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Restoring Vintage Ash and Rattan Pack Baskets

 
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Bob Smalser
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Joined: 27 Jan 2013
Posts: 3
Location: Seabeck, Washington
Real Name: Robert Smalser

PostPosted: Mon Apr 29, 2013 8:00 am    Post subject: Restoring Vintage Ash and Rattan Pack Baskets Reply with quote


I enjoy giving living history presentations to school children and scouting/4H groups on the Revolutionary War as part of a formal program run by the Sons of the American Revolution. Kids need lots of “hands-on”, and as carrying all those artifacts into classrooms merit period-correct containers, I’ve been restoring a few vintage pack baskets for the cause. While surviving haversacks and knapsacks are more common, the Native American pack basket was the farmer’s and trapper’s preference for carrying irregular and uncomfortable loads, whether a bushel of potatoes or a dozen iron traps, and are perfect to carry mixed fragile and durable goods.


The strongest and most durable of the originals are made from Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra) splits made from green logs pounded apart with clubs to separate the growth rings. These baskets are rapidly becoming less common due to the Emerald Ash Borer blight combined with the labor required to separate the splits, replaced by various reed (grass) and rattan (palm) materials. But no worries. I’ll show you a technique to make reed and rattan almost as strong and durable as ash. The ash basket shown looks good, but has a few broken weaves and some incipient rot in the bottom I’ll repair before putting back into service.


Rawhide lacing can be purchased in various widths, and soaked in water becomes pliable so it can be woven atop broken or chipped staves or weaves to strengthen the unit.

Continued…




For short runs, the ends can be secured either by knotting or sewing…


…and for longer runs can merely be woven into several staves or weaves. The rawhide will harden when it dries, spreading stress loads in a manner identical to the original construction and holding any cracked or broken splits together.


Because of the stains in the bottom, I elect to apply an oil-based walnut stain to improve the cosmetics, followed by soaking the ash strips in thinned linseed oil to restore the resilience of the old, overdry wood. Raw linseed is best, but boiled will do, as will various “boat soup” concoctions of linseed, turpentine and pine tar. The basket achieves its strength from the strips to be able to work against one another to spread loads over large areas, and a good oil soak provides essential suppleness and lubrication. After a few weeks of drying, I apply a thin wash coat of thinned spar varnish to retard moisture transfer from humidity changes.

In turn, rattan and reed baskets aren’t as hard or as strong as ash, don’t benefit from oil, and will absorb greater amounts of varnish. Soak the weave with two or three coats to stiffen the rattan. In applying coats to rattan, try to stop short of actually gluing the weave into a rigid panel.


To further spread irregular loads, I wet-mold two or more layers of thick, vegetable-tanned tooling leather to the bottom inside of the basket for a perfect fit, allow it to dry in place, then remove it for laminating the layers together using contact cement followed by soaking the glued lamination in spar varnish. You can sew the laminations together if you don’t want to use modern cements, and you can also substitute shellac for the varnish. Don’t forget some drain holes. Either way, this is a better solution than a wooden bottom liner, which will always provide a sharp edge for the weave to wear against, regardless of how well you bevel the edges of the board.

Continued…





I prefer leather carrying harnesses, and cut straps from vegetable-tanned tooling leather using a strap cutter. Here I’m using vegetable-tanned horsehide, which is ideal because it is denser and stronger than cowhide, allowing a lighter weight of leather to be used. These are belly and leg skirts from hides where the thicker flank and back leather went into shoemaking, and run around 5 ounces in weight. I cut inch-and-a-half straps for large baskets and inch-and-a-quarter straps for small baskets.


The challenge in using economical belly scraps is lack of length, and I skive (taper to a feather edge) selected strap ends for scarfing into the strap lengths required. The ratio of length-of-taper to thickness shown here is around 12:1.


I use the “belt-and-suspenders” approach of joining the scarfs with contact cement followed by sewing…


…and cut my components to length so as to hide the scarfs beneath the finished basket.

Continued…





I also make shoulder pads from horsehide scraps and brain-tanned buckskin, stuffed with “tow” (oily linen waste from the thread-making process). Horsehair would be a better choice of you can obtain it, as it is more rot proof.


I prefer solid-brass “Conway” buckles for these harnesses, as these old-time harness buckles can be adjusted from either direction, are strong and inexpensive, and are mounted without sewing. While a Mr. Conway patented a variation of these buckles in the 1880’s from which today’s name is derived, in their basic form as a “loop buckle” they actually date from centuries earlier and are period-appropriate for all eras. Here I’ve hung the vertical buckles on separate strap hangers affixed to the basket’s waist belt, but with sufficient strap length the hangers can be omitted and each bottom strap can be simply doubled over the top of the belt and buckled onto itself. With either method, insure to allow plenty of slack so external loads can be slung from beneath the bottom of the basket by adjusting the straps.


Detail of the Conway harness buckle, which will accommodate two, three or even four layers of leather.

Continued…





Viewed from the back, the shoulder straps can be directly looped into the waist belt like on the small rattan basket or routed through the rim and handle like on the large ash basket.


The large basket was purposely woven for routing the shoulder straps through the rim, a stronger method for heavy loads. I’ve treated the straps on the large basket with a neatsfoot-pine tar-beeswax shoe grease, and the straps on the small basket with lanolin for waterproofing.




The next step is to make an oil-cloth rain cover. 18th-Century oil cloth was made by sailmakers from lightweight, tight-weave linen sail cloth soaked in linseed or fish oil and sometimes treated with beeswax and verdigris (corrosion from copper) for durability, the green verdigris acting as a fungicide. Here I mark out the cover top with a generous seam allowance…


…and add a 360-degree apron sewn all the way around. A problem with store-bought pack basket covers originally made by Duluth and LL Bean was they didn’t accommodate overloaded baskets. This cover’s apron allows loads to be up to eight inches above the top of the basket while still providing full coverage.

