Cast to Last
By Nick Pernokas
The old dog was getting stiffer and could feel the early morning chill more these days. At 20, she sometimes needed help getting in the truck for the daily half-hour ride out to the ranch. The old man was stiff as well, with two knees that pained him and a back that frequently reminded him of a bout with malaria. Still, he appreciated being able to go to work every day, as he’d done for many years. Old habits die hard, and he couldn’t quit while he still had orders to fill.
At lunch time, the old man, and the old dog, always took time out for a meal. Today however, the man was preoccupied and the dog’s whining reminded him that it was getting past the lunch hour. He still had a job to finish, so he went over to the lunch pail and gave Abby her share. As he went back to work, he noticed that the German shepherd was sitting stoically and not touching her dinner. Herb realized that he had changed the daily ritual. He went over and sat down next to the dog. He said his blessing over the food and then the two of them began to eat. Old habits die hard.
Perhaps habit is the wrong word. Herb Bork actually practices a tradition of casting metal hardware, in a manner that goes back to Biblical times. The hardware that he produces is the type that has been used in Northwestern cowboy gear for over 150 years. Herb’s own story mirrors that legacy.
Herb Bork was raised on a ranch near Flora, in Northeastern Oregon. The whole place was only 500 acres, but Herb’s dad ran his cows on government lease land in the summer. The winters were harsh, and the cattle had to be fed, but in the spring they were moved down into the canyons. Herb’s job as a youngster was to take care of the cattle. This early start in cowboying gave Herb an appreciation of the saddles and tack that went along with it.
“I bought and traded saddles when I was a kid,” says Herb.
In 1935, Herb got his first saddle, an old slick fork with the maker’s name long burnished off the seat. One of the other cowboys, by the name of Rawhide, made an aluminum cap for the top of Herb’s saddle horn. Herb’s dad engraved it with a steer head; Herb was proud of this combination of leather and metal art.
World War II came along, and Herb sold his whole horse herd for $72. They would be the last horses he would own. Herb headed to the South Pacific in the Army. His last job in the military was with a demolition unit; today we would probably call it bomb disposal. Herb’s job was to dig up unexploded ordnance, and either destroy it or re-pin it so it wouldn’t go off.
“You had to do it right the first time.”
After the war, Herb returned to school at Walla Walla College in Washington. He married Nadene, and became a teacher in the Seventh-day Adventist school system in Spokane, Washington. He had learned how to repair saddles on the ranch and had developed a love for leatherwork. A saddlemaker named Pat Devaney worked for Indiana Harness in Spokane at the time, and gave Herb some pointers on building saddles. Herb began teaching some summer leathercraft courses, and also started building saddles in his spare time. These were mostly ranch saddles built on Low Moose roping trees, which were popular with local cowboys. Herb still remembers the difficulties of putting a swell cover on the Low Moose swell. After five years of teaching in Spokane, Herb moved to Pendleton, Oregon, and became the principal at the Harris Junior Academy. This was the end of Herb’s saddlemaking.
As a school principal, Herb started an industrial arts and general business program, to involve young people in producing something they could take pride in and make a little money doing.
What they made were saddle cinches, which Herb had realized were difficult to get in high quality from his years building saddles. As new students entered the program, they were taught by the boys and girls that had been making cinches for a while. Herb’s son, Steven, learned the ropes of the cinch-making business alongside the other students.
Quality and workmanship were emphasized, not speed. After the apprentices had tied a few cinches, their cinches were checked by putting a scale on each strand. Each strand had to weigh 10 pounds when it was raised two inches. This was to make sure that the strands were evenly tightened before the cinches were finished, and it gave Herb a way to grade them for classroom purposes.
Soon a problem became evident. They could not get enough quality cinch buckles for the number of cinches they were making. Herb learned how to cast his own buckles using some traditional patterns. The cinch buckles were die cast; the volume was 10,000 to a run. As word of his casting spread, other saddlemakers asked for custom designs, and other products like rigging dees and saddle horns. To produce these other items, Herb learned to sand cast. In 1970, Herb quit teaching to ranch and run his cinch business.
