Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Finally, a how-to

So when this blog began, I promised to show some sketches and maybe a how-to or two (2or2?). During correspondence with Michael S., a fellow pen-turner who is now the proud owner of the United In Christ his and hers pen set, Michael asked how the pens were made. I sent him instructions, and now want to share these with you. 

Pen turning is a very satisfying hobby I recommend to anyone, and making pens with crosses is relatively simple with beautiful results.

Now, I don't plan on revealing all of my secrets. In fact, I've got an idea to make something similar, but with a cross only on one side ...
Until then, without further ado, How to Make Cross Pen Blanks:

It's a little fuzzy, but I can e-mail these instructions to you. Hit me up at HopeAndGracePens(at)

I want to know! Tell me about one of your 'trade secrets' in your work. Comment below!
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Friday, August 24, 2012

Committed: the "Sanitarium" line

A few years ago at Camp Lejeune I attended an event where there was this old, retired devil-dog hawking handcrafted pens. All I remember was being SHOCKED at the sticker price. "WHAT?!? Fifty dollars? It's a PEN for #$%& sake!"

If you do the math on labor hours invested, etc., etc., it's still a stretch to ask so much for a no-frills natural grain pen. There's a guys who offer his for as little as $8.50. So I figure a) he's buying really inexpensive kits in bulk and b) cranking them out at a cyclic rate. He wrote somewhere that he can produce THREE pens an HOUR, which really impressed me at first ... until I started thinking about what the quality must be like. They'd be natural grain with no special cuts or shapes, no stain or finish, and with a wax coat.

So where's the balance? What's the difference between a handcrafted natural pen and a handcrafted pen with a stain and a durable high gloss? And where do mine come in? When you start cutting and shaping blanks, the labor time exponentially increases.

Some helpful critics on LinkedIn pointed out that I needed to offer different price points. Not everyone wanted high-end products, especially from a new, untested vendor. So there was my challenge: make something just as beautiful at high, medium and low price points to offer visitors real choice.

It just so happened I was toying with an abstract design at the time, a jumble of shapes put together with no discernible outcome. The result was "Sanitarium." I really liked it. And it hit me, this was a solution. This was a design that was both beautiful and relatively simple to make. And using different kits, I could make a line of unique, striking pens at different price points while keeping overhead down.

Now I see what that old guy at Lejeune was talking about. These aren't PENs, they're art. Sure, they happen to write, but their primary purpose is to be something pleasing to look at, to show off and enjoy. I've never been a big proponent of abstract art, but I know what I like. There will be several more Sanitarium pens to come.

I want to know! What are your main considerations when buying art? Have you ever given art as a gift? Why or why not? Comment below!
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Saturday, August 18, 2012

A note on craftsmanship

Anyone who knows me well sees that at heart I'm a simple man. I admire hard work and honesty, nature and things made by hand. I'm not a big fan of plastic, things mass-produced, silicone implants, mega-dyed hair and so on. I've had a few requests for names printed or cut into pens. Some pen makers are happy to oblige. I tend to shy away from anything that intricate and precise. Why? Because I'd have to do it by hand with a wood burning tool, and there's no way it would have the same clear quality it would deserve.

Could a laser engraver do this? Sure. There are a lot of craftsmen out there ready to laser named pens for you, as well as any image you can feed into a computer. There are some beautiful scrimshaw pieces in bone and antler done by laser, some American flags, heck, I've even seen a miniature Mona Lisa on a pen done by laser.

Maybe someday I'll get a laser engraver. The customer is always right. But for now I'm going to stick with saws and glue, sandpaper and a lathe. Admittedly I do have a beautiful chunk of black plastic out of which I'll probably get about 10 pens. And I recently ordered "stabilized" wood, which is basically wood infused with colored plastic. And I'll probably try my hand at some of those acrylic blanks because, doggoneit, they're just beautiful.

I want to know! Tell me about your work philosophies. What's 'right' and 'wrong' to you? Comment below!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Island of Misfit Pens

So there's a small but growing collection of random pen parts littering my work area. Sometimes it looks like the aftermath of some Napoleonic pen battle, the ragtag remains of valiant soldiers who gave themselves to a higher cause scattered about like smoldering remains.

What's that you say? Not every pen is a success? Well, just remember, I got a C+ in woodshop and have a hard time following directions (even my own). Couple that with temperamental woods like hickory and ebony – both of which explode as if laced with gun powder – and you're left with what we've got here: failure to communicate that I didn't care to start over on this project.

