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Jason Manville

Location: Madison
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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 5:34 pm    Post subject: Creative license vs Micro-management         Reply with quote

I have been struggling with the following question for the past several days. When doing a custom project, is it better to allow a lot of creative license for the sword maker or to approach it with more micro-management?

First a little bit of background information, I recently completed my first custom sword. I went into the project with the expectation of the custom sword being the crown jewel in my collection. On a scale of 1-10 I was expecting a 9 or 10, however the sword was closer to a 5. There were several areas that I thought could be improved.

• The scabbard seemed to be made of low quality leather. It seemed weak and almost like cardboard.
• The sword handle was rough and un-even.
• The sword lacked etching along the hilt and guard.
• The carrying case seemed low quality. The sword does not fit, seeming to shift and slide when I am carrying it.

As I thought about it further; I realized that I had allowed the sword maker a great deal of creative license while making the sword. I wondered if I had pushed harder for details, made specific details very clear and continued to follow up with the sword maker on a weekly basis, if the project had turned out differently. At the very least I would have different and more realistic expectations.

I do not expect this to be my last custom project, so the question that I have for the myArmoury community is when requesting a custom project do you think it is better to allow a lot of creative license or to take more of a micro-management approach?

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Nathan Robinson
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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 6:25 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I personally believe micro-management is disastrous. Here are my personal opinions on the matter:

Choose a professional based on what he has to offer. Does he understand the type of product you want? Does he show a track record of quality products? Does he show enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter? Has he enough background knowledge to create a successful product? etc. etc.

The key is to pick the right craftsperson for the right job and let him do the work. Micromanagement of a project is the same as having "too many cooks in the kitchen". That approach creates a watered down, non-succinct project and is prone to create a mishmash of junk.

Picking a person who doesn't have the ability to create a good end-product will result in a bad end-product. Yes, I do realize this sounds obvious but to many it is not. There are many who feel that as long as they are able to micromanage a less-than-adequate craftsperson, a good product will still result. This is nonsense. Bad craftspeople product mediocre products. Simple as that.

The next key is to communicate clearly what you want. Now, don't confuse this for me saying that you need to spec out every single detail, measurement, statistic, etc. Doing that is micromanagement and will, as I said, create a bad product. Instead, share the project concept with the craftsperson and create a dialog with him. Listen closely to how he participates in this conversation. Is he communicating well with you? Is he offering up ideas and input? Does he show that he "gets it"? Is he into it? Does he truly understand what the item is and what you want it to be?

Consider something else:

A craftsperson (swordmaker, tattoo artist, cabinet maker, furniture maker, seamstress, graphic artist, what have you) can be one of two things: 1) an artist who can come up with a concept and then successfully execute it based on the parameters given by the person commissioning the piece or 2) a production person who is to take a set of plans and do his best to create it without much thought or input of his own.

#1 (artists) will suffer if micromanaged, #2 (production people) almost definitely require it

There's nothing wrong with either of those categories, but please keep in mind that they each product distinctly different results. If a competent artist is chosen for #1, the items created by him will benefit from that person's knowledge, artistry, technique, experience, and passion. Items chosen in method #2 will product pieces only as good as the micromanager's ability to do proper research, make good decisions, and communicate them well combined with the craftsperson's understanding of technique.

So you have to ask yourself something when commissioning a piece:

What do you want?

Do you want a piece that is a product of the craftsperson's artistry, knowledge, technique, experience, and passion?

Or do you want a product that is a craftsperson's best attempt to create what an amateur has in mind? (Let's face it, if the people commissioning items aren't amateurs, we would be creating items ourselves.)

Two different approaches. Two different products.

For me, I choose a professional with care. I give him an idea of what I want, some initial parameters, and create a dialog about it. I get it to the point where I'm comfortable we're on the same page and I let go. I then let him do his work. That's what I'm paying him for. Otherwise, I'd learn to do it myself.

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J. Abernethy

Joined: 17 May 2009

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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 6:26 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I feel for you I really do, generally you wait a whole lot longer and pay alot more so its natural for your expectations to be high. I too was disappointed with a custom I waited almost 2 yrs for, this was a few years back and I wont mention names, but the maker wouldnt let me have any input. I told him what type of sword I wanted and that was about all the say he would give me.

Unfortunately in your case Im not sure if your keeping your finger on the pulse would have made a whole lot of difference because most of the issues you had were ones you would not have expected. Such as cheap leather, shotty etchings and a bad fit and finish. You wouldnt think to ask a custom smith to use "quality" leather. Just like you wouldnt say, "And make sure the scabbard fits the sword!".

