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The Journey of a Craftsman

The craftsman’s journey is one that can be exhausting with no reward in sight if one is not careful.  I think it is important a person approaches the journey very carefully and has their mind in the right place.  That is the hardest part of what I do. Maybe I shouldn’t say the hardest, but it is what I continually work to achieve.  With this mental game in place, I want to walk you through some thoughts of searching for excellence as a craftsman and crossing the threshold into art.

There are five areas a craftsman must think about that I believe are very important.  These aren’t the only things of course, but I think they should be high on the list. Education, exposure, customer relations, pricing, and long term thinking or goal setting are my topics for today.  Each one of these could have an entire article to themselves, but I want to hit some high spots and maybe give you a window into my world.

I will start with education.  Often, as I meet other craftsman, they offer up how long they have been making bits and spurs or whatever.  Sometimes much longer than me.  The thing I notice is they really haven’t tried to educate themselves to grow much in that time.  Yes, education is expensive and time consuming, two things most craftsman don’t have, money and time.  It’s very scary to ask for a critique, but you must.  Not from just anyone, but from those people you respect and admire.  Pick out a few people that you want to model yourself from and see what they think about your work.  Be careful in your choosing because 10 minutes of bad advice can cost you 10 years of your career.

In your journey of education don’t be afraid to explore.  It makes it fun to try something new to me.  Failure is always a possibility and that can really sting sometimes.  No one wants to look bad.  It’s during these times of failure that you will learn the most and remember it!  Don’t worry you will get a lot of free advice when you mess up.  It’s ok though.  I will testify that you will survive, and if you learn from it you come out better on the other side.

Honest evolution of yourself and your work is maybe the most important here.  You listen to others, explore and then look and see what you have accomplished.  Some will say you are great, some will say you’re terrible and you’re doing it all wrong.  You must look at it and determine where you are for yourself.  Compare yourself to the greats.  They pulled their britches on just like you, one leg at a time.

The most important ingredient to surviving this journey of education is toughness.  This isn’t for the weak.  You won’t get there easily and as matter of fact, you will never get there when it comes to education.  It is a journey, not a destination.  It never ends, but that is the fun part.  Enjoy the ride and see how good you can get.  You will surprise yourself.

The next leg of this journey since you have become the best, according to your loved ones anyhow, is exposure.  You can be the best, but if no one knows you, it’s not going to work very good.  Exposure is also going to tie back into education too.  Inspiration comes with exposure.

You have to get out of the shop and go to shows.  Yes we spend 360 of the 365 days in our shop hiding from the world, but you must overcome the fear of people.  You have to put yourself out there. They don’t bite, and in truth, they really want to put a face to the name that everyone is talking about.  They want to see your story, your message, that you have displayed for them to see.

I have been told truthfully you can die of over exposure also.  No, you can’t go to everything.  Pick your shows that best suit you and help you portray your work.  They don’t have to sell your work, always a plus, but they do need to introduce us to people.  Contacts are the foundation of our success.  That can be in our education and in our business survival.

So now you are out in the world showing what you do and the challenge of getting along with the world has surfaced!  These people are telling me how I am doing it wrong and how I should do it for them, but all you want is for them to buy your work.  They should just ask you to build what you want and they should like it!  Wrong!  It doesn’t work that way.  They have a story and it’s your job to help them tell it.  Now do you have some perimeters that you have to stand for? Absolutely.  It’s your name that goes on the piece.  You can’t just sell yourself out because of a sale.  Stand up for yourself and do what you believe is right for you.  Now be very careful, you don’t want to insult the customer and start something that will spread in the market place like arrogance.  That is hard to overturn.

You must articulate your thoughts and allow the customer to have a say in the telling of their story.  You must work together to share in the story of the West.  If you can allow your customer to be a part of the story, they will take ownership in the piece and have an affection for what your created that is priceless.  That is what you are looking for.

