Yeah, I dyed another saddle AND put a Britney Spears earworm in your head at the same time. It’s called balance, y’all.
But it’s a good thing I don’t have a lot of extra money and time, or I would probably make a little business out of buying up faded, ugly-colored saddles, giving them makeovers, and re-selling them. I just LOVE it. This is now the 4th saddle I’ve dyed and it’s a little bit addicting.
Anyway, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Presto got his own saddle – a Mark Todd Charisma monoflap. Henry’s back is more curvy and Presto’s back is more straight, so Henry’s Devoucoux just was not going to work for Presto long-term or as he started getting ridden more frequently. I was able to find the Mark Todd for cheap on a UK facebook group (although the seller was actually in Spain) that looked promising fit-wise, even if it was a bit ugly. I was confident that I could make it look better, so best case scenario it would fit Presto and I could make it pretty and have a decent saddle for him at least for a little while until he grows out of it, or worst case scenario it wouldn’t fit Presto and I could fix it up and re-sell it for a small profit. Seemed like a worthwhile gamble. I ordered my dye supplies the same day the saddle left Spain (and naturally, the saddle got here first).
Luckily it fits him quite well. It’s a massive improvement over Henry’s saddle, for sure. He may grow out of the width before the next year is out, unless he decides to pop a massive wither (which is entirely possible) but we’ll see. The tree is sound, the billets are in decent shape, and there are no tears or anything like that. But it definitely looked… rough.
It was very thirsty and had this weird tricolor thing going on. The skirt area was an awful orange, the seat was more reddish, and the flaps were a proper brown, with a strip of orange at the bottom. There’s nothing flattering about that color scheme. It was actually quite a nice little saddle, just stuck in a really ugly wrapping that was hard to see past. Especially when the horse it’s going on is dark bay (well, when he’s not super sunbleached, anyway)… red or orange tones really stand out and not in a good way.
For my dye I decided to go with a deep chocolate brown, about as dark as you can go without being black. Partly because I like that color a lot, and partly because I wanted the saddle to be all one tone when I was done, which meant I needed to match the darkest part of the saddle, which was the color under where the stirrup leathers lay. You can darken a saddle, but you can’t really lighten one, so if you want a super even finish you have to match the darkest part.
I also decided to try out a different finish this time. In the past I’ve used Resolene or Tan-Kote or both, and they were fine and did the job, but I didn’t LOVE them. I’ve been lurking on leatherworking groups for a while now and based off of what I’ve learned I really wanted to try a wax-based finish this time instead, so I ordered one that got a lot of good reviews. For the dye I stuck with the one I’ve always used, Fiebing’s, because it’s always worked really well.
This time I stripped the saddle with straight acetone instead of buying deglazer, since I already had acetone in my house (hello nail polish remover) and didn’t want to spend another $10 on deglazer which is basically the same thing. It required maybe a little more elbow grease to get the top finish totally removed with the acetone, but in the end it worked out just the same.
Once I was satisfied that it was properly deglazed, I let it sit for a while and then prepared my dye and supplies – ie a glass bowl, a foam brush, a couple rags, and the dye itself. I like to dye it in sections, so I started at the skirt, then did the knee pad, then the flap, then the panels, then the underside of the flaps, and ended with the seat. That’s the part where any imperfections will be most obvious.
Once it was all evenly painted, I got to buffing with a microfiber rag. A lot of people use sheepswool for that part, but microfiber is what I had and what I’ve always used, so it works fine for me. I buffed and I buffed and I buffed and I buffed, until it felt like my damn arm was going to fall off. But even after just one coat and some buffing, it already looked way better.
I left it to dry overnight, then came at it the next morning with a really light second coat and a lot more buffing. Once you’re done putting the dye on, you need to keep buffing until no more dye is coming off on your rag – that’s the best way to prevent dye leech and staining your breeches or saddle pads. So I would buff it for a while, go back inside, then come back out and buff it some more. Once I thought nothing else was coming off, I gave it the ol’ white paper towel test – rubbing the seat for 10 or so seconds with a paper towel – and yay, no dye transfer. It was ready for the next step: the finish.
*I will add a caveat here and say that before you think you’re finished with the dye coats, make sure to check the saddle thoroughly in natural light. It much easier to see any spots you missed or areas that might be uneven.
I was kind of excited to try the new wax finish. It was a little different from what I expected… I was thinking it would be more the consistency of, well… wax, but it was liquid. Really liquid. I ended up going for same pour-in-bowl-then-paint-on technique that I do with dye. I started just on one flap to test it out, putting it on, letting it dry for 5 minutes, and then buffing (which is exactly what the directions say to do).
I’m not sure if maybe my dye coat was just still too fresh or what, but the more I buffed, the more it started to lift my color and make it uneven. I stopped as soon as I saw a patch that was now a shade lighter than the rest. Minor crisis, but ok… still recoverable at this point. I deglazed the area to remove the leather finish I had just applied, put more dye on the spot to even it back out, and decided to change my approach. Originally I had the idea of making my own finish by mixing beeswax and oil, before I decided to just try the Bee Natural. You know what’s pretty much already beeswax and oil? Most of the german lederbalsams. A nice thick, wax-heavy one like Passier especially. I already had some at home, so once my fixed spot was buffed and dry, I started the finish again but this time using the lederbalsam. And guys, I think I’ve found The Way.
It worked amazingly well. It did require a lot of lederbalsam… like I globbed that stuff on there and buffed it with a rag, several times over. Three generous coats in all. The saddle absolutely drank it up and asked for more. The oil gave it some moisture and the wax gave it some shine but also provided the leather with a nice grip, ending up similar to how the french saddles feel – soft but grippy. The difference in the leather from start to finish is pretty remarkable. When I was done I gave it the white paper towel test again and there was still no dye transfer, so I’m happy with that. Will the waxy top coat prevent any and all dye leech? No. If it gets wet, there could be a little bit (as with most saddles). Obviously lederbalsam is not a sealant. But it does allow for conditioners or oil to still penetrate the leather, which for saddles I think this is the much better choice. Our minor crisis worked out fine in the end.
And now that I’ve ridden in the saddle some, I have to say I’m mega impressed with it. It has a very similar feel to my Devoucoux (which thank god, because my whole fear with an English-made saddle is how they tend to ride and feel very different from the French ones) with a similar balance point and shape. Considering the Mark Todd was 1/4 of what I paid for the Devoucoux (which was a used, cheap, lucky find in and of itself, all things considered) it’s a pretty high compliment in my book. The only slight bummer is that it’s a 17.5, and I really always need an 18 (my Dev is an 18 with an extra forward flap), but I figured it should be workable and it is. My knee is definitely to the edge of the flap, but not quite over it. Presto seems to like it too… no more rocking, and no more half pad that needs to be shimmed 6 ways to Sunday. Now he can wear just his Mattes full pad, which I ordered for him months ago and never could use until now.
Now it just needs its own stirrup leathers so I can easily swap my Free Jump irons back and forth without having to deal with swapping the leathers between Presto’s saddle and Henry’s jump saddle. I’m kind of sad that it’s over so soon though… I want to dye more things. It’s fun. Like a makeover but way better because it’s a saddle and not a human.