Carson Leh, of Leh Seats Sply&Mfg, runs a reupholstering business for custom bike and motorcycle saddles in Austin, Texas.
Leh receives orders from all over the country, and runs the business out of his garage.
Each saddle is reupholstered by hand. While the design for this saddle was relatively simple, the thick leather can be tough to attach in narrower spaces like the nose of the saddle. This requires the leather to be “skived,” or scraped down.
Leh’s work on custom motorcycle seats is contracted through Revival Motorcycles, a shop in Austin. While custom leather, stitching and designs are the norm for Leh, motorcycle saddles offer a larger canvas and a different level of detail for his work, which is still uniquely tailored to each saddle.
Leh stitches over lines scored into the leather by a laser cutter at MakeATX. Since joining the MakeATX community, the laser cutter has helped Leh drastically cut down on the time required to tool and cut designs into the leather.
After stitching the seat, Leh lays the padded seat cover on the saddle to check its size. Motorcycle saddles are generally cut a little large so that when the rest of the saddle is upholstered, the seat will not be pulled to the point of being too short.
Leh’s girlfriend Sandra Ernsberger has also become his business partner. She quickly learned the basics of saddle refurbishing and prides herself on the work she does with Leh.
To start, leather is cut to fit the unique shape of each saddle. After finding the right shape, the leather is tooled, burned, stamped and stitched according to the customer's design specifications.
Glue is applied directly to the seat to hold the leather on while the edges are fastened. This seat belongs to a BMX bike, so the glue and leather used will need to withstand some rough usage.
After the seat is glued, the leather must be laid on to the glue with extreme precision so that the stenciled leather will fit the saddle’s shape correctly. Leh and Ernsberger often use the support bars on the underside of the saddle as a guide for where the leather should sit.
Prior to working with Leh, Sandra worked in public relations and for an e-book publishing company. She now works full-time with Leh and helps keep the company on track with the high volume of orders they receive.
The unique curves on each saddle can create troublesome spots, which are firmly fastened with a staple gun after a pass with the glue. Leh guarantees his work for life, so he attempts to be as thorough as possible for the customer.
Many customers mail in their own saddles for new covers, though customers also have the option of purchasing a completely new, customized saddle from Leh. Many cyclists request custom saddles to match highly-customized bikes – in this case, the saddle-owner desired a matching seat for his bike, which is entirely pink.
Leh’s workspace is filled with shelves of saddles, piles of leather and drawers full of thread. He also own four different Singer sewing machines from the 1930s and 1940s, which he bought used when he began cobbling shoes.
Leh's niche business allows the saddles to be highly customized. While most of his saddles are covered in cow hide, Leh also offers options like stingray, which is more expensive and a tougher material to work with.
After completion, Leh packs each saddle for its trip home. Regardless of how durable the final product is, Leh packs each saddle carefully to ensure that it is not damaged during transport.
While working from home is convenient for Leh and Ernsberger, they're currently looking to move into a larger workspace which will help their business grow.
Carson Leh makes saddles.
The days of horseback riding in Austin may be long gone, but Leh caters to urban cowboys and cowgirls who zip around on bikes and motorcycles.
Leh, 27, grew up in Port Townsend, Washington, where he developed an interest in handworked leather and shoe cobbling. Although he studied industrial design and sustainability in college and later worked for an environmental architecture company in California, he says he always retained a keen interest in leather work and wanted to make custom-cobbled shoes.
But that is a difficult industry to break into. So Leh turned his attention to brogue-styled bicycle saddles and, five years ago, began manufacturing custom saddles for BMX bikes. These bikes are used for racing and performing stunts, and require tougher leather to withstand the wear and tear.
“Running a bike company where my main focus was creating art and things with my hands seemed like more fun than my future in the professional architecture world,” Leh said. “Dealing with building departments all day is nearly akin to going to the DMV as your job.”
As Leh gained experience, he started making more complex shapes and designs for road bike saddles and, within two years, opened his own company, Leh Supply and Manufacturing.
A custom saddle can take a day or two to design and create. But there is no shortage of work. Leh and his girlfriend and business partner, Sandra Ernsberger, say they often have around 40 projects at a time. As business grows, Leh hopes to move out of their East Austin garage into a larger workspace.