Thursday, 4 April 2013

Brooks Saddle Factory Visit

Yesterday I travelled north from London to Smethwick in the outskirts of Birmingham, to visit the factory where the world famous Brooks leather saddles are manufactured.






Brooks have been making saddles since 1866. The story of how it all began is as remarkable as the saddles themselves. in 1865 John Boultbee Brooks set out from his home in Hinckley, Leicestershire with little more than £20 in his pocket. He travelled to Birmingham and by the following year had established a business under his own name, making leather goods for horses.

Twelve years later his horse died inducing him to borrow a bicycle for his commute to work. He liked the new mode of transport but disliked the wooden saddle.  By the the end of 1882 he had filed his first of several patents for a leather bicycle saddle. The company moved from strength to strength and in addition saddles, bags, clothing and other related items started to be made.

Although Brooks has changed hands many times in the years that followed, the production of quality saddles, regarded so highly all over the world has remained constant.

Upon entering the factory my first impression was that it reminded me a little of the Brompton factory. Seeing the many components that make up a Brooks Saddle sitting in boxes was overwhelming and the eye didn't quite know what to look at. Copper, chrome, titanium and black anodised seat frames lay in wait, to be attached to various swathes of leather.











The smell of leather was incredible. If you have ever bought a Brooks Saddle, one of the pleasures of purchasing one is taking that first sniff of new leather. If you can imaging that smell magnified, distilled, enhanced...it still doesn't come close to me being able to describe it.






As we were directed to the first part of the tour, we passed rack upon rack of saddles. All the different types of Brooks saddle were on display. All the different colours. Some totally complete, others like caterpillars, awaiting metamorphosis in to something truly of beauty.








Our host was Steve, the Office Manager. He was a brilliant guide and as friendly as he was enthusiastic about Brooks and the products they manufactured. We had a brief talk in the offices and saw some of the many saddles, bags, handlebar grips, clothing and what have you as they would appear in a good stockist of Brooks merchandise.






We even got to see a saddle that is due to come to market in the near future that looked gorgeous.



A saddle to be released soon. Lovely isn't it!


The collection of saddles in the office also included a few special one offs that have been produced perhaps for display purposes. One such saddle was a cowhide version. Although not available to buy, I am sure it would do very well in America.



The cowhide saddle.


We also go to see the John Boultbee jacket which I have written about before. I could imagine wearing this for next weeks Tweed Run.






With our talk over we headed back to the factory floor. As we were guided around, the many workers got on with their various jobs as it is of course a working factory. The first port of call was a machine that simulated sitting on a saddle to test its durability and strength.






Next we passed large strips of metal that had various components punched out. Looking that the machinery that carried out this task, some were emblazoned with the Brooks moniker. Much of this machinery looked quite old but was extremely functional. For me it only added to the feelings of quality and handmade rather than robotic, souless mass production.










We were shown a machine that had rolls of sheet metal like some sort of gigantic tape dispenser. The metal was fed through and parts of the Brooks saddle metal frame were punched out.






Another machine converted the flat metal into the curves edges those with a Brooks saddle are familiar with.





Passing through to the leather processing area the presses for the metalwork of the different range of Brooks saddles were all shelved and ready for the time when they would be needed.











At the the leather processing we were again overwhelmed by the gorgeous smell of new leather. The different types of leather, the majority of which is sourced in the UK comes in large sheets. One of the workers had the job of positioning a metal template cutter and then cutting it out with the use of a machine. The positioning of the template is done in this way as automation would not be sufficient. Strange to think that my saddles and yours - if you have one - were cut in this way.










The leather templates are them stacked and as they are quite stiff they are soaking in water tanks for a period of time in order to acquire the suppleness needed to work them into the familiar Brooks saddle shape.




In water to make the leather more subtle.


This done the leather is then pressed by an operator in a machine that forms the familiar shape. They are then stored and left to dry.


















