Time is a traveller for lost art of saddler

The workshop of master saddler John Davis is a craftsman’s chaos of tools, with stirrups and strips of cut leather dangling from the ceiling.

SADDLE UP: Master saddler John Davis laments the fact his profession is slowly dying out. Photo: Gareth Gardner 090714GGC03

SADDLE UP: Master saddler John Davis laments the fact his profession is slowly dying out. Photo: Gareth Gardner 090714GGC03

Mr Davis is one of the last masters of an art that is fast dying out –saddle making. 

“The young fellows of today – they don’t know how to do it, and there’s no one to teach them,” Mr Davis said. 

He has been never known to rush a job, and will craft five or six saddles a year at $10,000 apiece. 

“They ask me how long and I say ‘It takes as long as it takes’,” he said. 

It’s an intricate process – he starts with the saddle tree, a wooden frame webbed with material like seatbelts, as the foundation, before stretching material over the top and hand stuffing it with wool. 

The detail intensifies at the end, when the Hallsville-based craftsman cuts a curve into the leather with an awl, stains it and burns it. 

He said the old saddlers used to test the heat of their tools by spitting on their workbench and judging by the sizzle from the contact with hot metal. 

Today’s saddles are often made in India or Pakistan from porous hides that are not tailored to Australian conditions. 

“The young fellows of today, if I was able to teach them, I doubt whether they could survive because they couldn’t get enough money out of it.”

Nor, it seems, could Mr Davis, who funnelled money earned from his band performances into saddle projects. 

He started working on his own saddles in 1970 and soon after RM Williams urged Mr Davis to charge more for his high-quality product. 

He famously turned down Kerry Packer’s request for more than one saddle, noting that drovers who spent their lives in them were more entitled to one.

“I said to Packer: ‘You’ve only got one arse’,” Mr Davis said. 

One exceptional project was a stunning red and green saddle made from crocodile skins, for which Mr Davis charged $30,000.

“You must have a passion for what you do, otherwise you end up on the bottom of the pile,” he said. 

Mr Davis said he adopted the same mantra his father held: “I never wanted to be the richest man in the cemetery, I wanted to be known as a good craftsman.”

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