Archive for the ‘The Blog’ Category
It was June 3, 1944. Allied forces, primarily American, British, and Canadian cracked the “Atlantic Wall” Hitler had established in anticipation of just such an invasion. It was the largest concentration of military personnel and materiel in history and will likely never be repeated. The first wave of soldiers landing at Omaha Beach was especially bloody for the Americans…they had ridden right into the jaw of the enemy.
Sixty-five years later, I stood on American soil at Omaha in Normandy, France. The warm sunshine, manicured grass, and solemn setting belied the events of that day so long ago. As we walked among the rows of crosses on the bluff, a horse and rider appeared on the beach below. Riding out of the west, the rider loped on the stretch of sand where so much death had occurred on D-Day. What a universally recognized figure…a horse and rider! In the old west, a rider appearing usually meant supplies, news, mail, and often friendship. In June of 1944, the “American Cowboys” couldn’t have been more welcome to the people of France…they brought hope and freedom to a continent in desperate need. The only tangible thing those soldiers received in return for their lives was a quiet place where they may be laid to rest.
When you think of the challenges we face in our lives, think about the challenges of living those boys faced: The Higgins boat grinds into the beach head and the gate drops open exposing all forty men to the withering fire from machine gun nests above. In the first wave, there was often a 100% casualty rate per boat. If a soldier survived getting out of the Higgins boat, he had a hundred yard sprint across a low tide beach with one hundred pounds of gear in order to get to the sea wall…and cover from the German guns.
I think often of those boys and what they sacrificed. It also helps pull things into perspective when we think about our “challenges of living”.
I first learned how to sew on a harness stitcher in the summer of 1979 in Twin Falls, Idaho. The shop I worked for was a high quality holster production outfit owned by Chet Hillman. Chet had a contract to make the Thompson Center Contender holsters back in the day when silhouette shooting was popular. Our crew of a dozen or so had a goal of wet-blocking three hundred holsters a day! I remember sewing on either a Landis 3 or a Randall machine for eight hours each day. By the time I turned 20 years old that year, I had more hours sewing on a harness stitcher than most saddlemakers accumulate in their entire career.
Today I have a Randall that I bought from the late Don King of Sheridan, Wyoming some years ago. The Randall was my favorite machine all those years ago and it still is today, and I still use the same tried and true polished linen thread. Thankfully, tech support and parts availability is excellent on these needle-and-awl machines. Conrad “Connie” Nagle of Campbell Bosworth has an outstanding business in Yoakum, Texas that serves the folks who still run these machines.
I’m violating some of my ‘rules’ with regard to decoration on this year’s TCAA saddle. The color on the flowers is something I’ve done before, but have never been very fond of the idea. I reduced the color so that after oiling and antiquing, it should be subtle. I’ve done some experimenting on some scrap leather and am hoping for the best. The work we do for our show in the fall is an opportunity to reach as far as we can artistically and technically. There will always be a certain amount of risk that will go with this kind of stretching. It is a risk worth taking, for it is invigorating, challenging, and rewarding.
Before the 1870s the colloquial phrase “on time” was non-existent. The industrial revolution which brought the railroad out west also brought us to the point of declaring a worker or train to be “on time”. Earlier, folks simply “passed time” in their various vocations. Then came the modern dictum that we “save”, “spend”, and “keep track of” time. It is hard to imagine our world without the pressure of being “on time”, for the money metaphor has survived intact and is one that most of us bathe in daily.
For a craftsman (and perhaps most folks) the clock can be a good servant, but a pretty poor master. Striving to work efficiently is a good thing in any endeavor, but approaching a task with the pressure of having to “get ‘er done” in a short amount of time…well, good luck with that! Some of us seem to have the attitude that, “We’re going to get this done fast, no matter how long it takes!” We are so destination oriented, that the temptation to hurry things along is great. This doesn’t work so well with artistry, craftsmanship, horsemanship, stockmanship or…you name it. Have you seen cattle brought to the corral in a stampede and the rest of the day comes unraveled? It often takes an extra day or more to sort out a wreck because of a lack of patience. When I lack patience with my horses, I’ll be using more time fixing problems that I’ve created. A buckaroo friend years ago said that if you are going to be in a hurry, hurry out of bed so that you can get an early start on the day. Leather, silver, wood, and rawhide are mediums that write the script on how to deal with them, and being in a hurry isn’t part of the story. A craftsman regards them with respect and on their terms. Though living and breathing, horses and cattle likewise don’t operate on a timeline…for the most part, they have nowhere to go and all day to get there. They know nothing of the pressures of a ticking clock.
My journey of craftsmanship has taught me patience with the process. A methodical, systematic approach almost always yields higher quality results in a timely fashion. In fact, I’ve read that the best practical theology is systematic theology. We could apply this to many things…”The best practical craftsmanship is systematic craftsmanship.”
And now, since I’ve spent too much time on the computer, I’ll have to excuse myself and get back to work so that I can get my projects finished on time.
These days I look for opportunities to sew things by hand. Here’s a few nuggets I learned from Jean Luc Parisot in France four years ago…1. Fold your buckle ends around so that the grain side is against the hardware. This provides for a bit of added durability. 2. Hand sewing allows you to get your last stitch much closer than you could with your machine for a snug fit against hardware. This is another durability feature as sloppy fit always makes for more wear on the leather. 3. I extend the bag punch slot by half again as long so that the buckle tongue can travel at least 180 degrees. This helps get a better fit around the buckle with less bulge as the leather wraps around the center bar on the buckle.
