Chip Merchant, a bit and spur maker from Mollala, Or spent some time in my shop last week. We designed and got a pretty good start on a pair of buckaroo spurs. We discussed functional aspects , design, engraving and finishing techniques of bridle bits and spurs though the course of the week. He’s a talented individual and very determined to get it right. I think we can all look foreword to seeing some nice work from him in the future.

Sincerely ! Ernie Marsh

Chip at the bench Ernie Marsh: Chip Merchant work in progress


Throughout 2013, the TCAA had ongoing talks with Mr. Shep Hermann of Hermann Oak Leather regarding maintenance of saddles and leather products. As a result of these exchanges, Mr. Hermann became interested in the TCAA and its goals. While attending Cowboy Crossings last October at the National Cowboy Museum, he invited the TCAA saddle makers to St.Louis for a tour and talks with key tannery workers.

Those invited included Rick Bean, Pedro Pedrini, Cary Schwarz, Chuck Stormes, John Willemsma, Steve Mason (Tcaa Fellowship 2014) and Don Reeves, National Cowboy Museum Curator.

On March 31st and April 1st, 2014 we met at the Hermann Oak Tannery for a complete tour, including a series of lively, informative discussions centered on the details of tanning and using traditional vegetable tanned leathers.

 I believe leather to be the first chemically-produced product in the history of mankind, because it can be produced by accident and is one of the most useful articles throughout history. – Shep Hermann

This may well represent the first time discussions at that level have taken place between experienced saddle makers and a leading tanner of saddle skirting.

The TCAA extends its sincere thanks to Shep Hermann and the entire staff of Hermann Oak Leather for organizing this historic meeting.

Please enjoy the accompanying video which provides a window into the operation of one of America’s most celebrated tanneries.

For further information please visit their website

2013 TCAA Fellowship recipient Steve Mason (High River, Alberta) spent four days with Cary Schwarz recently.

Here are Steve’s thoughts after the time at Cary’s shop in Idaho:

Time for another update on my TCAA Fellowship experience.

I have just returned home from 4 days spent with Cary Schwarz, 2 days of private instruction working on specific details and problem areas of saddle construction, and 2 days taking a floral design & carving course with 3 other students.

Cary’s is a first class teacher & human being. The hospitality he showed us was amazing, and with every question I asked, Cary gave a thoughtful and very informative answer.

One of the most inspiring things from the weekend was Cary’s true passion to improve his own craft. To see a craftsman of Cary’s caliber still working as hard as he can to make every saddle better than the last, was very inspirational and will help me to continue my never ending quest to improve my craft. And this should benefit the industry of makers as a whole to never stop trying to improve their work.

I would like the thank the TCAA for the amazing journey I am on with the fellowship.
And I would highly recommend any gearmaker out there to get your application in to the TCAA for next years fellowship, the applications need to get to Scott Hardy before the deadline of April 1. Whether you are a silversmith, bit & spur maker, braider or saddle maker, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to improve your craft.

Steve Mason
2014 TCAA Fellowship recipient.

Rawhide Braiding Mentor Nate Wald and Student Caleb French in a video produced by the Wyoming Arts Council

2014 TCAA Workshops

The 2014 workshops, co-hosted by the TCAA and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and presented by TCAA instructors, will focus on saddle making with particular attention to the areas that are often the most problematic to saddlers.

dev cult tcaa12 cs_0117 February 11-14, 2014, “Details of Saddlemaking” will be held in the Museum’s Nona Jean Hulsey Rumsey Art Education Center. John Willemsma will concentrate on several common problem areas including fitting a saddle seat, different styles of cantles and cantle bindings, riggings, horns and covering both Wade-style forks and also one requiring a welt or seam.

This will involve intermediate to advanced instruction with many practical solutions. The program is styled for a class of 15 participants.

IMG_4382PH BWThe fall 2014 workshop, October 7-10, is “Saddle Tree, Selection and Fit” led by Chuck Stormes will be of interest to both saddle makers and serious horsemen. It is intended to demystify the terminology, geometry and anatomy involved in selecting a tree that is suitable for the horses, rider and specific use intended. It is NOT a course in how to make a saddle tree but will give insight into the variables and adjustments that are possible on the part of the tree maker.

The presentation can accommodate an enrollment of at least 24 participants. Due to limited enrollment, these classes fill quickly so call early to hold a spot in the workshop. Advance reservations are required for both workshops. For further information and enrollment call (405)478-2250, Ext. 277.

KEY-MAGLook for us in OKC! Featured this month in KEY Magazine (placed in 6000 hotel rooms) the art of the CAA and TCAA during the month of November, the same month OKC hosts the American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show and the National Reining Horse Association Futurity.

Head over to the Cowboy museum and see the exhibit!


#1- Concept drawing.


#2- Figure drawing.


#3- Beginning soldering process.


4- Soldering rope edge on to buckle.


#5- Soldering rope edge on to buckle.


#6- Close up of soldering edge on.


#7- Edge partially soldered on.


#8- Finishing pieces for lariat edge.


#9- Pieces all in place for the lariat edge.


#10- Figure transferred on to 14K yellow Gold and I am sawing it out before soldering it on to the buckle.


#11- Figure, flower centers and TCA logo sawn out(all 14K yellow Gold) and soldered onto buckle. Also scrolls and flower pattern has been drawn on and negative space has been sawn out.


#12- buckle has been polished and I have started hand sculpting the figure.


#13- I’ve finished sculpting the figure and TCA.


#14- Sculpting the flowers and scrolls.


#15- Engraving and background process begins.


#16 & #17- Finished Buckle.


#16 & #17- Finished Buckle.


Spanish spurs 1

These are the Spanish colonial spurs for this years exhibit ,they represent the most time I have ever put into one project. I was inspired to go the distance on these by the  ornamental spurs of the Spanish artisans of the 1700’s thru early 1800’s as well as  the works of Master Maker John Ennis  who seemingly stretched even their talents.

Spanish spurs 2The men who proudly wore these styles as well as the men who made them lived in a time when life was cheap, warfare, strife and hardship were the norm, their family honor, fighting, and horsemanship skills were their main sources of pride.. rightly so as quite often their lives depended them.

Plenty of time to think of such things while these were in progress..


Spanish spurs 4
Spanish spurs 5



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.