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Christopher Price, February 25, 2008 in The Way
Great! I guess I'll get the ball rolling by asking the easy questions fist
For those who do not know you, can you tell us a little bit about you? How did you get started forging and what drew you to the craft to begin with? What sorts of things did you envision making when you first started, and how does that compare to what you are doing now? How long (if at all) were you in the craft before doing it for a living? And last one for now, how did becoming the father of a Viking Baby Overlord impacted your work?
OK first having my little V.B.O has distracted me a bit , not so much from my work but defiantly from things like this , sorry to take so long see this and get started. The one big impact he has had is to refocus me on blades, I stayed home with him for about 18months, that meant I wasn’t in the shop enough to work on the large ironwork job we had in the shop at the time, I refocused on knifes and swords as well as on teaching, because I could keep to my own schedule and not screw the shop as a whole up. That also meant I got more serious about knives, I broke down and joined the ABS as well as taking my marketing a bit more seriously.
so I have been a full time smith for a little over 15 years I began forging about 20 years, even before that time I worked metal and made some knives.
smithing is something I have been drawn to as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a smith when as a small child 3-4 years of my parent took me to sturbridge villige , the smith was doing a forge weld and the smell sounds and sight is something that is etched in my mind for ever, I watched that smith for over an hour, and I remember thinking that is what I want to do. I didn’t have anything i really wanted to make (I was 3-4 so not to surprising) I just knew I wanted to do that!
my family has some history on metalworking, my grandfather was a welder and a bit of a machinist , my father does some machining and is a tool designer, I grew up around those tools and learned to use them at a fairly early age. my first knife was around age 10 or so my grand father showed me how to grind a knife from a file and re temper.... it was a ugly knife... I messed around with that and making parts for R/C cars (my major addiction until high school) for a number of years. I went to a tech school for high school, for machine shop (I figured it was as close to blacksmithing as i could get these days .. little did I know) I was introduced to metallurgy and learned a good deal about heat treating and metalwork. I found I did not enjoy working to the kind of tolerances common in this area of the country, at the time is was all aerospace and common shop tolerances were +/-0.0005 with most work being one or two orders of magnitude tighter. and I found I did NOT like programing CNC. so after high school did not go into machining, I bummed around a bit working odd jobs I was a factory painter for some time.
In shop class in high school we were shown Guslers williamsburg gunsmith movie, this inspired me to start trying to forge, I started to mess around with forging again making some very bad armor and blades.. I even made a few swords (well sword like objects) I continued on just messing around until the late 90s I was out of work and was having a lot of trouble finding work when I discovered Renn faire.. I worked for a friend at NYRF selling sculpture and then opened my own booth as a blacksmith at smaller faires around the north east
BY this point my work was just passable .. but it sold ... I did the faire thing for a number of years. all that time I was steadily improving my work and my skill set. I took a class in brookfield (one of the schools I now teach at) with Peter Swarz-Burt on sword forging, that opened my eyes to a whole other way of working,and had a profound change in the direction of my work to more historically grounded designs, it had the side affect of several years later having peter approach me about doing renn faires together, that lead to forming our business as it is now, along with Peters apprentice Jamie Lundell we formed Falling Hammer productions llc in 2006, over the years the focus of the shop has changed from rennfaire market to high end Ironwork and now shifting back to High quality blades armor along with some iron work. We did rennfaire as well as doing the iron work until 2012, if had become far less profitable and with the birth of my son being away from home on the chance of making some money no longer seemed like a good idea. Over the years we expanded the shop and out equipment base as well as adding Michael Coffey in 2010 and moving into a larger better laid out shop space in 2011.
wow that was a lot ..
last unanswered question .. as far as what I am making and what I was making.. what I am interested in changes with time for me, I tend to get stuck on something and fall down a rabbit hole, for a long time it was just euro swords then it was Norse work , seaxs and viking swords axes etc, that has faded a bit of late , recently I have become more interested in 17th -19th century knives and axes. but I do still have a good deal of interest in the Norse work. I got interested in kitchen knives a few years ago, and that has turned into a pretty deep hole... doing this for a living means i don’t get to make what I want all that often, most of the time I only get to make what I am commissioned to make. I do take time to do projects in the kind of work I want to be doing now and then, after all no one is going to ask me to make something I haven't shown I can do well!
