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owen bush

Working fast.....A different definition of skill.

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There seems to have been quite a bit flying around Facebook at the moment in different areas about how hard it is to make a living as a smith or blade-smith . I thought I would try and bring some of the conversation here......

If you are looking for money as the primary reward from bladesmithing you are looking at a hard path compared to other avenues of work......

 

However I never see anything posted up about how quickly people can make something and to me this is of prime importance. I survive in my craft because I can work fast and as a teacher I am able to offer the classes I offer because I have the confidence that I can fix problems quickly with minimal fuss.

 

I had a farrier as a student and he had a great take on it and told me this phrase.

 

Skill is the ability to produce quality work ......fast.

 

 

As I see it. Speed of work is the trick in this craft. Find a level of aesthetic that pleases you and work at getting faster at doing it.

 

Chasing perfection is a sure way to make sure you go the opposite way and make things you are never happy with and end up take longer and longer doing it.

 

If you work fast you can. Earn more money, and/or offer better value to the customer and/or have more free time to develop more indulgent new techniques.

 

I am interested in your opinions and I know what I am saying is not often at the core of discussions when it comes to bladesmithing conversations that normally look at the definition and value of of skill in a different way.

I just looked up "Skill" on wikki....

 

"A skill is the learned ability to carry out a task with pre-determined results often within a given amount of time, energy, or both.......""

 

 

what think you all?

Edited by owen bush

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Very true and salient point.

I have been trying to break away from my work as a general/ornamental smith and get into professional knife making for years and years.

It's only recently that I've had the confidence to sell my knives because I've only recently found that level of aesthetic that I can work to in a given amount of time, as you say; finding that speed/quality/cost love-triangle sweet spot that suits me and my prospective market.

Chasing perfection is something that I have found to be a serious hurdle. I try to be a lot more Zen (literally) about imperfections these days. Certainly I think the end user sees a knife, or whatever, as a whole, whereas the makers sees the item as it's constituent parts, and consequently the various tiny imperfections.

Edited by Dan P.

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I agree entirely. You cannot earn a living as any kind of craftsman if you can't produce your work in a timely fashion. This means nit-picking your process to eliminate as much wasted time as possible, while still producing a product that meets the quality standard. There are a lot of ways to go about this, and each shop will have to find that balance.

 

Time is money, after all, and the longer you take to make something, the more you'll have to charge if you hope to break even.

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the nature of the market one is trying to sell to make a great deal of diferance. in the US the high end custom market will not bare many flaws, but the price point will reflect that somewhat.

the semi production market (midtech what have you) consistancy is key as is design, quality ... less so.

the retail market is extreemly variable, with several things being of more or less import. (finish, preformance, design etc)

 

the latter two are the market that truly requires speed.

MP

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I am not advocating making flawed work, rather that when we make good work , trying to make good work faster can be a more beneficial exersize than trying to make better work. What ever good and better mean?

I judge myself lucky to have been a blacksmith as well as bladesmith, my pleasing aesthetic is a lot more rootzy than many makers.

 

Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

Edited by owen bush

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Nope, you're barking up the proper one. ;)

 

I agree completely that skill means the ability to produce quality work consistently with a degree of speed involved. That is what sets the professional apart from the supremely talented amateur in this field where we are seen as more of a craft than an art, for better or worse. In art you can get away with taking a long time to produce sublime quality (or a short time to produce utter rubbish), but in craft you must produce quality with speed. At any rate, it's more about practice, I suspect. If I haven't made a hawk in a year or so it takes me a couple of hours to get one from barstock to cleanup-ready; if I'm towards the end of a production run it takes about 45 minutes. Such is the curse of the part-timer. You and Dan, being full time makers, are constantly in a better state of practice than most of us, and thus able to produce quality faster. If that makes sense, it did whan I thought of it, it may not when you read it... :huh:

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I think you're probably right when earning money is involved, Owen.'

 

As someone who is passionate about this craft, but who doesn't sell his work, I find that I get more pleasure from working slowly. I enjoy pushing myself to add more perfect fit/finish, while simultaneously increasing the amount of "depth" I put into a piece through either more detailed ornamentation, complex pattern welds, or design elements.

 

This is obviously not the ideal strategy for maximizing cash flow.

 

Clearly there are people good enough to rapidly produce the type of work I enjoy. I'm just not that good!

 

Dave

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Interesting points Owen ! As an office monkey most of the time now, I still drop on the shop floor a couple of times a week to operate a lathe or mill. A phrase often goes through my mind when ive finished a job, that an old timer used to say to me, 'you wouldn't have made bonus' . I can do the job well enough, just not quick enough !

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I absolutely agree with this, Owen.

Even though I'm into a lot of old-fashioned, self-sufficient stuff, that doesn't mean I can daddle about savouring every stroke of a tool.
The oldtimers were alot more efficient than many museums etc. give them credit for, even with simple hand tools.

