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Restoration of Antique Saddles
by Dick Sherer
Sherer Custom Saddles, Inc.

Most antique saddles are worn or damaged, and the dilemma facing the collector and saddlemaker is to repair them or not. Museum curators with little knowledge of leather will wring their hands and say you should do nothing to old saddles. At the other end of the spectrum are collectors who recognize that old saddles are functional art, and they want them restored to their original functionality.

I draw an analogy to collectors of antique automobiles. The old cars were built to run down the road and collectors take great pains to restore them to an operating condition. You don't see them showing off rusting hulks in their barns. I personally view antique saddles in much the same way, but I also recognize that some saddles are best left as "lookers" that will be best preserved if they are not restored to ridable condition. I provide my clients with the following guidelines to determine what will be the best decision for a particular saddle:-

1. Are you going to display the saddle or ride it?
The bar patterns in late 19th and early 20th century saddles are not going to fit most contemporary horses, yet I have clients who have horses that these old saddles can be used on. If the saddle is going to be ridden, repair of the tree needs to be considered.

2. Is the saddle in a condition that safe repairs can be made?
On some saddles, leather parts may be so deteriorated that attempting to repair them would only cause further damage. Duplication of parts can be considered, but my personal philosophy is to retain as much of the original work as possible.

3. If the repair can be made, how will it affect the value of the saddle?
In this area, the skill of the saddlemaker and knowledge of antique saddlemaking techniques become very important. The value of an antique saddle can be lost with incompetence, careless work and repair work that is totally out of character for the period of the saddle. Antique saddles have been ruined by machine stitching, and you should be prepared to bear the cost of fine hand stitching with linen thread. You can choose between saddlemakers who specialize in restoration of antique saddles or you can take your collectible to the saddlemaker who can "fix up any old saddle".

Any part on an antique saddle can be repaired or replaced. Some damaged and broken trees can be repaired and recovered with rawhide, but in other trees, the old wood will not withstand the stress of drying and shrinking rawhide. In that case a duplicate tree can be made, and when a tree is duplicated a bar pattern more compatible with today's horses can be used if the saddle is going to be ridden. On many antique saddles horn repairs have been neglected until the leather, wood and rawhide are worn down to the horn metal. Horns in this condition can often be rebuilt without taking the tree out of the saddle.

Rigging leathers may outwardly appear to be sound. Where leather is in contact with rusted rigging hardware, rusted screws or rusted nails, it will alter to a black powdery form of rot. Needless to say, if it is stressed it could fail. Early rigging rings and dees were hand forged iron, and they were covered with leather to prevent this form of rot from occurring on rigging straps and leathers. Most styles of antique rigging hardware are available from foundries, and authentic duplication of the original rigging is seldom a problem.

Horn leathers wear out, and recovering horns is a common repair. On some saddles the swell cover may have to be removed, but on some Sam Stagg rigged saddles only the rigging may have to be removed. In recovering horns it is important that the technique be appropriate for the period, and in some case, such as F. A. Meanea saddles, appropriate to the maker at a specific period in his career. Nothing looks worse or detracts more from the value of an antique saddle than a 1970's production shop horn covering on a vintage 1880's saddle.

Ropes put a lot of wear on swell covers and the leather cover may be completely worn through to the tree. Front bindings can be worn off and underlying leathers can be worn away. Small holes in the swell cover have traditionally been repaired with scalloped-edge patches and brass escutcheon nails. Large holes and tears require replacement of the swell cover. Front bindings can be replaced and underlying leathers can be rebuilt. Rolled leather welts, braided welts and laced seams on swell covers are also repairable.

Cantle bindings are typically worn through or torn, and they can be replaced with new leather. The back cantle leather is seldom damaged unless the cantle on the tree is broken. If the repair of cantle leathers has been neglected over the years, shrinkage of the seat, filler and back cantle can make repair of these parts difficult.

Curled seat and front jockeys can be conditioned and pressed flat. Torn seat jockeys can be repaired with a patch on the back side. Back jockeys or rear housings also can be conditioned and pressed to remove curls. Lacing that joined the rear jockeys can be replaced.

Broken stirrup leathers can be repaired or replaced. If the saddle is going to be ridden, the condition of the stirrup leathers is a safety issue. Stirrup leathers usually show most wear on the extensions below the fender and on the end with the adjustment holes. New leather can be spliced onto old leather, or the entire stirrup leather may need to be replaced. If contemporary stirrup leather buckles have been added to the saddle, you may want to remove them for historical authenticity. Broken laces for stirrup leathers can be replaced. Fenders that are curled can be conditioned and pressed flat. Tears in fenders are repaired with a patch on the back side.

Fenders that are worn very thin can be rebuilt. Often with thin fenders and those with several tears, it may be advisable to line the fender rather than make multiple small area repairs. If fenders are missing they should be replaced with ones whose style and shape are appropriate for the historical period and the original maker.

