Millinery is the art of making hats. While there are many ways to make a hat, hat blocks are useful for easily shaping the same basic form over and over again. With a hat block, a milliner molds a piece of felt over the block, creating the shape of the hat. Investing in hat blocks can be very expensive, however. You can make your own hat block from wood or Styrofoam. Wood is a more durable material, but Styrofoam is faster and easier to carve.
Draw a diagram of the hat block you want to make. Mark as many measurements as possible, including height and widths of several points, on the block. Use an image of a hat or hat block or an actual hat that is the desired shape to help you determine the best measurements. For instance, if you had a cloche hat that you wanted to replicate, you would want to measure how tall it is at the very top, how tall the sides are, the width of the hat toward the top, the width in the middle and the width toward the base. The brims on hats are often formed freehand, so it is not necessary to take a measurement of the brim itself, just the connection between the base of the hat and the brim. Take as many measurements as you feel are necessary to create the hat you want. You will most likely need to do some estimating during the carving process, especially for curved hats.
Purchase a block of dense Styrofoam or a wooden block that is slightly larger than the hat block you want to make. Choose a soft wood, such as basswood or butternut. These are relatively easy to carve, even if you are inexperienced.
Mark your pattern on the block. Some designs are more difficult to draw than others. Make as many marks on the block as necessary, so that you can follow your pattern as closely as possible.
Carve the block slowly using a flat-edged knife. If you are making a wooden hat block, you can use chisels as well. Do not move the knife back and forth. Work in one direction, with the grain of the wood for the wooden block, shaving off a small amount of material at a time. Check the measurements of the hat block frequently to ensure that you are following the pattern you created.
Shape the hat block further with a file once you have the correct shape and size. This will create a smooth form and eliminate your knife marks.
Sand the hat block with sandpaper.
Seal the block. For a wooden block, use a wood sealer, such as a spray-on polyurethane. For a Styrofoam block, try a coat of papier-mache. To make papier-mache, mix equal portions of water and flour and add a little salt. Dip strips of newspaper into the mixture and evenly wrap your hat block. Paint to seal if desired.
Milliners often cover their hat blocks to protect them from dyes or other materials. Using plastic or fabric over a Styrofoam hat block will help preserve the block. Some hat blocks are simple shapes, such as disks, cylinders or semicircles. You may be able to find wood or Styrofoam pieces already in the general shape that you require. For instance, you can glue a semicircle Styrofoam piece to the top of a cylinder to create a shape for a bowler hat. Look for pieces that will require less carving to achieve the shape you want.
Always wear a mask when working with wood or Styrofoam and clear dust from your project often.