Saturday, August 4, 2012

Birth of an English Saddle, Part One

I have a whole new crop of commissions in, and therefore a lot of work ahead of me, and I thought that maybe it would be kind of cool to document the process here. You know, 'cause someone might like that or something.

Out of the four commissions sitting on my desk, three of them are in tan leather. Or "orange." Which is fine, and actually a nice break from the parade of dressage sets I've been up to lately. It's just that this color of leather tends to be slightly more finicky than the other colors. Black, no problems. Dark brown, piece of cake. It's just tan that you need to be careful around. It's sensitive to gum tragacanth, super glue, and leather finish- all three will turn it darker and it will never be light again. But no pressure, right?
Bring it on.

So with that in mind, I set off on making the first of three tan saddles yesterday. And I even took some blurry, one-hand-iPhone pictures while I did it.

This really isn't meant to be a thorough how-to on English saddles. More like a walk through of how I do mine for anyone that would be interested in that kind of thing. I should also mention that I'm completely self-taught; I've never bought a pattern book or really followed a nice and thorough how-to. It's just been trial and error, and so far, it seems to be working okay.

Without further ado, let's make an English saddle!

The first step to any saddle is supplies.
In there we have:
  • An assortment of jewelry tools, including needle-nose pliers, tin snips, needle nose flat-mouth things, and wire cutters for the tougher wire.
  • Handy dandy pencil.
  • 28 gauge wire.
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors (I should probably find some nice tiny ones... but my giant pair seems to work just fine for now!)
  • Gum tragacanth (it's magical)
  • Pattern pieces
  • Stirrups (I get mine here.)
  • Dyed skiver
  • Regular old Tacky Glue
  • Super sharp chopped-up soda can
  • And the all-important thumb tack. I don't know how people make tack without them.
Plus scraps of tooling leather and felt, and a super sharp Xacto knife. And a Sharpie. And a silver paint pen. Hulu Plus with full episodes of Community and a iced drink are optional.
I get my leather from Rio Rondo, tools from some local jewelry store a thousand years ago, and wire and Gum from any eBay seller who has 'em. Everything else is pretty common and easy to get ahold of.

My saddle process always starts with the flap. Only one on my saddles, because sweat flaps and billets that small scare me and seem kind of unnecessary at this scale.

I have two different patterns for flaps; one big and one smaller. The big one generally works for G3's and G4's, and the smaller one is better for G1's and G2's, who tend to be more petite than the newer sculptures.
This set is for a G2, so the small pattern it was.
Labeled pattern pieces= sane tackmaker.

This is the only piece on the whole saddle that doesn't get skived down within an inch of its life. It actually doesn't get any skiving at all. Rio's skiver is nice enough, and works just fine for what I need it to, but it definitely isn't thin enough to wrap neatly around soda can, or create a clean edge on a knee roll.
But it's nice for the flap.

Next I sketch in the shape of the knee roll on one side of the flap with my pencil, cut out that shape, fold the flap in half and cut the shape out on the other side for a nice match. We now have an odd looking piece of leather.

Nananananannananananana BAT FLAP.
The trick to D rings is to do them now, and not wait for more layers of leather to get in the way. And so we use our trusty thumb tack to poke a hole in one of the bat ears (ears?) and make a little D ring tab, like so:
Lonely little tab.
That's just a tiny bit of lace (I think the process of making lace deserves its own later post) threaded through some 28 gauge wire bent into a D with those flat-jaw tiny nose things. Can you tell I don't know what they're called?

We then take this little tab and get it through the hole we poked in the bat ear (I really don't think it's an ear).
A touch of glue on the off side, and tada! That blurry little silver thing is a D ring. I promise.

Once I've done that on both sides, I move on to the knee rolls.
I don't have a pattern for knee rolls, because I basically lay the flap piece over my leather and draw the shape of the completed flap onto it by folding the edges of the flap around the knee rolls and make a nice curve outwards like the knee roll will eventually be and this is a run on sentence.

I then cut out this wonky D shaped piece and use my super sharp knife to slice off the back layer of the leather and really thin the thing down.
Lots of fuzzies involved.
Then I grab my handy dandy tooling leather scraps and do a similar tracing on that. Except this time, I actually follow the inside of the knee roll edges instead of the outside. Plus the outward curve.

We cut that little shape out and glue it face first (good side down) to the center of the piece we just skived.
Things get funny shaped after they're skived.
Then with a tiny bit of glue around the outside, I carefully fold the extra skiver up and over the edge of the round side of the tooling leather piece.
Flip it over, use your fingernails to make the shape of the tooling leather piece stand out, and glue the whole piece into place right where it fits against the flap.

And we have a knee roll!
Rinse and repeat on the other side, then I use the same tracing method on the rough side of my leather to produce a piece almost identical to that which we used to cover the tooling leather. I skive that one down a lot too, carefully smooth the edges with Gum, and glue it into place on the back of the knee roll to get a nice clean, finished look on the underside of the saddle.
Finished knee roll on the top, unfinished one on the bottom.

The last step to the flap piece is to stitch mark around the edges. I use my trusty thumb tack for this, which gives me the ability to make each and every stitch tiny and very, very close together. I've considered looking into a pounce (ponce?) wheel... but there's no way those stitches are small enough for this stuff. And it seems like a wheel would be awkward around tight corners.
So the thumb tack it is.

I promise there're stitches on there.
And then you have a finished flap!

Let me know if you have any alternative methods or ideas in the comments. You could also, I dunno, let me know if this sort of thing is helpful or interesting. If you feel like the past two minutes of your life was not wasted, awesome. If you feel like they were... Keep it to yourself.

Next up is the tree and skirt assembly! Exciting stuff!


  1. This helped a lot with regards to the knee rolls. I always tried to stick them on top of the saddle flaps, resulting in quite a lot of bulk. Just one question: What do you use to skive the leather and could you do a brief outline of the whole process?

  2. I alternate between two ways of skiving the leather. The first, and more commonly used way that I did with this saddle, is to cut the shape out of unskived leather, then take a sharp Exacto knife and hold it almost parallel to the rough side of the piece. I then just "slice" or scrape off leather on the back, resulting in lots of fuzzies. After I slice for a little while, I go over the rough side I've been skiving, with fine sandpaper to even it out and thin it down even more.
    The second method is to plan out how big your shape is going to be on the rough side of your leather, then just sand that portion of the leather piece until it's as thin as you'd like it. I use 150 and 220 grit sandpaper.
    I'll do a much easier to follow post on this whole process in the future, with helpful pics and everything :)
    Hope this helps!