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can you make a living one bladesmithing alone?

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Posts: 11
Eminent Member Apprentice Bladesmith
Topic starter
 

Is it possible to be fully sustainable with your only job being a full time bladesmith?

 
Posted : 02/04/2024 11:41 am
Ed Caffrey
Posts: 748
Prominent Member Master Bladesmith
 

That's a question that has been asked for as long as I can remember.   To start off, there's an old saying... Behind every full time knifemaker, is a wife with a REALLY GOOD job!

On the serious side, there are a number of "Bladesmiths" that make it work. Very often those who are successful at it full time, "branch out" in various ways to create other streams of income. 

  Speaking for myself, I was part time Bladesmithing for many years, and retired from the USAF before I went "Full Time", which means I have a stream of income to fall back on.  I also diversified what I make in the shop..... Damascus Pens, Forging Hammers, Teaching Bladesmithing Classes, ornamental/archatectural Blacksmithing, and I developed a Grinder Platen built and sold by Beaumont Metal works. In other words "Mailbox Money".   

  I know of many who worked an entire career at a "regular job" that provided insurance and other "family" benefits, retired with benefits, and then went into Bladesmithing full time.

If you're asking the question from the standpoint of starting out as a young Full Time Bladesmith, then my input would be...Keep your day job, and be a part-time Bladesmith when you can. I know that advice can be crushing to someone who is revved up and wants to go "All in" being a Bladesmith, and yes, there are a few who've done it, but those are prodigies who either went, or were steered that way from a very young age.

   The truth is, it was far easier, and the chances of success at Full Time Bladesmithing were much greater 20 years ago...Before the "Forged in Fire Era" where every hack who watches a few episodes, believes they are a Bladesmith.  So not only do you have make enough money to support yourself and/or a family, paying for benefits such as insurance that punching a clock for someone else would provide.... but you have to also keep the prices of your knives on keel with you peers, many who I've seen selling their knives for LESS THAN THE COST OF MATERIALS!  Then, if you can survive under those circumstances, you'll have to put in a lot of years, building the best reputation you can, and hoping by the time you "make it to Mastersmith" you still have some years left in your body/on this earth to enjoy it.

  That was my hope, but a few years after I retired from the USAF, I started having health issues which kept me from the shop.  After over a decade of searching for answers, things lead me the the University of Wahsington medical center in Seattle.  After 4 1/2 days of tests, the diagnosis came back as Lupus, which they believe also caused Interstical Lung Disease, and Lupus Nephritis (Kidney disease). Since then I've had part of my right lung removed, several lung biopsy surgeries, Kidney and Liver biopsies, and a long list of medications, of which one, if I were to pay "out of pocket" would be $17K (yeah K as in thousands).   I was/am also eligible for the PACT ACT because more than a few times, I was the guy on a dozer pushing stuff into the burn pits in the Middle East.  FACT: If I hadn't stuck it out and retired from the USAF, and didn't have retired USAF/military insurance, I would be dead, and my wife would be bankrupt.  

  So you also have to consider the unexpected things/expenses.

  There are a number of Mastersmiths out there who have been/are successfully being Full Time Bladesmiths, with ONLY "Knife Income", but most are stretching the definition of "successful", and I can promise you that the vast majority of those are living hand to mouth, with little to nothing in reserve for "The tough times" or an emergency.  How do I know this?  I recall sitting with a group of MS after a day of manning our tables at the Blade Show in Atlanta. The subject of being asked by show patrons about being a "Full-Time Bladesmith" got thrown out as a subject.  Now keep in mind that the entire group was made up of ABS Mastersmiths.   Some where the type that had other income streams, but those that didn't spoke about how they had taken out loans in order to get to/do the show, and a few others were dependant on selling what they had brought (their knives) to keep from going further "in debt from doing the show".  A couple even spoke of and recommended having a Line of Credit to borrow against for table fees, travel, and attending shows.    Yeah.... at the time it shocked me too.

And finally there is that point, when you're full time, that you hit that wall, where the enjoyment and zeal you had for the craft, turns into being a job/work.  At that point you either become what I call a "Bean Counter".... only putting so much time into a knife that you know will only sell for $XXX, and the quality suffers/degrades, OR you simple quit/step back from Bladesmithing/Knifemaking...at least for a time.  

