Ten Years of Discarding Tradition Driving Change through Technology
By Danna Burns-Shaw
Halfway between San Antonio and Houston, is the small town of Yoakum, Texas – a town steeped in the saddle and leather business tradition. Yoakum first received its saddle making identity back in 1919, when the Tex Tan Leather Company was founded.
In 1960, Leland Tucker founded Circle Y saddles, also in Yoakum. Like Tex Tan, it grew from simple beginnings and evolved with innovation through trial and error.
Before long, Circle Y became one of the most distinguished saddle manufacturers in the world. Though it’s much bigger than a family business now, Leland Tucker founded the company with a heritage and tradition that has not been cast aside.
Building a saddle company from the ground up requires a foundation; for a saddle, the foundation is the saddle tree. Leland Tucker stated early on, “What is the secret to a good fitting saddle? The answer is simple – a good fitting tree. That might sound over simplified, but the fact is that the tree is simply the key to a saddle that fits properly.”
Knowing that the saddle tree was the most important part of the saddle, Circle Y applied decades worth of knowledge to a side business, a saddle tree building business. It was not only providing trees for Circle Y, but for an industry submerged in the “old school” way of building saddle trees.
After years of designing and developing trees, Precision Saddle Tree was born in 2008. Thomas Stevenson has been there from day one, and as general manager he has overseen every aspect of PST’s operation.
The shop was first set up in an old, red brick building dating back to the early 1900’s. The business quickly took off, and they soon realized they were going to outgrow the nearly 100-year-old building.
After the Fire
Anyone that has faced the devastation of losing anything – or everything – in a fire, knows that afterwards you will have two different lives: one is “before the fire” and the other is “after the fire.” This is the story about survival and perseverance…after the fire.
In October 2013, in the early morning hours, a devastating fire raced through the century-old building on Hickey Street, just months before they were planning to relocate to a newer, larger building.
Only days after the fire, Thom ordered new machinery and rallied his troops to overcome the obstacles they faced, namely having to transition their business to the newer 13,000-square-foot building…months earlier than anticipated.
Thom knew that overcoming great obstacles, embracing and driving change are essential character traits in creating a successful business. So after the fire, Thom and his team of 12 passionate saddle tree builders dug deep and exceeded all of their expectations.
After the fire, he and his team have pushed through the barriers of traditional tree building, by cutting the build time and strengthening the trees using state-of-the-art materials and machinery – brand new machinery because of the fire.
How Precision Saddle Trees are made
We asked Thom if there were any changes in the way they build Precision Saddle Trees after the fire. He gave a thorough and thoughtful explanation of how they currently build their saddle trees.
“We receive our wood in 12-foot lengths. We still use the same, mostly Ponderosa, white pine out of Northern New Mexico. We use several different standard block sizes.”
He said that their new in-house kiln is much improved over their previous one. Once the wood is dried, they maintain the 7-8 percent moisture content in a climate-controlled storage area. This makes the wood less likely to twist, warp or split and allows it to hold its shape after cutting a part (i.e. swell, cantle, cap, or bar) out of the block.
Thom explained how their old CNC machine took two hours to cut 6-8 parts at a time, but they had to be all the same part. Their new CNC machine cuts one part at a time, taking 25 minutes. They currently have six machines.
“Quality is much better on the new CNC machines. On a bad day the new CNC is 100 times more accurate than the old machine on its best day,” Thom said.
The new machines also allow for cutting the entire part from almost any angle needed, even while the part is in rotation.
The flexibility of their new machines has revolutionized the way they assemble trees. According to Thom, in the past they had jigs that were the negative shape of the bars. They would set the bars into the jigs, allowing them to approximate the assembly of the tree with the correct bar angles.
But now, with the new CNC, they can cut corresponding holes in the bars, swell, and cantle and use dowels to put the tree together.
The previous assembly’s first run was normally in the low 90% pass rate; the new assembly is performing at a 99% pass rate, on the first run.
