Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Re-shaping Deformed Leather Saddles: Trying the 'Blocking' Technique

Vintage Brooks Colt
Some time ago I acquired a vintage Brooks Colt saddle. The original Colts are pretty rare, so I was excited. Unfortunately the saddle was deformed, sporting a prominent ridge down the center. On top of that, the leather was hard as a rock. The saddle was outright painful to ride for more than a few minutes.

To deal with the ridge, I was encouraged to try the blocking technique: soaking the saddle in water to regain its original shape. And I received just as many warnings against trying the blocking technique: The saddle could snap in half or become even more deformed I was told, I could ruin it. So I will preface with a caveat: As I understand it, blocking has a spotty success rate. To be safe, I would suggest trying it only on a saddle that is already ruined and unridable, as mine was.

There are different variations of the method, and the one I initially used was as follows: I soaked the saddle under the faucet, both the surface and the underside, until it was evenly wet. I then wrapped it in a wet towel, wrapped that in a plastic bag and let it sit. Two days later I unwrapped the saddle to check on it and was stunned to discover that, while wet, it was still hard as a rock. The moisture did not seem to be soaking through at all. So I wrapped it back up and left it for an entire week. When I unwrapped it again, the saddle was a bit softer, but the ridge showed no signs of diminishing. I thought that if I left it in there any longer the saddle would start to rot. So I installed it on a trainer bike and tried riding on it, thinking I could now flatten the ridge that way. But it was too painful to ride and it wasn't working. Eventually, I gave up and decided the experiment was unsuccessful. I treated the saddle with a generous dose of Proofide and put it away in a box, not sure what I'd do with it.

Vintage Brooks Colt
Some time later, the Co-Habitant needed a saddle for one of his bike builds and I said he was welcome to give reviving the Colt another try. At this point, our collective memory of what exactly was done is less clear, but we agree that it involved yet more soaking. The way I recall it, this time he left the saddle in a sink filled with water overnight. Possibly more than once. Eventually the saddle did begin to show signs of softening, and when this happened he installed it on his bike and went out riding. 

The Co-Habitant weighs over 200lb, and I was worried that this was exactly the sort of situation where a soaked saddle might snap in half. However it did not snap, but began to straighten out under his weight. After a couple of rides and much Proofiding the deep ridge was flattened and now there are only a couple of gentle dimples in the sitbone areas. He says that the Colt is now very comfortable. It certainly looks nice and healthy: The colour is a rich warm chestnut and the surface is much smoother than it had been when I first received the saddle.

As our experience demonstrates, there is no one formula for this and you sort of have to play it by ear. The John Spooner description I linked to earlier suggests stuffing the saddle with newspaper after soaking it, but this did not seem appropriate in our case since the saddle was hardly soft enough even after excessive soaking. In general I'd say see how the leather behaves once you begin, and go from there. Start off conservative as far as water exposure, then get progressively more aggressive if that doesn't work. 

All things considered, the Co-Habitant's opinion is that the blocking technique is more trouble than it is worth and he does not recommend it. My opinion is that it really depends on how much you want to rescue that particular saddle, and how prepared you are to potentially ruin it in the process. I am glad that we revived the Colt and now have this beautiful, functional vintage saddle. What has been your experience with blocking or other saddle reshaping techniques?

35 comments:

  1. Interesting! Could you plse also tell us about this saddle, how it feels compared to a B17/flyer on the same bike? I like the colours they offer but not sure about the feel. Would you use it wit handlebars at same level or slightly higher than saddle as you can with a B17?
    badmother

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    1. With a Colt I'd set the handlebars lower than on a B17; the Colt is almost 20mm narrower.

      It is also stiffer than a standard B17/Flyer, made of the same leather they use on the Special models.

      Personally I like the shape of the Colt. But it is categorically different from other Brooks road saddles: If you are familiar with the vintage Condor type saddles it is really more like that. Squarish at the rear and a downturned nose. As a female I find the latter to be a particularly welcome feature.

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  2. If one is wary of soaking in water then soaking in Neatsfoot oil (which the French call, rather clumsily, "Huile de Pied de Boeuf" but then that's what it is I suppose) can achieve the same effect. It penetrates the leather very effectively and won't cause it to rot or become brittle. Total immersion for an hour is sufficient, and allow several hours for the saddle to drip dry. Extreme cases might require overnight soaking but beware, it can soften leather so much that stitches or rivets will just tear through. This is less likely with saddle leather however. The only drawback is it will make your shorts a little greasy for a time. Proofide, Dubbin or beeswax can help to seal it in. b

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    1. I am now told that Neatsfoot oil was apparently used the 2nd time around!

