Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Making bits for model horses

The early stages of my tack making career were marked by a distinct lack of funds, so I made everything myself, including hardware. I made buckles out of paper clips and straight pins and bits out of jump rings and silver beads. Later, I fashioned a few more complicated bits with wire and solder. I wish I had kept some of those! Eventually, I became a little less broke and tack making supplies became a lot more abundant. Aside from the loose ring snaffles, I haven't made a bit in years. The same can not be said for tack maker, Katherine Bone of Barefoot Appaloosa Studios. Katherine hand makes all sorts of nifty competition bits and hackamores, and in today's guest post, she shares some of her secrets. Thank you so much, Katherine. Because of you, I am actually considering making a whole new batch of Little S hackamores!

Making Bits for Model Horses

By Katherine Bone

Thanks to the rise of technology in manufacturing, more small scale hardware than ever is available for model hobbyists through sites like Rio Rondo, The World of Model Horse Collecting, and Blue Duck Saddlery—to name a few. But if you’ve been making tack long enough, then you’ve likely noticed the limited styles available for etched and cast bits. Rio Rondo and other sites are adding new inventory each year, but when the bit you need isn’t sold anywhere, what can you do? My answer to this problem was to learn to make my own bits, and I will be sharing my method in this tutorial. 
I would like to preface this tutorial by saying that soldering would likely be an even more durable alternative to glue or epoxy, but as I have not experimented with a soldering iron YET, I can’t give any tips.

For this method, you will need:
  • Drawing paper and pencil, with a model for size comparison
  • Jewelry Gauge Wire in sizes 18, 20, 24, etc.
  • Jewelry pliers, I use needle nose and round tip
  • 2 mm crimp beads, 8 mm jump rings
  • Wire cutters, I use a very fine tip pair
  • A small pair of scissors
  • Loctite super glue with precision tip (epoxy would work here as well)
  • Clear nail topcoat or other clear lacquer
Optional: Silver Sharpie

The simplest style of bit to make is an o-ring bit. This is a good starting point for newer tackmakers, as these bits can be found across multiple disciplines and styles and learning to make them yourself is a useful skill. I prefer to use 8 mm premade jump rings for my o-ring bits, but of course you can make your own with 18 gauge jewelry wire and round nose pliers. 
I add the “mouthpiece” of the bit by modifying a 2mm crimp bead. Using scissors or the fine-tipped wire cutters, I cut a slit down the bead before trimming back the sides. This makes the bead sit tighter to the jump ring. 
With a dab of super glue on the inside of the crimp bead, I then lay the jump ring in place and after waiting a moment for the glue to grab hold, pinch the crimp bead closed with needle nose pliers. And that’s it!
Making more complicated bits requires a little more proficiency and practice than the standard o-ring, however.

To start, I like to create a draft of what the finished bit will look like, using a tracing of the model’s head to sketch on top of. Afterwards, I keep these sketches as a pattern to use again in the future. Here, I’ll be making a ‘combination’ hackamore bit.
Once you have a guide to work from, the next step is more about practice than skill, although a little skill is required to get the best results! With my sketch of the bit as a guide, I start bending wire to create the different pieces. As a general rule, 20 or 18 gauge wire tends to work well for the main shafts (shanks) of the bit, and 24 gauge works best for any extra pieces. I tend to experiment with new styles and select a combination that suits my fancy.

I make the main body of the shanks first in order to build off of them. The majority of my time fine tuning is spent here; it is crucial that the pieces are as similar as possible, as they are the biggest component of the bit and any asymmetry will be more noticeable. Working from the end of the wire, I make an initial teardrop shape using the round nose pliers. 
This is where the sketch becomes a huge help, as I begin to shape each bit shank by anchoring the wire against the paper with pliers (or my finger) before bending the wire. I match the drawing as closely as I am able to while keeping the curve of the wire smooth. I also compare the wire piece to my guide often as I work. This bit style has a loop for a hackamore noseband, which I add with the round nose pliers. 
I finish the bit shank off with a final small loop for the curb chain. 
When both bit shanks are finished, I make the additional pieces I need. The double-sided loop is made with a smaller gauge of wire than the bit shanks; I prefer to make the accompanying jump rings out of the same size gauge. (As a side note, I also use pliers to pinch and flatten the ends of the wire that will be glued directly to the bit shanks.)
From here, I just add the pieces I’ve made to the shanks. Dabbing a bit of superglue to both flattened ends of the trapezoidal piece I attach it to the body of the shank and apply gentle pressure until dry. The double-sided loop has one end pinch tightly closed around the wire bit shank, and fixed in place with superglue. These two steps are repeated for the other matching shank; before I move on to the next step, I like to have at least two layers of superglue around points of attachment. Once the superglue is fully dry I go over with a silver sharpie to blend the joint more seamlessly with the wire.

At this point, I also add the bit mouthpiece by pinching a modified crimp bead (please see instructions from the o-ring bit for a more detailed explanation) closed around the bit shank. Then with the clear nail topcoat or similar lacquer, I dab a moderate amount over the joints of the bit shank where I previously glued pieces down. (For strength, I may add more over top of this initial coat once fully dry.) I add jump rings before setting the piece aside to fully cure.

Lastly, I bend two small s-hooks to use for the curb chain later. 
Now with all pieces firmly attached and secured, the combination bit is basically complete!
Before using the combination bit with a bridle it will need a rope noseband and curb chain, but I’m afraid this tutorial is getting a bit too lengthy already. I have been very pleased with the bits I have made using similar techniques, and the realism and durability that is possible with this method. Like all model things, however, homemade bits are not indestructible. Excessive use or rough handling can certainly lead to breaks and bends, but with the proper care and storage, I have successfully kept similar bits in my tack collection for years of use!
Hope this helps!


  1. I never thought of using crimp beads for a bit. This tack tip was super helpful!

  2. As a person who loves to design and make working (moving) model bits in traditional scale, this was a really interesting post to read! I've been wondering if I'm alone with my craziness... My techniques don't involve glue or silver markers, though, since I bend all my bits from one single wire and may add some moving parts as well, along with the 'mouthpiece'.

    1. I'd love to see photos of your bits.

    2. Here: My bits probably aren't very "pretty looking", but I think that the functionality comes first.

    3. I'm glad I asked. Those are really neat!

    4. Thanks a lot! It means a lot to hear something like that from a hobby professional.