Wednesday, June 10, 2020

TSII #89: Restoring an Old Saddle, Part III of IV

TSII #89, before restoration
Part III explores reshaping the seat on a very old sewn-and-wired (treeless) model Western Saddle, in serious depth.  It also looks a bit at the bridle, and at a new cinch.  Even after 42 years in this field I'm still learning new things.  If you've ever wanted to learn more about the saddles depicted in the Guide, this is for you.  (It's amazing, but under the threat of death I do seem to open up more and give away all my tack secrets.  It happened in 2010 too, but that's another story.)

This is a huge post:  31 photos.  I suppose it could be broken up -- the bridle and cinch naturally make another chapter at the end -- but I wanted to stick with four parts.

Let's start with a good look at the original 1985 seat.  It might seem like there was no need to mess with it, but change the viewing angle and it becomes apparent the thing is just a flat piece of leather.
The seat piece was shaped by hand when wet.  Stretching and pulling with fingernails allowed the hump of the front, the depression at the center and the curl of the cantle binding.  But there are limits to this approach.
In taking off the seat, the first step is to remove the first-point conchos.  It was a great blessing that #89's strings were so big and strong and its conchos were big enough to slide easily.  I can't tell you how many saddle strings I've ruined trying to get teeny conchos off!  (Maybe I can:  A LOT.)   Clearly, back in 1985, I had put in the time and trouble to make good conchos for this particular saddle.  I had had only hand files and sheet aluminum to make them with, which meant a lot of tiny filing.
Western saddle conchos are always a place of effort for me.  There was no source for them back then.  I used jewelry caps or made my own in 1985.  I had two jewelry files, a round and a half-round,.. and today those same files are the big coarse ones I use on stuff like wood...

TSII #89's conchos were smooth aluminum, in keeping with the minimal silver on the saddle.  For the update I chose to stamp them as well as file the holes further open and smoothe out irregularities.  This shot shows a filed-open concho on the left and the stamped one on the right.  When stamping didn't suit me well enough, I added little marks by soft-biting with the nippers.  The goal here is not to distort and squash, which I admit I didn't quite manage.  :(
Back to taking off the seat.  Once the conchos are off, there are four pins and two stitches to negotiate.  It's easy enough to cut the stitches, but taking the pins out is going to require the wire cutters (nippers).
The pin is pretty tiny.
Pinning is covered in the Guide.  It is a skill and takes practice to acquire.  Naturally if you cut these pins you'll have to put them right back in again later, that is, re-pin with new pins.  So one step to do now is find equivalent pins and have them hanging around. 
Cut the small curved bulge of the pin on the underside as deep in as you can reach.  This action should release the tension of its grip.  The pin will start to pop out.
The cut pin by itself looks like this:
After all that, you can just throw the cut pieces away.  :)
The moment of reveal:  This is what the seat looks like by itself.  Here's the top,
and here's the bottom.
The cantle binding was the simplest possible, just a wrapping with leather lace and Galaxy silver between.  The trick there was not cutting the slits too close together.  More about Galaxy lacing is in this blog post:  Silver Edge Braiding Part I.
Note the piece of leather under the cantle.  It's pretty plain.  A lace end sticks out on the left and a bit of silver lacing sticks out on the right.

Now for the hard part --- the fun part.   The goal is to both dart the seat and to brace it underneath so as to angle up and support the cantle.  In the process the whole piece of leather should be shaped a lot closer to the deep narrow twist of a Western saddle seat, high in back and reasonably high (not too high) in front.  Historical discussion about seat front height in Western saddles is beyond the pay grade of this post.  :)

Alas, No. 85's tooling pattern didn't leave much room for darting.  The goal is to save as much of the tooling and seat embossing as possible, while still addressing the fold/bend/ridge of leather, which bulks too large for mere compression to shape satisfactorily.  This cut is the best I could manage.  A more foresightful tooling pattern might've left space for darting, hint, hint.
You will find, as we go along, that No. 85 is not a perfect candidate for the job.  But don't you learn the most when things go wrong...?!?
Fold the piece over and see if you need to extend the cut from the inside; the ends often need more cutting, depending on thickness.
I am proud of this shot.  It shows perfect needle placement for the first stitch.  That black line above, behind the needle tip, is nothing more than the lace end from the cantle binding.
Speaking of things going wrong!  Why am I showing you this shot at all, when I should have known I was using the wrong stitch orientation?  It's at 90 degrees to the edge of the leather!  The stitches should have been parallel.  Even the masters make mistakes; I did, and cheerfully shot while doing.   I won't show you the screamingly obvious resulting stitches in the darted seat.  :(
Instead, here's what the row of stitches should look like (I went back and redid them):
The proof is when you turn it over and look at the finished product.  Look, Ma, almost no stitches:
And I've lost only a little of the tooling. 
Wet the seat lightly, and squeeze and squash and stretch it with the fingers, trying to get that shape right.

