Alamogordo Man Known For His Cowboy Hat Craftmanship

ALAMOGORDO, N.M.(AP) -- John Grisak is a master at sculpting the symbol of the American West. The only things he needs to ply his craft are his hands and a good bit of dry steam.

After applying about 10 seconds worth of steam to his subject, he guides his index finger and slides it from left to right with the deftness of a skilled craftsman.

Some works of art take a little longer than others. It all depends on what he's asked to accomplish.

"There's not hardly anybody anymore that creases cowboy hats," Grisak said while demonstrating a technique that's been around ever since the first cowboy hit the dusty Western trails with his trusty steed. "Everything is manufactured nowadays. They come with the creases." Grisak, an 80-year-old Alamogordo native who grew up on a ranch, learned how to crease hats the old-school way -- from his cowboy father and grandfather, who lived in New Mexico long before it was ever granted statehood.

Creasing a cowboy hat, despite Western lore, isn't a statement of one's political beliefs. It's an individual choice and how a person wants their particular hat to look.

"There is no set rule," Grisak said. "I can turn a flat-brimmed hat into a pretzel if you want. It doesn't make any difference, just as long as the person wearing the hat knows what they want." Grisak uses a steam device that's covered with a ragged sock, which he says collects most of the moisture in the steam before it hits the hat.

"The steam is still wet, but not as wet," he said while cranking up the tiny steam machine that pumps out vast amounts of hot air. "Water will penetrate the material (in a cowboy hat). The sock stops the water droplets from getting into the material so you don't have to rub it for a long time. If you don't do it right, you'll never be able to rub it out." Grisak removes a pre-creased cowboy hat from the shelf at Dollar Boots & Jeans and holds it above the steamer while rotating it in varying directions for about 10 seconds. What was once a rigid brim and crown becomes flexible enough to add the necessary folds and creases.

Grisak presses the hat gently against his stomach while using his fingers to shape it. The pre-creased cowboy hat soon looks nothing like it did a few minutes prior to the steam treatment.

"Some people likes the sides folded up or down; others like the front or back to drop down or bend upward," he said. "I can bang this thing flat out if you want, but you can't do it without heat." Grisak said people don't need a steam machine to reshape a cowboy hat.

"A tea kettle will do, but it will only cover a small area," he said. "You can steam a small area, fix it the way you want it, then move on to another area." By using a tea kettle, Grisak said people run the risk of becoming seasick.

"It'll be wavy," he said.

The easiest cowboy hat to work with, Grisak said, is the original wide, flat brim and tall crown hat -- with no creases or folds. It closely resembles a "bowler," or derby, hat.

"All hats start off like this," Grisak said. "All the old timers wore their hats like this. They did not crease a hat." Grisak said the original no-crease hat served two purposes for ranch hands and cowboys in the West.

"They used them for shade and to water their horse," he said, flipping an example of an oversized bowler upside-down to reveal a hand-held trough of sorts.

"Hats are mostly for shade, but if you look back at the older magazines, the creases that you'll see will be this," Grisak said while pinching the top of the crown, creating a crease that slopes from the top toward the brim. "This is called a Gus crease because of that movie, Lonesome Dove." The Gus crease, also known as a Carlsbad crease, maintains a high crown in the back with a crease that steeply slopes toward the front. Other creases are called "mule kick, "rodeo crease," "bull rider's crease" "quarter horse crease" and "tycoon." All feature varying indentation styles on the crown that can be seen on hats today.

"When I grew up, we didn't have none of these creases," Grisak said. "I was born and raised on a ranch, so all of this I understand. All the hats came like this, with the tall crown and wide, flat brim. My dad would crease his hats by using a tea kettle. He'd get 'em hot, then crease it. As I got bigger, my dad said, Here now. You're gonna crease your own hat.' With his help, that's how I got started years ago." Grisak said he watches the country music awards show, as well as the Professional Bull Riding circuit, to keep up with current cowboy hat trends.

"If the county music awards was on tonight, by noon the next day, there would be someone in here saying they want their hat like so-and-so," he said. "They see it, they like it and they want their hat creased that way." Material in the hats can vary, Grisak said, because they're made of tightly woven felt from a multitude of animal fur. The quality of the fur is determined by the use of Xs. The highest quality hat is marked as 1,000X.

The "X" indicates the fur content included in the fur blend to make a cowboy hat.

In short, the more wild fur included in the fur blend used to make the cowboy hat, the higher the "X" marking for that cowboy hat.

"A 1,000X hat has more damn chinchilla in it than you can imagine," Grisak said, "and it's softer than toilet paper." Grisak said there are two ways people can determine if they've bought a high-quality cowboy hat.

"By the feel in your hand and the feel in your pocketbook," he said. "When the quality goes up, the price will naturally go up." Grisak said rodeo cowboys generally will wear a 20X hat.

"They can have it knocked off, jammed up against a gate or whatever, and all they have to do is run their fingers around it, dust it off and put it back on their head. Until that hat is stepped on or has a stick run through it, that's about the only way you can ruin one." Many people own several cowboy hats. Grisak said he owns three, one of which is a plum leave straw hat that he calls "the most durable hat he has." "You can't wear but one at a time, God-dang it," he said.

While steaming a cowboy hat, Grisak said he can determine if the owner has been around animals.

"I clean a lot of hats. I can tell if you've got a dog or a cat in the house," he said. "I can tell if you've got horses in a corral, been working with sheep or if you've been out branding. All I gotta do is get over here, turn on this steamer, heat it up and smell it. Sometimes I'd rather take a beating than smell some of the stuff that comes off those hats." He can even determine the type of animal hair used in certain hats.

"Have you ever heard of Angora?" Grisak asked. "It's a breed of goat. I can take a hat made of that stuff, put it on the steamer and smell that damn goat just bigger than hell." The steam also gives him a clue as to the quality of a particular cowboy hat.

"I may not be able to always tell what's in it, but I can damn sure tell whether you've got a pretty good hat or not."