Are Saddles and Tack Ruined After Hurricane Harvey?

The most common question that I have received recently in my shop is “Are saddles and tack ruined after hurricane Harvey?

Many of us in Texas have been affected directly or have someone close to us that has been affected directly by hurricane Harvey and the effects will surely be felt for many months from now.  I grew up on the Gulf Coast in Aransas Pass, TX so I am aware of the damage that hurricanes can cause but in my lifetime I have never seen this magnitude of damage in our state.  I have so many friends and family along the South Texas Gulf Coast that are dealing with the aftermath of Harvey and are working hard to help others while trying to also assess the damage to their homes, barns, communities, livestock, and countless other recovery concerns.

In this article, I want to help you see if your saddles and tack are ruined after hurricane Harvey.  Saddles and tack are surely some of the most treasured items that were damaged due to flooding and or damaged barns and saddle houses.  As you begin to go through these areas and find your saddles and tack severely water damaged and possibly beginning to mold or mildew, the first instinct may be to put all this in the ruined pile and possibly claim them as part of items lost due to damage from the hurricane.

This may be the case in some instances, but there are some things that I want to discuss that may save some of those pieces of equipment so that you can continue using them.  Although water damage is surely not good for leather in general, it does not always mean that they can not be salvaged.

Things that damage leather:

  • Water alone does not damage leather, but contaminates in the water will damage leather.  Since we are dealing with flood waters, we have no idea what is in the water that your leather goods have been soaking in.  So the first thing that we want to do is thoroughly clean the leather to remove as much of the contaminates as possible from the leather.
  • Leather being wet is not what causes dry rot.  What causes dry rot in leather is when the leather is saturated with water and then allowed to dry and then not oiled.  When this is done multiple cycles over time the leather will begin to dry out and rot will set in.  Leather is a natural material and every time water is added to it and then allowed to evaporate during the drying stage, it takes essential oil and lubrication with it.  After a few cycles of this without replenishing the oil within the leather, dry rot will begin.
  • Mold and mildew left unchecked will further deplete the oil within the fibers of the leather and cause dry rot to set in at a faster rate.  This mold will also begin to stain the leather.   For another article on mold and leather Click Here.  Oiling leather that is still wet and not completely dry will trap moisture in the fibers and cause the leather to mold.

Headstalls and Strap Goods

Let’s first talk about all those bridles, breast collars, reins, bits and other accessory items that you have in your barn.  The good thing with these items is that they were probably hanging on the wall in your tack room and may have been lucky enough to be up high enough where they didn’t get submerged in flood waters.  But even if they were, or if the roof was compromised and they were soaked in water, we can still try and save them.

The first thing that I would recommend here is to clean all the items to remove any contaminates that may have been in the water.

To do this you can fill buckets or muck tubs with clean water and dish soap.  I would recommend Dawn dish soap (if it’s good enough for baby duck it’s good enough for our purposes) or Murphy’s Oil Soap.  Use a good amount of soap in the water, we want to do a deep cleaning on the leather to remove as much of the contaminates as possible.  Put as many of the pieces into the bucket as you can and still be able to move them around.  You can let them soak for a few minutes but I find agitation is key here for strap goods.  Use your hands or a stick to work them around in the soapy water for a few minutes to get them as clean as you can.  Once they are clean, hang them up on a fence so that you can spray them off with a water hose with clean water to rinse the soap from them well.  You might use a stiff bristled brush to clean the bits that are attached to the headstalls during this process.

A Trick:  Use an all in one horse shampoo attachment that screws on to the end of the water hose.  This makes the cleaning step much easier as many of these create a thick foam of soap that you leave to set for a few minutes and then rinse away clean.  The soap in these should be fine to use here and you can hang all your strap goods and bath them all at one time on a fence railing.

Now that all the strap goods and bridles have been cleaned and rinsed, they will need to dry completely before oiling.  I recommend they hang in an area that has some sunlight but not direct sun and has good airflow.  This will allow them to dry without being cooked in our still hot Texas sun.  This could take a couple days for them to completely dry out and be ready for oil.  The leather may feel a bit stiffer than normal when they are dry but we are about to saturate with oil so don’t worry about this at this stage.  When the leather is completely dry, it will not feel cool against your cheek or hand.

