06 November 2011 ~ 15 Comments

Breaking in a Leather Saddle (quickly)

During the spring of 2011 I made the decision to try out a tensioned, unpadded leather saddle again. My previous experience with a 100% leather saddle was using the Selle-Anatomica, which doesn’t require any break in. But that saddle was heavy (no titanium model available) and the slit down the middle was not terribly comfortable for me while using aerobars. Gilles Berthoud are French-made saddles which are supposedly pre-softened, but frankly I can’t tell the difference between a new “factory softened” GB and a new Brooks, so decided to speed things along myself.

Please note that most leather saddles that have a fabric backing, i.e. Rivet and some others, will not soften much, if at all, using these techniques. On one Rivet I managed to tear off the backing which did provide a softer leather saddle.

Nearly every saddle maker says not to put anything on their saddles but their own brand of treatment stuff. They claim that oils will break down the leather too quickly—but honestly, who has the patience and endurance to sit on rock-hard saddle for three months while it gets broken in? The Brooks Proofide “stuff” is (or was) made from tallow, cod oil, vegetable oil, paraffin wax, bees was and citronella oil. GB also sells a small tin of “leather wax.” They both look a lot like Sno-Seal, the bees wax substance I used in the 70s to waterproof my leather mountaineering boots. But then, the purpose of Sno-Seal wasn’t to make the leather softer, rather it’s purpose was to make the leather more water resistant. One brand of mink oil, on the hand, contains a “rich blend of mink oil, silicone and lanolin which conditions and waterproofs smooth leather.”

I learned of two different methods from reliable sources of how to break in a leather saddle:

The first method I learned was similar to the directions found on Sno-Seal treatment product. The recommendation, which came from a friend that has several of the rather expensive Brooks Swift saddles. Here is what he suggested to do: “Get some mink oil, slather the saddle inside and out then bake at 150 degrees F for about 15 minutes or until the oil soaks in completely. Let it cool and buff the saddle out, it will be a chalky white. Then rub in another light coat of oil at room temp on the seat side. You will be good to go. I rode a double century on a brand new Brooks Swift saddle like this. Don’t be afraid to adjust the nut to get tension right on the leather. You will know when it is right.”

The second method is slightly more complicated, but is the technique I generally prefer because it gets the leather softer for quicker break in. This is recommended by the legendary Lon Haldeman on his blog page. He outlines 13 steps to breaking in a Brooks (or similar leather) saddle. The whole process takes about three to four days. This technique does not work with leather saddles that have a fabric or mesh-like backing on the underside like the Rivet and others. This extra layer is presumably designed to prevent the leather from sagging over time, but it is just too firm and doesn’t permit the leather to shape or become softer. Below is an abbreviated version of his 13 steps.

  1. (optional) Before treating this saddle I wanted to minimize any chafing and skived the edges of the leather with an Exacto blade or scalpel.
  2. Attach your saddle to your seatpost and dial in your bike fit with your preferred height, setback and overall saddle angle. Mark with tape the height of the post.
  3. Remove the saddle and post together as one unit. Immerse the whole saddle in a bucket of hot water (100-120F or ~43C or as hot as possible and still be able to immerse your hand in it) for around 7 minutes. Remove the saddle and flex the sides of it with your fingers. Lon says “The saddle should feel pliable but not limp. If the saddle still feels stiff then soak it another 5 minutes. Do not over soak it because you only want to break in the saddle about 50% during this first process.”
  4. Remove the saddle from the water and quickly dry it off with an old towel. Rub the top, bottom and edges of the leather with plenty of mink oil. Massage it into the leather for about 3–5 minutes, particularly in the sit bone area. Do not wipe off the mink oil. Mount the saddle on your bike and immediately go for a 10–15 minute ride. Using old shorts are recommended. Personally, I usually use unpadded Lycra running shorts so my sit bones protrude better.
  5. After your ride, add more mink oil to the top. Check the tension screw of the saddle. Usually I back it off all the way and then re-tighten it until it just begins to be sung…and then turn it another full revolution. Frequently I will tightly wrapped a strap around the entire saddle and post, like the ski strap shown below, to keep the shape of the saddle. This especially helps keep the side panels in without lacing. Let it sit overnight.
  6. The next day, if it still feels too firm, repeat steps 3 & 4 if necessary and go for an hour ride (on one occasion I went for a 4-hour ride, which proved to be too much for the Brooks Team Pro).
  7. Add more mink oil each day and go for increasing longer rides for the next two days. Be sure to keep the saddle well oiled for the first month or so after breaking it in.

For me, within three days I was off and running with a new leather saddle that gave me plenty of comfort without the tireless break-in time that is commonly associated with this style of seat. I was able to ride a one-day 200K (125 miles) immediately without any problems down under. NICE!

15 Responses to “Breaking in a Leather Saddle (quickly)”

  1. Marc 9 July 2012 at 8:30 am Permalink

    Hi Richard, I’m just wondering, how is your saddle holding up after breaking it in this way? Had you tried this before on another saddle? Have you ever broken in a saddle like this the old fashioned way?

