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Blacksmithing as a profession

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Blacksmithing as a Business;
I believe this thread contains posts that would be invaluable for most blacksmiths who are considering blacksmithing as a means to make a living (part time or full time) to read.
It has turned out to be a classic read because of the well thought out responses. I would be willing to refer this thread to any new smith that is considering going into business as a blacksmith.
By keeping this thread active and readily available, it would be of a great service to all of the next generations of blacksmiths who are considering going into business full time.

Nothing, but nothing that I know of could be as informative as to listen to intelligent (informed) people who have had first hand knowledge of this journey.
Everyone who has added an opinion to this discussion I feel is as important as any other.

Although, when forgemaster said: “If blacksmithing is to survive we have to embrace technology not shun it.” His statement calmed my tendency to feel shame about not ever being able to make a living in my own shop by strictly doing forge, hand hammer, and anvil work type of blacksmithing.

We must always remember that we live in a different time period that is technology driven to optimize a profitable cost /benefit out come.
For all intent and purposes Labor intensive work with out using the available technology for the most part will not pay the bills in this era.

The idea seems to be to “FIND YOUR NITCH”.

From what I have observed, artistic work, or knife making seems to be a successful foundation for people who do make a living by just using the traditional basics of blacksmithing.
I thank all of you who make this a fun but educational place to visit.
Ted Throckmorton

Edited by Ted T
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Fionnbharr (sp) is both a blacksmith and a farrier and I believe that Frank Turley of the justly famous blacksmithing school in Santa Fe NM started as a farrier.

However; I've been told that the average length of career for a farrier is about 2 years---means that a lot of folks drop out *fast* to cover those who do it for 30 years! And again as a self employed businessman you run into the Insurance/retirement/capital bind again. I'd suggest driving a school bus and smithing over that so as to have some income coming in regularly---when you get kicked you will probably not be able to smith until you recover too.

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as far as blacksmith i don't know what a person could make, but when you say artist/blacksmith that's where i can tell you what my opinion is.i have a truck repair/welding biz by day.at night ..this sounds real spooky yea?thats when i do the blacksmith/artist thing.i do about 1/3 of what i make with fixing trucks .i make gates,sculpture,furniture,flowers and other goofy things.as far as the work i do it because i like it.some guys fish,some hunt,some have a street rod.this is my deal and its fun.but the best part is if nobody likes what i am doing they should be minding their own biz anyway.

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I see that you list Denver as your home. I take it that you are a member of the Rocky Mountain Smiths.

I think that I agree with earlier postings -that blacksmithing is more of a calling than a career.

As far as retiring is concerned, I personally don't want to retire from this craft -BUT that doesn't mean that I'm not prepared. Accidents and illnesses can re-shape a plan pretty quickly. I think most smiths aim to retire by selling their building. This can be hard to do if you rent shop space.

Unless there is a manager between you and the product, then when you are all done, all you have to sell is your tools - not a business.

I think developing a product line is a good starting point. It will smooth out the highs and lows of self employment. The blacksmith shop -owned by Joe Koches- buys your wares outright.

Cherry Creek Mall seems like a place to get into - high end galleries.

Contact Rod Picket of Durango and have a chat with him (Rocky Mtn Smiths) he feeds his family from his forge. 970-769-1020

Ditto Craig May of Pine Co. 303-838-2619

I have heard it said that you should do what you want and the money will follow. I think that's a load of balony.
Do what you want and live within the means that it provides is more like it.

If you have good design skills you will get on - if not then you are pretty much relegated to the also-rans. Poorly designed but well made will not compete with well designed but poorly made. Look at impressionist art.

The physical hard skills can be purchased at a school or hired with an employee.

Good luck with your decision.