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  3. Now that it is nice, might anhydrous lanolin be better than Proofide?

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  4. I have owned over 100 leather saddles, my oldest Brooks was on a 1893 Raleigh Pneumatic and my newest, a Pair of Brooks Flyer's mens and womens, from just last week. There was once a time that a ride to the Wellesley, Natick and Sherborn dumps would yield at least one leaving the bike behind.
    Sagging saddles of leather have a very simple fix.
    First, its true, dont mess with the bolt. I use to do this and they all ended up breaking with in about 3 years, some times the bolt and sometimes the leather. The ones I never touched, never had this problem.
    To un-sag a leather saddle simply do this:
    Soak the saddle in temped water for about 2 hours. Re-shape the leather with your hands to what it looked like new. Dry with a soft cloth. Stuff news paper under side. Wrap with soft cotton string like you use for cooking and let sit in a ,not warm, dry place for about 3 days. Finish with Profide, top and bottom. Its amazing what this process will do. Don't expect it will never happen again, but repeat as needed. Like servicing your bike, your leather saddle needs service too, Funny we might think that all you need to do is to buy it and ride it!

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    1. 100 saddles, that is impressive : )

      So if 2 hours is not enough, would you continue soaking? We must have soaked the thing for days and it was nowhere near a state where it could have been hand-shaped.

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    2. Remember, I started collecting in the early 70's.
      I figure I have had one new British bike ether given to me found or purchased once a month, sence. I have woken more then once to find boxes of cycling iron left in my back yard with no idea where it cam from. My last 3 pre war Raleighs came during the last huricane. so yes, 100 may be less then true.
      Soak the hell out of it. If you cant shape it with your hands, soak it some more.

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  5. I haven't tried blocking a saddle yet. I have treated and revived several old leather saddles using a horse saddle cleaner first, then treating the leather with saddle soap. It may be that if the leather is very hard then treating it with saddle soap (several applications) first to soften the leather may help with the blocking process. I would endorse your comments to go carefully!

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    1. Would you mind sharing which cleaner and soap you used? Sometimes specific ingredients can make a difference.

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  6. I had easy luck restoring an old Brooks Pro that had been stored in a box with some items pressing on it, causing a weird asymmetric depression on one side.

    I just soaked it for about 10 minutes in hot water, which softened it right up! I think the temperature was the key.

    Then I blotted it dry, and stuffed newspaper between the rails and leather as tightly as I could, to reshape the leather back to something that approximated its original shape. It was wintertime, so I placed the damp saddle on a radiator for a couple of days, and it dried right out. It has retained its shape, mostly, but it is a little soft around the sitbones.

    This is the saddle:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/7516215@N03/6792858269/

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  7. The 're-worked' saddle looks really nice. It's amazing that it can be exposed to so much moisture and Proofide and not be ruined. I've only had a Brooks for about three years and worry constantly about getting it wet.

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  8. Your post is so timely. I picked up a vintage Brooks B72 just last week and have been mulling over how to soften it up. I'll be interested if there are any other techniques out there!

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    1. If it's just stiff but not petrified, I'd try rubbing a bit of neatsfoot oil as others here have suggested.

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  9. Dave Mann gave me this advice, based on his successful experiences. I haven't tried it yet: combination of impatience and fear of doing it wrong. Note importance of lacing for long-term shape. Here's what Dave said:

    Here is how I've handled leather saddles in the past, but note, this is only for more narrow B-17s and not the wider saddles seen on the old 3 speeds.

    1) Loosen the tensioning bolt (to allow the leather to shrink).
    2) Soak the saddle for several hours in warm water.
    3) Stuff plastic grocery bags (or similar fill) between the rails and leather saddle to fill the void and give the saddle shape.
    4) Wrap the nose of the saddle with a soft, non-marring material, working your way back to the flare of the saddle. I use long strips of cotton rags secured by tape. This helps reform the nose and sides and eliminates the squashed flat flare that you get as they age.
    5) Place in a dry place to dry for several days.
    6) (Optional) Apply Kiwi Scuff Cover (Leather Dye) to top of saddle and buff.
    7) Apply favorite grease to underside to protect leather. Profide is the standard grease from Brooks. I use Limmer's Boot Grease. I would avoid mink oil or neats foot oil as they may overly soften the leather.
    8) Retension the tension bolt.

