Saturday, January 26, 2013

Bit Blanks

It is with great pleasure I finally settle down and make some bits.  I've made my own bits for years, since the mid-1990s, chopping them out of silver sheet and filing to shape.  Since then, things have developed a bit.  (Pardon the pun.)  This picture shows the sheet and a few of my chisels.  I got most of these from my Dad, who tinkered with silverworking when he was a young man.  (The family story is he was making a concho belt for my mother.)

These days I start my bits with a drawing. This particular bit is for the Goerhing saddle, and the reference only shows that it's got a big rayed concho on the mouthpiece end and looks Mexican.  Without much more than that, I searched through several High Noon catalogs.  (By the way, the High Noon auction is going on this very weekend!  Thanks for all the great reference...)  Nothing.  The closest I could get was a couple of Jesus Tapia bits; he was a bit and spur maker from the 19th C.  By total and complete coincidence (I swear) one of these bits is used on the High Noon home page.  We must have the same taste.
The one I wound up leaning on most for my pattern was pleasantly asymmetrical and ornamented with tiny smooth round spots on the tips of branchlike extensions.  Nobody else, so far as I know, created such asymmetrical bit shanks.  I made my paper pattern, put tape over it and cut it out, then drew around it on my silver sheet.  If you look closely at the top picture you can see the bit shank brace bar (bit bar) pattern laid on the big silver piece.

This is where the story gets personal.  I took a picture of myself cutting out that bar, but then -- whoop -- it leapt from my hand and completely disappeared.  I spent more than an hour looking for it.  At more than an inch long, how could it have vanished?!  For a radius of 5 feet around I hunted, I turned over, I stormed, I even cried.  I hate to admit it.  Big name artist getting all steamed up over losing parts...  After 34 years, I still drop things.

In the end I made another one.  As these things usually go, it was a better one.

This shows the files I use.  The braided handles came later, each one individually over the years.  The two paper patterns are at upper right.

Much time is taken filing the bit blanks smooth and equal, and drilling and smoothing the holes.  There comes a point when I cease matching them up to the paper pattern and just go on by eye.  At that point they're individuals, with their own minute flaws and asymmetries.  When they're sufficiently smooth and ready for engraving, it's time to break out the Thermo-Loc.

This stuff resembles gray chewing gum.  It is a heat-sensitive matrix for engraving itsy bitty teeny weeny pieces -- pieces that are too small to fit in the engraving vise.  I've got the smallest vise, but still they are too small for it...    Put the Thermo-Loc in the microwave and soften it up, then embed the blanks.  It's a skill knowing how deep to push:  too deep and you can't reach the edges, too shallow and it won't hold.  When it's cool it hardens and you can put it in the vise.

If you're good, you've remembered to place each bit shank with its best side up, one right and one left.  :)  This shows the engraving process near the beginning.  The edges have been rocker-engraved and the floral pattern is just starting to be carved.  Yes, I work with a magnifier...

Many people would be satisfied at this stage of the proceedings.  I would have been, for many years.  The stems at the bottom of the shanks have been curled around into loops.  They will accept the bit shank brace, which faces forward.

What could be left to do?  For one, doming.  For another, don't forget there should be big rayed conchos, like stars.  At first I was planning to use some cup-shaped disc blanks I had, but initial engraving revealed them to be silver-plated brass!!  and thus not acceptable.  So I had to make a couple of conchos myself, and what better than out of the same peice of sheet.  Drafting circle template to the rescue:  five-eighths inch diameter.  My dapping block is another gift from my father.
They were a little thick, but this just gave me an excuse to engrave them deeply.  The first engraving pass was satisfactory enough to warrant soldering them to the bit shanks.  Although the conchos are pretty thick, they add considerably to the bits' detail and heft.  The bits have taken on a nice three-dimensional shape from subtle doming and dapping as well.  Notice, too, I solved the problem of the little silver dots in the design.
I did it with tiny bits of solder.  Soldering in miniature is an excuse to tear your hair out with frustration, and only years of tackmaking (another excuse) guide me...  These dots were the big pioneer development of this particular pair of bit shanks, "never solved before, never tried."  I was so jazzed I was running up and down the stairs.  It worked it worked!!   And think of what I could do in the future...

Next day I reset them in Thermo-Loc and continued work on the conchos.  This planed down the thick edges a bit, approaching the original reference.
And we're done.

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