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Building my first mule saddle

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Gathering up everything to build a mule saddle.  I got the Dennis lane kit from Bowden tree co.  Measured my mule earlier today. Seems that the C card that’s for the back, doesn’t have a narrow enough section. The TB portion of the card is the closest fit, but still has about 3/8”-1/2” clearance at the ends of the points. Anyone ever used their kit for measuring a mule?  

Anyone have experience with other tree company’s mule trees?  Mule Is 3.5 years old, singe will probably keep growing and getting wider. Should I get a tree that’s a little wider and use extra padding until he gets bigger?

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Kudos for using the Lane Cards on your mule.  There's much to learn by taking a careful look at equine backs and experimenting with the Lane Card System is a great tool.  I've used the cards on a lot of horses but only a few mules and mules will vary a lot.  Thus, I only have a few general thought for you.

The "rocker" of the tree bars is a critical consideration and the feature that is most often and most significantly different on a mule compared to a horse.  Most mules have a flatter back (less rocker, front to back), inheriting that feature from their daddy Jack. The Lane cards have "rocker" choices to evaluate this.  There are four cards for rocker, the R3 being the flattest.

I'm not surprised that the C cards were wide for your mule. This is another common difference in mules.  Their backs usually don't broaden as much as horses in the loin area where the C card is used.  Mule bars typically have less rocker and less "twist."  The twist refers to the change in bar angle as it proceeds from the wither pad (under the fork) to the rear or loin pad (under the cantle).  Horse bars will typically start at about 90 degrees at the withers and broaden to about 130 degrees at the loin, depending on the maker.   I don't build trees and don't know how much variation (less twist) is common for mule bars.  I would consult with a reputable tree maker that has built mule trees and is familiar with the Lane cards.  Better yet, try to get a hold of a tree to try on your mule.  Nothing beats fitting an actual tree.  A final note, my order of priorities for fitting the tree to your mule would be: 1, rocker; 2, wither angle and width; 3, loin angle.  The rear bar pad (loin area) is relatively large and weight distribution there is important but less problematic than the withers.

While it is best to evaluate backs at or near maturity, at 3 1/2 years old I don't think your mule will change dramatically or any more than it will seasonally.  For example, most horses and mules that have had the winter off will require less pad than they will after a summer of work.  That amount of variation doesn't warrant consideration for tree selection.

Just my opinion, but I would look to some other makers for your tree.  In particular, I would avoid "Arizona" bars.  Arizona bars rely on "bridged fit" for stirrup leather clearance.  I don't use Arizona bars for any trees but would particularly advise against them for a horse or mule with a flatter back. 

A final note:  Any time you are building a saddle that is not likely to fit a typical horse, it should be clearly marked on the saddle.   I stamp the tree characteristics on the rigging leather under the seat flap.  This will forewarn future owners/users as to the intended use of the saddle and may prevent a horse or mule from suffering a terrible fit.

 

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On 3/19/2020 at 2:57 PM, EdOdgers said:

 

Kudos for using the Lane Cards on your mule.  There's much to learn by taking a careful look at equine backs and experimenting with the Lane Card System is a great tool.  I've used the cards on a lot of horses but only a few mules and mules will vary a lot.  Thus, I only have a few general thought for you.

The "rocker" of the tree bars is a critical consideration and the feature that is most often and most significantly different on a mule compared to a horse.  Most mules have a flatter back (less rocker, front to back), inheriting that feature from their daddy Jack. The Lane cards have "rocker" choices to evaluate this.  There are four cards for rocker, the R3 being the flattest.

I'm not surprised that the C cards were wide for your mule. This is another common difference in mules.  Their backs usually don't broaden as much as horses in the loin area where the C card is used.  Mule bars typically have less rocker and less "twist."  The twist refers to the change in bar angle as it proceeds from the wither pad (under the fork) to the rear or loin pad (under the cantle).  Horse bars will typically start at about 90 degrees at the withers and broaden to about 130 degrees at the loin, depending on the maker.   I don't build trees and don't know how much variation (less twist) is common for mule bars.  I would consult with a reputable tree maker that has built mule trees and is familiar with the Lane cards.  Better yet, try to get a hold of a tree to try on your mule.  Nothing beats fitting an actual tree.  A final note, my order of priorities for fitting the tree to your mule would be: 1, rocker; 2, wither angle and width; 3, loin angle.  The rear bar pad (loin area) is relatively large and weight distribution there is important but less problematic than the withers.

