How did we get started in this business?
It's all Chuck's fault.
Really. He started it . . . this business of Classic Bells, I mean.
Some years ago, he was looking for sleigh bells for our Norwegian Fjord horses. He didn't like the weight or sound of the new bells, but the old ones were not usually in good enough shape to use on a horse.
After searching in vain for someone who would restore old sleigh bells for him, he realized there was no one who really specialized in this line of work.
He heard from folks who waited years to get their sleigh bells back from harness makers. Others told him about paying high prices for careless workmanship, cheap leather and hardware, and poorly polished bells.
So he thought, "If I'm looking for someone to do this kind of work -- and do it right -- then others are probably looking too." Thus a business idea was born.
I didn't get into the picture until some months later.
When the first boxes of old sleigh bells arrived, I didn't give them much thought. The sleigh bells were just another whim of my dear husband's, right? He often indulges me in my whims, so I indulge him in his.
But the boxes kept coming, with nary a word of explanation from him.
Finally, after the floor of the spare bedroom was covered with piles of old, grimy, decrepit sleigh bells, I gently asked, "Chuck, what's with all those bells?"
He told me about his idea, and wondered casually if I would be willing to help him build a business to restore sleigh bells for people. His proposal sounded like a major investment of time, energy and money into a venture we knew relatively little about.
And I said, "Sure, why not?"
In case you were wondering -- yes, I'm a sucker when it comes to my husband. I also like an engineering challenge.
And a challenge it was. We started out trying to efficiently hand clean bells. That noble experiment lasted for about one batch. After hours of painstaking work, the bells were not very pretty on the outside and still dirty on the inside.
I can't speak for Chuck's opinion about the matter, but my hands hurt, and I was ready to give up -- I am an engineer, not a slave laborer! If we were going to continue to polish sleigh bells, we had to find a MUCH better way.
The obvious next step was to replace human labor with machinery. That eliminated the hand work, but the bells still were not getting polished well on the outside, nor cleaned on the inside.
We realized we were trying to do too much in a single step, so Chuck and I broke the process down into several easier stages. After months of experimenting, moments of intense frustration, and several amazing "EUREKA!" moments, we gradually learned how to make each stage work efficiently and well.
Today, Chuck is the chief operator and engineer of our proprietary cleaning and polishing process. The five stages in this process require a minimum of one week to complete. Sleigh bells can be incredibly black and dirty when they enter, but they will be a lovely soft gold when they leave.
Another major challenge was learning to do the leather work. Neither Chuck nor I were trained in this craft, although we both had done some leather crafts as kids in Scouts. The task of learning how to make sleigh bell straps fell to me, since I had the time and the inclination to take on the job.
I felt overwhelmed at times. Leather working is an esoteric craft and appropriate tools and training are not easy to find. I studied every resource I could find on leather work; collected examples of well-made bridles, harness parts, holsters, and the like; subscribed to respected leather craft magazines; and became a member of the International Internet Leatherworker's Guild.
And I practiced ... and practiced ... and practiced some more. I think the first year, I threw away about one hide of scrap leather for every hide that went out the door in finished product. I also found ways to compensate for some of the skills and tools I lacked.
For example, I paid our leather supplier to cut sides of leather into straps until I mastered the use of the head knife -- a wickedly sharp half-moon blade -- and a strap cutter. I also used more rivets at first, until I mastered the exacting skill of hand stitching heavy leather.
I look back on the agonies I went through to make my first few bell straps, and I have to chuckle. My beginning projects were certainly acceptable, but they did not have the professional polish and fine detailing that my current work does.
I am still learning and improving my skills, but I am well satisified today with my journeyman's ability to do many types of tack, harness, general leather goods, and of course sleigh bell straps.
More to come . . .