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Blacksmithing and metalworking questions answered.

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Professional Blacksmithing

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Professional smiths often start as hobbiests and grow into operating a professional business. Some decide early in life that it is a career choice. While these are different paths the skills needed are the same.

There are two types of professional smith. Those who operate their own business and those that work for someone else. In the US the vast majority work for themselves and may or may not have employees. Here we are going to discuss those that have their own businesses.

A professional smith is most often a businessman or woman. Jobs are designed, estimated and quoted. Decisions about advance payments or deposits are made and billing processed. Supplies and materials are purchased, employees paid. Sales taxes are collected and business licenses paid. AND rent is paid and utilities are paid and insurance is paid. . . A small business operates on "cash flow". Every month it must come in as it surely goes out. And at the end of the year there are taxes to do and a blacksmith shop is NOT one of the simple options that QuickBooks covers.

The skills necessary to run a business are much more involved than the blacksmithing skills. It would help to take some business courses OR have someone (spouse, partner) run the business.

Establishing a Business

There are two basic ways to establish a business. Fully capitalized or bootstrapped. Fully capitalized means that you have enough cash on hand to operate, including paying yourself for a least a year and up to two. This is what the business experts recommend. Bootstrapping is do a job, buy some equipment, do a job, rent a shed, do a job, buy an old truck, do a job. . . on and on. While the conventional wisdom is that bootstrapping doesn't work it is actually how the vast majority of businesses got started. However, a high number of startups fail in either case.

The big difference in bootstrapping is that it is the supreme juggling act requiring skill AND luck to succeed.

Between these two extremes is a variety of hard to define middle roads.

Consult others, make a plan and don't be surprised when it changes on the first day.

Education - Formal or Not?

There are dozens of schools where you can learn forging but none will teach you the business end of being an artist craftsman. There are thousands of art schools that will teach you design, art and crafts, but they do not teach how to price one's work. For a century art schools have thought it was beneath them to discuss money. . . thus we have the common phrase "starving artist".

The modern blacksmith shop is as full of machinery as any fabrication and some machine shops. There are trade schools that teach machine shop and welding courses. However, the machine maintenance is something that is learned on the job. Lots of studying technical manuals. . .

My point? It is doubtful that you can find what you need at any one school. You may need to take classes where you can find them. Universities, colleges, community colleges, technical schools, business schools. .

It IS possible to negotiate what you want at a University IF your education is privately funded. In that case YOU have the leverage to design your curriculum. It may need to include classes taken at nonaffiliated schools out side the degree issuer (such as a technical school for welding or a crafts school for forging). This is not as far fetched as it sounds. Masters and doctorates are often designed by the student and then approved by the school.

Just be sure all the pieces fit. Consider negotiating this your first business contract challenge. Then get it in writing. Five years from now you could have your Masters of Artist Blacksmithing with a minor in Crafts Business Administration.

The Professional Shop

A place to work. . . First, rent will be your largest single expense followed by utilities ALL of which are relentless and are at the core of "cash flow". Cash flow IN and it flow OUT. When you work on your business plan keep in mind that the majority of the outgoing is constant while the incomming can be highly variable. Commercial rents can easily be several thousand dollars a month. You can do the math.

A general rule in business is LOCATION, Location, location . . . Your focus defines your optimal location. Do you need tourist traffic? Do you need to be close to suppliers or subcontractors? Do you need to be close to your market?

Generally architectural Smiths need to be close to their market. Clients will want to see your shop or showroom and you will need to visit job sites. You will also need to deliver the product and may need to spend significant time installing it. Be aware when considering the location and rent that architectural work is feast and fammine. It may take months to sell than next job. Did I mention that you will also need a truck?

If you are not going to do architectural work then you have more options. Small work is easy to ship. In the U.S. the Post Office and UPS go to/from almost everywhere. Large sculptural work is moved as-needed by your truck OR a hired truck. You can be located out in the boondocks on a farm or somewhere with lower cost rent. Keep in mind that raw materials (steel) generally cannot be shipped by these methods. You will need to pick them up OR have them delivered by the supplier. You will need to research suppliers, query them and be very specific about where you will want delivery. Note that many places have delivery routes that they wont deviate from greatly (So don't take a quick, "Yeah, we deliver.") AND there are often significant minimums.

See Where to Purchase Steel

Professional Shop Equipment

Today EVERYONE is in a "world" market. In the ironwork business there are imports from dozens of countries including some with very low standards of living. In these places workers live in homes with dirt floors and without glass windows working in shops or factories without light, ventilation or safety equipment. These are the folks that make your high quality forged work look like it is way overpriced even if much better quality. To even approach competitiveness you have to be VERY efficient. IT IS possible in the US where we have ready access to materials and great infrastructure to deliver it. We have access to machinery like no other place on Earth. We have access to subcontractors who can machine parts and cut steel more efficiently than anywhere else on Earth. Take advantage of those services when you can.
Gas or Fuel Oil Forge
Generally you cannot be competitive using a coal forge. For production work you need a professional forge.
NOTE: Coal forges are handy for things that wont fit in an enclosed forge and for forge welding.

Cut-off Band Saw
This is the cleanest, accurate and relatively the fastest way to cut steel bar. This is a primary tool in any serious shop.
An abrasive Chop Saw will do in a pinch but they are dirty, noisy and expensive to maintain.

Professional Welding Equipment
This is somewhat dependant on you type of work but in general you need oxy-acetylene, SMAW (stick welding), MIG and TIG.

Power Hammer or Press
If you are going to be forging anything larger than 1/2" (13mm) stock in any kind of quantity you will need some type of forging machine. Gas forges and power hammers go together for productivity. One feeds the other.

Hand Power Tools
Large and small angle grinders. Electric drills including a hammer drill if you plan to do on-site installations. more. . .

Heavy Duty Steel Work Benches
Specifics depend on the size of your shop and the type of work you do. Heavy steel top work benches are needed for welding and assembly work. If you do large work then a heavy cast weld platten (table with holes for hold downs) is needed.

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