The Beautification of Ugly Betty, Part 1

If you read the previous post about my saddle day trip, you know I got a used saddle for my mom I named Ugly Betty. Why? Because Betty is straight up ugly.

Saddles can tell you a story, or a lot of stories. I think Betty's goes something like she was the victim of a vicious divorce, where the opposing spouses were instructed by a court-appointed therapist to relinquish their cutlery and firearms and take out their frustrations on an inanimate object. One spilled soda pop on the fleece, the other turned her over and doused her with a chocolate shake. They took turns dropping her and stomping her in the dirt, then one threw dye on her to up the ante. When the divorce was final and they hugged out their differences, they sprayed lacquer up one side and down the other to symbolically entomb all the bitterness they'd moved past. In the end, Betty was carelessly cast aside like a dread trigger object as each chose their path toward a new life.

Or something like that.

Betty had suffered, that was evident. No saddle, not even a model I don't like, deserves that kind of treatment. I'm pretty sure when Saddlesmith took Betty off the bench and boxed her up to meet her future, they never anticipated just how much misfortune lay ahead, or how much abuse a little ole production model like Betty could endure.

It's like the tale of Black Beauty, but with a saddle.

All the dirt and filth was sealed under a haphazardly applied layer of lacquer, making it nearly impenetrable. This is an area just above the rigging.
Betty's safe now, and will once again be beautiful, but it's going to be a hard-fought battle to bring her back.

On the plus side:
  1. There is very little actual damage to the leather, it's virtually all cosmetic
  2. The tree feels and sits solid
  3. Most all the stitching is intact, save for typical wear areas on any saddle
  4. It doesn't need refleecing
  5. The seat is fully intact
  6. There is plenty of adjustment in the fenders, they go quite short for smaller riders like my mom
  7. New latigos on both sides
  8. Nothing wrong with the stirrups
  9. None of the silver plated concho tips are missing

Betty's roughout seat was every bit inviting as a Honey Bucket. No thank you!
On the minus side:
  1. All the lacquer needs to be removed before the dirt will come off
  2. The dirt is substantial - more than I've ever seen on any saddle
  3. Dirt is deeply embedded in the basket stamping, which means a lot of detail work with a soft toothbrush 
  4. Bad dye job attempts are irreversible, it cannot return to its original mahogany color 
  5. The seat is stained so badly it will need to be dyed
  6. Fleece is matted hard and absolutely filthy
  7. Blevins buckles on fenders corroded so badly the prongs have broken off and need replacing
  8. Missing a concho - they all need replacing because of tarnish and flaking of silverplate
  9. Skewed skirts need to be reshaped and set
Before anything can proceed, Betty needs to be cleaned from stem to stern. This is not going to be a simple once-over with Pears Soap or generic leather cleaner; Betty requires industrial cleaning.

Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. Betty was hardcore filthy - so filthy she made my skin crawl. This calls for super strength cleaning products not normally associated with cleaning leather.
My industrial cleaning kit includes a bucket, Dawn dishwashing detergent, a couple drops of chlorine bleach, a microfiber scrubbing mitt, a soft toothbrush, a spray bottle, and a super strength sprayer on the garden hose.

Yes, I said garden hose.

I have to wash Betty similar to how you'd wash a car or a filthy horse: lots of water, lots of cleaning product, and lots of scrubbing and rinsing. There's no way around it.

Betty's fleece has been packed down so hard for so long with so many different substances soaked in, it would not even scratch up fluffy with fingernails, and spraying with the hose alone did nothing to release it. The fleece was like hideous old carpet, and I was not completely sure it could be salvaged.

The synthetic fleece underneath actually photographed much better than it really was. It was matted hard to the tree and skirting, and saturated with mystery filth.
I ended up loosening the fleece with fingernails while the hose was directed at full blast, working in Dawn mixed with extremely diluted bleach to suds up and kill any cooties. This went extremely slow, inch by inch, until the fleece allowed the cleaning product to work all the way through.

Mud poured out of the fleece in frothy waves for several minutes. I probably rinsed through the fleece for 10-15 minutes afterwards to make sure there was no trace of product remaining.

Even with the nice summer weather, I knew it would take Betty a few days to completely dry underneath. Fortunately, I have a slatted saddle rack that would allow air flow to the fleece and still provide a horse-shaped form to prevent the skirts from warping as it dried.

I put Betty on the slatted rack in the shade to dry to avoid any further spotting and hardening of the leather. At night, Betty got covered up with a lightweight blanket to prevent dew from saturating the leather. Betty was tended like a pet parakeet, covered and uncovered.

Every day, for a several days, I'd take Betty off the rack periodically and rough up the fleece as it dried. I wanted to be sure the fleece would not compress against the slats, plus keep the air flowing all the way through.

Betty's fleece looked, smelled, and felt remarkably better after a thorough shampoo and dry.
I feel the synthetic fleece has recovered enough to provide the protection it was intended. At some point it will need replacing, but the fleece on any western saddle isn't eternal. For now, Betty's undercarriage is looking fab!

Because the saddle leather is so filthy under that lacquered surface, cleaning each section has been an arduous task. First, water. Once it's good and wet, then carefully scrubbing with diluted Dawn and a very soft baby toothbrush. Only when the surface dirt is gone can I follow up with deglazer to remove the remaining lacquer, then attack all the dirt that was sealed under the lacquer.

A preview of things to come: the right rear skirts are mostly clean. Compare to the dirt-encrusted seat jockey area on the right.
Betty has a long way to go, but I'm delighted how she's responded to even nominal TLC. This is by no means a one or two day rehab, but her future looks brighter every day.

Betty will be a swan again.

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