Hi fellow penturners,
Today we’re spending some time with Richard Greenwald to learn more about his experiences with crafting writing pens from scratch. From scratch, I mean no pen kits used here, and he makes his own blanks as well.
Richard has be crafting pens for over 14 years and is best known for his limited edition pen series. He is also well known in the pen turning community for his handcrafted plastic pen blanks. I like that Richard isn’t shy of the term plastic.
Tim: In your early years of pen turning you used wood but now primarily work with plastics for your pen bodies. What are the qualities of plastic that you prefer over wood?
Richard: The colors are more vibrant than wood, but the most important thing that I noticed was the long term use and wear. With a coated wood body, after a long period of use, the finish would basically wear off. This probably has something to do with the substrate being softer than that of the top finish coat. Also, with the wood substrate being a softer material, and people being a little rough with their pens, they got dinged a lot from being used, so they can start looking a little rough; plastic is more forgiving. When you polish plastic, you are working physically on the material itself, not putting a micro thin film on top of it to wear off .
Tim: You started making kitless pens in the early 2000’s which was before there was a lot of information available on the subject. What were the challenges you faced?
Richard: A lot, since I didn’t know what I was doing, you might call it “on the job training.” Design, engineering, tool making, machinist skills, those are some of things I had to teach myself; luckily I was a lapidary/goldsmith, so I knew about precious metals and polishing hard objects, but all the other stuff, that was basically learn through mistakes. I am pretty sure that you will retain more after screwing it a couple of times, than getting it handed to you, or getting right off the bat. I didn’t know how to thread on a metal lathe, but, after you screw it up ten times, you learn to do it right.
Tim: Hands on experience is a wonderful teacher.
Tim: Using a kit, many penturners are able to make a complete pen start-to-finish in an hour or so. A kitless pen must take some extra time. What is your typical time invested in your pens?
Richard: Well Tim, that depends on a few variables, your skills set, your equipment, if you’re going to make a one of a kind or production, what kind of pen, as a ball point with a actuating point is harder to engineer than a fountain pen made from parts, roller ball, or a capped pen; as you are now introducing internal moving parts and stress points. Another thing, are you going to rob a kit for parts, or are you going to make, if not everything, from scratch. For a production pen, between designing the pen, making a prototype, making any specialized tools, making plastics, making parts, turning and polishing, then assembly, it can total up to forty hours to make one pen. When I was making kit pens back in the ‘90’s, it got to the point where it took less than a half hour to make a pen; so there was a big difference in the time of manufacture.
Tim: Your limited edition Foresta Verde model pen was a success with pen collectors, selling out in the first year. What was the inspiration for this pen? Why the edition quantity of 62?
Richard: The basic reason for a quantity of 62 pens was simple, that was the amount of mechanisms I had at the time; I had not yet had a relationship with Schmidt. The only inspiration that I had for that pen, was I wanted to do something different.
Tim: I like the simplicity of your decision for limited quantity runs. It’s a reminder that things don’t always have to be complicated.
Tim: Did you face any challenges in the design and manufacturing of the Foresta Verde pen series? Is there anything you would do differently?
Richard: The challenge was to design a pen that was different and to use the mechanisms that I had on hand, so that pen was designed from the inside out, designing the pen around the mechanism. This being my first limited edition ball point pen, Foresta Verde was a learning experience, so yes there are a few things that I would have done differently. First, earlier I mentioned ‘stress points’ and that model had one near the nose of the pen, so instead of using a threaded silver tube for reinforcing around the protruding tip of the refill, I would now use a solid silver nose cone (you notice, I use the term ‘nose cone’ instead of what pen makers call a nib, to a pen collector, of which I have been one for many years, you use the term ‘nib’ it is instantly taken to be a fountain pen). Second, since Foresta Verde does not have any supporting interior brass tubing, so I would not have used polyester blanks.
Tim: How do you determine your finished pen prices? What advice do you have for others that are trying to break into the high-end collectors market?
