So, it's been almost a year and a half since my last post. I would apologize, but I am not inclined to apologize for being busy and mildly (read: strongly) disinterested in spending my nights in front of a computer. As you may suspect, a blacksmith shop is not welcoming to electronics, at least not the kind I can afford, not to mention that lack of internet service or, until recently, electricity.
That's right, now I have light bulbs in my shop. Joining the modern world one small step at a time. In all honesty, that's likely as far as it will go.
In the past year I have gone back to working for the museum on a part-time basis and have made some small, but much needed, improvements to the shop. I would like to say that I went back to work because my business is perfectly streamlined now and I had time to spare but that would be too apparently false. Fact is this: Blacksmithing is a lot like romance - You get ideals on how wonderful things ought to be but the reality is that its just damn expensive.
What I mean is that it is as an expensive endeavor to keep up as it is to be a customer of. Unless you have a nearby scrap yard or a trust fund (or are coming to smithing later in life after you made a name for yourself doing something else... in which case, good for you), shit costs money. A lot of money. Most smiths, be they amateurs or just hobbyists, are going not to be buying tons (literal) of steel at a time so saving money on bulk isn't going to happen. But on the flip side, your work is worth something. Or, at least, it ought to be.
On to the customer side... Well, lets face it: People don't want to spend money on your (my) crap. Now, I am not calling your (my) work actual shit, more like people have a hard time justifying an expensive purchase on an unnecessary item. I use expensive as a relative term because a $25 handmade bottle opener may be overpriced to some but cheap to others. Now, with that taken care of, on to the real meaning: The difficulty is valuing your work and not undercutting yourself. After a series of shows and plenty of emails/Etsy.com conversations, people will, generally, have very little appreciation for the amount of work that will go in to even the simplest item you make. It is a sad, but true, thing. You may have spent hours on a piece, material costs well over $20 invested into the product, only to see that everyone else is charging only $25 for the same item.
How the hell is that possible?! What the shit!? Are they that much faster/better/more efficient? Yes and no. What are you competing against? If you are like me, someone who uses hand tools and actually hand forges everything, you cannot and will never compete against the guy that uses a power hammer. He/she may have had the $5k just burning a hole in the pocket or took out a loan. Fly presses, hydraulic presses, welders, variable speed belt grinders... Hell, some "smiths" have full service machine shops at their disposal (I use the term smith here quite loosely. Most have the decency to call themselves something else. Now I am sounding like an elitist.) What I am trying to say is that, if you pursue the traditional route, you will not be able to compete with those that haven't. You can't sell that opener for $25 and expect a profit because that $5 dollars you made from the work isn't worth your time. After insurance, electricity, fuel, and wear and tear on your tools, you have lost money.
Which brings me to this: How do you make money with stiff competition when your average customer sees two items, of similar appearance, both stating that they have been made by a blacksmith but your competitor can turn out 5x's the number that you can. You can charge more money to make up for the difference, but you may not get the sale over your competitor because they are both forged pieces, right? The answer: Marketing. You have to sell your items to the person that is going to really appreciate the time, effort, and skill that went into it. There are people that will pay what your work is worth once they know your process, your approach. You will find that these people rarely fit one demographic, but they certainly exist.
So, you have to be a salesman. And that's where I have been. Figuring out what works and, more regularly, what doesn't work.