So, Looking back at 35+ years of being both Part-Time, with a full time outside job with benefits,  and Full-Time with a pension and benefits backing me up, I can say from experience that neither is easy, and you best have all your ducks in a row, with a really good plan if you're going to try full time Bladesmiting in today's world.  I suspect it is far easier if an individual is single, with only themselves and minimal bills to worry about, than someone with a family/small children. To the first individual I would say "Keep your day job", and the the second I would say flat out NO!

  Once again, this is my input based on 35+ years of Bladesmithing, on the road from an Apprentice, to Journeyman, to a Mastersmith. What you choose to do is your own decision.  Just remember that every decision we make comes with a consequence.  Sometimes good, and sometimes bad, and it's your responsibility to think of what consequences will come with the decision(s) YOU CHOOSE.  😉    

 

  

Ed Caffrey, ABS MS
"The Montana Bladesmith"
www.CaffreyKnives.net

 
Posted : 02/04/2024 5:53 pm
Posts: 153
Estimable Member Apprentice Bladesmith
 

This is my opinion.  I have been doing this for 4 years now.  I am probably charging too little for my work, but most of my stuff is now selling between 1-2k per blade.  BUT I am taking 2 weeks to complete a blade if not longer.  I do need to get faster and am still learning.  I would have trouble living on this.

Where I have made more money, is on things like roses and other artistic blacksmith work.  Making knives is fun and does make some money.  

I know there are some very successful bladesmiths, but I suspect this is the minority.  Much like musicians where the average registered musician clears less than $100/yr.  But the top 1% actually make a living at it.

I can make a living doing this WITH my retirement income.  There may come a time where I can produce the quality and quantity to make more than 2K/month.  

The last part of the sustainable equation is just the current economic conditions.  Personally I find todays economy has consumed a LOT of peoples “Entertainment” cash.  A custom knife will always cost more and we will need buyers willing to spend more the $80 sporting goods store knife.  The economy needs to be good enough that the average buyer has money for luxury like a custom blade.

 

Bob Bryenton
Solar Storm Group Ltd.
Phone: (780) 953-0016
Email: [email protected]
https://www.solarstorm.ca

“The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible" -- Arthur C. Clarke

 
Posted : 02/04/2024 6:15 pm
Joshua C States
Posts: 312
Reputable Member Journeyman Bladesmith (5yr)
 

If I were to answer this question, honestly and simply, I would just say "no". 
Most of the fulltime "bladesmiths" I know now and have known in the last 20 years, have had additional income streams like Ed mentioned. That could be anything from knifemaking associated activities (classes, sharpening services, even artistic ironwork, etc.) to owning rental property, daytrading, or even owning horses & mules for packtrips. The custom knife world is overcrowded IMO and the production makers are still easily outselling the custom makers. The truth is there are more people making those $1,000+ knives than there are buyers to buy them. 

Tim Hancock once gave me the same advice Ed gives above.
Keep your day job. Be a part-time maker. Or develop additional income streams to pay the bills. Otherwise, you end up making the same things over and over agian and the joy fades away.

“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.”

 
Posted : 02/04/2024 11:06 pm
Kevin Stinson
Posts: 129
Estimable Member Apprentice Bladesmith
 

Kinda glad I am adding Jewelry making and only plan on this, hopefully supplementing SSI as SSD...and eventually plan to teach.

 
Posted : 03/04/2024 11:58 am
Michael Samdahl
Posts: 31
Eminent Member Apprentice Bladesmith
 

Ed Caffrey, Do you think that your statement here should be the warning intro to Forged In Fire instead of the safety warning of the show? (Keeping hacks from going bankrupt trying to get into craft) haha

 

Wendell Bryenton, One of the reasons I got into blades was to make money on the side. The truth of what I am finding out, is truly: there just is not enough money in it to justify the purchase of tools and time spent. The only reason you would make knives seriously is because it is a passion that you expect to give more than you take. I think places like etsy/amazon have ruined the knife market. You could be selling a time and money pit masterpiece, and post it for $350 on etsy and the suggestion box below will populate something about the same size and color next to it for $50 bucks. I am not a psychologist but unless something was ever established as a ranking system with evaluators (Hey just an idea I am putting out there), Where Master Smiths would rate specific pieces of craft; then the public will be none the wiser about what is a knife worth money or not. The system that people use now: find a very popular brand like lets say (benchmade), and pay for their most expensive knife. Or know someone who is a bladesmith that can educate them. 

