30 Dec 2013

Lacing a Brooks B17 'Champion Special' saddle.

My gorgeous B17 'Special' has reached nearly 5000 miles from almost daily use. This marked a certain point in its life where a clear choice had to be made. As it became more broken in it was slowly turning into a hammock instead of retaining its original, shapely form. The sit bone support areas had sunk slightly making it much more comfortable than the gently convex "flat" top, as purchased.

Now, I could either increase the tension, with the distinct risk of the saddle becoming an unrideable "delta." Leading to steeply forward sloping sit bone support areas requiring a strongly nose-up angle. Or, I could do something much more drastic: i.e. Making holes and lacing the skirts together. For the latter suggestion I must thank Alan, my fellow tricyclist in exile on Fyn.

The beautiful B17 'Special' with its skirts beginning to flare. I found I could easily insert all my fingers between the rails and inner side of the skirts when seated on the saddle. You cannot judge a saddle's working geometry properly just by pressing with your fingers. It needs the full weight of the rider on the sit bone areas to see how the leather is distorting in practice. Even if you, the rider, weigh a skinny 10 stone then you need to reach 140+lbs pressure with your fingers or thumb. Don't take my word for it. Your own hand strength is easily checked by squeezing the bathroom scales!

The Spa 'Nidd' showed how simply the lacing is done. Though this saddle gave me the confidence to go ahead I wasn't very sure about the choice of lace hole position on the 'Nidd.' These coincided exactly with the height of the rails. The lace had to be run above or below the rail or both. Not an ideal solution. Given the geometry of the tensioned laces it would be safer to run the lace over the top of the rails when the saddle is upright. Putting the laces below the rails would be more likely to tear the holes out of the bottom edges of the skirts. Or it might be nothing to worry about. The cord tension would most likely attempt to join the two holes. Any forces applied by the lace running over the rails would be much smaller.

Note the use of only four lace holes. This allows the lace to be knotted neatly hidden inside the leather saddle cover. Odd numbers of holes (per side) would require the lace be brought under the edge of the skirt or tied outside. Which looks awful in the examples illustrated online. Four holes make an ideal choice if they can cope with the loads without the lace tearing or badly deforming the leather.

The 'Nidd' lace in position. Quite a neat job but there is no large, embossed, Brooks badge to compete with on the Spa saddle. Note the rather fragile surface finish on the Spa 'Nidd' compared with the deeply coloured Brooks tanning. My fuzzy logic suggests that the Nidd could be sanded off and recoloured with leather dye or simply waxed. Though this would not make the saddle any softer or more forgiving. The cloth reinforcement underneath seems to be to blame here.

My very well worn Brooks B17 'Narrow' with a single hole made with cheap eyelet pliers. Not ideal and it required further work with an awl to tidy it up and make a neat hole right through. Ideally I wanted a chamfered hole for best possible appearance and to avoid a ragged look to the edge of the hole. If I wanted a raggedy look I could simply have drilled the necessary holes.

Here I have just punched out the lace holes in my B17 'Special' with my brand new pliers.

Plastic insulating tape was stuck onto the leather below the Brooks badge. Then eyed up from above and below with a straight edge to see if the left and right side badges matched across the saddle. They did, so I chose a strip of wood to mark a horizontal line on the tape at the chosen height from the lower edge of the skirt. I made the line parallel with the top of the saddle. The pliers were then squeezed with the third smallest hollow punch on the pencil line. With the punch just touching the edge of the tape before being pressed. The plier's hole punches are tapered, particularly at the nose, so they distort the weakly adhesive tape as they are pressed home.

I didn't want to mark out the beautiful leather with anything which might prove indelible in the long term. The tape provided the perfect solution and readily took pencil marks. The tape's precision width also provided suitable dimensions for the hole spacing. You may rest assured that I studied my marking out on the tape and its own position very carefully before finally taking the plunge!

The B17 skirts are now laced using the rather thin, but still attractive, 'Nidd' lace.

I squeezed the skirts together with a borrowed Carradice leather strap over the saddle nose while tying the lace. This avoided needing three hands to get enough tension to pull the skirts in properly. I used a simple reef knot.

When tied together the skirts now act rather like the webs of an inverted 'U' beam. Without the restraining lace the skirts merely flare. Providing almost no resistance to the leather becoming a flat hammock under the rider's weight. Though the cantle plate does provide some resistance to deformation at the rear. I once knew a keen tourist whose B17 saddle was a flat, semicircular, triangular strap from long abuse. I have never seen anything remotely similar. He claimed it was very comfortable.

