So ya wanna build saddle trees? part one

Posted by RodandDenise on August 30, 2014

We are no longer building saddle trees. We have two saddle fit videos available on our websiteWestern Saddle Fit - The Basics, aimed at riders, is available either on DVD or streaming on Vimeo while the six hour series Well Beyond the Basics, aimed more for professionals but understandable by anyone, is available by streaming on Vimeo. (We left this website up because we have had many requests to keep the information available.)

2014 Aug 30 1 building a saddle tree.jpg

On occasion we get people asking about learning to build trees. While we have an information packet we send out to people who ask (because we are willing to teach select people) we also have some questions for the people who ask. If we are going to give someone the benefit of eighteen years of our knowledge plus the information from the giants on whose shoulders we stand, we want to know that it is worth our time and their time. So – what do we want to know?

The first thing is “Why”?

While we may not ask this question directly, at least right away, it is a key to knowing if someone is serious about learning to build trees. So why do people want to build trees? There are five main reasons we have come across so far.

2014 Aug 30 2 Rod and his saddle.jpg

I want to build my own tree and saddle.

Some people just want to build their own for the experience of it or because they are craftsmen who want to make something from start to finish. That is an admirable goal. There are a lot of people in this world who are very good with their hands and can build all sorts of things for themselves – houses, vehicles, guns, saddles, etc. - and these people could build their own tree and saddle. But they have to realize a couple things. First, they aren’t really looking to learn to build saddle trees. They are looking to build A saddle tree. There is a difference there. Just because someone builds one saddle tree doesn’t mean they will understand all that goes into all the different permutations and combinations and variations that are needed to build saddle trees for a variety of types of saddles and horses. The other thing, bluntly, is that it is unlikely that they will find someone who builds trees for a living who will help them with their project. We did it once, and won’t do it again. It just isn’t worth us spending our time for something that will be crossed off someone’s bucket list, never to be done again.

2014 Aug 30 3 when 90 degrees is not 90 degreesAngles 6.jpg

I’m a saddle maker or a (insert other equine professional here) and I want to understand more about how saddle trees work.

Learning how a tree goes together, how the shapes and angles work to fit the horse, how the fork and cantle work together for the rider, and how they all can be varied – this will definitely be useful information for saddle makers in particular but also for people who use saddles for a living. Knowing how everything works together will help them answer the “why” questions they may have about how a saddle works. For a rider, it might be why the saddle feels the way it does when they ask the horse to do something specific, or how to figure out if a saddle fits a horse. For a saddle maker it could how be the seat in the tree or the dish in the cantle affects their ground seat. Getting up close and personal by building a tree would definitely help people learn more about trees and how they work on a horse.

However, Rod really thinks that someone would learn just as much if not more by observing a tree being built while good explanations are given and questions are answered. A person can learn a lot discussing trees with a good tree maker that spending hours grinding at wood won’t teach them. Understanding the variations and how things change is what will answer more questions and there are better and more efficient ways of learning that information than building one tree.

2014 Aug 30 4 shaping a fork and horn.jpg

I’m a saddle maker and I want to build my own trees.

We’ve talked with a number of makers who build their own trees and while the answer they give about why they do it can vary, it basically comes down to one thing – they like having total control from start to finish over the saddles they turn out. Some just like knowing everything there is something they have made. Others like to try different things, major changes or just little tweaks, in how the tree looks (and therefore how their saddle will look) or in something that may help them build their saddle easier. Some have ideas in their heads about how they want the tree to be that they can’t communicate to the tree maker (though we try hard to understand), or that they need to experiment with to see if they can make it work. All these are good reasons to build your own trees.

But everyone we have talked with who builds their own trees agrees on something – it isn’t worth it economically. When they figure in the cost of the equipment, the shop (sawdust and leather are not a good mix), the price of the education, the time it takes to get good at building a tree they are happy with, the time it takes to actually build every tree, the material costs, etc. etc. it is cheaper to buy even good, hand made trees than to build their own. So if you are thinking that building your own trees will cut your costs and increase your profits, you’ll be disappointed. One maker told us “I’d be far better off economically buying trees from you guys than building my own. But I want to build the trees that go into my saddles.” That kind thinking is why a saddle maker should build his own.