  2. Richard 13 July 2012 at 12:11 pm Permalink

    Saddle is working fine. Yesterday I finished up another 1200km grand randonnee using this saddle and have used it for a complete year now. I have used it on one very rainy 400km brevet and with all the added mink oil it seemed to not stretch, despite the moisture. I have not tried this technique on other brands, but Lon Haldeman uses this method on his Brooks. I have not attempted to break in a saddle using the old fashioned way. Just last night I spoke to another rider (who also finished the 1200km and was having slight seat troubles) who is on his 2nd Brooks and is trying to break it in the old fashioned way and despite months & high mileage is not happy yet. I pointed him to this post on my blog and recommend he use this technique — he has another 1200k in two weeks and wants to be more comfortable on that ride.

  3. Boban James 19 August 2014 at 8:48 am Permalink

    Hi,

    I also plan to break in my Brooks this way…Have had it for a while, but it’s not really broken in. How’s the saddle holding up two years after your original post? Also, when you write that “Be sure to keep the saddle well oiled for the first month or so after breaking it in”, do you mean with the mink oil or proofide? Any particular reason why it should be well oiled after being broken in, since I would have thought that any more oiling would cause it to break in even more which may not be that desirable? thanks for writing this up!

    Bob

  4. Rando Richard 19 August 2014 at 6:42 pm Permalink

    Hello Bob,
    My GB is holding up very well. I have used it all summer on my longest rides (see my Strava account for mileage reports). I only use mink oil on it and keep it “well oiled” so the leather does not dry out, since I live in a very dry climate — i.e. central Utah.

  5. Boban James 19 August 2014 at 8:09 pm Permalink

    So Richard, I soaked the saddle, slathered on the oil, and came back after a 15 minute ride. Happy to report that it’s got some pretty nice indentations in it now! Keep in mind though that I’ve been using this saddle quite a bit prior to this and was getting the faintest of indentations earlier, so technically this is not a new saddle. What do you recommend next? Should I apply mink oil and leave it overnight, or should I be sparing with the mink oil- I have a feeling that all I need to do is keep riding regularly from this point onwards and let the saddle break in naturally from now on. I wasn’t sure though if putting on more mink oil would accelerate that process, which I don’t want to happen. I live in Singapore btw, which is very humid!
    Thanks for your advice
    Bob

  6. Rando Richard 19 August 2014 at 8:48 pm Permalink

    Did you do the hot water bath or just put on mink oil to a “cold” saddle? I would apply more mink oil if it feels dry and let it sit overnight. If the saddle feels soft and moist, then perhaps put a very light coat on.

  7. Steve 24 March 2015 at 1:04 pm Permalink

    Bought a can of Proofide when I purchased my B17. Will it work as well in place of mink oil? I’ve used a water-soak-preservative method to shape double-soled moccasins to my feet in the past, so I know it can work. It’s particularly encouraging to get this step-by-step guide. Since I’m only an occasional rider, I might not live long enough to break the Brooks in under my normal riding conditions.

  8. Rando Richard 24 March 2015 at 4:24 pm Permalink

    Steve,
    To be honest with you, I have not used Proofide. It seems like it has more wax it in than mink oil, like SnoSeal for waterproofing hiking boots. My guess is that it will not soften the saddle as quickly as mink oil.
    ~ RWS

  9. Cavemanmikee 26 March 2015 at 3:08 pm Permalink

    So I got a brooks b17 saddle for Christmas. Been wanting one all year long:) Read all 10,000 online posting on how to break in your saddle:)
    So I figured I go with the safest route proofide and just puting the miles in. I rode it like this for approx 1,000 miles…damn thing was still hard as a rock…and actually got me dreaming of other saddles….butt was hurting bad even after riding. So I actually got the saddle from REI and I was thinking if I try the water/mink oil method that I can take it back if it is a disaster. The saddle felt amazing on 15 min ride after soaking in water 7 min and covering with mink oil. And has still felt amazing since 3= months later and completeing an IMBA epic ride where my ass did not hurt the entire time! For what it’s worth I’m riding a Karate Monkey with a thudbuster. Now my Brooks is everything i hoped it would be. For what its worth I weigh 257 lbs. The only thing I wish could somehow change with the Brooks design is the rail at the back of the saddle. It would be perfect if it were somehow not there:)

  10. Rando Richard 27 March 2015 at 4:50 pm Permalink

    Thanks for the report Cave Man Mike. I like the Gilles Berthoud saddles because they use polycarbonate on the rear and not steel.

  11. Deborah Evans 15 May 2015 at 12:00 am Permalink

    Did you wear, and do you now wear padded shorts while breaking in or now while riding? I’ve heard you don’t need them, but I am not sure what you did.

  12. Rando Richard 17 May 2015 at 9:07 pm Permalink

    All my cycling shorts have a padded chamois, including those I use to break in a saddle. I think my sit bones are very pointed as I seem to need the padding, although I frequently do rides up to 4 or 5 hours without using chamois cream. I have not thought of using unpadded shorts for breaking in a saddle, but that sounds like a good idea. Thanks for the idea.

  13. ReconMarine 19 August 2015 at 2:41 pm Permalink

    This old tired Marine finally wore out a bike and a Brooks B17 that was pushing 30 years old.
    Bought a new bike and another B17..going to try this method as soon as I locate mink oil.

  14. Lyn Mayhew 12 February 2016 at 10:17 pm Permalink

    Do you know if the mink oil will discolor my saddle (natural B67S)?

  15. Rando Richard 13 February 2016 at 8:56 am Permalink

    Yes, it typically makes leather a lot darker, especially after repeated applications.