The Developing Saddle Maker: They don’t just grow on
by Robin Wills
After returning home to Bathurst David bought some more tools and soon put the tools to the leather. David showed his attempts to Geoff Horsley to get some suggestions for improvement. After seeing how persistent and open to criticism David was, Geoff promised that when David left school he would teach him to make saddles. However, during the next two years Geoff developed a brain tumor and was never able to return to work.
Geoff had been a maker of Australian Stock Saddles and, after a trip to the USA, also made Western Saddles. Although their time together was brief, Geoff's influence on David has continued. That old guy had a huge range of skills; he made stock saddles, both Australian and Western, as well as English style saddles. He also tooled leather, made many of his own tools, was a competent blacksmith and even built two houses. What he taught David was that it is possible to learn a variety of skills, and that the more things you can do, the better you are able to do any one of them.
When David left school at age 16 (1976) he apprenticed himself to Mick Clifton. Mick had originally done his apprenticeship as a light harness maker. In those days these trades were quite distinct from the heavy harness maker or collar maker. Mick worked for the same firm for 38 years from the completion of his apprenticeship in 1918, through to 1956. The firm Mick worked for was A. J. Pulbrook, which was the longest surviving of the big saddlery businesses in Bathurst. After Mick had completed his trade as a harness maker, he went on to learn every other aspect of saddlery and harness making except actually making a saddle or a collar. Although he could put new seats and new panels in saddles he was never given the chance to make a complete saddle.
At the time that David went to work for Mick he was 71 years old and was trying to wind down his business. However, there were no other saddlers in the district and customers were desperate for saddlery repairs and just kept bringing them in. Thus, teaching David worked well for Mick. After one year of work at the bench David, then 17, took over the business from Mick and bought all his tools, materials and work-in-progress. Despite being retired Mick still went to the workshop every day to give instruction on all things to do with saddlery and life in general. Mick really enjoyed meeting the customers and the pressure was off, he could relax and talk as much as he liked. The financial side of the business was David’s concern; it was now David who needed to make sure the work was done on time.
When David started working with Mick their business was making and repairing saddles, strapping and harness. During those years, one of the main repair jobs was relining stock saddles. From 1977 to 1980, David averaged 3 stock saddle relinings each week, and he did that every week of the year. He also made new harness and strapping goods, as well as repairs. David is now glad that he wasn't learning how to make saddles during those first four years, because the nature of the work made him consolidate a range of relevant skills. For example he became very efficient at preparation, edging, and stitching, all crucial elements of the saddler’s repertoire. There were days when he would spend a full eight hours stitching by hand. If the opportunity had been there to make saddles David would probably have found it difficult to focus on those other more basic skills.
After four years at the bench, David began looking for more to learn and his search began to focus on making saddles. Toward the end of 1980 he went for a drive around south eastern NSW and Victoria. He went from town to town looking for a worthy master to teach him Saddle Making. As soon as he walked in the door of Col Hood's workshop and saw the freshly rawhide covered tree for a Wade style Western saddle, in that one instant he knew he was hooked - "that’s what I want to learn." With the assistance of his long time mentor, Robin Wills, David was able to convince Col that he was serious enough about the skills to persuade him to take him on and teach him saddle making.
Colin Hood, lived at Euroa in Victoria, and he took a lot of convincing to take on the challenge of teaching an apprentice. Not that Col was secretive about his knowledge and skills, quite the contrary, he has the confidence and willingness to share, and is acknowledge as very good teacher. However, in a one-man business, teaching someone while still keeping up production and profit, is a very difficult juggling act.
In January 1981 David temporarily closed down his business in Bathurst, and he moved to Euroa and embarked on a new chapter in his career. For the next three years David learned Western saddle making with Col Hood. As part of that induction to Western saddle making David also learned how to rawhide cover Western saddle trees. Col was originally an engineering pattern maker – that’s the guy who makes the patterns for sand casting foundries. Col fell into making saddle trees some time in the late 50's, or early 60's. And, just by chance, being a pattern maker proved to be the ideal foundation trade for making saddle trees.
Towards the end of 1983, David went back to Bathurst, to his own business and began making his own unique brand of Western saddles. David went the full distance and took up the challenge of making rawhide covered trees for his own saddles. From 1984 to the end of 1986 he also worked as an employee for the Devro Company who had their own uses for rawhide. However, at night, weekends, public holidays and rostered-days-off, he made saddles. During three years of working two full-time jobs he was able to save enough money to buy all the tools, machinery, and hardware from a retiring saddler in Tasmania, and fund a six month study-tour of the USA. With this new equipment installed in his workshop in Bathurst David felt ready to expand his knowledge base yet again, with a six month study-tour of saddle makers and tree makers in the USA.