I think that covers most if not all of what you asked
Thanks for the great response!
I was just writing up a few more questions and it accidentally get deleted
Anyway, I think that early exposure to tools and the processes of tangible creation are extremely important. I am incredibly thankful for a similar upbringing in that regard, and it has certainly given me the basis to pursue other crafts now that I have the means and manual dexterity that I lacked when I was younger. Do you see any trends in students of your classes? With the advent of modern technology it has become much easier for the generations (young and old) to reach these opportunities that might not have been easy to find in the past, which sounds like what you went through before finding the renn fairs. Are most of the people you teach younger folks, or is there a good mix? As with all things, there is obviously an up front cost for pursuing a new craft or hobby, but it seems that in the blade making realm a lot of the above-entry-level equipment is fairly specific and not always easy to find or budget. Has there been much correlation (if you have noticed any) between people coming into the craft and history of family craftsmen?
On an unrelated note, something that I have noticed more often of late is how infrequently I see forges operating with more than one smith. I can think of about half a dozen off hand, but the majority seem to be solo shops. What has your experience been working with other full time smiths? It seems that in the custom blade market that style has a lot to do with customer base. Working with other makers, do you still find this true? Or, is it more usual for the commissioner to come with an intended style (not really meaning historical period or regional origin) after coming to you for reputation of quality? Along a similar line of thinking, how has the exposure for you and your also victorious business partner affected your shop?
One more unrelated question for now. You said that you currently do mostly commissions, but do you notice any difference between commissioned and non commissioned projects? As a hobbiest I find that I sometimes see a lot of change in design and aesthetic over the course of the project as it is exposed to the creative process. Do you tend to explore atypical styles and methods in non commission pieces? Also, do you enjoy that freedom more (or do you still have a good deal of artistic license in your commissions too)?
Th is might be briefer than My last post as I am writing from my phone.
Students ... I have not seen much coilation in students over the years. I have see all kinds in my classes from kids in there teens to an 80year old grandmother (yes she was as cool as she sounds) the students that stick with it all have an inborn love of the craft I don't think that is something I can teach, I might inspire it or help to ignite the spark but it must be there or they will not bother to continue.
It is also an odd thing that the better my skill set and the lkngerni do this the more I realize how little the tools and equipment matter. I love my shop and do not intend to give it up, but all of that equipment just makes things faster. A relitivly sparten shop can put out just stunning work with the right maker. I try and show my student that, sometimes it click and sometimes not .. I love teaching it really is one of my favorite things to do in the craft.
The first time I taught a class I did so because shop was slow I was just married I needed money, so I called up a local craft school and set up a class. I was nervous as I prepared for the class planing everything and trying my best to make it go smoothly, I had only taken 2 classes my self so I didn't even have a great idea of what to expect. I got lucky and had a great group of student the class went well. I relaxed a bit. As I was driving home with this big grin on my face I realized I had spent the entire day talking about smithing and no one shut me up!!!!! I continued on my way home and then it acured to me I was being paid !!!!
Needless to say was hooked. I will get to the rest of your questions later I need to go start dinner right now.
That's very interesting about what you say with regards to the tools and equipment not really being that important. When I first started, I attributed the poor results to a lack of available tools, not so much the absolute lack of skill and knowing at all what I was doing. Once I pushed past that, however, I began to realize that, like you said, it makes things faster, sometimes easier, but at the end of the day I can do the same things with or without it all. Especially now, where the only workspace I have is the corner of my apartment bedroom! In some ways, I think it forces me to do better work, or at least be more patient and careful with what hand tools I can use here, to achieve personally acceptable results...
It seems to be a hard lesson theses day that slow can be faster ... I certainly took a long time to learn it.
Having a blade shop with more than one Smith with out being a factory (Carter cutlery for example) isn't something that is common I am not sure why that is. I have noticed that the knife world does not get it, collectors and buyer don't really understand our business arrangement. I have had muh better success marketing myself as an individual with in the shop than marketing the shop and me being a part of it. A bit part of that is the idavidual is important a personal relationship or reputation is extremely important to that customer base. The rennfaire market did not have this stigmma and in that market our sort of argment is more common.
