The Legendary Link
By Jameson Parker
Using a traditional method of melding silver and steel, bit and spur maker Chuck Irwin connects contemporary cowboys to Californio-style craftsmanship.
BEFORE ITS GENTRIFICATION, California's Santa Ynez Valley was vaquero country. The sprawling vineyards present today were once vast ranches, and tourists and celebrities have replaced many of the cattle and cowboys.
Some ranches remain, but cattle have largely been pushed into the steep, rugged hills of the coastal range. And a few cowboys are still around, one of them being rancher and craftsman Chuck Irwin.
At 84 years old, Irwin runs cattle on 2,500 acres. He also makes bits and spurs using traditional Californio techniques, which originated with the eighth-century Moors and were passed down to the horsemen of Spain and Old Mexico, who brought them to California.
BORN IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY REGION, Irwin had ranching ties on his mother's side of the family; his father was in the paint business. Irwin started riding when he was 9 years old. His family moved to Culver City when he was a teenager, where he shod horses and performed a Roman riding act for wrangler and rodeo producer Jute Smith.
On December 7, 1941, while shoeing a horse for Smith, Irwin had some unexpected news.
"Jute stuck his head around the corner of the barn and asked me how old I was," he recalls. "I told him I was 17. He shook his head and said, 'Son, you're in trouble.' I knew I'd be drafted as soon as I graduated from high school, so I just went ahead and enlisted [in the Army]. I was a prisoner of war for three years."
After serving in North Africa, India and Burma, Irwin returned to California, finished high school and went back to work for Smith. During this time he also made his first pair of spurs, because he couldn't afford to buy a pair of his own.
WHEN HE RETURNED TO CALIFORNIA, Irwin noticed the state had begun to change. World War II introduced hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors to the state, and a land rush was on. Developers squeezed Smith out of Culver City, and in 1952 Chuck and his young wife moved to Los Olivos. There, Irwin ranched, farmed, shod horses and made spurs.
Gearmaker Forest Armstrong lived in nearby Los Alamos. He made bits, spurs and hair ropes, and did some silversmithing. Irwin gleaned tips from him and other gearmakers, and when an engraving accident ended Armstrong's career, Irwin bought many of his tools and started making bits. At first, he fashioned his bits after old designs but gradually modified them to suit his standards.
Irwin's work has been compared to that of Caliente, California, cowboy and craftsman Abbie Hunt's. Earning cowboy wages, Hunt salvaged old driveshafts to make bits and spurs, and made his own tools out of whatever came to hand. His engraving is easily recognized by its thick cuts, said to look as if they had been done with a screwdriver—which was the case.
Hunt taught himself the technique of "flowed silver," which then involved melting old Mexican pesos. Instead of soldering the silver onto a flat piece of steel, the silver is laid in cut channels and the steel heated with an acetylene or propane torch. It's a tricky technique, and the precise temperature is a subject of debate and dependent on whether a craftsman uses pure silver, sterling silver or coin silver. Irwin had heard of Hunt and decided to try the flowed-silver method.
"If you solder on silver, when the steel rusts that rust will pop the silver out sooner or later," Irwin says. "That's why I won't make an overlay bit. Flowed silver becomes part of the steel. I lay 16-gauge silver wire in the channel and heat the metal with a torch. I want the steel to be red, but I don't want it so hot it starts to sweat. Once the silver is melted, I hammer the surface to harden it and drive out bubbles. I can engrave over any little pits that stay."
Irwin makes the process look deceptively easy, but it takes practice to master. Several aspiring silversmiths have had Irwin teach them the technique, but few, if any, do it long term because of its difficulty.
Browned steel and flowed silver make Irwin's bits instantly identifiable. Plain and functional, they're made for working cowboys, not collectors, though his bits have sold for $1,700 and more at auction.
"I don't like too much decoration, just silver and iron, plain," Irwin says. "I like what works for the horse. I won't make a stiff-jawed [non-flexible] bit. My favorite mouthpieces are the frog and the vaqueño, and my favorite cheekpiece is the snake. I use a mild steel, same as sweet iron, and then I brown it, just like an antique gun barrel."
WHEN HE ISN'T WORKING CATTLE or silversmithing, Irwin braids rawhide gear. Rawhide quality is important to the craftsman, so he removes hides from the cattle and scrapes them himself. Then he places the hides in a cement mixer filled with a cleaning solution of lye. Next, he stretches the hides on an iron circle, scrapes off the hair and allows the hide to dry. He cuts his rawhide strips by hand, then braids at night in his living room.
His life of unrelenting physical labor can be seen in his weathered hands. They're enormous, even for a big man, thickened and hardened by constant use. And, like most cowboys, Irwin is more interested in present or future work than dwelling on the past. It's only through a casual reference by a visiting friend that the subject of Rancho del Cielo, just a few miles down the road, comes up.
Cielo means sky, but it can also mean heaven, paradise or God. In the Santa Ynez Valley, however, it brings to mind former president Ronald Reagan.
"I was shoeing horses for Ray Cornelius at Rancho del Cielo, and he told me he had sold the ranch," Irwin recalls. "I thought I'd just find more work somewhere else, but then he said, 'You go with the ranch.' "
That's when Irwin learned that the ranch had been sold to Reagan.
"He was still the governor back then, and I wasn't too sure what I thought about that, but he was a good guy," Irwin says. "He wasn't too fussy about his horses and how they were shod. He had great horses, and he'd just turn them all loose, let them run together in the pastures. After he became president, I always knew when he was coming because they'd call me to shoe the horses."
Irwin worked for the ranch until Reagan left office. When Irwin moved on, Reagan wrote him a thank-you letter on White House stationery. Irwin says he still has the letter somewhere.
IRWIN'S TACK ROOM is curiously spartan. There are four beautifully made, well-used, Visalia saddles and only a handful of headstalls, most with Irwin's favorite mouthpieces, the frog or vaqueño. An interesting piece of headgear hanging on the wall is neither one of Irwin's bits, nor one of his bosals. It's a vosal, which he recommends to a ranch visitor whose horse is fighting every bit put in its mouth.
"It works like a bosal, only you can hang a bit on it and the horse will just carry it in his mouth with no pressure when you rein," Irwin explains to the horse owner. "The pressure is on the nose and the jaw, just like a bosal. I made it, but I don't make them to sell."
Irwin might be a legendary bit maker and a link to California's past, but he's first and foremost a horseman, primarily concerned with what works for the horse.
Jameson Parker is a California-based writer and the author of the memoir An Accidental Cowboy. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.