Lately, social media has been swamped with the story of folks who were burned by a creator for hire. I won’t be weighing in on that case, or even mentioning the name, as I don’t like to use this blog for negativity and the information is already out there on dozens of sites. I am not writing this solely because of this particular Maker, but because I have seen an unsettling number of incidents, including friends being burned by less than honest Makers.
What I would like to do is address what you can do to protect yourself in costuming commissions and understand how the process works and what red flags to watch out for. Many of the victims of scammers and bad businesspeople are first time commissioners, but even those well experienced in the process can get scammed. Thus, this guide is gonna go over everything, from the most basic tips to tips for the experienced, and even then you may get burned. The fact of the matter is that not every bad deal comes from a career scammer, sometimes well-respected and well-meaning makers can fail to deliver an item on time and/or to the client’s satisfaction. Hopefully this information will also help to figure out if someone was out to scam you from the beginning or just had something go wrong despite good intentions.
Vetting your Maker(s)
So, you wanna have something made, that’s great! Since materials and equipment is getting cheaper and more and more information is available about how to make stuff, there are literally thousands of costume, armor and prop makers out there now. How the heck do you choose? Whether you find them via their personal website, a facebook page, an RPF or coscom thread or elsewhere on the net, you mustn’t just throw your money at the first one you see. You must vet them!
No, I don’t mean take them for their distemper shots and heartworm preventative. Vetting is to verify the credibility of a Maker. You need to get a feeling of how likely they are to produce your commission to your desired quality by your deadline. Scammers count on the fact that many people don’t know how to properly vet a Maker, or get so caught up in the transaction that they completely forget to do so. Some scammers are good at hiding their prior bad deeds, and some actively try to obfuscate their dealings, so even if you do your very best to vet everyone, you may still get scammed. It’s terrible, but the best thing you can do at that point is deal with your own commission, either by refund or arranging alternate compensation, and then make your experience known! If they are on a forum or some place that allows feedback, post an account of what went down and why you are unsatisfied. Try to be objective and keep emotion out of it if you can, as that leads to personal attacks which make it very easy for the party in question to call your credibility into question and glaze over the actual issue. Also, as tempting as it is, it is usually pointless to post on the person in question’s webpage, facebook page or any other place where they have the administrative ability to delete posts. They are going to try to keep their face clean, so any place they can sweep it under the rug, they will. Stick to public forums or your own social media presence. And if you had a great experience with a Maker? Post those same places! It’ll help others find Makers worthy of trust and business.
So where do you look to vet? All of those places I just mentioned to post your experience! Often times just Google searching will get you some good information.
- Public forums are the most likely to yield accurate accounts, especially when others can join the discussion, this keeps down agenda posts, as anyone with an agenda will be shut down by actual personal accounts.
- Watch out for posts made by known friends of a Maker or shills. Scammers often post bogus good reviews. Short, vague reviews are definitely a red flag, especially if you can’t find the actual piece that was supposedly made. Costumers love to show off their purchases.
- Look for good, high rez photos of previous work, with lots of angles. Makers that post the progression picks as a piece is created are also a plus. Look for quality in the construction, an obvious obsession over details and pride in the quality of work.
- Look for pictures from clients of their finished commission. There’s some amazing tricks Makers can do with photography to make a piece look better than it is, and never ever forget photoshop exists.
- Forums like The RPF have feedback tools built in, and coscom has a whole subforum devoted to reviews. Ask for or find out the Maker’s handle in places like these.
- If you do find a bad transaction or dissatisfied client, how did the Maker handle it? Don’t be ashamed to PM the client and ask if the Maker made it right. Did they ultimately deliver? Did they give a refund?
- Watch out for those who seem to only deliver to “Important” people. Some Makers do not treat clients equally, and will quickly deliver a piece to a well respected forum member, well known costumer or professional commissions but take their sweet time or deliver a sub-par product to everyone else. Money is money, and yours should spend just as well as anyone’s.
What to expect when you contact a maker:
So, you’ve saved up your hard earned cash and you are ready to approach some makers about creating your dream prop/costume. You should be armed with a clear idea of what you want, not just the character or the outfit, but how you want to wear it, what materials, any special needs you have. Have as many references as possible for the maker. Tip #1: It is your responsibility to provide accurate and clear references and instructions for what you want. If you want anything to differ from your provided references, if you need the piece to collapse to fit into a suitcase, if you need pockets added to a skirt, if you want it lined, you need to make this clear when you first approach the maker. A Maker is in no way required to make a change to what you both agreed on when prices and timelines were set after the piece has been started. However, if something does need to change, whether it is from the client side or on the Maker’s side, discussion needs to occur as soon as possible. Often, Makers will discover while working on a piece that a technique or material originally planned for will not work in practice, a good Maker contacts the client immediately and discusses this with the client before moving forward with the change. If a maker waits until it is time to deliver to discuss the change with the client, they have not upheld their side of the deal and the client has every right to take issue or cancel their order.