    I've been able to reshape a damaged saddle this way but the leather won't return to its original stiffness. Eventually, all of my leather saddles get laced. IMO, lacing the saddle is the real key to keeping working support over the life of the saddle. I use a leather punch to punch the holes. It's best to mark them ahead of time to be accurate. I position the holes so that the lacing stays ABOVE the saddle rails and IN FRONT OF the foremost position of the seatpost clamp assembly. On the B-17s, this position keeps the nose from flaring and with that, the rear portion of the saddle retains its shape reasonably well.

    Regarding keeping your pants clean... The product I use to renew the color is Kiwi Scuff Cover, which is sold in most places that sell shoe polish. It is a liquid and comes in a plastic bottle. I use this on leather hiking and crosscountry ski boots too. It's very colorfast. I allow it to dry completely and then buff it out with a damp rag followed by a dry rag. That takes out any remaining color that could transfer. I regularly ride those saddles in khakis and jeans and don't get a black butt. If the saddle got wet, I might.

    Related, I don't grease the tops of the saddle, only the underside and even then, only enough to prevent it from drying out. If you apply enough grease on the underside that it soaks through to the top, I would expect that to get your pants stained.

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  10. I wonder if steam might be more effective than soaking in water. I've never had occasion to try it, mind you...

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    1. Interesting, how would you go about doing that?

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    2. Builders of traditional wooden boats steam the wood used for ribs in order to bend them. Look up "steam box" or look at this:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UC4L3v2eUs0

      A much smaller box would suffice for a saddle and you could probably get by with an electric kettle. Whether it would actually be a good idea to steam a leather saddle is something I have no clue about though.

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    3. I would think steam would have a similar effect as my soaking in hot water...

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  11. Do you think the shape of the Colt contributed to the ridge forming in the first place? That is what it looks like to me.

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    1. Not at all; I have seen the same exact ridge on vintage Brooks B17 and Pro saddles, as well as on Ideale saddles and others.

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  12. Thank you for this post. I love the look of this saddle and also the rare French one you posted a while ago. Do you still have that one? I would love a chance to buy either should you ever decide to sell.

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    1. Thanks. The French saddle is an Ideale Model 6. Sorry but there is no way I am selling either it or the Colt; they are for keeps. My other dream collector's saddle would be an original Brooks B18 in ridable condition (the lady's saddle with the floral motif). In Ireland I rode on one and nearly lost it!

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    2. Ideale 6 is not at all hard to find. Look on ebay.fr. Similar saddles from Wolber, WhiteStar,etc. are plentiful. They are really nice saddles and if you want one you should get it. Prices are nothing like American collector prices and many saddles go unsold.

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    3. Better yet is to trade or buy through word of mouth. Once you get to know some collectors, there are always things like this being passed around behind the scenes.

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  13. Nice post! My husband has been trying to find one for our daughter. Please let me know if you or anyone has came across one.

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  14. I've never worked on a saddle, but I've done leather work for years.

    Another solution for hardness might be some leather conditioner (which is good in general for cleaning and making leather happy).

    Lexol is pretty good, and lately I've been using West Coast Shoe (Wesco) "Bee Oil", made for boots.

    (As mentioned above, deep penetrating waterproofing oils like Neatsfoot or Mink might be contra-indicated for a saddle.)

    Once it's softened up from rock-hard, as you've seen, slow application of force can re-shape it with relative safety.

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  15. In a slightly different vein, I am wondering if anyone has a recommendation or fixing a hole in a Brooks saddle.

    I was putting one on a bike and did not realize that the seat post I had been sold was really too small for the seat tube. As I tried to work it in i am embarrassed to admit that (a mini-sledgehammer was involved), the clamp slipped and forced the saddle onto the post. There is now a round mark that goes all the way through in 2 spots. (You can see the outline of the circle.)

    I hate to throw the saddle away. But I would also hate to be riding and have the post poke through. Has anyone had a similar experience?

    Has anyone ever glued or repaired a hole?