While it is best to evaluate backs at or near maturity, at 3 1/2 years old I don't think your mule will change dramatically or any more than it will seasonally.  For example, most horses and mules that have had the winter off will require less pad than they will after a summer of work.  That amount of variation doesn't warrant consideration for tree selection.

Just my opinion, but I would look to some other makers for your tree.  In particular, I would avoid "Arizona" bars.  Arizona bars rely on "bridged fit" for stirrup leather clearance.  I don't use Arizona bars for any trees but would particularly advise against them for a horse or mule with a flatter back. 

A final note:  Any time you are building a saddle that is not likely to fit a typical horse, it should be clearly marked on the saddle.   I stamp the tree characteristics on the rigging leather under the seat flap.  This will forewarn future owners/users as to the intended use of the saddle and may prevent a horse or mule from suffering a terrible fit.

 

I noticed several mule saddles, that I have seen online, don’t have the rear of the skirtings laced together.  They say it’s to help with spine clearance. Is there anything special that would need to be done  differently as far as securing the skirts to the tree?  I have the Stohlman encyclopedia, that I have been reading through and studying their techniques. However they really don’t say anything about mule saddles.   

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Its imperative to maintain clearance over the spine for both horses and mules, no exceptions.  Design and construction principles won't vary between a mule and horse saddle.  The spinal process (ridge of bone extending vertically) of each vertebrae is not covered by muscle and is very near the surface along the top-line, making it vulnerable to injury.  That's why our saddle trees have a gullet under the fork and the bars are spaced about 3" apart.  That clearance should continue under the cantle where there is another "gullet" or arched area to create clearance.  Skirts should be "blocked" or "bedded" to the tree bars such that the skirts are molded away and don't apply pressure to the horses back.  When blocking skirts, you'll need to mold the skirts up into the gullet under the cantle and continue that arch to rearward to the bar tips.   In addition to proper blocking, the angle of the cut on the skirts where they come together behind the cantle needs to cause the joined skirts to flare upward, continuing the angle of the bar.  When cinched down, you should be able to slip your hand under the skirts behind the cantle fairly easily until the bars are encountered.  Beyond the bars, the skirts shouldn't apply pressure to the back, period.  Thus the saying "ride the tree, not the skirts" is important for saddle makers to adhere to.  If the saddle maker hasn't molded the skirts to maintain that arched tunnel under the cantle and behind it, or if the skirts aren't cut properly to angle up up away from the horse behind the cantle, there will be pressure and friction that may sore a horse or mule in the loin area.  This is a fairly common but easily avoided problem.   Lacing the skirts together can add to the problem by not allowing the skirts to flex away from the horse.  Also, the added thickness of the lace can cause a pressure point.  All this is avoidable with proper blocking and the proper angle on the skirts where they join.  The problem is caused by improper construction, not just the lacing.  A properly built saddle can have the skirts laced together and maintain good clearance.  That said, lacing the skirts together is not essential and could be eliminated if you made other provisions to secure the skirts to the tree.  My practice is to install two screws through the skirt edges and up into the gullet of the cantle.  This helps secure the skirts and ensures that the arch I molded into the skirts is maintained.  I normally lace the skirts together behind the cantle but haven't always.  I usually don't lace past the bar tips and not so far back as to be visible from under the jockeys.  Leaving the last few inches of the skirts unlaced allows the skirts to flex away from the horse if the saddle happened to be used on a horse with unusually prominent muscles on their croup.  Occasionally I have laced all the way to the back of the skirts as a design feature.  This shouldn't cause any pressure or problem if you have designed ample upward flare to the back of the skirts.  If you don't lace the skirts together, I suggest the previously mentioned screws into the gullet of the cantle and stitching pockets onto the topside of the skirts to slip the bar tips into.

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On 4/9/2020 at 2:41 PM, EdOdgers said:

Its imperative to maintain clearance over the spine for both horses and mules, no exceptions.  Design and construction principles won't vary between a mule and horse saddle.  The spinal process (ridge of bone extending vertically) of each vertebrae is not covered by muscle and is very near the surface along the top-line, making it vulnerable to injury.  That's why our saddle trees have a gullet under the fork and the bars are spaced about 3" apart.  That clearance should continue under the cantle where there is another "gullet" or arched area to create clearance.  Skirts should be "blocked" or "bedded" to the tree bars such that the skirts are molded away and don't apply pressure to the horses back.  When blocking skirts, you'll need to mold the skirts up into the gullet under the cantle and continue that arch to rearward to the bar tips.   In addition to proper blocking, the angle of the cut on the skirts where they come together behind the cantle needs to cause the joined skirts to flare upward, continuing the angle of the bar.  When cinched down, you should be able to slip your hand under the skirts behind the cantle fairly easily until the bars are encountered.  Beyond the bars, the skirts shouldn't apply pressure to the back, period.  Thus the saying "ride the tree, not the skirts" is important for saddle makers to adhere to.  If the saddle maker hasn't molded the skirts to maintain that arched tunnel under the cantle and behind it, or if the skirts aren't cut properly to angle up up away from the horse behind the cantle, there will be pressure and friction that may sore a horse or mule in the loin area.  This is a fairly common but easily avoided problem.   Lacing the skirts together can add to the problem by not allowing the skirts to flex away from the horse.  Also, the added thickness of the lace can cause a pressure point.  All this is avoidable with proper blocking and the proper angle on the skirts where they join.  The problem is caused by improper construction, not just the lacing.  A properly built saddle can have the skirts laced together and maintain good clearance.  That said, lacing the skirts together is not essential and could be eliminated if you made other provisions to secure the skirts to the tree.  My practice is to install two screws through the skirt edges and up into the gullet of the cantle.  This helps secure the skirts and ensures that the arch I molded into the skirts is maintained.  I normally lace the skirts together behind the cantle but haven't always.  I usually don't lace past the bar tips and not so far back as to be visible from under the jockeys.  Leaving the last few inches of the skirts unlaced allows the skirts to flex away from the horse if the saddle happened to be used on a horse with unusually prominent muscles on their croup.  Occasionally I have laced all the way to the back of the skirts as a design feature.  This shouldn't cause any pressure or problem if you have designed ample upward flare to the back of the skirts.  If you don't lace the skirts together, I suggest the previously mentioned screws into the gullet of the cantle and stitching pockets onto the topside of the skirts to slip the bar tips into.

I have been reading about plugging the skirts, in quite a few threads on here.  It leads to some more questions.  

First is the thickness of leather. The  Johnson book recommend 2 sides of 13-15 oz.  I believe the Stohlman is similar. Several threads I have seen on here say you shouldn’t use that heavy of skirting on fenders.  What would be the best approach for buying sides?  I don’t want a lightweight trail saddle, but I don’t need a super duty roper  either. Figured more of an all round saddle.  

Next, if you do use 13-15 or 14-16 oz sides, do you still need to plug the skirts?  What about leaving the plugs out under the thigh area? 

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If you can find 2 really nice hides that should be enough for a saddle, seems like nice hides are few and far between.

13/15 should make for a nice all around saddle, it should be fine for fenders, make sure you reference in either stohlman's or Johnson's book on laying out your patterns for the best yield.

 

As far as plugging the skirts, yes they need the plugs, it helps the skirts hold up to abuse and keeps them from curling up.

I've done plugs both ways, leaving out  area under the thigh does help to reduce bulk and may give a closer to the horse feeling.

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I try to get a saddle out of two sides, but mistakes that I can't live with sometimes cost me. If you have your patterns before you start cutting, you can be more efficient. I pretty much stick to 13/15 Hermann Oak. I plug skirts just like Jeremiah Watt, leaving the space under the leg without plugs. I want to make sure the skirt corners have some stiffness.

Good luck,

Randy

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What is the best size linen thread, 5 cord or 6 Cord?  I’ll be handsewing everything. Been doing some small projects and using 1mm tiger thread, but was going to get linen fir the saddle.  

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Definitely plug your skirts so they retain their shape.  Plugs should extend to the bars and be skived to lap part way onto the bars to help retain the blocking or bedding.  If your skirts are 13/15 ounce skirting you will want to split down your plugs.  I like the total skirt/plug thickness to be 20 to 22 ounces, no more.  I can't imagine wanting 30 ounce thick skirts, they would look and feel like they were cut out of plywood.   Plug under the riders leg but skive it down to 1/2 thickness.  Omitting the plugs there will be nice at first but turn sloppy soft after years of use.

