Pipe Creek's 'Original Horseshoe Engraver'
By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor
"There's just something about a horseshoe," said Bandera artist Jim Brandvik. "Something in my brain is wired to like it. Its shape is found throughout nature and is very appealing. But to me, a horseshoe always had the potential to become something else."
As "The Original Horseshoe Engraver," Brandvik has turned the horseshoe's pleasing tilde shape into very special one-of-a-kind artwork - artwork that's become his signature leitmotif.
After preparing the horseshoes, often provided by his clients, Brandvik meticulously engraves the highly polished surfaces with vintage rope patterns, leaf work, stars, horses, Native American symbols and other western motifs. He also adds names and lettering, something most engravers avoid.
"Lots of engravers consider lettering a secondary element. You can sometimes fudge engraving, but a 6 year old can tell if letters are not perfect," Brandvik explained.
His talent came from his mother, who encouraged his interest in art, and from his father, who transformed old horseshoes into hatracks, hoofpicks and boot scrapers, among other useful items. "Back in the '70s, repurposing utilitarian items was not as common as it is now," Brankvik said.
Road to Bandera
Although the artist ratcheted his father's lead up a notch, his road to Bandera from the Texas Panhandle included several detours. One was a stint as a state trooper in New Mexico in the 1980s. "That was not a great life," Brandvik recalled, "with 12-hour shifts, a couple of broken noses and making $800 a month."
After moving back to Texas to work to start a security company, he wended his way to San Antonio where he sold pagers. "Remember them?" Brandvik asked.
After starting an IT business with his son, Brandvik began looking for a place in the Hill Country. It was time, he felt, to deal with an "artistic itch I had been trying to scratch" for a while.
His place in the Hill Country, which he now shares with wife Blondie, is 55 acres on the Gray Stone Ranch in Pipe Creek. "I was looking for a wild place that hadn't been cleared and that I could afford," Brandvik said. After purchasing the property in 2000, he lived there in a tent for six months with a three-legged dog. "Not a stick had been nailed together when I bought this land," he said.
About this time, he began engraving. "I had always liked drawing and sculpting, but I primarily wanted to engrave horseshoes - which gave me the best of both worlds," Brandvik said.
In 2006, Blondie encouraged him to pursue his art on a more regular basis. A marketing and business veteran, she formerly owed vintage western specialty shop in Santa Fe.
Brandvik's first obstacle came when he attempted to design his own engraving tools. "Pretty quickly, I realized that tool sharpening and tool geometry was very important. An incorrectly sharpened tool will skid over the surface of the metal or dig in too deeply rather than incise a nice cut."
Finally, a kindred spirit - experienced engraver Steve Ellsworth of Denver, Colorado - offered Brandvik a mini-apprenticeship. "He let me look over his shoulder for four days and taught me about proper tool sharpening," Brandvik said. Ellsworth also taught Brandvik about different graver geometries.
"He had modern tools and once I used a reciprocating air-graver, I knew that was the way to go." Now Brandvik reserves his hammer mostly for gold inlay work.
Back in the Hill Country, he began his artistic career in earnest, using compressed air from bottles to run his new found tools. "I started small and evolved. I always had design ability. I just had to learn how to use the tools," he explained, adding, "Now I use an air compressor."
Cowboys & Indians magazine
About this time, Brandvik began to cut down his daily commute to the IT business in San Antonio, finally selling his share entirely.
In the beginning, people didn't always "get" his highly engraved horseshoes. "They'd immediately turn the horseshoe upside down - even when there was lettering on it," Brandvik recalled. "Then they'd ask, 'Do you put these on horses'?"
All that changed with Blondie sent Cowboys & Indians, the premier magazine of the West, photos and information about her husband's work. "They contacted me and asked if I were interesting in them doing a story about me. I said, 'Sure as long as it doesn't cost me anything'." That 2009 two-page, profusely illustrated spread changed everything.
"After the article came out, we began getting two or three orders a week, which put me in a bind. It takes me a long time to engrave a horseshoe," Brandvik said. But there was a definite upside to the exposure. "Finally people began to get what I was doing and I didn't have to try and 'sell' it to them."
And the article is still paying off. "In 2012 - four years later - I was contacted by a woman from Argentina who had read it. Cowboys & Indians is like a catalog. No one ever throws it away." Since then, Brandvick's engraved horseshoes have found homes in Australia, Italy, South American, Norway, Canada and Japan.
To date, his most famous equine footwear-art object belongs to the quarter horse "Invitation Only," the sire of 210 World Championships, Congress Championships and Reserve Championships and a 2008 NSBA (National Snaffle Bit Association) Hall of Fame Inductee. "When we posted on our Facebook page that I was engraving one of Invitation Only's horseshoes, we got 4,000 hits on our website in two days."
The most expensive horseshoe Brandvik has created graced the hoof of a Clydesdale and cost $1,250. However most engraved horseshoes run from $100 to $300 and take from between two and six hours to complete.
"Although I still enjoy working with the horseshoes, most of my gross revenue comes from jewelry sales," Branvik said. Not surprisingly, his jewelry, including rings, pendants and bracelets, as well as knives, belt buckles, spurs, money clips and other accessories are also intricately engraved.
Brandvik's latest creation plays on the luck always attributed to a horseshoe. After engraving a horseshoe, he divides it into 11 sections and allows clients to select the section that most appeals to them. After adding a bale, jump ring hook and chain, the horseshoe artifact is turned into a sterling silver pendant. "Everyone can select their own piece of luck," Goldie said.
Brandvik bills himself as the "Original Horseshoe Engraver" to distinguish himself from the four or five others who have followed his inspiration. Not surprisingly, on his Facebook page a Chinese fortune proclaims: "No man ever yet became great by imitation." Words that Brandvik has lived by.
To view his engraved art pieces, visit Brandvik's website, http://horseshoeengraver.com/ or his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/horseshoeengraver. Brandvik's work is also available at the Western Trail Antiques Mall in Bandera. The mall's telephone is 830-796-3838.