From Humble Beginnings
The year was 1866 when a young John Boultbee Brooks trampled into town on horseback with high hopes of making a name for himself as a leatherworker. He'd scrounged up his savings and rode into the British city of Birmingham to begin his business venture of hand making horse bridles for the local equestrians of the era.
In a cruel stroke of irony, Brooks’ horse would kick the bucket shortly after arriving into town. Finding himself without enough money to buy a new horse, a friend generously offered to lend him his bicycle. A favor that would change his life beyond his wildest dreams.
Here is where things get interesting: The bike “saddles” of this era were nothing more than a carved block of wood. A far cry from Brooks' well broken-in horse saddle, and a rough daily ride to and from town.
With the wood block saddle quickly becoming a literal pain in the ass, and his money dwindling, Brooks decided he could use his skills as a leatherworker to do better.
An alleged trip to the local blacksmith and a little leather handy work of his own would yield the first of its kind: A Brooks leather saddle, handmade in England. Massive inconvenience had once again given birth to beautiful invention.
About 150 years after Brooks filed his initial patent for his saddle design and things seem to be going better than ever. Trying to even imagine a classic steel framed bicycle without a Brooks saddle is near impossible. The two have become synonamous over the past century, and for good reason.
So, how did a homegrown saddle operation from the West Midlands of England manage to withstand the brutal test of time, and become one of the most globally recognized icons in cycling culture?
There's no way to say for certain, but after touring the factory in England, we think a very strong argument could be made for craftsmanship and tradition. In those aspects, they remain largely unrivaled among today's modern throw-away culture, but the company maintains their modesty.
We would find ourselves traversing through nondescript industrial park streets on the outskirts of Birmingham during a beautiful Autumn day in England. After looping around a few times, we double check our directions, and pull up to an unassuming brick warehouse dawning “British racing green” trim.
Just outside the old brick structure hangs a thoroughly sun-faded sign, barely visible behind overgrown bushes. The text obstructed by the hedge simply reads “ Established 1866. The finest saddles in the world.”
We eagerly jump out of the car, armed with just a notebook and camera, and proceed to scurry up a small set of steps to the warehouse's British racing green door. Not a moment later we are kindly greeted by our tour guide, Steve Green. He's the U.K. Sales and Events Manager and a Brooks employee of nearly 4 decades.
Steve hands us our guest passes and prefaces our tour with some quick insights about the factory as it stands today:
- This is not the original Brooks factory. The first factory was located much closer to downtown Birmingham but was bombed out during air raids on the city by Nazi Germany in WWII.
- Raleigh eventually acquired the company, post-war, and decided to move shop to the current location as it was nearby to their other components manufacturing plants, thus making bike assembly and shipping a breeze.
- Most all of the machinery here was custom fabricated for Brooks in the 1950's. Many of the machines have grown temperamental with age so, if something is working well, they tend to run it for as long as possible to build a large backstock of parts for assembly.
- The factory is located in Smethwick, U.K. in an industrial neighborhood just outside Birmingham known as "The Black Country" for it's previously blackened skies of metalworking generations passed.
With that, we were ready to see what we had come to see - how a genuine Brooks England leather saddle is born.
Brooks England: A Photo Essay and Tour of the Factory
It’s important to recognize that there are really only two materials that make up a traditional Brooks saddle. One being leather and the other steel, they are both sourced in the UK.
Taking this into consideration, the factory is split into three main sectors: metalworking, leather tooling, and, of course, assembly. This is the way things have been done for generations, and will for plenty more to come.
So without further adieu, lets jump right into the tour...
We begin our tour in the metal shop, where pop radio can be heard, muffled amongst the clanking of machinery. Our tour guide mentions again the tempermentality of “these old machines.”
Steve gives us a simple breakdown of their B-17 Standard, the company's flagship model. The metal frame is comprised of 3 main pieces.
The nose piece, or shackle, which acts as a frontal attachment and adjustment point between the leather and the frame.
A pair of metal rails that serve as the trusted connection to your seatpost.
The rear saddle support which can be particularly noted for it’s iconic loop tabs.
In order to build these pieces, we begin with lots and lots (and lots) of British-made steel. Raw round steel cable is delivered to the factory in the form of human-sized spools to be turned into saddle rails or springs.
