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The best bicycle seats on the planet: A factory tour

The best bicycle seats on the planet: A factory tour

Published: June 6, 2016
Author: Grace Rubenstein
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Anyone who knows bicycles knows Brooks—the legendary, iconic British company that has been making simple, old-fashioned leather bicycle saddles since 1882. In the years since, others have tried to improve on these seats with new designs and new materials. Yet the consensus remains: nothing can beat a Brooks. So of course we had to go see them getting made.

Photography by JAMES DALY
Videos by GRACE RUBENSTEIN
Story by GRACE RUBENSTEIN and JAMES DALY


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There are only five points where the human body meets a bicycle — two hands, two feet, and what yoga instructors like to call the sit bones, the parts of our pelvis that take our weight when we sit. If that last point is even a bit off, the experience of riding a bike can be absolutely miserable. To avoid such suffering, scores of bicycle seat makers have tried countless ways to cushion, divide, or reduce the load that lands on this tender fifth point. Throughout these ergonomic inspirations, many cycling purists have remained steadfast in an old credo: nothing beats the comfort of planting your bottom on a Brooks.

The Brooks bicycle saddle, which has remained virtually unchanged for generations, is about as simple as they come. It’s a masterwork of cowhide and metal craft, a heavenly triangle that, in some almost invisible way, manages to please the most discerning derriere. The catch is that it doesn’t start this way. Like a pair of sturdy leather boots, a Brooks saddle must be broken in. Over time and miles traveled, the saddle gradually forms to the anatomy of the rider, making each saddle comfortably unique.

Unlike most factory-made bicycle seats, a Brooks saddle is not cranked out on an assembly line, with workers shooting polyurethane into molds that resemble large waffle irons. Nor are the distinctive black, brown, and honey-colored saddles the work of a single keen-eyed craftsman. Rather, a Brooks blends the work of nearly two dozen deft assemblers, many of whom have spent decades in their posts, cutting and shaping leather, twisting metal, chamfering edges, and hand-hammering Brooks’ signature copper rivets. The method has been around nearly as long as the Brooks brand, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Inside the Brooks factory, workers and managers remain stubbornly devoted to this tradition even as their sprawling home city of Birmingham, England, has modernized around them.

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The story of Brooks begins with a dead horse. As a young chap of 20, John Boultbee Brooks moved from the Leicestershire countryside to Birmingham in 1866 and set up shop making bridles and other leather goods. Legend has it that he commuted on horseback until his tired old swayback horse died, at which point he borrowed a bicycle. “He’d never ridden a bicycle, and of course in those days the seat of a bicycle was just a carved piece of wood,” recounts Steven Green, Brooks’ U.K. sales and events manager. Green laughs heartily at the idea of bumping along those old roads on a wooden seat, pitying the poor pedaler. Brooks, too, thought the plank absurd and borrowed an idea from that era’s horse-riding masses. Why not make a seat for a bicycle with the same materials, and essentially the same shape, as a seat for a horse? In 1882, Brooks filed a patent for his leather bicycle saddle.

LEATHERWORK

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From start to finish, the entire process for one Brooks saddle requires three days of work. The saddle’s journey begins in the rolling and verdant hills of Great Britain and Ireland, where the sea-borne chill of the British Isles produces thick-skinned cattle, perfect for a flexible but stiff seat. (This is also where the toughest sole leather for shoes comes from, and it’s why English shoes tend to be heavier than their Italian counterparts.) Hides come in anywhere between 5.5 to 6 mm thick — a bit wider than a pair of nickels — and are then dyed with plant-derived pigments by Tannerie Masure, the same Belgian tannery that’s been treating Brooks leather for more than 25 years. At this stage the leather is dense and rigid, yet also porous. Those qualities are critical. The pores provide natural ventilation, making the saddles comfortably cool on long hot rides.

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The tanned hides arrive at the Brooks factory, which is housed in a nondescript building in a brown-brick industrial area of Smethwick, outside Birmingham. The operation moved here from the city center after Luftwaffe bombing raids in World War II hit the old factory, flattening entire neighborhoods along with it. If you’re not looking for the factory, you won’t find it; even if you are, it’s a challenge. The building blends into an industrial block, and the small Brooks sign, hard to spot, is as understated as the Brooks aesthetic. Inside, the assembly rooms are a loud, banging, clanking, grinding place, a noisy spot having more in common with a modern automotive shop than a craftsman’s workbench.

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Workers like Rick Ravenhill, now in his thirteenth year at Brooks, are entrusted with enumerable small yet critical decisions. Here, Ravenhill cuts out the shape of the B17—the company’s classic model and by far its most popular. First marketed in 1898, the B17’s design has scarcely changed since. With nothing more than his eyes to guide him, Ravenhill calculates the configurations required to cut the greatest number of saddles out of a single hide (a dozen or more for a B17, fewer for a larger model). Each leather sheet comprises only the span of hide from the base of the animal’s shoulder to the buttock. This is because the skin around the shoulder is too hard and the belly is too thin. For a biker’s tender bottom, the back hide is just right.