2014 Aug 30 5 cutting out a cantle.jpg

I want to work for myself to make a living and maybe I can to that by building saddle trees.

We have had a couple people over the years ask about building trees because they see Rod and I working together, making a living and enjoying it, and they think they would like to do the same thing. Problem was, they didn’t know much about horses and anything about saddles and trees. They just saw tree making as a possible way to make a living. Yes, you can make a living building saddle trees. There are a few of us doing it, and there could be more. But you won’t get rich (not by a long shot), it is long hours and hard work, it can be repetitive work, it can be lonely work, and to do it for any length of time you have to love doing it. If you are just looking for “something that I can do at home to make a living”, building saddle trees isn’t going to be it.

2014 Aug 30 6 Building bars.jpg

I want to build saddle trees because it is something that really interests me, I think I can do it, and I want to try to make a living at it.

This is the reason very few people have given to us, but it is the one that gives the best chance of someone actually becoming a tree maker and making a living doing it. First, the curiosity or fascination with saddle trees and how they work keeps you wanting to learn more about the variety of horses and saddles, more about shapes and angles, more about how to make a better tree. The desire to build saddle trees as your final product, not just a part of what you are doing, keeps you focused on them and striving for excellence in this one small field. The ability to see a shape in your mind and then create it with your hands gives a lot of satisfaction. The goal of building better trees and building them more efficiently keeps you carving yet another bar when you have made hundreds and thousands of them already. These are the things that keep you building through thick and thin, being willing to deal with the business end of things and being OK with organizing your life around babysitting saddle trees as they dry. It isn’t an easy job, but it is rewarding. And we can sure use some more hand made tree makers in the industry.

In part two – Do you have what it takes to be a tree maker?


Posted by Darren Wright on
Hi Denise and Rod ,over the years i have enjoyed reading all the saddle tree blogs you have written and photos you have put on your site, I have watched your web site grow and used the knowledge from it to have a go at building trees for my own saddles .At times i must admit it has tested my patience, but i am still going and learning with each tree.I emailed you years ago when you mentioned in one of your first blogs you had packs you put together for people wanting to be tree makers . I emailed you regarding this and you put me on to Dennis Lane as i live in Australia . He was good enough to give me a few tips after, i must say a very long phone call and said he was looking at maybe running a school on tree building, but to my knowledge never happened.I have emailed and talked to other tree makers and they have given me some advise on certain aspects on tree making, but not a lot of guys wish to part with any knowledge on the subject . So in the end i took your advise Denise which was (Its not rocket science) so i started saving and buying the machinery and tools i needed and have been going ever since, i read every thing you write on the subject and try to put it into action i have measured many a horse and played with the bar shape and have changed it many times and still playing with it till i get it to how i want ,even after about 20 practice trees. I am a bit of a perfectionist and i love to learn new things i like to keep at it until i am happy with the fit of the trees i am building.I do not want to see any rubbed withers or pressure points caused from my trees as i put value on my work as i am after the highest quality tree for fit ,strength and workmanship i can make..This is why i have only used a couple i have been totally happy with i covered one in rawhide and one i tried with fiberglass to compare them but rawhide i much prefer , i have taken thousands of photos of my work which i use as reference material for myself to look back on .I understand it is not rocket science but it does come close working out the angles at times .I have still have a lot to learn regarding building trees to the standard i am looking for ,so any extra information would greatly be appreciated to help me expand my knowledge on building a quality tree as like the ones you both make.I am looking forward to Part 2. Keep up the great work you both do . With Kind Regards Darren Wright .
Posted by RodandDenise on
It seems like there are a fair number of Aussie saddle makers who build their own trees. I expect it is probably because it is so hard and expensive to get North American trees over there. We have heard of a couple people who figured things out on their own from scratch, but all the hand made makers we currently know who are building trees as a living have learned from others. Good instruction sure speeds up the process! It is that old "standing on the shoulders of giants" concept... I wonder if Dennis would be willing to teach one on one? It would be worth asking, as I know he is a good teacher.
Posted by Tony Sayger on
how would I learn from Arkansas. And cost ?
Posted by Doug Richters on
Iam a saddler would like to build my own trees thanks regards Doug
Posted by RodandDenise on
Tony, I have e-mailed you.

Doug, your e-mail keeps bouncing back to me. Please contact us at info(at) and I can give you more information.

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