I make pens… you know, writing instruments… as in, mightier than the sword?
It all started rather innocently. You see, I bought a lathe. Nothing lavish, just the cheapest full size lathe that Harbor Freight sells. But I didn’t even buy that… I bought mine used off of craigslist for $80. It’s a trashy thing gloriously painted in the ugliest green ever mixed accidentally [ref] … because no one would mix that color on purpose [/ref]. The lathe came with a set of knives of, essentially, the same lineage. But it all works and it works fairly well for what it is.
I didn’t particularly need a lathe. I didn’t have any projects that required one and had none planned. In fact, at the time I was searching for hunting leases and this ad popped up like they sometimes do. Completely unrelated to anything that I might have typed in as a search string but interesting enough to click on anyway. I had always sorta wanted a lathe and this was a really good deal so I wandered off and came home with a new (to me) lathe.
Over several weeks I played with the thing making various trinkets on it as I found instructions or ideas on the internet. I made a couple of clunky little bowls that folks just loved but that I didn’t like at all. One of them isn’t even complete because I gave up on it but my wife keeps it on a shelf. The wood is beautiful so it’s at bowlleast interesting… it just sucks as a bowl; looking more like something Picasso might have created in a drunken daze [ref]…without all the naked people of course [/ref].
Finding myself wanting as an artiste de bol I turned to other projects and eventually stumbled into making pens.
It’s a simple process really; cut the blanks, drill a hole through the center, glue in a metal tube and then carve and finish it on the lathe. The actual lathe work can take anywhere from ten minutes to ten hours depending on a lot of factors but mostly on my mood and how much I like the person for whom I’m making the pen. Lately I’ve been blessed with making pens for people that I love a lot… it takes a lot longer but saves on wood…
Real pen smiths can cut a pen to almost finished state with just the knives. I’m nowhere near that good and have to rely on a LOT of sanding and other manipulation to get a pen to that stage. Still, they come out looking at least usable… most of the time.
Once the lathe work and finishing are complete I press all of the metal bits together with a vise until something finally resembling a pen emerges. This bit is about as hard as assembling a jigsaw puzzle… with numbered pieces… and instructions.
The pens come as a kit of metal parts but no wood. I can either cut my own blanks (the wood bits) or buy pre-cut ones at the woodworking store. I usually buy pre-cut ones but only because it gives me a right-sized blank of exotic wood without having to cut up my larger, more expensive, pieces of stock or raw wood.
Developing the skill to make pens has only taken a few months and a lot of practice. Practice that makes pens [ref] … practice that also makes lots of mangled and crushed parts until you learn what the gently in “gently press pieces together with a vise” means. We don’t talk about those…[/ref] This resulted in a glass jar sitting on my bar full of various pen styles made of exotic woods. Some of them are rough or they don’t quite work right but most of them are pretty to look at. If someone admires one for too long they’re likely to leave with it. I just think it’s really cool that someone might actually use something that I’ve made with my hands.
I always worry about the quality of the pens and hope that folks will tell me when something breaks but many won’t bother. Some, I suppose, just don’t want to hurt my feelings. I’ve considered wrapping them in a message that says, “this pen is broken, when you figure out how it’s broken let me know!” or “I know that this pen is too heavy for you to use in a normal fashion. When you figure it out too let me know and I’ll make you one that’s more perfect.” At least then I might get a tiny bit of negative feedback.
I never sell my pens. A few folks have donated money for me to buy parts and such but only after I flatly refused payment. I usually only make specific pens for folks that I like a lot. I make them from high quality pen kits and use the best wood that I can find. A few folks even ask for spares so that they can gift them to others. That’s always amazing to me and I’m always happy to help.
My favorite was created as a retirement gift. I sweated over that one for a couple of weeks trying to find the perfect kit and the perfect wood. I spent hours working and reworking the pen and finally discarded it and started over. It was important enough for the person asking me to make the pen that I thought it deserved the best work I could do. I eventually came up with something that I liked and then before I could ship the pen I made a different one for the person who asked. I thought they should both have a gift on retirement day…. you don’t get there alone.
I’ve been wanting to do a series on making pens but I’m not sure that I’m at a place where I feel confident that my skills will add notably to the wealth of information out there on the topic. Maybe soon. This post was originally written as an introduction to that series…