With the newest pieces of equipment dating back at least 50 years, the J.W. Hats factory could double as a museum.
Indeed, some curators would pay to have the factory's rare head-measuring device or a 1930s crown iron. But the shop's craftsman, Dayne Johnson, wants to preserve the art of hatmaking and cleaning by putting the machinery and his skills to use."Hats are coming back and there is no one left to clean them" or make a custom hat, Johnson said, caressing the brim of a gentleman's dress hat brought in for cleaning.
That's not wishful thinking from some old hatmaker too stubborn to admit his trade has little or no use. Johnson is 22 years old and stays plenty busy working on Western hats - a staple in many Utahns' wardrobes - and other styles gaining popularity.
"We do work for stores all over the country," he said, noting that in addition to cleaning, his shop is one of the few that will custom design and manufacture a hat.
J.W. Hats aren't cheap - ranging from $100-$250 for a Western hat and $70-$100 for any style of dress hat. Beaver fur makes the best hat, with rabbit fur a good second choice. A blend of the two is also good, Johnson said.
"A hat with beaver fur could last between 20-30 years if it's taken care of. It can get tromped on a few times and come right back."
And Johnson has restored many a hat that's been trampled underfoot or drenched with rain and sweat over the years. "I can get out any stain except beer. There is something in that that won't come out. I don't know what it is." But with powders and oils, Johnson said, the most stubborn stains become almost invisible.
The cleaning and restoring occurs after placing a dome-shaped wooden block into the crown of the hat. Doughnut-shaped blocks are used to shape the brim.
Johnson can slip a blocked hat onto a series of irons that take out wrinkles in different areas of the hat. Irons also heat the material so Johnson can shape the desired creases or folds in the crown and roll the brim.
A hat is distinguished by its crease and roll. The styles have all sorts of names - open telescope, open road, low cowhand, open crown, etc. But it's not necessary to know the lingo. Just know the movie star who wears it.
"If they say they want a hat worn by someone in a certain movie I will get the video and see what they mean," Johnson said.
Most hat creases and rolls gain popularity when worn by actors or other public figures. Johnson's most requested style for Western hats is the "Gus" - a forward-sloping crown with a 4-inch brim worn by Robert Duvall in the television movie "Lonesome Dove."
A company in Tennessee supplies Johnson with beaver and rabbit fur, hand-felted into unshaped hats. Johnson then cuts and, using the blocks and irons, shapes the hat into any requested style.
The big advantage to a custom-made hat is that it will fit. Johnson said the standard sizes of mass-produced hats don't fit three-quarters of the population.
But with a unique contraption that has several hundred moving parts, Johnson can fit any head size and shape.
"I'm told the Smithsonian is looking for one of these," he said, holding the wooden measuring device shaped like a straw boater hat.
Johnson learned the trade when 17 years old at the former Smyth Hat Factory in Draper. The shop had been around since the turn of the century, he said, but the Smyth family had sold it before he arrived.
The new owners fell into financial trouble and Johnson left. But he kept tabs on the valuable equipment, and when he got word that local printers Jim and Joyce Whittington were going to buy it from the bank, he located them and became a minority owner of the operation.
"We were in baseball hats for promotional and advertising purposes and we thought it would be a good investment," Jim Whittington said.
Housed in a corrugated metal warehouse in back of the printing shop at 222 W. 1700 South, J.W. Hats hardly appears a moneymaking venture. But Whittington says he is already looking at a new location.
"Dayne and I will be driving BMWs next year," he said half-seriously. "We don't expect to be the biggest hat factory, but we want to be the finest."