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High-end commissions/ customer relations


Iron John Logan

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I want to discuss high-end commissions and how to deal with customers and the ever scary word - money

 

For years the vast majority of my professional bladesmithing was custom commissions but in 2020 I stopped taking custom orders to instead focus on what I personally wanted to make and to explore. Along with better mental health my overall style, techniques, and finish has greatly improved and allowing myself to take the time for the details has greatly increased my selling point. When you start adding zeros to the left of the decimal point things can start getting scary! While I am making a living selling what I make, I do have interest in high-end custom work and customers willing to both wait the time and pay the price but I don't know how to set up the deal... 

I used to take 50% down the rest on completion. While it was easy it never worked well for me (it was just as easy to adhd forget them and refund big chunks later) and in large sums that sounds even scarier. I'm currently only setting a price once the piece is finished (always hard to nail down the twisted path of creating before hand) but that leaves me scratching for tools and materials... Down payment? Payment plans? Curious how others have found to do it 

 

Thanks in advance

Iron John 

www.ironjohnlogan.com

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I am also interested in hearing what others think about this. On my side, this is just a hobby, but I always end putting way too much time on a commission for the amount of money originally agreed. That's why I prefer not taking commissions, but it's sometimes hard to refuse. 

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I mostly stopped taking commissions for the same reason.  But like Joel, I'm not doing this for my living.  Someday perhaps, but not now.

 

That said, I stopped taking deposits after the first few times I did it.  I find if people give me money, they think they own my time and bother me incessantly about when it's going to be finished.  So then it's back to pricing.

 

I give an estimate up front only after detailed discussion with the customer, including sketches and engraving ideas, with the caveat that everything is subject to change, and most importantly that schedules are off the table.  I do try to give a general timeframe, but I refuse to meet deadlines for my own mental health.  

 

Pricing tomahawks is relatively straightforward for me, because I've done enough to know how long and how much effort each variation can take.  I have a per-inlay charge in my mental spreadsheet, based on whether it's poured pewter in wood, silver in wood, or silver in steel or iron.  Wire inlay adds, and the fancier the engraving the more it costs.  

 

Pocketknives and swords give me pricing trouble, though.  I always seem to underestimate my time on both.  Not that I charge by the hour, but my time does have value, to me, anyway. 

 

I've only had two commissions that didn't pan out.  One was a machete-sized langsax hilted like a viking sword.  Between the order and completion the customer got divorced and couldn't afford it anymore.  The other was a pipe hawk in which the customer specified a certain head from a picture in a book.  I did that, so far so good.  Then he wanted an extra-long curly ash haft.  I had to make that myself since Dunlap didn't have any in stock at the length specified.  I explained how that added to the final price and the guy was fine with it.  Then he started asking for inlays.  I drew up sketches of everything he asked for, including what would have been a pretty cool two-piece handle inlay of an ear of corn with brass corncob in a silver husk.  He said "I want that, on both sides of the handle!"  I told him what the price was to do it, and I never heard a peep from him again.  It's been sitting unfinished on the shelf ever since.  One of these days I'll finish it to my own taste, without the corn inlay.

 

Once I had to refuse one I'd have liked to do (a fancy gladius), because the guy needed it in two weeks and I had several hawks in line ahead of him.  

 

Back to the specific question, high-end custom work:  I explain to the customer about the timeframe, lack of deadline, and that every time they ask if it's ready that adds $50 to the total.  That usually works to scare off the ones who would be trouble to deal with, even the ones for whom $50 is chump change. I don't take deposits, Payment is only due on completion, and if there is some reason the price is higher than the estimate that gets explained the minute it happens.  When the price of silver jumps, or if a requested material is unavailable and the substitute is much more expensive, that sort of thing.  The price doesn't go up if I screw up and have to remake a part six times, that's on me. 

 

I try to be very specific about what can and cannot be done, and why.  Sometimes that can be because I don't want to do that.  That last thing was the hardest thing for me to come to terms with.  I grew up in a service industry, and it was drilled into my head from birth, and fully ingrained by age seven when I started working in the family business, that you do everything possible to make sure the customer is satisfied, even if it eats into the bottom line.  "No" was never an acceptable response, and everything had to be done as fast as possible without sacrificing quality.  Needless to say, this is not a workable business model for an artist-craftsman who wants to enjoy what little mental health he has!  I mean, I still try to be fast, but that's for me, not the customer. It's a work/life balance thing.  

 

As far as dealing with the customer goes, I keep it all via email.  That way there's a written record of everything we discuss.  Some people don't like that, but I insist because it prevents those unfortunate misunderstandings when one party thinks they heard something that the other party did not say. Then you have to be very clear in your writing.  And that works both ways!  I have had a few where I thought the guy wanted X only to go back through the records and find he actually wanted Y.  After I'd already made X, of course.  If there was a phone call, I send an email to confirm there is a mutual understanding of what was said.  I also say not to call me, but some people just can't work that way.

