The Hard Reality of Economies of Scale:

Firstly – thanks to Aiden Wachter and his article on Economies of Scale. Here is my bent on a similar theme that all artists have to endure.
There are many times that people look at my work and they are very keen to have said item. The I tell them the price and they go quiet. They give you that quiet yet polite stare that says: “Holy S**t!” Some go as far as to say – “That’s too expensive” . . .to which I reply – “Expensive for what good Sir?  What you are looking at is hot cast bronze that takes weeks to fashion, a great deal of resources and effort – so what exactly do you think you are paying for?”
It is at this point in my writing that its very difficult NOT to go into <RANT MODE> on paper when I have spent several weeks fashioning an item from whiteboard, building the mould, casting it in wax, cleaning it up, mounting it on a casting cup, shelling it up over no less than 12 coats, all of which have to dry, burning out the mould, filling said mould with hot bronze metal, breaking the mould, clipping the item off the cup, cleaning it, polishing it, repairing it if necessary, and then going through the patina process and so forth . . . . . . . . .and they say it’s too expensive.
Unfortunately the term is meaningless and I’ll tel you for why.
There is a discussion and sometimes people immediately get it. They understand. There are a minority however and I will call them out right here and now – who will always want it cheaper – so you test them, make it cheaper and they want it even cheaper – so you cut the price past your ability to actually make it and they want it cheaper – the reality is they don’t actually want to buy it – they are just 1) Taking the piss, 2) Pissed off that someone can produce this and they can’t. 3) They just think they’re being clever and are of the ilk that everything should be free actually.
Rest assured I have tested this at length when people say they can get it cheaper – then you check with them a week later and no they still haven’t bought it. The point being you had an individual keen on scoring points – who had no intention of ever going to market.
It’s a difficult topic to engage in as it’s just not British to talk about money, but I’d like a point to refer people to, and also to post it as a shout out to all the other artists out there.
There’s this thing about the modern world that values nothing and still tries to put a price on everything. It is a mindset that is inherently anti-art and anti-craft, certainly anti-skill, and it’s about getting the ‘best price’ for everything. This is fostered by centralised large scale production (usually outsourced to countries where labour is cheap and labour rights/laws/ethics minimal or nonexistent). The idea being that what you can mass-produce gets cheaper with essentially every ‘unit’ you move, so you can sell each ‘unit’ for less, sell more ‘units’, and thus make your money via moving a shed load of ‘units’. This is the concept/reality of ‘economy of scale’.
I for one am in a market that deals with a hard to get material/product – something that has not faced commoditisation – that being hot cast bronze. BUT I have done my level best to productionise my process to bring costs down.  I listen to my customers – I develop my process, streamline the production and my customers face price drops where I can. None the less there are still the people that think they can get it cheaper. I say all power to them. If you want Bronze, then you will pay for it. If you want customisation you will pay for it, and if you want resin, well that’s cool too. I can’t help you.
“In microeconomics, economies of scale are the cost advantages that enterprises obtain due to size, output, or scale of operation, with cost per unit of output generally decreasing with increasing scale as fixed costs are spread out over more units of output. Often operational efficiency is also greater with increasing scale, leading to lower variable cost as well.”
If you have seen where people complain about their jobs ‘being shipped overseas’, that’s because of economy of scale.
Another form that economy of scale this takes is small scale mass production. In jewellery manufacture, this is done via casting for the most part, and to a lesser extent by Droids – essentially programmed machines. Here in Britain such production invariably relies on mass production of components overseas where they are then assembled in the UK. There is NO getting away from it.
As I always must say when I talk about casting, this stuff is lovely – and there’s a lot out there you can achieve with regards to casting jewellery but there’s a solid reason why I am not in that market – economies of scale – it is pointless me producing a ring that takes me a week to make – even in volume – when Alibaba can turn it out for £3.99 with free shipping from China. It’s really that simple. I am in a market that is aggressive so I must find my niche. This I have done and the work I produce is unique. Rarely do I produce more than a few of the same item and as such the customer can be assured that everything that comes out of my workshop is unique.
There is nothing else like it on Planet Earth.