Broken and missing stirrups can be replaced with unbound oak stirrups or oak stirrups bound with brass or galvanized metal. Curled tapaderos can be pressed, and broken strings holding stirrups in place in the tap can be replaced. Stirrup covers and treads that are worn out can be replaced, as can broken stirrup bolts.

Relining skirts on antique saddles is a common repair, and a job that is often botched. It is an acceptable practice when relining contemporary saddles to machine sew a new stitch line just inside the old stitching. Trying to machine stitch old leather in antique saddles using the old stitch line or a new one can result in the leather breaking along these lines of multiple perforations. Therefore it is recommended that relined skirts be hand sewn. I have observed saddles in collections where the new woolskin was secured to the skirt with contact cement or acrylic lining material was used. Obviously this is less expensive, but it definitely detracts from the saddle's authenticity. When the skirts are off the saddle, they can be conditioned and pressed to remove curls. They can also be patched and rebuilt as needed.

Broken saddle strings and those chewed up by dogs and rodents can be replaced. Missing buttons and broken rope straps can be replaced. Missing latigo carriers can be replaced, but every effort should be made to repair and retain those with maker stamps. Latigos, halfbreeds, off billets, flank billets and flank cinchas wear out and break during the life of a saddle. Replacing them is a must if the saddle will be ridden, and replacements do not detract from the authenticity of displayed saddles.

Replacing saddle parts that are decorated with floral carving, basket stamping or geometric stamping are special cases. Here the artistic ability of the saddlemaker doing the restoration is paramount. Duplicating art work requires studying the original maker's technique, and tools may have to be made to do the job. To me this is fun, but to other saddlemakers it isn't worth the bother.

Figure 1 shows a corner floral panel on a circa 1880-1890 F. A Meanea saddle carved in the Spanish Colonial technique.

Fig 1. F. A. Meanea carved panel

Fig 1. F. A. Meanea carved panel

The saddle was purchased by a collector at a farm auction and it had no fenders. My job was to build and carve a set of fenders to match the saddle. Unlike other saddlemakers, Meanea was always experimenting and trying something new with his mechanics or his art work. It is not unusual to find subtle differences in his art work on the near and off sides of his saddles in inconspicuous areas. One can infer that he was asking himself "how will this look if I do it this way?".

After studying all of the carved panels on this saddle, and doing my best to get inside Meanea's head, the fender design in Figure 2 was drawn and executed by the author.

Fig 2. R. Sherer carved panel

Fig 2. R. Sherer carved panel

New leather parts are not going to be the same color as parts that are old. Saddlemakers have to use their knowledge of different oils, creams, dyes and finishes to match the colors. Too often a collector will attempt this job on his or her own when this is one job that is best left to the professional. Improper use of some dyes can desiccate and crack the grain of new as well as antique leathers.

Cleaning and Conditioning
Any old saddle that is cleaned up is going to look better than it did before. Knowledge about what constitutes proper cleaning and conditioning of antique leathers is the key to either increasing the value of a collectable or rendering it worthless. It is important to understand that different tanning processes produce different types of leather which require different care. The vegetable or bark tanned leather used in saddles, headstalls, cuffs and spur straps is different from leather used to build chaps, garments and boots. Each requires its own special care and conditioning. Preserving leather depends upon cleaning and conditioning the fibers to maintain their integrity and flexibility. If leather is never cleaned and conditioned, sunlight and the atmosphere take their toll. This is especially true of leather in some museum collections that has been illuminated under glass for decades where one would assume that it is well protected. All leather that does not receive periodic conditioning is subject to dry rot. With dry rot, waxes and oils migrate inward leaving the surface of the leather dry and subject to cracking, and dry rot is accelerated in hot dry atmospheres.

The best time to clean and condition a saddle is when it has been taken apart for repairs. At this time all of the surfaces of leather parts are accessible. The one criticism I have of saddles cleaned by collectors is that they seldom get into the inaccessible areas. Cleaning removes dust, dirt, salt and all manner of foreign material from the grain and flesh sides of the leather.

Nineteenth century saddlemakers used wax and resin finishes on saddles, but many used shellac for high gloss finishes. Shellac would wear off of parts like the seat jockeys and fenders but would persist on parts that did not receive a lot of wear. One important thing I have learned from working with antique leathers is that it is very important to remove old and built up finishes if you want the conditioners to penetrate and do their job.

The conditioning process is one of applying various saddle soaps, waxes and oils in light coats over several days to several weeks so that all of the internal leather fibers are lubricated. Antique saddles are typically in my studio for four to eight weeks. Every day or two conditioners are applied and allowed to penetrate. There are no set rules or guidelines for which conditioner to use other than experience, knowledge of what has worked on old leather in the past, and what the leather being worked is telling you.

