Back in the saddle: Blair continues saddle making traditionsWritten by Saige Albert
“I do anything from a custom saddle to a combination of leather goods to a custom boot,” says John. “I also restore a lot of old saddles.”
John’s interest in the trade started with his father, who was also a saddle maker.
“Dad apprenticed with Kerwin Nelson in Lusk, he worked at Probst in Gillette and had a shop in Lander. Then he moved to Pinedale,” he explains. “After he had two fingers shot off in the war, he couldn’t grasp tools anymore, so he was hired with the Game and Fish, and we moved to Cheyenne.”
After graduating from high school, John began working with well-known, established saddle maker Tony Holmes.
“I spent two years hand stitching, taking apart saddles and putting them back together,” says John. “In the meantime, I had to scrub and condition saddles and sweep floors, which is unheard of today.”
John later moved to Douglas and opened a saddle shop downtown, moving to his current location two miles north of town 13 years ago.
His shop is filled with saddles and leatherwork equipment, and hundreds of assorted leatherwork tools, including edgers and punches, line the walls.
“Each one of these tools has a specific purpose,” John explains. “I have my favorite tools – my knives that I work with and punches that I use, but there are some edgers and other tools that I very seldom get to.”
John adds that he has acquired a wide variety of tools, both from his father’s collection and his travels, and now has an array of carving and stamping tools that range from old McMillans tools and stainless steel Hackbarths to nail head stamps.
“I am always acquiring more tools. Sometimes I find one that is a little better, whether that means it is better steel or works better, I always have to look for those advantages,” he continues.
The saddles that John creates range from plain, functional pieces to ornate, highly decorated works of art.
“I have a few clients with saddles that have never been on a horse,” says John.
In working with people to design a saddle, John mentions that some customers come in with a clear view of what they want, whereas he sits down with others to design the piece.
“We have to determine the type of swells, the height on the cantle, the type of horse they will ride and what they want for decoration,” explains John. “We also look at whether they want the saddle carved, plain, roughed out or basket stamped, if they want silver on it, what type of stirrups and a round or square skirt – there are a lot of decisions to make.”
John also emphasizes that it is important to know the height, weight and inseam of his clients to fit the saddle properly.
“Too many people push themselves clear into the back of the cantle, which is not good. They have to be able to sit in the center, and their feet have to be in the proper place,” explains John, who works hard to ensure a good fit.
In making saddles, John starts with a tree, built from wood and covered in rawhide. He utilizes three sides of leather, rather than two, and notes the sheep skin and wool lining underneath the saddle is very important.
Saddle repair and restoration is an integral part of John’s shop, and he says he often restores saddles that have special meaning connected to people, locations or events.
Building custom saddles requires practice and creativity, and John adds that every saddle maker is unique.
“There are two different types of people who make saddles – some have graduated in commercial art and some grew up working in a shop,” says John. “You can tell in their work that the thinking is different. I worked in a shop.”
“I have to constantly keep working at it. Sometimes things evolve faster than others, and I have to look at other people’s work and pay attention to what they are doing,” says John. “People are always very creative in what they work with and what they do, but you have to have a basic understanding first.”
Because his brother is an engraver, John can also add custom silver pieces to his saddles.
Aside from saddles, John creates custom leather pieces to display at shows and sell, as well as boots. He has also custom made a number of pieces, as small as a leather cover for a carpenter’s finger to backpacks and belts.
“I just picked up boot making out of necessity for myself. I have some foot problems and needed a custom boot,” explains John. “I do both a cowboy boot and a lace-up style.”
The saddle making business comes with a few challenges, says John.
“For a while we had developed spewing, which is a white plume fungus,” explains John, “but I discovered I could keep the dust off the saddles and keep the mold from growing if I covered them.”
He also notes that, with his new location, people have a more difficult time locating the shop.
“Out here, though, most of the people who come in are pretty much set on doing something,” notes John.
Saddle making traditions are highly important to John, who continues the work because he enjoys it.
“It’s good to keep a tradition going on,” says John. “I do it because it’s something that I enjoy. Sometimes the money isn’t always there, but I build a product that will last long after I am gone, and I have the satisfaction of building a product that is useful.”