In 1982, Herb sold out Herb Bork Cinches and kept the foundry end of it, concentrating on his cast hardware. At the time that he sold out, he had 30 people making cinches, consumed a ton of mohair-blend cord each month and was one of the largest cinch makers in the country. Today, at his shop just outside of Pendleton, he makes all of the items that he always has. In addition to saddle hardware, Bork Saddlery Hardware makes a few parts for guns and wagons. Steven Bork still makes a few cinches and die casts his own cinch rings in his spare time. He calls his Benton City, Washington, business, Bork and Sons.
One of the reasons that Herb is able to build such a wide variety of products is due to the sand-casting process itself. Unlike die casting, which requires very expensive molds put under a lot of pressure, the sand caster basically makes his mold from the prototype before he reproduces it.
“With sand casting, we have a little more latitude because the molds are easier to make and we can have more variety,” says Herb. “You don’t get as good a finish as die casting, so you have to tumble and polish the pieces afterwards.”
Sand casting is an ancient process to produce metal objects. It uses a mixture of sand and clay, with just the right amount of moisture to make up each half of the mold. The object to be cast is imprinted into each half of the mold, removed and then the mold is filled with molten metal to make the part.
The actual process nowadays is a little more high tech than that, but only slightly. A complete mold, or flask, is made up of two halves, which are pinned together. A jolt and squeeze machine is used to compact the sand in each half of the mold. The prototype is called a match plate and is inserted between the two halves to produce the imprint, which will be the actual mold. The machine applies pressure to the flask to create the imprint of the match plate in the sand. The mold is then opened up, the match plate removed, and gateways are made through the sand to allow the metal in. The mold is reassembled, and the metal poured.
Herb uses manganese bronze for the metal. It’s a difficult metal to pour because it “pours like molasses in January.” It has good characteristics that make it desirable for metal products; it will bend several times before it breaks and it’s resistant to saltwater (or sweat and moisture). For a few applications, such as saddle horns, Herb uses white bronze for a silver appearance.
Herb doesn’t cast with stainless steel because of the higher temperatures required and the controlled cool down, which is also required. In other words, a pretty high-tech production is needed to prevent brittleness in the finished product.
“My foundry is kind of something else,” laughs Herb. “It’s not high tech. The bronze is tough stuff. I can only think of two pieces that were ever returned due to breakage.”
Herb makes up the match plates himself from aluminum. He also has match plates for old hardware from companies like Visalia and Hamley. He does most of the casting himself, but if he gets behind he uses a foundry in Portland to help him on the casting. This arrangement keeps him from having to hire anyone. Retired industrial arts teacher, Al Olsen does the polishing on the products and is a perfectionist.
Now at 97, Herb says, “I’m just a one-horse outfit. And I can quit any time I want to.”
Most of his customers are custom saddlemakers who have used him for a long time. They want to buy locally from a company that produces the same thing, year after year. Herb is also so versatile that he can build just one item, as he did recently for a saddlemaker who needed to replace an oddball rigging plate that had broken.
Herb feels that operating a small foundry is like saddlemaking. You have to do it because you like it, not because of the money. He feels that higher quality saddles will continue to be in demand and create a need for his products.
Unfortunately for collectors in the future, Herb was never one for self-promotion. He only stamped his name on some of the cinch rings.
Herb worries about the day when he won’t be around to make hardware for all the saddlemakers who have depended on him for years. Many have become friends that he looks forward to visiting with. He realizes that he has been a part of what they have produced to feed their families, and he takes that seriously.
“Everybody thinks there’s something wrong with you if you don’t retire and enjoy yourself,” says Herb, “but sitting around doesn’t appeal to me.”
So, how does someone stay this positive and productive at this point in their life? Which comes first, longevity or attitude? I don’t know. I’m just a storyteller. For those kinds of questions you need to ask someone with more wisdom, perhaps an old dog.
Herb Bork can be reached at 541-276-5207, or go to www.borksaddleryhardware.com.
Bork Saddlery Hardware
823 S. W. 2nd St.
Pendleton, Oregon 97801