2016 marks my 35th year as a full time Western Silversmith. Over the next few months I will try and provide anyone interested a glimpse into not only my journey but also my passion and philosophies.

Some of the questions and statements I often hear are “How did you get started? You must come from a family of Artists! Was your Dad a silversmith? What school did you go to? And lastly “Where did you apprentice and who did you work for?” Lets start by getting some of the myths out of the way with a quick overview of my “Formal education” and “Influences”.

I come from a family of stockmen. These are people who work with their hands, not with paint brushes or gravers but rather fencing pliers, hammers or shovels. We had no Fine Art in our home or Great Handmade Gear, although both were always appreciated. It was my beautiful wife and life partner Leslie that encouraged me to become a Western Silversmith. It was my Great Grandfather Bert who stressed “The only time you should quite learning is when they are throwing dirt on you!” I also can still hear my Grandma Myrtle’s words ringing in my ears “Any job worth doing is worth doing to the best of your abilities!”

In the late 70’s I was welding, shoeing horses, and worked on the oil rigs, just doing what I could to survive. I came home one day and Leslie had a newspaper add about a continuing education course on beginning Silversmithing. The course was 3 hours a night, 2 nights a week for 10 weeks. Sign me up!

Hardy_Article_02To start with we worked on small jewellery items and I really enjoyed it! With Leslie’s encouragement I started buying tools and set up a little shop in our basement working nights and weekends. Soon I started attempting buckles and saddle silver. I quickly figured out the required materials were heavier, needed more heat along with different technics. Lastly I would have to learn how to engrave!!! Just to be clear this was well before the internet. I knew no one in the area that did this for a living, with the exception of a company that made it crystal clear they were not interested in helping me. My only influences came from magazines and books. There was even less information about engraving. I finally stumbled across a book by James B. Meck on the Art of Engraving. I found a man named Don Glaser who was making power assisted hand engraving machines called Graver-mister. I saved my money ordered one and I was officially Dangerous!

Hardy_Article_01In 1980 some clients introduced me to renowned saddle maker Chuck Stormes. He had some great Silversmiths as friends and started showing me some fantastic pieces along with critiquing my work when possible. I’m still not sure whether Chuck saw something in me or felt my shear desperation to learn but I will always be indebted to him.

I flipped things around in 1981 and started working on silver through the day and
doing my other jobs in the early mornings, nights and weekends. Chuck finally recommended that I go to Cliff Ketchum who occasionally helped beginner engravers. I contacted Cliff to set up a date. He charged $100.00 per day plus I had to buy him breakfast, lunch and dinner. In exchange I was able to stay in his little holiday trailer. We had enough money saved for me to go for five days. We only had one vehicle(doubted it would have made it there and back) so I took the Greyhound Express and arrived in Walla Walla, Washington two days later. It was a good five days and Cliff opened the door on some basics of engraving for me!

Chuck introduced me to Mark Drain’s work, which I thought was fantastic! I knew I wasn’t at a level that Mark would be interested in teaching me yet. In1985 Mark agreed to let me spend three days with him. The cost was $150 per day plus a plane ticket. We borrowed the money from Leslie’s Grandmother. Today I still feel it was some of the best money I ever spent, Mark lifted the veil for me! I loved Mark’s engraving, he pushed everything by hand (no power assist). He had no problem with power assist but felt they were slower and said everyone should learn by hand first then make the decision if they wanted to use power assist. We spent three glorious days hand engraving. I came home and for the next 30 years never used a power assist again. I went to Marks again in 1986 for 3 days. I can never thank Mark and Kathy enough for their kindness and they remain today our very good friends.

I was introduce to Alvin(Al) Pecetti in 1987. I believe Al was North Americas most influential Silversmith at the time. He invited me to spend a week with him, so of course I jumped at the chance. It turned out to be a life changing trip for me. Besides the shop and design knowledge Al shared with me, he gave me advice that I have followed and have believed in from that day on. At that point in my career in addition to silver work I also built bits and spurs thinking they were the same trade. One afternoon Al took me over to the great Bit and Spur maker Al Tietjen’s shop. We toured the shop then went into the house to visit over a glass of Crown Royal whiskey. During the visit the “Als” offered me some advice, In their view these were two separate trades each deserved the respect and dedication to be concentrated on fully. “Pick one, learn everything you can about it and honor it by taking it as far as you possibly can”! I picked Silversmithing and have heeded their advice ever since. I have not regretted it for one minute.
I was privileged to visit Al twice more over the next few years(5 days each time) and we grew to become good friends.

