Friday, July 11, 2014

The Building Blocks: Leather

Welcome to the first post in a series about what I stock my studio with!

First off, some different perspective: The blogging goddess, Jennifer Buxton, has this exact kind of series over on her blog that I may or may not be totally copying inspired by with these posts of my own. If you're into "big" (hey, if Traditional people can call Stablemates minis, then Stablemate people should have a word for Traditionals) tack, that's an excellent resource to check out. Her blog in general is solid gold.

Before I dive into my thoughts and feelings and information about leather, I have to get this rant out of the way:

By and large, this hobby (and especially performance) is a Traditional/Classic scale game. "Big"-only people are far more common than mini-only people, and the halter and performance ring alike are dominated by "big" pieces. And there's nothing wrong with that! I completely understand; in 1:9 and 1:12 scale, there's just so much more room, and it's easier to fit a more detailed paint job or piece of tack onto something big enough to clearly see. I love my bigs. They're just the right size to feel just perfect and satisfying in your hand, not to mention how welcome they are as a break from staring at minis all day.

Breyer is the roots of this beautiful tree of a hobby, and they're big on pushing Traditional scale horses harder than any other scale, and have always been. You'll notice that "big" models are marketed as collector's items or pieces of artwork, while Stablemates are usually peddled as kid's toys. Not to say that there aren't some beautiful mini customs and amazing mini artist resin sculptures, but generally speaking, "bigs" are much more widely accepted.

(here comes the part where I get to the point of my post)

What all this means as a mini tack maker is that there aren't as many resources marketed directly to tack making. Hardware, for example, is something you can find tons of on Rio Rondo or The World of Model Horse Collecting-- for bigs. They just don't make mini scale hardware in the same quality and variety! The greater demand for bigger scale anything is magnified when it comes to tack, because even those who are cool with collecting minis and showing halter, don't necessarily want to go out and make tack for them. Understandably.

And all of that blabber boils down to: mini tack makers are a creative bunch. We can't just order some nice shiny D rings or curb bits from RR; we have to figure out how to make them from scratch. Which, for me, is just another part of the fun. :)

Let's talk leather.

While in big tack, you generally need two different weights or thicknesses of leather to work with- tooling leather or calf for the bigger pieces, and thin skiver for smaller details and to cover things- in mini tack, I exclusively use skiver. The variation in thickness needed throughout the project is achieved by using unskived skiver (just how it comes shipped to me) for the thick pieces, and skiving and sanding it down when I need it thin.

For most of my tack making career, I've made everything from the skiver Rio Rondo sells

This is nice stuff. It's a nice natural, "buff" color, and one 5x6" piece is enough to make probably around five-ish mini saddles and girths, plus some boots or saddlebags or something.

But after ordering countless pieces of this stuff for $4.50 a pop, I began to notice my issues with the stuff more and more. For one, because it's just a small piece of a hide, you never really know what you're going to get. I've gotten RR skiver that was thick and stiff enough to almost pass as tooling leather, in the same shipment as a piece so paper thin I actually couldn't use it for saddle flaps. Also, sometimes you get a grain (the texture on the good side) so tight it makes a clean, smooth finish, and sometimes you get a grain big enough to look like alligator skin in mini scale.

Mmmm, grainy.
The variation isn't RR's fault, it's just the luck of the draw. Still, annoying to work with. I eventually came to a place where I figured that for the amount of the stuff that I was going through, I might as well invest in a big chunk that would last me a long time.

I did some googling, some online shopping and poking around, and finally settled on a hide of "pliver" off ebay that looked like it could be thin enough and have a tight enough grain to work for me. Plus, it was about $20 for six square feet of the stuff.

In case you didn't catch that, let's do some math.

RR's skiver is $4.50 for 30 square inches. That's 15 cents per square inch.

This pliver is $20 for six square feet, or 864 square inches. That's a little over 2 cents per square inch.

So you see my incentive.

After interrogating the poor seller on every aspect of the leather I could possibly check out without actually holding it in my hands (How well does it take to dye? What's the grain like? How squishy is it?), I took the leap.

With my luck, I fully expected it to be awful quality, completely unworkable, $20 down the drain. I mean, I assume from the name that this isn't real leather. Pleather, pliver, all very sketchy.

Well whatever you want to call it, and whatever animal or machine this stuff is from, I have hit the jackpot.

This massive piece is pure white in color, and the majority of it is about the thickness of a typical piece of RR skiver, which is perfect because that's the thickness I'm most accustomed to working with. 

But the real beauty of this stuff is how there's some variation in thickness throughout the hide- some areas are a little thicker, perfect for a western skirt, and some are paper thin, which saves me time and bloodsweat&tears skiving down the thicker stuff. I can see how this kind of variation would be obnoxious with bigger tack, when you would need to cut say, a saddle flap big enough to be uneven in thickness throughout, but when my biggest cut piece is one inch square, this works perfectly for me. 

The grain on the white undyed stuff is about as noticeable as the grain on undyed RR skiver, I'd say. Which isn't as small as I'd like it, but the amount of white leather tack I'm making isn't substantial enough for that to really be an issue. Because as soon as you dye this stuff, the grain fades. And because you're dyeing from a white base instead of a natural-tone base, the color really comes through the tone it's supposed to.

That's the RR skiver on the bottom, and pliver on top, dyed at the same time with the exact same dye in the exact same way. (The pliver was a test scrap for dye; most of it doesn't have those ridges).

I love how this turns out, because if I wanted that dark tone the skiver has on the pliver, I just have to go back and put another layer of dye on. But if I was hoping for the pliver's tone on the skiver, I'm out of luck and my $4.50 piece of leather is stuck with that dark, dark color.

In my experience with Fiebing's dyes on RR's skiver, the leather's natural softness and drape is killed as soon as it's dyed. It becomes stiff and kind of paper-y, and you need to work with it to get it to achieve a more relaxed shape. This isn't the case with the pliver- even with dye, it still feels like high quality leather.

Now, this isn't entirely a good thing. 99% of the pieces I cut for an English saddle get skived down from the skiver's original thickness. This process involves alternating between slicing the rough side of the leather horizontally to shave off thickness, and sanding it down to maintain an even thickness throughout the whole thing. On the stiff RR leather, this isn't really a problem. Tedious, yes, but manageable, and generally if I cut out a skirt shape then skive it, it'll still fit my saddle.

The softness and elasticity of the pliver makes this process a little different, because it likes to stretch out and grow as it thins. This makes its color lighter, and messes up the shape of a cut piece.

This pony saddle is the first completed piece made entirely from the pliver, and it's all made from the same piece dyed dark brown. You can see in the knee rolls (the thinnest pieces of the whole saddle, probably) that the color tone is noticeably lighter from all the stretching and thinning.

Luckily, I think this looks awesome.

So today we check leather off our supply list:

I was going to talk about leather lace and dye here too, but I think that'll be a post of its own. Stay tuned!


  1. Let me just say, I love that seller! I bought from them... about a month ago(?) which was just a bit before I discovered your blog. I bought some skiver from them, not pliver, but it was just as you described. It really is a wonderful piece of leather. I work with the 'big' guys, but I do like the variation. When I work with bigger pieces and saddle flaps, I use tooling leather anyways... The only thing I didn't like about it was the white. I recently needed to make a natural tone western saddle and I rarely work with western tack and that usually means I rarely work with natural leather so I panicked and finally found some scraps of RR leather.