I know what you're thinking, and when I say "explode" I mean it. I wear goggles for a reason, not just as a fashion statement. Ok, so I haven't lost any fingers yet, but that lathe spins at up to 3200 rpm and sometimes the only thing holding those designs together are a little glue and a thick layer of hope.

Sometimes I'm able to salvage parts. Sometimes their cadavers stare up at me for weeks, waiting for Igor to return with a brain marked "Abby Normal" or something. Until then, they float around my work area waiting for me to stumble across them and gasp at the memory of the moment of their demise.

They're the Island of Misfit Pens. Maybe King Moonracer will find a home for them ...

I want to know! Tell me about "one of those days" when your project 'exploded.' Comment below!

Thanks for checking in.
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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why not just natural grain?

It wasn't long after I'd made a few pens that I wanted to try something different. Don't get me wrong. I love natural grain. You can get lost and meditate in the natural beauty of nice wood grain.

Hanging out in the woodshop, seeing some of the work of more experienced craftsmen, I started wondering how difficult some of these patterns could be. There were checker boards and Celtic knots and all sorts of shapes and colors. So with a little advice and a lot of naiveté, I started experimenting with some cuts.

The first revelation was in thinking 3-D. What I thought would be a zig-zag turned out to be ovals because it was hard at first to think through the vaguely cylindrical shape. Sometimes an experiment gone awry turned up in a later pen.

Regardless, I really learned to appreciate the beauty of the marriage of natural grain and intricate design. While I still make some natural grain pens, I like to specialize in creating art from nature. I hope you like them.

I want to know! Which of your "accidents" have led to accomplishments? Comment below!
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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Celtic Knots

So what's the most difficult design to make? So far the Celtic knot is by far the most frustrating design to bring to fruition. They're very beautiful, so they can be worth the effort. You just have to keep reminding yourself of that every time the blank explodes or you realize you made a wrong cut – always two or three weeks into the project!

My pen mentor, Adam, showed me the basics. I also downloaded some instructions. Using this as a base, I tried my hand at it with a blank of tambotti wood and pine inlay. Of course, this was a disaster and had to be put down like a rabid dog. Lots of learning took place, though. And I eventually produced "Celtic Haven" in tambotti and pine. It's not perfect, but it taught me the steps and foibles to get there. 

John at the woodshop got his hands on some holly, which is creamy white and easy to work with. Using holly and some padauk strips, the result of my next attempt at the knot was "Pure Celtic." This is one of my all-time favorites for its beauty, and subsequently one of my first sales. 

Bloom's taxonomy of learning tells us that adaptation and improvisation are high on the learning scale. It occurred to me that a six-ringed Celtic knot was possible with a little modification to the process. Lots of experimentation led to "Pathways", which features two 6-ringed Celtic knots of padauk and pine (quickly snatched up by Fran K., thanks!). I've even made an 8-ringed Celtic knot to make its debut in the near future. Note that each ring of a Celtic knot requires a cut, then 24 hours of glue drying before more work can be done.

My nemesis was "Northern Fury." There's a picture of it in the first blog post (and a close-up here: This pen took about 6 months to produce, mostly because I gave up and started over several times, procrastinating each time. After several exploded and broken blanks, I finally got this puppy on the lathe, only to realize that during the sanding process (close to the last step), there was no way to get ebony dust out of the porous pine grain of the knot. I finished and stripped this pen a half dozen times trying to make the white pine look clean. I even white-washed it with thinned paint at one point, then went over each ring with a fine file. In the end, the rings have a battle-hardened antiqued look, which I now actually prefer (but am NOT ready to duplicate...).

Northern Fury was a custom-job for a Marine here in Iwakuni. Because the antiqued look wasn't what he asked for, I started over, this time using a harder, less-porous maple inlay. After 6 months making Northern Fury, the re-make, "Caer Arianrhod" (Welsh for the borealis), took only a week to assemble and turn. I took both pens to him to choose the one he wanted. The funny part? He chose Northern Fury! But he told a friend about Caer Arianrhod, and it sold in a matter of minutes when shown.

So have I given up on Celtic knots? No way! I've got the process down now. Several modifications to the instructions have me producing non-exploding (for the most part) blanks. And let's face it, the knots are beautiful. So you can expect to see a few more in the future ... periodically as the frustration from the last one wears off!

I want to know! Tell me about your most difficult challenge. Comment below!
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