A few years ago I took a 4 day repousse class from Valentin Yotkov and recently took a 5 day course from ornamental Engraver Sam Alfona. We worked on design and techniques under a microscope, what a blast! During all this time I have and continue to read constantly about different Technics, Art, Design, Architecture, and Composition. I am interested in anything I feel will enhance my knowledge and help me become a better Silversmith and Engraver.

So folks that outlines my “formal” education. I have never apprenticed under anyone, I have no degrees and have never done piece work for anyone. I have only worked for two entities, my family and my clients.

One of the most challenging things for an artist, I believe, is to be fresh with their creativity and keep it new and interesting to the viewer from one year to the next.  As TCAA members, we are required to create the three best pieces we have ever made each and every year.  This task can be daunting at times.  However, I had had this bit in my mind for years, well really shortly after I got started engraving I thought this technique would make a great piece.  The problem was I didn’t think I had the ability or the market for such and undertaking.  It wouldn’t be easy to execute and the time table would be extensive.

Sculpting, first of all, is anything but easy.  Thinking in dimensions is very difficult to me for some reason, but the challenge of creating a three dimensional leaf structure in the steel was very exciting!  The next part, inlaying silver beneath the upper surface of the steel, was a mystery.  Extra amounts of material would have to be removed requiring more time, more money. My age, or a lack of creditability seemed to be a problem.  Whether I was capable of creating a piece likes this or not was yet to be seen, but I certainly wasn’t confident that my market would accept me asking the price it would require to finish the job respectfully.  However, an opportunity presented itself with the CA’s having their 50th anniversary show.  Many new people would be coming and I thought it was time to jump off and see what I could do.

I wasn’t scared of the execution process.  Making mistakes doesn’t really bother me too much because in order to get better you have to get started.  The next one will be better for sure and the first one won’t be exactly how I have it envisioned probably, but no time better than the present to start the process, right?  The price and market thing, well I couldn’t wait forever.  The last couple of years were good and it was time to stretch everyone’s comfort zone, including my market’s.  The realization was I could very possibly not sell it, and that was ok.  Financially my business was wiling to take the risk.

My first step was to consider a canvas that provided me the space to make my statement.  I wanted large leaves and scrolls so that visual impact could happen from across the room or from across the pens if it gets in a horse’s mouth.  I didn’t want it being too small.  This would also prevent me from spending excessive amounts of time on microscopic details.  The time was already going to be uncomfortably large.  The Santa Barbara shank is one that has large amounts of tradition and history.  It also provides a canvas of size and elements of flow that lends itself to a very elegant design.  It seemed like a fit to me.

Shanks were decided and now came the mouthpiece.  The Santa Barbara shank is used with many different mouthpieces, so possibilities were great.  The presentation in a show is important, so I was thinking about something that matched the occasion.  I didn’t want a simple grazer but on the other hand I wasn’t really wanting to go as far as a spade.  Making something that folks can relate to is always a goal of mine as well.  People need to be able to relate their story to my work so that they can feel ownership in the piece, even if they have never been on a horse.  They need to feel like a part of the West when viewing the bit, a mouthpiece that was easy to look at, one that didn’t make them feel like a level of understanding was needed. With this all in mind the Barqueño gained my interest because I love to forge metal and it gave me an opportunity to play with this old skill.

During all this “thinking” that had been going on I had been drawing, a lot!  I used newsprint, which is a very cheap paper that allows me to sketch ideas.  I’ve got to get it clear in my head how I’m going to tell the story.  Getting something down on paper is the first step.  Each morning during my daily drawing time I would sketch an idea.  Things develop from one day to the next and I try to build from one day to the next using things I like and removing the ones I don’t.  As refinement happens I move to a higher quality paper that allows me to be more precise.  When I get a drawing that is comfortable I will scan this image into my computer.  AutoCad is used to make a technical drawing using the scanned drawing for reference to again refine the architecture of my bit.  If I don’t start with a good drawing then I have to correct in the next steps.  Each step is critical to get right so that the following process is easier.  A good drawing starts me off on the right foot.