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Forget your images of a lightning-fast factory assembly line; Brooks workers may be quick, but they don’t rush. It’s been more than 30 years since the company switched from paying by the piece to paying by the hour. That means workers like Jayne Hogan and Steve Sherrington, shown here pressing and trimming saddles, have time to check that each task is done perfectly. It may also help explain why workers often stay at Brooks for decades; the one with the longest tenure has been here for 43 years.

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A soaking in water for 30 to 60 minutes prepares the flat leather pads for the first of two pressings. How does Hogan knows when they reach the optimum level of pliability for molding? Basically, experience.

The design of the modern bicycle was more an evolution than the earth-shattering idea of a single inventor. And it is perhaps no coincidence that its final adaptation took place in Coventry, not far from Brooks’ headquarters in Birmingham.

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One of the earliest concepts of the bicycle was (debatably) said to be sketched out by a student of Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century. Nearly 300 years later, the first object to resemble the modern bike, constructed in France in 1790, was a wooden thing with no pedals or steering; not surprisingly, perhaps, the contraption was not very popular. The first mass-produced bike, the Velocipede, developed in 1863, had wooden wheels that were so rough on cobbled streets that it earned the name “Boneshaker.” (Watch this bike in action in the video above, courtesy of youtube.) Then, in 1887, John Kemp Starley created the Rover Safety Bicycle, a moniker taken from the fact that earlier bikes sometimes seemed as if they were designed to cause injury.

Starley’s new bike had many of the hallmarks of the modern machine, including equal-sized wheels, a triangular frame, rear-wheel drive, brakes, and its most ground-breaking invention: a chain with bushings that fit over the gears’ teeth. It also could be outfitted with John Dunlop’s inflatable “pneumatic” tire. The Safety Bicycle, produced in Coventry, proved to be a stable and secure ride (as demonstrated in the video above), sparking a bicycling craze across both Europe and North America. Brooks was ready.

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By the early 1900s, Brooks was already offering a wide range of saddles, along with accessories such as saddle bags, tool bags, and the ever-important bicycle-mounted cigar tray. The best of those original designs are still in production. In the 1990s, Robert Penn, author of It’s All About the Bike, rode a B17 around the world, butt-to-seat for 25,000 miles. With a Brooks, he writes, “You have then a product that improves with use. This is an anomaly. We live in a dystopian age when almost everything we buy begins to deteriorate the moment it comes out of the box.”

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In the modern Brooks era, pop music blares from grainy speakers in the leatherwork room (although Sherrington, while making these B17s, hears less of it thanks to his earplugs). The factory sits in “the Black Country,” the industrial region around Birmingham, so named for the skyline once blackened by the smokestacks of metal forging companies. It was Birmingham’s industrial identity that made it a target for the Nazis; most of Britain’s Spitfire fighter planes were made here. The Spitfires are long gone, as are most of the other metalworking companies. Brooks is one of the few that remain.

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Many of the molds that Brooks uses date to the 1950s—the stamp on this B17 mold reads 1956. This means your derriere rests on the exact same saddle as bottoms did at mid-century.

These molds withstand great pressure — 2,000 pounds per square inch — and they are made of bronze (ordinary steel would crack). All that compression is also what makes the leather’s surface shiny. Once squeezed into submission, the saddle surrenders, losing about a millimeter of its thickness and obediently holding its shape while it dries for several hours.

Leather trimmers like Sherrington, now in his tenth year, have some of the burliest jobs in the factory. It takes serious forearm strength to slice off the excess leather while a saddle sits squeezed inside a press, and then repeat the process all day long. Each worker shapes his trimming knife to his liking on a traditional whetstone. There is a machine that does this trimming automatically when the workers need a rest; Green maintains that human hands can actually do the task a shade faster. Regarding the wonderfully labor-saving automatic way, Sherrington says, “It’s really boring, I think.”

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Besides water, pressure, and human brawn, the final key ingredient in the making of a leather saddle is heat. After the second pressing and trimming, the saddles go into a hot oven. One hour at 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), half an hour at 50 (122 F), and the leather portion of the job is complete — locked into shape and ready to be wedded to its metal foundation.

METALWORK

A cacophony of clanging and banging fills the metalwork area, where another team mans a fleet of sea-green machines that date to the 1950s. The curious metal shapes the machines make will look familiar to anyone who has examined a Brooks saddle up close — they include springs and spines, braces and little triangular bag loops.