To oil all these pieces, I suggest getting a small 1/2 gallon or 1 gallon pump sprayer (be sure it is new or really clean… not something that had chemical in it… this could damage the leather) and filling it with olive oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, or neatsfoot oil.  Use this sprayer to spray light coats of the oil on all the items.  You can do this over a day in multiple coats until the leather seems to be about full with oil.  You really don’t want to over saturate the leather with oil but I want to make sure that it gets all that it needs.  When spraying the headstalls, I would spray the bits and all… the oil will probably help the bits from rusting or tarnishing some as well.

After a few good oilings your strap goods should begin to feel like they did before.  Let this oil have some time to soak in good before conditioning with a leather conditioner.  I recommend Skidmore’s Leather Cream as a follow up to the oil as this will bring back even more of the feel to them as well as help to prevent dry rot and mold.  Here is an article I wrote about Leather Conditioners and their purpose.

Now that you have done all you can for the strap goods that were affected, I would take some time and go through each item and check the feel of the leather and any safety areas.

  • Try and fold the leather in half in spots and look for signs of cracking or brittleness.  If you find areas with this then you may need to make the call to through the item away and replace it.
  • Replace any chicago screws on any of these items… these are usually nickel plated and they will rust over time making them impossible to remove in the future.
  • Check all of the leather lacing at bridle/headstall bit ends to see if they are still okay.  These are thin pieces of leather and dry rot sets in quicker here so it may be better to just replace them for safety sake.
  • Any stainless or brass hardware on these items can be cleaned and used without any trouble.  The nickel or brass plated hardware will need to be assessed and possible buffed clean or replaced.  If the hardware is fairly new, then you should be fine.  But if it is chipping, rust will begin to grow in these exposed areas and could pose problems down the road.


Now we come to the saddles that were in your barn during all this.

The saddles will need to have the same cleaning, oiling and conditioning steps done to them to insure that the leather is brought back to where it needs to be.  This usually requires a bit more elbow grease and I would recommend a complete disassembly for the cleaning and oiling process.  This can be challenging if you have never taken a saddle apart before so if you do not feel comfortable taking it apart then you can wash the saddle as is.

The main thing here is to clean as much of the saddle as you can reach with the same soap that that you chose to use for the bridles and strap goods.  You can use a soft bristled brush to work the soapy water into the leather and the tooled areas to remove as much of the contaminates as possible.  Saddles are big so this step will take more work but with a bucket of soapy water you should be able to get it really clean.  This is how we clean them in the shop except we open them up and disassemble them to make getting to areas much easier.

Tip:  You can use a pressure washer for this, but be sure not to get to close and use the low pressure setting so that you do not scar the leather with the strong water pressure.  I would feel more comfortable if you used a good spray nozzle on a water hose just to be safe.

Once the saddle is washed really good, you want to rinse the saddle well with clean water to remove all the soap residue and rinse away any contaminates.  After this, then set the saddle in the same area you used for the bridles and strap goods to let it dry really good.  Be sure the saddle is on a saddle rack of some sort or on a fence rail so that all the parts hang as they should as they dry.  The amount of time it may take for the saddle to dry could be as short as 2 days or as long as a week depending on the humidity and the amount of water the saddle received.  Again, the leather should not be cool to the touch and completely dry before oiling.

Note:  If the saddles were completely submerged for a good length of time, the leather may be dry but the tree may still be wet for quite some time after.  Feel the rawhide covering for the rawhide covered trees and if it is soft you can oil and condition the leather but wait to ride until the tree is completely dry… this could take as long as a week or more.

Once the saddle is dry, you can begin oiling with whatever oil you chose to use from the bridle and strap good section.  I use a sponge for this but you can sure use the pump sprayer to get to those hard to reach places.  When you feel that the saddle has been oiled enough (I would recommend 2-3 coats at least) then you can condition the leather.

As far as the leather of the saddle goes, you will want to check all the safety areas for any signs of cracking or brittleness just like with the headstalls and strap goods.  Be sure that the stirrup leathers are flexible and not cracking when they are folded in a few areas especially around the holes for the blevins buckles.