At this point the foundation of my project has been laid.  Elements could evolve and develop as I work in the steel, but for the most part I had figured out what I was creating.  The nuts and bolts or brush strokes make the paper drawing a reality.  That part is a new topic for a another day!  I hope this little window into the creation of a major project was insightful.

Picture 196Back in 2006 I kept a journal on the making of the saddle I refer to as the Bronc saddle. The purpose was to show the many many different steps that such a project takes. It ended up being a BIG journal! So I thought that saddle was as good as any to talk about, besides I had more hair then and it was a lot darker.

A lot of time and thought goes into a project like this; the first is deciding what my theme is going to be. Then I have to decide what type of saddle would be most appropriate for that theme In 2013 I made a saddle titled the Will James,…. That was easy I started with the tree named after him, and made the shape of the saddle what Mr. James usually drew, which was a semi square skirted saddle with a metal horn, and ox bow stirrups. In ’06 I wanted to make a saddle with my favorite theme, the bucking horse. So if bucking horses are the main theme A swell fork saddle seemed natural So of course the “committee’ tree was used (also called an Association tree) Back in the early years of rodeo, bronc riders were showing up at rodeos with all kinds of crazy forks and finally it was decided some uniformity would be good, so a fork 14 inch wide was agreed up on. I’m pretty sure the early years they did have a horn, but they wouldn’t have had the big long fenders or a loop seat, like I designed but my main objective was to build a cool looking saddle that someone would want to display in their home or office….. I call it artistic license. After the style of tree has been decided I work on the decoration design. I really loaded up on this one even decorating the saddle strings, pretty darn busy, kind of like inside my head, but that’s another story by itself! Anyway I need to decide where on the saddle will I have my art work, how many figures will I have on it, do the figures have some color or do I stay with earth tones, What kind of floral design do I want and what type of flower do I want. Somebody just asked “Isn’t one the same as the other, But NO, they’re not. Most people know what the “Sheridan“style is but there are other styles too such as the Arizona, the California, The NorthWest style, In 2011 I made my Miles city saddle that had no stem flow at all just roses side by side, not sure if that falls into any category. Any way I went with one of my favorite flowers, a type of daisy that had a heavy stem flow, and where room allows I like to make the stem flow a continual loop, meaning if you follow the flow, it will meet up where you first started It can take quite a bit of time drawing the pattern out, then transferring it onto the leather, finally carving it and then adding a little color to help make the design POP The fun thing about leather work is there are a lot of options, only limited by our own imagination.


When people come to my shop to special order a custom saddle I often tell them that the two logical places to put art work is the back of the cantle and the top of the horn. Because where we ride a lot of the time is on trails, single file. So the only part of the saddle you see of the people riding with you is their cantle back. And the only part of the saddle that you see when you’re sitting in your saddle is the top of the horn, so the cantle back gets most of my designing time and effort when it comes to the actual art work. It sucks because the cantle back is shaped poorly for such work! First it’s not straight up and down, it’s slanted! Why is that a big deal, well just imagine viewing a nice painting if it were hung waist high, and you were viewing it from three feet away. Things get distorted. And then the cantle is curved away from the viewer, making for more distortion, something you have to design for I’ve found out the HARD way!!!!So, I drew up a cantle back design that was really different, three leather conchos that really stuck out. I accomplished this by first carving the conchos out of wood, mounting them to the cantle back and then fit my cantle back leather piece onto the tree, marked where the wood conchos were at so I could thin the leather in that spot down to like a 2-3 ounce, so off comes the cantle back to do the necessary skiving ( thinning) then I refitted the leather to the back of the cantle, making sure my thin spots were right at the edge of the wood conchos underneath, then I marked my borders, and then before taking it off again I made some marks at different spots all around the outside of the leather piece so that when I was all done carving it I could put it back onto the tree exactly like it was . Gosh I hope that makes sense. Needless to say there were a lot of steps, which means a lot of time. A good piece of Hermann Oak leather is a wonderful thing. It forms so well, compresses well, colors well; it is amazing what a person can do with it. For the person that wants to know, wood glue such as Titebond II works really well in forming the thin leather to the wood conchos. It doesn’t set up until your leather sets up, meaning as long as you keep the leather wet the glue doesn’t set until your done pushing and pulling it where you need it to be!

