What do you make and sell, and what goes into that decision?
My wife, Melissa, and I run a blacksmith shop that specializes in high-end homestead tools. Many of our tools are based on old, time-tested patterns. We spend time with the hand-forged tools in our garden at home before they go into production. We commonly make three or four prototypes before we settle on a design. And in deciding what to create, we rely on a combination of customer feedback and our own personal experience.
For much of our work, there is no replacement for hand-forging tools at the anvil. For larger projects, we employ some basic power equipment. The power hammer and press allow me to work faster and longer but can’t replace skill. Without a solid foundation of how to forge and how to move material, a power hammer will just wreck your piece faster.
How and when did you learn to blacksmith?
I grew up in the hot shop. My great-grandfather was a traveling preacher, photographer, and blacksmith. My dad was a welder and machinist, and he did some forge work as a hobby. I became interested in forging around age 15, when I was in a Civil War re-enactment group. This led me to make the metal bits of my kit. Soon, I was making picket pins, simple forks, and knives for other re-enactors. Many years later, when aviation maintenance jobs became hard to find, I took a job in a production forge. That rekindled my old flame for forging, and I haven’t looked back since.
Did you have to work an additional job during this transition?
No, we just went for it. We cashed out our life savings to buy our home and blacksmith shop. We didn’t have a mortgage to pay, but those first couple of years were nip and tuck. In lieu of working outside jobs to get by, we just buckled down, put in a big garden, and did lots of canning and deer hunting. We got good at doing without.
We’ve worked hard and had a fair amount of success. Even so, frugal living has allowed us to put our small profits back into expanding the business.
On your website, you say you “live the life.” Can you explain what that means to you?
We enjoy our rural (some might say remote) lifestyle. We chose the Ozarks for the moderate, four-season climate; boundless outdoor recreation; and property prices we could afford. In our hearts, we strive to be completely self-sufficient on our little 10-acre patch, and we try to grow, gather, or hunt for our food. The reality is, we still need some money to get by. As our homestead tool business has grown, traveling to sell and promote our tools keeps us on the run and doesn’t allow for daily care of livestock. We have yet to get a good fence up around our place so we can raise a few animals. For now, we live the homestead lifestyle as much as time allows, but the business has to come first.
Who has influenced you?
Our top influence is our customers. We love the chance to get out and meet them firsthand and hear about how they use our tools. We listen to what’s working for them and what’s not. Every time we come home from a show, I have a handful of ideas for new products and improvements to existing products.
Second on the list is Greg Key at Hoss Tools. Greg has become a good friend and mentor. I can’t put a price on his insight and experience in the tool business.
What have been your biggest challenges in running a business?
Time and money. It takes both to get the word out. Even if you’re making great stuff, you’ll find yourself sitting on a big pile of great stuff if no one knows you exist. In our case, we’re a manufacturer and a retailer. Those are two very different hats to wear. Because of past work experience, the manufacturing side came easy. Being a retailer is an altogether different matter. Some of our retail plans have worked well, but others, not so much. All of our retail plans require a certain gamble, which is hard to make when you’re being pulled in many different directions.
What advice can you offer anyone interested in starting a business?
Look for an underserved niche, and be flexible! The response to our hand-forged tools has been outstanding. But not so much for other product lines, so our focus has had to shift.
Do what you love, but be realistic about the demand for your product and what you’re willing to get in return for your labor.
I suspect many readers are like us, wanting that rural life with one foot in the tech world to make a go at a home-based business. For us, our location dictates satellite internet only. In hindsight, this is a poor and expensive option for running an online business. We lose our satellite signal on stormy days, when we naturally want to be inside working on the website. Limited bandwidth means we can’t take advantage of many low-cost marketing options.
You’ve been vendors at several MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. What do you hear most often from our readers?
The MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS are our bread and butter. They give us a chance to market directly to our target demographic. We’ve worked many other events, but with limited success. MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers grasp the difference between high-quality tools and those available at big-box stores. They understand that you get what you pay for.
Amanda Sorell is an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. She lives in Seattle with a lively collection of houseplants and cats. Look for her at the Oregon MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS.