The three other students and I in the “Introduction to Pen Making” class at the Woodworkers Club in Rockville are discussing our woodworking ability. One has taken the center’s bowl-turning class, another “Introduction to the Lathe.” The next has just bought a lathe. Then it’s my turn.
“I have put together IKEA furniture? And sometimes I get it right?”
That’s OK, instructor Roman Steichen assures me. The class requires no experience. And so here I am, looking at some wood I am going to try to turn into a pen.
The 6-inch square of wood is called a “blank,” and the first thing Steichen does is give each of us a practice blank already mounted on a lathe. (Everyone gets his or her own lathe.) The lathe spins the wood, and I use a gouge (a metal tool with a curved end) to round it. It takes a light touch, as pushing too hard will make a crater in the wood — but too lightly means you won’t shape the blank enough.
After we shape our practice blanks, it’s time for the real thing. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the pen hidden in this block of knotty maple.
We bore holes through our blanks using a drill press, then cut the blanks in half; one piece will be the upper half of the pen, the other the lower. Then we put metal tubes, which will hold the ink cartridges, into each half. To get the tube into the pen, you cover it with quick-drying glue, then shove it in and twist. If you don’t do it fast enough, it won’t sit properly. Guess what I do? Or rather don’t do? Steichen rescues me and is pretty sure it’ll still work.
We sand the edges down, and it’s back to the lathe. The sawdust flies as I find myself in a situation similar to tweezing my own eyebrows: a little off here, a little off there, no that’s too much, let’s try a little more off this side, no that’s too much, and on and on. When Steichen offers his advice, he does so gently and without condescension.
Finally, we sand and varnish the pieces. Using a pen press to mush the halves together, we line up our two pieces with the ink cartridge and make them one pen. That’s what is supposed to happen, anyway. Due to my earlier glue-related mishap, my pieces don’t quite line up. Steichen manages to turn my incompetence into an actual writing implement.
There is something special about making an item you usually buy, and it’s even better because my new pen is such an improvement from my chewed-up Bics. I show my pen to basically everyone I meet, and briefly consider making it my Facebook profile picture.
I have never had more fun doing something badly for three hours and, despite moments of feeling like a failure, I walked away feeling nothing but successful.