When I worked as a woodworker this was absolutely essential to bring the product into a price range that customers would accept.
Later I got into a kind of cultural clash when my woodworking school typically allotted 9 weeks for a project that should take no more than one.

Since smithing is my hobby I can allow myself more time, but I still train as if I'd have to depend on my skills some day.
I'm fond of handmade series production and it's the way I want to go if I ever take this to a marketable level, so I take a slow day to figure out how to make an item efficiently, and then my hands should know what to do from there. A simple Scandi three layer stick tang shouldn't take more than a few minutes to forge, my biggest problem is grinding equipment.
Grain growth is another matter in this, and if you're efficient while forging you might save alot of normalizing time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tm3TDj5fNT4


Even when sailing old clinkerbuilt boats we try to sail as fast and efficient as humanly possible.
Faster boats with engines has been invented, and we don't always have a specific destination, but the goal is to get there as fast and safe as possible.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7GDo3KrKLI

Edited by Steffen Dahlberg

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I am not advocating making flawed work, rather that when we make good work , trying to make good work faster can be a more beneficial exersize than trying to make better work. What ever good and better mean?

I judge myself lucky to have been a blacksmith as well as bladesmith, my pleasing aesthetic is a lot more rootzy than many makers.

 

Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

I agree 100% we have forgoten that skill quality and craftsmanship are not the same thing. They are linked but not the same, doing an effective job of making say a pairing knife is craftsmanship, doing it in a way that produces a knife that works and is long lasting is quality. Doing that quickly 20 times with the same result is skill.

The high end custom market in the US (maybe other places to I don't know) cares about craftsmanship.. Some times quality... Rarely skill..

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I like to add that The draw of the craft for me has always been the wonderful work I see other makers make , often so long in the making..... and my main reward has been to be able to be part of that and represent my work in the company of such great makers.

 

However I do often wonder if our craft is possibly the most indulgent craft....... with virtuosity valued over all else.

 

and I have a suspicion that this is one of the reasons the craft is so hard to make a living at, the search for perfection imposed from the inside out .

 

self imposed moving goal posts of technical excellence.....

 

It could just be a personality thing. I can get my satisfaction and challenge fix from the power of swirling through fast good work, a proper high.

Edited by owen bush

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I think speed as a constituent quality of skill is more important when money is a factor. I don't think someone who works slowly but does an exceptional standard of work (exceptionally high, that is!) is necessarily unskillful. Perhaps uneconomic is what they are. A painter-decorator friend of mine says; "I'm not slow, I'm thorough!"

 

I think the most difficult thing about earning a living making knives is self promotion and/or making a name for yourself, attracting attention attention and buzz (or whatever the kids are calling it these days), so important in this internet, social-media driven market. In some cases you see the skill of a given knifemaker is more in attracting the internet or media attention than in making knives! I don't know if that's a sustainable model, but it might very well be a good strarting point.

Edited by Dan P.

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Skill becomes much less an issue in making something fast the more you mechanize. For that reason I always call my angle grinder the fault corrector. It's the first mechanical tool I introduced to drastically speed up the production process. Using that, I much less relied on my skill to forge a blade shape as close to the intended result as possible. I still use very little mechanical equipment, which means that the production process is still very labor intensive. So if I want to make a decent buck per hour for the work that I make, this is still highly relying on my skill to work fast and accurate. But a much bigger factor is design choices. Recently I made a series of 5 bronze swords. The type I picked had thin standing ridges on the blade, a nightmare for any grinding, polishing process. Even though the blades did not need to be polished, just sharpening and finishing the edges took more hours then I normally spend on a similar sword altogether including fully polished finish of a more simple blade geometry. So by picking that blade design, I reduced the amount of bucks per hour made by more then half. Next big factor is selling your product. This is as big a part of the trade as is the making process and often underestimated. If you are really lucky, you get a fan base that promotes your work for you without you having to spend any effort and people will find you. But that's only for a lucky few who truly excel. But for most, it's a lot of work to reach potential customers, create and maintain demand, staying in the picture etc. And that can also determine what price you can ask for your work. I'm in the fortunate position that I don't need the money I make from the things I occasionally make and sell. That allows me to experiment a lot. I highly recommend that to anyone who wants to make a living in this trade, to have a few years where you can grow into it, while not depending on the money make from it. In the first years you're not likely to make a profit anyway. Develop your skills, learn and test the market, gather the equipment (but don't overdo it), learn where to get the materials and if you want to make a profit later track closely how much time and money is spend, particular on side activities, like administration, shipment, contact with costumers, websites and online activity, finding materials etc. etc. Also keep in mind how large your potential market is. Being really efficient and all can be great, but if your supply exceeds the demand, it does not make sense to invest in equipment that allows you to make more in the same time f.e. In that respect, I can make quite a good amount of money on the bronze reproductions that I make, but the market is so small that I would never be able to make a living from it, no matter how much I can reduce the time spend per reproduction made. Unless I can find a customer base that I've not been able to reach yet, or drastically increase interest in bronze age reproductions by increasing the general interest in the period.

