Poor Boy Blacksmith

Using modern technology to promote an ancient craft's tools

June 13, 2006
By: Bob Nichols

Generations ago blacksmiths served long apprenticeships and acquired the knowledge to make their own tools. Today blacksmithing often is pursued by untrained hobbyists who need economical tools. This article is about a seasoned blacksmith who uses his skills to make tools and then markets them using the latest technology.

Ken Scharabok, on left, shows a young student
and his father, right, the basics of
good fire management with a coal forge.

Unique among the ancient craftsmen, blacksmiths could make their own tools. Because they had years of apprenticeship training, most blacksmiths had the skills necessary to fabricate their own tools before they actually needed them to start their own smithies.

As blacksmithing enjoys a renaissance among amateurs and hobbyists, modern-day smiths must begin their endeavors without the requisite skills. While many "newbies" join local smithing organizations, where they receive some training, most begin without so much as a hammer and a set of tongs. Professional tools usually are priced beyond the means of most beginners, and this is where Ken Scharabok saw an opportunity—an opportunity that merged his skills rooted in ancient times with modern-day technology.

Early Exposure to Blacksmithing

"My earliest recollection of seeing a blacksmithing forge in operation is when I was about 5 years old," said Scharabok. "My parents purchased a shop in Allenton, Wis., that then made silage chopper boxes. It was a traditional blacksmith shop turned general vehicle repair shop turned small manufacturing shop. I recall seeing my father use the forge to heat metal for bending. I was fascinated by the process."

Scharabok, who has an M.B.A. from Florida State University, is a retired civil servant—a former financial analyst for the U.S. Air Force. He also is the author of "How to Make Extra Money in the Country," a subject he knows well. He makes his home in the gently rolling hills of west central Tennessee, where he has his farm and a small shop. Here he works a few hours daily making blacksmith tools that he sells on his eBay® store, Poor Boy Blacksmith Tools.

Despite their reputation for being industrious,
most smiths really like sitting in the shade.

Scharabok clearly enjoys pure blacksmithing, but making tools beginner hobbyists can afford is his defining purpose. He has built his own versions of a propane-fired forge and a pneumatic air hammer. His storefront also sells various tongs, hammers, hardy tools, forges, and even a few anvils (which he does not make). These tools are not intended for professional use or hard service.

My interest in Scharabok, aside from our shared interest in smithing, was how he built a unique business on eBay. Using the Internet, a most modern invention, to sell blacksmith tools, most ancient inventions, raised some questions in my mind.

An Electronic Smith

Scharabok and I had a few minutes to talk the day he hosted the first annual CSI Hammer-In. CSI is CyberSmiths International, the paying membership body of the premier blacksmithing site, www.anvilfire.com.

I asked him what led him to set up an eBay storefront. "It was an interest meeting an opportunity. While I had made some tools in the past, there were very few opportunities to sell them. At Hammer-Ins and conferences, other blacksmiths would see my Poor Boy versions of professional tools and go home and make them themselves. With eBay, I have worldwide exposure, although 99 percent of my business is in the US. Now I can sell to amateurs who do not attend the big blacksmith conferences.

"The advantage of the eBay store is that you can list slow-moving merchandise at a very reasonable cost," said Scharabok. "Trying to sell these items on the regular eBay listing proved to be more expensive."

Scharabok receives a token of appreciation from Jock Dempsey, the "guru" at Anvilfire, for hosting the first annual CSI Hammer-In.
Scharabok, at right, explains the finer points of his gas forge to an audience of appreciative smiths.

When asked about the impact of eBay on his business, Scharabok replied, "Major! My sales doubled from 2004 to 2005, and my 2006 sales are up compared to my 2005 sales. I simply could not be doing what I am with a private Web site or paper catalog."

Scharabok praised the eBay concept. "eBay is my real-time catalog, inventory control, and bookkeeping system all in one package. PayPal allows me to collect my receivables securely and quickly for more than 95 percent of my sales," he said.

"eBay is an online mail order business. I can add or drop items as I desire, and I don't have to worry about catalogs expiring. I can adjust prices as desired based upon raw materials costs and the product's complexity. eBay offers nice flexibility in that regard."

Sales from tailgates draw many smiths to the Hammer-In. These anvils
typically sell for $2 to $3 per pound and typically weigh 100 to 200 lbs.

However, Scharabok cautioned, "If you are not careful how you manage your items, eBay and PayPal can be a major expense. In 2004 improperly managing my items led to eBay and PayPal costs of approximately 18 percent of gross sales. I now make a serious effort to keep these costs at not more than 10 percent.

"It is critical to understand what you are doing, and you must be creative in how you advertise. I often list the same item more than once with different titles so that it can be found with different search terms," said Scharabok.

"Sellers need to be aware of their overhead costs. If you average a 100 percent markup, you might just break even. At 200 percent you can make some money. However, it is the 300 percent markup that carries the profit load. If you sell something in volume, you also can go with a lower markup."

I looked around Scharabok's shop and saw an arc welding machine, a small band saw, a drill press, and some power hand tools. Very basic. His philosophy is the "KISS" principle, but "just because it is simple doesn't mean it is easy. The most elegant solutions are the simplest, but also the most difficult to see." Scharabok's business, like his tools, is purely functional, simple, and elegant.

The Dark Side

The foremost concern in my mind about an eBay store was fraud. I wondered how many times merchandise was shipped, but the payment was not received or was counterfeit. Scharabok assured me that PayPal has reduced the impact of fraud on his business. He did admit to an early lesson involving a counterfeit money order, but said he learned quickly. His monetary loss to bad orders is less than one-tenth of 1 percent—pretty good, when you learn how much "shrinkage" brick and mortar stores have to deal with.

Scharabok demonstrates his power hammer.

Perhaps even darker is the potential for a major swindle that involves stealing a password for eBay or PayPal. Scharabok noted, "Some of the "phishing' attempts are very sophisticated; it is extremely difficult to tell them apart from the legitimate e-mails. [Con men from all over the world] frequent eBay stores wanting merchandise to be sent by expedited delivery using stolen credit card numbers for payment. I accept credit card payment only through PayPal and insist on PayPal payment for purchases from outside the U.S. and Canada." Any business enterprise, no matter the size, deals with predators.

The Hammer-In

While I enjoyed our conversation at the Hammer-In, I, too, am a hobby blacksmith, and the opportunity to visit with others similarly afflicted was the main attraction. The event drew about 30 other smiths, not bad for the first year. Big Blu Power Hammer brought out two pneumatic hammers all the way from North Carolina.

Scharabok had a coal forge set up with an anvil for demos and trials, and he spent time to help teach a young man and his attentive father the basics of smithing. Many attendees took turns at the forge to share ideas and techniques.

In a time-honored tradition, some brought truckloads of surplus tools, iron, anvils, and assorted stuff. The tailgate trade was brisk, and most of us took home new treasures. Money was raised for CSI through a process called "iron in the hat," in which tools and supplies are donated and then tickets sold to bid on the items. The tickets are put in cups next to the item and one ticket is drawn for each item. I was lucky enough to win an old sawmaker's vise. Great! Now I have to learn how to make saws.

Bob Nichols

Contributing Writer

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