This forum and SFI played a large part in my current custom. Thanks to the internet and forums like this one, I was able to hear from custom smiths, thier customers and see thier work. I hate to use the old saying you get what you pay for, but that rings true for me. I found a smith I trust, whos past work I love, and who was confident enough in his abilities to make me what I wanted. Because of the trust and friendship I have with him now I am ordering another sword next month and letting him be creative with it.
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Nathan Robinson
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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 6:32 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

J. Abernethy wrote:
Unfortunately in your case Im not sure if your keeping your finger on the pulse would have made a whole lot of difference

I think you nailed it here and so I'm responding to emphasize this part of what you said.

You're absolutely right.

Micro-management of a mediocre maker isn't going to make him better. This goes back to making the right choice as I said in my first post. I should add to that concept by stating that as a person commissioning a product, it's important to specify conditions, too. What happens if the product delivered isn't what was contracted? What defines a reasonable expectation of happiness with the product? What recourse does the contracted commission allow? These are all things considered in other businesses and certainly are something I take into account when I approach something like this.

For me, the makers I've gone custom with have been communicative with me and have created a system that is not very risky for me. Patrick Barta, for example, takes you onto his waiting list but takes no money. When your time has come, he contacts you and talks again about what you want. After agreeing on the item, he gets to work, still taking no money. At the end of it, or near the end, he shows some photos and asks if you're happy. If you are, you buy it. If you're not, you start a dialog and can discuss changes or even decide not to take it. This is one example of professionalism as a maker and, for me, is a great deciding factor on how to choose an appropriate maker in the first place.

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Jason Manville

Location: Madison
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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 6:52 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thank you both for your quick responses.

I did select a quality sword maker, in fact one of the best sword makers because I did want ".... a piece that is a product of the craftsperson's artistry, knowledge, technique, experience, and passion."

However I believe that I fell into the "trap of assumptions" "because most of the issues you had were ones you would not have expected."

Had I to do it over again I think I should have emailed him and asked, "What type of leather do you use for the scabbard? rather than assume that the scabbard would be the highest quality. Likewise I should have clearly specified what type of etching was on each part such as the hilt and guard rather than leave it at "etching on the sword". I do not think you should ever micro-manage an artist; but going forth I will certainly know what questions to ask on my next custom project.

I do not think that it is the sword makers fault but rather that I should have keep my "finger more on the pulse" and asked more questions.

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Brian K.
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Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 7:00 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If I may be allowed to chime in here. As an artisan, I don't like micro-managment. I prefer to be given a specific set of parameters, and then given the keys to drive the project home at my own pace. I consider what I do my art, and as an artist I love to have some ability to 'express' myself through my creativity. I like to think the customer's who come to me more than once do so because they love my 'art' and know with confidence my 'art' will impress them, again.

Ultimately, it's like Nathan said, you get one of two when it comes to craftsmen. Knowing which of the two types of craftsmen you have as a customer is important. What it boils down to is reputation, and seeing what you like consistantly with that particular craftsman. There are a few projects I've taken on with very specific information to be followed, but most of my customer's let me be self-creative with only a few requirements, and those are my favorite. I enjoy all of the scabbards I make, but the ones with specific parameter's are more stressful Wink

Brian Kunz
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Joe Fults

Location: Midwest
Joined: 02 Sep 2003

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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 8:01 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Unfortuntely, with this hobby, its seems like most of us end up with a few not so great experiences along the way while we learn what we want, and how to get it. There are few perfect smiths, and I suspect, even fewer perfect customers. Its also probably a mistake to approach anything as "dream sword" because the dream tends to evolve as people gain exposure to different products and types of swords.

Give your custom sword some time and you might come to appreciate some of the things you see as warts today. On the other hand, it may always cause you consternation and ultimately find no home in your collection. You only know with time.

"The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good." - Danah Boyd
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Jason Manville

Location: Madison
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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 8:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Good point Joe

Going forward I think I will:

1.) Add cardboard so the carry case holds the sword more firmly
2.) Just get use to the rough, un-even handle
3.) Maybe send it back to the sword maker and have him add more etching
4.) Have a custom scabbard made to replace the lower quality one

I am living and learn every day Happy

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Jean Thibodeau

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PostPosted: Mon 27 Jul, 2009 3:12 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Nathan Robinson wrote:

1) an artist who can come up with a concept and then successfully execute it based on the parameters given by the person commissioning the piece or 2) a production person who is to take a set of plans and do his best to create it without much thought or input of his own.

#1 (artists) will suffer if micromanaged, #2 (production people) almost definitely require it

Basically what Nathan said and I would decide on #1 or # 2 type maker depending on the nature of the project and how much of a firm idea I have of what the final product should look like or behave.

