Oh, my poor cowboy hat. The indignities, the mistreatment, the suffering I’ve put you through. You’ve been used, abused, treated horribly and then tossed onto on the scrap heap the moment I no longer needed you. You must have felt like Newt Gingrich’s first couple of wives.
I’ve stuffed you into suitcases and crammed you under truck seats. I wore you when I was plunged into a dunk tank by a lucky throw (come on, hat, it was for a good cause). I’ve flung you across many a crowded barroom, and once even set you on fire. A previous version of you was stolen, and photographed sitting on dozens of different heads around Missoula while I put up flyers trying to find you.
I’ve slammed you to the ground, sat on your crown, and crumpled your brim until you looked like a love letter that had been smuggled into a prison cell. The hard way.
So now, my heavily autographed sombrero, you have moved on to a better life where you’ll receive the care and admiration you so richly deserve.
And that means it’s time for a new hat.
The cowboy hat is a recognizable part of my look, like Jack White’s ghostly pallor or Lindsay Lohan’s court-appointed ankle bracelet. I tend to go through them frequently, so I’ve usually picked them up at yard sales or thrift shops. I find one that fits my ever-expanding noggin, then I break ‘em in and wear ‘em out. I get a lot of mileage out of those things for five bucks a pop.
But this time I have decided to start with a brand new specimen, a crisp, sleek Bailey hat from Murdoch’s Ranch Supply in Missoula. It’s a top-quality hat, and I’m going to get this thing whipped into Bob Wire shape. Literally.
Shaping a straw cowboy hat is a personal art, and the shape of the hat reflects the attitude and personality of its wearer. Case in point: Hank III. That thing he wears is barely recognizable as a cowboy hat. It looks like a flying squirrel that was run over by a bread truck. That makes a pretty big statement about how Hank Williams’ grandson feels about the country music industry.
Tim McGraw’s hat, on the other hand, is a spotless, focus group-tested black straw icon that is as clean and straight as Taylor Swift. No personality, no deviation from the norm, it’s as bland as a Big Mac. It’s the sartorial embodiment of modern country.
My personal hat bend lies somewhere in between these two extremes. My chosen style starts with the crown. I prefer the “law enforcement” style pinch crown over the teardrop, or peaked-front fedora style. That way if I get liquored up and put it on backwards, it won’t be immediately obvious.
There are places where you can take your hat to have it steamed and shaped into the desired style if you don’t feel like putting in the effort. There are also people who will run your dog through the woods, play with your kids, and service your wife. (I mean, clean your pool.) But I feel that the satisfaction (and potential second-degree burns) you get from steaming up your own cowboy hat is worth the time and effort of doing it yourself.
We all have our own method, and I’ve perfected my approach over several years and several straw hats. (Note: I don’t wear felted beaver hats because I don’t want anything on my head that’s heavier than a pompadour.)
You’ll need a few things: a generous teakettle, long-handled tongs (first clean off the barbecue sauce), and a metal ladle or the big spoon like the one your mom uses to serve macaroni and cheese.
Cowboy hats come off the rack with a gentle, ready-to-wear curve to the brim. I’m talking about real cowboy hats, not those rolled-brim fake wear-and-tear Toby Keith jobs you can buy at Hot Topic or a souvenir shop that sells baby alligator heads and boot-shaped shot glasses. Real hats start out spotless and subtle.
Some hats feature the currently popular “square front” style, where the front of the brim is straight across. Others are barely curved, slightly dipping at the front. Either way, you could buy a hat right off the shelf, wear it out of the store, and within minutes people will be pointing at you and saying, “Hey, a cowboy.”
But that off-the-rack shape is not for me. Nor do I like the Junior Brown/Bob Dylan “taco” style that simply bends the sides of the brim straight up along the crown. While this style enables 4 cowboys to fit in the cab of a pickup, it’s not for me.
So let’s boil some water.
To be honest, steam isn’t absolutely necessary for a straw hat. But in my experience it helps set the shape better. You’ll want to steam the surface on the inside of the bend. This is where you might want to use the tongs to hold it over the steam. Hold the surface just a couple inches from the kettle, and let the steam billow up around the edges. If you did buy your straw hat at a yard sale or thrift shop, at this point you’ll be smelling all that dust and shady history vaporizing off the hat.
Keep moving the hat slowly so it heats evenly. When the straw is feeling floppy, grab the edge of the brim between your hands and start rolling like you’re rolling up a beach towel. At the same time, try to stretch it laterally.
Roll it so the sides come closer together in the front than the back. If it starts to stiffen up, hold it over the steam again. That’s the beauty part of this: if you overdo it or don’t like the shape, you can always start over. You know, like Newt Gingrich.
Keep steaming and rolling, and try to get a good bend going so the front and back droop down. If you do this just right, you’ll be able to look into the camera with just one eye peeking out from the front of the brim like Dwight Yoakam.
Use the spoon or ladle to smooth out the inside of the brim against your palm, especially in the back. It’ll help you maintain a smooth curve. Important tip: make sure and wash the spoon first. I once shaped my hat with a spoon that was used to serve sausage gravy, and I was followed around by a herd of feral cats for two weeks.
Shape the hat when it’s hot and floppy, and when you get it where you want it, wave it around in the air for a bit to let it cool and “set.”
Straw hats are rimmed with a wire, which enables them to hold the shape. If you’re like me, the hat will see some action that dents it or bends it. Just go back to the teakettle, and you can crank it back into near-new shape in no time.
Nothing to it. Find your own bend, develop your own style. Get that hat shaped up and you’ll look like you were born in the saddle.