My B17, seen from below, with the lace tied in place below the Diims security logger. The lace provides further security against the Diims device being seen or removed by the casual thief. The closer fitting side skirts also hide the device far better than before.

At £20 (equivalent) the Knipex pliers are better quality than the cheapest available but could do with rather more leverage for the thick Brooks leather. I rotated the entire pliers around the hollow hole punch to sever the leather cores of the holes as I continued to squeeze the handles. This also helped to polish the chamfers evenly.

I deliberately made the holes large enough to take a generously sized lace without fiddling. My thinking being that a larger lace will be much less likely to cut through the leather (like a cheese wire) when under constant tension. Not to mention the countless distortions of the leather by supporting the pedalling rider's weight as they rock from side to side. If the leather shows the least sign of cutting by the lace I shall make four more holes (probably rearward) to spread the tension load over a much greater area. A thicker, round lace will also help. The lace will not contact the rider because the skirts are narrowed to the saddle's original state as purchased.

The B17 'Champion Special' laced and now safely back on my Trykit trike. The "saddle-back" sag is now much reduced after tying. I hope you will agree that the lace and neatly chamfered holes take nothing away from the sheer beauty of Brooks' exquisite design and craftsmanship. The lace holes were deliberately placed directly in line with the lower border detail of the Brooks badge for neatness. If extra rearward holes prove necessary they will be arranged to follow the radius of the chamfered skirts. Pressing inwards on the skirts shows that this is the most effective area for maintaining the saddle's original form. Not only does the sag reduce dramatically but the sit bone support areas rise in sympathy. I have yet to try the modified saddle but will report after tomorrow's ride. I expect it to be much firmer and may have to adjust the nose tilt slightly.

I had to drop the saddle nose by one click but after that it was superb. Firm but supportive and as comfortable as ever. The renewed firmness gave a real sense of speed and efficiency. Very happy indeed!

Happy New Year! :-)

Click on any image for an enlargement.


  1. Use plastic zip ties instead of laces. Easier to install and adjust and easilly replaceable.

  2. Hi Jeff

    Thanks for the interesting suggestion but laces and saddles seem a more traditional combination.
    Quality leather shoes and woven laces go together. Zip ties? Probably not.
    That said the zip ties would probably be more reliable when it mattered.
    Laces seem to slowly give and go slack when I'm not looking.

    1. Not to beat a horse but the zip ties blend better with the black leather than cotton laces and any adjustment in tightness can be done in seconds. The top of the saddle is where the movement should be anyway...Brooks leather is not going to tear or cut.

    2. Each to their own taste, Geoff

      Does one wear zip ties in one's best brogues? ;o)


  3. Do you think Zip Ties, with square edges, would cut through the leather over time, and end up ripping open? Or is there not that much pressure there?

  4. Hi Trevor

    If you were really paranoid about it you could sandpaper the sharp edges away but it would be quite a fiddle on such a narrow tie. I would imagine the flat face of the zip-tie might present a larger surface area than a lace. But then the round lace is pressing over a half circumference in a round hole so there may be no difference or even an advantage to the lace. Despite the considerable tension on the lace the holes I punched have shown no sign of strain as yet. This may be the result of using a good quality pair of punch pliers. Drilling would tear the leather leaving ragged edges to fray. I still prefer laces as more traditional in appearance.

    Remember to place the "buckle" of the zip tie inside the saddle to avoid unwanted protrusions. The sharp end of a cut off zip tie can inflict some serious injury and can't be easily snipped off out on the road! Try a few short rides after tying before that round the world trip. A good quality zip tie may be important too. Some have very poor grip under heavy loads and slip badly. I'd be inclined to use two ties rather than threading only one through all of the holes. That way you get a reserve of insurance against finding a bad tie.

    Expect a harder saddle after tying. The sides/skirts of a leather saddle flap outwards when pressure is applied to the top. The rails certainly don't provide any more suspension than any other saddle. If the hype were true then a brand new B17 would be comfortable right from the off. It's certainly not. It's a highly polished, saddle-shaped rock!

    The real advantage of tying is that the saddle does not sag quite as much in the middle of the spine. Though it still occurs and needs retensioning at more lengthy intervals. Tying has probably extended the life of my 'Special' by at least a couple of years. I just don't like sagging saddles and untied they quickly go south despite repeated tensioning. Eventually you run out of leather and tension bolt thread. Re-tensioning should be even more gentle on a tied saddle to slow the tendency to stretch. So go easy on the Brooks spanner.