Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Few Good Pens: Interview with Pen Maker Brad Lee


By Beth Terrell



Like most writers, I have a thing about office supplies. You might call it a passion. You might call it an addiction. Whatever it is, I can never get enough of them. Little gold paper clips? Must have some! College ruled spiral notebooks? Can you really ever have too many? Italian leather-bound journals? Come on. Who could say no to that? With that in mind, you can imagine how excited I was to learn that one of my co-workers, Brad Lee, is an extraordinary man who makes extraordinary pens. These are not just any pens. They're beautiful, handcrafted works of art that feel at home in a writer's hand. He has graciously agree to be interviewed for Murderous Musings. So, please, allow me to introduce master pen maker and owner of "American Wood Pens."

Hi, Brad. Can you tell us all a little bit about yourself?

I grew up in Iowa and had two grandfathers who were constantly making or repairing something. I watched and learned. I started maintaining my parents cars when I was 13. I became an Industrial Engineer and have spent the last 30 years making something both at home and at work. I have built a significant portion of our household furniture. With three adult children a grandson, their is always someone who wants something made. I have built a 400 square foot addition on my home and I built the shop where I woodwork and restore old cars.

When did you first become interested in woodworking?

My college roommate made a very nice walnut grandfathers clock in high school shop class that I admired. After graduation and a job, I started buying woodworking tools and using them. I am self-taught with a lot of help from 4 woodworking publications I subscribe to. Now I've been at for 30 years.

How did you become interested in making pens?
After I built my shop, my wife and I went to a craft show to see if it would be a good place to sell some Adirondack chairs I had made. We met a pen maker there who was kind enough to explain at length what was involved in penmaking. The result is my company, American Wood Pens or www.AmericanWoodPens.com.

It doesn't seem like a very common enterprise. Where did you go to learn the craft?

I started on the Internet, where I discovered a Yahoo group of pen makers complete with book titles on how to make pens, supplier listings, question and answer discussions, etc. After that, it was practice, practice, practice. 400 pens later I think a can make a reasonably good pen. I will always keep learning because there is always something better. You just have to find. I still return to read things other pen makers are trying and see if any of those thing will allow me to make a better product.

How long did it take you to learn it? Any interesting stories about the learning process?

Along the way I tore down pens that were not good enough to sell, experienced the worst cold ever from exposure to CA in finishing (ventilation is important), experienced the heartbreak of green wood cracking, and glued my fingers together. That is as much as I will admit to. Each problem generated an appropriate change in my process to prevent a re-occurrence. The most difficult part was learning how to take a picture of a small cylindrical object with enough light to make the grain of the wood 'pop' without glare from shiny metal components. This took 3 weeks of 8 hour a day picture taking and solid advise from a clerk at Home Depot. As you can see I will take information that helps from anywhere.

You sound very focused! At work today, you were telling me about your your pen-making shop. What's it like there?

My shop is 1400 square feet or a nice 3 bedroom house with an 18' X 30' area dedicated to woodworking and wall off to keep dust in. It is heated and air conditioned with very good lighting and wood over concrete for a floor in case I drop tools whose sharp edge would be broken. Many of the small machines and fixtures I use to make pens are homemade.

Where do you find the wood you use for the pens?

The woods come from all over the world including, Australia, Laos, Bethlehem, Africa and South America, through a small number of dedicated pen component suppliers. As I first started showing pens to people, women particularly, commented on how their husband or father would like a particular wood. Then it dawned on me that I had picked out wood that appealed to me. Now my wife helps so that we have woods that everyone might like. Her pen is violet dyed quilted maple. On my website, click on 'About Wood' for pictures of many of the woods and the geographic location from which they are sourced. I have one customer who sent me a piece of a limb form a black walnut tree for me to make him two pens. He later had me make a pen for his daughter and his wife. The wood holds special meaning to him.

What's the most difficult pen you make, and what makes it so challenging?

Typically, the making of one pen is very similar to another with the exception of the specialty wood pens made from individually laser cut pieces. The puzzle pen is made from 36 separate pieces of 20 different species of wood. I buy the components from a supplier who cuts 36 pen blanks on a rotary laser and mixes them to make each set. I interlock and glue each section of four pieces with the fourth one inserted from the inside because the cylindrical shape will not allow the last piece to interlock from the outside. I then repeat the process 8 more times around a foil covered brass tube until all pieces are together.

Wow! That's very painstaking work, but the results are beautiful, as we can see from the photo above. With all that woodworking, you must generate a lot of sawdust. I noticed a link on your site about "interesting sawdust." What can you tell us about that?

'Interesting Sawdust' is a page on the website with that details the pen making process. The name came from looking at the floor on day after making a number of brightly colored pens and concluding that I make interesting sawdust. As I have gone to craft shows, I have been asked many questions by customers which are answered there. The most common question is how long does it take to make a pen (4 days).

Why do you think people love your work?What makes a handmade pen special?

I have found that many people have a interest in high quality handcrafted items. A fine wood pen is like a nice watch or nice piece of jewelry. It is distinctive and no two are exactly the same even if they are made of the same wood. All of our pens write very smoothly. Wood pen are heavier then their metal counterparts giving the writer a feeling of substance in their hand. Desk pens are particularly comfortable for people with both large and small hands. Customers (especially children) at craft shows often reach out to feel the smoothness of the finish.

Is there anything else we should know about you and your work?

I hope in the near future to offer pens from special metal blanks which are new (and expensive) to the handcrafted pen market. I currently making a new line of exotic wood handled crochet hooks which will be available shortly. They are the suggestion of two customers. I will eventually try some exotic wood bottle stoppers as well.
Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed it. I did.


1 comment:

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