Messing with spurs: Gary Johnson keeps spurs affordableWritten by Christy Martinez
“There’s always something I could have done better, and if it gets to the point where you’re satisfied, you better quit,” he says. “I like the challenge, and if something becomes too easy it’s not much fun anymore.”
Gary began building spurs with a hacksaw and a file. He was working as a ranch hand who couldn’t afford to buy silver pieces, but who liked them, so he started building them himself. Today he works on building his spurs in the winter and in his free time, when he’s not managing the cattle herd or working at another job.
“If it takes someone more than five minutes to tell you what they do, they’re probably unemployed,” he jokes. “Chuck Bell from Sheridan, who showed me some things on making spurs, told me that if I was to make a living building spurs, I better have a wife with a good job, and he was right.”
Gary describes his spurs as a cross between Texas and California style.
“I incorporate a little bit of both, and I do whatever the customer wants. I try to get as much information as I can from them, like the length of the shanks, the size of the rowl and the width of the band,” he notes.
A unique project that came about after playing with his grandkids’ Etch-A-Sketch is two sets of guitar bits and spurs that ended up with collectors.
“They’re a lot of work and a lot of time,” he says of his guitar project, mentioning that he hopes to finish a third set in Winter 2012, following his Christmas projects. “I hope to build some more, as I’d like to have them around to show people. They’re fun to build, but they take a lot of time. Sometimes I have to hold my mouth just right to make it work, and I have to think ahead, because of the different metals with different properties and solders and heat temperatures.”
Although he does build bits occasionally, Gary says he prefers to build spurs. He uses 18/10 steel for the bands of his spurs, which he orders through a supply house, and he uses mild steel for the shanks.
“The 18/10 steel is expensive and costs quite a bit more than mild steel, but it’s really smooth to work with, and has a good finish and it’s stronger,” he says.
Gary’s silver comes from supply houses in Texas and New Mexico.
“I buy sterling silver by the sheet, and I use fine silver for inlays and sterling for overlays,” he explains. “To try to cut costs for those who want it, I have nickel silver, which is relatively cheap.”
Gary says sterling silver has tripled in price from when he started purchasing it.
“I use a hard solder rather than a soft solder, so when I get done I can put the spurs in the bluing oven and heat them,” he notes. “The bluing puts a finish on them, and I can also get a bronze color, which is the color before you hit the blue. You can control the color through the temperature and the time in the oven.”
Of the equipment he needs to build high-quality spurs, Gary says, “A guy told me a long time ago that I’d spend most of my money on equipment, and it’s taken me all this time to get my tools.”
He says he’s built some of it, noting, “The more you can build, the better off you are, because you can’t find it in the local hardware store, and it’s expensive. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have good tools.”
Gary has a small shop he built to house his tools and projects, and in the winter he estimates he makes an average of 15 sets.
“If I really get after it I can build a pair in three days, but if other things interfere it ends up taking a week,” he notes.
Gary says his favorite part of making spurs is the engraving, and that he’d like to learn more on the subject.
“Anytime I fix something in a repair job, I learn something about how it’s put together, and I learn mostly through trial and error,” he says. “I’ve messed up a lot of things, and at some point I have to throw it away. It can get to the point of being chewed to death by a duck and I have to start over, but I also learn.”
Gary’s spurs have traveled throughout Wyoming and to California, Texas, Alabama and Canada. He says he’s built quite a few bronc spurs through connections made by his son, PRCA bronc rider Chet Johnson.
“Quite a few bronc riders at the National Finals Rodeo have worn them, as well as the pickup men,” he says.
Of building bronc spurs, he says the process isn’t much different, except for different jigs and angles.
“Most of the guys want a bar on the same side as the hand they ride with, so if they spur over the rein the spur will pop off and not hang up,” explains Gary, adding that on Canadian cowboy refers to them as “nerd bars.”
In addition to building spurs, Gary and his wife Susan ranch and live southwest of Douglas, where they winter cows, while they also run in Niobrara County.
Of building spurs, Gary says, “The beauty of building spurs is that I can stay home and do it, and I don’t have to drive anywhere.”
“Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning, and I like messing with horses, I like messing with cattle, and I like messing with spurs,” says Gary.
“I’m not the best guy, and not the worst, and I’m not the cheapest and not the highest price. I like to see people use them,” he comments. “I don’t want to get to the place where my spurs are priced out of what people can afford, because I know what it’s like to be on the other end, but at some point I have to get paid for what I do.”