 

 All that said, for both of us, people have an idea what we can do, and ask for custom work based on that knowledge.  It is indeed nerve-wracking when the price gets way up there, but think of it this way: They trust us to do the job.  It's on us to make sure they know what we will and won't do from the start of the discussion. As long as both parties are fully open about how things are going to be, it usually turns out fine.  Of course, there's always the guy who wants a copy of a certain piece, down to the exact measurements, and then complains when he gets it because it feels heavier than he thought it would.  :rolleyes:

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6 hours ago, Alan Longmire said:

I find if people give me money, they think they own my time and bother me incessantly about when it's going to be finished.  So then it's back to pricing.

Agreed.  I've recently found myself in a position where most of the time there's a project manager in between me and the customer and I have found that to be extremely beneficial.  

RIP Bear....be free!

 

as always

peace and love

billyO

 

 

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12 hours ago, Alan Longmire said:

 

I try to be very specific about what can and cannot be done, and why.  Sometimes that can be because I don't want to do that.  That last thing was the hardest thing for me to come to terms with.  I grew up in a service industry, and it was drilled into my head from birth, and fully ingrained by age seven when I started working in the family business, that you do everything possible to make sure the customer is satisfied, even if it eats into the bottom line.  "No" was never an acceptable response, and everything had to be done as fast as possible without sacrificing quality.  Needless to say, this is not a workable business model for an artist-craftsman who wants to enjoy what little mental health he has!  I mean, I still try to be fast, but that's for me, not the customer. It's a work/life balance thing.  

 

The struggle is real.....
I have a potential client waiting and it feels like my shop will never be done, and a colleague that will also have to accept no for an answer.

Do you think it gets easier when you are making prize winning 10K+ swords?

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8 hours ago, Gerhard Gerber said:

Do you think it gets easier when you are making prize winning 10K+ swords?

 

I'll let you know if I ever get to that point. :lol:  Seriously though, once you've established your reputation and get to a certain price point, it really cuts down on demand.  If I was still making pipe hawks for $250 I'd be completely snowed under.  Now that I'm starting at $1K plus, the market is far smaller and the customers much more discerning and easier to deal with.

 

For me, that translates to only a couple of pieces a year, which is fine since I don't do this for my day job.  It would be a different story if I needed to make a living at this game.  Then I look at Tod of Tod Cutler, who somehow manages to crank out a gazillion reasonably priced period pieces while still doing high-end commissions.  And running a YouTube channel on top of that, among other things he does.  I don't know how he does it, but we would all benefit from watching his recent video about the level of quality needed to meet specific demand:

 

 

Despite the title, he's really making the point that if you choose to make a living at piecework, you have to understand the limits of pricing versus fineness.  And he makes me feel bad about how quickly I can turn out a crappy sheath versus a decent one...

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I have a love/hate relationship with commissions. This is a weekend endeavor for me as my day job pays way more than I think I could ever make in the custom knife business. I have known multiple artisan/craftspeople who don't take commissioned work at all. Their motto was always "I make what I want to. If you like it, buy it. If you don't like it, thanks for looking."

 

That being said, I try to severely limit my commission work. It doesn't matter what I have on the bench when asked about a commission, my initial response is always "it will be a month or two before I can even start."

I do not take a deposit (for precisely the reason Alan mentioned) and I do not give any time estimate. If asked about time, my typical answers are either a year or it's done when I say it's done. In order to keep people informed about my progress, I usually ask if they have a social media account. If yes, I will post regular updates of the progress and tag them in the post. If they don't have any social media accounts, I will use another form (like this very forum or a photo hosting service) to create posts about progress and send them a link. Barring that, a simple email with some photos keeps them in the loop and shows them how much effort goes into this art and answers that nagging question "Why does this cost so much?"

 

Tim Hancock mentored me and he never took a deposit or gave a timeframe for commissions. Then again, Tim could sell anything he ever made without fear, so if someone backed out of a commission, no big deal. That knife would sell at the next show, if not sooner.

 

At the start of this year, I told myself I would only take one commission per year to give me the time to work on the stuff I wanted to. I broke that agreement in March and am working on two commissions simultaneously at the moment. Luckily enough, one of them is for blades only (customer's patterns) for a European outfit that adds handles, embellishments, and sheaths. They sell the finished knives with both our marks. 

 

IMO one of the important things to keep in mind when considering commissions is retaining your artistic input. I took a commission last year and the entire design was dictated by the customer. I didn't even like that knife, but I did get the opportunity to try some design elements that I had not tried before, so it was a great learning experience for me as an artist.

