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Making custom cowboy hats in the Sandhills

Published: Sep. 23, 2020 at 6:39 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - During a trip to Thedford, we discovered a business where a woman builds hats with care, one at at time.

Kaycee Hoffman’s family has a ranch north of Thedford, where they have purebred Hereford and Angus cattle. “Between ranching responsibilities, the hat shop, and kids, I stay pretty busy,” Hoffman said.

Making cowboy hats is a unique skill, but it’s not a foreign concept to Hoffman. “I’ve always been around cattlemen and cowboys,” Hoffman said. “I have two aunts. One that used to own Greeley Hat Works in Greeley, Colorado, and another aunt in Denver who is still currently making hats, and that’s where I learned the trade.”

As you might imagine, there’s a lot of love an attention that goes into Hoffman’s hats, as they are custom made. “When a client comes in, we get a head measurement with an old tool called a conformeatur. It gives me the transparency of the head shape,” Hoffman said. “When I’m building a hat, I’m working their head shape into that hat, so it’s very customized. You pick the quality of hat, and color of hat, according to what they have chosen. I have a wall of wood blocks, and you form the hat blanks around the wood block. There’s a lot of heating and cooling that goes on in hat making.”

The machines that Hoffman uses are old. “Most of the machines are more than 100 years old, they are very hard to come by,” Hoffman said. “There are few hat makers left, and one reason is because it’s a trade of secrets, and older hat makers don’t want to share their secrets. But also, the equipment is also very hard to find.”

At the end of the hat making process, the brim can be trimmed. “You can cut it down with a tool called a rounding jack, so if someone wants an old LBJ hat or cattlemen’s hat with a short brim, you cut it down to those dimensions,” Hoffman said. “You are left with the trim, and that can become a buckle-set band if the customer wants. The hat is truly an artifact of the person who wears it, and it’s just fun to get to be a part of that.”

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