Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Holiday Rush

Well, the "holiday rush" is over. As you can imagine, the demand for expensive fine writing instruments is "selective" at best, so the holiday rush mostly consisted of me "rushing" to the post office to get some packages sent off before the post office shut down for an undetermined period (see the "Sally Field" update from Oct. 22 below). But actually sales have picked up quite nicely lately, and not just from gift-givers. More than one client indicated their order was for themselves and not a stocking stuffer. And orders kept coming in right up to Christmas Eve, well outside my Holiday shipping window (again, damn you Sally Field).
                So that either means my marketing is working or people have no idea how the space/time continuum works. Let's hope it's the former. My Taiwan order went out, but haven't heard from the client yet. Keeping my fingers crossed. The address had both English and Chinese on it, so I'm counting on it finding its way there. The Spain shipment has been gone for a while with no word either. That's disconcerting.  Most clients contact me right away when their packages arrive, so I can't keep visions of it falling off an ox cart on a dirt road in Azerbaijan out of my head.
                Speaking of which, I'd love to hear from my clients. If you're the proud owner of a Hope & Grace Pens product, I'd love to hang a picture of you using your fine writing instrument (or keychain or business card holder or coin rack, etc.) here on the blog and on my stores. And to give you some incentive to send those pictures, let me offer a 10% discount to anyone who sends pictures in from now until the end of January 2013. That discount will be cumulative, by the way, so if you have additional discounts to use, I'll add them together (like the one on Military.com or maybe mentioned in a note in your package, ahem). ** The image must be of the product owner using the product, hopefully with a smile but a chagrinned "WTF" look might get a laugh too.
                Send those images to me at HopeAndGracePens(at)gmail.com, and let me know what you'd like to order and I'll arrange the discount. It's important you contact me via e-mail before placing your order so I don't have to issue refunds. Trust me, you don't want me doing math.
                Happy New Year!

** Someone just pointed out to me the folly of my logic. That's 10% off no matter how many pictures you send. No, if you send 11 pictures I'm not sending you a pen and $10. Nice try.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

International man of mystery

So I spend more time than I'd like in chat rooms and reading articles on running an online side business. One of them (by and for Japanese sellers) highly encouraged international shipping. They pretty much had me convinced to open up to international sales. But then I read another thread with horror stories about shipping and claims and lost packages and insurance, yada yada yada, that had me convinced otherwise.
                Well, sometimes I learn best by liberal strikes to the face with a two by four. We shall see. So I peppered my online shops with "WE NOW SHIP INTERNATIONALLY!!!" and waited for the mayhem to begin. It was inevitable then when a client contacted me, saying "I don't see anything on your website that says if you ship internationally. Do you?" Cut to an aside of me breaking the fourth wall by staring at the camera.
                Did you know it's actually cheaper to send a package to Spain from Iwakuni than it is in the States? Well, with visions of packages and envelopes in a wooden cart being pulled by a nose-ringed cebu through a rice paddy somewhere between Cambodia and Kazakhstan then languishing on the floor of a Spanish post office while some guy with a pencil mustache sexually harasses his female co-workers during the two hours of his daily shift, I intrepidly packed up my first international order and took it to the post office.
                I had carefully chosen a plastic bubble-wrap envelope for this order, not knowing what elements it would be exposed to, only to realize that the address I had painstakingly written on the plastic smudged with the slightest provocation. Cut to a montage of me covering the envelope in sticker labels and then wrapping it in layers of clear tape.
                So now I'm officially an international seller. The cool part? The DAY I shipped that off, someone contacted me to have a pen stylus custom-made for themselves in Taiwan. Awesome. Now I get to repeat that exercise, this time with Chinese writing on the envelope!
                I want to know! What different or unusual things happen in your work, hobby or interest? Comment below. Check out my current inventory at http://www.articents.com/HopeAndGracePens

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Call of the Dinosaur

So in the summer of 2010 I made my wife cry by blowing up on her. She kept suggesting I get a kindle e-book reader, which were on sale at the time. And subconsciously resisting being dragged into the digital age, I had had enough.
                  "I like the feel of a book in my hands!" I shouted (among other things, which started the waterworks). Needless to say, she was right. My kindle arrived in the mail while I was deployed on ship and it didn't take long for me to fall in love with it. She had pre-loaded some books onto it, and it never left my side through Pakistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Afghanistan and several points between. Today it's my "security Kindle" and goes everywhere I do, keeping my mind gainfully employed in many a lobby and waiting area.
                  Last year she wanted the touch-screen "Kindle Fire."
                  "Humbug!" thought I. "Next she'll want an iPod."
                  Funny, an iTouch magically appeared in the house a few months later. Now remember that she's even more CDO than I am, which is really saying something. CDO is "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder," but with the letters in alphabetical order the way they ought to be (thank you, meme!). How in the world will either of us operate a touch-screen device without spending 90% of our time wiping fingerprints off the screen?
                  Ok, so next she wanted a stylus, which was right up my alley. Now we're talking, I thought. So I made her a pen/stylus combo from a beautiful piece of swirly blue acrylic she ordered. PITA to work with, but got the job done. Now I'm going to have to figure out what design to use for my own stylus. I'm reluctant to admit the words "Kindle Fire" appear on my Christmas list...