‘Anyone who finds this interesting…welcome to my addiction. Some may wonder why the pursuit of refinement? It’s pretty simple…my customers/clients are served by what I can learn and accomplish in my shop. My world would get way too small if this was all for me. (besides I can only use so much of the stuff I make!).
“So why the posts?” 1. Let my customer base know the contrast between what you might get off the shelf in town and what you should expect from a custom shop. 2. Share what I’ve learned over the years with other craftsmen so that their customers will have what they want and need in their equipment. Our trades will survive and thrive when there are more folks with smiles on their faces.
In recent visits with the current CEO Shep Hermann at Hermann Oak Leather , the saddlemakers of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association have discussed recommendations on care and maintenance of saddles. Shep recommends neatsfoot oil…the best of which is available through Weaver Leather under the “Shep’s” label. (It is a coincidence that the outfit making the neatsfoot bears the same name as Shep Hermann.) I’ve heard for years about the lack of a standard formula for neatsfoot, and that it will ‘rot the stitching’, or that it darkens the leather too much. I would make the case that any thin oil that is similar to neatsfoot in its properties will exhibit very similar results as 100% neatsfoot with regard to darkening. (Olive oil or peanut oil come to mind.) Our trade is full of anecdotal information that rarely has any hard science to back it up. That’s why it is a great thing to hear this recommendation from the man whose family has tanned Hermann Oak Leather since the 1880s. Hermann Oak Leather Company is in close touch with the chemistry involved in the making of leather and how best to care for it. Incidentally, there is a laboratory in Cincinnati that specializes in the chemistry of tanning that is a regular consultant to tanneries throughout North America…Hermann Oak of course being one of them.
Good neatsfoot oil will gel at around 50 degrees, and it is recommended that it be heated to 110 degrees for maximum penetration before applying to the leather. Heating oil before application will avoid what is referred to as ‘spew’ later on. Spew is that whitish residue that sometimes appears on leather after neatsfoot has been used. Heating reduces the size of the oil molecules and therefore allows for adequate penetration. I have a single burner hot plate on my work bench that I use to heat neatsfoot oil. I turn the burner on a few minutes before I need to apply oil to leather, whether old or new. A slow cooker (Crock Pot) makes an excellent heater for oil on the work bench. Oil placed in direct sunlight on a warm day will certainly accomplish the task as well. Take care not to over heat the oil if you are using a kitchen range.
Inspiration comes from many sources. It’s getting harder to keep track of where all the ideas come from. This year’s TCAA saddle is well under way and as I’m ‘stealing’ time from other projects to get it completed by the early August deadline. I’ve had this Al Tietjen stainless steel cheek bit (that I traded Ernie Marsh for) for many years. Those of you who keep track of these great bits will know that Ernie has owned the famous Tietjen line of bits for quite awhile…count yourself lucky to have one! Anyway, the most visible image on this bit is what isn’t there. The heart is created by the negative space in the cheek design. Likewise, the hearts in my carving design are created by the negative space…’that which is not there’. I’m having fun with this and have done some experimenting with color (something I’ve not been a big fan of). Stay tuned as things progress…
The great Ray Holes of Grangeville, Idaho developed a leather conditioner he called “Saddle Butter” many years ago. It has a combination of beeswax, neatsfoot oil, carnauba wax and a variety of other ingredients. I’ve used it liberally over the years on new and used saddles. The saddle will never be cleaner than when it is new, therefore it is a good idea to treat all the saddle parts that will come into direct contact with the horse. Stirrup leathers, fenders, back cinch, billets, the back side of the flat plate rigging receive special attention. Warm moisture from the horse carry with it salts that are damaging to leather. It is recommended that a product with some wax in it be used to seal up these areas that are most vulnerable. Applied liberally and allowed to render into the leather, then buffed off with a sheepskin leaving a smooth finish is important. This way, airborne dust will not stick to the surface of the leather. I buy Ray Holes Saddle Butter by the gallon.
It was January 2013 in Mesa, Arizona at the High Noon Show and Sale where we hosted the first annual TCAA Emerging Artist Competition. The participants wanted a thorough critique of the work they had on display. My colleague Rick Bean and I obliged. It turned into a no-holds-barred process that the saddlemakers in attendance relished. When asked who they thought were the ultimate beneficiaries of our suggestions they chimed, “We are!”. I then made the case that the ultimate beneficiaries were their customers…that person horseback using a piece of equipment that is also a work of art. Together they bargained for a deal thinking they would better their lot in life, and in the process also found a way to enrich the lives of others. Now that is a collective bargain that we can all get behind!
Over the years I’ve been very fortunate to have accumulated many great customers. Art Nicholas and the Wagonhound Ranch has been one of them. This world class ranch is located near Douglas, Wyoming and features top shelf big game hunts, horses, and cattle. Art and his staff have been working toward a production sale for their horse program for the last several years. The sale is scheduled for September of this year at the ranch and promises to be a great one. The top ten buyers names will be placed in a drawing for one of my saddles. For more information on the ranch and the upcoming sale, visit www.wagonhound.com.