Monday, November 23, 2015

Starting: the Horn

This chapter is all about making the horn for TSII #455, Miller's TriColor silver Parade Saddle.  We have done Western saddle horns using this method since the beginning of my tackmaking career.   Depending on how you count it, that makes 36 years (since 1979, when the TSII started taking orders) or 41 years (since circa 1974, when I actually started making tack).  Either way, that's a lot of horns... over four hundred and fifty!!  Some used thread, some used sinew, and some (like #455) used silver lacing, but they all were made basically the same way.

This post is also about just plain starting.  I find it quite difficult to begin a big piece.  How to get through the initial logjam?  Where do I begin?  Dividing and conquering just makes more logjams...  Over time I have evolved a habit-pattern:  much of the time I do start a saddle with the horn.   (Since I build mostly Western saddles, horns are taken for granted.)  I think of it as equivalent to starting painting a horse by doing his nose.
I imagine a flat plane, or sheet, of intent, sweeping through the saddle.  It starts at the horn and finishes with the back skirts, or the crupper if it's a parade set.  If the project were a horse it would finish with the tip of his tail.  There is a slight downwards motion to this imaginary plane:  it's gotta touch the fenders and stirrups, sweeping down through them, and then leap up (stretch or extend) and finish off with the rear.  It's the same idea as painting one's way down the legs and ending up at the hooves.  The tail is still last.  The order of being touched by this plane, then, is the order I do the pieces in.  It's one way to get started.
There really is the feel of a 'nose' or 'muzzle' about the Western saddle horn.  It's a handy knob to grab hold of when you're picking it up--- just like the head of a model horse.

Above is the start of the start.  That blue paper pattern was made from some random scrap of construction paper during my college years (early 80s) - and it's still in use today (2015)!  Since my shears can't cut so tiny a turn, I use the hole punch and the X-Acto.  The hole punch has the benefit of making that angle nice and smooth.

After dyeing the leather, the next step is hand-skiving the horn.  The slanted edge must be feathered thin; it will form a wrapped edge later on and should have no bulk.  The rest of the horn piece is left reasonably thick, although the inner edge is skived some.
A sidewise view, edge on, of the horn piece after skiving:
Very early in my career, I bought a little star stamp from Tandy's and started stamping the horns of my saddles with it.  It was in honor of the "Star" in my tack shop's name (see How the Timaru Star II got its name).  And ever since, every single Western saddle I've ever made has got that little star right in its horn.  By now there are layers of "wish upon a star" and of just plain time-honored history in that stamped mark.  It might be covered by a horn cap (in fact frequently is!) but the star is always there.
Here also I am slitting the rim of the horn for the braided-silver binding.  The tool is a needle chisel, homebuilt.
Making slits for edge-braiding is a separate skill.  The slits can't be too big or small, nor too far from the edge.  They should be spaced so the braiding lies evenly.  A rule of thumb is to use a slit just as wide as the lacing.  With Galaxy lacing (below) more skill is needed to cut the lacing to just the width of the needle chisel!
The next step is to make the horn core or frame.  I use 20 gauge galvanized steel wire.  The horn is about the last place left in my saddles to use galvanized instead of stainless, because it will be unseen (and any corrosion won't affect things).  Practice will be needed to shape the horn core: rounding the rim, paralleling the neck.
 Galaxy is a brand name of silver mylar belt lacing, available at Tandy's.  It was Cheryl Abelson, a miniatures dealer and amateur tackmaker in the early 80s, who first let me in on its use for model tack.  You have to peel open the full-scale stuff and pull out the fibrous filling.  You will be left with a thin flexible outer shell, whitish on the inside and silver on the outside (shown second from right).  You then have to cut the shell into strips.
Silver Galaxy lace solved many problems for me.  It didn't tarnish, was perfectly in scale, wasn't expensive or hard to get, looked great and could be cut to any size needed.  It was flexible but strong and took wear well.  It aged OK.  But one did need endless patience and skill to cut and trim a long enough strip for lacing.  If the strip was cut too thin, the stresses of lacing would cause it to curl there and then delaminate -- coming apart right in the middle of things!  I hated that curl!!  It was better to use two pieces, and somehow hide the ends, than to have your lace curl up and break...
The back of the Galaxy lace shell is marked in a sort of checkerboard of tiny squares.  The right width for #455's horn, and most Trad jobs, is just one square wide.
Another interesting thing about using Galaxy lace is I never need a needle.  I lace my silver without one.  It's useful to have a fid (a pointed tool) of course; my needle awl does that job.  But Galaxy is too thick to thread on a needle and would break under the forces involved.  So I cut a point on one end, open the slits and feed the end through by hand.
While it is not the place of this post to explain how to edge-braid, I can tell you that TSII #455 used Spanish Edge Lacing of 2 loops, as do most of my silver horns.  The braiding binds the horn core to the leather and gives it shape and strength.  The trick to most braiding is to keep an even tension or pull throughout the piece.
Rounding the horn (as it were) is another skill best picked up by practice.
At this point, ends tucked in and braiding finished, I roll up the leather around the wire and tie it with more wire (galvanized, 24 ga.).   It's tricky tightening this wire without breaking it, but nothing else is strong enough to hold the leather closed.  Position this closing wire below the surface of the pommel or shoulders, but not so far down as to stick out into the gullet.  Nip off the unused wire ends and bend the twist smooth.
Putting on the horn cap:  in the case of #455, a simple hot-ironed hex concho.  Tricky to preserve the doming (the arch to the concho); I used the corner of the stamping block, underneath, during ironing.
 At this point I sliced off the lower part of the horn neck, trusting to the wire twist-tie to hold things together.
And the final step:  creating the pommel.  This process was covered in another blog post.
And there you have it -- a big chapter in how we make Western saddles.  Hopefully some help in busting those logjams of creativity!  And more insight into the creation of TSII #455, as of this writing so soon to be finished.  I look forward to my next projects:  a short order hatband, more work on the Guide, and then a Star Wars-themed silver saddle!
Life is never boring.