I do not mean to discourage collectors from doing cleaning and conditioning, but I do recommend that they get a thorough professional job done first, and then take on the maintenance of saddles in their collections. The cycle of the conditioners reacting with the atmosphere continues and leather will need periodic cleaning and conditioning. How often depends on where you live and how you house your collection. What you use will depends on the recommendations of your restoration saddlemaker. If you live in a hot humid and polluted area, an annual cleaning and light conditioning my be appropriate. On the other hand, if you live where the air is relatively clean, cool and dry, dusting and a light conditioning may suffice for several years. The best guide for frequency of cleaning and conditioning is to look at and feel the leather in question.

Finally, never put lacquer (Neat-Lac, Saddle-Lac, Lac-Kote etc.) on antique leathers. Lacquers produce a nice high gloss finish, but conditioners will not penetrate through them and laquers are extremely difficult to remove.

Case Histories
The saddles I selected as case histories are not the oldest or rarest that have made their way through my studio, rather, they are examples of saddles that have had a long way to come back to anything resembling their original character. Hopefully, these case histories will encourage collectors to consider the "bargain priced" saddles at auctions, knowing that they can be resurrected to a valued place in a collection.

The first saddle was my client's prized possession as a boy, but over the years he lost track of it. When he found it outside of a relative's shed it was in pretty sorry shape (Figure 3).

Fig 3. Case history "Denver" saddle

Fig 3. Case history "Denver" saddle

The saddle was built in the late 1940's to early 1950's and bore only "Denver" as a maker's mark. It was stamped with a "cabbage leaf" pattern which is fairly common among floral carved production saddles of that period. Obviously the saddle had greater sentimental value than monetary value as a collectible. The leather was very badly weathered from being exposed to the elements, and the woolskin lining was shot. With the exception of missing spots, buttons, strings and conchos, all of the parts were there even though some were held on with bailing wire.

The process of restoring this saddle began with cleaning, conditioning and pressing the curls out of the parts. At that time, I had a student from Finland studying with me, and at the beginning of each day over a period of a month, his job was to work a light coat of conditioner into the leather parts. The new woolskin lining was hand sewn on the skirts, and the lacing on the swell welts was replaced. New rigging leathers and straps were installed because the saddle would be ridden by grandkids. The saddle got new strings, and the missing spots, buttons and conchos were replaced. A fresh black finish completed the restoration work (Figure 4).

Fig 4. Restored "Denver" saddle

Fig 4. Restored "Denver" saddle

The second saddle is 1930's Fred Mueller #610 saddle that my clients discovered at a farm auction in eastern Colorado.

Fig 5. Case history Mueller #610 saddle

Fig 5. Case history Mueller #610 saddle

It is similar to the #2765 R. T. Frazier saddle, and both are built on the "Contest" tree. With its deep seat, 2" cantle dish, and undercut swells , it was a good rig for breaking horses. The tree did not become the standard for competitive saddle bronc riding, but it is a close cousin to the Tipton tree that is still popular in ranch saddles. Earlier versions of this style of saddle from the 1920's were built with eight buttons. These saddles had small round skirts with a drop under the rigging ring in the three quarters position. The rear housings completely cover the skirts behind the cantle. This saddle was unusual in that it had a rawhide cantle binding and brand carved on the back of the cantle, suggesting that it was originally made as a custom order.

The saddle had seen a lot of use, and in its later years the cowboy who owned it apparently didn't have the money to keep it repaired. The woolskin lining was completely worn away and the stirrup leathers were a hodge-podge of pieces tied together with leather shoestrings. The leather parts were dried out and curled, and the strings were in bad condition.

Restoration work on this saddle began with cleaning and conditioning. The skirts were relined with hand sewn woolskin and new strings were installed. New laced stirrup leathers were built, and treads and wear leathers were put on the stirrups. A new latigo and off billet put the saddle back in a usable condition. The front binding on the swells was worn through on the off side, but because the swells were built with plug welts, it was decided that attempting to make this repair would result in the welt stitching breaking out and lead to more extensive work than was justified.

Fig 6. Restored Mueller #610 saddle

Fig 6. Restored Mueller #610 saddle

In my opinion, the acid test of a successful restoration job is this: if a saddle made in 1890 had been taken in for repairs in 1900, does it look like it was repaired by a 1900 professional saddlemaker? Nothing looks worse or detracts more from the value of a collectable saddle than restoration and repair work that is poorly done or that is inconsistent with the period of the saddle.

1. F. A. Meanea carved panel
2. R. Sherer carved panel
3. Case history "Denver" saddle
4. Restored "Denver" saddle
5. Case history Mueller #610 saddle
6. Restored Mueller #610 saddle

Richard L. Sherer

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