

Here you can see the dash has been mostly removed and pushed to one side so I can get at the HVAC assembly that contains the heater core, evaporator core, fan and blend door.  There's a zillion wires and vacuum lines involved, but only 6 bolts to get the dash off.  I also had to remove the center console, steering column and a few other things to get to this point.

As I was pulling stuff out, I just put it in the back of the jeep.  You can see the steering column, center console and a bunch of trim pieces.

 Here's the HVAC assembly removed, opened up and the offending evaporator core is out (bottom left).

Here's the inside of the Jeep with everything taken out, right down to the firewall.  Cool, huh?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Friends Don't Let Friends Go Unholstered

A good friend of mine asked me to make a few holsters for his wife's pistols recently.  She has a concealed carry license but no holster for her snubby Taurus revolver or her Walther P99.  A good holster will allow her to carry securely and safely and hopefully buy a little peace of mind for her husband who will shortly be deploying to Afghanistan.

She wanted IWB style holsters with a spring clip rather than belt loops.  I didn't have any clips but found some decent ones online and ordered 20 of them at about $2 each.  This style of holster is probably the quickest and easiest to make since it has minimal stitching and there's no belt loops or slots to mess with.  Each one took only a couple of hours to make after coming up with a pattern.  The snubby revolver holster was made with cowhide, pigskin lined, and airbrushed two-tone tan and dark brown.  The P99 holster was done in horsehide with lizard trim.  I'm pleased with the results of both.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Advent of Armadillo Leather Goods and A New Sidearm

I've been meaning to get a "maker's stamp" for my leather projects for some time now.  I had a name and a design in mind and I finally sat down and put it all together with Sarah's help.  I sent off the design to a place that does laser engraving and they cut the design into a hard plastic rod.  It was an early Christmas present.  Trademark pending, here it is:

I was never thrilled with my Smith & Wesson Sigma pistol.  It was cheap and reliable but it had the worst trigger I've ever felt this side of a double-action-only revolver with rusty innards.  Anyway, I sold it for what I paid along with a couple of holsters.  I've had my eye on a CZ 75 Compact in .40 SW for about 3 years but promised myself I wouldn't buy it until I sold my Sigma first.  When they first came out, the CZ 75 Compact was over $600 which is one of the reasons I waited a while to buy it.  I bought mine for $430 shipped and I love it.  Why?  It's one of the few well-made reliable compact pistols with a steel frame that doesn't cost $800+, the ergonomics are great, and it holds 10 rounds of .40 SW.  Plus I like the look of it.  It's not unlike a Browning Hi Power but with an Eastern European flair and a touch of the modern with its integral accessory rail.  Anyway, here it is:

It's actually not all that "compact" and it's definitely not light at about 2.2 lb.  I like the weight though.  If I run out of ammunition I can whip this at my attackers head and probably do some serious damage.  You can't say that about your plastic Glock!

Anyway, new pistol means new holsters!  Over the last 6 months I've been getting back into leathercraft and acquiring some of the tools I'd been meaning to buy for a long time so I decided to make my own holsters.  So far I've made three for this pistol and I have plans for two more.  I can hear you saying "Five holsters for one pistol?  Why, that's just silly!"  It might be if you had to pay retail prices of $50-90 a piece, but when it's a hobby and the materials only cost a few bucks each it seems a little less crazy.  Here they are:

The first holster I made was an "Avenger" style.  It turned out pretty well given the rush job I made of it.

The second holster I made was an OWB (outside waist band) with a pretty steep cant to vertically align the butt and muzzle of the gun.  This one is cowhide with pigskin lining.  I got an airbrush for Christmas so I used it to dye the edges dark brown, transitioning to a light brown in the middle.

The third holster is an IWB (inside waist band) made of horsehide with green lizard skin trim.  The horse hide doesn't stretch, tool or dye as well as the cowhide, but it has a smoother finish, is more dimensionally stable, and is more abrasion resistant.  I made the belt loops removeable via snaps so that I could change them out as needed for different sized belts or whatever.

I've already had a few friends ask me to make them a holster so it looks like I might even be able to make this hobby pay for itself in time.  Of course, if I ever move back to Canada I have no idea who I'd sell my wares to except for cops.  So if anyone up there knows a cop, ask them if they think other cops would be interested in custom gun leather.

Maybe there's a market for paintball gun holsters...?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weapons of Minor Destruction - Manly Sewing Projects #4 & #5

Here's two recent manly sewing projects for a couple of my favorite weapons of minor destruction.  Manly Sewing Project #4 is a belt sheath for my trusty camping hatchet.  Nothing special, just nicer than the piece of plastic it came in.  I made it before I got the Luberto Classic harness stitcher, so it's just sewed on the Juki upholstery machine, but it's functional.