I generally don't make a saddle with heavy weight (13/15) skirting, though I like to have some around for stirrup leathers on a working saddle.   Even for a hard-use saddle, I think medium (12/14) makes an ideal thickness for the fenders and seat and even lighter skirting will be fine for jockeys, cantle backs, skirt plugs, etc.   With rare exceptions, my saddles are now made entirely with medium and light skirting.  Remember, most of the leather's strength is in the dermal side (hair side) and doubling the thickness doesn't double the strength.  That said, thicker leather retains its body or stiffness longer and some riders prefer that to lighter weight.   I always order a mix of skirting thickness.  When ordering 10 sides of Hermann Oak I usually get a mix of medium (12/14) and light (11/12) along with one side of heavy.  For lightweight saddles I will use the 11/12 skirting sides for everything except the stirrup leathers.  This makes a nice saddle that is 32 to 36 pounds and still durable enough for most folks. 

Six cord linen for saddles.  No need to go to 5 with the exception of fine work for bridles etc.  There are also some nice polys available for hand stitching.  Check out Gordon Andrus for techniques and thread.

I don't recommend many of the methods in the Dusty Johnson book and  especially don't like the ground-seat procedure and end product.  There are much better resources available for learning saddle making than the Johnson and Stohlman books.  Consider the excellent videos by Mecum, Watt, Harwood,  and Schwarz. 

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On 7/9/2020 at 12:59 PM, EdOdgers said:

Definitely plug your skirts so they retain their shape.  Plugs should extend to the bars and be skived to lap part way onto the bars to help retain the blocking or bedding.  If your skirts are 13/15 ounce skirting you will want to split down your plugs.  I like the total skirt/plug thickness to be 20 to 22 ounces, no more.  I can't imagine wanting 30 ounce thick skirts, they would look and feel like they were cut out of plywood.   Plug under the riders leg but skive it down to 1/2 thickness.  Omitting the plugs there will be nice at first but turn sloppy soft after years of use.

I generally don't make a saddle with heavy weight (13/15) skirting, though I like to have some around for stirrup leathers on a working saddle.   Even for a hard-use saddle, I think medium (12/14) makes an ideal thickness for the fenders and seat and even lighter skirting will be fine for jockeys, cantle backs, skirt plugs, etc.   With rare exceptions, my saddles are now made entirely with medium and light skirting.  Remember, most of the leather's strength is in the dermal side (hair side) and doubling the thickness doesn't double the strength.  That said, thicker leather retains its body or stiffness longer and some riders prefer that to lighter weight.   I always order a mix of skirting thickness.  When ordering 10 sides of Hermann Oak I usually get a mix of medium (12/14) and light (11/12) along with one side of heavy.  For lightweight saddles I will use the 11/12 skirting sides for everything except the stirrup leathers.  This makes a nice saddle that is 32 to 36 pounds and still durable enough for most folks. 

Six cord linen for saddles.  No need to go to 5 with the exception of fine work for bridles etc.  There are also some nice polys available for hand stitching.  Check out Gordon Andrus for techniques and thread.

I don't recommend many of the methods in the Dusty Johnson book and  especially don't like the ground-seat procedure and end product.  There are much better resources available for learning saddle making than the Johnson and Stohlman books.  Consider the excellent videos by Mecum, Watt, Harwood,  and Schwarz. 

I got the watt dvds ordered. Tree should be getting close to getting made. Went with Dusty Smith and he was @3 months out 3.5 months ago, So hopefully it won’t be much longer. Already had ordered 2 13-15 HO from panhandle, along with a sheepskin. Already have my hardware, except fir nails  and tacks. Could you steer me in the right direction on sizes and suppliers. The Stohlman books call for blued tacks, but I have seen many in the forum suggest stainless. 

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I buy stainless steel brads (19 gauge) at our local box store for some stuff, but use mostly 2d and 3d SS nails from McMaster-Carr.

I look forward to following your progress.

Randy

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I started out using blue cut tacks and ringshank.  I now use 2d and 3d SS like Randy.  However, for final assembly where the nail doesn't show, I now use 1 1/4 drywall or decking screws.  The blue cut are ok for temporary holding and under the seat where 1 inch nails may be too long.  Also, I use no. 10-1.5 ss and ss collar washers for the swell screws and no. 10-1.24 ss for ringing plates.

Ron.

