The rewards of leatherwork: Riverton leather worker builds, repairs custom saddles
Riverton – Of all of his different projects in leatherworking, custom leatherworker Grant Shippen notes that building saddles is both the most rewarding and most challenging part.
“Saddle repair and most of the leatherwork is fairly easy after building a saddle because I know how they’re put together,” comments Shippen.
He continues, “Building a saddle is the most challenging. They’re all different. People always want something a little bit different, so I never get bored building saddles.”
“I’ve worked on ranches all my life. I was raised on a ranch. Then when I got out of college, I worked on surrounding ranches until about 1984,” says Shippen, explaining that he attended Casper College and the University of Wyoming, where he received his degree in Animal Science.
Along with two of his brothers, Shippen began piecing together land parcels in Riverton until they had acquired 220 acres.
“Starting in about 2000, I was able to stay home full-time and work on the ranch and my saddles,” continues Shippen.
While not busy with leatherwork, Shippen and his brothers raise Angus cattle and sharecrop land with neighbors.
“They plant malt barley, alfalfa hay and corn. We use up some of the corn silage to feed the cowherd,” he says.
In addition to ranching full-time in Riverton, Shippen owns and operates his own custom leather and saddle making business.
While his leatherwork career started in high school, Shippen first began building saddles 14 years ago after acquiring a set of Stohlman books on the subject.
“I had always wanted to build a saddle, but I never could figure out how to get started,” he says.
Shippen continues, “I was in the Double J Boot Shop in Riverton, and I saw those Stohlman books. I bought them, deciding I could follow the books step-by-step and figure out how to build a saddle.”
Once he purchased leather and a saddletree, Shippen began going through the series step-by-step.
“I built my first saddle for myself, and I’m still riding it,” he explains.
After advertising for custom saddle work and repair, Shippen was contacted by saddle maker Ralph Shuman about an opportunity to do piece-work.
“I started doing piece-work for him, sewing billets. I made fork covers and different parts for him. He’d send me a package of parts, and then I’d work on them and send them back,” continues Shippen.
Gradually, Shippen began building custom saddles for others as he expanded his business.
“I started out building for my friends, and then I gradually branched out a little,” he notes.
According to Shippen, the opportunity to watch saddle maker Cary Schwartz build a saddle helped to refine his saddle making technique and was a top moment in his career.
“I saw an advertisement that the Cowboy Artist Association offered a $500 scholarship to go and watch a master saddlemaker make a saddle,” he comments. “I applied, and I got the $500 to go to Salmon, Idaho and watch Cary Schwartz build a saddle.”
Shippen continues, “It took him about a week to build a plain saddle. I went up and watched his process. He let us photograph step-by-step as he built it.”
Shippen also learned valuable lessons from fellow Wyoming saddle maker Steve Mecum.
“He’s a good saddle maker and helped me a lot. Watching him helped me get started,” he says.
In addition to making saddles, Shippen also stays busy with saddle repair and other leatherworking.
“I’ve done some rawhide braiding, making hackamores and riatas. Sometimes I’ll tool a billfold or a belt. I also build a few pairs of chaps every year and some headstalls and breast collars, as well,” he says.
In the future, Shippen hopes to continue growing his saddle making business.
“The main thing I’d like to do is spend a little more time building saddles and not as much time ranching,” he concludes. “I’d also like to get a bigger saddle shop built, so I have more room to work.”
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.