The drying room








All Brooks Saddles have the Brooks logo pressed in to the sides of the saddle. The logos are of course different depending on which model of saddle you have. The metal faced stamps are left ready and waiting for whatever batch of saddles are ready for this process. One of the workers was busy doing this job and again although machinery is employed, the positioning of the saddle is done by hand. In this there will be an ever so slight variation in one saddle to the next. This for me is great as it again shows that this is not just some mass produced item.







One of the last jobs was a lady who, using a plastic tool was able to take out any minor blemishes in the leather. A final polishing and the saddles were placed in their retain packaging.










If you own one of the Special Edition Brooks saddles - the ones which the copper rivets, 'hand hammered rivets' means just that. As we waited for a member of staff to perform this task we saw some of the tools used for this task.








One of the first tasks for the Special Edition Saddles was to chamfer the edges of the saddle. This is a highly skilled and delicate task as the entire saddle could be ruined at this stage. The staff member was expert at this task and made a very technical job look easy.






Next the holes were prepared for the rivets by being countersunk. The cooper rivets were positioned and the hand finishing process was demonstrated.






Again the skill involved in this was extremely high. It also accounts for the premium one pays for the Special Edition saddles as they take a great deal more time to produce. I will certainly appreciated the one sitting on my Original Orange Brompton more as a result of seeing this.






With our tour of the factory nearly over we saw some boxes of Brooks saddles destined for some familiar locations.






After the factory visit we decided to take in more of the atmosphere and cycled along the canal towpath for a few miles in to Birmingham centre where we had a spot of luncheon. Although quite cold, I suspect those of us sitting on Brooks saddles felt a mild buzz of excitement to think our saddles had gone through this process.













It was a great trip and I feel very fortunate to have been allowed to have an insight into how these great saddles are made. A very big thank you to Brooks for allowing us to descend upon them, for the warm and friendly welcome  and especially to Steve the Office Manager who was a wonderful ambassador for the Brooks brand. Lastly thanks to my friend Mick B for organising this trip in the first place.

This trip took many weeks of organising and planning so please don't think that you can just turn up at the factory or expect a guided tour as this is a working factory and just that.

For me a Brompton and a Brooks Saddle go hand in hand. They are made with care and attention to detail and where only the highest  standards will do. I left with an enhanced appreciation of Brooks and all the products they make. You can buy lots of different types of leather saddle that have the look of a Brooks, but without the addition of the discrete Brooks badge and embossing, it really is nothing more than an imitation.

Believe me, if you buy a Brooks saddle you are buying into something that is from a begone era where words such as built to last, quality, unique, hand finished were commonplace. A Brooks saddle is not a generic item, spat out of a machine controlled by a computer and that and the fact they are still made in the UK is just great.

The only downside of visiting the Brooks factory, seeing how they are made and viewing all the different types of saddle they produce is that of course I wouldn't mind having another! Better start saving as I have my eye on one of those sporty numbers in honey, which is a certain light have an  orange tinge to them...

Data for Brooks Saddle Factory Canal Ride

www.brooksengland.com

7 comments:

  1. Good morning Mr.O.

    A really good blog post of the trip.
    I have to say, that I'm planning another trip to the factory, in the near future, and I'm really looking forward to it, as by reading your blog, I hadn't realised that I had missed anything yesterday, but now I realise that I actually missed a lot.
    Thank you for your compliments, I'm very pleased that you had a good day, and indeed, I enjoyed your company and look forward to our next time out.

    Mick.B.

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  2. And the best part is that I was there with you. Awesome visit and precise write up.

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  3. Very well written-up and photographed. Thanks for sharing.

    John

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  4. Love my Brooks honey coloured saddle!

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  5. That is really interesting seeing pictures of the Brooks saddles being made - just upgraded to a "Brompton Men's" saddle made by Brooks and is seems a lot better than the standard plastic Brompton Saddle

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