The Brooks saddle is all made under a single roof, and while there is a good deal of heavy machinery involved, this in no way implies automation. To the contrary, the machines serve the skilled craftspeople that day in, day out, make these ubiquitous saddles. My tour of the manufacturing end began in a shed adjacent to the larger factory. In there was coil after coil of steel wire.
Coils of wire wait to be cut and formed into springs and seat rails
This wire would ultimately become the springs and rails that make up all of their saddles. When I asked to see the spool of titanium, I was told that this was kept in a separate place, and arrived as smaller billets (short sections of rod) before it was formed. Back in the main factory, one of the gargantuan machines rumbled to life, and I could see this machine drawing in the wire, and every few seconds a coiled spring was cold shaped, and popped out into a bin.
Coil springs await finishing and assembly
Other machines cut and fabricated the various other parts used in the saddle, and through a variety of steps, the various parts are fed into different machines to get a tweak here, and a bend there. All along the way, small errors are fixed or pieces that aren’t up to snuff are recycled.
Thicker wire is bent and used for seat rails
There is also a good deal of flat hardware made there including some of the seatpost clamps and also the cantle of the saddle (the part that forms the back of the saddle, where the cover it riveted). Similarly, these parts are stamped out of flat stock on hand, and the blanks are put through the mill.
A bin of seat clamps
From there, we went through a door into the leather section. This section smelled the part of an old fashioned saddlery, the air filled with the scent of freshly tanned leather. Steven told be that all of their hides come from Belgium already colored. I was expecting to see piles of pelt shaped pieces of leather. Instead, there were neat piles of rough rectangles, about 20x40 inches in every imaginable color. It was explained that this portion of the hide had the requisite thickness for the saddles so it was the portion that they bought.
Saddles are stamped out sections of leather, with scraps used for other Brooks products or sold to another manufacturer
The saddle shape is then stamped out of the hide by a massive die. Each piece of leather has its own grain, and at times, blemished or thin spots. It is up to the cutter to assess each hide and figure out the best way to cut the hide, and maximize each one. When I asked about the leftover, this was used in some of their new grips, and what wasn’t used was sold to a subsequent manufacturer. Once the operator placed the die on the hide, the whole rig was placed under a massive hydraulic press, and with a quick and efficient “whump”, the blank was cut.
After being soaked in the water the saddles are formed with a hydraulic press
To shape the saddle, the blanks were initially soaked in water before they received a basic shaping in a hydraulic press. After this initial shaping, the leather will partially dry, and allow the leather to take the new shape.
Before and after initial shaping
The final shaping and cutting is one final step. The blocked saddle will once again go into a massive hydraulic press for it’s final shaping. This step will also include and texturing particular saddle might get. The male and female dies in the press were exquisitely shaped pieces of brass. I asked how long they lasted. Steven had seen very few replaced in his tenure at the factory, and hoped that it would stay that way as each one was custom made. After the final pressing, with a bulging forearm, the worker at the machine cleanly sliced away the excess with a deft, well-practiced motion. This part, it was explained to me, is not for the beginner, and was a result of years of practice.
Final shaping includes any texture the particular model might include
Once the leather has been shaped and cut, it’s time to mate it with the frame. The first part of this is the iconic riveting of the leather to the frame. For most of the saddles, there is a riveting machine that puts the rivets in the nose and cantle cleanly and quickly. I watched as the woman operating the riveter would pick up a frame and a cover, and after a quick eyeball, had the two joined together in about 20 seconds freehand- no fancy jigs or anything. After watching 4 or 5 saddles, Steven turned to me, “That’s years of practice there.” And how! For some of the higher end models, the rivet heads are hand hammered as they have been forever. This corner of the shop rang with the telltale “bang, bang, bang.” I slid over to that area, as a worker proudly demonstrated is technique with practiced efficiency. Another saddle done and off to the finishing area.
A worker hand rivets the leather to the frame
The final step is tensioning the saddle. Brooks saddles are sprung between the cantle and the nose. To maintain shape, there is an adjustment bolt n the nose of the saddle, so as the saddle gradually stretches, the proper tension can be maintained. To complete this step, a hydraulic press is used to stretch the cover and then the tensioning bolt is put into place. The last step is a buffing of the saddle, and an inspection to ensure that all the parts meet the company’s high standards, and off it goes to retailers all over the works. Many thanks to the Brooks England team for a warm and informative visit.