Handcrafted spurs turns into a handy business
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Currently, Gilkerson sells his custom-made items through his Facebook page, Gilk Silver. He sold items as far away as New York City, Texas and Canada.
When Marc Gilkerson handcrafted his first pair of spurs back in 1994, he was making something that would allow him to continue competing in the sport he loves.
“I was in rodeo, and rode bareback horses in the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association),” said the Sheridan, Wyo., cowboy. “I had a horse mash me in the chutes, and it smashed my spur into my heel. I never could get my spur to fit right again, so I decided to make my own.”
That first pair of spurs was made using a simple design. Gilkerson shoed horses in his spare time, so he used a couple of old rasps and crafted them into a pair of spurs for bareback riding.
“I really liked how they turned out, and it was a lot of fun to make something,” he said. “People started noticing them, and would ask me to make them a pair. That was how I got started making things out of metal.”
Looking at that first pair of spurs reminds Gilkerson of how much he has progressed over the years.
“At the time, I thought they turned out really well; but now I think they are pretty crude looking,” he said with a chuckle. “They were made with an old buzz box welder and a file. I didn’t have a lot of tools then. Sometimes, I think about taking them to the shop and cleaning them up, but then I decide I should just leave them the way they are.”
Since then, Gilkerson started to make more intricate designs.
“I didn’t receive much formal training. Mostly, I just learned as I went. My (first) wife, Sherri, was training cow horses in Arizona with Jim Paul Sr., and Jimmie Paul. I found out one day that Jim made bits and spurs, so I started going to his shop every afternoon, after we finished riding, to make bits and spurs. I learned a lot from Jim on balance and feel, and just how to make a good bit. At the time, we had someone put the silver on and engrave them for us. Then, I decided I wanted to go to engraving school, so Jim went with me, and we both spent five days in Alpine, Texas, learning the basics of engraving,” he said.
Armed with more tools and knowledge, Gilkerson’s metal working process changed.
“With the first pair of spurs, I made the band and cut out the shank, put it together, and welded the shank to the band. Trying to get that shank perfect on the band was probably the hardest part of the process. Now, all my spurs are one piece. I start with a half-inch piece of iron, split it and open it up, and then I shape it. It is a totally different process than what I started with,” he said.
“I have bought a lot of tools to use since then, and there is always something new I want to get,” Gilkerson said. “The more I make, the more I figure things out and want to make them better. To do that, you have to buy a little bit better tools than what you have. I just started casting silver, so I bought a bowl, flux, wax and sand. I watched a YouTube video, and started casting rings,” he said.
MOVING ON TO JEWELRY
Gilkerson makes round and square rings that are popular with his customers. He also makes bracelets, earrings and concho necklaces from domed silver he solders together.
“One item I am pretty excited about making is pendants for some of the guys who qualified for the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) this year,” he said. Most of the jewelry he makes can be finished in a few hours.
More complicated items, like bits and spurs, take longer to create. Depending on the design, it can take anywhere from a few days to a week.
“I really like to engrave, so I like making spurs the most. I can make a pair in a couple days, but bits take longer because they have to be balanced,” he said. “I hand file the back side of the bit and the part that is against the cheek of the horse. Sometimes, it takes a week or two to get everything set and balanced correctly.”
Gilkerson designed different bits while competing in national reined cow horse events with Sherri, who passed away in 2006.
One bit was used in the American Quarter Horse Association world cow horse competition, and Gilkerson split third and fourth place with it.
“It was a Fresno shank spade bit that I showed in,” he said. “I kept it on my TV stand for months. I liked the design, but I wanted to make it a little differently. That’s how I came up with what I call the new Fresno shank.”
When he showed in the Sun Circuit in Arizona, it was with a spade bit he created with a nice shank.
“I wanted to make it with a one-piece mouth piece, and it took me a couple days, but I pounded this mouth piece out and put in the shank,” he said. “I was carrying it down a hall, and a guy who sells bits through his online store called me into his store and bought it from me. I wanted to show with it first, and I ended up winning the amateur cow horse event that weekend.”
Gilkerson no longer shows horses, but he is still involved with rodeo. He also welcomed a son, Rio, four months ago with his wife, Lauren. For the past nine years, Gilkerson mentored youth while working as the rodeo coach at Sheridan Community College. “It is fun to watch kids come to school here and progress, get better and move on,” he said.
Last year, his men’s team won the Central Rocky Mountain region, which happened for the first time in school history. One of his students, Zeke Thurston, also won the world last year in bronc riding.
“I love rodeo. It is something I hold close to my heart,” he said. “One of the cool things I have made is a unique pair of spurs for a Ty Cruchet fundraiser. He was hurt judging at Chris LeDoux Days last summer. I really silvered them up, and they sold for $3,600.”
“I just enjoy making things,” he said. “I get a lot of satisfaction making something from nothing.”
Gilkerson also enjoys the challenge of improving his skills. “I want to get better, and I spend more time drawing out designs, and on detail,” he said. “I like the work of Stewart Williamson, Troy Flaherty and Gary Williamson. They are top of the line, so I study what they make, and pay particular attention to the different ways they shade things. My goal is to be as good as they are,” he said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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