The hardest part of that saddle was the covering of the fork. On a nice round swell like a Bowman 12” even a 13 inch you can pull the leather down (bunch the excess up) and not have to put in a welt. (a seam) But if your using a good thick piece that will carve nicely on a 14” shaped like a committee there is no way. But welts are not attractive and ruin the flow of a nice floral design. Besides that they wear out, unless put in the right spot. Yes I know A saddle that never gets thrown over a horse doesn’t need to worry about wear and tear, but for an everyday saddle the welt should be put in the front of the swell not down the middle like we’ve all seen because they will wear out. Any way I chose to go welt less, and put in a “hidden” seam, which is nicely illustrated in one of Al Stolhmans books. To really hide the seam cut out the excessive leather in like a zig zag putting thought to how your floral pattern will work with the zig zagness you have drawn, I think the photo I have will help make some sense of this. Be aware, it is a real bastard of a job. Sewing the hidden stitch is easy when the two sides your sewing up are both the same length and lying flat, but your sewing in a bowl shape and one side is longer than the other, so you have to “ bunch” up the long side, adding to the painfulness . The photo shows the amount of leather that’s been removed (a lot).

I think some people look at our TCA projects and only see the price tags. They don’t see the million extra steps taken to make these projects super cool. Maybe now they’ll see there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Wait till you see this year’s saddle. Wow what a pain it’s going to be! :)

Best wishes, RC

2015-03-04 11.46.16Wilson Capron hosted a March 3-6. The class was attended by six students coming from California, New Mexico and Texas. Each student was able to complete a pair of spurs while learning metal finish and the steps taken to make a pair of spurs. Students were taught to use equipment like belt sanders, buffers, a band saw and files that are very important to the process. Five of the six students stayed at Wilson’s shop bunk house where his wife Katy served three meals a day. This was a great class where friendships were made that will make everyone a better craftsman.

2015-03-04 10.53.21


Beau Compton just finished 7 days of intensive – very intensive – training in my shop as part of his TCAA Fellowship. In that time we concentrated on design, die work, forming, fabrication, engraving and filigree along with this we had long discussions on pricing, business practices and continuing education. It was a very productive time.

At one point Beau commented to me that 5 years ago he didn’t know if he would ever get to meet Mark Drain or myself and now thanks to the TCAA Fellowship he has spent time in both our shops.

I personally want to thank Beau for being a focused student and for his dedication to Western Silversmithing.

I want to remind anyone interested in applying for the TCAA Fellowship Scholarship program please remember entries close April 1st and if you have applied before don’t hesitate to apply again. You are allowed and encouraged to apply multiple times.
For more information go to TCAA website or contact a TCAA member.

Scott Hardy

IMG_4629PH-BWStory and Photos by A.J. Mangum

When Nate Wald was a student at Bozeman’s Montana State University, he took a short road trip northwest on Interstate 90 to Three Forks Saddlery, one of the West’s key suppliers of handmade saddles and tack. Row after row of saddles occupied the store’s floor space. Bits, reins, cinches and other gear lined the walls. As Nate browsed the shop’s inventory, one piece stood out: a pair of braided rawhide reins.

Nate had grown up working on his family’s ranch outside Lodge Grass, Montana. The buckaroo influence on his working style had been nearly nonexistent. He used split reins and swell-fork saddles. There was no rawhide to be found in the tack room. In fact, Nate had never laid eyes on a set of rawhide reins until that visit to Three Forks. The work, though, with its intricacy and detail, fascinated him. Nate was a stockman, a ranch cowboy, a rough-stock rider. Craftwork—making something with his hands—had never interested him, until that moment. Standing in the store, handling that set of reins, he felt a compulsion to make such work himself.

