Vintage and veteran bicycles of quality and how to preserve them for future generations, with a particular interest in the French 'constructeurs'. Please note all images are my copyright unless otherwise stated, and may only be used with my express permission.
One interesting aspect of making leather saddle covers for early bicycles is being able to see the sheer variety of saddle designs available in the Victorian period. Brooks were the leading maker but Leatheries, Lamplugh and Brown, Lycett, Mansfield, D.Mason and sons, and others had a share of the market.
I recently completed the leatherwork for this saddle which has rather an unusual design, probably dating from the late 1880’s or early 1890’s. It is distinguished by very unique springs and a fully adjustable nose. The springs increase in diameter as they head for the saddle base, and then take an elegant swoop to their anchoring point. Presumably there was some reason for this novelty, but more than likely the manufacturer was searching for something to set his products apart from the other suppliers. The front spring doesn’t have the ‘swoop’ so the three springs are all different and not interchangeable.
The nose of the saddle is adjustable for height as well as for the usual horizontal adjustment.
The frame is made from flat section rather than the usual wire, and is surprisingly free from distortion.
With thanks to the owner for permission to use images of his lovely saddle
I recently made a new leather cover for a Nagel saddle. I didn’t have anything to work from for this rather unusual saddle, other than a few pictures of original saddles on the internet, and my 1886 Nagel catalogue…quite handy!
This type of saddle was a patented design, by G.Rothgiesser. They first appeared in 1884/5, the American patent (above) coming later. The leather is in two sections, joined by leather thonging. When the leather stretches it is possible to re-tension the saddle by tightening the cords and securing them by way of the fixing attached to the pan. The pan is unique, being of an unusual shape and having a hole drilled for the fixing to tie off the end of the cord.
There are a number of variations during the time they were produced, both in shape and in the number of eyelets. For instance, some have four eyelets on each side of the front section, instead of the three on others, including in the patent drawing above.
Clearly ventilation was good, but I would be concerned about chafing of the nether regions by the thonging. In the catalogue, the company publishes a testimonial from Thomas Marriott, who used the saddle on his Land’s End to John O’Groats ride of 1007 miles on a tricycle, in 1885. He states that “…it is one of the best saddles yet brought out”, although claims like this were two a penny in Victorian times! It is an interesting novelty and a fine example of some original thinking in early saddle design.
Making a new leather cover for one of these is challenging and time consuming. Cutting the wavy pattern is tricky, and there is a lot of edge finishing work, as well as the installation of 16 eyelets. The customer in this case asked for the finish to have an ‘aged’ look.
I’ve been busy with saddle work recently!….
Please address saddle making enquiries to me. My contact details can be foundhere.
I have been experimenting with new hand formed saddle covers for a titanium Brooks frame. A couple were unsuccessful as the V-cutout made the saddle sag badly. So, mated with a pair of genuine hand blown Victorian glass eyes, it became an artwork instead…. More practical bicycle saddles that I make are to be found here.
Last weekend saw the North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show in Sacramento, California, where the greats of bicycle frame building gathered to exhibit their finest. Paul Brodie was showing his extraordinary 1888 Linley and Biggs Whippet replica to publicise his frame building course at the University of the Fraser Valley. The Whippet is a full suspension bicycle, where the saddle, handlebars and bottom bracket remain in the same position as the rest of the bike ‘suspends’! Paul, who is an amazing engineer, built the bike from scratch and you can see some of his other projects here, which include a fantastic replica of an 1896 Roper steam powered motorbike. The Whippet caused something of a stir at the NAHBS! As he was exhibiting as an educational institution the bike was not eligible for most of the awards, but it won what was described as a landslide victory in the People’s Choice category.
A while ago Paul approached me to make the leather saddle cover for the bike. He wanted to use the coil spring saddle frame type that was on the Museum bike that he was copying, so I made the cover to the pattern of a Harrington Cradle Spring Saddle, a very distressed original version of which is in my collection. Unfortunately Paul was unable to finish the saddle support in time for the show so the cover is hanging precariously by its nose, to be completed later. The saddle was a complicated one, having eighteen cut-outs! It was good to be involved with Paul as part of this most interesting project. More photo’s of the bike are available here. Photo’s of the Whippet Replica courtesy Paul Brodie.
This new saddle cover was for a very nice German collector who likes to use his bicycles, something which I approve of very much! Fitted to a solid tyred safety bicycle of circa 1889 the original saddle cover was too fragile to use, so I made him a new cover to the same pattern. As the bicycle is a bit distressed, he wanted the saddle to blend in nicely, so the dying was varied a bit and the saddle distressed a little, to give a nicely used look.
