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Randy Rains
Custom hatmaker Randy Rains uses steam to begin forming a new hat in his Law Dog Hat Co. in the Heights. Photo by James Woodcock/Billings Gazette

BILLINGS - It's been years since Hollywood served up a sweeping sagebrush saga, where a pinch of gold dust buys a bottle of red-eye whiskey and six-shooters settle disputes.

But if the Western ever stages a comeback, custom hatmaker Randy Rains will be ready for the inevitable bump in business. It happened when "Tombstone" hit theaters in 1993, and after the TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove" aired in 1989.

Rains, owner of Law Dog Hat Co. in Billings manages to stay plenty busy even though vampires and blue aliens have supplanted gunfighters and sodbusters as popular movie characters.

Rains decided to name his business Law Dog Hat Co. after a memorable piece of dialogue from "Tombstone," where Ike Clanton and Wyatt Earp square off. The outlaw Clanton derisively dismisses Earp as a "Kansas Law Dog" who isn't welcome in Tombstone.

Rains said he often plays "Tombstone" and other Westerns while at work. The walls of his shop are covered with stills from historic Westerns, as well as photos of movie stars and famous country singers. Five years ago Rains made a custom hat for Garth Brooks while his father, sculptor Bill Rains, was doing a sculpture of the country superstar.

Turning a felt blank into a custom-shaped hat is a labor-intensive process that requires at least a dozen steps.

The steamed felt is stretched over a head-shaped wooden block that corresponds to the wearer's size. Irons and a variety of trimming and shaping tools draw the hat's final shape. Rains uses an orbital palm sander fitted with fine-grit sandpaper - usually 320 to 400 grit - to shape and smooth the felt.

"Once you start hitting it with a sander you get a whole different texture, real smooth and silky," he said.

Custom hats are priced from just under $200 to around $450 for the finest beaver felt. Hats made from exotic materials, such as mohair felt, can cost more, but they usually don't last as long as beaver felt, Rains said.

Each customer presents a new challenge. If his hat seems to sit crooked on his head, there's a good chance his head is asymmetrical. When that happens, Rains draws on his years of experience and adjusts the hat so it fits just right.

His custom hats have graced the heads of many legends of film and stage, but Rains says his most frequent customers are everyday people who are searching for just the right look.

Hat styles go in and out of fashion. These days, the most popular styles are the cattleman, which features two parallel creases running front to back; the Canadian, which includes a rectangular crown; and the telescope or buckaroo crease, characterized by vertical sides and a flat top surrounded by a rounded crease.

Black hats - long associated with movie bad guys - are the most popular color, he said.

"Some people think that we use a press to shape a hat, but that's not true. Everything is hand-creased," Rains said as his fingers gently nudged the crown of a hat into the cattleman crease.

About 70 percent of Rains' customers are men. "But the gals who come in here are just as particular about their hats as the guys," he said. "And a gal can't go wrong anyhow. Gals always look good in a hat."

Cleaning and refurbishing hats is a big part of what Law Dog does, but Rains loves making hats from scratch. Long ago he lost track of how many hats he has made in his 29-year career. "But it's in the thousands," he said.

"People say, ‘Your dad's an artist. How come you don't do art?' " Rains said. "But hat-making is an art. That's why I got into it. It's using your hands and being artistic."

 

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