The morning after the ball.

As I write this the house is quiet.
My daughters are still ensconced in their beds, one with the dog and one of the cats curled up beside her. Having seen some of the iPhone snapshots my wife and I took, I know they’re dreaming of dancing the night away in a stunning gown with new friends.  My son is watching Wallace and Grommit. I’ve cleaned up the kitchen from the rubble the kids left last night, and my wife is (I hope) still dreaming of her handsome prince in his stunning suit from ER Fisher.  Hopefully she won’t mind waking up to the middle aged engineer and woodworking artisan I actually am  🙂

Words cannot begin to capture how amazing the Viennese Winter Ball  event felt like.   From the skills of the young gentlemen and ladies and their dancing, the fantastic performers of Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra, Michael Gauthier’s fine photography from Freedom Photography,  the amazing support of all the dignitaries, sponsors, honoured guests of the diplomatic corps, or the tremendous work of the Music and Beyond team I’m not sure I can really capture it all.

For my part, what I found most amazing was the kindness and interest of each of the people who received one of my pens, and the interest of the ball attendees who  enjoyed sharing my stories of how each of them came together.

My wife and I  had amazing conversations with the gift recipients, with the interesting people at our table, and with many other lovely people. The tremendous amount of work that it took to create each gift was repaid tenfold  with the kindness and attention as we talked about how a simple piece of wood became a lovely writing instrument.  The stories of each of the people at our table were so much fun to share,  I know my wife and I shall enjoy remembering for years to come.

Whether you’re reading this because you were part of the ball,  one of the debs and cavs wondering about the pen you received, or someone who read about the ball in the newspaper,  I can simply wrap this up with a simple statement.  I hope to see you next year.

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If it wasn’t for the last minute…

Getting 30 items ready for the ball took another family event. We sorted out all the pen boxes, mind each of which is custom laser etched.


Then we deployed the gift pens I had made for each deb and cav and sponsor.

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And we organized them into each box, view and my daughter did a set of quality checks (And she rejected three!)

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As you can see, find the pens look really lovely.


And as you can see the boxes came out perfectly with the laser etching.

And we handed them off to the lovely folks at the Viennese Winter Ball

And finally, assembly time!

And finally, its time to actually create the pen.
If you’ve been reading along, you’ve seen how I’ve gone from a block of wood to smaller pieces of wood, to holes drilled by my son, gluing with my daughter, and finally actually to the lathe to do the spinning and turning to create the pens. One can reasonably wonder whether this is the easiest stage at this point.

Of course not…

With all the labour and thinking and planning up to this point, it is amazing how a half second’s inattention can take a potential pen of high beauty, something that might  sell for up to $200, and instantly convert it to firewood. The trick is, again organization.

It starts with carefully considering which piece of wood should go with pen mechanism.  The different metals have differing warmths, and some are too bright.  The other consideration is if the wood is a little more plain, perhaps add a piece of very bright metal to the project.  Of course, if the wood is brilliantly figured, a muted or understated pen mechanism might be best for showing off the wood. Once the planning is done (and the debating with my daughters and wife is complete,  there is always 50% of the pens where my opinion isn’t necessarily the final word. Ahem ) the assembly can start.



The pen fittings are incredibly well machined  so that everything becomes a friction fit. No glue required.  My oldest pen is 20 years old, and has never required a lick of maintenance other than an occasional polishing. In this case, we’re going for bling on bling. The piece of maple has some beautiful figure in it, so lets make it really amazing by combining it with high quality gold and black titanium.


As I’ve mentioned, there are limits to what my son can safely do in the workshop, but he does love assembling pens. The trick is to -very gently- compress the wood and metal fittings together. Unfortunately, this is where that fraction of a second comes into play.  The matter of the smallest pressure in the vice during assembly can make the difference between a shattered pen and a gorgeous product.   The next pen after this one, my son got excited and over tightened, the wood fractured, and we went from a beautiful pen to firewood in an instant.  Painful, but given the choice of excluding my son from this activity, its worth a modest gamble to keep in in the work.

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And with apologies for the “blurry cam” (and the dirty fingers)  we have  a beautiful pen.




A cutting time

So after doing all the work to get to this stage, its time (finally) to actually MAKE the pen.
The pens are squared up using a special tool, and mounted on the lathe.


I then begin to cut the pens.   Much of my work is with a special tool called a ‘skew’   Tricky to work with but it makes a beautiful almost finish ready cut to the wood.  If you look at the pictures below, you’ll see I am slicing away paper thin shavings off the wood.

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The end result:  a beautifully prepared piece of wood.  You notice the knots and defects in the wood? Those carefully captured paper shavings I sliced off get carefully blended into the defects, sealed in place with an industrial strength adhesive and polished.

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I then apply some finishing dye to the pens, and organize them in time for polishing on a diamond paste impregnated polishing wheel.

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And the final result:

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Next steps:   assembly

A sticky time: The path to a set of pen gifts

For the gifts for the Ottawa’s Viennese Winter Ball, I’ve talked about the ‘easy’ parts of making a set of pens so far. But then it gets sticky.
As in glue.

Over the fifteen plus years that I have made pens, I think I’ve heard and read about fifteen different means to glue up a set of pens. The challenge is that you’re looking to bond a variety of pieces of woods, some that are more oily, some that are drier, some that are harder, some that are softer. Finding the best chemistry makes the difference between a gift that lasts for years and decades, and a pen that falls apart after 6 months and disappoints the recipient.

Several years ago I switched to using West System Epoxy. It is an expensive glue that is heavily used for aviation and for boatbuilding, and I consider myself having solved the adhesive problem.  Expensive but worth every penny for the robustness of the pen.

