When you see David Johnson smile as he sets a $500 Western hat on fire, you can be sure he's feeling better.
And when you hear Cactus, his longtime sidekick, brag that Johnson's D Bar J Hat Company hats are so waterproof that when you're caught in the rain you'll never have to cover it "with one of those Texas size condoms," you suspect that the D Bar J brand will once again be a force in the custom hat industry.
Three years ago, however, when Johnson developed aplastic anemia, he became, in the cowboy parlance that he loves, "as careful as a naked man climbin' a barbed wire fence."
He shut down his world-renowned Las Vegas hat-making operation in an effort to conserve energy to fight the rare and often fatal blood disorder.
Several times he suspected that the next time friends would be wearing D Bar J hats in his presence, they also would be taking them off -- at his funeral.
"It didn't look good for me," he said as he sprayed alcohol on a black beaver fur hat before lighting it with a match. "I don't know if I look as good as this hat will, but I'm back."
The flames, which Johnson quickly douses with a fine water mist spray, singe off any excess fur and fuzz left from shaping the hat.
"See how nice and smooth the hat's finish is now," he said.
With medications, transfusions and hospitalizations helping the 49-year-old Johnson spawn blood cells -- aplastic anemia causes the body to stop producing enough new blood cells -- he has enough energy to once again use 19th century wood blocks to shape hats and early 20th century machinery to finish them.
He also needs enough energy to complete setting up his new work and sales operation behind Santa Fe Station at 7230 Verde Road.
Blocking machines, steam pots for hats, ironing and sewing machines, and a display area all have to be in just the right place if he's going to once again turn out products for a clientele that has included President Clinton, actor Antonio Banderas, singers Charlie Daniels and Bono, the Roy Rogers Museum, Mike Tyson's entourage and entertainers at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
"I'm only able to really go for about four hours a day right now, but I'm getting stronger all the time," Johnson said.
On Monday, Las Vegas rhythm-and-blues bassist Ronee Mac, who had often frequented Johnson's old shop on Spring Mountain Road in the 1990s, found D Bar J's new home.
He handed over an old hat for Johnson to refurbish.
"Man, he's like God in the hat world," Mac told a visitor.
In 2002 and 2003, the outdoors magazine True West honored Johnson as the best historical hat maker. One of Clinton's hats, presented to him by delegates from the Nevada Democratic Convention, is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Other apparel stores refer customers to Johnson.
"It's amazing how he can make a hat look like new again," said Michael Hull, who sells and shapes Stetsons and other Western headgear at the Boot Barn western apparel store a short drive south of Mandalay Bay. "There's nobody else who can do what he does."
The fact that Johnson is again doing what he does best can be partially credited to Steve White, a fly fisherman who had purchased wide-brimmed stylish D Bar J hats.
After Johnson's old store closed, White wanted to find the man he had heard "was on death's doorstep."
"I enjoyed our conversations about history," said White, who installs phones in commercial properties for Embarq. "I missed them."
When he finally found Johnson through friends, the hat maker was feeling better but living off disability. All of his hat-making equipment, largely purchased at estate sales for hat makers throughout the country, was in storage.
"Nobody would loan him money to get started again," White said. "I didn't really have money, but I had a place for him to set up shop."
White's wife had long thought that if they could find the right business for a huge outbuilding behind their home on Verde Road, they might turn it into an enterprise that could help fund their retirement. So why not restart a custom hat-making business that at one time had made Johnson well over $250,000 a year?
"I can't believe how wonderful this has turned out," Johnson said as steam enveloped his head while he shaped a hat. "I thought this part of my life was about over."
Johnson enjoys making all kinds of hats, including derbies, fedoras and top hats. They don't come cheap, ranging from more than $200 to around $700.
Cactus, a 74-year-old former maintenance man, favors a chest-long beard, a gigantic cowboy hat and going by one name. He started working for Johnson several years ago after buying hats from him. He enjoys adding Western flavor to the hat enterprise and peppers conversation with quirky anecdotes.
"You can always tell whether a man who wears a derby has been told, 'No,' by his wife the night before," he told a customer. "He tilts his hat to the left."
Johnson's career in hats hardly followed a straight line. While working in the pharmaceutical industry, he also was in a country western dance troupe at the Gold Coast. When he wanted a hat repaired, there was no one to do it.
Before long, he was using the steam from a tea kettle to soften a hat so he could reshape it.
In the late 1980s, Johnson decided there could be a good market for a hat maker in Las Vegas. He read about the craft, learning that hat-making equipment had largely stopped being made early in the 20th century. Through trade magazines, he found where he could purchase the equipment.
"I've found that I'm pretty good at fixing things, and I can always get a machinist to make me new parts," Johnson said as he stood near a broken boiler that will one day provide him with more steam for hat shaping.
Today, Johnson is philosophical about hats. A person should never try to wear a hat that has more character than they do, he notes.
Johnson's weight has shot up as a result of his medication, but he hopes his blood disorder is a thing of the past and that he can once again share stories with customers that produce grins rather than grimaces.
Don't be surprised if you hear this cowboy tale when you wait for a hat at the D Bar J.: Two cowboys are riding along a trail in the mountains when they suddenly hear tom-toms beating very close to them. "Oh! That doesn't sound good," one says to the other. As soon as the words are spoken, an Indian jumps out from behind a tree and says, "Yeah, our regular drummer is out sick."
"Hats," Johnson said, "help you have good times."
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim @reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2908.