Friday, December 15, 2006

(Re:Comment) On Custom Work...

Posted by STAG to Hammered out bits at 12/15/2006.

" I don't mind creating new designs and creations, however my clients don't want to pay for development time. I dread those conversations that start out with "I went to the Anime convention and I saw this armour...."
... Normally it doesn't pay to do truly custom work...and when the client hates it and returns it, it doesn't even pay in satisfaction..."

I hope this reader doesn't mind me using his comments as a jump off point for an expansion on the last posting here.

Development time is always a problem in any hand intensive skill. An important truth about blacksmithing is that repetition produces speed and control, which is seen as fluidity of work to the observer. Each individual will develop skill with differing amounts of practice time - but EVERYONE needs to spend countless hours with the hammer. To often the novice smith does not appreciate this. You can of course substitute tools or machines for skill. Often this has another price tag - one measured in dollars rather than hours.

An illustration: One of my original 'best sellers' was a J shaped candle holder, the 'Loom Light'. This was a design I adapted from artifacts from various museum collections that date from the early 1800's and earlier. So right off the top, there was the time spend hunting through collections and examining the artifact samples. Then I had to convert the design of the artifacts to something that both made sense for modern buyers, and could be made quickly enough to keep the purchase price at a reasonable range. This involved making a number of potential prototypes. Once I had a workable product design, there was a learning curve to speed up the individual steps, and determine the best order of these for efficient production. This all happened before I sold a single one.
In the 1990's, I would normally sell as many of these as I had on hand, for a price of $10 each. I could make them at a rate of 6 per hour. This may seem like good money, but remember that I consider a productive workshop day contains 2 hours actually hammering - out of a normal 10 hour working day. (Lighting the forge correctly takes 45 minutes for example.)
I would also make these pieces as part of demonstrations. With the related explanations, it would take about 15 minutes to make one. Normally I would be asked by some member of the public if they could purchase the sample I had just made. Into the late part of the 1990's, I found increasingly that people would complain about this price. After all, they had just seen 'how easy' it was to make the piece. My own skill was seen not as valuable experience, but in fact a measure of LACK of perceived value. I stopped producing these as demonstration pieces.
Back in my own workshop, I had invested in a small air hammer. With the required compressor, the set up cost me about $3000. Now add installation time, plus a still ongoing learning process to work effectively with the new machinery. I'm also 15 years older, and at 50 + I just do not work as fast. So the net result is that if I use the air hammer for the tedious drawing out of the candle holder, I can make the pieces at about 8 per hour.
But another thing has happened. Back about 2000, I wanted to increase the cost of the loom light from that magic $10 to $12. My business had also grown to the point that I was forced (here in Canada) to charge the 7% GST federal tax. As you might suspect, all my own materials and shop costs had increased over the decade. I invested in a large wholesale order for very high quality decorative candles, which even at wholesale cost me $2.65 each (with a normal retail price of $6). With the expensive candles, I set the price at $15. The same object that sold extremely well at $10, just would not sell at a total of $17.25 each, despite a decade of inflation and those $6 candles included.

Certainly over the last 15 years, the potential scope of my work has increased dramatically. If you check the web site, you will have seen that I concentrate on one of a kind art pieces, mainly for gardens. These pieces average $800 - $1500 each. Just like STAG, I have an increasing number of finished pieces sitting around the workshop - or on consignment to local 'artist maker' gallery shops. These pieces sell slowly, but if they are good pieces, they do eventually sell. I decided about 2000 that I'd rather create one large piece per month and eventually sell it (at about that same rate) - than make 80 items at $10 and work craft shows for the same kind of income. Frankly, I put more strain on my body making so many repetitive pieces, and there is far more artistic satisfaction in creating larger 'more significant' pieces.

Now, I have more than one ore in the water. I teach hand skills, consult to museums, undertake private commissions, as well as sell these individual pieces. I've certainly found that in any given year the balance between these aspects of my business will ebb and flow, but generally my gross business income is relatively stable. Maybe not as much as I would like, but at least enough for me to get by on. (That is another whole topic of conversation however)

One last point I'd like to bring up from STAG's comment: At the Wareham Forge, my standard policies on custom orders are posted on the web site. In brief:
• A signed contract agreement for any project over $500
• A deposit of 50% before work starts - non refundable against work undertaken (which includes design and consultation time)
• For elaborate projects a sample piece is made, which defines the work quality
• FULL balance is paid BEFORE delivery of the finished work
Over the years, I have only had one customer complain about the quality of the finished work. I offered a full cash refund, but the fellow ended up keeping the piece. I put this down to effective communications with my customers.

I must admit that STAG makes reference to "Anime convention" - and I fully agree that FANS are often the most difficult customers. Few fully appreciate that what they see on film is the result of props and film magic - not REALITY. There is often no understanding for the cost of creating a one of kind object. (i mean, Aragorn's 'hero' sword in Lord of the Rings cost them $10,000. What do you EXPECT a real functioning copy is going to cost?) A steel sword will NOT handle like the aluminum ones - and metal armour does NOT function like painted plastic. A real maile shirt weighs 30 lbs - and you can't swim in one.

I feel for you man...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Art metalwork is a bad business to get into unless you are willing to get your nuts and bolts tight. You need an accountant, a sales force, a line of credit, skilled personnel and a space to work. So many people fail because they don't think one or more of these things is important. In fact, at the risk of preaching heresy, creating a good product is not even on the list. Look at Tim Hortons...creating lousy coffee for decades and doing quite well thank you!

Nothing prevents you from creating good work. Providing you can cover the rent when people selling crappy work on Ebay appear to be doing just fine. (Though that is open to debate...I notice that fewer than 1 in 20 armourers are still around from that printout I made ten years ago. )

Is art metalwork of any kind a good business choice? The romance and legend wears off when you have to fire up a forge at 0630, break the ice in the slack tub, and work all day alone. Its a lonely job.

My answer to people starting out and wondering about becoming an artist-metalworker...become a cook. Hours are the same, and people appreciate you more. If you have "la passion", nothing will stop you. Might make a good hobby. But a business? Any dollar made pounding steel could have been tripled doing almost anything else.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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