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Welding

Where the steel and welding rod lay

By Nick Wright

Tom Balding Bits and Spurs welds its way into a successful niche of equestrian components

February 2015 - After almost two decades of welding aircraft parts, sailboat components and other precision TIG welding jobs, Tom Balding was burned out. “I grew frustrated by the fact that these beautiful welds would be buried, unseen, in the bottom of the sailboat or plane. I thought, ‘Someday I’ll make a product where people admire the welds,’” he says.  

In 1980, he set down his torch and boldly left Southern California for the wilderness of northern Wyoming. As idyllic as it may sound, Balding was drawn to the cowboy lifestyle. He learned to ride a horse, and got by as a ranch hand. He’d perform welding repair jobs, fixing trailers and FFJ-0211-webex-spur-image4rebuilding engines for people around town.

In 1984, a few years after he settled in Sheridan, Wyoming, a woman knocked on Balding’s door with a broken bit—the metal mouthpiece for a horse’s mouth that lets the rider communicate with the horse. 

“She’d heard I could weld anything,” says Balding. At that moment, his welding experience came back into the picture. “I fixed her bit, and that evening I went out into the shop and put together my first bit with scrap sailboat parts. The next day I drove into town and had business cards printed.” 

In 2014, Tom Balding Bits and Spurs celebrated its 30th anniversary. Balding started working from out of a salvaged mobile home. Now, with five full-time employees and an annual revenue of under $1 million, the company has earned the esteem of the equestrian community for durable, American-made bits, spurs and tack with aesthetic appeal to match. Most mass-produced bits are assembled from cast metal parts. But Balding’s bits are cut from mild and stainless steel and can be custom-measured to a rider’s specifications. Everything is TIG welded, he says. Some assemblies require as many as 30 parts.

Some of the pieces border on high-end jewelry, with drops of stainless steel welding rod, as well as brass, silver and gold overlays accentuating the visual appeal and various oxide finishes. Balding has a registered trademark for welding stainless to mild steel and inducing a finish he calls rust browning. “No one had used those two metals as a design element before with this method,” he says. “We call it the tuxedo look, using the two metals together. We’re the most copied bit and spur company.”

Balding says bits and spurs add up to a $1 billion industry, of which his company is a fraction of the market. He has traveled to China and witnessed lower-cost parts made around the clock by hundreds of people. That trip inspired his appreciation for just how big the market is. Strong demand from Europe in particular keeps business thriving as serious riders tend to pay for high-end gear. Factors like rider build, horse temperament and whether they’re riding in a rodeo or polo match dictate the type of bit and spur combination to use. Country Western singers Lyle Lovett and George Strait are a few of the well-known users of Balding’s hardware.

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Tom Balding Bits and Spurs outsources raw material cutting (up to 1/2 in. stainless) to four different U.S. companies. Balding and his crew hand bevel everything into shape and use secondary machining operations for finer cuts and finishing. In the shop, there are three lathes, six Miller Syncrowave welders, jigs and finishing tools. Most of the parts will get tumbled for two or three days, which burnishes and deburrs. Balding makes and stocks roughly 400 different parts. In 2014, it made about 4,000 bits and 500 pairs of spurs.

For finishing, Balding faces flat surfaces with three different grades of belt sanders. The remaining parts, like pins and bushings, are created with a Piranha ironworker and turret lathe. The company builds its own dies for customized parts, too. He says he's interested in new CNC machinery eventually. The shop sources bar stock from a distributor in Denver and orders odd sizes of aircraft-grade alloys like 5/32 in. OD rod from an aircraft metal supplier in Southern California.

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As business increases, Balding says the shop seems to figure out faster, more efficient ways to do things. “It’s pretty much all we think about from the simple little deburring job to the intricate welding,” he adds. “The bottom line is we never sacrifice for quality.” FFJ

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