Never quite satisfied: Gary Johnson strives for perfection in silver work
One summer evening with a little bit of down time in the early 1980s, Gary Johnson sat in an old, converted chicken coop-turned-bunkhouse on a ranch outside of Ekalaka, MT, experimenting with steel and silver. Between cowboying and ranch jobs, he had plenty of work to do but not a lot of money to work with, plus he had a family to feed and was in need of a new set of spurs. So, with a few free hours one evening in a dimly lit bunkhouse, Gary tested out his metal working skills and, after many hours and a lot of elbow grease, he finished his first set of spurs. After a few more ‘free’ evenings, he had more spurs to sell and his wallet started to fill. Almost 30 years later in a well-lit shop on his ranch near Douglas, WY, Gary sits at his shop bench with a collection of tools he’s accumulated over the years, a list of custom silver orders to fill, a grown family, and peace of mind. He still works ranch jobs and even runs his own cattle but when the snow blows outside or the daylight starts to dwindle, he is content to work inside on a set of silver engraved earrings and heat colored spurs with copper and silver overlays to show at the Sheridan Silver and Engraving Show.
The road that led Gary Johnson from a bunkhouse in Montana to a world renowned silver show in Wyoming was, he describes, “out of necessity,” using “crude and simple materials.” The hobby served its purpose by helping his family get through tough times and also outfitting himself and his friends with good quality bits and spurs. But as time passed and Gary’s family grew, the need for more metal and silverwork increased. Gary’s son, Chet, began riding broncs and his son soon found himself in need of a good pair of bronc spurs. After one pair of spurs was finished, however, it seemed Chet’s fellow bronc riders were in need as well, and because rodeo is such a mobile sport, Gary soon found himself crafting spurs for riders as far East as Pennsylvania. Before he knew it, Gary was watching his hand-crafted spurs ‘shank one’ across his television screen broadcasted from Las Vegas, NV, at the National Finals Rodeo. His business didn’t end with spurs, though; Gary was also making many different types of bits. He built many solid mouthpiece and three-piece tumbling spade bits. More recently, he’s been perfecting the art of crafting spade bits as well.
“Last one [spade bit] I built went to Idaho to a guy I know. Seems like it took me forever. There are so many things to do to get them balanced,” said Gary. Because of the complicated nature of different mouthpieces, Gary experimented with his bits on his own horses first. “When I used them [bits], I would find something I didn’t like and tried not to do that again.” The challenge to keep improving at his trade kept Gary’s interest through the years and has pushed him to continually make a better product.
“If I ever make anything I am totally satisfied with, I’d better quit!” he said.
Whether he is working on a spade bit or a pair of using spurs, Gary makes sure the end product is functional. He accounts for length of leg, type of use, and personal style. “Right now I’m working on a guitar motif bit and spur set,” he said and continued, “I just try to build what people want. If you don’t like it, just send it back. I’d rather have someone send something back than be dissatisfied.” With a business ethic like that, it is no wonder Gary’s business continued to grow.
“I don’t really advertise – just word of mouth,” he said and then laughed, “If I get really bored … I’ll advertise.” For now, he just tries to stay current on his list of custom orders, which can be a daunting task for a one-man show, but that’s the way Gary likes it.
“Everything is handmade by me, and I’ll keep it that way,” he says explaining that he doesn’t use any lasers for cutting as some metal workers do, but rather a saw and welder. He uses quality materials: 1018 steel, sterling and fine silver. He adds, “I’m in charge of quality control and everything else. I like things I can just do myself. I’m not a teacher. Maybe someday down the road I’ll have some time and I might be able to do some of that, but as long as I have cattle, they keep me pretty busy.” Gary describes his work as a nice “accessory business” to his cattle ranching and says that the two pair well together because when the weather is nice outside he can be ranching, and when it is snowing out, he can be inside doing silverwork. Gary commented, “Some guys, that’s all they do, all the time, and I don’t know how they do it. They must have a little more constitution than I’ve got; but everybody needs something, a hobby or a pastime, and this is mine.” As a bonus, Gary pointed out that both careers let him work for himself and he joked, “I’d do just about anything to keep from having a steady job!”
Always wanting to improve, Gary admires the work of other artists he’s seen from a variety of shows saying, “I wish I had that artistic ability … I’ve got a long way to go.” Over the years Gary has been fortunate enough to learn from other silverworkers such as Harold Crocker and Chuck Bell from Sheridan, WY. He also really enjoys engraving and plans to take some classes in that area, as well. Gary said, “My welding has improved a lot, and that’s from practice and more practice.” But as many will tell you, Gary is more talented than he lets on. Gary’s wife, Susan said, “He’s a very humble and very talented man.”
Gary hopes to show his work in another exhibit someday, but admits, “I need to get a little more ambitious.” However, according to his long-time friend Vince Donley (who still owns the first concho decorated curb bit he ever made), Gary may have his eye on The Californios – a buckaroo (or vaquero) style competition and trade show held in Reno, NV.
“It can be fun to see how your stuff stacks up against others,” Gary says, “I’m my own worst critic and if I’m satisfied with it, it must be pretty good.” But it’s not the prospect of future shows that keeps Gary going, and certainly not the money.
“This is not a get rich deal. It’s hard to charge. Most of these guys are working cowboys and I just can’t charge an arm and a leg for that kind of stuff,” he said and then continued with a laugh, “After all, it was Chuck Bell who told me if I wanted to do this full time, I’d better have a wife with a good job!”
Now that the necessity is gone, Gary has a new drive that keeps him going down his path. “There’s never an end,” he said, “You can never reach perfection.” There will always be more skills to learn, techniques to perfect, and broke cowboys to outfit – maybe even new shows to outdo himself at – but the simple fact is, the same thing that keeps Gary Johnson ranching is what keeps him constantly improving his handmade silverwork: the challenge.
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