                  What changes do you resist? And is your resistance good or bad for you in the long run? I want to know! Post your comments below.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Lignum Vitae is not a common wood these days. It has a rich history and has very good properties of durability and resistance to moisture, making it prized on wooden ships in days of old. When I found a piece in a box of blanks Brenda gave me for my birthday, I was excited to work with it and wanted to do something special.

Some of you may have noticed a lot of 'scallop' technique in my work lately. It's something I've wanted to try for a while, and now that I've done it I put the difficulty level just under Celtic knot. It is pretty and I have some ideas for improvisation with the technique, but wanted to use it on my Lignum Vitae blank.

The richness of purpleheart wood makes a good balance to the greenish-yellow of the LV, so I scalloped it onto the ends. Just as I was getting ready to drill it out for the pen tubes, who should walk into the woodshop but my old pal and mentor, Adam.

"You know what would look good with that?" he asked. "Some ivory," and he gave me two pieces. He'd picked up some pre-banned elephant ivory at a sale in Japan, carefully trimming bits into his more premium pens.

It stinks a little when you turn it (imagine burnt elephant hair), but it sure is pretty. Now I'm itching to get more premium materials and put them into pens. I'm placing an order shortly for solid sterling silver pen settings (clip and nib and centerband) and I'm looking at ordering more African Blackwood and LV and some other rare materials.

My chunk of Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan came in the mail a few weeks ago. Have to admit I'm a little timid about starting on it because it's hard as, well, as the rock it is.

I'm game to try anything. Is there a material or substance you'd like to see as a writing instrument? Let me know! Comment below.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sally Field in a blue uniform swearing at you

We all know the U.S. Postal Service is the model of efficiency and timeliness -- oh, wait, I shouldn't "blog and merlot" at the same time. So what's mail like here in Iwakuni? Imagine Sybil is your mailman. Ok, I'm dating myself. For the younger crowd, "Sybil" is a 1976 based-on-true-events movie starring Sally Field in the title role of a woman with multiple personality disorder.

So for those playing along at home, imagine Sally Field in a blue postal uniform, randomly shouting obscenities like a sailor with Tourette's, occasionally punting deliveries into your yard, sometimes feigning to not speak English, but mostly just pretending you don't exist.

Got it? Ok. Now start an online business.

So if you go to any website and order something, they'll usually give you some shipping options, like UPS or FedEx, etc. Well, Crazy Sally Field is the only game in town. So if you want to order something, brace yourself and hope she took her medication that day. Those websites also usually list estimated arrival times, like "first class 3-5 business days" or "ground 5-7 business days." Of course, with Sybil as your mailman, you just randomly insert exponents and variables, then solve for X.

Why do I bring this up? Well, if you're like me, sometime around, oh, 5:30 p.m. on December 24th you realize you should get your loved ones a little something for the holidays. It's not intentional. The love is there. It's that whole "planning ahead" thing that just doesn't click with me. I have a hard enough time figuring out what just happened, let alone what's going to happen a few minutes, a day, a week or more from now.

So Sybil says that if I want to get any packages actually in the hands of people back home before X-mas, I have to get them in the mail by Dec. 10. If you've been thinking of getting that special someone a fine writing instrument, the earlier you contact me, the better. And if you need some incentive, use the Etsy coupon code " BLOGGERSGET10" to take 10% off any order on the Etsy site. That code is only available here on the blog, but feel free TO SHARE THE BLOG ADDRESS with all your friends and relatives. If they can make it to the end of this post, they get the discount, just like you ;-)

I want to know! What's the most variable and unreliable part of your projects?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Island of Doctor Piper

Part of the fun of doing this is being surprised by the experiments in form and design. Especially when I first started learning pen turning, what I intend and what came out in the end are at times very different things. I confidently make a cut or series of cuts, "knowing" how they'll turn out, only to stand at the end thinking, "How in the ... ?"

