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?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What takes so long?

So there's a "have your pen custom-made" link in my Etsy store, and I've been pimping for a while in social media to contact me to have your pen customized.

Can you feel the guilt oozing from your screen? Eric B. contacted me sometime in April to have his custom-made. He still doesn't have it. There are two orders through Etsy for customized pens, one of them paid up front. A friend asked for one as a gift for their spouse a LONG time ago as well. So what's the problem there, Pipe?

When I was 18 I worked briefly in my Uncle Russ' store in Norfolk. He had this guy, Vinnie, who sort of managed the place ... sort of. I loved Vinnie. He had an "Ozzy Osborne before he totally lost the ability to communicate" vibe that I -- as a lazy, impressionable teen -- really admired. Vinnie had a catch phrase: "I'll get right on it." You can see where this is going. Everyone except the customers knew that whenever you heard Vinnie say, "I'll get right on it," that whatever you were asking about just went to the bottom of the priority stack. Oh, how we'd chuckle.

I've since grown up. Let me be clear: I'M NOT VINNIE. So what IS taking so long?

In the years since my misspent youth, I developed what would diplomatically be described as a meticulous attention to detail. My wife calls it like she sees it: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I'm not as bad as people you see on TV, switching on and off the lathe seven times before starting. But I'm DRIVEN to do my absolute best at things. If a pen I'm making isn't "good enough," it gets scrapped and started over. And these things have to be done in stages, so as I'm waiting for one pen to dry, I'm working on another. That's why you see pens get done ahead of yours.

It took 6 months to finish Vince E.'s pen, Northern Fury. Ridiculous? Yes. Really poor customer support? Yes. Do I feel guilty? You bet. Am I gonna "Get right on it"? NO. I'll get them done and continue to strive to do it in a more expedient manner. 

I want to know! OCD is my Achilles Heel. What's yours? Comment below!

See my current inventory at:
and http://articents.com/HopeAndGracePens