It has its down sides and frustrations, bit over all working around and with other highly skilled smiths makes me a better Smith. I can say for certain I would not be the half the Smith I am now with out this experance. It has also forced me to broaden my focus never letting me get stuck in a rut for to long.
The three Forged in Fire wins have gotten us some notoriety, some sales, and few folks stopping by to check us out. We all had great experances and over all has been good for each of us and for the shop... I am however still being mocked for some of the the things I said ... I may never live that down...as far as worknwe for the most part get our own commissions but we do distribute web inquiries based on intrest in the job current work load and skillsets. The main exceptions to this are repeat customers and when I a customer requests one of us.
I find that commissions are not more restricting for me but I do plan out the build in much greater detail. for the most part when I get a order I will have a description sometimes with the addition of photos of similar work or work the customer wants me to pull inspiration from, I will take that and do a series of drawings, to be sure I am on the same page as the customer , think helps me to figure out the pricing and time line, as I can figure out how each part of the sword knife axe what have you will be made, some times I come up with several ways so I have a back up if the first method fails. This forces me to be meticulous in planing out the build . Doing this then this then this, etc but I don’t find that to be a bad thing in fact I find it helps to keep things running smoothly. As in most cases I am doing all of the design work I can sneak in things I want to try now and then also.Spec work for me generally falls into one of three or four catagory's. First is experimentation, this is seeing something and being inspired or getting an idea and needing to try it out, these tend to be quick and dirty but if they work out I will do a second or third up to my normal standards.. sort of a proof of concept. With lots of mid streem design changes, The second is exploring a market segment or historical category, for example my somewhat recent interest in kitchen knives, this work tends to be mostly designed before hand and well thought out most designs end up as something I make over and over, sort of a stock item. (if the design pans out) Third is showing, off every once in a while I will do a project just to test my self, but all so to show what I can do. usually use something I will be attending as an excuse and as a dead line.. I plan on selling these but I also understand it might take years, these tend for the most part to be at least partly planed out in advance. Even if it is only a general out line or form with details being filled in as I work.And fourth is just stuff I make, in classes, when demoing, when I get board … this is mostly just blades (I think I have like 30-40 blades in different states of completion floating around the shop) these rarely have a plan other than teaching some step in a class or illustrating a point to one of my students, these tend to get finished up now an then as table filler for shows. … I miss Gun shows in CT I used to sell a lot of this kind of stuff at gun shows... no more gun shows in CT, even the Hartford antique arms show moved to MA...
Thank you for enlightening me (us?) on how you work, I didn't quite have a feel for how a shop like yours operates, and I find it all rather interesting. With regards to the shows, as someone who has never been to one, what is the process like for the non-production smith? From what I have seen, it looks like that sort of crowd is drawn in by the custom market, but the non-corporation production smiths are who are most successful there. Is that even partially accurate? I suppose my logic behind that reasoning is the repeatability of design and consistency of quality by making large numbers of similar blades. Do you have any experience with production style work? You mentioned that you have been making a lot of kitchen knives lately. Has that supplement to your repertoire, so to say, in a semi-production sort of way? Again going purely on what I have seen second hand, it seems that the shows are much bigger for the knifemaker crowd rather than bladesmiths. If there is any truth to that, is there any difference to how customers see your work there as a bladesmith?
Changing directions a bit, what was the biggest challenge you had to overcome when you first started? What would you say it is now? It doesn't necessarily need to be directly related to the craft, but anything about it second or even third hand. In overcoming those obstacles, how has your work changed (if relevant)? And finally, where do you want to take your work next?