A few months later, in the spring of 1989, Nate was a few credits shy of graduating from MSU, and had a job calving heifers on a ranch outside Bozeman. The work left time for other pursuits. When a heifer lost a calf, Nate harvested the hide and cut strings. Armed with Bruce Grant’s Encyclopedia of Rawhide & Leather Braiding, he began experimenting.

“I did everything wrong,” Nate recalls. “My strings were crude and I’d get the hides too wet.”

Still, his obsession remained unabated. After he graduated and returned home to work on his family’s ranch, Nate continued his experiments with braiding. The Bruce Grant book served as his sole source of instruction until a visit to Sheridan, Wyoming’s King’s Saddlery provided an introduction to braider Vince Donnelly’s work. As taken as he was with Donnelly’s braiding, Nate was equally impressed with the fact that a braider could earn a living in the craft.

Nate got in touch with Vince and arranged to trade a Charolais hide for a supply of Donnelly’s fine-cut, beveled strings. Equipped with superior raw material, expertly prepared, Nate was able to braid a set of reins that came close to fulfilling the ambition that had overtaken him that day at Three Forks.

The young braider made return trips to Sheridan to study Vince’s techniques, tools and working environment. Other influences appeared, almost by accident. Nate became acquainted with Montana braider Randy Rieman at a poetry gathering, and the veteran craftsman began providing feedback on Nate’s work. When Nate began studying the horsemanship of clinician Bryan Neubert, himself an accomplished braider, Neubert took an interest in Nate’s efforts with rawhide, and offered insight on specific techniques, as well as suggestions for more efficient approaches. Ed Dubeau of Billings, and iconic horseman Bill Dorrance, as renowned for his braiding as he was for his horse-handling, also offered wisdom and encouragement. Each exchange with a mentor strengthened Nate’s braiding vocabulary and his understanding of the craft’s fundamentals, preparing him for the next conversation.

The tools of the rawhide-braiding trade.

The tools of the rawhide-braiding trade.

“I’d done enough to have a few skills,” he explains. “From there, you can learn something a little more advanced, jump to the next level, and work with that for a time, developing your skills through repetition. Then someone helps you with even more advanced techniques and you jump again.”

Today, Nate is one of the West’s premier braiders. His work is sought after by working cowboys, competitive horsemen and collectors. A member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association since 2000, he’s also one of his craft’s most influential instructors, teaching seminars, hosting students at his Lodge Grass shop, and offering feedback and insight to countless aspiring braiders. That his own braiding career began with something as fragile as a moment’s inspiration, and was fostered through guidance found almost exclusively through accidental encounters, helps fuel Nate’s desire to teach. Rawhide braiding’s survival as a craft, he contends, requires creating opportunities for young craftsmen to find answers to their questions.

“When I began, workshops were unheard of, and it really was a dying craft,” Nate says. “It just wasn’t something many people were doing. It’s a good example of why TCAA formed in the first place, to create interest and to create educational opportunities.”

TCAA conducts rawhide-braiding workshops as part of its lineup of educational events, and each of the group’s members mentor students on a one-on-one basis. TCAA’s January 2014 Emerging Artists competition, hosted by Arizona’s High Noon Western Americana show, will focus on rawhide braiding, as well as bit and spur making.


This bosal is a work in progress.

Wald softens the rawhide by rubbing it with a bone.
This bosal is a work in progress. Wald softens the rawhide by rubbing it with a bone.
“The discipline is stronger than it’s been in years,” Nate says. “There are a lot of young braiders working and getting good, and I get two or three emails every day from people asking how to get into it, and from braiders asking questions about how to progress.”

Helping aspiring braiders establish their priorities is arguably one of the most valuable roles a mentor can serve. Nate says braiders at every skill level should work with the best hides they can acquire; emphasize feel, balance and usability in their work; and strive to create straight, clean, uniform results. Such “finish” comes from repetition; newcomers to the craft, Nate adds, should embrace the idea of working for the sake of the work, and achieving incremental improvements over time.