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I have known many really talented smiths in Aus who have tried and have gone broke. In this land we don't have a long tradition of quality handforged ironwork such as places like the UK or Europe. The blokes I have know have been tallented, have been good sellers, have targeted the right markets, have made quality products, etc. The main thing that they have not to my mind done is embraced technology. if you are going to go into this to make a living then you are going to have to at least try to pinch work off the fabricators. When things are tough, everyone will try to give a better price to beat the comp. When things are going well, it does'nt matter so much. I'm not saying sell yourself short, but you have to use whatever tricks you can to do more work in a day for less effort. Sure make quality, by hand, with correct jointing, etc tennons, fire welded, but you have to be quick and you have to be good and it has to be quality. 100 years ago it was no different, if Klaus could make 5 waggons for $1000.00 and Herman could make only 4 waggons for $1000.00 both to the same level of finish, who would have got the job. Maybe Klaus used that modern wonder electricity to drive his shop, herman still used a steam boiler to run his shop, herman needed a fireman to stoke the boiler, a fuel man to go get the coal, an apprentice to wind the forge. Klaus only needed himself and 1 helper, who had the lowest costs, who did more work for a dollar.
If 250 years ago someone had invented the MIG welder do you think the smiths then would have shuned it, hell no, "hey look at this great new tool, no more firewelding for me." Blacksmithing has done itself a great injustice in modern history by taking the attitude of we aren't going to use technology because thats just not the way its done, thats' cheating, to make this job easier.
In business you need to think how can I do this job better, quicker, etc. Most of the time you can answer these questions only by having experince.
When I was an apprentice I was taught by a very learned smith how to make the jobs I made. There was no scope for, "how about we make a tool to allow us to stamp these in one go". It was "this is the proper way to do this job now just do it". We used to have 5 men working a 1 ton hammer to forge hydraulic piston rods at 6 per day. One man forging, one man to hold the tools, one man to operate the crane holding the weight of the job,one man to drive the hammer, and one man to help get the job out of the furnace and just generally assist
I now have 2 men using a 1/2 ton hammer to forge the same 6 hydraulic piston rods a day, we have an electric pendant controlled crane that the hammer driver controls with his left hand, the hammer he drives with his right, we have a tool holder that holds the swages, neckers, stop pads on the hammer block. We have a remote control furnace door that the hammer driver can open without leaving the hammer. We work smarter not harder. Oh and we still get the same time for these rods with 2 men as my old boss did with 5 men. I'm not trying to brag here, just trying to give people ideas what can be achieved.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'd like to relate some thoughts from my past. I grew up on a farm. Dad took stuff to town to get it fixed and I tagged along to the blacksmith. I also grew up and went to school with the blacksmiths grandkids. Actually there were 2 shops we went to. I will guarantee you that both men appreciated newer technology but made do with what they had. Mom and Dad graduated high school and married during the depression. Both these shop men were older and had started business in the 20's.

While I sincerely appreciate having the ability to do a few things in the older fashion ( read cold chisel or hot cut or hacksaw stock prior to forging) I do appreciate modern tools. Traditional methods are discussed and used. This is fine but I can hear Gilmour or Forrest ask me the following question:

"Why would I make that hole the old way when I built this drill press to make life better and faster ? "

Both men were prolific torch welders and brazers. Both became exceptional stick welders over the years and ran carbon arc torches. Electricity did not come to the area until after WW2 ( in the country anyway ). Forrest had a line shaft that ran on a gas motor. Forge, drill, grinder ran on this shaft. Gilmour had lathes but ran on electricity.

I have Gilmours 30# Kerrihard. I missed the sale at Forrest's shop. My point is this. Sometimes it is infinately faster for me to use a hacksaw while on the forge side of the shop but I am not foolish enough ( normally ) to use it when the chopsaw or plasma will do the job faster. Lotta people think my job is to do EVERYTHING in the old way and if I don't then it's cheating or somehow dishonest. Hogwash.

I build items period fashion yes. No big deal. I also build things using plasma, mig and modern shop built belt grinders. I have one item in the trailer shop that is modern built ( welded ). Otherwise the rest is period built. Much of it is cut with a chopsaw or plasma prior to forging. Big deal. I tell folks this up front if they ask how something is made. I also point out that pre-1840 shop would not have a crank blower or modern welds on the vise stand or the 1904 American Pattern Hay Budden Anvil. I frequently use charcoal instead of coal.

My job is to learn and pass on the knowledge. The smith was not a stupid individual. As technology developed he embraced it if it made sense in his ( or her ) business. Rant over.

Running a business can be pretty tough. Your reputation is all you have. I have damaged mine a few times and I sincerely hate this. All I can do is try and repair it and continue down the road.

Edited by Ten Hammers
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Quote "The smith was not a stupid individual. As technology developed he embraced it if it made sense in his ( or her ) business"

The smiths also were responsible for advancing and making the advances possible.

Traditional tomorrow is what we do today, its just another benefit we can utilise

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How would a blacksmith traditionally prepare stock for a project? Hand it to the apprentice or journeyman and tell them to do it!

So much of our views on blacksmithing come from isolated shops where an old smith gradually followed the trade down going from a manufacturer to a fixer, forging to welding, car repair, etc.

I've been privilaged to visit some small smithys in Germany where they did manufacture stuff all the way till they shut the doors in the 1970's. The are characterized by a bunch of folks working making a range of items or even pre-forms for other shops to use. The one in Lauf ADP, water powered, specialized in making rings that were then machined. They used lufthammers; but still had the parts from the old tilt hammers in the attic) One of the others made shovels, hoes, picks and a wide range of farming tools and has the greatest collection of powerhammers, screw presses and drophammer I have ever seen in a water powered smithy!

Compare that with my Great Grandfather's smithy in Cedarville AR that originally had several workers in it but devolved to just him as it became unprofitable to pay for other workers.

Me I keep it a hobby so I don't have to make it a business; I'll gladly refer work to the pros that I could do but would prefer not to!

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I usually don't read posts that refer to how a blacksmith should use technology. Blacksmiths then were people like everyone on this forum is now. Some would use tech some would not. I'm gonna use every piece of technology I can possibly get my hands on. That being said I'll be honest when representing my work, I'll enjoy myself and I'll make money doing it. Call me what you want as I really don't care if you call me a blacksmith, a machinist or a blasphemous fool.

Don't derail the thread with more "a real blacksmith would ~" crud.