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As I was taught and with which I agree "The smith that can forge to the standard in the least number of heats*, is the more skilled" Need to add, that is working the metal in the correct heat and not working it into the black to claim "I did it in one heat"

I am a production smith, some items I forge thousands of times a year. If I can eliminate a single heat in the making of something, I've saved thousands of heats (Heats are both fuel and time) The father of the smith I first learned from, had a product line with a restoration store. There was a young lad that made the Suffolk latches, 100 at a time. The lad had two metal boxes, he would do each step 100 times moving the bits from one box to the next. When he was finished, he started on the next step, he was quite quick.

If you want to do this craft and enjoy a good quality of life, you have to learn to be quick and efficient.

Edited by Gerald Boggs

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I don't think skill necessarily has to include speed as a factor. It certainly helps when including economic factors, but if you're Faberge, and the wealth behind your patron is basically unlimited, then time becomes less of an issue, and you can dedicate very specific skill sets to very specific tasks and nobody needs to rush.

 

I've had to tell jewelers I've done bench work for that they could have it quick or they could have it right. In the end, they agreed the right was better than quick.

 

There's a balance, and a trade-off. I don't think for two seconds that anyone on the current TV show contest is creating their best work. ;)

 

So for me, the idea of speed comes under the umbrella of efficiency. Efficiency is a factor of economics, but not necessarily skill.

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I'm not sure I understand you, I don't see how one can be efficient without first being skilled at the task.

Right now in my life I'm doing well. I credit that in part to the fact that most of what I make and sell, is way below my skill level. I can do most of my product line without effort of thought. The skill is there and now my goal is to improve my efficiency. Which brings us to full circle: As I grow more efficient, I take the time to improve my skill, which in turn makes me more efficient. The side benefit, is that it give me time to play at forging things that make me no money, such as the axes.

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Being efficient doesn't equal skill. It takes skill to be efficient, for the most part. But the most skilled artisan in the world, putting forth their best effort, would make the most skilled object in the world regardless of whether it was made quickly or slowly, and I'll wager it would be better if made a little slower.

 

Having to make it quickly is a function of economics, not objective levels of skill.

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in other words, if I may:

 

Skill can generate efficiency, but efficiency isn't going to be the best exhibition or metric of skill.

 

I think you guys are actually agreeing with each other.

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I think we're using the same words, but not the same meanings.

 

These two statements are not related: "The smith that can forge to the standard in the least number of heats, is the more skilled" and "

Having to make it quickly is a function of economics, not objective levels of skill."

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To me, "forging to the standard" implies that something is "good enough" and also likely a perspective falling within the realm of production work.

 

Yes, it takes skill to do that efficiently, I'm not arguing that point. But I don't think efficiency defines skill.

 

I also see skill as the ability to make the best work. And emphasizing efficiency of time and resources is a detriment in that pursuit no matter what. Not that a more skilled person won't generally be more efficient by simple virtue of experience. But anytime, and I mean anytime, we as artisans emphasize efficiency we are making decisions that affect the final product. If the goal is to meet a standard, then we have a set of defining factors, and a set of acceptable flaws. That's not the same as making the best work possible.

 

So we may be disagreeing on emphasis, but I'm not saying that you're wrong, Gerald. Those of us who make things for a living had all better apply at least some of our skill toward being reasonably efficient.

Edited by J.Arthur Loose

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It is complex and is liable to the formulation of circular arguments. Speed and and quality are balaced against cost.

Did nobody ever hear; "You can have it cheap and fast, but it's not going to be quality. Or you can have it fast and quality, but it's not going to be cheap. Or, you can have it quality and cheap, but it's not going to be fast."?

I'm not sure about the last one, but the first two certainly apply.

It's a balance, which you make according to the job and, if we are honest, the client.

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So we may be disagreeing on emphasis, but I'm not saying that you're wrong, Gerald. Those of us who make things for a living had all better apply at least some of our skill toward being reasonably efficient.

 

 

 

 

That's in it right there. Almost everything I do, is to a standard. Within that realm, I do the best work I can, but I already know how far into it I'll go.

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Quality and complexity are very different kettles of fish.

Most of my best work has been done fast.

I think there is a direct honesty of aesthetic that comes across when the form of a piece is the direct result of practiced and perfected technique done with skill (thats the fast kind). I see it in most of the historical work I look at. They were boshing that stuff out...of course I am looking through influenced eyes.

 

The idea that fast work is low quality is just wrong....If you can work fast and produce good work that is..

 

 

It is about economics, and personality, as we all have our standards ,aesthetics and demons.

 

I make better work by making more work, my repetition teaches me the minute lessons that help me to truly understand the work I am doing and it gets faster and often has lateral value for other work.

 

Like I said before all my best work has been done in a muse fuelled whirlwind and I think the results have been better for being done on the hoof.

 

If you want to do more than simply survive at this craft then being fast is a big help...

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