A self-taught bit and spur maker, Kerry Kelley combines function and artistry to create unique gear that lasts.
For a man who makes the bulk of his living selling to Western performance horse riders, living in Weatherford, Texas, is like hitting the jackpot. And, Kerry Kelley has used this fact to his advantage.
Making quality bits and spurs that work for everyday riding has always been Kelley’s goal. With top cutting and reining horse trainers in his backyard, he readily received the input he needed on his designs.
“The cutters made Bill Klapper famous,” Kelley says. “I think they have helped me. Cutters are just crazy about bits. My friend Ellison Bard told me, ‘Spurs are good, but becoming a bit maker will make you famous.’ People have helped me become what I am. Circulating my [product] and getting my name out there has really helped me become what I am.”
Kelley is now one of the most sought after bit makers, with some of the cutting and reining horse industry’s top trainers riding in his gear. But, like all craftsmen, Kelley had to hone his skills before rocketing to the top.
The stepson of a metallurgist, Kelley chose to work in the family heat-treating metal business. This gave him the prime location to pursue his interest in spur making.
“My parents had a heat-treating shop in south Fort Worth,” Kelley says. “I roped and cowboyed a little bit. I’d go to Abilene with one of my friends every year to the bit and spur show [at the Western Heritage Classic]. I told my step-dad one day, ‘I think I’m going to build a pair of spurs,’ and it went from there.”
Having access to a variety of metals, Kelley knew he wanted to start out using quality material to build his spurs. From the first set he made more than 15 years ago to the intricate pieces he builds today, Kelley uses the same material used by Billy Klapper and Adolf Bayers, who influenced Kelley’s work.
“When I first got into it, I had the Bayers books that Jay Bassinger came out with,” says Kelley. “That was the only thing I had to look at. The pictures of Bayers, where he had drawings and he’d take notes on all his orders, were the biggest inspiration when I started out. Then, when I started building, it was Klapper. Going to shows, Klapper was the biggest thing going.”
Kelley had no formal training making spurs, only his experiences horseback, studying the spurs in his own collection, and his visits to bit and spur shows. Drawing on his experience in the roping arena and doing cowboy work, Kelley had a feel for what looked good and what appealed to people in the horse industry. He knew that to be successful, he needed to stand out not with flash and gimmicks, but with quality work that spoke for itself.
Jeff Chase, a cutting horse trainer from Perryton, Texas, was one of the first to recognize Kelley’s work. An avid Klapper spur collector, Chase was educated in quality spurs.
”A lot of these guys use soft solder and it comes off,” says Chase. “I don’t like stuff that won’t stay together. I saw that Kerry was using that hard solder like Klapper does, and they’re the only two people in the world I know of who use that solder. Their silver will not come off and their spurs will not bend. They use the silver that no one else uses, and [their spurs] fit.”
Kelley makes spurs that will withstand daily use. From initial design to sale, he combines function with beauty to create a product that is sought after not only in the United States, but also in Japan, Italy and other countries.
“You start with a rough piece of metal and there’s a lot of hand work and finishing,” Kelley says. “The drawing of the silver and then cutting it out, finally silver-soldering it on. You prep and polish and then engrave. After that, there’s more polishing and finishing.”
Kelley draws each design by hand and then, with a jeweler’s saw, intricately cuts them, two pieces of metal at once, so each piece is evenly matched. Never having used the once-popular brown finish, Kelley’s spurs feature a silver shine that proved to be the new trend.
“The best part of being a good spur maker is you are not always a leader, but you are a follower, too,” he says. “You look at everyone’s ideas and come up with some of your own, too.”
Working with a wide range of materials, from nickel and sterling silver to copper, brass and even gold, Kelley credits experience with allowing him to create his more-intricate designs.
Not content expressing his artistry only through spurs, Kelley acquired a bit company and began to build on it. Today, he offers custom-made and wholesale bits to the performance horse industry. Doing so, he has expanded his customer base by offering an affordable product in today’s economy.
He offers plain silver bits at wholesale, as well as the same bit with intricate floral designs. Among the many bits available at tack stores, Kelley’s stand out as functional bits made with input from top trainers.
“Some pieces I come up with on my own, and some I get input on,” Kelley says. ”I’ll take existing things that people are making and say, ‘Hey, I can make that better.’ Or, people will bring me a bit and ask if l can tweak it a little bit.”
Kelley hasn’t had as hard of a time making a living as some other custom bit and spur makers because of his wholesale business. His broad customer base allows him to cater to many different facets of the performance horse industry.
”As a spur and bit maker, I try to make a quality product and make it available to the customers I’m trying to seek in whatever horse discipline they compete,” he says. “The quality being what it is, and the way I stand behind my product, is why I have a broad customer base. I’ve been blessed.”
Kelley says that while his craft has become more intricate through the years, the designs more creative and user friendly, he is not an artist.
“The difference between me and [Traditional Cowboy Arts Association craftsmen] is that they are kind of artsy,” he says. “There’s more practicality in what I do. There are artists that inspire me. You have to reach for better ways to make your product.”
With no signs of slowing down, Kelley hopes to one day engrave firearms, a lifelong goal. For now, he strives to top himself and continue to produce a quality, sought-after product.
“There’s certain times where I’ll do some scrollwork or come up with a design on a spur and I’ll say, ‘This is the best I’ve ever done.’ Of course, six months later, I’ll do something better,” he says. “Some people say, ‘You are an artist,’ but I make spurs for people to use.”