Back on topic, I've been pleasantly surprised how many people are interested in forged items. I haven't been smithing long enough to claim any level of mastery but people seem to love my items. Hand crafted items that the craftsman paid effort and energy to are a rare commodity. It is truly sad that society has gotten to the point where we are willing to pay for shoddy products.

Getting your name out there is the most important activity when making money is in mind. I let people know what it is that I do and they ask me if I can do things for them. I usually carry around a couple of keychain leaves to give away as a lead up to giving them my calling card. I'm working on a portfolio that I will have in case anyone is interested in viewing larger portions of work. I haven't landed any large jobs (500+ USD) yet but have had commissions up to 350. I'm not sure I am ready to take orders for anything larger at this point. Once I have my portfolio together I will advance to the point of building a website. Once that is together I will have several methods of attracting business. I'm thankful that I still have my 9-5 and am looking forward to enjoying a profitable hobby until I have the means, skill and direction to make it a business. I'm moving in January and I will be able to pick a place with a nice shop. Once I have earned enough money to purchase or make a power hammer I will probably go down the path of forming a business plan and officially registering.

Anyone here teach classes as a supplement to their blacksmithing business?

Anyone here have a company where they are employing a team such as other smiths, strikers or apprentice?

Anyone care to share any specific info on their business such as shop rates or overhead and the such I would love to dig through it. I'm pretty handy with excel so if you would like some help getting organized I would be glad to contribute some of my time.

Thanks to all who have taken the time to reply with their stories and info so far. I'm really thankful for the site and everyone sharing their knowledge.

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I know a full timer who sold a chandlier for $80,000+, built wife a horse barn, scrimped off it for a while before starving for a year and a half, nearly loosing his home, shop, and family. Find your bread and butter to keep you well, whether it means part time smith and a job or search out some production work in the shop. Then you can get creative and price because you are KNOWN. Hawk ur wares, find people who want something and trust that your learning and practice, up until now, will make it worth it for you and the customer. If you don't know how, give them a longer due date and learn it or be honest w/ them and say I haven't done that but I will try it and see if you like it. Be clear w/ them on prices agreed. The customers that I did that w/ always came back for more. In the beginning I allowed a certain time every day to making something, didn't matter what it was. This accomplished two things; kept the forge hobby warm, and slowly improved skills (which never should stop). This way, in time, every $ I make goes back into the shop and the many toys we all love. when I get all my tools and toys, and providing the work is there, I will may make the decision to be full time. Full time too early makes for an expensive, burnt out hobby gone wrong. Don't do that to yourself or those around you. Besides, then you have to keep stepping over and moving storage of a hobby gone stagnant, it wears on you in a harsh downward spiral, so don't be impatient and make sure your shop supports itself before supporting you. I put more hours in my part time shop than a full time job. lsiten to your gut feeling, if you have any doubt in you mind it's probly right. Part time or full, doesn't make me a blacksmith, it is just what i do.

Edited by wolf mtn
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I commenced business with a stick welder and an anvil.
You usually end up working harder when you work for yourself, but for some people there just is no other option from a temperament point of view.
my first job was a grate for a drain for $75
I make fine and delicate marvels in iron for the tasteful home owner and I sharpen jack hammer bits.

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  • 3 weeks later...

A lot of great answers here. I particularly appreciate forgemaster's practical and worldly input. For my ha'penny's worth I would say that I have had to learn, and am still learning, these three things about being a full-time smith;
1. If you are not at work by 8 am at the very latest, you are a fool.
2. You must be not just a little cut-throat. Do not do your customers nor your competition any favours. Be fair, be honest, but don't be a mug. I think that applies to all business, no matter what people tell you.
3. You must find a balance between what you can make traditionally within certain time/money constraints and what you cannot. You will have to learn that it is okay to mix it up- a bit of firewelding here, a bit of mig there. Some things will have to be fabbed. If you are a big stickler for traditional methods, like me, you are going to have to accept that the main person you are appeasing with these methods is YOU! The vast majority of punters don't give too much of a toss, and those that do can be (and often are) easily fooled by your competition. So, do traditional work when you can, but don't go crazy pandering to your own tastes, basically.

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Great posts overall, Petere76 said, "R&D costs are supported by the sale of the product," is one of the best ideas to remember, Ten Hammers spoke of reputation as being of the foremost importance and Mark Aspery was the only person that brought up art or as he put it, "good design beats craft." So art classes should be a consideration for the modern blacksmith. We had a panel of five successful blacksmiths at the Spring Conference of the California Blacksmith Association talking about the business of blacksmithing. They agreed that 20-25 hours a week was a standard time they could manage working on projects, because sales, business tasks, and designing took up much time. One blacksmith sold a six light candelabra for $6600, and they agreed that rates for railings was $500 to $2500 a foot as a general price range. One sage advise was to sell to the woman of the house as they usually make the final decision. Lots of ideas about protecting yourself with paperwork, signed agreements and signed plans, which detailed the project so everyone knows what will be delivered and at least by when. Don't sell shoddy work as word of mouth works both ways and is one of the methods all agreed was the most important means of advertisment. Any work done as a sample is your work their time, and you will find you have to do it for railings to figure your time to build a 60 foot railing which will cost them at least $30,000.

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