Long narrow plates of flat steel are used to stamp out and form the rear saddle supports (as seen above) or the front shackle pieces.
Each individual saddle model has a specific stamp assigned to it that has been used for generations to cut the plated steel.
Once stamped, the pieces are then sent through machines that bend the flat pieces into silhouettes we recognize as inherently Brooks.
With a giant spool of cable all rigged up to a pastel green giant of a machine, it is ready to be cut and bent into saddle rails, or cut and twisted into springs for saddles such as the “Flyer.”
As the operator fires up one of the ancient green giants, it starts to hit it's rhythm of pulling, bending, and cutting, and we begin to get a real sense of how quickly a giant spool of steel can disappear into a pile of saddle rails or springs.
Looking around, there's a rather social atmosphere about the factory. Little tchotchkes strewn about give insights to the lives of the workers who frequent them.
"Oh, right, someone here really likes the Beatles." Steve mentions in a tone that I take to be mere dry British humor, as I snap the above photo. It would turn out that I was wrong about that.
Cue the certified Beatles expert in residence at Brooks England, "Beatles Mick." He’s allegedly been at the factory since The Beatles released their hit single "Hey Jude," and is an expert on more than a few of the machines around the space.
Mick, like many of the other workers seemed more content than I'd ever imagined one would be in a factory environment. We'll address this phenomenon later, but the workers at Brooks genuinely seemed to share a passion for their craft and it really comes through in the final product.
At this point in the tour, my short attention span has my eyes locked-in on a very primitive looking brick bbq setup arranged curiously amongst the rest of the machinery. I can't hold back. "What exactly goes on at this step in the process?" I ask.
Steve smiles. “If we were to run pure hardened titanium through our machines, they wouldn't be happy.”
When building the higher end performance-oriented titanium saddles, each component gets annealed by the hottest of flames at this very unassuming setup. This process softens the metal, allowing for normal stamping and bending just the same as their steel counterparts.
Getting back to business, our previously stamped out and bent rear support piece is hand-pressed with fittings to house the ends of the saddle's rails.
Crossing the factory entirely, faint soft light can be seen pulsing in the corner of the warehouse where the rails and rear support, once prepped, are tack welded into one solid piece.
Literally hot off the press, we’ve finished the metalshop portion of our Brooks factory tour.
Switching gears entirely and entering the leatherworking half of the warehouse, my nose perks up. I can smell the quality leather surrounding me at tens of different workstations being cut, soaked, stamped, and dried. But what makes Brooks leather so special?
So I’d always heard what I had assumed was some sort of half truth or myth about Brooks saddles, and I can now say with confidence that it is indeed a confirmed truth, thanks to Steve.
Brooks uses leather exclusively sourced from cows of Northern U.K. (primarily Ireland) for their handmade leather saddles. This is because of a natural occurance wherein the cold winters endured by the cattle of the region result in a thicker yet flexible hide, prime for saddle construction.
Once sourced, the factory only accepts hides that measure 5.5 to 6mm in thickness, and will reject anything that doesn’t measure up. In addition to this, they have a strict policy of only utilizing the area of skin that spans from the shoulder to the bum of the cow, as it is neither too hard nor too stiff like most other portions on the body. With these systems in place, they insure the consistency that has earned them a household name across the globe. After a hide has met the quality control standards, it may be brought out for stamping.
One by one, like a hot knife through butter, on a hand operated machine, the saddle blanks are cut from the hide. Typically the factory sees about a dozen saddle blanks per hide.
After being stamped, they are sorted by color and model number, then stocked on shelves until they’re needed for subsequent steps.
Following stamping, our saddle blanks head off to get a little R&R in some big ol' baths of water. Each batch of saddle blanks is soaked for 40-45 minutes until considered malleable enough for molding.
After thoroughly soaked, the now malleable blanks are moved to the molding station, where each blank will meet it’s match in the form of a bronze molded sculpture. These models are used to press the softened leather blanks into rideable shapes, and bronze is used specifically for it's flexibility as far as metals go. Unlike many other metals, it won’t crack under the extreme pressure demanded by the process.
These beautifully functional pieces of art apply immense amounts of pressure to the blank and give the leather their classic silhouettes we have come to know and love.