The type #2 micromanagement works only if one the maker is the kind that is willing to work this way and actually listens to the details you consider essential and actually understands your requests: This means good communication by both sides.

Even with good communication there are still going to be stuff you just didn't think to mention or discuss and have to hope the maker can fill in the blanks with stuff that works with the rest.

Unless you are very very knowledgeable the worse things to try and decide and impose on the maker are the handling qualities of a sword based on arbitrary dimensions that may not match reality when the thing goes from concept drawing to real physical 3D steel: A maker of good functional swords has to be trusted with this stuff.

Now a full micromanaged project becomes 100% your creativity and design knowledge and then becomes finding people to make the pieces to your exact specifications ! The ultimate for this would be CAD designing all the parts yourself. Wink Laughing Out Loud

Oh, true micro managing would be to be there every day and approving the day's work before the next day of work continued ...... not very practical and try finding an artist/maker that this wouldn't drive crazy. Razz Laughing Out Loud

Each project can have a different level of detail that one considers essential going from the extremes of " I like your work make me one a bit like ....... " to here is exactly what I want down to 1/10,000 of an inch tolerances: One is a commission for artists in steel, the other for subcontracting parts for NASA for a Moon lander. Wink Big Grin Cool

Oh, and money up front without a good track record for the maker of being able to deliver on projected delivery times or at least really good communication when delays happen, as they always seem to happen, is very important to avoid frustration or disappointment. There are a lot of talented makers out there but fewer who are also good time managers who communicate proactively with their customers and can finish a project at no more than 2X the estimated delivery time !

When there is no money paid up front delays or at worse non-delivery of the product in reasonable time is " No harm No foul " as far as I'm concerned. ( Some disappointment maybe, but a lot less than when a fully paid up sword never seems to get finished or the maker is almost impossible to reach ! Won't go into details here, but these things do happen unfortunately ).

NOTE: Let's say that 9 out of 10 of my custom experiences have been good to O.K. but 1 out of 10 becomes a write off or a SNAFU of delayed or never delivered aggravation. A few have been really great experiences though. Big Grin

You can easily give up your freedom. You have to fight hard to get it back!
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Stephan Johansson

Location: Borås Sweden
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PostPosted: Mon 27 Jul, 2009 7:27 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Would it be possible to see a picture of the sword, no names mentioned?
It could be that the sword is very nice, but your expectations has been for another style/design.

I do think that you are right in your opinions but its still difficult to evaluate the issues without seeing them.

I think that a good track record and to see other swords by the same maker is the best way to chose artist and it seems that you have done that.

Best Regards
Stephan Johansson

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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Mon 27 Jul, 2009 8:09 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think Nathan summed it up well. You have to pick a smith you feel will do a good job on that particular project.

There are some smiths I wouldn't consider for certain projects, though they'd be great for others. It all depends on what I want. If it's a piece I want replicated fairly exactly, that's one group of smiths. If I want a unique, but plausible piece "in the style" of a certain historical piece (or pieces), that's a different set of people. Some smiths and customers get great joy out of exacting copies of historical pieces. Some smiths and customers don't want to be constrained (partially or fully depending on the smith) by history.

I've heard of/seen customers putting together exacting drawings and/or specifying many measurements beforehand. Some decide on a POB they'd prefer and ask that the smith make that happen. I think some of that is dangerous. A decent smith might be able to hit that POB or other stat, but that doesn't mean they made a good sword. They might have to compromise on overall mass distribution to hit that POB. A good smith who has done their homework should know what an appropriate range is for stats for a given style of sword and be able to make a sword accordingly.

I've commissioned a number of custom knives over the years. Most have been great. One has been particularly disappointing. I probably didn't choose the right smith in retrospect. The woodwork was pretty amateurish and didn't capture a historical feel nor even the feel of a nicely made modern knife. I chose based on price and some bad pics I'd seen on the net. I knew the work was branded rustic, but didn't full understand what that meant, I guess. My problem.

Two other knives/daggers necessitated the smith making a second version because I wasn't happy with the first. Both were by different smiths and both were to be based on particular historical pieces. In both cases, I didn't send anything more than the info I had on the originals which included overall length. In both cases, they pretty much hit the overall length but missed on other proportions.

One of the smiths took a harder look at the original and came up with specs that would keep it in proportion. The final (second) product is very nice. For the other project/smith, I came up with the specs based on proportions in the photo and the final product is great. In this latter case, I made sure to tell the smith that I wasn't looking for exact-to-the-millimeter faithfulness at all, but just wanted to show him specs from the original so he had a better idea of the proportions (blade length to blade width, pommel width to height, etc.). The smith told me later that he thought the second was a better replica, but he liked the first one better. Happy The first combined inspiration from the original and some creative license of his own. It was a nice piece; I just wanted something closer to the original.