Knife shows are just another market, every market has its ins and outs, there isn’t just one way to go about things in any market, for me it is about finding what I do that works with in a market and then developing that. the mid tech and tactical market are definitely getting the lions share of followers right now, but good custom smiths are still around making a living, there are sub groups in any market and one must find a Niche and develop it.the custom knife market over all is in a very strange state, much of it seems to be ignoring modern reality, it had become a business with several individuals running the show making new Hot makers and getting just ridiculous back logs going for those guys. This was all well and good until how people bought knives started to change, now it is less about who is in the knife mags or won what award (not that those things can't help) and more about the individual and there marketing system. Social media sites have really distorted the market away from these older forms of marketing, how that is going to play out with collectors and buyers long term remains to be seen. But there are collectors for every conceivable type of work, there are some that only collect ABS smiths work, some that only collect forged knives from Non ABS smiths I met one guy that only collected ivory handled bowie knives. For me connecting with enough buyers has always been the hardest part of being a smith. It is something I am forever trying to stay onto of and get better at. Knife shows have become a part of that, plus they are kind of fun, hang out with a bunch of dudes that like the same stuff you do, and get to check out the work of a bunch of other guys? Whats not to like!I have done production work, some of the tools I make are production as is a lot of the railing work (5000 C scrolls for a fence for example) some of the knives I make are all most production in that I have a set starting size and set handle design and they all end up more or less the same. Production can be fun and educational, repetition can teach you things that you can learn in no other way. To large a run and it can go the other way … not fun and just drudgery.
Honestly the biggest challenges I had when I started was finding resources to learn from, there was 4 books in print when I started, no web site (no real internet) I took every book I could find out of the library and Studied it form Art of smithing to Firefox#6, the only school I could find was pennland and I couldn’t afford it.. the real revolution for me was getting a computer and internet, finding sites like Anvilfire and the blacksmiths webring. Later finding SFI, CKD (latter Knife net) and finally this forum, these days it is so much easier to find info and learn! I was smithing for 6-7 years before I even tried making Damascus, now I see first year smiths pulling off good patterns! there are schools every where and the classes are reasonable! These days my biggest challenge is finding the balance of work and family, my teaching and demo schedule has me away a lot and that is wearing on my wife, and tough on my son. Were I want to go.. that is a tough one, I have so many things I want to explore, I want to finish getting my JS that is next, and at some point get my masters stamp. I want to play more with smelting. I want to get a little deeper into some of the 18th C stuff I have been playing with … that is the coolest thing about doing this there is never a time when I say no that is all I wanted to know... I always find a new thing I want to learn about... For me it isn't about the destination only the path to get there.
Very well said, thank you for that!
Without getting into the politics of it, what's your take on the ABS? There seems to be a divide between the folks in it and those adamantly not. I understand a bit of what's gone on with the organization and how it is changing, but only from the outside. What brought you to join the ABS? How has it, if at all, changed work for you?
Going back to the first bit, I find what you said about the niches very important. Having been there since the beginning of real market evolution and exposure to the craft from all sides, what would you recommend to someone just entering into smithing? And to those who might have been around for a little while who are thinking about pursuing it as a living? you said that it has become important to have an online presence by way of social media. How did you establish yourself and set yourself apart from the crowd? Is there anything you would have done differently?
On those new to the craft, is there any advice you can share that might help them overcome some of the first major obstacles? With regard to the production style work, that is sort of how I began to develop basic technique- through repetition of fundamentals at the anvil to understand how metal moves and how best I can control it, which has served me greatly in the years since. It sounds as though you have had similar experiences through the production style work you have done. If you have seen the thread (can't get to it at the moment on mobile) on part of skill being the ability to do good work quickly, has that sort of work benefited you in this way?
Finally, it's not really a question, but I really appreciate the way you talk about the wide diversity of interest in a seemingly intensely specific craft of bladesmithing. I am always amazed by how deeply other aspects of culture, history, and craftsmanship can apply to what we do.
