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Commissions - How do you feel about them?


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How many of you guys take commissions vs just selling what you make, and why? I dont sell a lot, but as I make more stuff and show people pictures I have been accepting more and more commissions and I am not sure it is a good thing.

About 6 months ago, I took on a commission for two wedding bands. I am relatively new to it, but my last several mokume rings at that point had turned out well and when I was approached by my best friend's older brother to make some mokume rings for his wedding, I agreed. Then we began talking about details and it became pretty apparent that these rings were going to be very hard to make. Every time we talked, there was something else added, and more restrictions had to be put in place. It was also revealed that the materials needed had a spiritual/magic significance to the person (Not making a judgement on it, just that there were specific reasons why certain materials needed to be used and why there was no wiggle room). The conclusion: a liner of gold and silver mokume, an outer band of campo de ciello meteorite and copper mokume and a raw diamond set in a double bezel so that the diamond would show through the inner band and contact the skin of the wearer. I reluctantly agreed to try my best and continue with the rings. Pretty easy to say that I should have just refused, but it was a complex situation

Needless to say, they have single handily been the most frustrating project I have worked on in my 10+ years metalsmithing. After over a hundred hours of time spent testing, modifying, doing and redoing I am left with two products that I am not particularly fond of. I spent a lot of my time and sanity trying to carry out the customers will and ultimately feel emotionally exhausted, frustrated and unsatisfied.

I tend to feel less satisfied after a commission for whatever reason, but I think that this is the final straw and I dont think I will be taking many, if any, in the foreseeable future.

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I think that it is better to make what you want to make instead of taking commissions. I think that if someone wants a knife, it shouldn't be "make a knife for me," it should be more of a suggestion, and the bladesmith can do whatever he wants, and that knife could be for anyone(if the person who made the suggestion doesn't buy it). The moment that it becomes personal to the buyer is the moment that it is not the artist's design, therefore the artist has no control over the snowball effect of added details. If you do a commission, you must be prepared to have zero artistic freedom in the design. I don't enjoy taking commissions, but I'm not against others taking them.

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commissions are great until you take them.

Then, they make what used to be fun almost into work.

 

Some work on commission is fine. It is swords that I have trouble with. They take very long for me to to complete properly (I am obsesive, and I get things done better with files that with a grinder in many cases, so it is just slow going). This almost always bothers customers (4 months is not unusual for a complete sword and sheath). 5 is common. 6 has happened if I have to make a second blade.

 

People don't like that, and I don't like being rushed. It is a bad combo.

 

Never made anything that someone did not buy within 2 weeks. So, commissions feel good, but you can sell your work without them just about as well.

Edited by Kevin (The Professor)
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This is my living, I love commissions. I like to know where my next meal is coming from.

I have found that there are a few things that will make things go easier.

1ST be clear and up front in all dealings, if the customer wants something you do not think is a good idea, tell them, explain why (in writing) if they are still adamant either refuse the commission or tell them you will do it but the result is on them.

2nd Deposits,,, take them. i will either do 50% up front remainder on completion or on larger longer commissions, a third up front third after the blade is through heat treating and the remainder on completion all deposits are no refundable once work is begun. , and inform the customer of this ahead of time. I have never lost a job due to my terms, but i have gotten two thirds the way finished with a sword and had the customer ask for there deposit back ...

3rd if you want good commissions, work you want to be making you need to have made that work. I have made things and continue to make things on spec that i have zero expectation of being able to sell for anything like what it is worth in any kind of timely manner. these pieces are in the nature of a investment in what i want to be making..

4th the worst thing you can do is not stay in touch except for staying in to close a contact. sending updates on a customers project is good it lets the client know you have not abandoned then, but keeping them involved with every decision leads to you no being able to finish anything and them getting frustrated and unhappy with the work, if they could do the work they would not have ordered from you, so don't ask do and send updates, if something is not to the customers liking they will let you know ..

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To build on what Matthew posted, I will add this. I am a part time maker. I only make about 4-8 knives a year and frequently less.

1. I do not take deposits and I do not set firm delivery dates because that always ends up making me stressed out and as Kevin said, turns what used to be fun into a job. The knife is done when I say it is done and it costs whatever we agreed upon. I have this luxury because unlike Matthew, this is not my full-time gig. I know where my next meal is coming from and it isn't the stuff sitting on my workbench collecting dust.........If the customer bails out and ends up not wanting the piece, it goes to the next show I do, and/or I sell it to someone else.

2. I do not fully design the piece for customer approval either. They are coming to me because they like my work and want me to make them something. I will not take a customer's full design and execute it either. I want more artistic freedom than that. I still do my basic design and identify materials, but all I ask the customer is a couple of questions:

a. What is the blade, mono hi-C steel, Damascus, or Stainless? Single edge or dagger?

b. What is the price range?

c. What general color scheme are we looking for? (this defines the handle material options, hardware choices, and sheath)

d.What is the end use or purpose for this blade?

 

Once I have those questions answered, I can give a basic description and agree on a price range.

Example: 5-6 inch Damascus blade, drop point, with nickel-silver hardware, and burl wood handle $400-$600

Then I make my drawing design get approval and set a price. It's done when I say it's done. Periodic updates on progress are good, but frequently my time estimate is something like "in the spring".

Edited by Joshua States
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I totally started to write out a long reply to your question, and then Joshua came along and pretty much did it for me. What he said almost exactly.

 

The only difference is that I do three drawings that I feel encapsulate what they asked for. I present those drawings and they choose one. In all ways that matter, that knife is something that I designed, something I am happy with and something that reflects my style. I tell people that I have a long waiting list (which much to my own surprise, I do :lol: ), and that I will contact them when it is their turn. I always make clear that the knife will be done when it is done.

 

I never take a commission that I don't want to do. I have been asked to make kitchen knives, karambits, etc and invariably, if I don't want to make it, I tell them no. I am always polite and I always offer to recommend a maker that could potentially do what they require, but I say no. I refuse to make something that I am not excited about or interested in. (I hate karambits)

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I also do nearly the same thing as Josh. It I were a full-time maker I'd have to be like Matt, though. I agree it is important to keep in touch every so often, but I tell folks up front not to ask me if it's done before the agreed upon time. I hate feeling rushed, and I hate when the client feels like he owns a piece of my time, so no deposits except for expensive or exotic materials. I rarely make something I don't like (at least as far as design goes!), but I have yet to disappoint a client.

 

Matt also made a very good point: whatever terms you agree on, GET IT IN WRITING. Your reputation can't afford being called a liar.

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Not to mention, and to go along with what everyone else has said... Once you start talking deposits/money, it will weed out the non-serious folks quickly. Generally speaking though, if someone is coming to you for a knife, they at least like what you're doing so hopefully what they want is centered around your style... Not always the case though. :rolleyes:

 

I personally hate commissions... however, they do make money. I've recently started only doing commissions for returning customers and family/friends.

Edited by Austin_Lyles
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Thanks for the sage advice guys. It is always good to see other's views on something like this. Cant bounce this kind of stuff off my better half :-P

I, like Joshua and Alan, do this part time and hearing Matt talk about it gives an alternate way of looking at it - it is the life blood of the entire craft. Writing up a contract is not a bad idea for future work either and it at least sets the ground rules for what is required. I thankfully havent ever had an issue with a customer telling me I didnt fulfill my end of the bargain (a consequence of not selling a whole lot to strangers) but it doesnt sound very pleasant. I did make it very clear though that I had very little practice doing what he asked me to do and that I had never worked with meteorite before. He was pretty understanding, and in the real world being understanding up front during the design phase and understanding when the product is done might be two different things.

 

As far as deposits go, I generally go the route Alan takes with blades: I dont like feeling rushed or having the customer feel entitled. Jewelry is different though, and I ask for the material cost up front. The idea of being out a few hundred dollars because a customer backs out scared me pretty early on. Scared me a lot more than being out $20 bucks or so in blade making materials.

 

Creative liberty was definitely something that frustrated me with this project. I had very little of it. Not only did I have the material and design constraints due to the customer's religious beliefs, he is also an artist and definitely had a concept of what he wants it to look like in his brain. The rings didnt quite match up with my image, and the idea of it not matching up with his is something that is/has given me a lot of grief. In some ways, I definitely felt he was trying to tell me how to paint his picture. He has also always been a stubborn person, and it certainly didn't help.

Regardless, I think I have learned some valuable lessons with these rings and everyone's input is greatly appreciated. Thanks again guys.

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I mostly just sell what I make, but lately a lot of people have been asking me to make things for them, so for the past few months I've been doing only commissions. I like the artistic freedom of just making what I want and selling it, but the commissions I take are generally pretty open-ended. Someone will ask for a particular style of knife, and maybe give me a few criteria or dimensions that they want and I make the item to my own style. If someone asks for something that is really not my style, I tell them that someone else could do a much better job for them, which has only happened once. I seem to do my best quality work on commissions (maybe because of the added motivation of having a specific person in mind who as asked me to make something), and I charge more for them. I only ask for deposits if I have to go significantly out-of-pocket to buy materials for the project, or if it was something unusual that would be hard to sell if it fell through, which hasn't happened yet.

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One piece of advice is to never take a commission that requires anything more than very, very minor research and development time.

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I think commissions can be a great motivator as long as there's no hard deadline. I get enough deadlines at my FT job, don't need them in my shop.

Another thing to watch out for: scope creep. A commission is part engineering job, part art. Have the customer agree fully on the design and materials. Go into detail. If the customer isn't satisfied with something fundamental like the edge geometry, then somewhere the communication was missing.

Sometimes people give you a ton of leeway at the beginning, just to come back later and refine, re-refine, re-re-refine the piece. "OH I had another idea.."

In this case you're doing R&D for them, at their whim. If they can't be specific in the commission design phase, consider charging an hourly shop rate.

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