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JOEL Joel's Blog

International Shipping and Globalization


Joseph Smith's
Joseph Smith's "Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield" C. 1816

Joseph Smith's "Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield,"also known as Smith's Key, is one of the earliest tool catalogs. Originally published in 1816, The Key is simply a collection of tool engraving showing many different tools and style. Pretty much all the manufacturers made the same products. Smith, a printer, would print the engravings and the manufacturer, dealer, representative, or salesperson would assign their own prices.

The EAIA (Early American Industries Association) reprinted a copy of the Key in 1975 (a different copy than the link to the scan) and included the only surviving price list connected to the key - a printed price list from James Cam, a Sheffield manufacturer, complete with hand-written Spanish translations of many of the categories. The theory is that this particular price list and key was used by a salesman in Spain or another Spanish-speaking country to take orders. Think about this: in the 1820s you could be nearly anywhere in the world and order from an English tool company. And eventually your tools would show up! This is globalization in action, at a time much earlier than we tend to think of global trade. As technology changed, we went from a guy taking orders and money, and sending a letter by ship, and then waiting months, to Sears and Roebuck, and then mail order tool companies, and then the internet (and us). What made the mail order business grow (and in my view, the trigger for the entire Industrial Revolution) was that the English government recognized early on that in order for international trade to grow, it had to be reliable. So the English established and guarded safe sea routes, and kept standards to trade that enabled demand to skyrocket. And reliability in global international trade has dictated the way business works around the world since then. Sadly, from a retailer's perspective, since COVID the world has gotten smaller. And it's really unfortunate.

I mention this because I am sorry to report that we have once again suspended international shipping. Before Covid, we shipped a lot of orders all over the world. We had some challenges from time to time - I'll always remember a hand-scrawled note of "No Sharp Knives" written on a return-to-sender shipment of rasps to Buenos Aires that the USPS claimed could have been written by anyone, including the Argentine pilot - but service was acceptably reliable even if not great. During the height of Covid, most international shipments were suspended and even when service resumed or quasi-resumed, shippers backed away from their commitments and guarantees to actually deliver the packages. Post-Covid, two things have happened: the first is that the actual cost of shipping has skyrocketed. What used to cost fifteen bucks now costs fifty. The second thing is that both in the EU and England VAT taxes are supposed to be collected by the shipper. This has complicated matters tremendously.

During Covid we had to turn off international shipping. Since then, we have been slowly resuming international shipping. We addressed the VAT issue by using Global Post, which takes care of taxes and other paperwork concerns. The company uses a combination of services that starts with USPS but includes a managerie of independent carriers for other parts of the international journey. They seem to use whatever is cheapest for them.

We were initially delighted to offer a service that was strikingly less expensive than the USPS International service. But unfortunately we have discovered it loses about a third of our orders. Actually, of that number, probably only half are truly lost (we'll call this group "if we're lucky"). The other half is temporarily lost in that the trail disappears. Sometimes they decide the order is undeliverable even if it's going to an address that's been confirmed six ways from Sunday. Those orders eventually come back to us. If they lose the order, and we're lucky and spend a lot of time on the issue, we might get a refund that includes the cost of the postage. If we're unlucky, we'll get a beat-up package months later returned to us as marked undeliverable, with no refund of anything, especially not of the postage. By then, of course, we have refunded the customer. A scheme that loses so many shipments is not sustainable. It is also it's a time sink. In order to track down where the order might or might not be, we might have to deal with three different vendors, with no automated coordinating system in any of them, with all of them offering variations on the theme of "Hey it's not us, it's the other guy." Needless to say, since we're only billed by one company, if the package was lost by the other two companies there's no incentive from anyone to help us.

So that's why we feel forced, very regrettably, to shut down international shipping.

Some of our products are available in Europe from Dieter Schmid (Germany), Baptist (Netherlands), and in Canada from Lee Valley.

If the situation improves, we will revisit this. If you have currently an international order in process, fingers crossed that it arrives. Otherwise email us and we will figure it out.

N.B. If you page through the tools in the copy of The Key that I link to above, you'll see are all B+W engraving, but the tableware listed later in the catalog is hand-colored and is just amazing.

A price list to The Key
A price list to The Key
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02/15/2024 Jim Dillon
Very pertinent info. One of my kids works at Highland Woodworking here in Atlanta, and from what I hear about their situation, domestic shipping isn't much better. Coincidentally, I just received a tracking number from a Swedish blacksmith. I ordered a turning tool from them - - unavailable here in the States, basically, unless I make friends with a blacksmith or train myself to make it. The tool was 800 SKR, shipping was 330 SKR. Both parties in this transaction have their fingers crossed!!!
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