Grabbed the link to the other thread, looks like you've been over there already. For those who haven't seen it, here's a link (sorry for the lack of formatting)
The ABS.. well that is a can of worms... I fought joining for many years, I had a lot of reasons why I did so, but it boils down to I didn’t like the politics or the attitude I got from some of the members I met early on. I still have many problems with the ABS, but now I want to be part of fixing it rather than avoiding it. I joined finally as part of my becoming more serous about knifemakeing as income and as a way to further my teaching. This was just after Tommy was born, but I had considered it for some time after meeting and getting to know several members. After joining and getting involved, I have found it to be a good resource, well worth my time. I have met and befriended some amazing smiths through my short time in the ABS, and the support I have gotten in return has be unexpected. Nick Rossi I think said it best “come for the knives, stay for the people”. As far as changing my work.. it has forced me to reconsider my forging and how to make the kind of knives they want to see for the JS test, it has forced me to pay more attention to detail in finishing. I still do not particularly like the aesthetic but I understand that part of the test is to build what they want/expect to see. I still might try and bump the system a bit. I don’t know if I can bring myself to make 5 knives in that style, we'll see.. trying not to as that has a way of biting you in the back side sometimes..there are all sorts of things I wish I had done differently, fact is I don’t feel like things have really clicked for me until the last few years, the marketing stuff is constant and is ever evolving, some of that is Niche also, I know several makers that only get sales on instagram, or facebook, they are know very well in those markets and there works sells quickly and for good prices but they not known in any other market and might have trouble selling anywhere else. I see the fringes of all of these little movements in the US and as better as the economy is doing I think none of these are going to really get big until we have a stronger middle class, I love the bespoke/ hand craft movements but they are super local and can be hard to break into from what I see. (again sales are about the person not always the work)My advice to new smiths is go to school get a business and/or marketing degree, and smith as a hobby. At least then when they don’t listen they will have a better chance of understanding how hard a road they are headed down.To the more experienced guys, I say make knives part time, get a bank roll started, equip your shop get a customer base, and then go full time when you get laid off, fired ,downsized or retire... this is a hard way to make a living, and not one I recommend. Fact is if you are going to do this for a living, nothing will stop you.. even starving or debt.I need to head to the shop I'll try and get to the last few questions at lunch.
Thanks Matt! I commend your willingness and determination to help better the ABS. Your reluctances are very similar to how I feel, and while the climate seems to have been getting much better since the advent of Kevin Cashen's crusade, those stylistic requirements for the testing are what keep me away.
It pains me to see such consistent affirmation to how difficult it is to make it in the maker's world. Without naming names, I've heard from a number of people who I would have thought were doing at the least well off, but it seems that even the most successful have a very hard time of it. I think part of that romantic allure to the life of a craftsman in modern society is what draws enough attention to it for people to survive that way and keep the inspiration to keep going when the times are rough, but as you say, it's rough and there's no way around it. It's too bad that we have to fight with how cheap larger industry can make things of similar purpose for a tenth or a hundredth the cost, however severe the quality deficit becomes. I could go on a tirade about the disposable consumerism lifestyle but I'll save it for another time...
on to the rest..
repetition is the single best way to master a task.. any task.. doing the same design over and over until it comes naturally... this will not only make that particular design easy to make but will build skill in a way that other similar tasks become easier. I feel there is a divide in our thinking, a romantic thought of perfect craftsmanship. This unrelenting taskmaster of perfection is fed by the result of care and of attention to detail. theses are worthy goals but are not necessary a sign of skill. The most skilled smiths and makers I know just make things look easy, and I marvel at the speed with which they do so. Jim Siska is a perfect example of this, any one that has seen Jim give his grinding demo at Ashoken, perfect swept grinds in like 3 passes and he doesn’t even look like he is trying.. that is skill and that is certainly gained by doing. The other thing with skill is it takes experience to gain it and I think you get to a point that you push any errors some place that is less important, or easily correctable this becomes ingrained, just something you do. So that your errors in the end have no bearing on the work. It is not the there are no errors just that any errors do not matter to quality of the finished work. I like to say that perfection lies in the small errors of a master, it reminds me that no work can be perfect, but when done well in the imperfection lies true perfection... if that makes any sense.. this line of thought came from something Peter Johnson said in his talk as the last sword ashoken, I don’t remember it exactly, but he was speaking to the grinding at Albion and how he liked how every blade was slightly different, and alive, where the shop manager keep trying to get them all the same and he felt some what soulless. at least that is my memory (Peter please forgive me if I am remembering it wrong and putting words in your mouth!)the thing I have found about bladesmiths is they tend to be smart, by and large they are self starters with hell of a stubborn streak. I am for ever being impressed with the education and intelligence of my fellow bladesmiths. I know several surgeons and Md’s, guys with masters in history or business or art or one of many sciences and the folks with out formal education they tend to read and learn on there own we tend to be the ones who will just figure it out.Kevin was a big reason I finally joined, after joining and meeting Christoph, JD, and a bunch of other guys they are the reason I have no plans to leave, and am willing to put effort into the the ABS.It is rough, but we do a good deal of that to ourselves, By and large blacksmiths and bladesmiths are truly crappy business men. We found in the ironwork business that there was always working the higher end of the market, getting that work and getting it done on time and on budget was tough but what we have always struggled more with fighting our selves, laziness, poor planing getting distracted these have always been a greater challenge for our shop. On the blade side my personal issue is sales. I can easily produce enough product to make 50k a year take home, but I have never been able to sell that much, and much of the commission work is not as high paying hourly as spec or the limited production work I do. That has meant finding other sources of income, teaching , making tools and the occasional ironwork project, I keep threatening to write a book basically the more things that bring in income the better. it is possable to maek a living and be happy doing this, it is just not easy, it is also easier once you have a good deal of skill, and that takes time... anouther Ashoken quote, Tim Wright, said on making money as a knife maker, "you can work really hard and make low 6 figures as a knife maker, but to do that you will have to make money your God... and if money is your god, why the hell are you makeing knives for a living!" that has kind of stuck with me, it reminds me that I need to make money, but that isnt allways the most important thing.