If all looks good at this point then we may be okay.  The only area that we can’t really know the effects is the saddle tree.  This is where things get a little up in the air.  If the saddle you are working on has a rawhide tree in it then there is a good chance (depending on the amount of water damage it had) that the tree could be warped.  This happens when the rawhide covering of the tree becomes so saturated with water that it softens up and expands.  As the rawhide begins to dry back out it becomes hard again and also shrinks back.  During this shrinking stage, the rawhide could bend the bars of the tree slightly causing it to no longer be square and true when it comes to saddle fit.  A saddle that fit great before the water damage could now be ill fitting.  There is really no way to know if the tree has warped or the fit has changed without tearing the saddle completely down to the tree and this is cost prohibitive.  This is not to say that any saddle that has had severe water damage now has a warped tree, but it is something to be mindful of if you decide to keep one of these in your program.  Always check your gear before and after riding and pay attention to any fitting issues that you notice when you begin using it again.

If your saddle has a fiberglass tree in it, then this warping issue is much less likely since the fiberglass should not be affected by the water.  The only issue here is the water that may have gotten to the wood inside of the fiberglass through the many holes made in the tree during the build process.  Again, this is something to consider as you begin to use these saddles again.


None of this is a guarantee that all the saddles and tack that was affected by the hurricane can be saved unfortunately.  But it is worth a shot if you had a lot of your gear damaged.  As with anything when it comes to horses, use good judgement and be mindful of the condition that these items are in.  If something seems questionable then it may be best to replace it and save any trouble down the road.

If you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to give us a call and we would be glad to help you assess your gear and give you our opinion.  I hope you found this helpful and our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected.

Note:  Even after all the cleaning, oiling and conditioning of these saddles and strap goods, you may notice mold beginning to form a week or so after this.  This is somewhat normal with all the humidity and can be taken care of with a light coat of half and half vinegar and water treatment of the areas where the mold is.  Refer to this article for more information.

Drawing Flowers and Leaves

Drawing flowers and leaves can be challenging at times.  There are so many different variations that can be adapted and designed to fit the particular look that you are looking for within a pattern.  It is very easy to get in the habit of using the same flower and leaf combination in all of your designs, especially if they work well and you can draw them quickly.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with using only a few different combinations of these elements in the majority of your designs and this usually will lead an artist to develop his particular style.  The thing that I want to challenge you to do is to work on at least stretching your skill set in designing some new ones from time to time.

In this article I will show you my process for brainstorming new designs and how I use the process within my pattern layouts.  Designing a new flower and leaf combination can lead you to discover a completely new style within your work.  This is also a great way to rediscover some of those older ideas you had and make them work a little better now.

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Leather Floral Designs and Flow

If you have been involved in leather tooling for any length of time, you hear people talk about “Flow.”  Many of us understand the premise behind the flow of leather floral designs, and many times we think we know what that means.  But for some of us, we simply do not truly understand the concept of flow.

Defining Flow

For me “Flow” has always meant simply that whatever I draw within a pattern it should have the sense of movement and seem to be going somewhere and coming from some place. 

This seems simple enough right?

When we are laying out a pattern within the boundaries of the item or the tooling window, we have to take into consideration first where we are going and second where we are coming from.  These are the first two questions that I ask myself when I begin my layout.

Once we have a piece laid out in front of us and have determined the answers to these two questions, now we can determine the steps that we have to take to maintain the flow of the pattern.  The flow of leather floral designs is not something that can be miscalculated because you chose the wrong direction.  In floral layout, left to right or right to left is independent of flow.  This means that we can have flow within the pattern no matter if one direction looks better than the other.

The flow of a pattern is set by deciding on a direction and taking the viewer on that journey without interruptions.  Once the direction is decided, then the pattern layout is now bound by those directional choices as we begin layout.  Decisions must be made according to the direction we have chosen.

I see flow as my ability, as the viewer, to hop onto any point within a pattern with my eye and follow the pattern all the way through the piece.  If I hit a spot within the pattern that dead ends and I am left with no place to go, then the flow has ended.  There are times when this is appropriate but for now let’s just agree that we would rather not see this.

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Making a Leather Portfolio

I have had a lot of request for more videos on our YouTube channel that show projects from start to finish.  This video shows the complete process of making a leather portfolio.  These leather portfolios have been great projects for me over the years and they have so much room for customization.

Even during this age of digital organizers, cell phones and apps that help business stay on track, many people continue to use a legal pad and pens to conduct and keep track of daily activities.  The other thing that keeps customers ordering these items is that they tend to catch a lot of eyes.  Walk into a board meeting, have lunch with a client or have one of these on your console when showing properties to a home buyer and you are sure to start a conversation.

