Against the Grain
By Jameson Parker
Settlers built the West with ingenuity, resourcefulness and self-reliance. Acclaimed bit and spur maker Mark Dahl applied the same values when he embarked on his chosen trade.
THE TOWN OF DEETH, located at the foot of the Ruby Mountains in Eastern Nevada's Starr Valley, has been described as a "semi-ghost town." Besides being a haunt for cattle, horses and buckaroos, the town is home to one of today's preeminent bit and spur makers, Mark Dahl.
Dahl grew up in this remote high-desert hideaway. Born into a ranching family, he was raised with the combination of freedom and responsibility unique to ranch children. After high school, he worked as a buckaroo on various Nevada ranches, and might have continued in the profession had the 1980s brought more prosperity than strife to cattle ranchers.
Having ridden and trained horses his entire life, Dahl was familiar with and fascinated by silver-mounted bits and spurs. His first job after high school was buckarooing on the 7S Ranch. Needing spurs, the young horseman scraped together enough money to buy a pair from a friend.
"There was no maker's mark on them, but they were fancy, buckaroo-style spurs, with over 100 pieces of silver," he explains. "It was the first pair of spurs I'd ever really wanted. After I bought them, I set them on the dashboard and had a hard time driving home because I kept looking at them. I thought it would be neat to make that kind of pretty stuff."
Without technical knowledge of forging steel or a mentor to observe and teach him, Dahl decided to become a silversmith. It was a risky venture with a family to feed.
"I had five children, and I was unemployed. If it cost 25 cents to go around the world, I didn't have enough money to back out my driveway," he recalls. "I told a friend I wanted to become a silversmith, and he told me I was crazy. He asked if I knew what an engraving ball was, and, of course, I had no idea."
Some experts theorize it's not possible to make high-quality bits and spurs without formal training in metallurgy and years of experience as an engraver, but that didn't deter Dahl. For the past 25 years, he's made functional, artistic bits and spurs valued by horsemen and collectors alike. What Dahl lacked in knowledge, he made up for with what his daughter Thelma describes as, "indomitable optimism and ingenuity."
Mark laughs at that description and remarks, "No, I was just stupid."
The first couple of years he was in business, Dahl cut steel pieces with a cutting torch. A visitor suggested he try using a bandsaw. Dahl realized that was indeed a better technique, but at the time couldn't afford to buy a saw, so he made his own, using old bicycle wheels. His handcrafted saw worked so well that to this day he's never replaced it.
The craftsman used similar ingenuity when he built a home for his growing family. He bought eight-foot, untreated fence posts, had them milled flat on two sides and notched them himself, like Lincoln Logs.
"The eight-foot logs were a problem," he admits. "I had to make the walls crooked, an eight-foot length, then a four-foot at a 45-degree angle, then another eight-foot length."
The home ended up being rectangular in shape, with 28 corners, and took five years to build. With its batten-and-board second story and gabled windows, the house looks like an artistically crafted, oversized cuckoo clock. It's an appropriate impression given the beauty and craftsmanship of Dahl's bits and spurs.
DAHL'S SELF-TAUGHT APPROACH continued to serve him well. When he wanted to learn how to blue steel, a technique used in making firearms, his wife, Coralee, found articles on the process and Dahl used them to teach himself.
When he wanted to learn how to engrave, Dahl went to the Elko County Fair, photographed a silver horn cap engraved by silversmith Mark Drain, and used the photos as study guides.
"Until I saw that cap, I hadn't really considered that some engraving was much better than others," he says. "But it was really well done, with a good layout and really sharp cuts. It just stood out."
He then spent years patiently teaching himself, through trial and error, how to engrave.
"My layout and cuts were just terrible back then, and that cap gave me a point of comparison," he says. "Then I borrowed a trophy buckle from a friend and tried to copy it as closely as I could. That was the first engraving I did that even came close to being pretty."
But then there was the issue of the silver inlay.
Inlays are done by tapping pure silver into channels cut into the steel, but nobody ever told Dahl that, so he tried to create an inlay using sterling silver. Pure silver is relatively soft, but sterling is an alloy that contains 7.5 percent copper, making it too hard to hammer into steel. Dahl decided to melt the silver into the channels, but discovered it wasn't that simple.
To fuse silver and steel into a single entity, the silver has to be heated enough to melt, but without overheating the steel and causing it to oxidize, which inhibits fusion. Just like other bit makers before him, notably Chuck Irwin and the late Abbie Hunt, Dahl experimented repeatedly and, he points out, wasted a lot of silver.
"I had to keep experimenting with all the different variables," he explains. "I tried different kinds of flux [the material put on metal to keep it from oxidizing], different temperatures, different flames [more oxygen or less], different distances, anything to figure out what worked and what didn't."
Through perseverance, Dahl eventually figured out how to make the technique work.
"I finally got a feel for the right temperature," he says. "It just has to be done by feel, and there's no shortcut for learning that."
To understand the magnitude of Dahl's engraving accomplishments, it's important to know that engraving is considered an art form unto itself and can typically be mastered only by a few people after many years of study. In England, making firearms is considered one of the highest artistic achievements, and the labor involved is rigidly segregated. One person does nothing but make the barrels, another handles the action, and a third is in charge of the stock. Some gun manufacturers also employ a fourth person to make ejectors. Engravers do nothing but engrave, and according to guild rules they're required to serve a five-year apprenticeship under a master before they're allowed to touch a piece of metal without supervision. By teaching himself, Dahl went against the grain of tradition.
"It was a long, expensive education right there in my shop," he says. "There are smarter ways to go about it, especially nowadays, with people advertising to teach you in magazines and on the Internet."
Fellow artisan Mark Drain, Dahl's longtime friend, appreciates his fellow craftsman's persistence and distinctive style.
"Mark has followed his own path, but he's remained faithful to producing distinct, functional gear," Drain says. "It's a little different style, but traditionally Western and true to his own lifestyle and the country in which he lives."
IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE a group of people more independent, individualistic and solitary by nature than cowboys. The thought of cowboys joining, let alone establishing, an organization is almost incongruous. But in the late 1990s, 13 of the finest cowboy gearmakers, including Dahl, broke out of the stereotype and formed the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association to honor and encourage traditional cowboy crafts and skills. The prestigious organization now boasts 23 members, including two Argentine braiders. Every year, each member tries to outdo himself, creating exquisite, museum-quality pieces of functional gear to exhibit at a show and auction held at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Dahl says the unexpected side effect of his artistic success is that it has cost him business.
"Cowboys read that a bit of mine sold for $39,000 [at the annual TCAA show], and they think, 'Wow, I can't afford his stuff,' " he explains.
Dahl's TCAA pieces are beautiful, intricate and sell for thousands of dollars, but the craftsman still earns his living making bits and spurs for working cowboys and buckaroos. The challenge for any custom craftsman is to sell a piece of equipment for a price reflecting the time and materials invested in the item.
"I bought a spade bit when I first started working as a cowboy, and it cost me a month's wages," he recalls. "What I make now sells for about a month's wages for a working cowboy who's getting room and board."
Living in remote ranch country, however, he doesn't get a lot of walk-in customers, so he relies on word of mouth and the Internet to sell his wares. Nothing the former buckaroo makes stays in the shop very long. The last item, a Santa Susanna bit with a half-breed mouthpiece, sold six hours after it was posted on his Web site. Dahl's annual production is limited to about 25 pieces, plus some saddle silver.
"Of course, I also make a couple of show pieces every year, and they take a lot of time," he adds.
Having been a working buckaroo, Dahl emphasizes functionality in the bits and spurs he creates, considering the horse and cowboy who will use them, what the client can afford, and what he or she values most in equipment.
Rye McKay, a Northern Nevada buckaroo, relies on Dahl's bits and spurs every day.
"Mark was a working cowboy and still cowboys some today, so there's knowledge behind what he builds. He's been there and done that," McKay says. "His stuff has a lot of eye appeal, but he knows what works and what doesn't work for the horse."
This personal touch adds another facet to Dahl's work.
"I have my own philosophy on what works and what doesn't, but I always pay a lot of attention to dimensions and specifications when I receive orders from knowledgeable horsemen," Dahl says. "Then I try to bring all those factors together."
Jameson Parker is a California-based writer and the author of the memoir An Accidental Cowboy, among other books. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.