“Once I started braiding, I never quit,” Nate says. “Braiders just have to work at it, not cut corners, and be particular enough in striving for that straightness and cleanliness that it becomes the way they work.”

Meanwhile, Nate’s own education and growth as a braider continues. He’s studied Argentine rawhide braiding—even traveling to South America to learn from master craftsmen—and has incorporated certain Argentine techniques into his work. Other influences are indirect: over the years, Nate’s worked with the likes of Neubert and Texas horseman Joe Wolter to refine his horsemanship and roping; continual advancement as a horseman and stockman, Nate says, has helped him improve his braiding.

“You learn more about why a piece works or why it doesn’t, and that’s important,” he explains. “You can look at your work, or another braider’s, and know how it will feel, how it will react, and whether or not it’s going to be functional.”

The intrigue surrounding rawhide can hold someone in its grip for a lifetime. A quarter-century after that initial exposure to braided rawhide, Nate still finds inspiration in the material, and still experiments with new techniques as he works to unravel the mysteries inherent to his craft.

“I could braid leather, I suppose, but I don’t care to,” he says. “There’s a feel and life to rawhide that no other material has. It’s like it’s still alive. It expands and contracts, like it wants to get back to the way it was. In braiding rawhide, you can capture that.”

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Magazine Issue No.71

You’ve wondered what this whole TCAA deal is all about. Hear the story told by it’s members, filmed in Alberta this spring. Video by A.J. Mangum.

Capron classCary Schwarz taught a design and floral carving class at Christoval, Texas June 17,18. Ten students spent one day working on paper learning principles of design, and a systematic way of laying visual information down. The second day featured instruction on swivel knife work, stamping tool selection and use. This session was held at Wilson and Katy Capron’s home and shop where the students enjoyed world class hospitality and Katy’s fabulous meals.

Students attending:
Morgan Seaman
Ross Bullinger
Clint Haverty
Russ Harris
Ely Ganzer
Dylan Randall
Taylor Meeske
Wayne Decker
Jeff Greer

Cody Briggs

It was a good time had by all!
– Cary Schwarz


Over the years I have found there are three questions that I am routinely asked:

1. What made you want to be a Western Silversmith?
2. How did you learn?
3. What advice would you give someone who wants to be a Western Silversmith?

Here are my answers to these questions, I hope you find them interesting!

Where I grew up bits, spurs and buckles were common place, just part of life. None of our gear was anything special so to be honest I never paid attention to it other than for function. Of course buckles were different, they always make a statement about who was wearing them, who you were, who you wanted to be and who you thought you were! I think for that reason they aways intrigued me.

I also watched two parades a year on TV, one the Calgary Stampede Parade and the other The Rose parade. I would sit there mesmerized by the beautiful horses all decked out in the most incredible headstalls, bits, silver saddles and martingales, to me it wasn’t gear anymore it was art! I wondered who made them? Where did they come from? To me they just seemed magical.

One day I was at my Great Grandma’s house, for some reason I was looking at things in her China cabinet and came across this incredible Silver tea pot. Grandma saw me looking at it, took it out and handed it to me then told me how her family had brought it from England. I stood there totally amazed wondering how could a person create this!

The beautiful parade horses and tea pot always stayed in the back of my mind but I was determined to make my living horseback.

After years of doing just that Leslie and I were married and wanted to buy land of our own. Reality told me I would have to do something else for a while to make that happen. I shod horses, worked on oil rigs, pipeline, and welded. I didn’t mind any of those jobs but also didn’t like any of them. I was welding for my step father in Calgary when I came home one night(we lived on an acreage just west of Calgary) Leslie had a continuing education magazine open to a page that offered a beginning night course for Silversmithing, there hours an night for two nights a week with ten weeks in total.

I completed the course and was blown away! I took the second course, loved it. I emptied a room in our basement converting it into a shop. I thought if I could build up a cliental, that would allow me to quit welding, eventually buy land and be able to ranch and silversmith together.

Theory was great – reality was hell of a lot harder.

What I had learnt at the night course all pertained to jewelry, buckles and horse jewelry is constructed out of heavier material, it takes more and different types of heat, fluxes, soldering techniques, etc. I could find Jewelers but No Western Silversmiths to ask for help. I bought any books I could find, they helped but it still boiled down to trial and error.