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Manufacturers can get new machines now that do this work more expediently, making the metal parts and bending them in a single operation. Brooks managers considered such machines, but ultimately decided to stick with their traditional tools. “Part of the selling point now is that they are made this way,” says Green, the Brooks manager.

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The visual profile of a number of Brooks saddles is defined by springs. These iconic curlicues start as uncoiled wire, a special grade of flexible steel 6.71 mm thick. (A flat, harder steel is used for other saddle parts.) One of Brooks’ noisy old machines cuts and coils them, sending out a small mist of metal dust with each one.

Until just a few decades ago, most saddles had springs like these. But a modern passion for less weight and more speed created a market for un-sprung saddles. Brooks offers both. Unsprung saddles are now the company’s biggest sellers (the B17, for instance, is unsprung), but for general cycling, especially on bumpy terrain, some added bounce is often appreciated. This is especially true for bikes where the handlebar grips are higher than the saddle. Those setups put a rider in a more upright position, thereby loading more weight on the butt.

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Steven Green, the company’s U.K. sales and events manager, almost has Brooks in his blood. He has worked here for 37 years. “I was a toddler when I started,” he jokes. His father worked here from age 15, starting in 1942 as a toolmaker. Green began here as an accountant. To this day, he says, the company hears from bicyclers with a Brooks who went on long rides with friends who were using other saddles. And the Brooks rider says, “’I’m the one still walking around at the end of the day, still able to walk.’ We hear that story a lot.”

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What makes a Brooks worker? Tactile skills, Green says—specifically nimble fingers for attaching spring to frame, hand-eye coordination for hammering. New employees train under veterans for anywhere from a week to six months (the latter mostly for more skilled jobs such as hammering rivets). Each worker is typically adept at multiple tasks, rotating among them as needed. Sometimes 20 to 40 people will apply for a job like this one, which involves punching out a keyhole-shaped “shackle,” the metal piece that sits inside the nose of the saddle. The shackle is threaded for a bolt called a tension pin, which can be screwed in to tighten the saddle as the leather ages and softens. Although this mechanism is relatively simple, few other bicycle seat makers have bothered to include this feature — largely because almost none of them works with leather anymore.

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The Birmingham labor ethic runs strong at Brooks, which only adds to the factory’s air of a workplace from another era. When a high-pitched tone signals the start of a ten-minute break, production instantly halts, as workers pull out books to read or step outside for a smoke. As a kind of totem to the working classes, a pig-like plastic bust of Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister from 1979-1990) sits on the machine that punches out bag loops. “Beatle Mick” Bell, a saddle maker on and off for 30-plus years, placed it here during Thatcher’s controversial and conservative reign, often remembered for her attacks on labor organizations. Among some of Bell’s colleagues, the green machine itself is now (affectionately?) called Maggie Thatcher.

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A factory devoted to old machinery obviously faces a special challenge. Since old models are not made anymore, whenever one breaks Brooks repairs it, in the belief that the newer, more automated machines aren’t as good. The company uses this machine shop to circumvent modernity with a little trick: it buys new machines simply for parts. “There are new ones, but we like to keep the romance of the old ones,” says Green. “They have a little more character to them, a more personally built saddle than a machine-built one.”

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While the metal parts of a Brooks saddle, such as these nose blanks, are small, they must be extremely strong. To make sure of this, whenever Brooks creates a new model (rarely) or sees the materials specs changed on a part from a manufacturer, it puts a new sample saddle under serious stress. That saddle is placed in a “tester” machine, which smacks the saddle against what Green calls a “fake backside” (literally a bum-shaped piece of resin polymer) one million times. This takes several days and ruins the leather, but at this point, Brooks is most interested in what happens to the metal. The parts usually hold up.

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In his 30 years at Brooks, Stephen Bell (Beatle Mick’s brother) has worked in nearly every step of the factory’s process. Here, he’s affixing springs to the saddles, by hand, one by one. Since the switch from piece work to hourly pay, no one tells Bell to go faster, and he gets no bonuses for getting more done. The result is an unhurried atmosphere, in which a mere 29 employees (around 20 on the factory floor) produce approximately 1,000 saddles a day.

HANDWORK: The Marriage of Metal and Leather

The Arts of Summer: Bicycling, Fishing, and Gelato | Craftsmanship Magazine, Summer 2016

Brooks’ handmade aesthetic is perhaps at its most literal in the riveting area. The company’s standard models, such as the classic B17, get riveted, along with some finishing touches, by machine. Snazzier models, such as the B17 Special or the Swift that workers are assembling here, are fixed with hand-hammered copper rivets, and then some final trimming, all by hand. Inspiration for the copper rivets came from early twentieth-century competitors in the big European bike races, such as the Tour de France. They wanted rivets with thinner tops that could lie flush with the saddle instead of digging into the leather. This would not only offer a smoother seat, it would also extend the life of their cherished saddles. Copper was the best material for achieving this, since the metal is soft enough to be peened out flat instead of having to be punched into a hole. The hammering jobs to make these rivets are some of the most skilled in the factory, as one false strike can damage the leather and spoil a saddle.

