Tuli Fisher has had a lot on his plate in recent months. As sole proprietor of Fisher Blacksmithing, he hammers out 3,000 to 4,000 garden tools every year – trowels, hoes, rakes. And when he spoke by phone in late August, he was deep in the throes of wedding planning, preparing for his nuptials in September.
The 47-year-old has been working at his smithy in Bozeman, Montana, for 20 years, first as a farrier, and since 2006, as the maker of the sought-after tools, whose runaway success took him by surprise.
He’s used to taking risks. Fisher started his career in sales and marketing; he was a natural and made a lot of money, but after a few years found he was bored and generally unfulfilled. “I woke up one morning and thought, ‘You know what, I’m through with this.’ ” He had grown up in Indiana farm country, always “crafty and handy,” and started working with a farrier (a blacksmith who makes horseshoes). Then, on the advice of his mentor, he crammed everything he owned into his truck and headed to Big Sky Country, where he found a supportive network – and a lot still to learn. He spent a few years working with different farriers, then struck out on his own in 1999.
Like many blacksmiths, he started out making his own tools. He moved on to tools for woodworkers and stonemasons but quickly saw that market was already well-served. So he tried something else.
“I made my first set of garden tools in 2003,” he says. “They were really ugly.” But he realized he’d found a niche waiting to be filled – most of what was available was cheap and mass-produced, whereas “a good, solid set of gardening tools makes most people happy,” he says.
By the time his daughter was born in 2010, he realized he wanted to be able to spend more time with his baby girl and switched to garden tools full time.
It was yet another leap of faith – but one he was ready to take. “My philosophy from the beginning was ‘I don’t know how this is going to go, but the most important thing is to make something people want. Then I’m going to make a hell of a lot of them and make them really good.’ ”
He hired a professional to create a website (“a wise decision,” he says, and worth every penny), with a shopping cart so people could buy tools right off the site. And when the conventional path branched off in a new direction, he took it. He started showing up at garden and landscaping shows, which led to a surprising new market: curated online boutiques such as the Grommet.
Now that the wedding is over, he’s considering hiring some help in the smithy, since he’s got more products in mind, including an agave cutter. (He farms out the wooden handles, which he used to turn himself.) In the meantime, he’ll be back at the anvil. “I’ve been able to sell every one of my tools for the last 15 years,” he says with pride, adding with a wink, “even the ugly ones.”
For blacksmithing: Tongs by the late (and legendary) Jay Sharp. “I use them every day. They have a good grip; they’re strong, yet lightweight – they hold on to stuff really well.” He also likes his personal connection with the maker. Sharp charged what the pieces were worth ($300 wasn’t out of the question, Fisher says) but was about as down-to-earth as possible: “He used to show up at the State Fair in a beat-up old Subaru and just open up the back of it, like an old-time traveling tinker,” Fisher recalls.
For gardening: His narrow perennial trowel. For years he resisted suggestions to add teeth to the sides, but one day, tired of hearing it, he acquiesced. It was a classic what-took-me-so-long moment. “You can cut twine with it, cut open bags of soil, separate roots with it,” he says, listing a few of the uses for the versatile tool. “People loved it. I loved it.”