Continued…




A skirt open in the back is added to the bottom of the apron…


…along with two simple ties to secure the cover to the basket…


…all designed to protect the load from rain without interfering with carrying.


The finished large basket under load, with an added tumpline to spread the load to the neck and shoulder muscles as well as the back and legs.

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Snapper
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Joined: 30 Oct 2007
Posts: 38
Location: central NYS
Real Name: Snapper Petta

PostPosted: Tue Apr 30, 2013 10:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I apologize in advance for being a downer to your post; especially in light of the beautiful work you've done. That being said, there are two things I'd like to comment on:
1. Typical Adirondack type packbaskets weren't in use until the 19th century. Although there is plenty of documentation for baskets in the time of the Revolution, they were not of that style nor carried in that manner.
2. I've always been taught, by experienced basket makers, that putting a stain or varnish, etc. of any kind will sound the death knell for a basket. The wood splints need to continue to breathe and putting on a "protective" coat of something will clog them up. These folks have also taught me that if a basket dries out, just dunk it in water for a bit and then let it dry out of the sun in a cool location. After that, use the basket and let nature's rain, dew, mist, etc. take care of it for you. I've been doing that for over 25 years with a packbasket I made and it's still going strong.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time...Be well.

snapper
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Bob Smalser
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Joined: 27 Jan 2013
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Location: Seabeck, Washington
Real Name: Robert Smalser

PostPosted: Tue Apr 30, 2013 3:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Except the rifleman I portray was my ancestor, a 62-year-old member of a militia ranging company who never served more than 50 miles from his frontier farm. He, along with several other related families from the same Rhineland village on the border of Alsace, opened the upper Lehigh Valley in 1737, living among and trading with the Unami-speaking Lenni Lenape, and adopting some of their clothing habits and practices, especially in the early years. Lenape and other Algonquin basket-making and usage in the shapes shown were ancient, and well-documented.

http://www.anthro4n6.net/lenape/#Culture
http://www.lenapelifeways.org/lenape1.htm





Pack baskets and harnesses almost identical to these were also common in 18th Century Germany and Switzerland:



And also in 18th Century Scotland and Ireland:



Further, there are several other features of this man's life that don't fit the cookie-cutter depictions of Revolutionary War soldiers, and make him a fun portrayal. By 1775 he was quite prosperous, and he and his mates establishing patrol bases between the forts built by Benjamin Frankin in 1755 along the Blue Mountains didn’t want for anything. If they needed something, he only had to send word to one of his 13 children 20 miles distant and I’m sure one of his 41 grandchildren would arrive on horseback at one of the forts within a couple of days.



As he apprenticed in Germany as a weaver and tailor and had a Swiss spouse, I also doubt he wore English-pattern clothing. He undoubtedly made those styles for others, but what personal field garments that weren’t Lenape in origin were probably German. Same with grooming styles. Unlike his clean-shaven sons who probably followed the dominant local styles, older Swiss, Alsatian and Rhineland men generally wore beards. He had two sons who by the time of the war were well-known and well-documented gunmakers building the Pennsylvania rifle, hence I have him carrying a pistol as well as a rifle, unusual for a militia soldier. For you see he had two close nephews who had become casualties early in the war. One captured with Daniel Morgan in Quebec and one serving in Miles’ Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment killed at the Battle of Long Island, most probably by a bayonet when his far-left-flank battalion was overrun by Howe’s envelopment. As the resource was readily available, counseling his five sons, three sons-in-law and two grandsons also serving to carry pistols as well as axes as side arms where possible was probably something a wise patriarch would have done.

Last, not only should students beware the cookie cutter, they should beware the lore. The easiest example (of many) are the Indian-head images on Lehigh School rifles. Collectors today with a one-dimensional, artifact-oriented view attribute these to whimsical depictions akin to Liberty Poles, Liberty Caps and the like. Yet research in depth demonstrates each of these early gunmakers had close family, neighbors and church congregants massacred during the major Indian conflicts of 1755, 1763 and 1778, with additional, isolated instances of close relatives found “shot, stripped and scalped” out in the countryside. Most telling is the surviving double-barreled rifle built by a student of one of my ancestor’s gunmaker sons. It has two Indian-head carvings…one for each barrel.



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Snapper
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Joined: 30 Oct 2007
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Location: central NYS
Real Name: Snapper Petta

PostPosted: Wed May 01, 2013 11:48 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Not trying to pick a fight but even your paintings depict people carrying the baskets with tumplines across their chests. That's what I was referring to.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time...Be well.

snapper
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Bob Smalser
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Joined: 27 Jan 2013
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Location: Seabeck, Washington
Real Name: Robert Smalser

PostPosted: Wed May 01, 2013 2:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Such is the nature of tumplines. Either-or.



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bob miller
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Joined: 28 Jan 2009
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Location: Sharbot Lake,Ontario
Real Name: Bob Miller

PostPosted: Thu May 09, 2013 7:55 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

There is a video of period basket making techniques. See Colonial Williamsburg video re cabinet maker. There is a wonderful secondary depiction of basket types and fabrication included. Baskets were used in many various activities , including containing poultry, and transporting fish and clams etc.
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clunkbull
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Real Name: Vince Jay

PostPosted: Tue Nov 26, 2013 7:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It's nice that you posted something like that. We have some pieces of old baskets here at home. I am now thinking of doing same thing. I'll put some paint on them to make them look clean and new. It will be nice to place them in the garden along with a wooden bench and some plants around. Thanks for sharing.
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