Once again I can only thank you for your great reply without diminishing what you have said.
A few final questions before I have to head out of town, which will also be a good place to come to a close.
What do you feel is the most valuable skill you have learned over the years? Whether a basic technique or something that has been most useful in that final level of detail and finish (or entirely unrelated to the knife making process altogether). At what point, if you have reached it, were you satisfied with the quality of your work? Not to say, of course, that you stopped trying to improve.
Finally, what are your goals for the next ten years? Do you plan on shift in the type of work you do (more towards teaching maybe, or less based on commission and more on personal design)? Is there anything else you want to share? I'll leave it open for you if you do!
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly and with so much thought. It's been a pleasure!
I had to give that some thought, what I came up with is the ability to self study. I don't know were I get that from, if I learned it or if it is in born in me.. but if something interests me or there is something I need to figure out. I will find the information I need, even if it is asking the right people where to look for the information. the internet seems to have made this faster but not easier... I miss books...
It might come from those early years pre-internet, when I searched for info in card catalogs and the ILL data bases, or it could be something I got from my grandfather, he didn't finish highschool but got his GED at 70, even so he was one of the best read men I have ever known, after he passed we found one of the most eclectic and odd library's I have ever see, from engineering books to a first edition (signed!) of T.S Elliot with art, history, fiction you name in the middle. learning to study is one thing that is not really taught well anymore. the idea of critical thinking and analyzing what is being read is frowned on in a system that is teaching to a test. That system is set up so that every thing must be black and white. (that might be why I did so poorly in school as a kid... )
I am never satisfied with the quality of my work, I am satisfied by the rate of continued improvement of my ability's. now it is mostly that I need to compromise with something because my skill or knowledge in that detail isn't good enough to pull off what I want to do .. so I don't add that detail or do so in another way that I am less satisfied with.. I think that is a good thing, that it helps to drive me to learn and continue of this path.
The next ten years.. I want to finish my book and get that published, I would like to finish my JS and achieve my Masters stamp, I want to start teaching outside of the northeast, (teaching in AZ in Dec/Jan/Feb sounds great!) and just continue to learn, I am interested in the latter stuff right now 17th-early19th cenn. I like that there is a connection to my home, these items are not removed and of another culture that I must struggle to understand (like the norse) they are from here and just out of living memory.
I will close with this thought, we are all drawn to knives and blades, we would not be here on this site if we were not. but it seems that it is not just us that feels this pull. Every one is drawn to them to one deg or another. Every human can recognize a knife, it is the most basic of tools. I think knives speak to us because in a very real way they define our humanity, separating us from animals. Every material we make or find we try making a knife from it. For 2-3000 years now steel has been our material of choice. that is a long legacy to follow we are standing on the shoulders of colossus and titans not just giants. I love that I am a part of that, that my work will live on, that I am passing that on through teaching. I love that continuity.
Thank you John this was fun
I guess now it is on me to find the next one...
Great interview, thanks, guys!
Thanks again Matt! I look forward to hearing from whoever you interview
That was a great one! Way to go guys. Lots of food for thought there.
Feel like being interviewed Salem? You make some fine knives...
Sure, although Matthew is a tough act to follow! It'll give me something to do on coffee breaks, the next few days or so.This is one of the best threads ever, perhaps even the best, IMO. On any forum. I'd be glad to contribute.
if your up for it I am .. haven't found any one on my own
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