My preference is for historical replicas based on documented pieces. I'll send the smith whatever info I have, but I don't expect them to copy it down to the millimeter. I do expect appropriate handling for the type, clean fit and finish, and general shapes and proportions that reflect the original.

On to your sword. Some thoughts/questions:

1) Was the sword supposed to have etching on the hilt (ie. was this specified in your discussions/contract)? If it was and didn't end up with it, then the smith didn't complete the project. Send it back to be fixed. If it wasn't specified in your discussions but you expected it based on other work you've seen, that probably falls on you. If you said, "make me a sword like this one on your website" (which is etched) or you specified etching in your discussions and they didn't do it, that's on them.
2) Low-quality leather on the scabbard. Did you ask the smith about the scabbards beforehand? Had you seen any reports (good or bad) on them on online forums? Maybe it's just dry and can be conditioned. Was the scabbard included in the price or did you pay extra for it?
3) Rough and uneven handle. What do you mean by this? Sharp edges on metal pieces? Coarse wood-work? Bad wire wrap? If you commissioned the project from a smith known for clean work, you may have received a lemon and should think about sending it back. If you commissioned it from some of the lower-cost smiths more known for rustic, cheap work, you may be stuck with it.
4) Loose carrying case. Since you didn't call it a scabbard, I assume it's not a scabbard. Happy So what is it? If you specified you wanted something protective for frequent carrying, a loose case isn't acceptable. If you're just carrying it around in the shipping materials it came in, that's different.

I will qualify the above by saying that if you commissioned a rough piece like what a peasant might have owned, you may have received what you ordered. If you chose a low-cost rustic smith, you may have received what you ordered.

Some pics and more info might be helpful. You don't have to give the smith's name unless you want to, but pics, more description and the approx. price you paid would be helpful.


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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Mon 27 Jul, 2009 8:44 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Although it doesn't sound like this is the case here, I suspect that some folks want custom handwork that looks machine-perfect. It's hard to get past this very modern expectation, but many fine swords in museums have what many today would consider to be unacceptable imperfections. Part of choosing a smith/cutler is faith that his knowledge and experience with antiques will result in a piece that, although not "perfect" by modern standards, is within historical parameters.

I'm with Nathan on this point: It's a mistake to think we can educate under-skilled smiths/cutlers. The maker should be the teacher in this relationship. I currently have a piece in commission, and I know it's going to surprise me and teach me in some way.

I had some great food last week, and I think it's an analogous experience. I wanted a certain kind of food so I went to a restaurant I know serves that food and is highly regarded. The choice of what to eat was my own, but I didn't tell the chef, "I want this with extra onions and that sauce on the side, and this with less pepper, etc." He's one of the best chefs in the country, so I have faith that he's going to give me something great and teach me about subtle flavor combinations. I know I'm going to savor my EBE Katzbalger as surely as I savored those roasted sweet peppers with goat cheese, pinenuts, capers and sultanas. Big Grin


"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)

Last edited by Sean Flynt on Mon 27 Jul, 2009 9:56 am; edited 1 time in total
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Ben Potter
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PostPosted: Mon 27 Jul, 2009 9:36 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As a maker I prefer it when a customer tells me what they want and expect (i.e. engraving, carving, temper, size, PRICE) and then I can work with that information and give them an idea of how I would execute the piece. Once the particulars are settled I like to be able to make the piece as I see fit making small changes ti improve the balance or feel of the piece.

Also having the freedom to (with the client's permission) change the design in the process to make the piece better overall is great (" you know, I can go ahead and make this with the two piece upper-guard/pommel instead of the one piece, and I think that adding some runes here would improve the piece).

The main thing is to know what your expectations are and be sure that the smith knows, then be open to small changes and minor differences. I don't know any smith who would intentionally change a design because they thought it would make it a worse piece.

basically what Nathan and the others said.

One last thing you WILL get what you pay for, think about how long it would take you to make the piece you want and multiply by the wage you would like to earn add materials and tooling cost and tax (think withholding, self-employment tax, business licenses, etc) and decide if it is a fair price.

Sorry if I rambled a bit.

Ben Potter Bladesmith

It's not that I would trade my lot
For any other man's,
Nor that I will be ashamed
Of my work torn hands-

For I have chosen the path I tread
Knowing it would be steep,
And I will take the joys thereof
And the consequences reap.
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