Saddle Maker Utilizes Vintage Tools

Oklahoma saddle maker uses rare, vintage tools in leatherworking

Using tools from another era, Ralph Teeter handcrafts fine saddles

Using tools from another era, Ralph Teeter handcrafts fine saddles. One, which he gave to his daughter, won grand champion honors at the 1999 Oklahoma State Fair.

Photo by Kay Plummer

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A hundred years ago, the saddle maker and cobbler held a special place in rural communities. Farmers and ranchers operating on tight budgets had worn reins, harnesses, boots and saddles repaired, rather than replaced. In Butler, Okla., Ralph Teeter continues this honored profession at the dawn of a new century, using tools from the last century. 

An avid leather worker, Ralph uses and collects leatherworking tools; some were used by his great-grandfather.

"Many of these things I've found by word of mouth, or picked up at auctions and estate sales from here to Iowa," he said.

The oldest tool in Ralph's tool box is a leather creaser patented in 1887. The creaser puts a decorative edge on leather pieces. Originally hand-cranked, the creaser is now powered by an electric motor. It is, he says, his rarest and most valuable tool.

Another vintage tool still doing the job is a reins rounder patented in 1889. Strips of leather are dipped in water and then pulled through the rounder. The rounder features 11 sizing holes.

A 1910 Champion narrow throat awl is used to punch holes in leather. In a shoe sole or the outer skirt of a saddle, it forms a lock stitch.

"Hot wax would be added to the thread when the machine was used originally," Ralph said. "That increased the ease of thread passing through the leather."

The most modern piece of equipment in Ralph's workshop is a 1940s-vintage Sherman Schwab 639 mechanical clicker. The clicker is used to cut leather patterns for all of Ralph's projects. Modern clickers are powered with hydraulics.

For decorative touches, Ralph relies on a hand-cranked 1902 F.K. Russell embossing wheel. He owns several of the original brass dies used to stamp designs into leather.

A particularly unusual piece in his workshop is the Adler patch machine. Operated either by a hand crank or treadle, the machine is used to patch rips in leather. Manufactured by the Adlermacheine Werke company, the machine can be used for a variety of tasks, including sewing the fingers on lather gloves.

Among Ralph's most prized possessions are the tools he's found while searching old barns and outbuildings. On his great-grandparents' homestead, in the foundation of a barn, he found a decades-old rivet setter. He uses it today to place brass rivets on many of his projects. He also uses an ancient hole punch and grommet setter. And two sets of 1894 Eclipse shoelasts, used in shoe repair, have been passed down through his family. It's a tradition that's endured because it still works: The tools Ralph uses to repair shoes are the same ones used by his great-grandfather.

Complementing the vintage tools are clever innovations. Ralph has devised a scabbard worn on a belt, with an extra slot for a wrench or knife. The idea arose from a co-worker's complaint.

"He always needed a wrench, and his pliers fell out after the leather stretched," Ralph said. A riveted end solved the problem.

He's also crafted a unique twist on the saddlebags of old: A bag used to carry veterinary supplies when the vet heads into the back country on horseback.

Cutting edge technology? In leather work, anyway, the old ways are the still the best. FC 

For more information: Ralph Teeter, Rt. 1, Butler, Okla., 73625; (580) 664-3593. 

Rhonda Shephard is a freelance writer in Oklahoma.