The Importance of Saddle Fit and Function

I haven’t written much about dressage since the show season, but some interesting things have been happening with Stanley lately. Rear shoeing (with wedges) has allowed him to muscle out in the hind quarters and whither area significantly.  So much so, that the Prestige saddle no longer fits and we are faced with another expensive choice with horses.

Last week the saddle fitter was in and reviewed all the saddles we have….conclusion….none will work. Two have user adjustable trees, so I was more than disappointed to find out that neither of those would do. The Bates can’t be flocked, so it won’t fit the back, and the Klimke didn’t put me in the correct position. The Prestige doesn’t have an adjustable tree and would cost more than the saddle is worth to have the tree shape changed. So we moved into new saddle territory.

Lot’s to learn about saddle fit. Of course there’s the basics, the tree and flocking have to fit the horse. What wasn’t as obvious prior to this experience is that the fitter takes orthogonal measurements along the horses back and then dials in both the tree and flocking to match those measurements. As the horse’s back changes, the saddle can be refit and the measurements over time are kept for reference. One of the major differences between the Custom brand saddle and the user adjustable saddles we had prior is in the length of the tree. The fitter described why user adjustable tree lengths are short because fitting a long tree universally is nearly impossible to do. The added length a professional tree helps in saddle stability and load distribution. Custom flocking to evenly distribute weight over the length of the back makes sense too and has never been correct in our previous saddles. Stanley is a tough fit that way.

Then there’s fitting the human. I always thought length was the only consideration (especially important for men), but this is where I was most surprised. Every saddle we tried from Custom had a unique design (twist, knee blocks, damping, cantel/pommel height etc) and they where hugely different even for a novice rider like me. After trying a half dozen different ones, we narrowed the decision down to two saddles — both were comfortable, put me in the center of the saddle while posting, and gave a good leg position. One saddle was slightly less constraining and slightly more comfortable but the other always set me centered during the sitting trot. I tried both again during the week and ultimately chose the more constrained saddle. And here’s the winner, a Custom Icon-Elipse. Notice the high pommel.

Now we need to sell the other 3 to pay for it :-) Nothing that ‘the enforcer’ can’t handle. By the way, that name needs to change. From here out it shall be ‘professional shopper’ –  a nick name that was given to her by a former trainer’s spouse. Who can argue with that.

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Day 3 – Topping it Off

On the very top of this mirror is an elegant cartouche. When we first saw the various motifs, I imagined this one to be simpler and easier to execute than the angry bird, but that was definitely not the case. I struggled most of the day to get something I was happy with. Sure was nice to have a mentor guiding the way.

The evening was capped off with another great group dinner, this time of the Indian variety. ‘Gentleman John’ picked up the tab for the entire group…his generosity is beyond comprehension. As usual, conversation was furniture-centric…at one point the ‘Maine Sensei’ even suggested we where furniture nerds. Not sure if that is a good thing or not, but ‘the enforcer’ would support the notion.

After dinner, memories of Olde Mill were refreshed as Maine Sensei, Atlanta helmsman, big city carver and yours truly got right back to work carving until the late hours. Here’s the crest glue-up just waiting to be sculpted away in the morning. Invigorating stuff!


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Day 2 – The Angry Pelican Bird

Hard to believe 4 grown men can have a great day hanging out in a basement carving mirror elements, but it’s true. The focus of today’s activities was on the bird near the bottom of our Rocco mirror. It seemed a little intimidating at first, but by the end of the day we had all managed to churn out a nice looking sample.

A long day in the basement was capped off with a great meal at a local Mediterranean restaurant. Fantastic day in the big city for this rural homeboy.

Tomorrow’s focus will be the plume.

Classes like this always manage to get my excitement for woodworking jazzed up. If you haven’t taken a class from a good instructor, I highly encourage you to do so. The knowledge and skills gained are so rewarding.

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Day 1 – The Adventures of Dr. Emmett Brown

Day one of the big city spree is in the history books.

Met Doc Brown at 8am sharp where he began to lecture color theory. We spent hours moving through the wheel, shading, tinting and adjusting chroma of various shades of brown. Not sure how many of the details will be retained long-term, but at least there’s a basic understanding of how to go about dialing in color.

