Upgrading a Vintage Fan with Leather Blades

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Upgrading a Vintage Fan with Leather Blades


I once had a roommate who took advantage of Costco’s return policy in order to alternately switch out her space heater and desk fan every season. In today’s consumerist world of planned obsolescence, it was actually a smart strategy for avoiding the inevitable decline of household electronics.

Make: contributor Sean Michael Ragan would agree, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” But if you’re not up for biannual trips to your local appliances outlet, you’ll want to take a page from Ragan’s blog and retrofit a sturdy machine for stylish 21st century use — one that will actually last more than a single season.

Que the model 94646-E “Northwind” oscillating electric fan by Emerson Electric, a machine that exudes such a patriotically dignified, mid-century aesthetic that it would look right at home on Don Draper’s mahogany desk. Ragan obtained this choice piece from eBay for $45, and it arrived looking just a tad worse for wear.


Ragan plugged it in and said it “ran like a cheetah.” He wasn’t deterred by the bent caging or the peeling paint, nor even by the unforgiving blade that sliced his thumb open. In fact, his endangered appendage was the inspiration he needed to “retrograde” the fan’s blades. What material could he use to soften the blades without compromising the Northwind’s industrial beauty? Leather, of course, which Ragan found via eBay for another $25.


Ragan disassembled the fan, which was a fairly straightforward removal of screws and bolts and drilling through rivets. He secured a fan blade to a piece of leather and then cut the leather to match the shape. Once he had cut all four pieces of leather, he applied leather dye, let it dry, and then followed it with extra virgin olive oil.


After Ragan got the leather’s appearance up to his standards, he attached the pieces back onto the blades and riveted the blades back onto the fan hub. He advises anyone replicating this project to weigh the fan blades before applying any finish, since a discrepancy of even a few grams can cause the fan to wobble haphazardly while rotating.


“Older stuff is usually easier to open up, refurbish, and repair…and it always has better stories,” says Ragan. The story of my Costco-loving roommate usually gets a chuckle, but I’d have to agree with you, Sean. Nice work!

15 thoughts on “Upgrading a Vintage Fan with Leather Blades

  1. Sean Ragan says:

    Cool. Thanks, Sophia! =)

    1. sophiacamille says:


  2. Scott Tuttle says:

    its like standing downwind from a cow

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      I actually have to do stand downwind from a cow on a semiregular basis, and I can assure you, this is way better.

  3. Ran Dome says:

    This seems like a ‘sure you can, but why would you want to’ sort of project.

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      So, what you’re saying is, you wouldn’t want to spend your time doing this. I don’t really care. Personally, I wouldn’t want to spend my time berating other people for their passions, but it takes all kinds to make a world.

      1. Ran Dome says:

        But you would spend time berating people who voice their opinions? Seems equally pointless and a skosh hypocritical. Generally the HOWTOs on make are more interesting or useful, but this fell flat. It feels more like it belongs on craftzine where they often have projects with this level of simplicity and purposeless time killing nature.

        Im sure the site occasionally cares what its readers think of the type of content they put up, and just in case this happened to be one of those times I thought I’d make it known I’m not a fan of this type of content.

        As for passions, I don’t think I saw any mention that the creator finds screwing leather pads on to fan blades a crucial proponent of their self identity, so I’m guessing you’re taking this news harder than they are.

        1. Sean Ragan says:

          I would not generally spend time berating anyone, anywhere, for anything. But you’ve missed some important context: the creator of this project and myself have three names in common, which is more than a coincidence.

          And if my passion for this subject didn’t come through in my writing, well, that’s a criticism I might take to heart. Then again, you didn’t pick up on the subtle trail of clues that began with “exact same name,” so maybe I won’t let it bother me too much that the nuances of my prose seem to have been lost on you. But for the record: Yes, I did this because I am passionate about it. Also, I used rivets, not screws. To paraphrase the famous poet, “Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whorehouse would use screws to fasten leather.”

          I would love to hear what counts as a deeply purposeful, non-time-killing project in your book. Perhaps you are actively engaged in life-saving medical research?

          1. Ran Dome says:

            I’ve seen comments from Donald Trump, Miss Piggy, and Jimmy Hoffa, and that’s just this morning. Forgive me for not being new to the internet and thus not taking commenters names as gospel. I honestly believed that no one but a troll would get so incensed at someone pooh-pooh’ing a light craft project.

            I stand by my original opinion. Sticking something to something else is not a complex concept. A sentence, or even a picture would suffice for most makers. An entire HOWTO seems overkill.

            As for you passion, you’re free to revel in Joie de vivre to your hearts content, but realize that not everyone is going to be as enthralled with your pursuits as you are. I quite like picking my bellybutton lint at the end of a hard day, but I’m not going to ask MAKE to put up my detailed picture laden instructions on how I do it.

          2. Sean Ragan says:

            Fair enough.

  4. Johnny Gnash says:

    Leather never would have occurred to me, but the finished project looks great! Nice work!

  5. Jim Campbell says:

    Lovely reuse Sean. Those old fans last {almost} forever.

  6. RapidographRifle says:

    I love the fans from that era and have lost plenty of digits from most of my extremities because of the swirling menace caged within. Leather is a nice alternative to the smell of blood drying on the blades (just me . . . maybe). Craftsmanship!

    Did you choose a stock leather or a specific type/thickness (e.g. rich Corinthian leather, Long Horn steer or . . . as the page indicated something about each blade’s weight)?

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      It’s 10-oz. vegetable-tanned tooling leather. Just make sure to identify two pairs of blades that are weight matched to within 1G before mounting them. Obviously, the blades in each weight-matched pair go on opposite sides of the hub.

  7. drobertson says:

    High on style points and I like the concept. Great work. It is always cool seeing old stuff brought back to life with a new twist.

    Only input I would add is I would normally avoid olive oil like the plague on something like this. After a few items I treated with olive oil went rancid and had to be thrown out I usually pop for the leather specific oils, neatsfoot, mink oil or something similar. Warmed beeswax soaked into the leather has an interesting appeal to me (not exactly sure why).

    Keep these rolling. I am now watching your blog.

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Sophia is the managing editor of the Make: blog. When she’s not greasing editorial gears, she likes to run, ride, climb, and lift things, and make lo-tech goods like zines, desserts, and altered clothing. @sophiuhcamille

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