When it Comes to Woodworking, What Doesn’t Kill You Gives You Great Pleasure

Dana Smith wrote a new career for himself. Photo by Morgan Ford

Dana Smith has always had a penchant for woodworking. He loves the natural beauty of the grain and the story it tells about how the tree grew. But when he was a young man, the unintended side effects of cabinetmaking threatened to shorten his life — and forced him to change careers. Decades later, he tried his hand at making pens. Now he once again enjoys shaping wood into functional art.

How’d you start making fine writing instruments?
Oh, Lord. Let’s give you the short story. Years ago I was a professional cabinetmaker and worked in Boston in a shop. I found out that the petroleum-based solvents were killing me. I went from being at the top of my game in that field to being a bank teller.

How sick were you?
I was ill for five years, with short-term memory loss. Brushing my teeth was an enormous effort. I could not get out of bed for days on end. It took years to recover.

And yet you went back to woodworking …
It was a whim. A friend gave me a pen he made. I went to Asheville Hardware and bought a lathe that was on sale, and some tools.

Photo by Morgan Ford

What do you use to make a pen?
You buy the basic mechanism. Then you take a piece of wood, your blank, and drill a hole down the middle. You insert a brass tube for structural integrity, which you need because you shape the wood until it’s only a 16th of an inch thin in places. After I’ve turned it I continually polish it. Occasionally I’ll put walnut oil and a little wax to finish it. But you can still feel the grain of the wood.

What kind of wood do you use?
All hardwoods. And lots of exotics, for the phenomenal grain pattern you can get even on small pieces. With some types of wood the grain pattern will only look beautiful on a very large piece.

You let the grain dictate how you shape the wood?
Yeah, and some are more swirly than others, depending on the species. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you start shaving it down … not too thick, not too thin. That’s the exciting part, watching the grain pattern reveal itself. Sometimes it’s like looking at the Milky Way. Burls look absolutely gorgeous. But the grain in a burl can shatter. Pieces ping against your face mask.

Why do you like writing with a pen?
You think differently with a pen in your hand instead of a computer. You have to slow down and let the brain catch up and think it through.

How’s your penmanship?
I had to shift to the right hand after a farming accident, and I’ve been accused of being a doctor because of my scribble.

Dana Smith’s pens are on display at Reems Creek Pottery, Weaverville (181 Reems Creek Road #6), and can be viewed by appointment: potterybyrachel@gmail.com.

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