Turn your hobby into a business: Step one — Learning the skills you need

By Michelle Ferguson October 2, 2018

Shawn Cunningham has been a full-time artisan blacksmith for the past 27 years. Unable to find a teaching job in the 90s, due to Klein-era cuts, Cunningham turned his hobby into a job for subsistence.

In this three part series, we look at how you can turn your hobby into a business. Part one: Finding the right hobby and learning the skills you need.

It’s a chilly September afternoon in Strathcona County. A soft clanging fills the quiet cul-de-sac, as Shaun Semple hammers at a glowing railway spike. Soft from heat, the piece of steel twists and bends under his steady blows — on its way to becoming one of Semple’s signature hand forged wands.

A handful of these twisted spikes line the cement floor of Semple’s garage studio, cooling in the early autumn air. An electric blue Subaru WRX sits dormant in the driveway — displaced by an array of hammers and tongs, anvils and grinders.

Semple used to race the car. After winning every local championship three years running, the oil executive-turned-blacksmith was faced with a difficult choice: go national (which costs tens of thousands of dollars per year) or find a new hobby.

“I have lots of nice trophies,” says Semple of his rallycross days. “But I spent a lot for those trophies over the years."

Blacksmithing had always intrigued him. He loved the idea of creating something that could last for centuries. Plus, he wanted a physical activity that would keep him active into his retirement.

Still, he regrets leaving the car idle and exposed to the elements — making a mental note to sell it to another rally driver (“I should let the car go back… It’s just sat there and looked pretty for a year and a half.”) But as fate would have it, swapping the dragster for a forge was one of the best decisions Semple has ever made.

'I have lots of nice trophies, but I spent a lot for those trophies over the years'

Shaun Semple on the hobby he couldn't turn into a business

Shortly after purchasing the piece of equipment, he was laid off. Though he’d only been at it for less than six months, Semple turned his hobby into a full-time gig with the help of his wife Shelley. Now Daelen Forge’s whimsical designs can be spotted all over Instagram and the area’s hottest markets.

Many of Edmonton’s most talented artisans started tinkering in their spare time. Kyle Closen, of Clo’s General Leather Co., Kristine MacDonald, of Smithstine Copper, Keith Walker, of Blow in the Dark Glassworks, and Kentia Naud, of Terre Ferme Pottery, also discovered their craft through a class or DIY project.

In this three-part series, we’ll show you how to take your hobby and turn it into a full-fledged business.

Step 1: Find a hobby

To learn how to swing a hammer, Semple attended NAIT. The college offers a series of blacksmithing courses through its continuing education faculty. All classes are taught by veteran blacksmith Shawn Cunningham.


“I always wanted to do this when I was a little kid, I just didn’t know you were allowed,” says Shawn Cunningham, the owner of Front Step Forge

Cunningham has been a full-time artisan blacksmith for the past 27 years. Unable to find a teaching job in the 90s, due to Klein-era cuts, Cunningham turned to his hobby for subsistence.

“I always wanted to do this when I was a little kid, I just didn’t know you were allowed,” says the owner of Front Step Forge. “Everyone in my family is a pretty good artist and craftsman at their hobbies. But that’s all they are; it’s unacceptable to do that for a living.”

Cunningham focuses on intricate home décor projects and public art commissions. He also fabricates tools used by carpenters, bladesmiths and other blacksmiths.

In his 18-hour introductory course, students learn how to make a punch, a hammer and a set of tongs. The idea is to have them leave with a set of basic tools and as many skills as possible, should they choose to continue smithing (like Semple did.)

“Encompassed in what people would see as the simplest tool in the world are all the steps I use every day in my finished work,” Cunningham says, pointing to a pair of tongs. “The grooves, the twists, the offsets, the rivet.”

Cunningham’s classes are extremely popular and often sell out a year in advance.

Blacksmithing not your thing? Here’s an incomplete guide to learning everything from embroidery to chocolate making in Edmonton:


The companies featured in this story are all proud Edmonton Made businesses. Are you Edmonton Made? You can register for the program here. (It’s free!) Have a story idea for an Edmonton Made company? Contact us at made@edmonton.com.

Front Step Forge
Front Step Forge
Front Step Forge
Front Step Forge
Front Step Forge
Front Step Forge

Share this

Related Businesses