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With a quiet joviality and a sometimes indecipherable Black Country accent, Eric Murray, age 68 and a 15-year veteran, shows what it takes to hand-fix a rivet: after balancing the saddle on a wide, sturdy pin that sits under it, you hammer the rivet from above. To help him check that the rivet is flush with the leather’s surface, Murray cut off the tip of his glove’s right thumb. You wouldn’t want it chafing your inner thigh, he says, shaking his head with a pained expression. Does he ride, himself? He groans — “too old,” he says. Asked if Brooks ever sells blemished saddles as factory seconds, Murray looks horrified, mouth agape, and says, “Naaah….You’re jokin’, aren’t ya?”

A process this human naturally produces a slightly non-uniform product. The leather itself also bears natural variations. (When one bicycle shop owner was asked how the seat position should be adjusted as the saddle softens, he replied, “It depends on the cow.”) Riveting, however, is where Brooks manufacturing really gets personal. Someone who knows each worker’s hammering style can identify who worked on any given saddle — just by the shape of the rivets. Eric Murray’s rivets, for example, are rounded. John Pope’s style is to first bang on the top of the rivet to warm the copper, and then hammer around it in a circle. His rivets therefore look like oversized copper diamonds, with a little plateau in the middle and flat facets around the edges.

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Here, Eric Murray demonstrates his expertise: hammering a copper rivet on a Swift and — the most delicate task of all — chamfering, this time on a B17 Special. (Chamfering is slicing the edge of the leather at a bias to give it a beveled border.)

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Penn, the round-the-world cyclist, writes that the extra decorative touch of chamfering “reveals why Brooks has become a byword for good craftsmanship.” You only get one chance at this, one smooth motion. Murray says he still slips now and then, but rarely. Nodding to his colleague John Pope, he says, with a little needle, “John there has his moments.”

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Brooks 21 C13 resize

Although a Brooks leather saddle was long the ride of choice in the Tour De France, time and technology have moved on. For today’s racers, who count nearly every gram, a classic Brooks is too heavy: the flagship B17, for instance, weighs over a pound, while many of today’s racing saddles might be a third of that weight. In 2015, the company nodded to the speed-seeking present with a new, high-tech model: the vulcanized, rubber-and-cotton-top Cambium C13, a racing saddle that weighs just 9 ounces. That saddle is made in Italy, by Selle, which now owns the Brooks brand; the Birmingham factory remains the company’s only leatherworks.

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Once a Brooks saddle has been completed, its development has just begun. Bicycles are pure physics in action; they convert the power our bodies produce into kinetic energy — approximately 90 percent of the force you supply at the pedals will produce forward motion, creating the most efficient transportation machine ever developed. A touch of that force makes its way into the seat with every pedal stroke, gradually pressing the leather into a shape all your own.

At this stage, as in manufacturing, a Brooks saddle needs personal attention. Leather begins to dry the moment it leaves the animal. As such, leather products require care to remain supple and not crack over the years. When you’re breaking in a new saddle (and if you’re in the market for one, please see our story on our favorite vendor, to the right), Brooks recommends that you treat it now and then with a small amount of their Proofide leather dressing — a natural mix of tallow, cod oil, vegetable oil, beeswax, paraffin, and citronella oil. Repeat the treatment about twice a year. (If you use too much dressing early on, the saddle will get overly soft before it properly molds to your underside.) Online, fans recommend everything from Neatsfoot oil to water soaking to short trips into a warm oven to loosen the tough leather, though the Brooks folks wince at these homegrown schemes. Happily, the best way to break in a new saddle is to ride it. Debates rage in online forums over whether it takes 500, 1,000, or 1,500 miles of riding to fully break in a Brooks. Whoever is right, the important truth is that your ride has just begun.

Grace Rubenstein, a Contributing Writer for Craftsmanship, is a journalist and media producer specializing in public health, behavioral health, and immigration.

James Daly has been an editor and producer at a wide range of media ventures, including Wired and Forbes ASAP, and was the founding editor of Business 2.0, Edutopia, and TED Books. His projects have received numerous editorial prizes, including two National Magazine Awards.

Vintage poster and Cambium photo courtesy of Brooks England.

FOR MORE ON BROOKS, AND OLD BICYCLES:

Brooks England, the source of the saddle

The Blues of an Icon: An autobiographical short film by Brooks

Velocipedeamania: A video glimpse of the “Boneshaker” in motion

The Smithsonian Institute’s history of the bicycle

© 2017 Grace Rubenstein, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: June 6, 2016

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