From Lagom #2

Confessions of a Builder of Things

From the Horse Brand Co. workshop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Thomas Callahan talks honestly about the importance of hand-crafting. To him, the products he creates aren’t just products; they’re objects that tell stories with which people can form a connection.

Words Thomas Callahan & Lisa Markuson

Photographs Michael Cooper

I love snacks. And my cat. And getting dirty and being outside. And building the things that create real, outside, dynamic stories. If you love those things too, we’ll probably get along great, and if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

I’m an honest man with simple needs and loves, you know? No point in trying to make bikes and knives into sonnets, because they’re not. They’re essential tools that can connect us to ourselves, our worlds, and each other, if we let them. If we want to know our tools as well as we know our fingers and our toes, we can. If you want your bike to be more than just the nicest custom ride; if you want to help it come into existence and know why every joint works the way it does, then I think we have something in common.

Not everyone can care about this kind of thing, and that’s okay. For example, I don’t care about teabags, or toothpaste. Never have. Do you care about teabags? Awesome. Make a teabag into a snack or a surfboard and then we’ll talk. Until recently, I was just making bikes. First just custom frames, then some very rare production frames, to make the same quality more accessible. Then, a few months ago, I realised I wanted to learn how to make knives. Beautiful, epic, gleaming steel camping knives that could kill a wolf, or slice a peach, or carve your beloved’s name in a tree; knives that don’t just cut things — they cut stories. Turns out, I’m not the only person that wanted to hold that knife. I sold 100 of them in just a couple months, once I figured out how to make them. It’s a nice feeling to know that there’s a community of people who want to interact with the world in this way, too. The community that has been growing around these objects and paradigms inspires me every day.

But, if I really think about it, I know that even if I couldn’t sell a single bike, cap, or knife, I’d still be sitting in my workshop with my cat Charles, blackening my fingers in the pursuit of the souls of these simple machines. Charles and I are always looking for a new challenge, which is how we got started on this crazy journey some seven years ago. I studied sculpture in college, not mechanics, or engineering, or blacksmithing, or whatever. Suddenly, I knew I just had to make a bike. I had to learn, with my own brain, eyes, hands, and heart, exactly what went into the creation of the machine that gives the purest physical freedom we can experience daily in an urban setting. If you know your bike from the inside out, and have a real connection and relationship with it, it can be almost like the connections we used to have with horses when they were the drivers of our freedom. That’s why I named my company ‘Horse’. I wanted to remember that connection.

It was pretty hard to do, and I messed up a lot. I’m not some product demi-god that can think of a product and manifest it perfectly the first time — far from it. But I finally figured out how to make a pretty epic custom bike frame by hand, with the ultimate American material: steel. I know it’s very trendy to only eat free-range organic lettuce and wear denim woven by chipmunks in the Hudson Valley, but my work isn’t about trends. Custom, hand-made, artisanal, unique, local... these are all terms that have become so ubiquitous today that we hardly even know or care what they mean. I’m not on a soap box trying to convince you that you need to create a zero-waste household and start sewing your own linen underwear made from your neighbour’s flax; I’m just making the choices that I feel are the best that I can possibly make, and inviting anyone who wants to join me on that ride. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun. It was Charles.

This is an odd world we live in, and these types of priorities can sometimes polarise people. Some people think it’s a waste to spend so much time, energy, and money on creating something in America, by hand, when we could ship it elsewhere and have a foreign machine make it for less money. But we could ship our family to another country and have them raised by machines cheaply, too. No-one recommends that. Why? Because we need real, close relationships. We want to create stories together, and in my humble opinion, those stories can be even richer and more vibrant when they start with just a raw sheet of metal and two hands (and a bunch of huge epic power tools, but that’s beside the point). That’s why I do what I do. It’s not about pitting myself against big brands, or trying to convert Walmart shoppers into customers. The people who want to make these stories too... they have a way of finding me; of finding each other.

It’s hard running a business. It’s lonely sometimes, even with my trusty Administrative Catsistant Charles. But with all the struggles, the stresses, the multi- tasking, and juggling, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Slowly but surely, Horse Brand Co. has been growing and evolving organically, with no nitrogen fertilisers.

A Kickstarter campaign was crucial to helping me move from exclusively making custom frames to a more accessible system of customised production bikes, and now I have a few employees who work in the shop with me, too. There is something so gratifying in teaching, sharing what I’ve learnt myself the hard way, supporting young craftspeople, and seeing their excitement at the things we work on together. Charles never really gets excited, so that’s a nice contrast.

Now, things are really getting exciting from a business and product perspective: I’m growing the scope of what I can create, and really looking to expand the company. I may even accept some outside investment, if it comes from a sufficiently awesome cat-lover. Also, I’ve most recently perfected a gloriously sleek masterpiece: my first hand-shaped surfboard. An extremely limited line will be emerging and cutting waves this spring. Charles hates surfing.