Tools of the Trade: Cowboy Chrome / Know How
The art of making bits and spurs, silver engraving and design
As a professional, a cowboy invests in fine handmade gear because he wants to be well-equipped. As a professional, the craftsman is always searching for ways to make each piece not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing. Here is a glimpse at the process of bit and spurmaking.
"One thing we know for sure, good horses are made by horsemen and not by the gear alone. Not all cowboys will agree on gear, but they will all agree on what a well-trained horse feels like."
— Horseman and gearmaker Jeremiah Watt
Time, patience, artistry, and experience with horses are important ingredients in the process of making a bit. A bit should look good, feel good, and taste good to the horse.
The bitmaker first selects a pattern, and modifies it to suit the customer’s preferences for overall length, pull ration of the cheek piece, or point of attachment of mouthpiece. Many steps follow to make a finished bit.
To the uninitiated, a bit is like a steering wheel and the reins act as a brake. To the horseman, bit, bridle, and reins are only one part of a complex set of silent signals relayed to the horse through the rider’s body. A well-trained horse learns to respond to these cues.
The Goddess handed me the bridle
That tamed my horse’s summer heart.
Then, by the spring and standing idle,
He took my saddle, took his part
In works of rounds I would be keeping.
— From “A Ponder” by Buck Ramsey, Cowboy Poetry Matters
"If you want to just have something to use, you could ride with any bit. I try to follow the philosophies of [renowned horsemen] Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance - and Tom, he wants to ride with a kite string. And I think that’s the ultimate goal, you don’t need a bridle."
— Dan Price, cowboy and silverworker
Plain and purely functional, or highly ornate and showy, spurs will always be an important part of the everyday cowboy’s gear. Spurs enable the rider to ask the horse for a range of responses, from subtle to quick. A touch of a spur can say many things to a well-trained horse, from stop to start, move left or right.
A craftsman customizes spurs to suit the rider. A person’s height and riding style set the level and angle of the rowel in relation to the horse’s rib cage. Rowel sizes and spur styles also reflect regional design preferences.
And when he rode men might his rowels hear
Jingling in a whistling wind so clear.
— From “Notes for a Novel” by Buck Ramsey
To me there is so much more that happens before you would ever touch a horse with a spur. I wear spurs but very seldom do they get used.
— Dan Price, cowboy and silverworker.
Time was when spur rowels jingled when boot heels bumped the floor
Dawns with hot black coffee and saddling up at four
With feet in tapaderos and broncs between their knees
And silken neck scarves snapping as they turned into the breeze
— From “The Men Who Ride No More” by Joel Nelson
Engraving in its many forms has been with us since the earliest days of embellishment - often used on objects of religious importance or for people of status.
The most primitive engraving was done with simple iron scribers and hammers, rendering shallow incised line work on soft metals such as silver, gold and bronze. The production of steel that could be hardened to hold a cutting edge made fundamental changes in the complexity of the artwork.
“Chase engraving” is used on hard metals, such as guns and knives, using a small hammer and chisel. Softer metals, such as the silver used in bits and spurs, are engraved by the “hand push method.”
The western style of engraving, “brite cut engraving,” is based on floral designs, incorporating flowers, leaves, and scrolls to fill the space. Since silver and gold are considered brilliant metals, most of the engraving is done in a manner that enhances or creates brilliance, hence the name “brite cut.”