How to Build a Western Saddle
Few things are more cowboy than a fine-tooled Western saddle. Here's how you can learn to make one yourself.
By Peter Bronski
The Western-style saddle has its roots in Spanish and Mexican design (the estradiota and jineta saddles, specifically). Before that, the Moors of North Africa developed the original saddles during the Iron Age for comfort and maneuverability.
The tradition of hand-crafted saddles is alive and well in today’s American West, as saddles are too intricate to be constructed by machines. Saddles must be assembled one layer at a time, and only true craftsmen master the art. The foundation of every Western saddle is the saddletree, a base form that determines the overall style and shape of the saddle (Chuck Shepard, Bowman, Wade, and Sheridan are popular styles), over which rawhide is stretched and sewn in multiple layers—ground seat, rigging, skirting, etc. For ornamentation, from simple and subdued to the elaborate and ornate, carving and stamping of the leather and metal accents complete the process.
Bob Klenda, of Klenda Custom Saddlery in Meeker, Colo., knows the process better than most. President of the Colorado Saddle Makers Association, he’s been making saddles for nearly 50 years and is one of only four saddle makers nationwide who created a custom commemorative saddle for the 100th anniversary of Denver’s National Western Stock Show in 2006. (His saddle sold for nearly $20,000 at a charity auction.)
Klenda, a Kansas native, got into the business largely by accident. “I liked Handley saddles but couldn’t afford one,” he explains. “So I decided to make one.”
Klenda was in the Army at the time and got his saddle-making start apprenticing under Kermit Lyons in Washington State. After his discharge in 1961, Klenda made his way to Vernal, Utah, to work under Duane Soderquist at Newton Brothers Saddlery. In 1962, Klenda opened his own shop on Colorado’s Western Slope and, save for a seven-year stint in Prescott, Ariz., he’s been in Colorado ever since.
If five decades of saddle making have impressed anything on Klenda, it’s the value of a good knife. He’s settled on a leatherhead knife made by Terry Knipschield, a custom knife maker in Rochester, Minn.
“That tool stands out above any other that I’ve ever had,” he says.
In all, it takes Klenda three to six weeks to complete a saddle, depending on the extent and level of detail in the artwork. He hand-tempers his leather and uses only the finest quality hides from the Herman Oak tannery, founded in 1881 in St. Louis. Typically, two-and-a-half full sides will go into one saddle. During tempering, Klenda first cases the leather, which involves wetting it to bring it to the proper moisture level. Then he uses a slicker—usually a thick piece of glass with a handle—to press the fibers of the leather on a marble or granite work surface. The result is better appearance and durability.
“It’s a trademark of my work,” Klenda says. “Like a fine mahogany table, it has a personality all its own and a gleam that straight leather doesn’t have.”
Reach Klenda Custom Saddlery at 970-878-5382 or klendasaddlery.com
FIND IT: Saddle-making schools
The American Saddle Makers Association maintains a list of schools around the country. Materials are generally included, and students come away with a finished saddle. saddlemakers.org
Don Atkinson’s Saddle Making School in Ingram, Texas, offers a ten-day saddle-making course. 830-367-5400, donatkinson.com
The Sierra Saddlery School in Las Cruces, N.M., offers three- to ten-week courses in basic and advanced saddle making. 575-644-4557, saddleschool.com
Jesse Smith Saddlery in Pritchett, Colo., offers five-week saddle making classes and one-week leather carving classes. 719-643-5553, jessesmithsaddlery.com