That American excursion from February to August of 1987 was to prove to be the best six months of his life to that point. David went from California to Tennessee and back again, everywhere meeting saddlemakers and treemakers. Talking, studying, taking notes. David wrote over 800 pages in his journal, and took several thousand photographs.
On his return to Australia he applied himself to another three years of making and repairing saddles. It was during this time that he consolidated all the knowledge he had gained in the USA by making a wide range of Western saddles on trees that he made himself. Having been caught by the travel bug, and the realization that there was so much more out there to learn, David began earnestly saving money for another study tour.
In July of 1990 he set of for a study tour of the UK and Europe that would take a year, if the money lasted. Thanks to Alison Berton, an accomplished leather worker in Australia who had come from the UK, David made contact with Mike Huline-Dickens. Mike taught saddle making at the Cordwainers College from which Alison had graduated. Mike and his colleague, Malan Goddard, made an arrangement with David that he would teach them how to make Western saddles and they would allow him to attend their classes at the Cordwainers College. David learned from Mike how to make a completely hand made, traditional London style, dressage saddle. While Malan taught David the more modern, high production style techniques, used in making a British polo saddle. In 1991 the Cordwainers college sent David with their contingent to the great international horse exhibition and trade fair, Eqitana '91, held in Essen, Germany. There, he and teaches from the Cordwainers gave saddle making demonstrations on the College booth.
During the twelve months that David spent in England he went to Walsall, where he visited both saddleries, foundries, museums and libraries. He was particularly grateful to Cotterill's Foundry, Cliff Barnsby Saddlery and Walsall Leather Centre Museum for their very cooperative and friendly response to his many questions about their wide ranging activities.
Having returned from the UK with his head full of ideas David
to take time out from saddlery to consolidate, to redirect, and to
even more. From 1992 – 1996 he attended the University of New South
(Sydney) where he gained a Bachelor of Engineering Degree in
Management. David found that his new academic qualifications were
particularly appropriate for someone involved in making saddlery, and,
with a newly acquired interest in the details of lorinery, he felt well
equipped to re-engage with an expanded repertoire of skills. In
to complete the degree, it was necessary to work for three months in
and of course David chose to work in a company that specialized in
design and drafting using AutoCad. After completing the
requirement for three months in the workplace, he continued to work for
that same firm for the rest of the year.
That experience of 1500 hours using AutoCAD became an enormously important help to David when he set about designing and redesigning saddle trees. It was not really surprising that David showed a particular aptitude for 3D geometry, and, as anyone who makes saddle trees will acknowledge, the complexity involved in the puzzle of all those three dimensional angles and curves is very challenging. Just one alteration can affect all of the other features of the construction.
After a while David gave up the white coat and clip board of the engineering office and returned to his passion, making saddle trees and saddles. And, of course the travel, David lives to travel, it is a passion of his. In 1999 David took off on a one month trip to Argentina. He realized that he needed to check out one of the world’s last great horse cultures. He needed to see for himself the saddles and equipment of the pampas, he knew that he needed to meet the saddle makers, the horsemen, the rawhide braiders and the silversmiths of the other great southern continent. .....
Did we mention that since his stint in the USA in 1987 he has been trying to study Spanish on an irregular basis. During 1999 trip to Argentina on his own he discovered that he possesses just enough Spanish vocabulary to get himself into bother but then not enough to get out of it! One month in Argentina was not enough, He was back there again for another month in 2004.
2005's time away from the workshop was attending the saddle maker's gathering at Rockhampton QLD. 2 weeks away in total, including travelling to and from Rocky, and visiting with his good freinds, saddle & tree maker, Dennis Lane and saddle maker Hank Statham.
2006 - the excitment for this year was 5 weeks in the USA, attending
the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan Wy. The other 4
weeks were spent meeting up with old friends from the 1987 trip and
new ones. Some of the highlights of the trip were visits with:
Don Butler, Sheridan Wy,
Ben Swankee and KT Monson, Billings Mt
Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody, Wy
Verlane Desgrange, Cody, Wy
Dale Harwood, Shelley Id
Capriolas saddlery, Elko Nv
Jeremiah Watt, Coalinga Ca
Carriage Museum, Sanata Barbara, Ca
Jessie Smith, Pritchet Co
Driving some 4,000 miles in total. Again taking severl thousand photographs and lots of notes.
2007 - Another 5 week trip to the USA during the month of May. Once again attending the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan Wy. This trip was with Hank Statham and Dennis Lane. Travelling as a team, meeting people and sharing knowledge they have formed an incredible network of saddle makers and tree makers all accross the USA and Australia.
where to next ??????????