Manly Sewing Project #5 is a bit more complicated and involved a lot more "firsts" for me.  Its my first gun holster, my first time making my own stainless steel belt clips and my first try at using copper rivets.

This is an inside-the-waistband holster for my Smith and Wesson Sigma.  Basically, you shove it in the back of your pants.  Kinda like in all the movies, but without the risk of it slipping down and falling out your pant leg.  I have a hip holster and an undershirt with a built-in shoulder holster, but I wanted something I could wear under a t-shirt in the sweltering Houston summer.  This first picture is the side that goes against your back.

The holster attaches to your pants/belt with a metal clip.  I couldn't find any stainless steel clips so I made my own out of heavy gauge 304 stainless steel sheet.  I cut out a long strip with a jigsaw, sanded the edges and bent it in my woodworking vise.  Next time I'll use thinner material or drill some small holes along the fold lines to make bending easier.

In this picture you can see the double bend clip a little better.  When you shove the holster in your pants the inner bend clips over the top of your pants so it can't slide down and the outer bend clips around your belt so you can't accidentally pull the holster out of your pants when you draw the pistol out.  I attached the clip to a small square of leather with two copper rivets.  Basically you put a copper rivet through a punched hole, slip a copper washer down the rivet shaft, cut the shaft close to the washer and then lovingly beat the end of the shaft until it mushrooms over, holding everything firmly in place.  Then I stitched the small piece of leather to the holster.  That way there would be no copper rivets on the inside of the holster to scratch the pistol.

I sewed everything on the Luberto Classic machine, soaked the holster, jammed the pistol down into the wet leather, and then used my trusty vacuum press to get a nice tight fit.  Maybe a little too tight, though it will loosen up with use.  I might slick the inside with a little paste floor wax as well.  Since the gun is stainless steel and plastic, there was no worry about it rusting in a wet leather holster.  If it were a blued steel gun, I would have lightly oiled it and wrapped it in shrink wrap first.

These cost at least $50 to buy from on of the brand name holster makers, and I've never seen one with a nice stainless steel clip, so I guess it would have to be custom made it would probably cost more.  I figure that I used less than $5 in materials, and about 3 or 4 hours of time.  I'm pretty sure I could make the next one faster, and I've already thought of some design improvements.

So if anyone out there wants a custom holster and is willing to leave their gun with me for a day or two, give me a shout.  I can only make so many holsters for my own guns before it gets a little silly...

Super Suction!

So a while ago I decided to try using a vacuum bag press to form leather cases.  I'd seen the vacuum bag presses used for veneering and making skateboards and figured the principle would transfer well to leather forming.  So far it seems like I was right.

I bought a vacuum press kit marketed by Roarockit for making skateboards.  It cost about $50, and it came with a hand pump, some breather mesh (helps get all the air out) and some awful sticky mastic (tar) tape for sealing up the open end of the bag.  It worked pretty well, and in fact I used it to form the magazine holster featured in Manly Sewing Project #2.  But pretty soon I learned that I hate mastic tape and manual pumping sucks.

As luck would have it, I managed to get my hands on a gently used laboratory grade two-stage rotary vane vacuum pump.  It would have cost me about $3000 new, but I got it for free since it was headed for the scrap pile merely because the lab didn't need it any longer and had no other avenue for disposing of it.  It works flawlessly and is actually way more pump than I need since it will draw a high vacuum at a rate of 12 cubic feet per minute (I only need about 2 cu.ft/min).  Since it weighs about 60 lb I'll be building a rolling cart for it eventually.

I also went to and ordered a valve kit, hose, brass valve clamp, and bag closure.  I installed a second valve on my vacuum bag and got rid of the mastic tape.  Now I can use my vacuum pump and the bag closure seals really well without the sticky mess.

Here it is:

The plywood board in the bag is for when you want to press from the top only rather than top and bottom.  The black mesh stuff is also placed in the bag either with the article inside it or else with the mesh next to the article, to help provide small passages for all the air to get sucked out.

Here's the valve I installed, and the valve stem clamp on the end of the hose.

This is the original valve that works with the hand pump (not shown).

This is the marvelous clip for the bag end.  Basically the bag gets sandwiched between the white and blue pieces.  Works great.

Obviously there's no leather in the bag in this shot, but you can see how the breather mesh works and how tightly the vinyl bag forms to the pistol.

Here the mesh is placed next to the pistol instead.  This method still allows you to get all the air out, but doesn't leave a funny mesh pattern on your leather.

I've made a few cases in this press already and it works great.  I used to have to prepare my leather (soak it and then mostly dry it until it's damp and stretchy) and stretch and form it by hand.  It took a long time and almost never looked quite right, especially for complex shapes.  Now it's just 10-20 minutes in the press and I can pull it out and let it dry.  I can also sharpen creases and lines by hand a little more if I want before drying.

