Bruce Cheaney believes in seeing each project through to completion before beginning the next one.Even world champion cowboys like Matlock Rose, who holds several Cutting Horse World Championship titles, and Robbie Schroeder, the 2008 National Reining Horse Competition’s Reserve Champion, have to wait their turn for a custom-crafted Cheaney saddle. It takes time to do things right.

Cheaney, 58, is a fifth-generation saddle maker and learned the trade and traditional techniques from his father. In turn, he is schooling his college-aged son, Tom, to take over the family business.

Cheaney’s workshop, in the basement of his Gainesville, Texas home, is filled with equipment and materials. He spends hours working intricate designs into leather at a broad table that fills the center of the room, with everything he needs arranged around him. A 1928 Singer Sewing Machine used by his father occupies a narrow aisle. Cubbyholes are neatly filled with leather-working tools and line one wall. Leather-working patterns are housed in a neat filing cabinet.

Customers choose between a tree (the base around which a saddle is constructed) made of fiberglass or cottonwood, but the rest is in Cheaney’s hands.

He’s very particular about the whole tanned hides he chooses, closely examining each for imperfections. Satisfied, he splits the selected hide down the center to form the left and right sides of the saddle. The rest of the hide is destined for use as the seat jockey, rigging, and neck. Because it’s the most pliable, the hide from the belly is used for the swell and horn. The stirrup leather and skirts must be tough enough to take a rider’s beating.

As far as the decoration goes, “I’ll do whatever the customer wants, such as oak leaves or intricate designs,” says Cheaney. “But most customers leave that to me.”

The man is methodical and meticulous when it comes to patterns on leather. After he chooses a design, and after he gets the leather to the right dampness, he marks a trace line on the leather. He then uses an awl to carefully mark through the paper, and a special blade to further define the cuts. When he uses a mallet and stamp, his hands cut into the leather with consistent pressure so that each pattern has exactly the same depth and spacing.

The base price of a Cheaney saddle is $4,500, and the resulting details, custom fit, and comfort place them in high demand. Cheaney doesn’t mince words, though. “Once people ride one of my saddles, they’ve got to get one,” he says.

In the skilled hands of an artist, everyday objects are elevated to the extraordinary. Meet three craftsmen who keep western traditions alive.

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