This next series of shots gives a glimpse of a complex process, first developed in 2001.  I have not published patterns or instructions for any of it;  this post is an assay into an unplowed field.  The process itself is still evolving in my tack shop.  It will no doubt be different for each tackmaking artist.

My idea was simply to build up a treelike underlayer of leather and metal.  Metal because it needed that inflexibility;  leather because that's what I had the most of and was most familiar with.   I can't say where the pattern ideas came from.  I can say that the metal is Aluminum roof flashing, easily got at a hardware store (and easily available in a 50-year house with a resident tinkerer-engineer Dad).
It's like a sandwich.  The binding agent is glue (I know... but it's hidden...)  Skive, taper and file the edges; otherwise they cause the most alarming bumps and ridge lines. 
The shaping of the seat is entirely by hand.  Since the shape is custom each time, the approach is scratchbuilt.  I'm adding layers, bending things, twisting and shaping the metal even now.  The final seat can easily be asymmetrically placed on the base plate.  It's a one of a kind.

Something which did use a pattern, pinched from another saddle, was the tooling I added under the cantle:
A really dandy place to add the name of the saddle shop.  :)
That ring at the left side of the picture is my magnifying glass frame.  This photo (above) also shows the extreme flexibility of the back skirts.

The final step is fastening the seat back on, by pinning.  The stitches (above the third-point concho, at corner) can hide in the dart crack, but the pins have to be perfect.  Here's a pin insertion, seen from below:
It pierced a new hole, by the way.  That's consistent with a seat shortened side-to-side by darting.  As described in the Guide, pinning is accomplished with a small-tipped pair of needlenosers and some good wrist control.  One tight twist,
a nip with the wire cutters and a carefully squeezing press from a larger pair of needlenose pliers does it.  The darker greybrown thing just to the left of the brighter pin is, I believe, a stitch.

No. 89's seat did indeed go on a little crooked, but it was minor.


Let's look at other aspects of TSII # 89.  Remember the original job request was to polish the silver?!?  I could publish an entire post on polishing silver in miniature.  For purposes of #89 we will limit ourselves to a couple of shots of the bridle and breastcollar.
Poco Lena style was all the craze in the 1970s.  The rolled thin leather and sparkling silver ferrules can be done in one-ninth-scale fairly easily with liquid silver.
Incidentally, Poco Lena and I share a birthday.  :)
I have often praised Wright's Copper Cream when it comes to silver polishing.  I've used it on dishes, tack and even horses (to smoothe rough gloss).  I love it.  Wet the Q-tip, dip lightly in the cream and rub; then wipe off.  It does go through Q-tips!! 
The trick here, as said before, was not to rub so vigorously as to endanger the leather, which is stretchier when wet.  Yet polishing is in essence rubbing.  This bridle and breastcollar required rubbing both across the line of the ferrules and along them, rolling to get all sides.

I believe the bit is a Sojourner Studios / Sue Rowe creation.
This pic shows the wire wraps with which I replaced the brass crimps, which had previously held the bridle together.  You are probably tired of the pic of the pile of galvanized steel hardware scraps (see Part I ) but it has the cut-off crimps.

And now for more fun!!
Replacing the cinch to #89 is where I learned a whole new skill.  It is with some trepidation I endorse a entirely new (to me!) approach to a standard part of model Western tack; since excellent learning sources already exist (including my own Guide) I am tampering with established figures.  But new and improved growth is irresistible.   The result of my efforts was intoxicating.  Thank you, Willow Northland. 
In case you've forgotten, here is the original 1985 cinch (bottom).  I was justified in replacing it, no?

The start after making my frame.  I'm not going to use bread ties next time, but something softer, probably suede strips.
Frame idea from Willow Northland

The cross bar for the dees is done "just like" the full scale ones.  The trick here is to encircle 2 warps not one (and three in the middle, since there was an odd number of them).  These ideas were greatly influenced by Caroline Spurgeon's full scale cinch-making tutorials.
Cross bar weaving based on C. Spurgeon's tutorials.

Here's the whole thing.  The penciled words at the top right say "front towards enemy," a wargaming phrase intended for grenade throwers.  :)  But I'm merely reminding myself which side is front.

It was tricky manipulating the needle, but the results were worth the effort.  I learned so much that day!
A view of the back, or inside.

Timaru Star II Western Saddle #89 was finally finished May 30, a good 4 months after it should have been.  (But what months -!!!!!!)  I had great fun trying it on two different horses, Valhombra/Carrick and Denderah.  Those photo sessions will appear in Part IV.


  1. Thank you for this delightful trip down memory lane. To follow the process of restoring a work of art is nothing short of magical. AMAZING! AMAZING!

  2. Hard to believe the quality of this piece from 1985! Revolutionary for its time! And so neat to see how you "refresh" it without losing its original feel.

  3. Carrie Sloan MeyerJuly 6, 2020 at 10:11 AM

    That cinch is just meticulous! I have always used Wenol silver polish- may have to look into your Wrights Copper Cream. I usually use a piece of an old T-shirt vs. a bunch of Q-tips.