My goal with this post and video is to show my process and how I approach making a legal pad portfolio.  There are many different ways to create these and many different styles and sizes, all of which accomplish the same end result.  This video is simply the process that I have found that works best for me.

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Undercuts in Floral Tooling

Leather stamping tools can be somewhat overwhelming when you look at all the different brands, styles and types that are available from all the different producers.  Then you try to figure out which tools you actually need versus the ones that are just nice to have.  There seems to be an infinite amount of choices in the “nice to have” category.  While there are many stamping tools that fall into the “nice to have” category, Undercuts are not one of these.

In my opinion, undercuts belong in the “must have” category for any tool collection.  I have seen many collections where the maker simply made his own version of undercuts but the fact is that he had a set.  Much like a beveler, the undercut is one of those tools that can make your job smooth or the lack of them can hinder your tooling progression.

In this article we will discuss the purpose of undercuts along with some of the ways to modify them to make them unique to your style of tooling.  If you have watched my video on My Tool Rollthen you have seen the types of undercuts that I use and the different sizes. Continue reading

How to Sharpen Your Swivel Knife

In this video I quickly show you how I go about sharpening my swivel knives.  A sharp swivel knife is key to a successful tooling session and is more times than not the reason for poor results.  I also take a minute and show you the difference between cuts made in leather with a dull or rounded knife blade compared to a sharpened blade.

If you are wanting to insure that your tooling sessions go as smoothly as possible, check out this video and see if it helps you to get a good edge on your blades.

*I apologize for the audio quality in this video… I am not sure what happened to it.

Properly Casing Leather

 From seasoned veterans to greenhorns, casing leather can be a trying task for many of us.  This is compounded with the fact that different brands and tannages of leather can react much differently to our standard casing process.  This makes it difficult sometimes to achieve the results that we want in our leather projects.

In this article I will discuss my process for casing leather and how I adapt for different thicknesses in order to get that perfect water content for carving and stamping.  I will also touch on casing leather during forming and how I case leather parts that require gluing during the forming process.

What is Casing leather?

“Casing” leather is the process of adding water to vegetable tanned leather.  This is done to soften the fibers of the leather to achieve many tasks within a leather crafting project.  These tasks can include carving with a swivel knife, stamping, forming and skiving or thinning down of leather.  Vegetable tanned leather has been tanned but is still in a bit of a raw state which allows the craftsman to introduce water easily into the fibers of the leather.  This is what is called “casing” and is an essential skill that must be learned.

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A Review of the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield

resistanceThis is a review of the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.  Pressfield has written many books in both the fiction and nonfiction space with one of his most successful being “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

I am an avid reader of nonfiction books specifically directed at business and development.  I came across “The War of Art” last year and consumed it first in audio form while working in my shop.  After listening to the book multiple times and gaining great insight every time, I have added this book to my list of “Must Reads” for anyone wanting to succeed in their business and personal life.

If you are a creative in any field, this book will bring to the surface those things we all do that sabotage our focus and productivity.  Whether your gifts and talents are put to use as a hobby or they are the sole form of revenue for your household, using these talents in a way that the universe calls for you to do is not something you can ignore.  What Pressfield calls “Resistance” sets up shop in our lives with a sole purpose to keep you from that which your guts tell you has to be done to be complete and happy.

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Do You have Projects You Procrastinate On?

img_1011Have you ever found yourself working happily on the project that you are most excited about only to have a voice in your head reminding you of that one job you put off for way too long?  Those projects you procrastinate on consistently? That one job that you set on the bench in the corner of your shop and feel it staring at you throughout the day?  In your mind you know that you need to just put down what you are doing and get it done so you can get back to what you love.  But as the days, weeks, or maybe even months continue to cycle by, you make an honest attempt to convince yourself that you will do it “tomorrow.”

 This is procrastination, resistance, or simply lying to yourself.  We all do this from time to time, but for some of us this can become a chronic disease among the best of craftsman.  We work so hard to improve our skills and talents, that we tend to put off the types of work that don’t add value to our skill set.  In an attempt to be good stewards in our business and remain financially responsible, we take these jobs because of our lack of confidence in our true passion.  We tend to look at these jobs as a necessary evil because it must be a sin to turn down work.  So we end up taking the project on, knowing in our minds that we don’t want to do them and in turn putting them off to the point that the customer is upset.  And we ourselves are upset for having to do them.

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