Jesse W. Smith estimates he’s made around 900 saddles during his lifetime. Possibly 1,000. It’s an impressive legacy to leave as a Western craftsman, and Smith is almost as proud of that figure as he is of the hundreds of students he’s taught during his career as a saddlemaking teacher.
Born and raised on his grandfather’s ranch in Pritchett, Colo., Smith was no stranger to working tack, but it wasn’t until he was a young man in the Air Force that he developed an interest in leathercraft. He started with simple projects—belts and billfolds—but had aspirations to build what he calls “the ultimate leatherworking experience”: a saddle.
Out of the service and cowboying on a cattle ranch, Smith began working toward that goal. He tells the story of his first saddle: “My dad owned an old wore-out Hamley saddle, and I knew he’d never buy himself a new one, so I struck him a deal. If he bought the materials, I’d make him a saddle. That was back in 1963. I taught myself and learned the hard way—I sure wasted a lot of leather!”
Smith had caught the saddlemaking bug. In 1965, he went to work at a saddle shop in Spokane, Wash., and has been making saddles for a living ever since.
In 1979, Smith took a position teaching the custom saddle making class at Spokane Falls Community College. During the 21 years he taught the class, he laid the foundation for some of today’s most renowned saddlemakers, and developed the course into the top saddle making program in the United States.
In 2000, he returned to his grandfather’s ranch, thinking he was ready to take a break from teaching. He quips, “After I came back from Spokane, I didn’t think I’d want to teach again…until I wanted to teach again!”
Smith began teaching saddlemaking from his ranch—a one-on-one, five-week course where students learn the ins and outs of the craft and walk away with a functional saddle they made themselves. Beyond the hows of leatherworking, Smith is invested in teaching the whys.
“It’s important to teach students more than simply how to do something,” he says. “I want students to walk away with the knowledge of why they’re doing what they’re doing. I go into leather technology, saddle and tree types, business practices, all of it!”
Smith assures that even students with no prior leatherworking experience will be able to complete a saddle to be proud of. He says, “It can actually be an advantage to come into the class with no experience because you have no preconceived idea about how things should be done. You don’t have to unlearn anything; you just have to learn.”
Those wanting to take Smith’s class will have to get in line. Folks from all over the world want to learn from the master, and he’s currently booked until March 2018. The waitlist is a nod to what Smith sees as a growing interest in leatherwork. It’s a trend he hopes continues.
“People are forgetting how to do things with their hands,” he says. “I would love to see schools offer more shop and trades classes. It’s great to be computer literate and tech savvy, but I think one of the greatest, most fulfilling things a person can learn is how to create something with their own two hands.”