I do not stake’m high, and sell’em cheap. This is not my creed – I am not in the market of producing cheap tat. I make this stuff the best I can, and I make it to last. I produce items that exists nowhere else. You can be assured that the one you have is part of a very select few that exist, or is essentially unique.
So when people tell me they can get it cheaper – really? – where?, And it won’t be Bronze: of that I can assure you.
I think the thing to remember here is that: yes, a great deal of the time you can find exactly what you are after online if you look hard enough – spend a few pennies on it and all is well. Hell, I’ll even source the darned thing for you and ship it through the company as a means to keep the cost down – but when it comes to bronze – there is no such luxury.
Lets talk about the process I engage in. In wax casting of smaller items such as rings, pendants and such, a model is made in any of a variety of ways, which can be a one-off thing- usually done only for high end precious metal handfasting/evocation/ritual rings and such- but more usually with the intention of using that model for high volume future reproductions. So at the risk of repeating myself –  the artist fashions the original model by whatever means. After that, wax reproductions of the model are made, and then these are cast in metal. This might be done one at a time, ten at a time, or in the case of true mass production, thousands. Once the casting is complete, there is a clean-up and polishing process to bring the piece to the desired finish. This is often done also in a large – or – small scale mass finishing environment. Usually this involves machine processes that involve a variety of abrasive media that are graduated from coarse to fine until the item is brought to a fairly high finish. This may then be finished by hand to bring the item to its final polish
Again – this is not my creed – I’ve worked in this kind of (small) production environment. It is soul destroying. There is utterly no life in it what so ever. Ergo I seek to contract that sort of work out.
The end game of mass production? A shed load of shiny bits that are very pretty that meet the endless consumerist hunger of the free-prefect-now-generation that will lose interest in it as soon as the fashion changes.
This is not what I do.
This kind of production is in and of itself not a bad thing. It means that anyone can afford a nice piece of shiny bling for five to ten quid, or indeed as far as hundreds of pounds. Yes, there is a shed load of mass produced jewellery and statuary out there that sells for close to or more than what mine does. But mostly it’s on the cheaper end of things. Its likely to be made of Resin, – its fragile, and it has no life in it.
This is not what I do. This is not in my creed.
One of the harder realities of working by hand is the massive swing we tend to face daily between pure narcissism, and crippling self-doubt. A great deal of ourselves go into our work.  Because of this self-doubt means that we tend to under value ourselves. This is a reality in all of the arts and crafts. The reality is that there is no -reasonable- way to value your work in relation to mass production, if you are working by hand. But people do this all the time. Depending on my mood it can ruin my day, so I try not to think about it much. It’s not really OK to sell yourself and your art so short that you can compete with something produced in immense volume by people earning essentially nothing but survival rations. It means working for less than minimum wage.  It matters not if you are selling paintings vs. selling prints, or selling knitted goods vs. machine knit product. Product is that which is produced en masse. Product is what is sold by the unit. Craft is an entirely different beastie. As such a creature, it needs to be treated appropriately, especially (in my mind at least) by it’s maker(s).
Craft is about art. And art is about your very spirit. It is about a correctness and rightness with the universe. It has to be “Right”. There is a soul-truth in the ‘actual’ item that is simply not there in the reproduction.  So another way of looking at this is: all I sell is original artwork.
Each piece is different, no matter what I do. Because it is all hand work. The quality of a particular file is reflected in a particular cut. The quality of my mind & spirit are reflected in each piece. I will reject pieces for all sorts of aesthetic reasons, one of them being that they are imperfect. I don’t work when I can’t bring what’s needed to the bench. I have tossed a great many items reaching the end of the process because they were simply wrong. They go back into the crucible to be melted down and obliterated once and for all.
There are simple things that my production process adheres to:
  • It must be well made
  • It must be of a good and well thought out design
  • There must be an Attention to detail
  • And of course, it is hand crafted
and most importantly, especial in the realm of magical items:
  • These items are made with love & devotion. A great deal of my work is what some of us call – Our Karma Job.  You will note a great deal of my art has a particular leaning. That is for a reason. I started this game because I had a debt, and in doing this I meet that debt.
This effects my wider craft working and enables me to “Keep pure to your highest ideal, strive ever towards it”.
