Wooden Writing Pens the Right Stuff

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Dave Rasdal

CEDAR RAPIDS — A walnut vanity in the main bathroom remains unfinished, as does a wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-ceiling entertainment center in the living room.

But, order a wooden-barrel writing pen from Tom Potter of Cedar Rapids and he’s quick to the lathe in his basement workshop to turn out another work of art.

"My wife (Patty) tells me she’d like it finished some day," Tom says with a laugh about the entertainment center. He knows it will be completed sooner rather than later.

But, three years ago, when he began making pens, he became addicted.

There’s something about making an object people cherish, that they hold dearly in their hands, that they want to keep for a lifetime. Something about getting a second chance at life, too.

Yes, Tom, 57, had open heart surgery Nov. 5, 2011, after waiting several years as an aneurysm continued to grow larger until doctors were ready to operate.

"Every day you think about it," Tom says. "But I did RAGBRAI (bicycle ride across Iowa) last year. I’m on top of the world."

A Cedar Rapids native and ‘73 graduate of Washington High School, he was 16 when he became a carryout boy at Hy-Vee on Oakland Road NE. He’s been with the company since, from Austin, Minn., to Storm Lake (produce manager) to Marion where he’s a full-time cashier.

Tom’s woodworking began with a bowl in high school, progressed to making complete bedroom sets for his children and furniture for his wife.

"It’s funny," he says. "Most of the things I make are for someone else."

But that’s what he loved as a member of the defunct Fine Woodworkers Store where he met other enthusiasts.

"Some of the guys who came in to bring things to turn (on the lathe) made pens," Tom says. "It seems that everybody who does a lot of turning, turns to pens."

Now Tom produces up to 30 pens a month, each requiring two to four hours. His dozen styles sell for $50 to $250 each, depending on wood type, trim (chrome, 10k gold, titanium) and writing point (ballpoint, rollerball fountain pen). All include free refills for life.

"Any wood in the world, I can get and work with," Tom says, pointing to a list that includes ebony and pink ivory, cocobola and leopardwood, mango and palm.

Of course, he often uses the standards — walnut, cherry and Birdseye maple — which you can see and order at www.woodenpen.biz

Or, you could catch him when he sets up a booth, such as this Saturday at the NewBo City Market where he’s been the last couple of weekends. That’s how Tom prefers to make a sale.

"A pen is so personal," he says. "A person has to feel it to know what works best."


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