One of my favorite examples of this was "Crazy Spider." The idea was a wave design in purple heart and canary wood with an offset inlay line. After the fairly simple cut and glue of the purple heart and canary, I turned the blank 90 degrees and cut another wave, inserting a padauk inlay and then just gluing the two pieces back together. The surprise came when I turned it on the lathe. The width of the pen just happened to coincide with the peak of the inlay wave. Sanding to that point created the red padauk "X" that came out in the final pen. It may not be pretty, but it sure is unique! I've been able to duplicate this a few times, but it's not easy.

Another fun thing is to just cut and assemble, with no idea what's going to happen. Most of the Sanitarium Line are like this, at least in specific shapes and patterns. They're designed to be abstract, so if they make a discernable shape it really is a surprise. I thought this one looked like some kind of Picasso-style eye when it turned out. That silver dot, by the way, is a piece of aluminum I had no idea was in there.

I used to make fun of abstract art!

I want to know! What surprises do you get at your work or hobby?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Call Your Better Business Bureau

Just after coming to Iwakuni late in the summer of 2011, an ad caught my attention to give pen turning a try. I had no idea where it would lead me.
"'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'" (Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings)

Now it's led me to be a 'business' owner. I use the word loosely. Turning pens is for me a hobby, albeit one I have a passion for, but certainly not something on which I could feed four mouths. But I do find myself doing all the things real business owners do: interacting with customers, calculating overhead and prices, marketing and advertising, yada, yada, yada -- in other words, a lot of things that aren't fun.

Don't get me wrong, I love doing this. And getting feedback from people I've never met (because, let's face it, my mom pretty much HAS to like my pens) who rave about the beauty of something I've made is very rewarding. But at times I wonder how my feet led me here. I guess it started in the wood shop, envying the work of my mentors until hearing those magic words, "Hey, that looks pretty good. You mind if I try to sell it for you?"
That was Adam, whose mother sold his pens by word of mouth to friends, neighbors and acquaintances. The double-whammy was when I saw Adam the following day. He'd sold the pen about half an hour after he left the wood shop, stopping at the bowling alley on the way home. He showed his pens to someone there and they saw mine among them and bought it on the spot. Cha-ching, I was bitten.

Ever since I've been perfecting my craft, trying to make every pen better than the last one. Never mind that with every sale I spend three times the amount I made on  more pen kits and wood. Getting back to zero feels good enough for me.

I want to know! What hobby or project of yours has snow-balled into something bigger than expected?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Anybody else got wood?

You'll find a wide variety of common and exotic woods in my pens. Take a look at any of the Sanitarium line and you'll see everything from common pine to exotics like cocobolo and palm -- often in the same pen. I'm developing a real appreciation for woodwork and the beauty of crafted wood.

With thousands of types of trees, there are so many variations in color, hardness, grain, weight, etc., etc. It can be really tough to take a pen you haven't made yourself and pick out what it's made of sometimes. Factor in treatments and stains and you can have an interesting guessing game.

For example, if you laid a board of maple, pine and hickory side by side everyone could tell they're different. Yea, they're all yellow/creamy woods, but each has a distinct grain and hardness. Most people who work with wood could probably identify each by name. But cut any one of them down to some five-by-one inch plugs, shave them into cylinders and then stain one dark, another medium and use oil only on the third, and you'll have three very distinct products.

Some are easier to work with than others. Soft woods like holly and cedar cut down like butter and are a joy to work with. Well, cedar has also exploded on me more than once, but it smells GREAT when you're working it. So does black walnut. I just got my hands on some Philippine mango which smelled just like the fruit until it dried out, and probably will again when I start turning it.

Others are more difficult, but have other benefits. Like I learned making Northern Fury, the hard maple rejects ebony dust that the porous pine absorbed. Ebony itself is a $#%@. Temperamental and fragile, ebony cracks and explodes in a strong breeze. There's nothing blacker, though, so you just have to use it. Brazilian cherry is also a must-use. It's porous and fragile, but it makes light dance with a gloss coat.

What's my favorite? I have no idea. I DO have a favorite. I just don't know what it is. I got this chunk of Japanese wood from Vince E. at the woodshop. I made a pen, put some tung oil on it and WHAM. I have never seen any wood play with light the way this stuff does. Pictures don't do it justice. You have to see it in the light. It shimmers like nothing else. The original block had about 313 rings. We've debated its origin in the woodshop. I've given pieces of it to Japanese friends. Nobody can say for sure what this stuff is. So far I've made a few pens and a knife with it. I'm going to cry when it runs out.

I want to know! What's your favorite material, food or 'thing'? What do you like working with the most?