 

I second the suggestion to keep everything in writing and include a sketch/drawing of what was agreed to. Something as simple as this notes the smaller details, sizes, style, etc.

V2 design sketch.jpg

 

Brilliant video by Tod Cutler

Edited by Joshua States
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“So I'm lightin' out for the territory, ahead of the scared and the weak and the mean spirited, because Aunt Sally is fixin’ to adopt me and civilize me, and I can't stand it. I've been there before.”

The only bad experience is the one from which you learn nothing.  

 

Josh

http://www.dosgatosdesignsllc.com/#!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdJMFMqnbLYqv965xd64vYg

J.States Bladesmith | Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/dos.gatos.71

https://www.etsy.com/shop/JStatesBladesmith

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Good Replies here and a good video too.

I've taken a few commissions.   Don't like them at all.    Not why I got into knives.  Certain events caused an influx of commissions for me at one point, and I found I enjoyed finishing 6 knives of my own design one weekend was way more satisfying than doing anything anyone else wanted over any period of time.  Even for money, which as we all know, I'm sure, is never enough or even adequate for the effort, time and sacrifice involved.   And dangit the most annoying thing in the world is giving someone a blade that they will never use.  It's a waste.  Don't care how much it cost, if you don't use it, it is worthless.   I Value my time more than your money, and usually your money was no where near enough to make any difference.     That's just a personal view.

 

I recently had a request for a commission.  Guy was real excited and everything, but of course doesn't know what he wants.   I wasn't really interested in doing it.  So I showed him some blades, some plain, some damascus, and couple big ones.    I set me price point steeper than I usually do,  and showed them.   Guy wanted a sword or big bowie, so I showed him a 20ish inch modern seax I had completed and set a $1000 price point. Around $250 for the smaller plain blades.   Successfully scared him away.    Super Glad. Just cuz you want a sword, doesn't mean I want to make you one.  Go get a Cold Steel.

 

I read once somewhere, here or elsewhere:  "Cheap, Fast, or Good.  Pick two".   If anyone bothers me anymore, I'm sticking to those words, and probably adding a zero.

 

Finishing a blade up now, sitting in the coffee.   I loathe making sheaths...   I just dang hate sewing.

Pretty much Done with commissions after this one is done, unless you can make me care. Lol, Good LUCK!

And the pile that sits on my bench can collect dust for the next 20 years, or until I get my big sword done.   Delam on the last big one , had to cut it.   C'est La Vie.

Edited by Bruno
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For me it's a hobby. I have done commissions, and the last one I did I got serious money for. But, what I feared happened: it ruined my hobby. While also having very little free time, I had this big job that went no where staring at me for several years. So I had to get that out of the way until I could do things for fun again. That blade I only did for the money, as I had already decided not to do another one before, as after making the same thing 3 times I'm quite done with it. But I was offered a big sum of money to do another one, so I took the job. But that job really took out all motivation to do any metalworking. I had so many things in life I had to do, and virtually no opportunity to recharge by doing something for fun, that having my hobby turned into a job really killed it. I don't regret the commissions I did, but I'm not going to do another one for several years at least, and certainly not one just for the money. If I run out of hobby money, I'll have to figure out how I can keep financing it (since my day job income fully goes into family expenses). But I'm hoping that I can keep going for some years with the money I have left until I have to think about that. As it's my hobby, the main important thing is doing what is the most fun to me. Not just what I want to make, but the making process itself too. And perhaps the most important one, I don't have to do it. While I do the exact same things, filing, sanding etc. I now really enjoy it again as I don't have to do it. 

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Jeroen Zuiderwijk

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/barbarianmetalworking

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I started out as a blacksmith …. i had gallery’s I sold to and quickly learned my lesson about taking orders….. which is exactly how it always felt to me …but i did learn to not take a deposit when I took an order…..But cranking out orders became a slog…. So by the time I got to making knives I decided to do it for fun… i took a part time job and had fun making knives i wanted to make  on my own time…. When I had a few knives i would go to a show and put them on the table …..I did folders….. the nicer the knife was the easier it sold….some didn’t sell no mater how cheap... the price was not the question to the right person….. my prices were not anywhere close to making a living from my time spent…..but  some of them that were nicer I made different versions of …..because I wanted to ….. it was always for and continues to be for fun …once it is made the fun is over ….. comes to  finding the right person that might like to buy it? That is when the fun ceases for me…..and taking a commission is something I avoid altogether  for my own sanity ……

 

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Apologies for the slight off-topic drift, but a few friends dropped by Saturday after work had stopped and beers opened, and we were nagging one of them to join me at the markets I attend.

He had a few knives that he'd made using his new grinder, and he kept going on about the mistakes......which none of us could spot, and these perceived imperfections are his excuse for not going to the market.