Another element that differentiates Western Silversmithing is bright cut engraving. At that point in time no one taught this, there were no courses or schools, you literally had to find someone in the trade and ask them to teach you, in the late 70s -early 80s shop doors were closed!

I found at least one book on lettering engraving but couldn’t find any on bright cut engraving. The supply house I dealt with found a catalog from which I ordered various gravers and handles. I searched for photos in magazines and catalogs, studied them, spending hours upon hours trying to mimic the items, it was incredibly frustrating.

What I considered a huge break came when I met Saddlemaker Chuck Stormes. I think he could see the desperation and desire in me, so taking pity he introduced me a great Jeweler, Silversmith and man by the name of Jim Hanna. I owe both Chuck and Jim a lot because I relentlessly peppered them with questions – it was like someone opened a door.

In the early 80′s Chuck introduced me to Cliff Ketchum who agreed to let me come to his shop to learn basic engraving. He charged $100.00 per day plus I had to buy three meals a day for both of us. We had no money but we scraped it together, Les and I both felt it was a great deal! Three years later with hundreds of hours of practice and direction from Cliff, Jim and Chuck, Chuck introduced and recommended me to the great engraver Mark Drain. That was 1985, Mark agreed to let me come to his shop for three days at $150.00 per day, I still to this day think it was the best money I ever spent. One year later I went back to Mark for another three days so in total my formal engraving training was five days with Cliff Ketchum and six days with Mark Drain.

Not long after I was at Mark’s the second time, I met Al Pecetti at an Art show in Arizona. Al was the greatest Western Silversmith of his generation in my opinion I was incredibly honoured when he invited me to come spend time in his shop. In the end I spent a total of two weeks in his shop working on fabrication and filigree.

As far as the Silversmithing, my so called formal education consisted of one hundred and twenty hours of night courses along with the 2 weeks spent in Al Pecetti shop. At that point in time for me the only other alternative to learn Silver/Goldsmithing was a four year full time course ,which was out of the question. First reason finances, second the course mainly dealt with jewelery.

I do have to add though there always were a lot of books on Silversmithing which really help but as I said earlier nothing on bright cut western engraving.

That is the why and how answered, now the advice how a beginner can start.

A lot of the above story is why the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association was formed. We saw the level of craftsmanship falling with less and less young people coming into the disciplines because of the close door policies of most craftspeople. For any trade, craft or art to flourish and grow ,experience ,knowledge and information has to be abundant! Every member of the TCAA teaches, some mentor one on one, some teach group workshops, most do both. Instead of having to find a way for someone to introduce you to a craftsperson who may or may not let you come to their shop you simply enrol in their work shop. The TCAA offers beginner, intermediate and advanced workshops at different times in all four disciplines – Western Silversmithing, Bit & Spurmaking, Saddlemaking, and Rawhide Braiding. Along with that many other craftspeople who have opened their doors to teach.

Most major centres have art collages that also offer night and weekend courses, there are private schools that offer extensive five and six week courses to do with precious metals, engraving, etc. The internet and self publishings have created another new avenue for knowledge that is fantastic and available to anyone world wide. All this new found excessible knowledge is changing the world of Western Craftsmanship.

Of course the access to knowledge is great and welcomed but with all this somethings never change, in my mind the journey has steps, Beginner- Craftsperson- Master Craftsperson- Artist. The easiest step is the first, the hardest is the last.

Even with all the help available today you need the three “D’s” to succeed – DESIRE- DEDICATION and DISCIPLINE.

Wilson-027Fourteen years ago I took a leap of faith and began my own bit and spur business.  The word on the street was there were far easier ways to make a living and I had no idea whether I would be able to exclusively support a family this way or not!  Thankfully I have, and my wife is able to stay at home with our two little girls and help run the office end of the business.  But, this has not come without its challenges and over the years I’ve worked through some important lessons that I would like to share with you.

I was accepted into the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, TCAA, in 2004,  and it became of the utmost importance to manage a successful business.  A good portion of my year is spent producing for our TCAA show with no guarantee of a sell!  Also, the interest in my work started to increase which led to the waiting list in my order book to be further out.  It was at this time the differences between a bit and spur maker and a silversmith were brought to my attention.