“We still have expert craftsmen that can take any four parts and put a tree together with high degrees of tolerance. And they still do that from time to time,” Thom shared. Doweled assembled are becoming a mainstay, which provides a high level of quality and consistency.
The new CNC machines also help to reduce parts inventory and carrying costs. “We don’t have to cut six parts to build one tree.” Likewise, they don’t have to wait four hours to get the parts required to build one tree; now that can normally happen in an hour.
They have also upgraded some of their computer aided design (CAD) and scanning equipment. What used to take eight hours and a day of CAD work to scan into the computer, can now take as little as 15 minutes – with much better accuracy and quality, he said.
Thom explained, “We added some significant helps with shaping and forming parts within our CAD software. It is allowing us to get to desired shapes and fits that we have not been able to reasonably do before, or do as quickly. So our CAD-genius, Mondo, has been busy.”
“Some people have called and asked for Armando. I’m sorry. We have made him unavailable to help on the phone. We have locked him away and he is steadily and busily helping us move forward doweling trees, developing new designs and expanding our CAD abilities! Rest assured, Armando Rosales Jr. is still around and well, and a significant part of our team,” he added.
PST uses 3D scanners and CAD software to engineer parts which are cut on CNC machines. This equipment allows them to produce parts that are the same each and every time.
The right bar is a mirror image of the left bar. The right side of the swell is identical to the left side. This unmatched precision allows them to construct trees that fit perfectly together – without the use of fillers – providing for greater strength and the highest level of consistency.
Discarding tradition when superior modern materials are available has been one of PSTs core identities. This is especially true with their coverings. One of the primary coverings they use in their Ropers and Ranch trees is Kevlar®, because of its superior strength.
Developed at DuPont in 1965, Kevlar® is the registered trademark for a para-aramid synthetic fiber. Kevlar® fibers are 43 percent lighter than typical fiberglass, 10 times stronger than aluminum and literally 5 times stronger than steel. It is the same material used in bulletproof vests.
This high-strength material was first commercially used in the early 1970’s, as a replacement for steel in racing tires. It also has excellent resistance to high and low temperatures.
Using Kevlar®, Precision Saddle Trees can accomplish things that cannot be done with traditional coverings. “For example, we’ve teamed with Dennis and Randy George of G Bar G Saddles in Riverton, Wyoming. We were able to work together and build a tree with thinner bars to improve the rider position. We also were able to strengthen the tree. The combination of added functionality and strength are essential in producing the high-quality Bronc saddle that G Bar G is known for,” Thom explained.
Kevlar® is the primary covering they use, but they use fiberglass as reinforcement. Trees can also be sprayed with DuraHide™ coating, to seal out moisture and add another layer of strength. Often they combine one or more of these materials in their coverings.
They wrap the horn, swell, bars and cantle with Kevlar®, applied with a clear coat resin. With this covering, you can see all the way down to the Kevlar® and wood. It’s a great choice for Ropers and Ranch Ropers.
DuraHide™ is a polyurea elastomer that is specifically formulated as a high-performance coating, designed to prevent against corrosion, abrasion, weather and wear. This material is not only an effective sealer, but also adds strength to the tree. It can withstand temperatures from -50° to 350°F.
How many do they build?
Precision Saddle Tree, Inc. builds an impressive 160 saddle trees per week, 50 weeks a year. They see that growing to 200 trees per week this fall, and 600+ by spring 2019!
We asked Thom which is the most difficult tree to build? “Some of the most difficult work we do is designing new trees, making it easier for the saddle maker to build the saddle like he/she wants it. Fitting new bars to a horse, getting it to the desired fit…all of these can be closely associated with head banging on walls….just kidding of course, but it takes an abundance of patience and time.”
What does the future hold in tree making?
“We are always contemplating new materials and designs. Customers may begin to see some of those from us very soon,” says Thom.
As summer turns to fall, and fall to spring, the Precision Saddle Tree team will be upping their production quotas by constantly embracing and driving change with the latest technology available. Their goal is to build the best saddle trees in the industry… in the shortest amount of time.
Thomas Stevenson, GM
Toll Free 877-916-TREE