Western Craftsmanship Symposium

by Nick Pernokas, Senior Feature Writer, Shop Talk!

Symposium attendees were treated to an early view of the Cowboy Crossings exhibit at the Museum. A fully carved roping saddle by Troy West is in the foreground.

For the past 18 years, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City has teamed up with the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association to produce the definitive exhibition and sale of the cowboy arts. These items include spectacular saddles, braiding, silver work, bit, and spurs. The sale brings some of the highest prices for new work in the world. In previous years, there have been different programs, like workshops, to give a chance for the TCAA members to share some of their knowledge.

This year the focus shifted with the inaugural Western Craftsmanship Symposium. Instead of sharing knowledge about leather work, the elephant in the room was addressed. That elephant can best be explained by a joke that was repeated several times over the two days. “How can you tell if a saddle maker is successful?” Answer: “His wife has a good job.”

In other words, the question that faces many of us was discussed: How do you prosper in the cowboy arts? The program was a give and take between a panel of artists and business experts and the sixty craftsmen in attendance. Most were seasoned craftsmen who already know how to produce a high-quality product and have discovered that that is not enough.

The program was opened by TCAA president Nate Wald and Museum CEO Steven Karr.

“The West is deeply ingrained in this institution,” said Steven. “Running a museum is not an art, it’s a craft. Making the beautiful things to put in the museum is an art.”

Chuck Stormes and Cary Schwarz were next and discussed the history of the western trades. Chuck reflected on the changes during his lifetime which include the loss of the large high quality shops and the emergence of the small, one-man, shops. This has made it more difficult for craftsmen to learn a trade through apprenticing since repetition and volume lead to developing the skills necessary for more difficult projects, and this just isn’t available any more.

The other change which has occurred is the switch to one man doing all the work. At one time, the saddle maker just built the saddle, the stitching man sewed it, the cutter cut out the parts, and the stamper tooled it. Most trades were like this. When Chuck was starting out, he bought out an old saddle maker’s tools. There was no draw gauge included in the set, and Chuck asked him where it was. The old man told him that he’d never had to strip out a strap.

Today’s craftsman has to do everything related to the product, including pricing, advertising, setting hours, and bookkeeping, which can create a conflict between being a craftsperson, focused on the trade, and being a businessperson, focused on making money.

TCAA founding member Cary Schwarz spoke on the importance of being professional and managing one’s time efficiently.

“We find ourselves in full retreat,” commented Cary.

Cary attributed this to the agrarian background of many western craftspeople who tend to be an introverted group of people, preferring to be alone in their shop and working. This can result in self sabotage by way of too much modesty and lack of self-promotion.

Cary also mentioned that artists at one time trained their whole lives in one medium to get good at it. Today the trend in many artists is to be a creative entrepreneur who does many things. The public has picked up on this, and what they consider “art” may not have the depth it once had. This creates a situation where mass produced, “almost as good,” products can be accepted by the public as high quality. The custom maker may be tempted to price down to compete with this, but he should be aware that he does not operate in a vacuum. By setting his prices lower, he affects what other craftsmen can charge.

A professional needs to be professional. He needs to know why he does what he does, he needs professional photos on his website, business cards, a logo, and a letterhead. His pricing should reflect a realistic level for making a living. He should display an attitude of abundance or, in other words, “dress for success”. He should always try to be improving his skills as well as improving his communication with customers.

According to Cary, profitability lets you work on your quality rather than watching the clock so you can pay bills. More artistry lets you create a more unique product that can’t be replicated in a factory, whereas strictly utilitarian products can be. The comments from the floor were just as good. One observation was made that craftsmen are selling a piece with some emotional attachment for the buyer as well as the seller. “People are attracted to a piece of your art because of its beauty, but they purchase it because of your story,” commented one attendee.

J. Kent McCorkle is in the investment business. He quickly cut to the chase. “Relationship management success is a measure as decided by others,” said Kent. “Satisfaction is a measure decided by you.” Seventy percent of a customer’s buying experience is based on how he feels he’s being treated. This requires authentic personal interactions with the customer both before and after the transaction. People engage in repeat business with someone they like. Decide what is special about your product and cultivate your customers for it accordingly. “Say what you will do, do what you say,” said Kent. “Under promise and over deliver. Be authentic.” Being authentic means that you need to show some of your real self to your customer.

Shep Hermann spoke brilliantly on the question of ethics in the business world. He challenged the audience to come up with their own answers. Shep believes that ethics are a function or reflection of a person’s priorities. For example, if a person puts his own personal happiness first, then he will not achieve other possible goals—he limits himself by his decision. If it is money, then a person may be able to address his business issues accordingly. If family is at the top of the list, they will resolve family problems first. People always make their choices according to their personal priorities, and these are their ethics. Shep listed some priorities that he felt contributed to good ethics, and they were, in order: family, career, job, and community. Ideally, two people with the same ethics can work well together.