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  16. In my experience the saddles that respond best(fastest) to soaking are the ones that were never sealed or treated with anything and soak up water much better, a saddle with a bunch of Proofhide, Snowseal or something similar really has to be in the bath much longer. I rescued a 1948 vintage B-18 that was as hard as a rock but it must have been well treated because it took weeks of soaking with neatsfoot oil wrapped in a plastic bag before it relaxed, it had dried saddlesoap or something caked in the cracks and a nice uniform brown color. The old B-17 that came with a friends e-bay Holdsworth was all stained and streaked and beginning to crack, it took about 5 minutes in the sink before it was just a nasty floppy slimy thing. It too turned out nice after the newspaper thing,some riding and lots of proofhide.

    Anyone with an old Brooks or Ideal that thinks its not worth the hassle is welcome to send it to me...

    Spindizzy

    Anonymous 6:23, I don't think you have anything to worry about, even if the seatpost punched a hole completely through the leather I bet it wouldn't come apart. If it just embossed a circle in the leather you could try to think of it as a tattoo or your own personnel brand.

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  17. The age-old method: Soak for a couple of days, or, for that, months (according to one very knowledgeable bike collector and restoration expert I know). It may bleed a good deal of colour (and old dirt). When it has softened sufficiently to be shaped, shape it by stuffing it with newspaper. Leave to dry in a not too warm nor too cold place. Don't mess with it untill it's completely dry. May take 3-4 days. Then applay the tiniest amount of boot grease on both sides, let it soak in, and finish with neutral shoe cream.

    That's all. And it works beautifully.

    Don't soak in ANY kind of oil. It will ruin the saddle by over-softening it, in no time turning it into a hammock. A saddle you want to use for longer rides should be quite hard and only JUST shape itself a little to your own personal buttom.

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  18. Gave it a try. Brooks Pro #1 and #2 the wet leather ripped simply from thumb pressure testing to see if it was soft yet. Brooks Pro #3 was allowed to soak until completely limp. Stuffed with newsprint, the front tied with cotton twill tape to keep the skirts in. Let it dry. 24 hours later the saddle top dried in two separate pieces, a front half and a back half.

    All these saddles were destined for the trash so no loss. They were saddles that would and had recently supported the weight of a rider. Just ridged and dimpled, no severe drying, no cracks, no erosion. There are so many random variables here I can't have an opinion about why this experiment failed. And I will try again. I really dislike putting saddles in the garbage.

    This is not a first time, every time technique. Test on saddles you are willing to let go of.

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  19. 1. Neatsfoot oil ruins saddles. And water soaking can too.

    2. The miracle cure for a "ruined" saddle is a two-part process that I've used many times; it also of course works to pre-soften the stiffer new saddles like Colts. First, get Obenauf's Leather Oil [not the Heavy Duty LP; that comes later] and saturate the saddle's leather on both sides, then stick it in a big Ziploc freezer bag. Repeat this process until the saddle stops drinking up the leather oil like a thirsty Pony Express mount. At this point it should be softened up and ready to mount or will need time to sit sealed in the bag at full saturation. If the latter's the case, slather the leather oil until the saddle positively dripping. [Hell, if you can afford it, buy enough leather oil to submerge the saddle in.] Once it comes back to life, be careful not to overtension, of course. After you've given it a good wiping-down and let it back into the fresh air, polish not with Proofide but with Obenauf's Heavy Duty LP [leather preservative], which is the same thing but much less expensive.

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  20. Cyclo: But won't leather oil soften the saddle way too much if it's completely soaked in it? After all, a saddle is supposed to be rather on the hard side if you're riding longer distances.

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  21. Hi,

    I just had some success with a 1995 Lepper Primus saddle. It seemed almost unused and it was a good price from a shop in Hamburg. Well, I rode the saddle to work and back and could hardly sit down for a few days. I decided to go for broke and drilled holes for lacing then dumped the saddle in a bucket of hot tap water for an hour or so. This was enough to soften it a lot.

    I then threaded a shoelace through and used my hands to shape the part that was cutting in to me. I then put the saddle back in the bucket, laced, and wedged a coffee jar down the side where it had been bulging out. The next day it looked fine and I rode it for 10 minutes - it felt 100% better.

    That was yesterday, today it is still not quite back to it's original hardness and still a bit damp, but I went for a 20 minute ride and it is now quite comfy. I am ridingwith a plastic bag over it to protect my clothes as the dye ran in the water. I aim to ride to work and back again tomorrow with the plastic bag and once it has completely dried out it will get whatever treatment it needs to made it smart and black again. Probably black shoe polish followed by beeswax.

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