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Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Impeccable Pens

Posted January 20, 2010

My cousin Mark Williams sent me a couple of handcrafted pens recently. I was so impressed I told him I wanted to blog about his hobby.

Mark grew up in Charlotte but migrated to Michigan where he became a professor of classics at Calvin College. Currently my cousin serves as the Academic Dean for Arts, Languages and Education at the school.  Yes, Dr. Mark is the smart one in the family. Despite his love of Medieval Latin he remains down-to-earth. I think the wood keeps him grounded. He has certainly learned to work wonders with it.

After crafting lots of furniture for his summer home in Maine, Mark decided to tackle something new. The result has been a line of impeccable pens. Attached is a  photograph.

How many of you work with wood? How tough is it to get started? What have you made? Please share your stories as I share an interview with my cousin Mark Williams in Grand Rapids.

(1) How did you get started and how difficult is it?

I got started in woodworking generally about 10 years ago. I began by making simple stuff (flower boxes etc) based on plans that Lowes sent out. Like most hobbyist woodworkers, I expanded my repertoire as my skills and my tools expanded. I now have a basement shop with the usual stuff you find in hobbyist shops (a dozen handplanes, chisels, card scrapers, hand saws of various sorts, a band saw, a table saw, a lathe, dust collection system, a couple of routers, sharpening stones and wheels) plus some stuff most hobbyists don't have (a hollow chisel mortising machine). It's not difficult, though it is challenging in some respects. I find it challenging to try to duplicate a Greene & Greene entry table, but very rewarding when the results turn out acceptably.

(2) Is there any connection between pen making and your job at Calvin? What do you do at Calvin?

No connection whatsoever. Woodworking is an escape from the daily job. I am one of the deans at Calvin, which means I oversee departmental budgets; decisions for hiring, firing, promotion, and tenure; and evaluations for teaching effectiveness, among other things. Calvin has its own woodworker genius, a man named Keith Van Kooten. He does beautiful work. You can see his artistry in almost every building on campus.

(3) What do you like most about making pens?

It's a chance to use my newest power tool, my lathe. Pens give instant gratification, as opposed to my usual glacial pace of doing reproductions of famous pieces of furniture or trying to execute my own designs.

(4) How many do you make and what do you do with them?

I have made several dozen, probably. I gave most of them away for Christmas presents. (I make most of the stuff I give away for Christmas and birthday presents. I have not shopped in the malls for Christmas in years.) I will make another 10 or 12 pens over the next couple of weeks for our church to auction off next month to raise money for a school we support. I have also been asked to donate a piece of furniture for this auction, but I don't know whether I will have time to make that piece. I also plan to give pens to Calvin department chairs who complete their terms of service (provided they haven't caused me too much grief as their dean!).

(5) What's the most difficult thing about making pens? How long does it take to make them?

Pens are not that much of a challenge to make in the sense that you can do two or three in an evening if you want to work that fast, but as with anything spinning at a high rate of speed, if you move the gouge or chisel wrongly, you'll ruin your pen blank and you have to start over. I have messed up my share of pen blanks. When I do, I save them to make jig handles. And some blanks are expensive, so it's a bit of a risk. Dave Barry once said that men will cook if there's danger involved (hence barbecuing over a grill); I guess you could say the same thing about woodworking. There are a few inherent dangers in woodworking: kickback of a workpiece from a table saw (had one of those two weeks ago and ended up with a splendid bruise on my shoulder; just glad it didn't hit me in the noggin!), a workpiece spinning off the lathe (they'll chase you around the shop a couple of times), and so on. Always lots of fun in the shop.

(6) What sort of equipment do you use?

I have a Jet lathe; technically it's called a midi-lathe because it's not full-size. If I win the lottery, I will move up to a full-size lathe. My tool set is still kind of small: mainly Robert Sorby gouges and chisels (woodworkers will know these). The real expense in woodworking is the materials, though. Ebony doesn't come cheap, of course, and practically all other tropical hardwoods are getting expensive, too. I turned one pen out of a piece of pre-ban ivory that a friend gave me; I do not expect to be able to do that ever again. And you simply cannot get the kind of mahogany anymore that Charles and Henry Greene used in their furniture; it's endangered. So, if you like to work with beautifully-figured tropical hardwoods, pen-making is a reasonably priced, ecologically responsible way to do it, plus people seem to enjoy receiving them as gifts.

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  • LMRA Jan 20, 2010

    Beautiful! As someone who has tried a lot of different arts and crafts, I have yet to dive into woodworking. My friends and family think power tools at my disposal is NOT a good idea!!!

    I admire anyone who has taken up the craft and developed the skills to do such beautiful work.

  • axepack Jan 20, 2010

    The lathe is easily my favorite tool in the workshop. Every Thanksgiving my entire family (mom's side) gathers at 1 of 3 locations - Spartanburg, SC, Raleigh, and Florence, SC. All 3 residences (2 Uncles and my parent's home) have enormous workshops. Every turkey day the menfolk gather in the workshop to work on projects for other members of the family or our own jobs.

    We've made every piece of furniture I can think of, pens, bowls, vases, etc. Besides the family all gathering at one house (27+ last year), the workshop projects are my favorite part of the holiday.

    Last year me and one of my uncles crafted a gorgeous mahogany bookshelf with lower drawers. I can't wait to go back down and pick it up with a truck!

  • blytle Jan 20, 2010

    Wow, those are beautiful!

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