The challenge becomes: how to put a whole bunch of pens together.

This is one of the times when being intensely organized is crucial. The epoxy has only a small amount of time to work with before it starts to set up (longer than those poor quality ‘5 minute’ epoxies, but only about half an hour)   So I drafted my daughter into the battle.

Start with all the pen mechanisms organized in their sorting containers.

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Continue with all the wooden pieces organized in their trays.


Cover the dining room table with paper and take over the dining room (and a little of the family room, and a little of the living room) (And you wonder why my wife has some grey hair?)


And get to work with the glue.  Each pen requires one or two metal tubes that reinforce the wood. That tube needs to be thoroughly bonded to the wood, so a proper layer of glue, well spread, is crucial.  It then needs to be inserted into the wooden pen piece to the right position WITHOUT removing all the glue you just put on.

And the end result looks like this. IMG_0342 IMG_1420

And when we’re all done,  the dining room looked a little like this:


Over forty pens prepared for the REAL work.  Actually turning them into beautiful pens.

From sticks to pens: making a lot of holes.

Working on a large commission like for the Viennese Winter Ball requires organization.   When I’m making one or two pens for a client, I can be extremely specific about the piece of wood, but I do not need to be quite as ‘protective’ as I move the project around the workshop.

In this case, working on almost 30 pens, each of which I have a particular design intent,  requires a whole different set of planning.

As an example, I need to figure out how I want to keep track of all the mechanical structures to the pen.  Some pens can have up to 15 different pieces to the pen, so keeping track becomes a real exercise. The easiest way is simply plastic storage boxes which allows me to visualize all the components to the pens and to compare at a seconds effort whether the particular piece of wood will work with the theme of the mechanical structure of the pen.

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As I have mentioned, my son likes to work with me in the workshop, but with his autism there are limits to what he can and cannot safely do.  The power saws are right out, but things like measuring and marking he is good at, and he loves the drill press.  As a result we can start by taking the pieces of wood that I have cut and identify which pens are likely to look best coming out of those pieces of wood.  So we start, with a plastic bin full of pieces of wood that we’ve tried to find the best possible grain and texture, capturing bark wherever possible, and preparing for a great pen.

The funny thing is, my son loves to work in the kitchen to cook: so his markers and ruler are in the kitchen near his peanut butter, and he marks each piece of wood with the type of pen that we’re making.



By the time we’re done, we’ve got a whole bunch of wood ready and we can shift to the workshop to get ready.


I have an organizational system I use when preparing all the pieces of wood: I have old scrap wooden display boxes, which are absolutely perfect for keeping track of project materials.  So   we get started cutting out each piece of wood.  And by the time we’re done, its quite a different look to the box!



What happens next is that my son and I get to work in the workshop, IMG_1942carefully drilling out each piece of wood to accept the wooden barrel that will reinforce the pen


And by the time we’re done, a huge pile of sawdust, and a lot of pieces of wood that are ready to continue on the road to becoming pens.


Making a set of pens: Gifts for the Viennese Winter Ball

As I mentioned yesterday, the lovely team at Ottawa’s Viennese Winter Ball selected me as the gifts sponsor.
So why a beautiful wooden bodied pen as a gift?

Lets start with the basics.

Rather than something made anonymously in a factory in China, my pens are individually made from carefully selected woods (and occasionally acrylics because of the amazing colors that are possible)  My autistic son helps with the cutting and drilling of the wood, my teenaged daughters weigh in on such important matters as color and texture. Some of my pens need very specific matches between the metallic accents on each pen mechanism and the unique details of the wood, and so we end up in a family discussion about just what makes the piece of wood appropriate for a specific pen.

So where does it all start?   Often it starts with the least assuming piece of wood:

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So that is actually “scrap” wood from one of my lovely local wood suppliers. That is Canadian maple (likely  Ottawa valley) and as you can see it has a circular cut out in it.   The rest of the piece of wood will make a gorgeous bowl: but it makes the rest of the piece seem unassuming and “junk”  But if you look carefully there is all sorts of amazing texture and color, plus the pieces of bark are perfect for a pen.   So: start with a chunk of wood like this: looks like scrap, but with the right eye you can start to see potential.

So what’s next?  Take the piece of wood and cut it carefully into sticks

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You can see that I’ve worked very hard to capture beautiful pieces of bark and other pieces of texture in the wood.   By cutting it this way I can start to establish the shape of the future pen.

And then: the most critical part: cutting out final pieces of a pen.


More later.

Getting ready for the Viennese Ball!

The lovely folks at the Viennese Ball Ottawa’s Viennese Winter Ball, were kind enough to accept my proposal of
custom made pens as gifts for the young men and ladies currently working on their dance skills for the
magical evening of Feb 20th.

Each of the debs and cavs from this years Viennese Winter Ball will be receiving a beautiful pen in a
custom laser etched presentation box.  Each pen will be a lifetime memory for them to treasure: a pen that
can be taken to school, used for exams, used to remember a magical evening in their youth.

I thought I’d take a few posts to explain how a custom made pen goes from  an idea  to a stunning gift.

By doing this, I’ll also help to explain why a custom made pen makes sense as a business gift or a promotional
item as well.

I often get asked “How long does it take to make a pen?”   The short answer is  “2 hours”.  The slightly
longer  15 years! (even after 15 years I’m still learning)

The actual answer is “2 hours spread out over ten days”.

So  watch over the next few days as a pen goes from a an idea, to the selection
from a block of wood through all the steps and skills to create a beautiful pen.

As an example of what the debs and cavs will be getting from the ball:

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