Reproduced from the Writing Equipment Society Summer 2001
An accountant once approached me because he wanted to give his colleague a pen for a retirement present. Imagine how surprised I was to learn that this colleague had been sitting at the same desk tor 25 years. I suppose it was as a joke that I suggested that it should really be something made out of a piece of the desk because it would be well seasoned! But that's exactly what I ended up using in order to hand craft the gift pen set. 1’ll always cherish the ‘thankyou’ letter received from the retired colleague. I have to admit, however, that because it is so laborious and time consuming, I prefer not to make one-off gift pens, although from time to time I am pleased to be able to make special extra Iarge pens for handicapped and disabled customers.
It all started over ten years ago. I've always been interested in woods and wood turning and was inspired by seeing some pen examples at a wood turning exhibition. My typically Italian reaction was to perceive the shapes as uninteresting and the finish to be poor. So I challenged myself to produce something with both quality of design and finish. I seized the opportunity when I had to think of a present for a friend's 50th birthday, but it has taken all these years to produce something of the high quality I had set out to achieve - and I'm still getting there! Development has been slow because the process of designing and crafting a hand made pen from scratch is a difficult and slow process, and I'm grateful to all those people that have given professional and technical advice and spurred me on over the years. I am particularly grateful to Don Yendle of Conway Stewart for his enthusiastic endorsement of my work.
Initially it proved more difficult than I imagined, but by designing and making my own tools and then continuously improving them, I have developed a system that enables me to produce a sufficient quantity to exhibit and sell regularly at craft shows. First of all I had to improve the writing quality of fountain pens I was producing. The nibs supplied with the original kits purchased were so poor that I used to polish them laboriously with the finest wet and dry abrasive I could obtain. Fortunately I located a supplier in Germany who agreed to supply me with small quantities of quality nibs in a variety of sizes and types, enabling me to develop and fabricate my own designs.
The pen bodies are made mostly from local woods such as yew, oak, ash and beech. Often I will spend hours selecting and buying small quantities from a specialist supplier in Yorkshire who has a wide range of both English woods and exotic woods from all over the world; I select on the basis of colour and figuring. Walnut would normally look very drab in the size of a pen body, but by careful selection and a few hours of searching, I can usually find some very striking and beautiful figuring.
However, there is a price to pay for this figuring when working with wood, and I might lose half of the barrels during drilling and turning. At the end of the day it's all worth it if I can produce just one striking pen. I see a pen as a small sculpture that you carry with you. It should be beautiful to look at, well balanced for use and sensuous to feel. The whole should focus your thoughts so that you can share them with others. Once again, my Italian origins showing through! Years of experience of selecting woods, together with knowing the colour changes that take place through machining, exposure to air and finishing, helps me to choose the best pen styles when first cutting the wood into blocks back in my small workshop. Blocks can be as small as 110 mm by 12 mm square for small ball pens and pencils; up to as large as 180 mm by 19 mm square for the larger bodied fountain pens and pencils. As most of my pens have matching barrels and tops, they are paired off and at this stage, and I am able to see the flaws and splits in the wood and discard any unsuitable blocks.
The blocks are drilled out to take the brass inner tubes. These are glued into position and left to set for at least 24 hours before being trimmed to square them off for the next and most critical process. Using hand held chisels the wood is gradually cut away to round off the blocks until the wood is only one to one and a half millimetres thick. Whilst still on the lathe, the bodies and caps are also lightly sanded, ready for the lacquering and finishing process. The more porous woods and burrs sometimes need to be filled and repaired before the lacquering. It takes about a week to lacquer and finish the pen bodies and caps. This is done by hand with a brush and I apply a minimum of five coats at four-hour intervals. They then have to be stored in a warm dry place for five or six days for the lacquer to thoroughly dry. Using the lathe, 600 grit paper and a polishing paste, the lacquer is cut back to a crystal clear lustre. If dissatisfied with the finish, I have been known to re-lacquer and re-polish so that some pens may have up to 15 coats! When properly cured, the two-part lacquer is totally impermeable to alcohol and sweat but can be damaged by sharp edges. Sweat appears to polish and brighten the wood colour.
The plated metal components for the standard pens are all bought in as standard fittings. The parts for the "Classical', 'Freccia' and 'Unica' pens are, except for the clips, all made to my designs out of solid brass rod. These fittings are then deburred, finished and polished by hand before being sent to an electro-plater for coating. The 'Argenta' is coated in heavy silver plate, the 'Classica' and Freccia' are coated with 5 microns of 23.5k gold and the 'Unica' fittings are rhodium coated - which I'm told should last a lifetime.
The pens are sold at the fifteen craft shows I attend each year and in three shops, one of which is a specialist pen retailer in Oxford. At the craft shows, I can exhibit all my designs, which allows customers to select a wood, try out the different pen shapes and nib types. It never ceases to amaze me that some customers have not used a fountain pen since they were at school and they are often pleasantly surprised by the smoothness and simplicity of use.
Because of the difficulty in selecting from the twenty or so wood types available, some customers come back two or three times before eventually buying. Some customers are collectors and buy a different style pen each visit. One customer regularly buys a pen from me at the Abingdon Craft show because he has a habit of losing them.
This year, a range of desktop pen boxes and accessories is being offered to complement the pens, and in my endeavour to continually improve the designs and range I'm working on a screw top pen. The current ranges all have click holders and all fountain pens and roller balls are designed to be used with the cap off.
I'm happy to talk pens and woods with enthusiasts and look forward to meeting you at a craft show somewhere.