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Working to Commission, and why I chose not to

One look at my online shop will tell you that I make products, but that wasn't always the case. When I started out as a professional blacksmith I worked, exclusively, to commission. That means that I would try to get my name and a few samples of work I had made speculatively in front of as many eyes as I could, doing craft fairs and shows, even leaflet drops, to hopefully generate interest from potential clients who were interested in having some bespoke wrought ironwork made. I would be willing to take on any project that wasn't prohibitively large or complex, knowing my limits as a new blacksmith starting out. Slowly but surely I was able to design and make a variety of different types of work; from small garden tables, window grilles, and even small pedestrian gates. Eventually moving up in scale to railings, large vehicle gates, and even some fairly unique garden ornaments and screens. My portfolio, and indeed, my website very quickly showed a vast array of beautiful, unique and exciting work of all shapes and sizes and was starting to be a self sustaining marketing tool in its own right, meaning less speculative craft fairs where lugging around heavy show pieces were the order of the weekend.

So what's the problem? That sounds exactly like the ideal scenario for a new blacksmith finding their feet in an increasingly competitive and saturated market.

My problem was I didn't enjoy it. I didn't like the uncertainty, the seemingly endless travelling to and from potential clients houses, the hours spent designing and drawing. But most of all I didn't feel like I was in control, it always felt that they weren't my pieces of work, that they weren't exactly what I wanted to make but, rather, a slightly adapted version of it. This wasn't always a client issue, sometimes things don't work out as you thought they would and you have to adapt the plans, but all the while knowing that you are committed to that particular project. The pieces never felt refined because I never felt able to fully perfect them, I was already committed to the project and that was what was paying my bills for that month or the next. Any refinement, or adaptation, that was needed to maintain the integrity of the work was at my own cost, after all, I was the one who had designed it!

I know I'm not alone here, by the way. Blacksmiths are taught to work to commission. They leave college and (for the ones who take it seriously, at least) there is a presumption that this is how blacksmiths work. "Get a portfolio together, get yourself out there and start taking on work". But we're not all made the same, and it took me several years (and my last big commission that went horribly wrong!) to start to realise that it wasn't working for me.

So what did I do differently?

Well I gave myself the time to try and understand what I did like, about blacksmithing, but also about working for myself in general. I focussed on making it my business, and made it work for me. I realised I enjoyed the little things, literally, I really enjoyed making smaller items. I loved being able to refine designs and products, so I could be confident that they worked exactly how they needed to. And I loved the challenge of refining the process for how these things were made, making tooling and jigs to make my designs repeatable quickly.

But most of all, I loved the idea of selling them online. I have a long history of building websites, mainly out of necessity as a way to try and promote myself, and I'm largely self taught. It seems to be a language that I understand (at a superficial level, at least) and I realised that if I designed myself a few products I could sell them online and try to promote them. I loved that you could see statistics and analytics and all of a sudden I realised that I had access to whole load of digital feedback that would allow me to see what was popular and what wasn't, what worked well and what didn't. Suddenly I was in control, and I had a small number of products that were able to be refined to be exactly as I wanted them. I could work out a general market value for those things and refine the processes to ensure that I could make them at a small profit.

My issue was that all of a sudden I had two strands to the business: a small and growing potential that I was determined to move towards, and an ongoing set of projects that I knew would pay the bills in the meantime. The problem is you can't do both, or at least I couldn't do both. So, with a lot of trepidation, I decided to stop taking on commissions. It was terrifying and I didn't make a lot of money to start with. But slowly, and with a lot of time spent making and designing, and a huge amount of time researching things like digital marketing, advertising, seo, and accessibility, things grew and grew to what I have today.

I firmly believe that these digital marketing and IT skills are vital to running a successful business of any kind. They're is no manual, no one way of doing it, no one person to speak to about it, everyone has a different opinion on what is right. But we are fully in the digital age now and, in my opinion, a craft like blacksmithing has to update to match. If you do, you will realise that there is more to blacksmithing than just commission work. A lot of other blacksmiths I know love working to commission, and find the idea of making products like I do day in, day out too repetitive. I'm respectful of that, but there will be plenty of people that come out of college, like I did, thinking that something about it doesn't fit with them. I would suggest that having the guidance to look at other potential ways of making the craft alive can only be a good thing. After all, most people need curtain poles!

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