Eventually I'll probably make my own bag out of polyurethane sheeting because it's stretchier and should allow the press to mold even tighter, but this works for now.  I'd also make it more squarish rather than long like a skateboard.

Heavy Metal

Apparently a lot can happen in three months.  In my last post I proudly displayed my new Singer 29K.  I spent a little time with it, sewing patches onto my Scout uniform, making a few little odds and ends, and decided I needed something capable of handling heavier thread and longer stitches.  So I posted an ad in Craigslist and Steve from Kansas offered to buy it and pay for the shipping as well.  Even luckier, I sold it for twice what I paid for it!  I built a sturdy plywood shipping crate and it made it from Texas to Kansas in 4 days without any troubles at all.  In case anyone wonders what it cost to send a 128lb package from Texas to Kansas by UPS, the answer is $112.69.  So those of you who weigh less than 150 lb, who don't suffer from claustrophobia and don't mind primitive toilet arrangements, and who enjoy non-perishable snack foods and tepid water, UPS may have a cheaper alternative to flying...

Here's the 29K in its crate, lovingly made:

A few weeks later, I made quite possibly the luckiest find yet, again on Craigslist.  Some guy in Washington was selling a gently used Luberto Classic harness stitching machine, for a ridiculously low sum.  This was my dream machine, and with a good chunk of the funding provided by the sale of the 29K, I snatched it up.  The Luberto Classic is made in the USA of quality materials, is completely manual, capable of stitching 3/4" leather, and has a needle feed jump foot for perfect stitches without marring the leather.  But since they sell for about $7000 new, and because those who buy them rarely sell them, I had long ago accepted that I would never in my life own one.  Sometimes life is full of pleasant surprises.

Since the machine weighs about 150 lb, I was nervous about it shipping here without getting damaged.  But once I walked the seller through the process of crating I felt better.  The machine was partly broken down and shipped in two separate packages to avoid outrageous shipping fees.  Everything got here fine.  I had to put it back together and replace a few siezed cap screws (thank heavens my dad taught me about impact screwdrivers for motorcycle crankcase screws!) but it all went together fine.  It also came with a VHS tape of how the adjust and maintain the machine.  I watched it twice, then burned it to DVD on my computer.  Then I went and completely stripped the machine down, cleaned it, oiled and greased it, and adjusted it to perfection.  This is by far the easiest machine I've ever worked on.  Yay!

Here it is:

As you can see in the last photo, it'll sew through nearly an inch of stiff vegetable tanned tooling leather.  It can handle thread up to size 415 and stitch length varies from 12 to 4 stitches per inch.  The needles for this thing are about 2.75" long and 3/16" thick!

I've only had the chance to do a few small projects on this so far, but it is amazing!  Watch for some extremely manly sewing projects in the future...

Friday, May 14, 2010

New (old) Arrival - A short-ish post I swear!

Yeah, yeah, my posts tend to ramble on longer than most but I figure it's the only form of a journal I keep these days so maybe it's okay.

Anyway, after more than a year of looking I finally managed to find and acquire a particular sewing machine that I've had in mind for leatherwork for some time.  It's a Singer 29K172 long arm "patch machine" made at the Singer factory in Kilbowie Scotland in 1935.  It was used by cobblers (shoe repair dude in layman's terms) to do repairs and finish work on shoes and boots.  It can only sew about 1/4" of leather but a lot of the work I do is less than this so I don't mind.  The really cool thing about this machine is that it has a very long, very skinny arm that will allow you to get into tight spaces (such as the toe of a shoe) and it has a uni-directional top-feed foot.  Why is this exciting?  Well, let's say you wanted to sew a patch onto the sleeve of a jacket (c'mon, I know you've been dying to).  You just slip the sleeve over the arm and let the the foot walk all around the edge of the patch, changing directions and turning corners without ever repositioning the sleeve.  As far as I know, there's no other sewing machine in existence that can do this.  Any sewing enthusiasts out there are almost certain to think this feature is really cool.  For the rest of you staring blankly at your screen wondering how deep my dorkiness really runs, just trust me, it's COOL!

Even cooler, it's a totally manual machine.  You turn a giant crank by hand to operate it.  One turn equals one stitch.  Being somewhat prone to Luddite tendencies (look it up kids), this really appeals to me.  It stitches nice and SLOW allowing for excellent control.  I wish it sewed a little thicker material and could use thread heavier than size 138, but I'm pleased with it nonetheless.  It's first real job will be sewing some small knife sheaths with my Boy Scout troop as we work on the Leatherwork merit badge.  I think Sarah plans on making some leather baby shoes.

I had to make an 8-hour day trip to Fort Worth to pick it up, but the price was phenomenally low, like 10-15% of the cost of a similar "clone" machine made new in China.  A nice old gentleman with an orthopedic business used it as his personal machine at home and was clearing out his garage.  What a find!