I was very insecure breaking out on my own, so to help with the fear I accepted silversmithing jobs like trophy buckles, ranger buckle sets, saddle silver, conchos, etc.  All  good silversmithing projects, but all a very different process than forging a mouthpiece or filing the inside of a bit shank.  Everything from the design to the execution of the project was totally different from my thoughts as a bit and spur maker.  The only thing in common was the engraving, which for me was a way to cover up my lack of experience as a fabricator with silver.  The properties of silver are different than steel and I was certainly in a tailspin trying to execute the construction to the same quality as my bits and spurs.  I was spinning around the shop getting dizzy wasting time to become the best bit and spur maker I could be.  For every day I spent silversmithing, I wasted a day bettering my skills with the bits and spurs.

My order book had a 4 1/2 year back log at one time.  So as I took more silversmithing orders, I was causing a dissatisfied following and a confused market as well.  Not only did people have to wait excessively long, but some considered me a bit and spur maker while others saw me as a silversmith.   As a TCAA member I was exposed to real silversmiths that educated me on the difference of the two trades.  People don’t differentiate between the two.  They only see my skills as a designer and engraver and think of a project that they would enjoy and ask me to create it for them. You can’t blame someone for that.  It is my job to explain the difference and the reasons for having to choose.

There was plenty of work to keep me busy even if my orders were cut in half.  I made the choice to focus my attention on my bits and spurs.  As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t.  The very first order I turned down was an $8,000 buckle set for a large collector.  My wife thought I had lost my mind!  The bank account wasn’t exactly busting at the seams and passing on an opportunity   like this appeared to be a mistake. This could be one of the smartest decisions I have made.

As I moved through the order book and came to the silversmithing orders, my customers were given the option of a steel buckle decorated with silver and gold.  This process matched my bits and spurs and since I chose to work only with steel architecture I couldn’t ask a silversmith to create a steel buckle for those that wanted steel.  Buckles aren’t my favorite thing to make but at times it’s a nice change.  Some were indifferent to the base material and some wanted a nice sterling buckle.  For those that wanted silver I directed them to silversmiths.  People that focused their time on silversmithing just like I have with the bits and spurs.

By turning down the silversmithing projects, my back log went from 4 1/2 years to 2 1/2 years.  I have been able to concentrate on my skills as a bit and spur maker.  I wasn’t giving my profession the respect it deserved and I was disrespecting the silversmithing industry.  Silversmithing isn’t only about quality engraving, it is just one of the few similarities between the two trades.  Therefore, neither industry was benefitting from my efforts.  A good example of focus is Apple, Inc.  They decided to make a phone.  The key is one phone, not many different phones.  Sure, Apple has the resources to fill many different markets with multiple phones, but they chose to focus on building the best phone they could.  I would have to say that their efforts have been successful to this point.

Choosing to focus has allowed me to do a better job of promoting the bits and spurs as well.  I have a close friend that told me, “You are only as good as the last job you did.”  People talk about the last thing I made.  My bits and spurs are what I want them talking about.

As I try and create a market for high end bits and spurs, I don’t need people confused.  They need to see my focus and commitment.  It has been tough selling the super high end bit or pair of spurs for several reasons.  I believe one is simply the“““““`he lack of visual impact they have compared to a saddle.  Take a saddle and bit that are comparably priced, the saddle tends to sell before a bit because the size of a saddle is much more impressive.  The amount of skill, education, commitment, etc. are no different between the two craftsman.  Education is part of the solution.  Awareness and appreciation for bits and spurs has to grow.  If I am spending half my time doing something else I don’t believe this will change.  You don’t find many saddle makers building boots too.  It’s all leather, but very different just like it is in my situation.

I’m not here to tell other bit and spur makers that they can’t occasionally enjoy creating a sterling buckle.  What I am saying is I believe in order to truly become good at something one must focus their attention.  Treat the trade as a profession.  By choosing to be a professional bit and spur maker, hopefully I can help the trade reach new levels of appreciation and excellence.