With pressure applied to the mold, the blank will then receive a precision shave with the sharpest of knives. Sharpening the knife in intervals throughout the day and years of experience result in a near-perfect cut every time.
Following a quick shave, the pressed leather is put onto baking racks and sent into the dryer, ensuring that the leather maintains it’s shape. The drying process takes 2 hours in total. That’s one hour at 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and one hour at 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit.) With that, the leather has reached it’s final form, save some iconic adornments.
Racks upon racks of blank saddles wait patiently to receive their proud branding, and their proud branding they shall receive.
Pictures could never do justice to the feeling of standing right in front of the stamps that have branded every Brooks saddle I’ve ever seen in my life. This, people, is when it really sunk in that we were in the Brooks factory.
Where the leather was formerly cut by knife, it will receive a precision fine sanding, leaving the saddle edges with a finished look to last a lifetime.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the iconic Brooks sheild logo is affixed to the rear end of the leather, thus certifying it as a genuine Brooks of England handmade saddle.
With that, our leather shop portion of the tour has reached it’s end, and left us with the other half of a completed Brooks saddle.
The metal has been cut, bent, and welded. The leather has been stamped, bathed, baked, and branded. Now with the tour nearing a crescendo, our two halves will become an instantly recognizable whole during the assembly stage of production.
Assembly at Brooks works just like any other job within the factory - at a reasonable pace and with unmatched attention to detail.
To ensure this, Brooks stopped paying by the piece and started paying by the hour for all factory jobs back in the 1980s. This means nobody’s rushing jobs to make a better wage. 30 precision workers push out saddles at a pace that still enables them to complete about 1,000 saddles a day. Plenty efficient by most any modern standards for a product of this quality.
First up is a portion of the process that leaves us with a detail nearly as defining as the Brooks logo itself: the rivets. Each individual rivet is set one-by-one into the leather, binding the leather to the nose piece and the rails respectively.
Once the metal has been fully bound to the leather, the saddles are racked and sent over to the next station, where everything finally comes together for the first time.
As demonstrated by Beatles Mic, a super-human strength pulling machine tugs the shackle into place around the nose of the steel rails.
Viola. This process not only joins the two metal pieces, but stretches the leather taught, to leave the saddle in it’s final form.
Finally, in the very last work station before packaging, the completed leather saddles will acquire their signature sheen via a giant polishing wheel and a Brooks employee's otherworldly attention to detail.
We didn't want it to end, but with that the saddle is finally finished and ready to be packed up and sent off to San Francisco, or Copenhagen, or Tokyo, or London, or Milan, or anywhere (everywhere) people ride bikes.
Needless to say, at this point I felt I’d reached bike-nerd Nirvana, having toured the world’s cycling equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It had lived up to it's reputation and truly blown any expectations I may have had out of the water.
Proudly Made in England
So could I quit my job at Mission Bicycle and join the ranks of Steve and Beatles Mick, spending the rest of my years happily clanking machinery to construct these world renowned pieces of functional art?
Technically yes, but probably no. We’d come to find that our tour guide, Steve, had been working at the factory for 39 years, and that was far from unheard of at the factory. In a work environment where comradery runs high and smiles are exchanged from machine to machine, once someone settles into a job at Brooks, it is pretty rare for them to quit until retirement. I couldn't blame them.
In fact, a number of years back the company started growing concerned with the median age of their workers creeping up on them and had to consciously hire on some young blood. “We looked around and thought, what’ll we do when this lot retires? We’ll have to shut down the factory,” said Steve with a chuckle.
As we ourselves looked around, we believed it. Everyone was working diligently, but pleasantly. Engaging skillfully with the machines they'd come to know and love throughout the years.
Doing one's part to collectively bring such an iconic and universally celebrated cycling product to life has got to be one of the more gratifying ways to spend a work week, or career for that matter.
Nobody Should be Without a Brooks
So what ties it all together? The superior product that leaves this factory as a result of everything I've just shared with you.
This company has a reputation that was unarguably earned, not given, and although the saddles can run at a premium price (B17 retails at $145,) the Brooks logo truly serves as an assurance of quality in craftsmanship.
but the saddle, and its excellence, that makes the name supreme."