Most hobbies develop organically. Agricultural business junior Casey Martin’s hobby began because one day he decided that he needed one.
Pens, bottle stops and corkscrews ship out from his one-man assembly line in the basement of his Mill Street home. Martin sells his handmade pens, usually made of wine barrel staves, through a website of his own design.
When he began, names and shipping addresses came from supportive friends and family. Today, orders come in from places like Texas and New York.
Now, one year after he began his experiment with craft pen-making, Martin is about to finish converting his first entire wine barrel into pens. The barrel, by his estimate, converts into about 300 pens — and it’s only one of the materials he uses to make his products.
Niche, but successful enterprise
Two years ago, Martin’s free time was mostly spent playing video games. Today, he’s working in a unique market — he’s the only one he knows of who makes pens out of old wine staves.
Video by James Hayes
Maybe it’s perfect timing, too. Martin’s products are entering the limelight as the demand for all things labeled “artisanal” and “hand-made” are on the rise, emblemized by websites like Etsy. They’re destined for bourgeois coffee tables and hands with collar-stayed sleeves.
Philosophy professor Ryan Jenkins defined authenticity in crafted products as “not just being created by humans, not just something special and unique, but involving a certain kind of attitude and emotional attachment, a care that’s taken in the work.”
Even as this quality is commercialized for coffee tables by collar-stayed folks, something about Martin’s work continues to hold that charm from authenticity. He makes it all with his own hands, after all.
“It really comes down to this,” Martin said. “I think it makes a huge difference when you know that it was handcrafted by somebody who put energy and appreciation into what they’re making rather than just a machine that’s programmed to make something.”
His father, an engineer in the wine industry, donated some empty post-Pinot barrels for the enterprise.
The hidden workshop
The house on Mill Street atop his shop is extremely well-kept. It’s well-lit and spotless. Against the heavy rain outside, it’s a cozy step above the student squalor. It makes sense that he’s able to keep heavy machinery in the house without the protest of the landlords because they’re his parents.
Though Martin isn’t considering expanding the craft to a full, blue-collar trade, the northern California native looks the part. He’s tall, solidly-built and blond with a demeanor seemingly straight from the Midwest, topped with slow, logical talk and reflexive smiles. He’s the perfect fit for honest, mechanical handiwork.
Downstairs, the workshop is under siege. It’s unpragmatic to build basements in California, primarily because of the threat of earthquakes. But the natural threat to his workplace Martin worried about was an overabundance of rain. It doesn’t seem like nature took Martin’s preferences into account. Usually, sawdust floats through the gaze of fluorescent lights. Today, it clings to everything damply.
Despite wet air and a water leak on the far end of the basement, business continues as usual. The center of Martin’s operation is a wood lathe that he uses to grind down blocks of wine stave called blanks into the primary structure of the pen. Empty diet coke cans stick around from earlier nights of work.
“What’s really cool, too, is when I turn the barrel staves on the lathe, it smells really good,” he said. It almost smells like the wine the staves used to hold when they were barrel parts.
Preserving the Martin touch
The spinning lathe is where Martin introduces his personal touch. Every pen is a Martin-made original.
“That’s where you have the freedom to do what you want. You can make it really thin, really thick,” he said.
After the wood is shaped, Martin waxes the pieces and fits them to the long brass tube that makes up the pen’s center. He adds other components, part of kits he buys online. They’re all placed on a mechanism that squeezes the pieces together. No glue, just pressure.
At this point, Martin presents his collection of finished pens waiting to be sent to their buyers. They’re in a black, rectangular suitcase fit for a kitschy action film, the plot of which revolves around a deal gone wrong.
Pens and bottle openers line the inside of the suitcase, each one shiny and different. Not all of them are made of wood; some are part of another project Martin’s working on: acrylic pens.
Acrylic pens, which have a smooth finish like a billiard ball are widely available. However, like his wine stave pens, Martin introduces a totally original approach. The acrylic material is alumilite, a liquid polyurethane plastic. When the alumilite is activated, it solidifies.
“What I’ll do is I’ll add grape vine into the mold before the material solidifies,” Martin said.
The finished product is a vibrant contrast along the surface, bright acrylics and darker, auburn grape vine swirls.
According to Martin’s roommate and history senior Matt Goulding, Martin spends up to 15 hours a week working away in the basement, crafting originals.
“He’s making it in a basement. I don’t know how much more authentic you can be than that,” Goulding said. “His business started from scratch and it’s my understanding that he has dozens of clients at this point.”
Martin says he plans to keep it that way. To him, the magic would be lost knowing that he was selling a pen manufactured by a number he hired on an assembly line, rather than a Martin original.
“This is all built around me hand making them. It needs to stay small to stay itself,” he said.