Saddle up: Unusual talent fills regional niche

Unusual talent fills regional niche

  • Keith LaRiviere demonstrates some of the techniques of carving and tooling leather in his Orange workshop, where he makes saddles and more as Blue Dog Leather. RECORDER STAFF/CHRIS CURTIS Chris Curtis—Recorder staff

  • Keith LaRiviere demonstrates some of the techniques of carving and tooling leather in his Orange workshop, where he makes saddles and more as Blue Dog Leather. RECORDER STAFF/CHRIS CURTIS Chris Curtis—Recorder staff

  • Keith LaRiviere sews saddle leather with the use of a stitching horse, a wood-jawed vise. Hand-stitched seams will outlast machine stitching in a saddle due to the thread-on-thread friction in a machine stitch. RECORDER STAFF/CHRIS CURTIS Chris Curtis—Recorder staff

  • Keith LaRiviere sews saddle leather with the use of a stitching horse, a wood-jawed vise. Hand-stitched seams will outlast machine stitching in a saddle due to the thread-on-thread friction in a machine stitch. RECORDER STAFF/CHRIS CURTIS Chris Curtis—Recorder staff

  • Above, Keith LaRiviere holds a saddle tree, the supportive skeleton of a saddle, with a partly finished saddle waiting on a stand in his shop, Blue Dog Leather. Below, he demonstrates some of the techniques of carving and tooling leather. RECORDER STAFF photos/Chris Curtis

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/5/2016 6:24:58 PM

ORANGE — Using a short knife with a spade-like blade and a swiveling half ring finger rest, Keith LaRiviere traces a leaf design into a scrap of leather with sweeping, shallow grooves.

Selecting a steel rod with a checkered end and a light maul — a tubular carver’s mallet — he taps a faint crosshatching into the wet leather around the leaves, creating a shadow effect. With another stamp — this one with a smooth, pear-shaped end — he indents the center of each leaf, giving them a concave shape and a smooth, burnished sheen.

A lot of wood, leather, metal and time go into saddle making, and LaRiviere’s shop, Blue Dog Leather at 64 South Shore Drive, is a jumble of specialized tools and materials.

The main table is piled with leather more than a foot deep. Crescent-bladed knives hang in sheathes around the edge and the top of a drill press is visible over the pile.

In one corner of the room, there’s a robust sewing machine capable of stitching leather. In another, there’s a second work table, with a marble plate and a jumble of specialized knives, gouges, punches and wheels. More obscure tools stand in orderly trays and racks on the table and wall, near bins of buckles, rings and rivets.

Saddles wait on racks and stands in various stages of completion. Each takes him four to six weeks. A plain, unornamented saddle might start around $2,500, a decorated piece can go for upwards of $5,000. His favorite work is a scaled-up reproduction of a youth saddle made a century ago by the Porter Saddlery Co. in Arizona. The customer had learned to ride with the Porter saddle, and wanted the same as an adult.

In addition to the full saddles, LaRiviere does repairs and modifications. On this particular Tuesday, a customer from Connecticut stopped in to pick up a saddle she had left with him. LaRiviere had put a 110 to 120 degree twist into the straps holding the stirrups. On some saddles, they face inward and must be twisted out by the rider’s foot, and Joan Adams said her knees can’t take the twisting pressure of the stirrups anymore. The twist is standard feature to LaRiviere’s saddles, to relieve pressure and to protect riders from catching a foot if they lose their seat.

Between calls for repairs and new saddles, it isn’t quite the relaxing retirement business he had planned after a career with FedEx.

He has the company of his dogs — the Queensland blue heelers for whom his Blue Dog Leather shop is named — but he sometimes thinks of devoting more time to golf. Golf is a recent hobby, adopted after 37 years of skydiving. Skydiving is what brought him to Orange, and put him on the path to saddlery.

“I’ve been a parachute rigger for almost 40 years, 38 years now, and that’s how I learned to sew,” he said.

‘Can you fix this?’

LaRiviere, 67, guesses he fixed his first harness about 30 years ago, at his wife’s behest.

“I started fixing pieces of her tack, her saddles and things, and then she started bringing me something that belonged to a friend of hers and say ‘can you fix this?’ then it was friends of their friends, and one thing led to another,” he said.

He started out in the basement, banging his head on heating ducts, but eventually built a workshop about 50 feet from his home.

He works full days there in the winter and half days when the weather is suitable for golfing. He is, as far as he knows, the only Western saddle maker in New England. With about as much work as he wants and two English-style saddle makers a couple towns over in Royalston, he sees no reason to branch into the other main stream of saddle making. He is happy, however, to branch into all manner of other things. Since taking a commission to build an elephant gas mask — a gas mask designed to fit an elephant that is — for an artist looking to make a point about climate change and pollution, he has begun accepting custom projects as a way to keep the craft fresh. He makes knife sheaths, gun belts and has an antique bicycle seat waiting for a new cover.

Three stages

Three stages of saddle making are currently represented in his shop. There’s a saddle “tree” at the back of the room, covered in a thin layer of tacked and stitched rawhide. Made of wood, the tree is the rigid skeleton of the saddle. It takes the rough form of a hollow oval bent up at both ends. The shape places the rider’s weight high on the horse’s ribs, with the cutout sparing the bony protrusions of the spine. LaRiviere said he came to saddle making too late to pick up the whole set of specialized woodworking skills needed to make a tree, so he buys them pre-built.

The “ground seat” is next, leather padding filling in the flat bottom of the tree to create a seat comfortable for the rider and the horse, positioning the rider over the horse’s center of motion, a typically 24- to 30-inch area from behind the shoulder to the last rib.

Most saddles are made to fit the most common equine body type, quarter horses. Some outliers will need special fitting, but a saddle made with a quarter horse in mind will fit most.

The saddle is held together with a stitched cord and rivets, the leather pieces cut by hand with the exception of some incredibly tedious washer-like pieces that he stamps with a pneumatic press. There aren’t many simple shapes on the saddle, and it isn’t a matter of simply fitting together patterned pieces. Tanned leather is stiff and flat, and needs to be sculpted into new forms as well as cut. The upper surface of the seat comes from a large piece of the choicest leather he buys in sides. He will soak it in water overnight before fitting it to the middle of the saddle, with the rough side in or out depending on the buyer.

Wood, leather, rivets, metal loops and buckles make the saddle; careful carving and stamping with specialized knives and punches make it more than a piece of equipment for keeping a person on a horse.

A well-made saddle, he says, can last at least a hundred years with proper care, and he likes the idea that many of the things he makes will serve well beyond his life. Preserving the knowledge he’s gathered is also becoming a concern. “I’m at the point now where I’d seriously consider working in a master/apprentice type situation,” he said.

Repairing parachutes provided a base skill, but the rest came from a combination of books and people. He has studied with saddlers and for a decade with New Hampshire harness maker Russell Bigelow and attends the annual Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan, Wyo. Western saddle making is a big business out west, he said, even if he is essentially alone in the Northeast.

He said he’s had some people express interest in apprenticing, but no one serious enough to commit to the time. Saddlery takes a lot of time to learn and to practice, but he says the work can instill a zen-like calm, and the final product is satisfying.

“There is definitely a lot of satisfaction in that knowledge that I’m making something that is a useful piece of equipment and, if it’s well cared for, it’s going to live longer than me,” he said.

Some of that work, including the elephant gas mask, can be seen on his website:
bluedogleather.com

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com




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