In the afternoon, attention was shifted to the Townsend table. Here’s a photo of Doc and an early stage of the process:

The more routine nicks and dings were strategically placed, but this time a cup ring and shading from plant water damage was also added to the table top.

This is about as far as we could get in an afternoon…probably less than 10% of the way, but it’s really starting to look old without getting dark. Very different from the corner I usually end up in with intense chroma dye stains on bare wood.

Doc also sent along a fair amount of homework. Really look forward to the next visit.

Surely it’s fun to jest about the white hair, but Doc Emmett (aka Mitch Kohanek) is a great teacher and very skilled craftsman. Very thankful for the time we spent studying finished today.

Day 2 with Al Breed and the Met mirror await us next.

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Big Weekend in the Big City

It’s an exciting double-header of sorts. Friday will be a day spent studying finishing from a group of experts in St. Paul. Our plan is to take the Townsend table from raw wood through at least the coloration steps for a patinated finish.. This has typically been just a wet dye step for me in the past, but it seems to get more “authentic” color variation, this will now become a multi-step spray operation. I’ll try to blog about the experience. Here’s the before shot:

Then the next three days will be spent with Al Breed in the big city carver’s basement working on the Met. mirror project.  My complete lack of progress on this the last few months is disappointing, but joinery and piercing are now mostly complete. Sure hope good progress can be made this weekend. If I’m lucky perhaps the momentum will continue at home!

Of course, what fun would it to be all prepared and confident before a class anyway. Then to add drama, I broke a tooth last Saturday and can’t get into the dentist until next week. Sure hope it doesn’t start bothering me this weekend.

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Deer Fly Chase

Temperatures are falling, trees changing colors, and mountain biking reaching it’s peak in Wisconsin. Next weekend is one of the best local races, but unfortunately I can’t make it. So this morning Guy’d and I decided to make our own course in the Chippewa Country forest riding as much of the course route as we could find. Beautiful country, well groomed single track, lots of climbing, fun 4 -wheel trails and even a little blacktop made the 3 hours all worthwhile.

Hats off to everyone working so hard to make this race a success.


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One Proud Grandpa

This Saturday was “the peanut’s” final horse show of the summer. We got up early to get him bathed, braided and trailered…all without a complaint. She has worked hard at riding and did well despite being all nerves. Stanley took care of her in the saddle. Congrats!

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Profiling the Table Top

Now that the top has been rabbeted to fit in the base, apron profile traced onto the underside, and the outer profile (extended out from that of the apron) patterned, it’s time to carve in the details.

The first step is to lay out the inner carving profile. For our table this is 1.25″ wide following the outer profile except at the center feature of the short end where these tips extend in 2 5/8″ from the edge. Everything inside this pattern gets dropped 9/16″ and will become the final table top surface. Take care to leave a smooth surface and to keep the inner carving profile edges vertical. The photo below shows this process in various stages of completion.

Use a scraper to scratch in the bead detail on the outer-most edge of the top. Edge bead profiled scrapers come in handy for this task. We’ll now switch to cross-sectional drawings (which are not to scale) to describe the process. Below the bead is shown in the upper-left corner while the field area of the table has already been removed (notch in upper right quadrant) and rabbeted to fit in the base (lower left quadrant).

Next lower the remaining inner carved area to the depth of the bead from the previous step.

Once this is complete, carefully mark two lines all around the inside edge detail. The first is about 3/16″ in from the bead and the second is up from the finished table surface about 3/16″. Take your time to get these lines correct as they will serve as the carving guide in the next step. Now using a large #7 sweep gouge, carve to these lines as shown.

Using a back-bent gouge or profiled scraper, round off the inner-most corner down to field height.

Attention now turns to the outside edge. Mark down from the top of the bead about 3/8″ around the outside of the table top. Use a large #8 sweep gouge to carve a profile from this line to the previously marked apron trace in the bottom of the table table.

And finally round the upper edge so that the outer bead is continuous.

