In October, cowboy craftsmen and gear collectors from around the world converge on the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Cowboy Crossings. The goal for members of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association is to preserve and promote the skills of saddle making, bit and spur making, silversmithing, and rawhide braiding, and the role of these traditional crafts in representing the cowboy culture of the American West. Each year they hold an exhibition and sale featuring highly sought-after bits, spurs, saddles and more. It takes the craftsmen days and sometimes even months to create these pieces.
Western Horseman followed bit and spur maker Wilson Capron of Christoval, Texas, as he created his latest showpiece and the process behind making functional art.
Western Horseman: The mouthpiece of this bit looks quite traditional, yet when you look at the shanks, the large bottom rings on the bit seem unusual. Tell me about the design, function and your method behind the bit.
Capron: As far as I know the bit was originally made by August Buerrmann in the early 1900’s. I simply duplicated the look. Function wise, the mouthpiece is not real special. It doesn’t have a whole lot of tongue relief in the port and it has tapered bars. Where the bars join to the port, the radius is fairly small which adds a little intensity to the bit.
The enlarged rings make for a slower signal. The big bottom ring allows the rein itself to have a lot of distance to move when you pick up your hand. This requires more hand movement to engage the bit. The top ring is pretty big, too, allowing a lot of movement up there in the bridle ring. The purchase is fairly short, so that adds a little leverage, but the rein can move up the ring so far that there isn’t much leverage.
WH: You describe this as a Globe-style bit. Can you explain what that means and talk about the base material?
Capron: I’m not sure where the name comes from, maybe because the large rings resemble the globe.
The material used to create the bit is 4130, steel I regularly use in making bits and spurs. The material used to create the top and bottom rings is hexagon in shape. In the photo you can see two flat sides of the material face outward. One side of the ring is inlayed with silver and the other I did a traditional firearm-engraving boarder in the steel. By using the hexagon it allowed me to do some decorative elements on the bit that would have been very difficult if I had used round stock.
WH: When engraving and adding silver or gold, what was your initial design and did the bit come out like you planned? Can you explain this style of engraving and does it have a name?
Capron: The design was fairly straight on. My initial drawing is my planning stages. I make my drawings one-and-a-half times to scale so that the width of my pencil line is less critical and I can make my lines a little bigger. This can create a problem, like a kid at a buffet line; my eyes are too big for my stomach and I can’t fit all the things I do in my drawings into my engraving. But, those are minor things in the leaf structure or the number of leaves within a scroll. From what I remember, the layout of my scrolls and the flow stayed the same.
One challenge came when I put a flower above and below my concho in my inlay. I had an idea of what I wanted and it is a process called demascene, but the area was too small to hold the gold in place and I had to change it up. I went with a raised inlay technique, and it looks just the same. It was difficult because it was a small area.
I took artistic liberty to do what I pleased with this engraving and design. I’ll take an old, traditional design and decorate it to my taste. I left the architecture and steel work the same to create a traditional bit, and then decorated it to represent my interest. The engraving comes from my study of firearm engraving. I look up to the engraving of Winston Churchill, an American engraver from Vermont. By looking at his work I have adopted this style to fit into my work where a more traditional Western bright cut is normally used.
WH: How long did it take you to make the bit?
Capron: It took about15 years… That is kind of an unfair question. There is a given amount of hours [you can put into] this particular bit, and for me I did a little over 100 hours. But, in order to create what I did there, it took 15 to 20 years of study before I built this bit. There was a famous Italian artist painting on the beach. A lady walked up behind him and said it was the most beautiful painting she’d seen and asked the price. When he said $10,000, she wanted to know how long it had taken to do it. The artist said 30 years plus three hours. When you ask someone how long it took you do to create a piece, does it really matter? Yes, it is interesting to know how long, but there is a lot of learning to get to that point. To answer your question though, it took exactly 109 hours and 15 minutes.
WH: Yearly, you make many show pieces such as this bit for events like the upcoming Cowboy Crossings. How do you stay inspired?
Capron: Well first I was asked to create this bit by a fellow TCAA member for a collaborative project, so I really didn’t initially have the inspiration for this bit. The project will be a first for our show that we are excited to unveil. I hope everyone will come see the completed piece.
Inspiration comes in many different forms and I’m always surprised by where it comes from. Creativity is one of the single greatest challenges as a bit and spur maker or designer. I like simply elegant. My goal is to create the simply elegant and also to keep it fresh. I want people to see one of my pieces from across the room and know it is one of mine, but that they have never seen me do something like that. Inspiration comes from the orders I do on a daily basis. People will ask me to create specific pieces for them under a budget. Sometimes I can add a little bit more to what my customer can afford, and that leads to a show piece that is simply elegant but is more than my original design. Function creates inspiration an awful lot. Determining why minor changes can create drastic functional differences is challenging and inspiring.
One thing I did different on this bit, I engraved the steel where it meets the silver. Often we engrave a border to define that line between materials, but I went ahead and engraved a boarder design in the steel. The design is an old, traditional boarder. I’m sure this has been done before, but it was a new twist for me. As I move through [my career] the new twists or challenges are smaller in a way. The first time I made a Santa Barbara spade it was a big deal. Now, the little challenges are smaller [in design] and I am trying to do more elegant elements on a simple scale.
For more information on Cowboy Crossings visit HERE.