Editor's note: This winter I made a challenge to readers. It was called 'You got to try this'. Basically I asked readers to challenge me to try something unique and then write a story about it. I did receive a few challenges. One of them was from a neighbor of ours at the lake. Gary and Jean Svobodny have a cabin next to our home spending weekends there. They live and work in Willmar which is where I went to do this story. Their challenge to me was to make an ink pen out of wood.
Take a piece of wood, add a few metal components, turn it on a lathe and magically you have a unique and beautiful ink pen.
Sounds easy, but it is far from a simple process. Hancock Record Editor Katie Erdman learned the ins and outs of the process through Gary and Jean Svobodny of Willmar. For the Svobodny's it is a hobby, for Erdman it is a story and much more.
About ten years ago when the Svobodny's son Cory was a senior in high school he watched his brother Ryan work at a place that made fishing pole handles out of wood. Cory came up with the idea of making pens and was soon introduced to a guy who told him where to order the components that would be needed for a pen. He also learned more about ordering different types of wood for the pens.
Soon Cory and his dad started making pens. Cory took some of the completed pens to school and everyone loved them. He sold all the pens they had made and he came home to start making more.
Gary and Cory soon found themselves making and selling pens of all types of wood. They started to look around for more unique colors and even tried some antlers and ivory. Some of the woods are very rare but create beautiful pieces. Other woods are softer and needed to be sent to a special place in Iowa where the wood is stabilized. Sometimes in this process the wood also takes on a unique and beautiful color.
After experimenting with different mediums Cory and Gary began making pens and also a few letter openers. During the Montevideo Fiesta Days they set up a both and sold out entirely. They used this money to buy more inventory and started to go to more shows. Their business grew and they began to spend many nights and weekends dedicated to making and selling the popular pens.
In some instances the orders were large and personalized. One company placed an order for pens to be presented to employees to mark a milestone year of employment. These pens were engraved using a laser engraver owned by a friend. Another order was placed as gifts for groomsmen and the demand continued to grow.
After Cory left home Gary and Jean continued to make the pens. The process seems to be relatively simple but actually requires a lot of careful and delicate work. The first step is to drill a hole lengthwise into the center of a 2 1/4 " x 3/4" block of wood. Into this hole the first metal component, a brass cylinder, of the pen is glued in place. All excess glue is carefully removed after it is dry.
The block of wood is then placed on a wood lathe. The wood is turned while carefully removing and shaping the wood. This process takes a great deal of care since you do not want to break the wood or break through to the metal component.
The wood is turned until there is less than 1/8" thickness around the brass tube. The wood is then sanded slightly, the final sanding done with a strip of grocery bag. The wood is once again turned but this time wax is applied to shine and draw out the color of the wood.
The piece is then removed and final components of the pen are glued on. The result is a sturdy, serviceable and very beautiful keepsake.
Gary now has 137 kinds of wood on hand in his shop. He can make pens, letter openers and has even made darts. The darts require a lot more specified work as the weight also needs to be considered. The pens can also be done in different forms such as fountain, calligraphy or ink. He orders a good deal of the wood and the components from a catalog however whenever he and Jean are on trips they are always on the look out for new wood.
In fact during one trip to the East Coast they toured Mt. Vernon and noticed a piece of wood lying on the ground. They asked a guide on the tour if they could take the wood and were given permission to remove it. The pens they made from this stick were very popular as the wood had a 'history' connecting it to our country.
Gary and Jean have slowed down a great deal when it comes to making pens and now only do it for special orders. They no longer sell at shows or advertise a great deal. Instead they take the time to share their wonderful product and talent with friends and neighbors any time they happen to stop by.