MARYVILLE (WATE) - Chances are if you've ridden a horse near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the saddle or riding accessories were made at a Maryville family business called FABTRON.
It's more than massive warehouses and manufacturing spaces are at 3806 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway, across the street from Heritage High School.
Brad Headrick showed us around the company which supplies saddles and tack around the world.
He says you can find their products in shops "from Australia, to Spain to France." His father started the business in the 1970s, primarily making nylon whips.
Although FABTRON still sells nylon accessories, now it's better known for its leather products.
"We started leather in about 1992 and of course started building saddles, and of course you had to build all the components to go with it anything made out of leather," Headrick said.
One of the big changes over the years has been the addition of a machine called a CNC cutter. The massive machine allows workers to design a 3D saddle or other product on a computer.
Then the machine holds a hide in place using suction before projecting an image on it and cutting exact measurements.
The CNC cutter minimizes waste and mistakes, and Headrick says it's a big difference from the days of a manual press. "From just the initial product, conceiving it, to getting it finished went from three to four weeks to a matter of days."
After this step, FABTRON prides itself in its handmade approach. During our visit, a different person handled each stage of the saddle-making process.
"We can actually have someone that is an expert doing each product, each individual step, at the end of the day makes a better product," Headrick said.
The saddles made here are more designed for everyday use, like trail riding.
So although it's not considered a custom shop, there are still lots of options available. "A saddle, average, goes between $600-$1,100 depending on what you want," Headrick said. "There are variations greatly on a saddle depending on whether you want stamping, what style seat, what size horse you have."
But one thing that's a constant in all of the saddles produced at FABTRON are the hides.
"The reason you want to use U.S. hide is just the quality of leather in general," Headrick explained. "Import hide will have a lot brands, scratches, range marks, barbed wire. We want to cut a piece of leather from start to finish with no flaws in it, and to do that you've really got to start out with number one grade going in."
Our crew watched as the leather was applied to a saddle tree. The leather must be wet to stay pliable and must dry between each stage.
Headrick says a lot of the steps still require expert hand work and skill to get right. In the end, despite technology, an average saddle still takes about four to five days from start to finish.
He says even though things have changed over the years, the company has changed as well, finding a way to thrive for more than three decades.
"Used to, everybody had a horse in their backyard. It is really not that. Anymore it's an expensive hobby to play with," Headrick said.
Fabtron produces anywhere between 800-1,100 saddles a year, along with endless supplies of reins, bridles and other accessories.