After working many years part-time as a leather worker and knife builder, Dan Gifft of Choteau is now pursuing his avocation fulltime and has opened a retail shop, Buckaroo Built, right next door to Meraki Coffee at 829 Main Ave. N.
Buckaroo Built specializes in “custom-built gear for the working cowboy,” and is a business that Dan and his brother, Nate Gifft of Baker City, Oregon, both operate — Dan here and Nate in Oregon.
Buckaroo Built offers custom-made leather gear and tack, including saddles, bridles, headstalls, spur straps, chaps, custom rawhide braiding, saddle and tack repair, and a variety of custom-made knives for use on ranches, hunting and fishing. It also offers custom made leather wine bottle holders, wine stoppers, wallets, sheaths and other items that people visiting Montana may wish to take home as souvenirs.
“I love the area. I love the people. It’s a good community,” Dan said during a recent interview.
Dan and his brother don’t come from ranching stock, but at an early age they both became interested in the horse industry. Born in Vancouver, Washington, Dan grew up in Oregon and spent summers from the time he was 13 to age 21 working on a Boy Scout-owned 640-acre ranch, which ran 70 to 80 head of horses.
Dan says he didn’t have much of a budget for purchasing gear for the ranch so he used what was available and built spur straps, headstalls and more for use on the ranch, teaching himself leather-craft skills and learning from various mentors.
Their interest grew into a family business with his brother specializing in horse-hair braiding, his mother making wild rags (cowboy bandanas), and his sister-in-law building cinches. His shop in Choteau sells items made by his family members.
Dan originally “stretched his legs” and came to Montana in 2011, working as a seasonal wrangler on Chuck and Sharon Blixrud’s 7 Lazy P Guest Ranch. He packed for the ranch through the summer and fall, and then returned to Oregon for the off-season and worked as a horse trainer.
He came back Choteau in 2012 and worked another season for the Blixruds, then went to work for John and Bill Peebles as a seasonal ranch hand. He spent the next eight years doing that — working for Dusty and Danelle Crary in the summers after they bought a portion of the Blixurds’ guest ranch operation and for the Peebles brothers the rest of the year.
This spring marked the first time that Dan is not working for the guest ranch or on the Peebles ranch. “If this is what I want to do, this is what I need to be doing,” he said.
Dan said Sparky Wallace of rural Choteau, who also does custom leatherwork, told him that he could be a cowboy or a saddle maker, but it’s very hard to do both jobs well.
Once he made the decision to go full-time into leatherwork, Dan said he was able to rent his retail shop from Mari Shore, who operates Meraki Coffee next door and owns the three small buildings in the complex. He opened the shop in late May and divides his time between the shop and his forge, located northeast of Choteau on an area farm.
“Basically, anything anyone needs to be done with leather, I’ll do it, or I’ll point them to someone who can,” he said.
He is happy to build custom chaps for customers, and to design and construct other horse tack, but also enjoys repairing and rebuilding used tack.
“I enjoy it. I love it,” he said of saddle repair. “It’s cool to be able to see how different makers build things.”
He can also build western saddles customized for whatever use the rider needs. “A good saddle, as a guy I used to work for says, should make your butt smile and should make your horse smile, Dan said.
The craftsman said the leather he uses for most of his projects comes from Hermann Oak Leather, which distributes American-made leather products and is “the absolute best” for leather western wear and tack.
A supplier in Billings provides the wooden trees for the saddles he builds, and he said creating a custom saddle takes him about six months from start to finish.
Customers can also order custom-made knives from Buckaroo Built. Dan said he started building knives when he was 13 years old. His father, a cabinetry carpenter, had lots of used table-saw blades, which Dan began using to carve knives out of.
When he got into high school, a teacher introduced him to the metal forging, which is the method he now uses.
Dan said he keeps the cost of his hand-made knives down by using recycled steel, particularly from coil springs and leaf springs off trucks and some headbolts. He said he tests each new piece of steel for its carbon content to make sure it is sufficient to make a durable, sturdy knife that can be sharpened. “In reality, there’s no better steel for a knife than spring steel,” he said.
Most people who ask him to make a knife for them have a specific purpose in mind: for hunting, skinning, fishing, ear-marking or castrating, for example. The knife he makes, he said, will fit their needs and their design requests. Some of his knives have wooden handles, others have antler handles. He also makes sheaths for them to be carried in so they are easily accessible unlike a folding jackknife that has to be fished out of one’s pocket.
Dan said making a knife takes two to three days. More intricate blades generally take more time.
Buckaroo Built’s customers include working ranchers, people who are involved with horses through reining, cutting and showing, people seeking good working knives and visitors who are passing through or others looking for gifts.
Dan said he is working to establish himself as a trusted artisan who does work in a timely and affordable manner. “Every little thing we do with our customer base is reputation,” he said.
He said people are welcome to stop by the shop and see what he has to offer.
His store hours, for now, are 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Wednesday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and Sunday mornings. When he isn’t in the shop, he is usually working at his forge.
He can be reached at 503-949-1603 and has more information on Facebook under “Buckaroo Built.” He also can be followed on Instagram at muleskinner89.