You’ll also need to provide a clear deadline. Tip #2: Do not just list the day you’ll leave for the con/event as your due date! Many folks think this is a favor to the Maker by giving them a few more days to get done. It is not! Even the greatest of commissions will probably need a few days to try on and double check for problems. And if you have a question once you have it in your hand about how the heck this one strap is supposed to work, you want to be able to have the time to contact the maker and find out. Makers have lives too, and often a “real job”, so you want to give then at least 48 hours to reply. You also don’t want to depend solely on shipping days to be accurate, things happen, deliveries get delayed. My rule of thumb is to list the due date at least a week before you’re going to need it. This means you’re gonna need to start shopping for Makers early, especially if you have your heart set on a high-demand Maker, who often book a year in advance. By having a due date earlier than you need it, you can also hopefully have a bit of insurance in case the Maker gets a bit behind due to poor time assessment or unforeseen circumstances like discovering a crucial supply is on backorder. The earlier you make your deadline, the better off you will be, and it will make those chaotic few weeks before the con a lot less stressful.
Once you have given this information to the Maker, they will quote you a price. Some makers give firm, set in stone quotes, while others give an expected quote, which may change as the project progresses. The second type will typically give a range, so that you don’t agree to a $200.00 expected cost only to be hit with a $3000.00 cost at the end. Tip #3: You get the quality you pay for. Matt Munson did a great little write up on the cost of custom commissions. If you want custom cast resin weapons, or custom tailored Victorian garb, it will carry a higher price tag than a bondo covered cardboard prop or a simplicity pattern in broadcloth. If the price is out of your range and you ask the Maker to cut corners to meet your budget, you are specifically asking for a lower quality item and forfeit some of your ability to complain later. Some Makers (myself included) will not cut corners to meet a budget and put out a less than stellar piece, as that still carries their name and reputation. Conversely, if you ask for a high quality prop and get a price quote that seems like an incredible steal, beware. This is Red Flag #1. A skilled and experienced Maker is going to value their time and reputation, and charges appropriately. An unskilled or inexperienced maker often undercuts themselves just to get some work and experience (I did it too in the beginning) and may fail to deliver the agreed upon quality on time despite never actively intending harm. A dishonest Maker will quote low and deliver a known inferior product or not deliver at all. How do you know if it was a well meaning newbie or an uncaring veteran? Newbies usually are concerned with how they are doing, they are trying to grow and do well, and will ask if it was to your liking, ask to see photos of it with the rest of your costume and talk about what they are proud of in it. A dishonest maker will typically answer any complaints with “well, you got what you paid for”, or that lots of other people they have sold the same thing to were perfectly happy.
Making the Payment
So, you’ve vetted the Maker, been clear with your expectations, set a reasonable deadline and agreed on a price, time to let go of your hard earned money and start the commission. Most Makers require money up front, and that is 100% reasonable. Nothing can be made without materials, and there is a huge risk for the Maker that they will spend months working and hundreds of dollars in materials just to have a client decide they don’t want the piece later or cannot afford it. Every Maker who knows what they are doing will require a deposit. This usually covers materials and a bit extra as security to make sure the client has the money and is not going to walk out on the deal. The deposit amount varies drastically, but as an example from my shop, it is typically between 35-50% of the total expected cost. Very few Makers will require the full amount up front, unless the piece in question has a very low price point, for me, typically under $100.00. If a Maker does demand the full payment on an expensive commission up-front this is Red Flag #2. Now, a disclaimer here, this is not always a deal breaker, it is entirely in the Maker’s rights to do this, and it may not be a means to scam you. If the Maker has a good rep, you have vetted them well and there are no other red flags, this is probably not an issue, but it is still your right to refuse and move to another maker if this is uncomfortable to you, just try to not make a stink about it and step away from the transaction. However, if it occurs with other red flags and/or the Maker could not be well vetted, proceed at your own risk.
Once the deposit amount has been agreed on, you’ll need a way to pay. Most makers use a payment service such as Paypal. As a third-party service, this offer some protection. However, they do charge a fee for payment, which is borne by the seller. Most Makers are going to include this fee in their quote or assume their own responsibility for it, if they do not state so, feel free to ask. You can find a breakdown of Paypal’s fees here.
However, there is a way to use Paypal that has no fees, this is to “send money to friends and family”. If a Maker asks you to use this option, beware! This is Red Flag #3! Paypal offers buyer protection, a 48 day window in which you, the buyer, can open up a dispute and potentially get a refund. This dispute will push to the seller, and be reviewed by Paypal. The seller has a chance to settle the dispute, either by delivering the product or at least communicating with you and coming to an agreement. However, this protection only applies to payments for goods and services. If you use the pay to friends and family option, you forfeit any protection. Now, 48 days is a lot shorter than the production time for most custom commissions, but by then you should have a good idea of the direction the project is going. If you have serious concerns that you have voiced to the Maker and not gotten an acceptable response from them, open that dispute before the 48 day cutoff! Now, don’t just open the dispute after sending no word of your concerns, use it when no other outlet has given you the peace of mind you need.
