NEW PALESTINE — It’d be tempting to call Brian Smith’s wooden pen-making a side business, what with all the custom orders, the trade shows and the workshop in the backyard.
Not the case, insists the New Palestine father of two.
“It’s really a hobby that kind of got a little out of control,” he said.
Though Smith does sell the wooden pens he makes by hand, he said the ongoing project is just a way to keep busy, to challenge himself with each new creation.
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It’s a hobby that sometimes spills over onto the kitchen table, into the twins’ bedroom (a pirate pen for Oliver, a “Frozen” pen for Isabelle), and into casual conversation when someone stumbles across the Facebook page for “Wood Pen Guy.”
Not the most creative name, he admits. But it works.
Smith, a full-time school teacher, was always drawn to art — any act of building or creating something new fascinated him.
When he was a preschooler, he gravitated toward the work bench at his school, where the young students were encouraged to play and build with scraps of wood.
Throughout his youth, he loved to sit and watch his dad work on projects in the family’s garage.
When Smith was in high school, he took art classes and enjoyed them, especially the pottery wheel.
But Smith never considered a career in the field; art was always just a hobby. He graduated from Franklin College in 2002 with a degree in elementary education and went on to become a teacher.
It was Smith’s father who suggested they go to a woodworking show in Indianapolis with some friends from church.
That was about five years ago, when Smith stood in a long line of people watching a demonstration on making wooden pens.
The line proved too long for Smith to give it a try himself. He didn’t have the patience to wait. Instead, he went home and pulled up a how-to on the Web. After watching a few videos, he bought a book on the subject.
His interest only grew.
His wife, Stephanie, remembers being puzzled at first when her husband came home talking about wanting to buy a wood lathe.
“I was like, ‘I have no idea what you just said,’” she said.
She soon decided it was time to learn. Her husband’s enthusiasm wasn’t waning.
“I bugged my wife for probably about a month,” Smith said. “Finally, it was just easier for her to give in and let me go buy the stuff than hear me keep talking about it.”
But Smith wasn’t sold on pens as his final project at first. Instead, he tried his hand at shaping chess pieces and even a Harry Potter wand.
“It was just kind of learning to use the tools and learning to be safe and just trying to learn how to shape wood,” he said.
His first pen, made from rosewood, wasn’t too shabby, though it was a far cry from the craftsmanship he displays today.
“It was big; it was rough, wasn’t very shiny,” he said.
After he had about 20 sitting around, Smith wondered what to do with the little collection he’d amassed. He saw a business opportunity.
“It became one of those things — I’m either giving them away or trying to sell them.”
Smith’s work focuses on the middle part of the pen — the metal parts come in premade kits he attaches after he’s done.
He starts with a block of the raw material, which he cuts down to size before drilling a hole through the middle.
In the hole goes a brass tube where the inner workings of the pen will be placed.
When Smith is ready to shape the pen, he affixes the material to his lathe.
The lathe spins the material — usually wood, though he’s worked with other materials — while Smith carefully shapes the piece with a chisel.
The material whittles away in moments under Smith’s skilled hands, taking on the shape of the pen body within a few minutes.
Once the pen is shaped just the way Smith likes, he takes sandpaper and several buffers to the material, which continues to spin on the lathe while all the bumps and grooves are smoothed away.
The pen goes through as many as nine different buffing pads before it is ready for the finish.
That finishing coat depends on the type of material. Smith has painted on layers of super glue, wax and friction polish in the past.
Today, Smith makes a couple hundred (he doesn’t really keep count) pens a year, and the materials he uses are as varied as his clients.
(In other words, “Wood Pen Guy” isn’t exactly fitting these days.)
There’s a corn husk pen that’s popular with farmers, and hunters always get a kick out of his ability to shape a writing utensil from a deer’s antler.
Smith can make a pen from just about anything a client can dream up — bits of metal, an alligator’s jaw; you name it.
Most pens sell for $30 to $40, and he can finish the work in under an hour — a day or two for something really complicated.
Occasionally, there’s a longer-term project. For instance, it’ll be months before the wood pulled from a shipwreck (currently sitting in his workshop) is dry enough to shape.
Now a fourth-grade teacher at Triton-Central Elementary School, Smith finds a way to incorporate his woodworking in the classroom.
When he’s teaching his students economics, he uses his pen-making business in his lesson on profit and loss.
He also hands out pens as special rewards for students who have done well.
Jeremy Sherman works with Smith at the elementary school and has become a repeat client over the years.
As a gun enthusiast, Sherman was especially impressed with the pen Smith made him from a 50-caliber bullet cartridge.
“It’s kind of neat to have the first round fired from my gun turned into a pen,” he said.
Sherman has even turned to Smith for some tips on making pens of his own.
“It’s very rewarding … to take a raw piece of wood and turn it into something,” he said.
Smith spreads the word about his work to the general public by attending small craft fairs near his home.
And whenever it starts to feel like work, that’s when Smith takes a break.
But he’s never off duty for long.
“I have a hard time saying no to people,” Smith said. “For me, it’s not about the sale; it’s about the challenge of making something.”