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home : features : business November 24, 2015

1/29/2014 10:05:00 AM
A day in the life:
Western saddlemaker keeps Old West tradition alive
Skeeter Hughes stands beside one of his custom saddles outside his Dewey workshop.
Trib Photo/Briana Lonas
Skeeter Hughes stands beside one of his custom saddles outside his Dewey workshop.
Trib Photo/Briana Lonas
A completed custom saddle crafted by Skeeter Hughes features his arrowhead design. Every saddle that leaves Hughes’ shop comes with all the riggings for a ready-to-ride product.
Trib Photo/Briana Lonas
A completed custom saddle crafted by Skeeter Hughes features his arrowhead design. Every saddle that leaves Hughes’ shop comes with all the riggings for a ready-to-ride product.
Trib Photo/Briana Lonas

Briana Lonas

Skeeter Hughes bends over his workbench, taking another look at his saddle fenders just beginning to dry from the edges in toward the center. A little more time and he will be ready to continue the tool, or leather carving, work that demands his full attention.

"As you tool, you make this pattern look like a real flower. After I tool it all, then I come back and put the decorative cuts into it. If you mess them up, you're in trouble," Hughes said, pointing to his intricate, 3-dimensional designs that appear to leap from the leather and come to life.

"The secret to good tooling is knowing how to cover up your errors. Rembrandt, he had errors too," he said.

This is a man who enjoys a connection with his creative muse, one that no doubt talks the language of the cowboy.

"A fellow in Wyoming makes my tools. Once you master the swivel knife and the beveller, you start the beginnings of being a leather carver," Hughes said.

Every leather piece gets cased, meaning Hughes wets each piece and covers it in plastic overnight. After tooling, a finished leather piece receives three coats of olive oil and an antique finish in whatever hue the customer requests.

A typical day in Hughes' Stitching Post Leather workshop begins with some practice work with the beveller or swivel knife to get the fingers moving and the mind wrapped around the day's projects. The wearing of 75 years hasn't slowed the man down, he moves around the shop's rooms at full speed.

Aside from the leather crafting at hand, there is more work that needs to be done. Near Hughes' workbenches sits a lone, Low Moose saddletree, made of wood and wrapped in rawhide.

The morning sunlight streams in through the window and lights up the tree as though beckoning Hughes to get busy and transform it into something durable and beautiful.

The trees are the bases for every saddle, where the bum meets the leather. Low Moose happens to work well for the Arizona rough country as these allow for more "grab" in the seat. Hughes also likes the Will James old-style and the Buster Welch tree designs.

Hughes will take measurements from his customers to determine their seat size and fender length, as the stirrups will be wrapped into the fenders for an optimal fit.

"When my custom saddles leave the shop, they have a breast collar and everything you need to saddle up and go. We can custom build anything you want," he said.

Hughes was the featured artist at the 24th Annual Cowboy Classics Western Art & Gear Show, held in conjunction with the Arizona National Livestock Show. He also works with a non-profit organization making saddle modifications for children and adults in therapeutic riding programs.

Repairing saddles and gear comes naturally to the man who grew up on the San Carlos Indian Reservation. It was through the San Carlos 4-H group that Hughes learned how to tool leather, making his first creative belt design at age twelve.

"I enjoy building saddles, always did," Hughes said.

He is one of Arizona's third-generation cowboys. His father was a stockman, his mother famous in her own right as an author of camp cookbooks and frontier stories.

Hughes had both hips replaced in 2003, a hazard carried over from a lifetime spent cutting horses. After the surgery, "I got to feeling too good. I told myself I've got to go to saddle school or I'll go crazy," he said. Hughes met world-class saddle maker Jesse Smith at a Wickenburg leather show. The meeting prompted a stronger interest in improving his skills. In 2005, Hughes attended Smith's saddle school in Lamar, CO.

When he got back home, he modified his cutting horse barn into a shop. Hughes said saddle school "was awesome," one of the best experiences, but warns aspiring saddle artists, "Don't quit your day job," at least not at first, he said.

Hughes said he likes to come into his workshop in the late hours.

"In the evening, I like to tool in the dark because there is no backlight. Sometimes I'll come out here and it's so quiet and I'll turn on my fiddle music and work."

He keeps his Herman Oak hides in a separate room dominated by an eight-foot cutting table. Yards of pure wool fleece keep on a separate shelf and the adjoining wall houses rows of dyes, oils, knives, weights and clamps.

Hughes carries pink leather, too, in honor of cancer survivors. He and his wife battled the disease and now make bags and accessories for anyone desiring to wear the color. Patti makes over-the-shoulder purses, bags and jewelry from conchos. Customers can choose their leather and design preferences-anything from traditional to exotic leathers such as lizard and ostrich.

All of his headstalls are backed and sewn by hand, a process that adds many years of life to them. Everything is custom, he said. For example, the competition shooters often prefer the old, authentic designs and workmanship and Hughes will craft inside pockets into their chaps. He also makes the shotgun style chaps that extend down to the boots.

"In this country, with all of the brush and the cat claws, the shotguns are better protection," Otherwise, you can ride all day and you're going to have a pinkie showin," he said.

And speaking of guns, Hughes' assistant Bryan Rhone creates custom, hand-made western gun holsters. Rhone received his gun leather certification from John Bianchi, one of the premier gun holster craftsman. "He does really nice work," Hughes said.

The east wall of his shop features hand-stitched headstalls, chaps, tapaderos, hobbles, reins, britchens, headstalls, bible covers, checkbook and journal covers, marriage crosses, spur straps, tie-downs and more.

A back area contains battered saddles that have seen better days; these seasoned treasures receive a thorough inspection before any repairs take place. Once a year saddles should be checked over, cleaned and re-oiled. And one thing is for sure, "Too much sun will make jerky out of your saddle," Hughes said.

He opens his door for business long after the fringes of dawn have touched down on his property, ready to greet the customer orders that come in from 9 a.m. to whenever.

Hughes does not have a Web site, and doesn't want one. "I couldn't keep up with a Web site. I have19 saddles ready for repair now," and the custom orders keep coming.

He prefers word of mouth and his reputation. His work ethic stands at bar none and he and his wife raised their family the same way.

"The ranch is the best place to raise kids. They all had a skill and could start horses, ride broncs, build fence and weld. Before they left home, each had a good, basic working education. You can't get that in town, they all made their own way," he said.

In a summation of his outlook, Hughes simply undercuts to the heart of the matter.

"I was never wild about material things. I was more interested in making what I needed to raise my family. We prayed together, ate together, played together and worked together. Those were great times."

Contact Stitching Post Leather Co. at (928) 713-4003 or by email at skeet@commspeed.net.

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