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I use a wide variety of nails and screws but no blued tacks.  Anything that stays in the saddle is stainless steel or triple coated.  I use GRK brand triple coated cabinet screws, mostly 1" and 1 1/4" for final assembly and screwing down conchos, breast collar attachments, etc, etc, (Menards or other large home centers).  The GRKs are slender, self tapping, super strong and have a good, flat head shape that holds leather and doesn't stick up too proud.   Stainless, oval head screws with cup washers for attaching riggings (Weaver or a very complete hardware store).   A variety of stainless ring-shank nails for strainer plates, horn cap filler, etc, etc (Hagel's Cowboay Gear).  I use a lot of very thin wire nails for temporarily attaching and fitting parts and when blocking skirts to the tree (hardware store or home center).   I like the thin, wire nails for temporary holding as they don't leave a big wound in the rawhide.  I prefer to use a screw over a nail for most applications.  If it needs to be a nail and it's going to stay in the saddle, it's got to be ring-shank.  Lastly, I have an assortment of brass and stainless steel escutcheon pins (round headed nails) for decorative applications like stirrup linings and attaching the back flap of a fork cover that goes down through the hand-hole to the gullet (Weaver and other leather supply).

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Here's a photo to accompany the above comment on fasteners. 

IMG_0092.jpg

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More on the skirt plug questions.  Here are photos of plugs being prepared (skived and fitted) and the final product on a skirt rigged saddle.  Note that the installed plugs have been trimmed using the skirt perimeter as a guide.  When first glued on, they extended past the skirt edge by about 1/2".  Also, because this is a skirt rig and the rig panel is attached to the skirt, no plug is needed from the rear rig forward since this area is already two layers thick. In the area where the rear rig slot will be cut (two punch holes in photo) there are three layers for strength and stiffness: skirt + rig panel + plug. 

If this saddle were a flat-plate or ring rigged saddle, the plugs would go from the gullet to the back of the cantle.  In that case, I would make the plugs from two pieces for each skrirt and splice them under the riders leg with a lap-skive.  I would also thin the plugs there for closer contact.

IMG_0043.jpg

IMG_0035.jpg

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A final comment on plugs.  As I mentioned in a previous comment, I want the combined thickness of the skirt and plug be about 21/22 ounces.  Since all of your skirting is 13/15 ounce, you could end up with 26 to 30 ounce total thickness.  That will be too much so you'll want to split down your plugs.  Since I presume you don't have a splitter, you can use a very sharp spoke shave to thin down the rough cut pieces of skirting.  I used this method for many years before I had a large splitter.  It takes a little bit of time and skill but it's not that bad.  Furthermore, it's a good skill to have that can be useful to even-up a piece of leather for a cantle back or fork cover  that is thicker on one side than the other.  I routinely use a variety of spoke shaves for leveling, skiving, and carving my ground seats.  The photo below shows the spoke shave I use for leveling large areas.  It's a Stanley and is the largest shave I use.  It can be readily found at a good hardware or woodworking supply store.  The blade has pretty good steel, which you won't find in some cheaper knock-offs.

IMG_0097.jpg

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The pics help a lot. Is there any modification to the Stanley spoke shave?

 

i have the Jeremiah Watt videos coming in.  Dusty Smith sent me a message Friday and said my tree is shipping out this weekend. 

Made me a round knife while I was waiting. Along with a lot of knife sheaths, to practice stitching and tooling. Things are starting to come together. 

920ED1C9-436F-443B-928F-1B5037E95AB4.jpeg

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Nothing special to set up the Stanley spoke shave, just getting it razor sharp.  Nice knives you made.  You'll find the straight knife handy for skiving.  You are going to be skiving a lot when saddle making so it pays to get set up right with your tools and skills.  I use a a wide French edger (3/4" and 1") a lot for narrow skives, like the plugs in the photo above where the plug blends onto the bar  edge.  I use a large head knife for wide skives and a straight knife (like yours) for narrow pieces.  Whatever you use, it has to be SHARP and get frequent maintenance.  Dusty will deliver you a nice tree.  Have fun.

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One correction to the post above about spoke shave setup.  There is a simple modification to this woodworking tool to improve its performance with leather:  Mount the blade with the sharpened bevel facing down.  This creates a lower angle of the cutting edge relative to the surface of the leather.  It will work the other way but not as well from my experience.

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On 9/20/2020 at 2:11 PM, EdOdgers said:

Here's a photo to accompany the above comment on fasteners. 

IMG_0092.jpg

What diameter and size of ss ring shank do you use?  I found several styles online. Cedar siding nails 1” and up, and roofing nails with s big head. 2d I believe. 

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The SS ring-shank nails I use most are about 0.09" or 2.25mm in diameter (about 3D) and lengths of 3/4", 7/8", and 1".  These were sourced from Hagel's Cowboy Gear (Sara Hagel).

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