He Who Sups With The Devil

When I restarted my business in the 1990s, I was eager to work and eager to do work that would build my portfolio. I was doing mostly boat portraits, transom banners, quarter boards, and that beautiful booth fee payer spoons, spatulas and cutting boards.
At one of my regular annual shows, I was approached by a boat owner who’d haunted my booth at this and other shows without doing much other than “rudder kicking” – looking, but not buying. That Friday however, Mr. Kicker seemed ready to do business. He needed a billet head and trailboards to dress up his newly restored sloop. We talked cost and design and agreed that I’d do both. That was when I failed to observe my first “Shipscarver’s Principle of Doing Business”; I failed to ask for and receive a down payment on the work. Sometimes failing to do things in the proper order dooms you to a downward spiral, and that’s pretty much what happened here.
I so wanted to do some impressive work for my portfolio that I was well into the design for the billet head that it wasn’t until then that I asked. His budget was overextended, but he’d get it for me soon. Soon.

The billet head was not a typical design with a concentric spiral wreathed with acanthus leaves, star or some other design elements near the center. It was very simple but of a design type more familiar to the Chesapeake Bay area. The spiral curves around an eccentric center and is off the vertical axis. The trailboards were also to be Chesapeake Bay style in design with cannons, cannon balls, and other decorations from that area. An interesting job.
Soon the little billet head was done and mounted. The design issues with the trailboards mounted, and the requests for money went unanswered. I began to hoard my design drawings; fearing that if I sent them to the client, they’d soon wind up in the hands of another carver. The client responded that without seeing the design updates, he couldn’t send a down payment.
That was when sanity prevailed. The billet head was gone; the design time on the boards was gone. But, it is evident that if I gave the design to Mr. Kicker, or worse carved the boards, I’d be out much more time and money. I stopped responding to emails and calls other than to state bluntly that without payment, work would not proceed.

Eventually, I became tied up in other projects. Mr. Kicker became a background irritation that I gradually ignored. Then one day at a large in the water boat show I stopped dead and stared at a sloop tied up to the wharf. My friend asked what’s wrong. “That’s my billet head on that damn boat.” “Are you sure?” “This father knows his own children” was my reply. Because, almost every carver has a style, cuts, tool marks, design quirks, something that marks his work as their own. And there before me was my billet head. But, some six or seven years on still no boards.
We stood there while I told him the whole sordid story, and I included the fact that some years ago, I had sealed the mess shut as a lesson in how not to do business. My friend looked at me and said, ” He just put in a big order for hoops and blocks.”

“Well, make sure that you get all your money upfront. ‘He who sups with the Devil should do so with a long spoon’.”

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