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Looking Sharp! How Charcoal Goods Combines Fine Art and Machining to Produce Artisan Razors
A little while back, my buddy Joe reached out to me, telling me about this cool shaving company he had come across, which turned out to also be using Fusion 360. “Are you going to buy one?” He asked me. My beard stared back at his beard in silence as we both let how silly that question was sink in. Then we both bought one anyway because they’re that beautiful.
What really strikes us here at Autodesk is not just how beautifully crafted these safety razors are, but the journey that Brian went through to making Charcoal Goods his full time role! We interviewed Brian recently to learn more about his journey and getting to grips with Fusion 360 .
What was the driving force to start charcoal goods?
Sheer necessity. We had moved across the country for my wife to advance her career, so I was already unemployed. Even though I hold a master’s degree (Fine Arts) I had struggled to find a decent career. Too many dead-end jobs. I possess a pretty unusual skill set and employers just didn’t know what to do with me. HR departments don’t get me. I don’t check the right boxes. At first it was really just an experiment. I was looking to learn new skills and maybe parlay my Fine Arts background into a job in Industrial Design or manufacturing. So basically, I started my own company to prove to potential employers that I possessed the skill set required to be hired for jobs that on paper I was not qualified for. It worked out too well though, and I never actually looked for any jobs!
How did you first discover Fusion 360?
Google! I had been on the search for entry level CAD and CAM packages and was really not liking any of the demos that I had tried. At the time I thought Autodesk only offered enterprise level software, so it was a complete surprise to come across Fusion360 and to see that it had a startup license, tutorials, and fully integrated CAD and CAM. I watched a few videos and thought this is really the exact product package that I needed. The best part is that Fusion360 has continued to mature, and as my needs increase, I find that Fusion is continuing to meet them.
What was the experience like learning CAD for the first time?
The learning curve is extreme. From the moment I opened Fusion360 for the first time I knew I needed to learn the entire workflow from design through to CAM simulation and post-processing. I didn’t understand the logic at first. I can easily sculpt something out of clay, but at first I couldn’t comprehend explaining that creative process to the computer. It took me probably 60 hours of tutorials and demos to get to the point where I could begin to build 3D models that were functional for my needs. I almost gave up on it after the first day in the software. Luckily, I was able to get in touch with Lars Christensen and he pointed me to a couple of his process videos that really got me going.
How did Charcoal Goods become your full-time job?
It was an accident. The whole thing was boot-strapped without much of a plan. I’d post shaving razors on social media, people would buy them, and then I’d split the profit between paying my expenses and buying more shop equipment and supplies. Eventually, I reached a level of monthly sales where I realized that I had unexpectedly created a successful business and was earning enough income for it to be a ‘day job’. So, I wrote my first business plan after I had already become successful.
What were your experiences like learning the new skills necessary to achieve your vision for the designs of the razors?
For me, the ideas come easily. I have no shortage of concepts for shaving products. The challenge is gaining the necessary technical skills to create them in CAD and subsequently manufacture them. Plus, as Fusion advances, so do I. There was product update that allowed you to directly machine STL surfaces on the CAM side. A day later I had a number of new designs that utilized that new feature and had prototypes a day after that. Generative design is the same way. I’m slowly learning how I can utilize GD to help inform what I can do with wet shaving products.
What’s the most fun part of operation Charcoal Goods?
There is a direct correlation between how hard I work and my level of success. You just don’t get that working for someone else. There is an incredible satisfaction in creating a new design, manufacturing it, and then receiving feedback from customers telling me how much they enjoyed their new shaving razor. My success or failure will be derived from my actions and decisions alone. I like being accountable.
If you could do anything differently, what would it be?
Plan on being successful. In the beginning I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into. I was thinking that I’d make a few razors and use the whole thing as a learning experience to whatever was coming next. There wasn’t any pressure to succeed so I didn’t bother to invest in machinery and equipment. I still remember the day that it took off. Early on I was only able to produce a few razors a month. The orders would just trickle in on my website and I was happy that I was making enough money to cover my expenses and pay myself to learn new skills. I don’t know how it happened, but one day I had nearly 40 orders come in. I had to shut my website down as at that time that was going to take me 8 weeks to fulfill. In hindsight I should have cashed out my retirement plans and gone all in on a brand new VMC before I had ever sold my first razor, but that just seemed like crazy talk. The really successful people believe in themselves and take the big risks. I didn’t do that, and I regret it as I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
What excites you the most about the future of Charcoal Goods?
My knowledge and skill are increasing exponentially both as a machinist and as a designer. Three years ago, I didn’t know a G0 from an M8. Now I get worked up if my lead-ins aren’t just right. In just a few short years I’ve also developed a reputation for producing some of the finest quality shaving razors currently produced and I now design razors for a variety of much larger companies. All of this is allowing me to pursue increasingly advanced and challenging designs and I hope that people continue to be interested.
What excites you the most about the future in general?
How quickly things are changing. In the year 2000 it wouldn’t have really been possible to have a personal computer running CAD and CAM software that could effectively allow a single person to manufacture aerospace quality parts out in their garage with a couple of compact CNC machines. People like me that otherwise would have never been given the chance to make something can now do it with minimal investment, training, and outside help. High-precision cottage manufacturing and direct to consumer sales will disrupt traditional product design and manufacturing. I can go from product concept to packaged product being shipped to customers in a matter of days or weeks and due to social media I have access to a massive customer base. While my larger competitors and doing design by committee and having casting molds made in China, I’m already shipping products.
Any tips from your own workflows you want to share with the community?
My Fusion files get incredibly cluttered. I’m a high-mix operation where I have lots of similar parts that are run in a variety of metals, using the same fixtures, and can often share a lot of features. So, one thing I’ve started doing it maintaining a single Fusion file for each part model. Then I’ll create a separate Fusion file that might have like a 2nd operation soft jaw in it. I’ll drop in all the parts as linked models into the soft jaw file and use that file to build out all of my CAM operations associated with that particular soft jaw setup. That way if I decide to switch to a new roughing tool or discover a more efficient machining strategy, I can apply it in bulk to all parts that might utilize it without resorting to opening and editing a dozen files.