Turning Heads With Wooden Hats

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Traditions
on September 28, 2008
Tim Webb Chris Ramsey, of Somerset, Ky., skillfully turns a piece of wood that later will be shaped into a head-friendly fashion using rubberbands and tape.

Master wood turner Chris Ramsey, 45, balances a large piece of maple on a lathe in his Somerset, Ky., workshop. As the wood spins, he uses a cutting tool to shape the outside of a wearable work of art—a cowboy hat.

Satisfied with the exterior, Ramsey begins shaping the hats inside. After hollowing out some of the wood, he turns off the lights and places a low-wattage light bulb inside the hat. The wood glows a soft red, becoming brighter as Ramsey pares the hats crown by hand to within a sheer fraction of an inch.

"When the wood is thin enough, it becomes translucent," Ramsey says.

The wood is then sanded, before clamps and rubber bands are used to gradually bend the hat from round into a head-friendly oval shape. "The trick is getting it to bend and not to crack," he says. "You can go from having a $700 hat to having a really expensive piece of firewood pretty quick."

Ramsey devotes about 40 hours to create a wooden hat, which weighs 7 to 10 ounces, from a 120-pound solid block of hardwood.

Ramsey began turning wood as a hobby in the late 1990s, primarily making bowls. He stumbled onto his hat-making business by accident. While making a planter for his wife in 1998, he noticed that it looked a lot like a bowler hat and he began experimenting.

"My first tries werent much to write home about," says Ramsey, who's since made more than 1,200 hats, from woods such as ambrosia, maple and cherry.

Eventually he perfected hats of all kinds—10-gallon cowboy hats, top hats, fishing hats, and even baseball caps—and started a business, fittingly named Knot-Head. "My granddad used to call me that when I was a boy," Ramsey says. "So when I started turning hats, it somehow seemed appropriate."

To devote all of his attention to Knot-Head, Ramsey sold his successful fiber optics communications company in 1999. "The company made a lot of money, but, as the old adage goes, money cannot buy happiness," he says. "Turning is what brought me happiness. I closed the company, gave my accounts to a friend who was in the business and began turning full-time. Ive never looked back."

He began selling his hats at craft fairs and during the annual Kentucky Derby in Louisville. Business boomed as celebrity customers such as President George W. Bush, singer Charlie Daniels, and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. were spotted wearing his creations. "George Bush wore his wooden cowboy hat to the Houston Rodeo once," Ramsey says. "He can step out of the car, walk around wearing it for 15 minutes, and I get 100 orders."

Most of his hats are custom-made, but some are exhibited and for sale at art galleries and folk art centers around the nation. That's where Willa Brigham, host of the kids TV show Smart Start Kids, first spotted Ramsey's work.

"I saw it at the Folk Art Center in Asheville, N.C.," says Brigham, who saved for four years to buy one of Ramsey's hats. "Every year for three years I stopped by to see the hat. On the fourth year, I had saved my money . . . and I left with a wormy wood maple cowboy hat."

Brigham is pleased with her purchase. "It's absolutely beautiful, and it makes me smile just to think of it," she says. "When I travel with that hat it never leaves my head. Everyone wants to talk about it, everyone wants to touch it."

Ramsey still is a bit surprised by the reaction to his wearable artwork. "When I started turning, it was a hobby," he says. "It was something that made me happy, very happy. I never imagined what I was doing would make others happy as well. I'm sore from pinching myself to make sure that it is real."