Have I had to compromise on some things?  Sure.  I have created some things that I didn’t like.  My customers were happy though.  This journey isn’t all about me and my craft.  Incorporate your customer into the journey so that they can tell their story as well.  Together the story of the West will be told.  You can make suggestions and hopefully direct them into something that everyone can be proud of.  As I said earlier, there are limitations you must stand for.  Determine those and then gracefully keep customers away from them and help them create something beautiful.

Now, uh oh, we have come to the hard part.  You have become good enough to sell something and you are making friends in the market place.  Awesome, but now they want to know how much this masterpiece is going to cost!  “Ummm, I don’t know.  Can I tell you when I am done?”  Boy I sure wish it worked that way.  It doesn’t though.  No matter how much the budget is, everyone has a budget.  You have to stay within that budget and do your job in those perimeters.

One thing I notice a lot of is that craftsman have no idea what it takes to keep the doors open to their shop.  You have a budget too.  You need to make a certain amount of money for your time in order to continue doing what you love.  You have to determine that.  I can’t say what you are worth or even how much it takes for you to survive.  That is up to you to figure out, but you must.  If you don’t you will be inconsistent which is terrible in the marketplace.  Customers want to think they got the same shake as the next guy.

Since we don’t get to set our price at the end of the day, we must determine how long it is going to take before we start.  I used to whine about this but then I realized the world plays by this rule so why shouldn’t I?  If you are going to build a new shop you kind of want to know how much it is going to cost right?  That contractor has to bid the job.  You have to do the same.

In order to do this consistently you must keep records.  I have a record of my pieces and how long it took to create them.  A customer shows up and says “You remember that bit you made for so and so?  I want one like it.”  I have a record that I can go back to and properly bid the next one.  I will pad a bid usually and explain to my customer if it doesn’t come to that much I will only charge what it takes.  It gives me a little room to explore and make it just a little better, which most appreciate.  If I go over then it’s on me.  Not their fault I was slow.  Finish the job with integrity if you go over the bid!  Very important.  I will share with my customer the actual price because if they call next week and want another they will pay the actual price.

Pricing isn’t easy and I don’t have a formula that will work for everyone.  I go by time and materials.  I can look anyone in the eye and say you owe me….  Everyone is treated exactly the same.  I build trust that way and at times I am actually allowed to price at the end of the day.  My customers know I won’t take advantage of them.  If they let me go, within a budget of course, I will create something special for them.  That is my dream scenario.

Well, here you are clicking along creating beautiful work and getting paid for it.  Awesome!  The family is happy and you don’t have a “real job”, only working 14 hour days to prevent getting one.  One last pitfall to bring up is we often get to thinking just about today.  How can I fill my budget today?  If a craftsman’s hands aren’t moving we are losing money.  Your banker will come to realize this and be very comfortable sharing this knowledge with you!  Good for them because you need that. However, sometimes you need to think about tomorrow too. Just like the exposure thing, working on the future sometimes means doing something other than creating another masterpiece.  What about tomorrow?  What are you going to do?  Yes you have plenty of work probably, but better work that pays better is a common goal for any company.  We aren’t exempt from this.

I don’t have all answers here as I too am exploring tomorrow.  There is no way for me to know what tomorrow holds and if I think about it too much, I’ll crawl back into my hole/shop.  It takes courage and you have to believe tomorrow will work out.  Take care of today but be thinking about building tomorrow.  How can more people learn about my art?  How can I help tell the story of the West better?  Are there ways to market and advertise this journey?

I often have half my year’s work in one show. The results of these shows can be very important!  If things don’t sell, it is a little difficult to run a successful business.  I have experienced both angles, a sell out and a shutout basically.  Don’t forget tomorrow will come and you will have an opportunity to do it again.  I survived near shutouts and hopefully learned some things, but why they didn’t sell is not one of them.  Who knows, but if you are running a business set up for success and have a little faith, great things will happen.  It is fun actually.  I am on an adventure that I hope will never end.