 

(WARNING: I am very new to this, so take with truck-size grain of salt.)

Money: Right now in the United States and the world the term "Craftsman" or trade specialists are very much in demand. Someone who can find a problem and solve it are becoming fewer and fewer. In Montana having a welding certificate, or a welder and basic skills, a milling machine, ability to use an angle grinder, ability to sculpt wood, use a hammer, etc.; are all very much in demand. So flat out I have just been asking around what people in town think is a every day need that they would pay for to put in their house. I hope this doesn't offend anyone, but you are specifically targeting the "Home Purchaser" because they make 80% of the purchases in the family, and make them more often (More demand). If you are trying to compete with any of the MasterSmiths above for the mid to high end market for custom knives, then you had better be CERTAIN that you are making a product of that quality. Make knives for the cheaper market?-NO, you will tarnish your reputation for quality. A negative referral in business will turn away 10 or more potential customers. A good recommendation will produce 3 more. Why make blacksmithing home-use needs? Well, in my very short experience I have found that the majority of time for knives comes down to finishing. If you have something that takes a rough finish or no finish, then you just saved 90% of your time allowance. And you are usually buying cheaper materials than good knife steel for the item need. My next step is to ask Chat GPT what the most common household furniture searches are in my area, and try and fit that need. Then I will cut my shop time for knives in half and dedicate 50% of my time to making things that make me enough money to build out my shop to pursue the dedication to knives. I have spoken to guys like Wendell Bryenton who have moved out to even doing custom leatherwork for bags, hats because there was a need and they have accrued tools from knifemaking. Basically think of your knifeshop and tools like a "fabrication shop" and you will probably start making some side money. 

My "Why/Mission": When I was about 4-ish yrs old, I found a very stylish knife in my dads sock drawer. That gave me initial inspiration, then talking to my dad found out he made it. Now hooked, I found every knife and sword appealing and had a desire from all parts of our culture to have/make those things. At 16 made a knife, now have space as adult to do more. My family has a history with military service and armament and I find that making tools/weapons it makes me feel like I am still connected to the purpose of protecting freedom. I plan to hand down a fabrication/welding shop to my sons as a turnkey business they can turn to instead of traditional college, which is failing as an institution for its cost.

I wonder if people who do not have a strong "why" will be able fulfill the task of making knives overtime?

Respectfully
Michael

 
Posted : 03/04/2024 12:42 pm
Matthew Parkinson
Posts: 538
Honorable Member Journeyman Bladesmith (5yr)
 

Can you make a living in the craft.. yes , a good secure living .. maybe. 

1 tooling up allows higher profits as long as there is no debt to service. 

2 USA in a lot of ways is a Crap set up for self employment you will need health insurance and It will cost more than you can afford, Taxes , business  Insurance, filing fees all eat into your profit and work time. 

3 Production is not generally the issue it is sales and pricing that cause issues. 

4 There are Many routes to success JS- MS is one, but just getting to that level isn't a guarantee of success, many of the most financially successful makers I know don't belong and a bunch of the MS I know only make a comfortable living because of an outside income. 

I am full time my business pulls in enough I can live comfortably with  my wife's income , her med insurance is the only thing that has kept us solvent over the last ten years. It has taken me years to get to this point, we did Iron work out of the shop for years and that allowed us to build up the tooling, the tooling allowed us to expand our abilities and be profitable, Having good business partners also helped in this. 

Today around 40-50% of my income is teaching. 5-10% is tools, 5% is writing the and the remainder is knives and swords, how ever during covid I did ok on just knives tools and writing.. (good to know!) 

Teaching is not for everyone, and it is its own skill , it should not be looked on as a way to make ends meet. you do your self and your students a great disservice in doing so.  I see far to many teaching classes that should be taking the class they are teaching ..  at the least get insurance for teaching, and put together a safe space to teaching in.. 

I have been self employed since 1997, it sucks.. do not recommend, on the other had I cant quit making .. I have tried... after all this time I couldn't work for someone else.. think of me as a cautionary tale not a goal.. and I definitely have a wife with a good job.

MP

 
Posted : 03/04/2024 9:51 pm
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