It’s the reason why I take my time. People ask: Alec when are you going to get that Odin statue done, when are you going to finish that really big Hecate Bust you’ve been talking about – and I cannot explain the process of just getting it out of my head in a respectable manner  – the last thing I need is to have to invest in well earthed copper roofing because I managed to annoy a Deity by producing something that looks like an armed Santa.
Also – my mind has very little creative drive – I can look at a design, or a thing and copy it exceptionally well. Original art work is tough for me and takes a long time and a lot of effort to bring into the world. As such:
My workshop is holy ground.  All that know me know this.
Here I work steel, and gold, and silver and bronze. Here I fashion leather and Bone. Here I set Gems and work wood.  This is where I work my craft. This is where in my quiet way I pay fealty to the Old Ones.
My workshop is a dangerous place.
This is where I have to take my time. This is where I realise there are times in my life where I could not afford my own work.  But I also realise that where I do sell I am selling to the same mindset that has realised as all workers of Magick do – We have opposeable thumbs.
When I first dip the wax blank into the slurry to build its first coat – there is always that strong chance it will all go south. The metal won’t pour right, the mould will crack, and a million other things that can go wrong. It all comes down to the hard reality of that first impact by the hammer after the cast has cooled. The shell comes off and all is revealed.
What’s it going to look like – is all the detail there, did the burn out complete properly.
When I pull the shell off and start clearing away the covering on the bronze then it all comes to light and you know any mistakes will stand out. When I mean stand out I mean TAA-DAA-HERE-I-AM!! – and being the perfectionist I am – I cannot let that stand.
So I poured 12 statues last week – and six of them did not make muster. That’s 6 more I need to make – and “Make-it-cheaper-Guy” doesn’t realise I have already factored in this failure rate into the overall cost of the item to produce . . . .but they have no money because . . . .but have cash for gas, for fags, for beer. I digress.
It means a few well selected cuss words when the work is wrong.  The Bronze goes back into the crucible to be recycled again.  2 Weeks work down the crapper – >BOOM< do not pass go, do not collect any housekeeping. Do continue listening to someone bitching about how it’s too expensive because you might get an insight onto how you can in fact do it cheaper – and hey – they may have a saleable skill you can barter so everyone is happy.
(Yes I barter – damned right when someone turns up with a boot load of old naval bronze bits and bobs. As long as its legal – we can talk.)
But when its good – its very very good. The polish then makes it all the better. The patina seals its rightness, and I finish it with beeswax to polish and protect.
It’s a journey where things can go wrong at any point. Like life you accept, you learn, you move on. Unless the mistakes are spectacular and you’ve set fire to the workshop or have managed to dump 5 kilos of molten bronze on the workshop floor, burning everything, in its wake as it cools from 1200 degrees centigrade. These moments give us pause as we consider the perils of such work, and the fact that you now need new boots but all your toes are still intact. Every moment is a blessing.
So people, when you say – It’s too expensive I respect that. But it’s also the reason you don’t buy a Porche, and like me drive some poxy little KIA Picanto. Yes I would like the Porche, I really would, but imagine me going to the Porche dealer and going: “But look I have this money and I really really really want a Porche . . . .I know its only a fraction of the cost of a Porche but if I wish and whinge enough will you give it to me?”  That’s exactly what its like when people pull that routine with me. Every single hour I put into a karma job, or a freebie for a mate is time I am not earning to feed my kids. That’s the hard cold truth of it. Essentially expecting me to bleed myself for your gratification is an affront to any modicum of respect you say you have for me. It’s a slap in the face. The thing is, and this is really important.  I get a real kick out of producing something for my mates – and they not only like it but can actively use it. It validates me, but I still have to measure that between actually earning something to meet my abiding need to eat. One last point which I hope will bring this home:
The set-up fees for any new job in ANY business tend to be big. It means retooling the workshop in some cases. It means making moulds from scratch. There is no magical process here where I wave my magic wand and all that stuff is covered. Even going to China and subcontracting out a run, you will pay hundreds of US Dollars to set the production run up – then will have to charge according to that cost plus your overhead, plus shipping, plus Taxes plus plus plus – and the ONLY way to make it pay is through economies of scale.
My Setup Costs tend to run between £150 – 300 GBP in time, motion, materials.
And you want it for a tenner. . . . .seriously?
I hope this clarifies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: