Art of the ride: Bemidji man makes custom leather bicycle seats
BEMIDJI, Minn.—In the basement of his Bemidji home, Jerry Smith is busy hammering a design into a flat piece of leather. Although it may bear minimal resemblance to its final product, he will eventually add it to his collection of hand made leather bicycle seats.
The Wisconsin native graduated from Bemidji State University in 2012 and now works for Trek North as a mountain bike coach. He's also is the founder of the Bemidji Area Mountain Bikers. After discovering the craft of leatherworking, he decided to apply it to something he already actively took part in. In between all that time riding his bike through rugged terrain, he has taken to making his custom bike seats.
"It's kind of a functional piece of art," Smith said. "It's really entertaining just getting into your own work and sinking into it—it's almost meditative. And then, when you're all done, you've got something pretty cool to show for it."
An array of his bicycle seats hang on the wall across the room from his work bench—a room that also functions as a space to repair his bikes. Each seat is different. One has a llama imprinted on it. Others have designs related to the great lakes. Another has the company logo of an associate's business. Some are various shades of brown leather. Others have more unique coloring schemes.
Depending on the intricacy of the design, a seat could take Smith anywhere from five to eight hours to complete. Smith will be down in his work corner sometimes three or four times a week, crafting a new design.
It's a process that Smith essentially performs from scratch. He imprints the design, dyes the leather, and forms it to fit over the rails—or frame—of the seat, which he purchases elsewhere. The hobby began a few years back when he was given a leatherworking kit as a gift. His first project was a leather belt.
He'd had leather bike seats in the past, and, one day he decided to rip the surface off his bike seat and see if he could replace it with his own creation.
From that point, he started making one after another.
For some designs, he'll use a piece of paper to make a slight depression of the outline into the leather. He'll then go back to permanently etch the design permanently.
The craft has been somewhat of a learning process. When he began, he simply would bolt the leather seat onto its rails. He then learned about something called "wet forming," which is the process of saturating the leather before putting it onto the rails of the seat.
"Before, I was just laying down the shape and kind of bolting it on there, and that was the shape it took" Smith said. "Using 'wet forming,' I could really shape the saddle and make it into what I wanted it to be."
The coloring was another challenge to tackle.
"That was a lot of trial and error," Smith said.
He's also been experimenting with how he can apply leatherworking to other features of his bikes, such as possibly a chain guard. He's still not sure though how those features will hold up when exposed to the elements. He's confident, however, about his seats.
With a steady grasp of the process now, Smith's saddles have started to make their way into the biking community. He's made some for friends. He donated two seats to the Northland Fat Bike Rally. He also plans to sell some of them through the bike shop he used to work for in Copper Harbor, Mich. He uses Instagram to display his finished products under the handle Jerry.JM.Smith.
He began biking himself when he came to Bemidji as a BSU student. Shortly after, he began mountain biking, which now takes him around the country whenever he has the opportunity. Although the seats are not necessarily designed for intense mountain biking, the process is still a way to meld leatherworking into his passion for the sport
"The whole process of it is really fun," Smith said.