What about other payment options? You can pay via check, which offers some protection as you can contact your bank if the commission goes south and you are scammed. I have also heard of Makers who accept hidden cash and money orders, This is Red flag #4! Neither of these options offer -any- protection.
Are there any ways to further protect yourself? Documentation, documentation, documentation. Tip #4: Save all e-mails/PMs between you and the Maker, make sure all terms are spelled out clearly. You can even ask that the maker send you a physical invoice via mail. This doesn’t need to be extravagant, but at least a basic description of the piece in question, the agreed price, how you paid, the appropriate dates and a signature from the Maker. This may help if you need to bring it to your bank. These still may not help get your money back, but it will provide proof of bad deeds that you can post to discourage others from doing business with an untrustworthy Maker.
So, You’ve paid. Now you wait. Custom stuff takes quite a while. During production, you should get periodic e-mails or PMs on the status of the piece or to ask questions and clear design decisions. You may also see posts on the Maker’s site as they work on your piece, progress photos or discussions on what techniques they’re using. Makers vary in how often they touch base, and it can also vary according to what other work is going on in their workshop. E-mail takes time away from working on your piece, but it is still a part of the process, and if you contact them, you should get a reasonable reply. Nothing makes a customer worry like lack of communication (trust me on this). Makers often have many things in the shop at once as well, so don’t immediately freak out if it’s been a bit since your last update and you see them post another commission in progress on their facebook page, yours may be just out of shot, also being worked on. However, if you ever feel like you’re not getting the communication you need, ask for it! It never hurts to send an e-mail saying you are excitedly waiting for more updates. If you’ve sent gentle requests before and still gotten no reply, be more firm. If communication refuses to move, state that you are no longer satisfied with the service, and are considering a refund. If you’re still in the 48 day protection window on Paypal, this is a viable reason to open a dispute. Just keep at them if they refuse to contact you, and post on those public places if the communication lapse becomes too great, again being objective in your criticism.
Receiving Your Commission
The piece is done! Now is the time to pay the shipping and verify your address, especially if using Paypal. Be sure to ask how the piece will be packaged, since the last thing you want is for it to be damaged in shipping, and I -highly- recommend shipping insurance. Now is the time to pay the final payment as well, which you can also request an invoice for. The Maker should send you an update when it is shipped and provide a tracking number if the service provides one.
When the package arrives, make sure to check it for obvious damage. If anything seems out of sorts, if there are dents in cardboard, water damage, loose tape or if it looks like it has been opened, get your camera before opening it! You’ll need to take photos of the unboxing if you want that shipping insurance to do anything. Take photos of the outside of the box and every step of opening, including very clear photos of any damage to your pieces. You can contact your Maker and let them know, but ultimately you will need to bring this up with the shipping carrier. Their website should provide a number to call or an online form. Be sure to have your tracking number, unboxing photos, and any invoices you have.
If the package arrives safe and sound, examine it well. Make sure it meets your agreed upon specifications. Try it on if it’s appropriate. If there are any issues, photograph them and contact the Maker to see if there are ways to remedy the issue. Sometimes a Maker will have you send the piece back and do major fixes, other times it may be something the customer can do. A good Maker eats the cost for this if they are at fault, either refunding the cost of materials for the customer to do the fix or the shipping to do in-shop fixes. If the Maker is not at fault, and the client misunderstood something or expected something without actively stating it in the original agreement, they may still offer to help work it out, but they aren’t required to, be sure to thank them.
If the Maker provides a product that is not acceptable according to the agreed upon terms, you can ask for a full refund and send the piece back, ask for a partial refund and keep the piece or choose to not press the matter, depending on the severity. The Maker may deny refunds all together, negotiate an alternative solution or accept your terms. Keep their response in mind when it comes to your review of their service.In the case of a Maker refusing a refund, use whatever financial repercussion you have available, either by speaking to your bank or opening a Paypal dispute.
No matter what the outcome, write a review in a publicly accessible space about your experience, good or bad! The absolute best way to help keep good Makers in business and bad Makers out is to let the world know what your experience was like! The more information about our dealings we can put out there, the more likely customers will be able to find and support Makers worth supporting, and protect our investments into our hobby.
Everyone screws up sometimes. I most certainly have, which has given me good insight to the frustrations of a bad commissioning experience. In the four years I have been doing this,I have stumbled occasionally. I took on too many orders to fulfill while not realizing how much time my other obligations like university took. I have lapsed in communication. I have even once completely forgot that a deadline was coming up on a piece, even though it was in my commission log. In each case I have done my best to own up to the mistake or failing and work with my clients to remedy the situation, and most importantly learn from it and not let it happen again. I have included comments about inexperienced Makers in this for that purpose as well, hoping that if you see that sort of behavior, you can better handle the situation from the client side as well. Hopefully the inexperienced will keep their good intentions and become better Makers, and those with ill intent will have fewer victims to feed on, and if someone has good intentions and just can’t seem to learn, it may be best for them that they not get more business to drive them into a hole.