By Mike Dudley: Many of us as historians have dreamed about what it would be like to go back to the time that our favorite car was sold in and have the experience of seeing that car sitting in the dealership showroom. As restorers, it certainly would be helpful to have a time machine and observe the techniques and processes that the craftsman used when assembling certain elements of a car that we scratch our heads in bewilderment about today.
That was certainly the case with a 1908 Holsman High Wheeler that has been undergoing restoration by the students at McPherson College. One of the last elements of the horseless carriage to finish was to cover the fender irons with new patent leather. To understand why patent leather was used in the early days of the auto industry, it’s important to get a grasp on the history of the decorative covering and learn why it was used on late 18th century and early 19th century automobiles.
- 1908 Holsman High Wheeler in the lead photo was a typical horseless carriage with patent leather fenders. In this two-part article, you will learn how Rick Morchesky, a senior enrolled in the McPherson College Auto Restoration Program recovered the fenders for this car.
- A period photo of a Holsman Roadster fitted with only rear fenders.
In The Art of Tanning Leather (1857), patent leather is described as: “This leather, known in commerce as patent leather, is very largely used for dress boots and shoes, and for fancy mountings.” It was impossible for the men and women of the mid-19th century to know that the patent leather footwear they wore to the finest social gatherings would be an important element in the early stages the auto industry less than half a century later. While “patent” was the name given to this type of leather, a name that more appropriately reflects its finishing process would perhaps be “japanned” or “varnished” leather. In the “Shoe and Leather Encyclopedia” (1911), the process of creating patent leather is described as follows:
“Calfskin is shaved on the flesh side to a uniform thickness, and successive coats of liquid black varnish are applied, the first coats being dried and rubbed down, so as to work the liquid thoroughly into the fiber of the leather. The last coat is applied with a brush and is allowed to dry in direct sunlight, which seems to be essential. Various formulas are used in making the varnish, vegetable gums and oils forming important ingredients. Like any other such coating, it is liable to crack.”
Known for its protection and beauty, patent leather was a logical choice to be used on the open horseless carriages of early days of the automobile. Patent leather fenders provided protection for the driver and passengers from the mud being slung up from the narrow wheels traveling over dirt roads of the day. The shiny gloss of the finish was an added bonus. After a day of traveling along dusty and dirty roads, the patent leather could be wiped down with a cloth or sponge and look like new again.
- The fenders are constructed of two pieces of patent leather sewn together to sandwich the metal framework in between. To begin the process, each metal frame was measured using a tailor’s tape.
- The measurements are transferred onto paper. It’s critical that precise measurements are made and transferred. This is the first step in the process and it affects everything from this point forward.
Over the last 100-years, technology has enhanced patent leather. Instead of the varnishing process, a thin layer of plastic now protects and beautifies the leather. It can now retain its beauty without the fear of drying out and cracking over time.
A senior this past year in the Auto Restoration Program, Rick Morchesky of Greensburg, PA, patterned, sewed together, and installed four patent leather fenders on a 1908 Holsman. In his spare time, Rick enjoys researching the history of leather-working and has also become very skilled in the art of leatherwork. This article will go over the steps in the process that was used to construct the fenders.
In order to sew the fenders, Rick has to allow for an extra amount of patent leather around all the sides of the framework. This allowance is first accounted for in the pattern. The extra material will allow him to feed the material through the sewing machine and stitch the frame in tightly. Then he will cut off the excess patent leather afterward.
- After the paper pattern had been laid on the patent leather, the outline was marked. Rick uses a Landis multi-purpose skiving-cutting tool to cut the thick patent leather.
- The first half of the leather is laid on top of the second piece of leather, and its outline is traced. This will ensure that both halves will be exactly the same size.
Rick is using clamps (above) to hold the metal framework to the top piece of patent leather. DAP Weldwood Contact Cement is sprayed on the backside of the leather, and then muslin is laid tight over the frame and glued to the patent leather. The muslin holds the frame in place to prevent it from shifting while sewing. The other half of the patent leather is then glued on top (sandwiching the muslin in-between).
The metal framework has now been sandwiched between the two pieces of patent leather. Remember the allowance? Rick calculated the width of masking tape as the allowance. He uses it as a guide while sewing. The presser foot of the machine is kept precisely on the edge of the masking tape while sewing. This allows the needle to pierce the patent leather just off the edge of the masking tape and the guide ensures a straight line. Due to the length of the fenders, multiple helpers had to hold the fenders while the patent leather was fed through the machine. A thick polyester thread (size 277) was used for stitching.
- While sewing the two half’s together round the corners, Rick is very careful to get the radius of the sewing to match the radius of the corner of the metal frame.