Everybody present as well as a full time maker in South Africa that he's friends with tell him the same thing: Doesn't need to be mirror polished, and most people can't and never will see the mistakes that bother makers.  

While visiting there in December the SA maker shared a recent experience where he'd had a snafu on the grinder and had to reshape the tip of a knife.  He thought the knife was ugly, and the same week a client walked in and immediately wanted that knife, so he reckons every knife you make has an owner waiting.

I find this thread heartening, good to see that most makers feel the same.

@Bruno really liked how you put if, you'll accept if they can make you care.  I've only had two commissions where that was the case, fortunately in both cases I brought them around to my design.  They were happy, persons that received the knives were very happy, and very satisfying experience for myself.

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This is a subject that opens a very large can of worms..  Money, commissions, running a business,  balancing life and shop and mental health in and around the business/ shop.. it is all connected. talking about it is very good but there is no right way every one needs to find a different path, one that is right for them. 

 

I have been full time as a smith for over 20 years. For a long time blades were a side business the main being railings/ironwork. Around 10 years ago I made the switch to blades only. Well that is a bit of a misnomer, I have multiple revenue streams almost different businesses. First are the knives and swords I make on commission and on spec, I teach in our school, make and sell tools ,  I also teach out side of the shop and a number of schools, do paid demos, have a patreon  and write a column for Knife magazine. 

The last 5 years have been the most successful I have had from a financial/ business stand point.  Even Covid only shifted things around rather than put a real hole in my income. (to be honest part of that was PPP loans but even with out I would have been ok) 

That said my commissions have become the most time consuming portion of my work but the least success full from a financial standpoint. Before the pandemic I limited my books to 3-6 months out and would not take orders past that time, when the lock down started I took extra orders and pushed out to a year. (figuring a bird in the hand) once a design was settled I took 50% deposits. 

Several things happened to mess this well laid plan up,  my 1 year of orders is out about 3 years  right now, fist once lockdown opened back up I had other commitments, shows out side classes demos all of these needed time scheduled out of commission work not to mention several tool repair projects that lingered and took a lot of my time. 

My mental heath started to take some strain from the perceived expectations of those high dollar commissions (much as Gerhard mentioned) as well as being late Made keeping contact with the clients become difficult. All of this was coupled with some health issues that have slowed my ability to complete work. Nothing life threatening , but several years ago I developed a auto immune disorder after getting Lyme and it has left me with all sorts of fun symptoms that come and go. Just when  I was just able to start moving forward getting the auto immune in control I caught covid at blade.. that turned in to long covid and set off the worst auto immune flare I have ever had.. last winter was hard. 

I finally delivered the sword that I took and order for in April 2020 in march 2023 a full two years after I planed to have it finished. I had started that sword in dec 2021. I offered several times to refund the client but he refused, I did so in part because financially the commissions have become unimportant, the rest of my income streams are by far the majority of my income yet the commissions slow every thing else up and take up far to much of my time.  I have one more commission left on the books and likely that will be my last, if a take any others it will be something I want to make and short term and  with in 3 month start time. 

That said the rest of the guys in the shop have gone a different route. They are out 3 maybe 4 years now. how they work it is $100 non refundable deposit gets you on the list when your name comes up they finalize details and costs they then ask a 50% deposit , remainder due on completion.  Will all of those commissions pan out? no but then they made $100 for nothing and they can then move on to the next person in line.  This have the advantage of not having the pricing be invalidated by rising costs from the time the commission started until it is built, as well as allowing for rising price points/ labor costs. 

 I know of several makers that ran into that trap with long back logs and deposits. I know of one maker that was in the situation of working on orders that the total value was less than the deposits on new orders.. his price point in the 3 years had tripled not a great situation to be in. I know if this happening with dealer orders as well, unscrupulous dealer,  filling a makers order book then artificially pushing the second market value of the makers work up.. locking them up for years. 

just something to think about. 

 

MP

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On 5/7/2023 at 6:55 PM, billyO said:

most of the time there's a project manager in between me and the customer and I have found that to be extremely beneficial.  

as an addition to this,  the above only works if the project manager answers questions in reasonable time.  I just finished a commission for a table that's going to be in a photo shoot today.  Last Wednesday I asked the project manager for some final details.  I didn't get a response until Monday morning that was, "What was the question I was supposed to ask her?"

The result was that  I had two 13 hour days to forge, fit and finish the legs for the coffee table.  If I didn't have the middle man, I would probably have started the legs Friday and had four 3 hour days which is a much better working pace for me (my aging body is absolutely wiped out today), especially with a position as shop lead where I get interrupted more than a few times a day...  But I am happy with how the table turned out.

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RIP Bear....be free!

 

as always

peace and love

billyO

 

 

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