Advice for the struggling craftsman: Make a nail. 05/03/16

Craftsmen don’t always get to choose their work.  One of my most favorite things in the world is to unlock the door to my shop and turn on the lights. However, I’d be lying if I told you that I approach every job with the same zeal. But isn’t that just life sometimes? Despite having less enthusiasm for some jobs than others, you as a craftsman must keep two things in mind: know that what you’re creating, even as mundane as it may seem is a one-of-a-kind, but most importantly, make a nail.

Blacksmiths back in the day were the go-to craftsman for any and all jobs: fences, gates, hinges, brackets, wagon wheels, weaponry, you name it. Most also served as town farriers, making and shoeing horses at local liveries. They continually found a niche and filled it. But when the high paying jobs weren’t available, blacksmiths had to stick to their guns to make ends meet by manufacturing the one thing everyone always needed: nails. In the late 1700s nails were primarily made in England, often leaving the American Colonies to their own means. There are even stories demonstrating their profound value that as families would move, they would burn down their homes just to retrieve the nails. Now that may sound pretty dramatic, and as simple as a nail may be, it was an irreplaceable commodity that would allow an industrious frontiersman to build a home and forge a life for himself.

One day, I was at lunch with my mother.  We were sitting there in this wholesome restaurant garnished with vintage ski photos and equipment, common to a mountain town establishment. We had just ordered our food and drinks, and as my mother was talking to our waitress I overheard an exchange from another table as the customers were brought their beverages. A man had just been given his drink, a Moscow Mule, in a glass, and he no longer wanted the drink as it was not served in a copper mug. It dawned on me that he didn’t even want the drink in the first place; he just wanted the experience of the mug. And there it was, I just had to figure out how to make one.

I started researching if it could be done. After I had developed a plan, I then began designing the mug. I wanted it to look and feel like something made in a garage. Something eye-catching and raw. Something that looked like it was used to barter and trade, like nails once were. A cup fit for a bootlegger, a blacksmith. I bought some reclaimed pipe from a salvaged house in Detroit, some copper rivets, and used some scrap steel from the shop for the handle. I had had a brief lesson in soldering, but like most of the projects in the workshop, it was a total experiment.

What resulted were several batch evolutions until I got it just right. The process to make them is tedious, monotonous, and after I’m done I can barely make a fist. But after I polish the mugs and package them in straw, I can’t help but appreciate their distinct beauty and character. They’re the only things I’ve mass-produced. They’ve helped me reinvest in my business and buy new and better tools, materials, and further my craft. So my advice for the struggling craftsman: make a nail, in the metaphorical sense. Find a niche that only you can fill.