Out West

Bits From Pieces

A bitmaker gets a dream project from his long-passed mentor.

Bit and spurmaker Dennis Domingos thought his time with his longtime mentor, the legendary bitmaker Chuck Irwin, was over after Irwin’s passing in the fall of 2018 at the age of 94. Domingos had worked closely with Irwin for many years, refining his approach to making bits and spurs along the line of Irwin’s, whose bits especially were coveted by collectors and working cowboys because of their design and acceptance by any horse lucky enough to carry one. 

Domingos runs cattle between Buellton and Lompoc on California’s central coast and became interested in Irwin’s work at an early age. Domingos grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley, with San Luis Obispo to the north, Ventura to the south and Santa Barbara in the middle. Many important bitmakers have come from this area in California, such as G.S. Garcia, Mardueno and Juan Flores. 

Chuck Irwin roping at 92 years young. Photos courtesy Dennis Domingos.

Domingos modified his first bit while cowboying in 1975.  He spent a few decades working on his now trade and perfected his passion when he worked exclusively with Irwin starting in 2009. 

Irwin might best be described as a renaissance man. Since 1952, he had been crafting sought after bits and spurs — along with braided rawhide. His influences are many who worked in the craft in both Texas and California. Early on, he learned some finer points of the craft from Forest Armstrong of Los Alamos, California, north of Santa Ynez.

Spur and bitmaker Dennis Domingos gets a dream project from his long-passed mentor, legendary bitmaker Chuck Irwin.
Assembled bits. Photos courtesy Dennis Domingos.

Armstrong was a talented and influential maker who bench-made saddles and braided horsehair pieces along with bits and spurs. Prior to his death, Armstrong gifted Irwin all of his tools and patterns. Makers Albert Espinosa and Vicente Mardueno heavily influenced both men. Irwin learned to make the type of decorative silver buttons for his work as designed originally by another legendary maker, A.B. Hunt (1876-1967).

Irwin had a unique way of adding silver to his bits.

“I take the silver and cut out a hole to put it in — sort of a slot — and then flow it in with a torch so it adheres right to the steel, and there’s no way it’ll come out,” Irwin told me in 2013. “The old bits used to rust underneath and pop the silver out, but when I flow it in, it stays there. You can get slight bubbles in the silver sometimes. But it’s forever.”

While people love his bits, it seems horses do too; I asked him what he does that makes the bits so popular — with horses and humans.

Spur and bitmaker Dennis Domingos gets a dream project from his long-passed mentor, legendary bitmaker Chuck Irwin.
Engraved, finished bit. Photos courtesy Dennis Domingos.

“Mostly the balance in the mouthpiece is the most important thing,” he said. “I think the mouthpiece is the most important part of a bit, and the balance of the cheek is another important part.”

His customers came from all over the West, and back then he said, “I’m sending an awful lot of spade bits to Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, people who would never use them before. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re starting to buy them more and more. I just wish all this interest had happened when I was twenty [years] younger. [I] could have enjoyed it more!”

Irwin felt the interest in the California-style of horsemanship had helped his business as well as brought new blood into the game. To that, he said, “I think probably the best thing a person can do is to go and sit with somebody and watch how they do it, as [Domingos] has with me, and then take off on their own or try to learn. But most important, keep working. The more you work and the more bits you make, the better they’ll get. Don’t give up after the first two or three — keep working.”

Spur and bitmaker Dennis Domingos gets a dream project from his long-passed mentor, legendary bitmaker Chuck Irwin.
Bit and spur makers Chuck Irwin (left) and Dennis Domingos (right). Photos courtesy Dennis Domingos.

So, it was a surprise to Domingos, that Chuck Irwin’s son, Clint, came to him last year, so many years after his father had passed, and told him that he had come across two sets of his dad’s cheek pieces and asked Domingos to complete them.

“It was like a dream,” Domingos told me recently. “I make bits with the same shapes of these pieces, ‘Santa Susanna’ and ‘69,’ but I never thought, [not] in my wildest dreams, I would be able to work with something of [Irwin’s] ever again. So, I wanted to be true as possible to his design.” Since Irwin’s death, Domingos has gone on to make quite a name for himself in the bit- and-spur arena with customers all over.

In all his work, he stays true to the legacy and heritage that his mentor left him.

Spur and bitmaker Dennis Domingos gets a dream project from his long-passed mentor, legendary bitmaker Chuck Irwin.
Engraved, finished bit. Photos courtesy Dennis Domingos.

“It’s very important to me to be true to the things he taught me in my work with him as the beginnings of my work have been rooted in my imagination since I first started working around cattle as a kid,” Domingos said.  “Two of my greatest influences were my father, George Domingos, and my father’s cousin, Joey Cabral. I was by my father’s side from beginning to end. He was as honest and hardworking as the day is long. Joey had the great fortune to have grown up in the middle of some very large and historic ranchos. It was on those places where he found his passion for bridle horses and good gear. I can still see him driving up with an open-top trailer, and when the trailer door opened, what emerged was the fanciest bridal horse I’d ever seen. 

“The influences of my work are rooted in what those three men — all mild and unassuming — taught me through the years about horses and the tradition they so proudly respected. Having the good fortune of making bits and spurs with Chuck Irwin gave me this opportunity.  These two bits —stamped with both [Irwin’s] maker’s mark and mine — have been a project of honor for me. I had the privilege to work with someone who understood horses, the working cowboy and the craftsmanship of good equipment.”

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