Saddle Making

saddle - side view My saddle was a final project in Leathers 3. My advisor/teacher for the class, it was independent study at that level, said I would never be able to do my first saddle in one semester (5 months). Well, I did pull some all-nighters and several weekends, but I made it. As you can see it is not your basic Western saddle. Actually it uses a McClellan tree I got from a saddle found at a local flea market. The tree was about the only thing left of that saddle, so I didn't waste a good restoration project. The main objective was a good overnight trip saddle. I've always liked all the straps and rings that the McClellan had and it's deep seat. However I wanted to stick to a more Western style rigging and skirting. For weight considerations I went with a barrel racing cut on the skirt with decent fenders on the stirrup leathers. The final design and patterns were completely done by me.

saddle - detail 3 If you will notice, most of the plating is nickel. A fellow student who was taking the Non-ferrous Metals 3 class the same semester volunteered to make them for me. This worked out great as the original brass plating was mostly missing. Also I have always personally preferred a silver-type finish on metal as opposed to a gold-type finish. That and I could only get the wolf concho in nickel or silver (grin).

saddle - back Now, I had never made a saddle before but had taken many apart and put them back together in the process of cleaning and repair. Having ridden both English and Western I had long ago adopted a cross between the two when ridding for pleasure. I preferred a Western saddle, or a McClellan, with the stirrups up one notch from riding straight-legged. I also preferred a snaffle bit or a short-shanked Tom Thumb and rode two-handed even if neck reining. From that came the concept for this saddle. Now, if you have ever seen a McClellan, then you know about the split down the middle. Not too uncomfortable if the saddle is covered with smooth leather, but still a bit more chaffing than a Western or English saddle. Due to the split in the tree, there was no need to pad the seat as it gave the saddle almost the same feel of sitting in a rocking chair with a leather seat. Also, I recovered the tree with new rawhide. Working rawhide was another new experience for me also.

saddle - detail 1 For the leather I used vegetable tanned skirting in a good grade. Wanting to keep a rugged look in the saddle, I went for a hide with a brand and some scratches. Plus it kept the price down. The dark brown leather you see is latigo. Not much tooling except for the horse on each stirrup fender. All stitching was done by hand. Yes, all of it and that's what took the longest. The one piece I'm proud of on this saddle, but don't have to show is the stirrup bars. As you may know, the McClellan used English style stirrup leathers that were about one to one and a half inches wide. Western stirrup leathers are typically three inches wide, not including skirt. On a Western tree, the slots for the leathers are usually pre-molded or cut depending on the material the saddle is made from. (There is another method to attaching leathers on a Western saddle which involves hanging the leathers across the saddle. This makes for harder replacement.) On a McClellan, the slots are actually metal ovals, hence the name bars, attached by a metal plate. The old plate was too rusted and the bars, the metal ovals, were too short. So I fabricated a replacement using a coal-heated forge, an anvil, a hammer, and some round stock. Did I mention I had access to a hand forge and all the tools?

saddle - detail 3 Overall, I am quite pleased. It is no master piece by far, but I think it was a very good start. Now even though I had an advisor/teacher, he had not done a saddle in 20 years. Much of what I learned to do and not do came from books and by calling a few saddle makers in the state. Being in the southeastern part of the US, there are not many saddle makers here and most people lean toward English.

Some references:


  • "Saddles" by Russel H. Beatie, published by Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1981, ISBN 0-8061-1584-X.
  • "Making and Repairing Western Saddles" by Dave Jones, published by Prentice Hall Press, 1982, ISBN 0-668-04906-5
  • "Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding" by Bruce Grant, published by Cornell Maritime Press, 1972, ISBN 0-87033-161-2

Leather supplies:

  • Mid-Continent Leather Sales Co.: Oklahoma, 1-800-926-2061. Mail-order or store at 1539 S. Yale, Tulsa. Leather and hardware.
  • Zack White Leather Co.: North Carolina, 1-800-633-0396. Mail-order or store at 1515 Main St, Ramseur. Leather, hardware, tools.
  • The Leather Factory: Several locations, main in Texas, 1-800-433-3201. Lots of stores and seen items in bigger craft shops. Specialty leather, fancy hardware, some tools, some kits.
  • Tandy Leather: (In My Opinion = overpriced but lots of good kits for beginners)

McClellan Saddle supplier:

  • American Military Saddle Company in California, which is owned and run by a single guy (Thad Peterson) who hand-crafts every saddle. He makes every model McClellan you can imagine, even the 1913 "pack-mule" saddle. (plus obscure US & Confederate saddles I've never heard of) Phone:: (909) 354-6644
    (Thanks to Bruce Tait, Mounted Police Officer for the info)

Pictures of it being built:

Note some of the following pictures come from damaged film. I was never good at developing film and should have let a lab handle this roll. I'm trying to recover what I can of the images with a scanner and photo program.

Saddle tree
This is the original tree I started out with. The leather, what was left of it, was so dry rotted it flaked off. This picture was taken after removing the leather but before filling all the holes and other repairs. Shown attached is the original stirrup bar, which I removed and replaced later.

Rawhide covering Rawhide covering
These two pictures were taken after covering the tree with rawhide. All lacing shown is hand cut. Note: Rawhide stinks, but when properly cased cuts like butter.

Inital leather fitting Inital leather fitting
These two pictures show the inital seat and cantle covering. I was also in the process of fitting the skirt. Note the stirrup bars are larger now to allow for a wester style stirrup leather/skirt. After this shot was taken I re-adjusted the front girth D-ring so that it does not interfere with the stirrup as it appears to in these shots. Yes, there are two layers of leather that make up the seat.


toolbox I made in woods class