Kevin Willey, owner of KAW Rawhide and Steel, forges dreams out of necessity
August 9, 2016
Bending low over his work, the fire illuminates his face as he stows the steel billet into glowing embers of the handmade forge. When the billet is glowing a brilliant red he quickly rotates to a 10-foot tall, three-ton hammer that swiftly compacts the billet smaller and longer. As it cools to a dull red, he rotates back and returns his billet to the fire, repeating the process, manipulating the steel into a particular shape and dynamic pattern.
Many consider a blacksmith to be a farrier. Kevin Willey blacksmiths bits, spurs, knives, and architectural work, but isn't a horseshoer. The coming 39-year-old, as he described himself, also braids fine rawhide hackamores, bosalitos, and romal reins; though his focus as of late has been the steel work.
Willey, owner of KAW Rawhide and Steel in Sheridan, Wyoming, began braiding and forging while cowboying to serve his own needs.
"I got into braiding because I needed gear I couldn't afford," Willey said. "I have a taste for finer things; champagne dreams on a beer budget."
Willey didn't see failures as such, just an opportunity to begin again.
"I figured I just as well try to make it, I can always start over. I'm hardheaded, and I would do it again until it worked out. Nobody's perfect, but that's what I strive for every time. Sometimes you don't always achieve that, but next time is another chance to do a little better," Willey said.
He said the creek near the house he lived in during the early days of forging is home to imperfect-to-Willey bits, spurs, and knife blades.
"I do a lot of testing of things, trial and error," Willey said. "I try to figure out why things that work well do so — there's a reason it works well — then build it to that standard or try to elevate my skill level every time."
Willey not only uses the gear he makes to determine which pieces are successful and useful, but also welcomes feedback and thoughts from clients to improve his trade.
"I start out with something and as I progress I change it a little here and there until all the kinks are worked out," he said. "I listen to people that I've made things for, and watch people, what they do and how they use what I've made."
He has developed his bit mouthpiece, no matter spade or Mona Lisa or half-breed, and spurs to be forged of one piece of steel, not welded together.
Willey started iron work in a metal-works high school class and by nipping in and out of iron working shops through the years. He has graduated from crude, plain knives to 160-220 layer or more Damascus knives, bits, and spurs. Though he still make standard knives, they are far from crude.
"Sometimes I have to build a piece for the intended purpose. A knife might not be worth 200 hours and needs to have a comfortable finish more than a show finish," Willey said. "Knives are hard to fit; one might fit one guy, but not the next, so I try to suit more than one need for people."
Kevin and his wife Lori moved to Sheridan two years ago and purchased their own place with enough acres to keep their saddle horses and let their two dogs run free. The acreage hosts a 20 by 30 foot shop housing all of Kevin's blacksmithing machines.
"We are fortunate to have our horses, dogs, a shop, a place we can grow into, where we can be together," Lori said. "It's someplace we can make our own, not someone else's lease or brand. Kevin can create whatever he wants to. The sky's the limit for him; he can go wherever his imagination takes him."
The shop is still under construction in Kevin's mind; he hasn't set everything in place fully to make sure his machines have the most efficient placement for their use. Machines that correlate and are used together most frequently are mere steps from one another. It is clearly a shop being designed with intent and much consideration.
"We are developing the shop to fit Kevin's needs and figuring out what we wanted to do with what's available," Lori said. "It was a process figuring out what we could do with the space and to where Kevin can work whenever he wants to. The neighbors don't hear or feel anything. We're not trying to fit two or three things in that space and that's just for him to do forge work."
Lori is finding her own place within the business, which at this time consists mostly of paperwork and taxes, but her biggest job may be to keep her artist husband gently focused on the task at hand and encourage his creativity to flow.
"Kevin's inspiration comes from everything around him: a pattern in a rock, or piece of wrought iron in garbage can or a beautiful gate, the inside of a handmade watch or a leaf; something clicks and he has a new idea. His brain operates on a different level than a lot of other people's; I don't understand how or where his logic comes from, but he's so unique," Lori said. "Inspiration hits him when it does, and I just encourage it. I try to provide an environment where he feels free to create what he wants and still stay focused a little bit."
"I always try to do something a little different and make it my own, like putting a popper in a romal the way I do," Kevin said. Kevin's popper ties into his romal in two places and is reinforced to lay flat and stay in place. "The few interweaves I incorporate I don't use much color other than a little black and brown. Once in a while I use red, but mostly natural-colored rawhide; 95 percent of it is hereford breed, not brand, rawhide. There are certain interweaves you can do, but I do different stuff, my own stuff."
Kevin uses the finest, highest-quality materials for the intended purpose; his gear and forge work last because of it.
"I try to use the best I can get, afford, and find. I try to use only the best for the intended purpose of what I'm making. I choose my materials accordingly whether it's for a bit, spur, knife, reins, hackamore, or a little bosalito. It makes me choose what types of weights of cattle I'm going to use, a yearling or cow or steer," Kevin said. "I don't use much anything that's grain-fed. There's a difference in hides."
At the very core of him, Kevin is a cowboy, even though he is taking a hiatus to explore his artistry. He has cowboyed all over the United States on large ranches and is featured in many books compiled by well-known photographers.
"He has tremendous control of his rope and the ability to stay slow," Lori said. "He understands cows on a level that is lost on many cowboys of today. He identifies with an older generation that doesn't have the distractions of today. He's worked on ranches from the Missouri River to the western border of the U.S. and back again. He has had the adventures of three lifetimes."