Adding A Personal Touch to Gift Pens

The Origin of the Idea

My older sister, who is the executive leader of a fairly large educational organization, asked me to make custom pens as Christmas gifts for the 50 people she worked most closely with throughout 2009. Since I had already made approximately 80 pens and pencils as gifts for family and personal friends, I was happy to take on the task. I had gained in proficiency while making the first 80 pens, especially with using the “sweet spot” of the skew chisel, so the basic turning work was not overly laborious and I was able to experiment with materials ranging from acrylic to zebrawood. I have included photos of the materials used as well as the finished products. It is undeniably true that I am not a turner of long years of experience and I don’t have any particular insight into how to make a pen or pencil beyond what most of you already know.

I suspect that many of us who make turned items give such items to friends and family as gifts on a routine basis. What I was searching for was something that would add a uniquely personal touch to the gifts as well as a way to help the recipient to understand the special nature of the gift, and if possible, to help tie the choice of the pen material into the person’s life.

I no longer how remember exactly how I arrived at the solution that I ultimately chose, but what I did was to compose an explanatory letter, which I would later print on parchment paper from the local office supply store, that would contain information both useful and anecdotal about each pen and the material from which it was made. I printed these letters and either tied them as scrolls with a piece of raffia twine, again available at the local office supply store, or folded them for presentation in seasonally colorful envelopes.

A Sample of the Text Provided With A Gift Pen

The following text would have accompanied the Kentucky Osage Orange Pen:

About Your Pen

Your new pen was handcrafted in Euharlee, Georgia by Matthew Staley, Ms. Staley’s little brother. The pen started its life as a piece of wood about 1”x1”x5”. This “blank” was cut to size for your particular pen style on the bandsaw and then drilled through the center on a drill press. The drilled blank was then fitted with brass internal fittings held in place with cyanoacrylate to ensure stability. Next, the blank was mounted on the wood lathe and turned to size and shape using a variety of lathe tools. Once correctly sized, it was sanded through as many as 12 grades of sandpaper, and then a special finish, intended for pens, was applied.

Your pen is made from Osage Orange, also known as “hedge apple,” which is scientifically known as Maclura pomifera. This small tree or large shrub is a member of the mulberry family. The wood for your pen was harvested in Louisville, Kentucky.

The heartwood of the Osage Orange is a bright orange yellow while the sapwood is a paler shade of yellow. The wood is very heavy and strong, yet flexible. The wood takes a fine polish when worked. High quality straight grained osage orange timber, which is uncommon, found use as a premium wood for bow making in the 19th century. It is said that a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket! The most common uses of the Osage Orange tree were and are as a windbreak and as cattle deterrent fence, prior to the invention and adoption of barbed wire, due to the sharp thorns on the plant. The tree also found use in applications where its strength and resistance to rot would be valuable, including as fence posts, tool handles, and electrical insulators.

The Osage Orange has a spot of historical fame and importance as it was one of the primary trees planted during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Great Plains Shelterbelt” WPA project, launched, in 1934, as part of plan to prevent further soil erosion in the plains states and to hopefully alleviate the effects of the current, and prevent a future, Dust Bowl, which was devastating Midwestern farming communities, leading to one of the greatest mass domestic migrations in United States history. By 1942, 30,233 shelterbelts containing 220 million Osage Orange trees that stretched for 18,600 miles had been planted.

The pen extends and retracts by turning the body. The pen uses “Parker” style refills when needed, or to change ink color, and the ink cartridge is accessed by unscrewing the lower barrel of the pen.

I hope you enjoy this item made just for you this Christmas!

The Details on the Information Provided

There are several purposes to the first paragraph. Because I either gave the pens to those who knew me personally, or to those who know and work with my sister, I was able to immediately establish a personal connection with the recipient. Secondly, I took the opportunity to clearly establish that the gift was custom crafted, not purchased at random in a big-box store. And finally, I listed out in brief the steps in the process assuming that most recipients would have little to no idea how a wood pen was made. I believed that this brief description would enhance the value of the gift.

The next three paragraphs provide information and trivia about the wood, or other material, chosen to make the pen. As I started working with wood, I became increasingly fascinated by the different species available and wanted to know more about where they came from, what they were used for historically and in the modern world. I guessed that most recipients of these pens wouldn’t know Bocote from Beech and I further guessed that maybe they would find some trivia about the material their pen was made from to be as interesting as I did.

Obviously, the information is different depending on what wood, or other material, you are using and I had a great deal of fun learning tidbits about the different woods I used. How many of you know, for example, that the flagship Prada store in Manhattan uses zebrawood extensively? Or, did you know about the use of lignum vitae as electrical insulators and ships ballast? “Fun facts” of this sort are easily discovered with even the most basic of Internet searches.

The next to last paragraph provides basic, but helpful, information to the gift recipients about refills and the basic mechanics of making the pen work.

In some cases, I was able to tie the choice of wood to the person if I knew them personally. For example, I chose to give pens or pencils made of hickory to people I considered to be of great personal strength. Or, I used Manzanita in a pen for my mother because it reminded me being a child in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and playing in my “fort” in a gigantic (to a 4-year old) Manzanita bush immediately outside our front yard. My sister chose a bloodwood pen for an employee who had apparently worked hard enough to “sweat blood” during 2009. Other pens might have been matched to their recipients because they were from the same country or region of origin as the wood used.

The Feedback Loop

Much to my surprise, the feedback on the pens was incredible! And while I would like to say that the raves were about my superior turning ability, the factor that seemed to garner the most attention and appreciation was in fact the letter accompanying the pens, such as the one above. When I shipped the pens to my sister, she and her boyfriend enjoyed reading through them all just because of the trivia associated with each wood. For recipients, the letters seemed to highlight the personal nature of the gift and they overwhelmingly responded to the insight into the process and to the information about the specific wood used. At least one recipient even sent me a hand-made gift of her own.

While I am not a professional or expert wood turner by any stretch of the imagination, I do think that I stumbled upon a nice and very inexpensive way to add some value to pens, or any turned item, that you intend to give as a gift or which you make for another to give as a gift. People enjoy the extra insight and knowledge that helps them to identify with their gift as unique, made for them, and unlike any other in the world. I had great success with the addition of these letters and I hope other turners try it next time they make a gift item and that they have as much success as I did.