Firearms engraving has been around for hundreds of years, but acclaimed engraver Ernie Marsh helped popularize the smoky finish on bits and spurs.
MUCH OF ERNIE MARSH’S JOB as a bit and spur maker is mechanical by nature, but the craftsman thinks more like an artist than a machinist. His creative expression starts in his imagination and is unleashed when he picks up his hammer and chisel.
Each time the craftsman engraves a new pattern or attempts to resolve a problem with an existing design, he grabs a pencil and sketches scrolls on anything in front of him. Unlike a fine artist who has a large, blank canvas on which to create, Marsh’s challenge as an engraver is to find ways to fill odd-shaped spaces with fluid, attractive patterns. Scrollwork is one of the most graceful, ornate elements Marsh has found to fill space, and they provide limitless design possibilities.
Marsh’s uncontrollable urge to use scrollwork started more than 20 years ago, when he first discovered its decorative value in firearms engraving.
RAISED IN CALIFORNIA AND WASHINGTON, Marsh grew up riding horses, roping and riding bulls. When he was a young boy, he spent a lot of time with his father, a horse trader.
“Some of the people we visited had nice bridle bits in their tack rooms, and I was fascinated with them,” he recalls.
Besides horses and gear, Marsh was also interested in art. He spent countless hours carving wood, drawing and painting, but admits he was never very good at the latter because he didn’t have a space big enough to do it.
After high school, Marsh got a job cowboying on the Six Prong Ranch in Southeastern Washington. But he really aspired to be a bit and spur maker.
“I hesitated making bits and spurs until I could go to Elmer Miller’s school in Nampa, Idaho,” Marsh recalls. “I didn’t want to make anything bad.”
In the mid-1980s, Miller was one of few craftsmen teaching traditional silversmithing bit- and spur-making techniques. Marsh sent away for a brochure on Miller’s school, but couldn’t afford the tuition on his cowboy wages. To earn more money, Marsh traded his saddle for a saw and traveled with his wife, Teresa, in a fifth-wheel trailer to logging jobs throughout the Pacific Northwest.
In December 1990, Marsh was finally able to attend Miller’s school, where he learned the basics of bit and spur making. Eager to learn, Marsh took full advantage of the opportunity.
“I wanted to be there really bad,” he says. “I worked in the shop 15 hours a day for the entire 30 days I was there. I made three bits and two pairs of spurs.”
When he returned home, he was more determined than ever to earn a living crafting bits and spurs, so he sold everything he made and invested in tools. He also studied bit form and function with bridle horsemen and craftsmen such as Dick Deller, Al Tietjen and Mike McDowell.
The Marshes settled in John Day, Oregon, in 1993, where Ernie worked from a backyard shop while Teresa waited on tables in a local diner. On weekends, the couple traveled to trade shows to sell Marsh’s bits and spurs. At one of the first shows he attended, Marsh met renowned California silversmith Ed Field.
“He told me I was doing really good work, but that it was too bad a guy can’t make a living making bits and spurs,” Marsh recalls. “I was disappointed to find out that few craftsmen made an actual living at it, that most had other jobs as machinists, mechanics or cowboys. But all I wanted to do was make bits and spurs, and I was determined to do it full time.”
Dealing with the public and developing a clientele was difficult for the logger-turned-silversmith.
“I first had to convince people that my work was worth $5 an hour,” he says. “I started by making fairly simple things and selling them at reasonable prices to develop a clientele. Then I gradually started spending more time on pieces, making them extra special and increasing the price. Before long, I had a revolving clientele.”
WHILE DEVELOPING HIS BUSINESS, Marsh made an average of only $800 per month, so he decided to try a different route, engraving knives and firearms using methods popular 300 years ago. He took two, two-week firearms-engraving courses, sponsored by the Firearms Engravers Guild of America and the National Rifle Association, at Lassen Community College in Susanville, California.
“North and South America are about the only places that make ornate bits and spurs,” Marsh explains. “In most countries, engraving is done primarily on firearms and knives.”
At the risk of ruining a valuable firearm or knife, Marsh practiced his new engraving style on bits and spurs. The elegant, high-relief engraving caught the attention of cowboys and collectors alike, because there was nothing else like it at the time.
Whereas most engravers were relying on line cuts to form their designs, Marsh made high-relief engraving his specialty. He emphasizes that one style is not better than the other, but admits that high-relief engraving can take twice as long as other engraving styles.
Scrollwork is prominent in firearms engraving. Deep cuts are made by removing the background with a hammer and chisel. Ink is applied in the crevices and wiped off, revealing an antique French-gray finish that makes the scrollwork stand out.
“My goal as a craftsman is to create functional and artistic pieces,” Marsh says. “When I design a piece, I want it to catch your eye from 50 feet away, as well as up close. I like to take an old, traditional pattern and manipulate it artistically. I design the embellishments to fit on a cheekpiece or spur band, but sometimes I change the design of the piece to fit the pattern, but without changing the functional value.”
MARSH SPENT MANY YEARS doing commission work, but now chooses to make what he wants to make and sell the work on-line. Working out of his new shop in remote Westfall, Oregon, Marsh balances a clientele of working cowboys and buckaroos with collectors. Setting his own schedule allows him the freedom to raise a few cows and horses, and spend time with Teresa and their two sons, Audie, 11, and Milo, 14.
Marsh’s work has been recognized by the Academy of Western Artists and at the Trappings of Texas. He’s also proud to be a founding member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, which inspires him to continually push the limits of his craft. But not everything always works out.
“As an artist, I’ve learned when I can bend and break the rules,” he says. “But that’s taken a lot of time. Not everything I’ve done has been met with success. I learned a long time ago that if I can’t salvage something and I’m truly unhappy with it, to bury it in a hole. Otherwise, people might hone in on whatever it is I don’t like and make me repeat it.”
Through the TCAA mentoring program, Marsh has taught other aspiring artisans, such as Les Iverson and Ron Ferguson. When teaching others to engrave, he lays out several strange shapes and asks his students to design ways to fill the empty space. It never fails that his apprentices teach him a thing or two.
“Engraving is a never-ending learning process, and that’s what makes it fun,” Marsh says. “I often get in a routine, and when I stop to explain to a student why I do something, it forces me to analyze things myself and sometimes people discover better ways of doing things.
“I do a lot of engraving around here, but nothing is chiseled in stone.”
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to [email protected].