By Bill Heisman
August, 2009 Smoke Signals
I have been building and collecting saddles, spurs and bits since the early 1970s and have been a full-time bit and spur maker since 1988. Most of my work involves the more intricate and ornate California style of bits and spurs. In the past I have done restoration on higher quality pieces for a few collectors and have also worked as a consultant for both entry level collectors and advanced collectors culling their collections. Research has been a passion of mine ever since purchasing Bill Mackin’s Old West Collectibles book back in 1979, accumulating a large and comprehensive resource library. However, hands-on restoration, not books have taught me how to differentiate between old and news spurs of comparable styles.
Let’s use GARCIA as an example of a renowned maker whose longevity has created problems for many collectors in both identifying and dating their spurs. Both novice and advanced collectors often ask the same question(s) when picking-up a pair of Garcia spurs: (1) Is this an original pair of G S Garcia spurs? (2) Is it G S Garcia style? (3) Was the pair made in Nevada, California or Mexico? As many of you may already know, G S Garcia or Garcia is not only marked on older pieces, but are being stamped on contemporary pieces made for the J M Capriola Company in Elko, Nevada even today. Capriola legally has the right to mark its pieces with the Garcia stamp – adding to the confusion in the dating process. However, with just a little education and practice, learning what to look for can be simplified. I will attempt to give you a little advice for dating Garcia spurs, but remember that there are always exceptions to every rule.
In doing restoration, I have discovered that the construction of old spurs frequently differs from contemporary work because today we have so many more sophisticated tools allowing makers to take their work to new levels. I realized this when trying to match older work required that I actually replicate vintage tools to reproduce obsolete markings and techniques.
Let’s begin with the easiest means of identification. First thing to look for when examining a pair of Garcia spurs is determining how the shank is connected to the band. Old pieces will most likely have riveted shanks indicating that the shank has been riveted on the band by filling a hole in the band to fit the square end of the shank. The square end of the shank and hole in the band is made that way to keep the shank from twisting. The shank should fit the band well with a visible line around the point where the shank meets the band. On the other hand, if the piece is contemporary or made in Mexico, it will most likely have been welded where the shank meets the band and have a shoulder that is visible.
And then there are those examples of early California pieces made by legendary makers like Mike Morales or Filo Gutierrez, which are neither riveted for welded, but forged from one piece of steel constructed with a crisp 90’ angle where shank meets band, no dividing line and will not have a shoulder like a welded shank. Very few makers today now make ‘one piece’ spurs.
Next, look for the way the piece is inlaid. Most of the old California and fine domestic contemporary makers chisel out their cavities and set their silver by undercutting the edge of the cavity and hammering the silver into the cavity. On the other hand, in Mexico they use a very thin piece of silver and just undercut the steel for the edges of the silver with no cavity – burnishing the silver in place causing it to spread smoothly and look like an inlay. Furthermore, newer engraving tools do not dig as deeply as older implements, thus avoiding the “cut thru”. To tell the difference, examine the stripes on the edge (if there are any) and the inlay itself. On an older piece, the silver inlay will be flush with the steel and you may be able to see the undercut. On the Mexican piece, the silver inlay will be slightly above the steel and the stripes will show evidence of a chisel cut on each side with the silver again slightly above the steel. Old California engraving was usually done with the same tools that were used to cut the cavities. Note the chisel marks are done with a flat chisel leaving a long cut to the outside.
On most of the Mexican spurs, and on a good part of contemporary work, the engraving is done bright-cut style using modern tools. One of the easiest ways to tell old engraving from contemporary is the use of a liner. A liner is a graver that makes uniform side-by-side lines on the piece engraved. The liner is used for shading in bright cut engraving. Remember, the old engraving was done with what tools they used to cut the silver cavity. Old work will not have a liner because they were not readily available. Some of the master level makers now are going to single point or firearms style engraving which is different than the old way as only a square graver is used and not the flat graver or chisels. The difference is in the way the gravers cut the material. Engraving tells a lot about the spur, but remember, engraving is easy to copy!
With these few pointers you should be able to begin to tell the difference between old and new, but nothing takes the place of experience. I suggest those interested take the time to buy a few books, look at as many different pieces of work as possible, and ask questions of the makers working now. Times have changed and makers are now more willing to answer questions and explain the differences in work. Ask someone trustworthy what they think before buying a piece. Do not be in a hurry to buy that G S Garcia from the old cowboy who has had them since the teens if they just don’t look right. It takes a while to get an ‘eye’ for engraving patterns and it is better to wait until you are sure than to just buy a piece because it might get away if you do not buy it right now. ASK QUESTIONS! There are too many people out there who are more than willing to sell something they know is not right and once you buy it, it is yours. But as I said, there are now a lot of people and honest dealers out there who would be glad to help and answer those questions of yours. Go to the shows that promote these qualities, like the High Noon show in Mesa, AZ and the Cody show in Denver. Be sure not to miss two of my favorite events that promote contemporary work and education of makers, collectors and public: The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) and the Texas Spur Makers Association. While you’re there, come see me and happy collecting!
Bit and Spur Maker
Current President and Member of the TCAA (Bit and Spur Maker)