Everyone loves the smell of leather, and that’s what you get when you walk into the Sharp Saddles storefront at W.C. Marketplace, 203 N. Main St. unit 2 in Joseph.
The shop’s moniker is taken from proprietors Clay and Robin Sharp, who moved to its W.C. Marketplace location in October of 2018. The couple have been together for 25 years.
Clay Sharp, who grew up in a remote part of British Columbia, started building saddles about 25 years ago.
“I grew up on a ranch in Canada, so I’ve been around horses and cows my whole life,” he said. He also worked for an Arabian ranch in Sisters and attended farrier school.
Sharp also met his wife in Sisters and made some life changes.
“We wanted to do something where we would work together and do something different than a 9-5,” he said. “I also didn’t want to be shoeing horses at 50.”
They knew they wanted something to do with horses. The subject of saddlemaking came up, which set the couple on their path.
The couple moved to Idaho, found jobs and bought new saddle making tools each payday. They eventually went to Parowan, Utah to work for saddlemaker Bob Ray. Sharp started by building saddle trees, even though it didn’t interest him at the time. He agreed to the position only if allowed to watch Ray build saddles on occasion. Ray agreed.
“Building trees was a fabulous foundation,” Robin Sharp said.
The Sharps don’t build their trees at the moment, but they order them from Francis Bowden, a builder in Texas who formerly worked for Enterprise Saddle Tree Company in the 1970s.
“I can call and get a tree in the wood and do whatever I want to change the shape of it to fit the customer’s need or the horse’s needs,” he said.
Sharp originally built his reputation by building mule saddles.
“We got in on the ground floor of the mule craze, and advertising in mule magazines was cheap,” Robin Sharp said.
The couple lived in Eureka, Nevada at the time and Sharp built his first saddle in a former Pony Express building. At the time, only one saddlemaker built saddles specifically for mules. The Sharps bought one of his saddles and took it apart and basically copied it.
“I just started building mule saddles,” said Sharp. “I actually got a lot of people buying mule saddles, and that’s how I broke into the saddle market.”
The couple initially came to Wallowa County from Phoenix, Arizona. The couple took a job caretaking the Water Canyon Ranch just outside of Wallowa before moving to Alaska.
The couple briefly returned to the Water Canyon Ranch but moved to a friend’s Wallowa County property and while staying there noted the “For Rent” sign in the window of their present location. They signed papers on Oct. 11 and opened on Black Friday. As they had virtually no product, they spent the lapse time churning out their wares.
With shop work, the couple divides the workload by personal strengths.
“With the saddles, I do most of the construction and she does a lot of the stamping, and I do the tooling and flowering,” he said. “She does all the finishing work, oiling, and tan coating.” Robin Sharp also handles the ordering, social media and website tasks and helps with designing other products that help the business survive.
Clay Sharp noted that the saddle market is quite competitive as fewer people are buying saddles and “weekend warrior” saddle-makers proliferate. Ranch culture also changed the paradigm
“A lot of cowboys are riding 4-wheelers, and I think in this economy, people don’t have four or five thousand dollars to spend on something that’s not a necessity.”
Sharp’s favorite saddle to build and also his most popular are Wade saddles. He estimated seven of ten saddles he builds are Wades. Sharp doesn’t use nails, but builds his saddles heavy duty, with a hand-carved leather ground seat. The couple also refuses to use Ralide or fiberglass trees.
“We don’t use fake wool or do in-skirt rigging,” Robin Sharp said. The couple also tries to use American-made components although USA hardware is hard to find. Saddles are built with Wickett-Craig leather.
“When I get old, and I hear somebody talking, saying they had a Clay Sharp saddle, I want to hear it was a fabulous saddle — not a hunk of crap,” Sharp said.
Saddle base price is $3,500, and with that, you get a mohair cinch, a rear cinch, stirrups and a host of other amenities. The couple make numerous other leather goods including chinks, canteen covers, rifle slings, leather trim for footwear, desk sets, etc.
Business is slow at the moment, because the couple is new to the area and the time of year.
“Our goal is to sell products to tourists in the summer and empty their wallets as best we can and use our winter time to restock,” Clay Sharp said with a laugh. He added that business starts picking up close to Christmas.
While the storefront, Etsy store, Facebook page are all standing on their own, the couple is lacking in one area:
“We still desperately need housing,” Robin Sharp said. “Since we’ve been doing this, we’ve been caretakers for other people’s places for almost the entire 25 years.”
“What’s going to be the magic bullet here is finding someplace to live,” Clay Sharp said.