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Fedoras are John Penman's specialty at Hillsboro shop

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JOANN BOATWRIGHT - John Penman sports one of his hand-crafted fedoras.From a suite of three tiny rooms in downtown Hillsboro, John Penman fashions much-sought-after hats for movie stars, moguls and men for whom wearing hats is an art, a signature look and a nod to dapperness.

Since just 2008, Penman has become a sort of rock star among hat makers with his Indiana Jones-style fedoras; his Howard Hughes whiskey-colored fedoras; and hats inspired by comic page hero Dick Tracy, television’s Dr. Who, movie icon Humphrey Bogart and “the man with no name,” played by Clint Eastwood in the Dollar Trilogy of spaghetti westerns.

Growing up in New York City, Penman dreamed of wearing a firefighter’s hat while he soaked up late, late movies starring Bogart, James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart — all wearing those mysterious and manly hats.

Then came the Indiana Jones franchise starring Harrison Ford, and Penman went on a 20-year search for a hat similar to Indy’s classic fedora. His quest eventually led him to Steve Delk, a Mississippi woodworker-turned-hat maker who is renowned among hat-lovers as well as other hat makers.Hatmaker John Penman fits a hat on Forest Grove resident Paul Sanders, who claims Penman makes the best hats Ive ever worn.

Penman not only found his hat, he found a friend and mentor in Delk, who nurtured Penman’s growing interest in making hats. Penman took old hats apart and put them back together, collected vintage hat-making tools and honed his skills.

“I’d never sewn anything in my life,” Penman said in the Penman Hat Co. headquarters recently. “I’d never threaded a needle.”

He sent hats to Delk for critique, learned from online forums, read books and put together a collection of hat-making tools like band blockers, risers, pull downers, push downers, brim cutters and foot tollikers (used to shape the crown of hats).

In 2008, Penman made a dozen hats, put them up for sale online and Penman Hat Co. was in business. Those 12 hats sold right away and Penman found himself with a list of customers willing to wait months for his hand-crafted hats, which range in price from around $300 to $700.

He uses only 100 percent beaver or rabbit felts, vegetable-tanned sheepskin leather sweatbands, satin liners and grosgrain hat ribbon, and it takes about a month to complete each hat. He figures it averages out to about a hat a day, but that waiting list continues to grow.

“My hats are made in the tradition of the master hatters from the Golden Era, using the best of old-world tools and techniques,” said Penman on his website (he uses only social media and word-of-mouth to promote his work). 

He uses a 10-part sizing and ordering protocol to assure proper size and fit for his customers, most of whom he has never met in person.

They communicate by phone, email and Skype, and Penman doubts that will change once he opens a storefront — mostly likely in downtown Hillsboro sometime in the next few years.

As a hat maker, Penman has met and mingled with celebrities such as William Shatner, who owns several Penman hats; created a Howard Hughes fedora that sits in the cockpit of the aviator’s Spruce Goose, now housed in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville; and been featured in an AdWeek story about great gifts for Father’s Day.

His work is in The Hat Museum in Portland and has been worn by Christian Kane in TNT’s show, “Leverage.” Photos of celebrities wearing Penman hats line one wall of the hat maker’s studio.

Penman recently launched a new line, the Adventurebilt Legacy Collection, which offers Indiana Jones-inspired hats. 

Penman hat fans — including Paul Sanders of Forest Grove, who dropped by recently to pick up his third Penman-made hat — sing his praises, as do fans from across the country and around the world on the Penman website.

“John makes the best hats I’ve ever worn,” said Sanders after a quick look in the mirror.

A stickler for detail, Penman ships each hat in its own custom-made hat box and also offers several hat care and storage products, including German-made brushes, nontoxic water repellent, hat boxes and hat stands and jacks.

“As a frequent buyer of hats, I was always frustrated at the lack in availability of hat care and storage products,” he said.

Penman moved to Hillsboro with his family in the early 1990s and worked a Hillsboro firefighter for years before casting about for something to occupy himself in his post-firefighting years.

“It started as a hobby to keep [me] off the couch,” he said. “Now, in the hat world, everybody knows me. It’s hard to put into words what the right hat can do for the image of a man.”

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