If you are one of the many loyal followers of our conservation blog, you might remember that we’ve been working on two saddles here in the lab this summer. (If you need to refresh your memory, you can check out our notes on the California mission saddle and a saddle that belonged to Buffalo Bill himself.) Our treatments are just about done and we’re nearly ready to send these saddles trotting along to their new homes. A conservator can never learn too much about an object, though, and last Friday we were lucky enough to visit Cody’s very own saddlemaker in his workshop and gain some insight into how these things are structured.
Keith Seidel has been working on saddles since he was twelve years old. He learned from the bottom up, traveling across the country to study under dozens of skilled saddlemakers. In 1994 he and his wife Lisa opened up Seidel’s Saddlery in downtown Cody, and as of today he has built over 800 saddles. His numerous awards include the 2012 “Saddlemaker of the Year” award from the Academy of Western Artists and the 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2010 “Best Tooled Saddle Award” from the World Leather Debut.
As Keith’s cross-country journey demonstrates, it takes a while to learn to build a saddle from the ground up. We got a whirlwind tour of the process, though, as Keith talked to us about tree supports, leather processing and shaping, die manufacturing, silver concho stamping, and many other fascinating steps in a saddle’s development. Lisa also showed us some of the saddlery’s ongoing restoration projects, which were very cool for all of us to see having just treated some saddles ourselves.
My personal favorite part of the tour was Keith’s demonstration of leather tooling. Tooling is a method of carving leather that is used to produce the decoration found on saddles, belts, and other leather goods. Vegetable tanned, full grain leather is used, and it is saturated with water during the carving process to soften it. Keith showed us the many tools he uses to carve his designs. As fellow tool junkies, we were spellbound as he explained how he collects, covets, and modifies his tools. Over the course of the demonstration, which lasted maybe forty-five minutes, Keith carved an exquisite flower out of a scrap piece of leather. His workmanship was astounding, and we all left the saddlery that day with a new appreciation for the skill that went into the saddles we had worked on.
To learn more about Seidel’s Saddlery and maybe even buy something for yourself, you can check out their website here. Thank you Keith and Lisa for a wonderful visit – you’re welcome here at the Center anytime.