Inside his modest shop in the small Texas Panhandle town of Clarendon, Kevin Johnson is bringing back old world craftsmanship. Actually, make that old West craftsmanship. Surrounded by a large collection of antiques, Texas Rangers memorabilia and old photos, Johnson works diligently until the early morning hours creating bits, spurs, buckles, badges and more. He’s the go-to outfitter for the Texas Rangers and Texans statewide.
Johnson has creativity in his blood. His mother was a country singer who sang with Loretta Lynn and Bill Monroe. Growing up, he and his siblings were encouraged to create. Often, necessity was the mother of invention.
“We grew up making a lot of our own toys,” Johnson tells Wide Open Country. “If we wanted to play something we had to build it.”
As he got older, he started making custom firearm grips for his friends. Eventually, he became interested in working with metal and silver. From there, he decided to teach himself how to do custom engraving.
“I bought me a set of engraving tools, read a little booklet on how to use them, a little bit on how to do silver work and hammer work and saw work and just kind of went crazy from there,” Johnson says. “I practiced enough that I developed it I guess you might say.”
Johnson says when he started engraving there were only 248 known makers in the world that were doing the kind of work he was interested in doing. Few were eager to teach him the craft.
“A lot of what I had to do by hand was because I didn’t realize you could do it any other way,” Johnson says. “I didn’t realize you could buy equipment to do some of the jobs that I do. So I wound up making a lot of my own stuff–my own tools and things. That’s why I do most of it by hand now.”
Johnson engraves guns, badges and belt buckles for the Texas Rangers. Creating for the longstanding law enforcement agency is particularly special for Johnson.
“I’m pretty proud of doing stuff for the Texas Rangers just because they’re what I consider one of the most elite law enforcement agencies in the world,” Johnson says.
Johnson is known for the intricate details he weaves out of iron and steel, as seen on this set of spurs made for General William Keys, the president of Colt firearms.
Johnson says a simple set of spurs take two days to make. A more elaborate “presentation spur” can take up to a week to design and two weeks or more to make.
“When you look at my work you can tell that it’s got good finished work to it, it’s got craftsmanship to it and it’s got a lot of pride in it when it was being made,” Johnson says.
Beyond guns, badges and spurs, Johnson gets numerous requests for custom-made accessories such as belt buckles. After all, what’s more Texas than a belt buckle engraved with your name or title?
Johnson also makes delicate jewelry with a Western flare, such as this ring with a brand symbol on it.
It seems everyone wants to have a Kevin Johnson piece on their boots or in their holster, even presidents. A set of spurs Johnson made for President George W. Bush made it all the way to the White House.
“I was friends with several congressmen from here in Texas and one of them asked if I’d be interested in doing [George W. Bush] a set right before he went out of office. So I built them for him and they presented them to him at a Christmas White House ball,” Johnson says.
Whether for a president or an average citizen, Johnson says his biggest challenge is achieving what the customer has in mind for their order.
“If you can make it happen and they pick it up and their eyes light up and they’re like ‘that’s exactly what I thought it was going to be like’ that’s the most challenging part,” Johnson says. “It’s just pleasing the person who ordered it.” Johnson is so in tune with his craftsmanship that he can recognize his work without even looking.
“When an old cowboy walks the spurs jingle…they make a certain sound. I use my own type of metal. I work it in my own way so it’s got it’s own sound,” Johnson says. “Somebody can walk in the back of an old cafe somewhere and I can hear that thing ring.”
To see Johnson in action, check out this video by the Texas Country Reporter.