So ya wanna build saddle trees? part two

Posted by RodandDenise on September 15, 2014

We are no longer building saddle trees, but we have two videos about how Western saddles fit horses available on our website.

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When people contact us about wanting to learn to build saddle trees, there are a few other things we want to learn about them besides just why they want to build trees. If someone is willing to come and pay us to teach them how to build trees, we want them to succeed at it. But not everyone who thinks they want to build trees for a living will be able to make it as a tree maker, so in the information we send out to them, one of the pages is a short self-assessment questionnaire. It has a few different categories of questions to help prospective tree makers figure out if they really are cut out to build saddle trees for a living. We also ask questions similar to these in our discussions to help us know more about the personal characteristics of a possible student.

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Background knowledge

First off, how much do you already know about horses, saddles – building and repair - wood working, the horse industry, etc. Having a fair amount of background knowledge, including a lot of hours in the saddle yourself, really, really helps in understanding how saddles and trees work on horses to make a functional system. Knowing the basics on how saddles are put together, how rigging works and pulls on a tree, what a good ground seat for a rider looks like and feels like – lots of things like these are important to understand in order to build a tree that is easy for a saddle maker to build on. Knowing how horses are shaped and move really helps in figuring out how bars are supposed to work on a horse’s back. Connections with some good saddle makers are invaluable in getting your name out when starting the business as well as getting high-quality feedback on your early trees. The basics of how to build a tree can be taught relatively quickly if you have the set of attributes in the next section, but the grounding of how and why a tree and saddle work the way they do takes a whole lot longer. This background knowledge is pretty important going into tree making, and is something that only comes with personal experience riding and working with saddles and horses.

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Physical skills

When Rod and I started talking about him building trees for a living, Rod didn’t know how to build trees, but I knew he could learn. It wasn’t just because we knew a good tree maker who would teach him, but because I knew that Rod had the physical ability to build trees. He had the eye to see if something was straight or crooked very easily. He was good at making things with his hands. He could see a shape in his head and transform it into a physical object, so making an even curve between two lines marked around the edge of a fork wasn’t going to be a difficult thing for him to do. I knew that. Now, if it had been me trying to build trees, we were doomed to failure. I could stare at something for a long time and think it was straight, then Rod could quickly point out where there was a slight curve in it. I have learned, over the years, to draw a straight line with a ruler, and even a curved line with the proper marking tools. But sanding a chunk of wood to make it symmetrical based on lines and patterns – good luck… I don’t have that skill set, but it is absolutely necessary to be a good tree maker.

Most people who contact us, however, are already pretty good at making things with their hands. They almost always have a background in wood working or saddle making, so usually this isn’t a stumbling block to them getting into tree making. But it is something that is absolutely vital to them being successful as a tree maker.

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Relational skills

Another section to look at is your people skills, and how much you need people around. Building trees is a lonely occupation as a general rule. You are by yourself or with only one other person in the shop day after day after day… So if you are someone who thrives on people contact and visiting in the coffee shop every morning, you’re either not going to be happy as a tree maker, or you won’t get a lot of trees built, or both. But if you are content to be working on your own and don’t need a lot of interaction with people, this may be a job for you. (The joke around here is that I never let Rod off the place. I get to go to town but he has to stay home and build trees. The reality is that he prefers it that way…)

On the other hand, you do need to be able to deal with people. You will be talking to customers about orders and helping them figure out what they want, and sometimes explaining that they really don’t want what they think they want. So if you don’t like people and hate talking with them, or if you are someone who tells people to go jump in the lake regularly, then either you need someone who will be a good go-between with your customers, or you need to work on your people skills if you are going to survive as a tree maker. You can build a really good tree, but if no one will buy from you because they can’t or won’t communicate with you, you won’t make it as a tree maker.

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Because tree making is a relatively solitary profession, there is little outside impetus to get out to the shop and build another tree. (Well, unless hunger because you have no food in the house and no money to buy any counts, but by then you better be looking for another job…) So tree makers have to be very self motivated workers. Rod is up and out to the shop by 8 o’clock every morning. He takes an hour for lunch and works till 6 pm. And he does this six days a week – unless life changes things around, which it can. So he is very self-motivated to get his work done. (If it was up to me, we’d starve…)

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Another thing that really helps in being efficient in building trees is being organized. Some people can live in chaos and still seem to know where everything is, but other people who live in chaos lose a lot of time because of it. Rod is organized, to the point of being regimented, in some things. Tools and patterns are laid out in order for every step, then put away – in order! – before the next step is started. Yeah, it gives me something to tease him about, but on the other hand, it makes building more efficient. Everything is right there, where he needs it, for the next step. Not an absolute requirement to be a tree maker, but we think it sure helps.

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Business sense and finances

Besides building saddle trees, a tree maker is also a business owner and manager. This is a whole other skill set that needs to be gained or paid for. Either you are the bookkeeper, or you hire it done, but the books need to be kept. Someone needs to keep track of inventory. Someone needs to figure out shipping costs and quote them to customers. Someone needs to know if you are making money or not, and how to change it if needed. Do you want employees or not? If so, there are more legal and accounting matters to deal with.

And how are you going to finance your business start up? What are you going to charge for your trees? Do the figures work out? ie. Are you going to make enough money building trees the way you have planned out to make a living at it? Who are you aiming at to be your main customers? How are they going to hear about you? Why should they buy a tree from you and not someone else? Not everyone can be everything, but if you can’t do it, who will do it for you? All these kinds of things need to be figured out at some point, and the earlier the better. Learning the business end of things was our biggest impediment to Rod becoming a tree maker. Fortunately, he got into a self-employment assistance program that taught him all the basics. It was invaluable for us. Taking the time to learn the business stuff is more than worth it.

So once you figure out that yes, you do have the personal qualifications to be a tree maker, then the question is: what equipment and tools to you need to start up your business? I’ll get to that…

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