As well as bicycle luggage, the Sologne Company made a range of other quality items. Not strictly for bicycles but ideal for the Porteur front rack, this is their fishing bag or creel, probably dating from the 1950’s/1960’s. Formed around the basket is a ‘jacket’ of leather-edged canvas, secured to the basket by leather straps. The hole in the top is to feed in the fish you have caught. There is a removable canvas strap. It is very light indeed and, being particularly large in size for a creel, there is plenty of space inside for other uses… I regularly use it for the post office run. More pictures of the porteur here.
It’s always good to have luggage the fits the age and style of the bicycle… In this case the French touring bicycle. Below are examples of small panniers from three French makers, from different periods – Lafuma, Sologne and Berthoud. The Lafuma examples are the earliest, dating from the 1950’s/60’s, whilst the Sologne items were supplied new with an Alex Singer bicycle in 1970 and hardly used. The Berthoud pannier is new. Berthoud bought the Sologne brand many years ago and continues to make a range of their products today, largely to the old patterns, but brought up to date with modern attachments.
There has been much debate elsewhere about the quality of Berthoud items in comparison with the original Sologne pieces, and indeed I would agree that the finest bags pictured here are the Sologne ones, but one has to remember that as well as the problems of finding skilled workers today to make these items, the materials change over the years too. The leather used by Berthoud is not as good as the Sologne bags, whilst the canvas is much the same high quality. The backing boards on the Berthoud bags are also robust, probably better than Sologne. The plastic Rixen and Kaul attachments, which adapt to virtually any rack, are ugly and obtrusive but the latest versions of these work well in practice. Previous R & K fittings had design problems, were fiddly to adjust, and often broke. The point about the Berthoud items is that for the price, they are really a very fine quality item, and are well suited to a stylish modern bicycle. They also age nicely, the canvas fades a bit and they acquire ‘patina’. If you want the exceptional quality it comes at a price – Check out the beautiful items made by Shoichi Watanabe.
Lafuma comes third in my reckoning. Thinner canvas, cheapish quality leather and lightweight rivets and fittings, characterise these offerings. On all of the ones that I’ve seen, the backing boards distort badly and are not waterproof. Rather than the functional spring anchor on the reverse of the Sologne bag, there is a crude leather tie to secure the pannier to the rack – fiddly and not very secure. Nonetheless they look ‘correct’ and function reasonably on a period machine where they are likely to encounter only light use.
In later posts I will take a look at French handlebar bags and early cycling luggage.
Here are a few examples of leather saddle covers and other leatherwork that we have produced, mostly for Victorian and Edwardian bicycles. The customer supplies the saddle frame, sometimes with the original broken leather top, and the new saddle cover is hand formed on a custom wooden block, using the finest quality oak-bark tanned leather.
Here is a recent saddle cover that we made for a Crypto Geared front driver:
It included transfering over the original maker’s badge:
Examples of our work can be seen in the Velorama bicycle museum, Nijmegen, Netherlands, and in various private collections.
Martin & Martin, Birmingham, circa 1897. This tool bag is of unique design, the body being constructed from a single piece of leather, cleverly cut, folded and riveted together. There are three straps which cross over at the front and utilise a nice nickel triple buckle. The ‘silent’ element is simply a piece of blue wool felt riveted inside the tool bag in which one wraps the tools! When I bought the bag I didn’t look inside because the strap looked a bit fragile. When I did eventually open it I found a piece of folded paper which turned out to be the original guarantee for the bag, dated January 1897! It’s unlikely that the bag was ever used and it is in wonderful crisp condition.
I’m trying to improve my skills on the heavy-duty sewing machine which will open up more possibilities for making things. A simple tip from a very helpful gentleman in a sewing machine repair shop, where I went to get some new needles, helped a great deal in taming the beast of a machine. It was simply to slacken off the drive belt so take up of power is much more gradual. This has stopped the machine running away at full speed and out of control! As a result I made this fairly simple handlebar bag out of proofed canvas and J. and F.J. Baker oak bark tanned leather. I say ‘simple’ but it wasn’t all that easy! All the raw edges had to be bound with bias binding, and getting the pattern right was tricky. I now have the utmost respect for the people who make Gilles Berthoud’s beautiful bags which are so very complex and beautifully made. I’m pleased with the results.
The bag is shown fitted to my partner’s very beautiful Gaidou randonneuse which will be featured here at a later date.