Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Walsall Saddlers, Frank Baines

In 1901 there were 6800 saddlers working in Walsall. Little wonder then that the train station is in the saddler centre and the football team are nicknamed the saddlers but how much of the craft is alive today?

This is the workshop of Frank Baines one of the twenty or so saddlers listed in Walsall yellow pages.
This is Frank in the saddle tree room with Carol Robinson a distant relative and trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association.
 The saddle tree is like the skeleton of the saddle, most are made of laminated plywood with spring steel but saddlers are always innovating and experimenting with new materials such as carbon fibre.

There are 5 or 6 tree makers left in Walsall but saddlers need to keep a good stock across a wide range of sizes. Where cheap saddles are off the peg like suits Frank Baines offers the equivalent of a Saville Row bespoke suit. The saddle has to fit horse and rider and spread the weight effectively and comfortably, every one is made to measure.
Before we move on from trees I must share this one. This is an old Swedish tree, all wooden, at least 100 years old and it uses a sliding tapered dovetail joint, something I have only seen in Eastern Europe.
 Next thing is the pattern, worked up by Frank from measurements carefully taken from horse and rider.
 The whole workshop smells gloriously of quality leather, each saddle uses many different types in different parts.
These are the cutting tools honed to a good edge on a leather strop.
Rolls of softer leather I can still smell it just seeing the pictures.
Cutting out.
 Then follows an awful lot of hand stitching. Each saddler has a workbench and works on a single saddle through all the stages. Frank has his bench alongside and spends more time at the bench than in the office.

 It is clearly hard work on the forearms as everyone had muscles like Popeye.
 This mushroom like tool was used to beat the saddle to help pull stitches really tight.

Like this.
 Now I don't know anything about saddles but last night when I told a horse loving friend where I had been she was very envious, Frank Baines is clearly the Rolls Royce of dressage saddles.

I took a couple of short video clips showing work in progress.

and a view around the workshop.

It was a joy to see Frank and his team at work, the commitment to quality and tradition whilst still being open to change and improvement. This is their website.

1 comment:

  1. What a skill! Thank you for a terrific insight to the craft - long may it live on.