“Ethics allows you to make decisions contrary to short-term interests, in order to accomplish long-term goals,” said Shep. When dealing with customers, Shep summed it up with the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. “The customer is not always right, but he is always the customer.” Don Bellamy, financial advisor for the TCAA, spoke next. “The TCAA is not here to tell people how to price but to be a resource,” said Don. Most businesses, like large auto companies, have price increases every year. They also add features every year. The craftsman needs to do the same but, as he increases the price, he cannot outpace the quality. It must be improving to justify the price. Bit and spur maker Wilson Capron also spoke on this subject and asked the crowd if they ever noticed all of a sudden that they weren’t making enough to pay the bills. A lot of heads nodded. The difficult question about pricing came up and Wilson said one rule of thumb is to charge three times what you pay your employee. A common formula for pricing that is used by several large companies in the U.S. is:

Labor + Materials = Cost

Cost x 2 = Wholesale Cost

Wholesale Price x 2 = Retail Price

Or:  Materials +Labor +Expenses + Profit = Wholesale x 2 = Retail

Even if this formula is not realistic for your market, you should work towards this.

With a small profit margin, you can’t cover yourself if something goes wrong.

You have to pay yourself, and you can’t survive if you’re competing with Wal-Mart.  Your prices must also be consistent wherever you sell your products. They have to be the same at trade shows, auctions, or in your store. Inconsistency in price creates distrust in your customer.

One of the things to avoid is having a red light sale. Once you do this, you’ll always have to manipulate your customer. This goes back to not competing with Wal-Mart.

Noted leather worker and painter Jim Jackson along with sculptor Paul Moore and Nate Wald emphasized the need to constantly be improving your work. Your pricing should also increase along with your quality. Jim Jackson said, “Art is subjective, but when you create a special piece, it should cost more.”

Wilson Capron noted that a customer is paying for both his skills and the experience that he brings to a piece when he builds it.

Canadian silversmith Scott Hardy gave an excellent talk on setting goals.

Silversmith Scott Hardy spoke on the importance of setting goals. He broke them down into Personal, Professional, and Financial goals. This helps you to know where you’re going and what your plan is to get there. These can be broken down into long-term, short-term, and daily goals. They should be obtainable and measurable. It’s important to write them down. The difference between a dream and a goal is the act of writing it down and making it concrete.

Dr. Morgan McArthur, a fantastic motivational speaker, talked of the importance of becoming honest with your goals. He stressed not being afraid to change them. Dr. McArthur also said that every decision that you make either takes you closer or further away from your goals.

Paul Moore, Jim Jackson, and Nate Wald emphasized that a craftsman needs to constantly educate himself and that he should be familiar with his trade around the world, not just in his backyard. A craftsman must look at other work to gain inspiration, not to copy it. He can’t get in a rut. The maker must constantly upgrade his tools as he can. He should always be open to new ideas from unusual sources.

“A pyramid with a wider foundation will go higher,” said Paul.  The second day was as informative as the first. Cary Schwarz began with a talk on time management. He delved into the problem many of us have which is too much sensory input from our digital society. This can produce a “divided mind and divided time”.

“Decide what is important and what is merely interesting,” said Cary.

Cary allocates three hours in the morning to deep focused work where he won’t answer the phone or get involved in disruptions. He does the same in the afternoon. He returns calls and e-mails after 4:00. It’s not how many hours that a craftsman puts in but how many productive hours. He assigns a manila folder to each job and customer. Cary keeps track of his time on it and puts the drawings and patterns for that job in it.

The conversation then moved into marketing with Steve Bell, the owner of Eclectic Horseman Magazine, and Brian Lebel of Brian Lebel’s Old West Show and Auction as well as the High Noon Show and Auction. Steve went into great detail on the various ways the craftsman can advertise digitally, especially through social media. The web is community driven and has allowed people from around the globe to create content. With the average person spending 50 minutes a day on the web, it is a relatively inexpensive way to go. If you spend some money on the Internet, you can target specific customers. There are over two hundred social media platforms but Facebook is number one. Traditional niche magazines are still an excellent way to target a specific audience though.

Brian said that honesty is an important factor in marketing. You shouldn’t sell something to someone that isn’t right for what they want to do with it. Reputation matters and people need to get to know you. Many people who deal in the cowboy arts do business the old way. They respond to print ads and handshakes.


A lot of ideas were traded over muffins and coffee.

Dr. McArthur closed out the symposium with another rousing and funny motivational speech. He spoke on the importance of persistence, and that there is no value in “easy”. “If you’re as good as you were a year ago, then you are worse,” said Dr. McArthur.

For the TCAA this does not seem to be a problem. They continue to come up with new ideas both in their work and their programs. The buzz was extremely positive in the hallways of the museum during the breaks.

“Words can’t describe it,” said Shep Hermann of Hermann Oak Leather.

“We’ve succeeded in the objective that we set out, which was feedback, creating a community, and a forum of discussion,” said Cary Schwarz. It looked like most of the folks in attendance found out that they were not alone in facing the elephant and left with some good ideas for feeding it.