Arts October 13, 2010
Blazing Saddles
Inside the Studio of Bellevue Saddlemaker Jim Gill

Jim Gill stands tall in the saddle when it comes to art. A leather-tooling Geppetto, he’s in the business of preserving the romantic flavor of the West, hammering out saddles one tap at a time.

“I call myself a gearmaker because I make things other than saddles,” he explains. “But there’s nothing like taking a plain piece of leather and turning it into something. When I’ve put paper to the leather and it turns out the way I imagined, I’m totally satisfied.”

Gill, who wears a black felt hat above wire-rimmed spectacles, has drawn on his own long hours in the saddle to make seats that will be comfortable for both rider and horse.

“I researched a lot of saddlemakers and couldn’t find another one who would take the time Gill did, fitting my saddle to my Tennessee Walker, or making the saddle comfortable for someone like me, with a bad back,” says Jo Heiss, a longtime equestrian who lives in East Fork. “He really works hard and gives you the extra care that you just can’t get elsewhere.”

Born in Fairfield “when there were a lot more cows than people,” Gill grew up to manage cattle ranches in Declo, Grand View, and Burley. Between stints riding the range, he learned to repair his own saddles. He decided to put his hobby to work when the beef market went sour and the ranch owner he was working for sold the place. He’s self-taught, save for the leatherwork classes he took at the Community Church in Fairfield as a youngster.

“I’ve still got the belt I made,” he says, fingering his gray handlebar mustache. “For some reason, it’s shrunk over the years.”

It’s time-consuming—and expensive—to teach yourself, Gill adds. When you make a mistake, you have to start over. “But you draw your patterns and tap away and hope you develop your own style eventually, so that someone can pick up a saddle or chaps you’ve worked on and say, ‘Oh, that’s Jim’s.’”

Gill is a traditionalist. He fashions his seats out of wood and high-quality leather from St. Louis, eschewing the plastic and cheaper materials that have crept into the manufacture of saddles. “I like the feel of leather and the things you can do with it. You have to use molds with synthetics. With leather, you have it there in front of you, working it in your hands.”

He could lose himself in his work, tapping on metal punches, marking designs with awls, carving floral patterns with carving knives, and punching buckle holes with the hundreds of tools he has neatly organized in leather holders and toolboxes. “There could be a car wreck out there, and I’d be oblivious to it once I get into my work,” he says, turning up a tape of Alabama singing Louisiana Saturday Night to muffle the road noise that has amplified as Highway 75 has grown from two to four lanes.

The foot traffic into his Wood River Boot and Saddle Repair shop, next door to Sawtooth Tack and Feed in Bellevue, is surprisingly steady. Two men sucking on toothpicks saunter through the open door. They glance at the Western lithographs on the wall before approaching Gill.
“He wants to give you some work,” says the one wearing a Valley Club polo shirt, nodding to the other.

“I’ll take his money,” Gill replies.

Gill fishes out some saddle strings for the fellow in the yoked cowboy shirt, who reciprocates by pulling a few dollars out of a wad of cash he’s stashed in his pocket.

As they leave, another man drives up in a BMW. He’s not interested in saddles—just a belt buckle. Gill opens the man’s belt, slaps a buckle in place, and snaps it back together. “Fastest I’ve ever seen,” the customer says.

Gill has watched sales of Western saddles slow down, as more people have begun to ride English. And he’s watched the leather quality take a turn for the worse as imports from India, China, and Mexico pour into the market.

In Gill’s shop, a saddle starts with a raw wood tree covered with two to three sides of leather. “If you don’t do a good job putting the seat down, you don’t get a good saddle. The rider won’t be comfortable,” he says, taking pride in the fact that only one person has complained about his saddles in all the years he’s been building them.

Once the leatherwork is laid, Gill tools it on a granite slab built into a workbench and stitches what he needs to on a powerful Adler machine. He carves a flowery pattern or some other geometric pattern on the leather, and then taps it with any one of dozens of metal stamps so the leather takes on a three-dimensional appearance.

“If you can give him a drawing of any kind, he can rap it out,” says Annie Lou Gill, Gill’s wife of 45 years.

He applies a little leather conditioner heated up in a slow cooker, and antiques the stamped portions with an oil similar to shoe polish. Finish is then applied to the top, to give the saddle luster. He adds cinches that he’s woven with 100-percent mohair from Maine, and finishes off the saddle with bronze buckles made in Pendleton, Oregon. A plain saddle takes Gill 60 to 70 hours of work. Fancier saddles take 200 hours.

Pete Van Der Meulen, a Hailey resident who farms and runs cattle for a living, has four of Gill’s saddles. “He builds what you call an A-Fork, a narrow saddle that’s real different from the Texas saddle. And it’s real comfortable—it’s similar to a buckaroo saddle,” Van Der Meulen explains. “And while I don’t favor a lot of tooling, the work he does is beautiful.”

Gill’s saddles start at $2,000, but he sold one for $10,000 at the Ketchum Arts Festival. “I love to do stamping for myself,” he says. “But I also like working with the customer and giving them what they want. When it’s all done and the customer likes it and the horse likes it, I’m tickled to death.”

Karen Bossick has gained a deep appreciation for all the artistic types like saddlemaker Jim Gill who call the Wood River Valley their home. Alas, she’s not one of them–she can appreciate a mountainside carpeted in yellow lupine and a grove of autumn’s red aspens lining the Wood River. But, when it comes to art, she only writes about others’ endeavors.