Old-school hat maker stands by traditional methods, tools

Pose

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Ritch Rand, right, poses with his newest employee, Robert Tovar.

“If the hat fits, wear it,” goes the saying. But what if it doesn’t?

My partner had searched for a western hat at all the usual ranch supply and western outfit stores of Billings, but none of them had the size (“h” for huge) or fit he required. In desperation, he decided to let the experts at Rand’s Custom Hatters help him with his mission.

We pulled into the parking lot on 2205 First Ave. N., and though I hate to admit this, I nearly stayed in the truck with the dog and the radio. My partner disappeared through the entry door and I trailed behind a few minutes later.

Ritch Rand originally established his custom hat store in Boise, Idaho, in the early 1970s after taking instruction from an elderly family member, a Mrs. Rowell, who had already retired from the business. Rowell reluctantly showed him her craft and he began to fill in his knowledge with millenary design classes and marketing courses.

Rand took out a loan on his car to buy Rowell’s equipment and eventually moved his fledgling company from Boise to Billings, in the heart of the West. Business did not fly through the door to begin with. But with diligent salesmanship and sheer dedication to his customers’ needs, things slowly turned around. Those lean years with a young family to feed were formative and unforgettable.

Richard

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Customer Richard Cross is fitted for a new hat using a conformateur, an intricate contraption made in France in 1810.

In its current location since 1984, Rand’s has supplied custom-fitted hats for all sorts of people—working cowboys, movie actors and their doubles, local lawyers and outfitters on the range. They have return customers who would not dream of going anywhere else for a hat.

In Rand’s opinion, some of the old ways are still the best. A new customer’s head is expertly measured using an antique wooden “conformateur” or head-sizing tool that was made in France in 1810. The jointed contraption encircles the head, and a transposed shape is imprinted on a piece of paper on the crown.

Luke Harnish, a fitter, jokes that the conformateur only hurts for about 15 minutes. This resulting template of one’s head shape is filed at the store in perpetuity. Another relic of millenary history still in everyday use at Rand’s is the “formillion,” which shapes the crown of the hat until a perfect fit is achieved. The skilled craftsmen at Rand’s work using antique copper steamers and American poplar sizing blocks that separate their hats from all others.

It felt as if I had traveled back through time as I stepped into the store and looked about the well-lit showroom, whose walls are covered with over 800 display hats. Behind customer service counters are work spaces where busy employees sit with their heads bowed over their work.

From start to finish there are 13 steps to making a new custom hat. Rand’s is so busy that the wait for a hat is up to three months. They also restore used, abused and much-loved hats.

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The hat fitting for my partner was well underway and I began to watch a young man at his job behind one of the counters. He was working the crown of a taupe-colored, beaver fur hat with a hissing steam machine. As he plied the material, he moved the hat around on a form and the clouds of hot vapor billowed up around his head. He looked up as I watched and gave me a friendly smile so, we struck up a conversation.

His name was Robert Tovar and he came to Billings from Austin, Texas, looking for a better life. Eight months earlier, he was walking by the parking lot of Rand’s and saw two people struggling to lift winter debris into a dumpster. He ran over and volunteered to help them with the job. His broad smile and willing attitude impressed Rand, who encouraged Tovar to come in to the store part time and see if the work might suit him.

“That day, my life changed, man,” Tovar said. “I had been moving furniture for some guys, but here I’m learning from the best hatters in the business. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”

Harnish

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Luke Harnish uses a wooden formillion or hat shaper inside a custom hat to fine-tune a perfect fit for a customer.

Tovar is now a full-time apprentice hat maker and part of Rand’s legacy. He walks to work from a loft apartment Rand helped him find and he clearly feels he is where he was meant to be.

Rand employs eight to 10 people in the store and he proudly states they have zero turnover.

“People stay here until they retire, they are paid well and treated well and they stay,” he said.
Rand looks for good hand-eye coordination, a creative spark and a willingness to learn and take direction.

“I also ask them, can you show up, really, can you show up?” he explained. He also has eight or nine part-time employees who are on the road attending conventions and shows all over the country. That team trains at the store but then works in the field, promoting Rand’s hats and taking orders from customers.

From simple beginnings, life as president of his company has become much more complex. Rand’s Facebook page gets 8,000 visits a day and his assistants answer 100-plus emails a day.

Poplar

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Rand’s hat forms are made of American poplar, a wood with no grain or streaks. That makes for a smooth finish on the hat felt.

Rand’s policy of “No grief, no hassle, no drama and no-problem customer service” is company lore. He is either working hands-on in the store or he is promoting his custom house on the road.

“When people get their hats,” he said with a smile, “their reaction is frequently a big hug.”

Rand could create a museum with his cultural memorabilia and historic photographs and letters. If you care to listen, stories abound. There is the one about the 100-year-old hat whose owner wore out the front of the brim. Rand’s simply turned the whole hat around, so he could use it another 100 years.

He also tells of a hat that was trampled by a team of mules and arrived in an envelope, but was restored by a willing apprentice under careful direction. And then there is “The Last Best Crease,” a hat made by Harnish specifically to display a Native American customer’s veteran’s pin. Harnish swears the idea for the signature “crease” or fold at the crown of the hat had been bouncing around his head for years. Now he hopes the idea is not quite “the last.”

Each hat is made start to finish by one person at Rand’s and each has a unique personality that comes straight from the hands of its craftsman. If the customer is in any way dissatisfied with the fit, the hat goes back to the craftsman who made it until satisfaction is reached.

We go back to get our hats in a few weeks. Yes, that is a “we.” The magic wove its spell on me as I waited and watched. I too discovered a hat I could not live without, and so might you.

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