Richard: Time, materials used, selling it directly or going through retail outlets, what the market will bear all go into factoring what a pen will cost. If you are lucky enough to get into a retail pen store, their mark up is at least 100 percent. Collectors look for something original, different and of quality. If Joe takes a piece of purpleheart and makes a cigar kit pen, and Bill takes a piece of wenge and makes a cigar kit pen, to a collector, it’s the same pen, even though two different people made them, it’s just two pens made from the same kit that there are thousands of. Take those pens to a pen retailer, and unless the wood that the pen was made from has some historical importance (say…wood from the cherry tree that George Washington chopped down), he is going to hand it right back to you, because wood pens just do not sell in a retail pen store, and he knows that it is made from Chinese parts, and he has enough commercial pens made from Chinese parts in his store. Now, take that same cigar kit pen, do something totally unique, complex inlay, carving, different materials, something that makes it stand out from all the other cigar kit pens, and you might stand a chance of getting it in his store. A kit-less pen, where everything is totally designed and made by hand, by one person, that is unique, and the uniqueness brings out the collectors.
Tim: You make your own plastic pen blanks and now offer blanks for other pen turners. You have a new material in development called FLEXIGRAN. What makes this different from other resin blanks? When will it be available?
Richard: I really didn’t like the resins that were commonly used in making pen blanks, they are either too brittle to hold threads, not strong enough to get a thin wall body without a tube supporting it, not UV stable so they yellowed with age, or their pot life was too short to do what I do, so I started trying different resins used in different industries and making sample blanks. Last year, a friend of mine who is one of the last pen manufacturers who makes pens here in the US, stayed at my house after doing a pen show, and when he was in my little shop, ‘pilfered’ some of the samples and took them back to his factory, a month later, I received a package from him that had three pens made from the samples (I did show these pens at the 2013 MAPG and at the Washington DC Super Pen Show). They came out, if I must say so, spectacularly. So, like everyone who gets a new pen, I played with it; the wall of the cap is right around 1/16” thick, I squeezed it, it flexed, but did not crack or break, so then I threw it down on a vinyl covered concrete floor, nothing, not even a scratch. I am now in the process of making twenty mini sheets for his next limited edition pen for the end of the year. When that is complete, I will be making some polyester bricks for stock, as I am sold out of all my premium colors, and when that is done, I will be making FLEXIGRAN for sale. After that, I really have to get to nib-tipping for the fountain pen people, as they have been pressuring me to get started, and that waiting list has been growing.
Tim: Sounds like you will be busy for a long time. I’m sure there will be lots of turners excited to try the FLEXIGRAN material.
Tim: You have pen parts available for pen turners interested in kitless designs. Looking at all the options available can be overwhelming. What advice do you have for beginners that might be unsure of how to get started with kitless?
Richard: Start simple, do not go overly complex. Take a pen kit, bastardize it, do not use all the pieces and make it your own, who said you have to follow directions? After that, then you can progress to your own designs, I have one ball point mechanism from Schmidt (sorry for the commercial) my #10179, that is one of the easiest mechanisms to design a pen around, Hans Wunch wrote a tutorial in the IAP library using that mechanism. (see link listed at end of article) You can always email a question to me, if I know an answer, I will tell you.
Tim: Great advice. Thanks for the tip on the Schmidt mechanism, sounds like a great starting point for kitless design.
Tim: You have some specialized tools that you use for making kitless pens. Do you have a favorite tool that you simply can’t live without (besides the lathe)?
Richard: Besides my mini machinist lathe and my mini mill, when turning a pen (which hasn’t been for a while now, too busy) my old style rectangular skew, can’t stand the oval ones. Other than those, it depends on what I am doing.
Tim: Last question, what is your favorite color or color combination?
Richard: Since I make my own pigments, the one I am working on at the time…no, I love blues with golds and the old Waterman Patrician Turquoise, Chinese Red with golds…even have a room in my house with that color combination.
Thanks Richard for taking time to answer a few questions and lend your expertise to your fellow pen turners.
Check out Richard’s website – Richard L. Greenwald, LLC Pens, Pen Parts, and Photographs