Sounds easy enough, and really it is, but there’s a few practical things to keep in mind. First, layout is really important. If your drawn lines are wavy or not uniform, then there’s a very good chance your carving will look the same. Second, corners can be tricky. One way to help with these transitions is to use a v-tool to define the corner. All of my corners have a very slight valley left in them from the v and that gives an appearance of a miter. This v also acts as a stop-cut as you approach the corner from either side. A wide bench chisel used with a peeling cut can also come in handy to clean up corners. Lastly, scrapers and profiled sanding blocks help during cleanup. Do not under-estimate the time it will take to get nice looking and uniform edges on these tops.

Here’s an image of the completed top.

And finally an image after the top is attached to the base. Notice the transition from base, to applied bead to the carved top. This ideally will appear like one solid piece.

And with that, the Townsend tea table is complete! I’ll try to blog the finishing process too, but that may be a while. Now back to the mirror.

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Mail Bag

My mail usually consists of bills, way too many credit card applications, and the occasional card or letter from friends. This week, however, it was Christmas in August. Thought I would share here because…well…as woodworkers you can appreciate them while the enforcer just looks at me with that “what do you need another tool for blank stare.”

First up is a Bridge City AS-9 square. It’s attractive and functional, but what makes this tool unique is a little retractable brass tab which balances the square on your stock, so it’s a go-to square for layout and scribing. The bad part is they are no longer manufactured, so you will have to comb auction sites to find them.

Next are a set of those awesome draw-bore pins from Blue Spruce Toolworks. These are a gift, so a definite shout-out of gratitude here for John! After using them on his table, I’m a believer in these tools and the draw-bore technique in general. Take a peek at their mallets, marking knives and dovetail chisels too!

Then there’s a book from Donald Fennimore and Frank Hohmann on the Stretch family of clock makers. Does that front cover clock look familiar? This is now available from Winterthur and Amazon. Haven’t opened it up yet, but the ‘big city carver’ says it’s great if you are into clock works….not so much on casework. I’ll review later. As a side note, Winterthur’s replacement scroll-work atop the sarcophagus molding on the front cover is great (read I’m jealous of their selection). This is a follow-on book to Timeless which has a fantastic accompanying web site with high resolution photos. You will want to bookmark this one if you are into early American clocks.

And finally the long-awaited photos from this spring’s Northern Wood’s competition arrived. These are taken by Ramon Moreno and are always very good. He’s highly recommended if you want studio quality images of your work.

Stay tuned this week for the final Townsend tea table installment.

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RIP Festus

Pets are a dichotomy. On one hand they drive you nuts when they pee on the carpet, chew into a new piece of furniture you spent 100s of hours building, or run off to the neighbors right at dark. In turn they bring so much happiness by provide comfort during the lows with a sloppy kiss through tears or laughter through antics no one expects.

For us, Festus was the best. We got him as a puppy in the fall of 2000. In fact he was born on labor day that year. He was like any puppy (except smaller) always full of energy and happy to be with us. We owned a B&B at the time and the distraction he provided from that hectic time in our life was invaluable. Over the holidays something went really wrong. Festus had really labored breathing and was bleeding from places he shouldn’t be. So bright and early on the day after Christmas we headed to the vet’s office to get help…which in turn led to the UofM vet hospital and a 4 hour surgery that same morning. What started out as a diaphragm repair operation ended up as a lung lobe removal surgery with an incision almost all the up his wiener dog body and a 50% chance of living. Somehow he pulled through, and the vet later surmised the ruined lung was from a cat bite shortly after his birth. So that was the beginning or 13 years together. He provided laughter and comfort to our family during dad’s last days fighting ALS. He laid with the enforcer during her lowest days wrestling with back pain. He “protected” the grand kids as infants, and always greeted the doorbell with plenty of barks. But one of the most notable memories occurred on a job site a few years ago.

You see, the enforcer used to take him to work. One day there was a heated discussion during which her boss said some not nice things to her and the co-workers. I think Festus sensed the tension at which point he walked across the room and pee’d on the boss’s jacket which was hanging on the door. It’s like he could read minds. The argument ended abruptly, and there we many laughs about that moments for months afterward. It’s just the way he was. A man of action when he needed to be and a lazy dog when he didn’t.

So today, almost 13 years and countless memories later we had to euthanize the “little man” as he had a stroke and became paralyzed. We miss him dearly.

Festus Ficke ~ Sept 2000 – August 2013 ~ Forever in our hearts

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