SALEM, Ore. — Rodney Allison doesn't use a lot of new-fangled gizmos to craft his custom-made felt hats. As a matter of fact, the average age of the machines in the Salem hatter's shop is about 100.
There haven't been a lot of innovations in the industry over the last century, Allison said. So he sticks with the tried-and-true technology used during the hatters' 19th-century heyday.
Working in a room that looks more like a museum than a modern business, Allison uses an 1870s "conformiter" to make a mini-map of a client's head. The contraption uses piano key-like levers and pushpins to make a type of printout that Allison then matches to a wooden head block mold.
"It's all mathematics," he said.
He then shapes the felt hats with another 1900s piece, the crown iron. He even has a 1915 Singer sewing machine specifically designed to sew the sweatbands into the hats because it works better for this purpose than newer models, he said.
These old-time gadgets aren't easy to come by.
"Any time I see hat-making stuff for sale, I buy it," he said. "I've bought out two hat shops and have even found stuff on eBay."
The felt he uses for his hats ranges from 100 percent beaver to 100 percent mink, with a variety of mixes in between. His prices start at $250 and go as high as $1,000.
But it's not the shape or even the felt of the custom hats that sets his business, North Valley Hat Co., apart from his competitors. It's the velvet-like finish he puts on his products.
The finishing takes place in his secret room, or the "back shop," as it's known in the industry. Felt-finishing techniques are top-secret among hatters, Allison said. But despite the trade's proprietary nature, Allison managed to glean a few felt-finishing secrets from three hat-making sages.
"I guess they wanted to pass on their secrets before they died," Allison said. "It's like wanting to pass on your apple-pie recipe."
And recipes are a good comparison to the hat business. Just as chefs tinker with their combinations to produce the right taste, Allison uses his own system of trial and error to develop the finest felt finish.
"I'm not afraid to experiment on hats," he said. "Because when you find something that works, it's like hitting the jackpot. It's like putting that extra spice in the ingredients."
As more people become aware of Allison's small-scale operation, his demand continues to rise. That may be because Allison is one of the nation's top custom hatters, according to J.W. Brooks, a fellow hatter who owns Powder River Hat Co. in Phoenix, Ariz.
"There are about 40 hat makers in the country, and he's definitely in the top three," Brooks said. "There are a lot of hat makers that just pump hats out. That's not what Rodney and I do. We don't build cheap hats."
Allison produces about 130 hats a year, mostly of the western cowboy style.
Hats take about five days to make.
While Allison has been practicing the trade for 18 years, it was never his lifelong dream. He literally fell into the profession after breaking his neck riding bareback in a rodeo. His injury prevented him from going back on his previous profession of construction, so he started making hats at his previous residence in Woodburn.
While western hats aren't rare in the Willamette Valley, this region is not exactly the cowboy hat capital of the country. But that hurdle was of no consequence to Allison, who had plenty of hat-wearing contacts through his days on the rodeo circuit. Like the rest of the retail economy, demand for the high-end hats has waned over the past year.
"We've been affected just like everyone else," Brooks said.
Fewer working cowboys, the recession and a fashion trend away from western wear have many hat makers suffering. But so far, that hasn't affected Allison or Brooks.
"Hats are like a tool for cowboys," Brooks said. "They know that quality hats are going to last, so they invest money in them."
Allison does about one-quarter of his yearly business at a trade show in Red Bluff, Calif.
By keeping his company small, he can concentrate on quality, an obsession that sometimes drives him to pick small, wayward fibers off his hats with tweezers.
He doesn't compete with the mass-producing manufacturers and doesn't want to try.
"There have been developments made to produce hats faster, but not better," he said. "That's why I still use the old methods."