Meet Handcrafted America’s Artisan Tom Gauntt, Chesapeake Pen Company

Tom Gauntt, Chesapeake Pen Company

Pen maker and artist Tom Gauntt grew up in Birmingham, Alabama with his younger sister in a home full of artists and makers. His mother had the “artist’s eye” that led Tom to see things from an artist’s perspective and his father and grandfather showed him how to build or make most anything. Tom had a natural ability at painting watercolor and even studied art for a while in college. During breaks from college, he worked as an apprentice electrician and even seriously considered pursuing that noble trade full-time. Given his artistic bent and his keen desire to build and make things, it’s no surprise Tom has combined two of his passions to create handmade items that are also artistic expressions.

After a few false starts in college as far as a major was concerned, Tom finally landed in the Stephens School of Business at the University of Montevallo in the heart of Alabama (it’s actually the geographic center of the state!) A self-acknowledged “beach bum” living along the Gulf of Mexico for several years following graduation, Tom eventually discovered his passion for flying airplanes. Tom parlayed his degree in business administration into a coveted flying slot with the United States Coast Guard as a C-130 pilot flying out of Clearwater, Florida and Kodiak, Alaska.

Seeking more geographic stability to raise a family, Tom and his wife Karen settled on Kent Island, Maryland, where Tom works his “second job” as captain for a major airline. Although his flying job does take him away from the studio for several days at a time, Tom says the varied schedule helps keep both passions interesting. His days away from flying allow Tom to focus exclusively on making, researching, and designing new pens and other turned items.

Working with wood has always deeply interested Tom and an illness years ago forced him to throttle back a bit on the more physically demanding woodworking activities that he enjoyed. During a conversation with his daughter (an artist, as well, studying fine art in college) about pens, they decided to buy a small lathe and see what kind of pens could be turned. Tom was instantly hooked and spent untold hours honing his skills. During a walk on a nearby beach on the Chesapeake Bay, Tom picked up a piece of driftwood, noticing the black veins running through the creamy colored wood. Inspiration struck and he dragged the waterlogged piece back to dry, and as he says, “just see if something beautiful was inside.” Something beautiful was most definitely inside as the dark spalting of the decay process contrasted with the creamy color of the wood. The result was a visually striking and completely unique hand-turned pen.

An avid sailor with a deep love of the water, Tom was able to combine all of his passions together and Chesapeake Pen Company was created. He has enjoyed every moment of building Chesapeake Pen Company, but what he really enjoys is the human connection. Creating commissioned pens is what truly inspires him.

“In our fast-paced and digitally connected world, we are virtually connected all the time but what we really need as human beings is the tangible – the physical connection to others. I can take a piece of wood from the Chesapeake or from a family homestead or Hemingway’s house in Key West and turn it, no pun intended, into a talisman that connects people together tangibly. That is incredibly humbling to be a part of,” Tom says.

Meet Tom…

What drew you to your chosen craft?

Turning pens, especially the way I’ve gone about it, is part woodworking and part visual art. My interest in woodworking began when I was probably five or six years old in my grandfather’s workshop. My interest in visual arts started when I was in high school and has carried on since then. I found myself in the fascinating world where woodworking and visual arts meet in the form of pen making as the result of an illness. Several years ago, I came down with a temporary illness that sidelined my more typically demanding physical activities like biking and sailing and more strenuous woodworking projects like cabinets and bookcases. I was looking for something – anything – to stay busy in a productive and creative sense. During a conversation with my daughter (who truly is an artist), we were talking about our mutual interest in pens when I suggested that we try turning a few. It was one of those magic moments in life where you fall in love with the work. In a way, I didn’t choose the craft as much as the craft chose me!

What do you enjoy most about your craft?

I’d say there are two things I enjoy most about making pens: I truly love the sense of personal accomplishment I feel when I finish a pen – when it’s done, I know it’s as perfect as I can make it. Seeing the process from the beginning where I am dragging home a waterlogged piece of driftwood to the end where the incredibly tight tolerances of wood and metal meet and to see them fuse together so seamlessly is an incredible feeling. To create something so completely useful and yet unique and beautiful is a wonderful experience.

The thing I enjoy most about being a pen maker is the chance to capture a moment in time. I often say that our most valuable commodity is time. To have a hand in “capturing time” for someone is what makes this endeavor so completely rewarding. A pen can be a physical representation of many things: a birthday, a promotion, a wedding, a vacation, a thank you, even just a simple “I love you.” I treasure the thank you notes I have received from those who have been given one of my pens.

Why is it important for people to make things with their own hands?

I love this question! I think we all have some ability or talent to make something. It could be peach cobbler or a fishing rod or yarn. It doesn’t matter what you make so much as that you make. Making things by hand puts a giant red neon sign over your head that flashes “independence.” When you are able to, and do, make things, you are then an essential cog in society where you are productive and not dependent. As our world and society evolve, advancements in knowledge and technology allow those of us who make things to learn the lessons of those before us with such breathtaking speed that we can harness the success and knowledge of those who share their passions with us. Behind every maker is wealth of experience achieved by others. Simply put, when a person makes something with their own hands and heart, they are adding to the human experience – the very fabric of life.

In what ways are handmade goods better than those that are mass produced?

While there is certainly a place for things that are massed-produced, a handmade item is always going to be able to convey something that a mass-produced item cannot – the most basic tenet of the human condition – the emotion of connectedness and of belonging. With a handmade item, like a pecan pie or a painting or even a cowboy hat, we create a tangible link to our very existence and a connection to others. A one-off acoustic guitar made by hand may sound very much like an acoustic guitar made by a robot, and if robots were playing the guitars, it probably wouldn’t matter much to the robot. But when a person plays a handmade guitar, the feeling that is generated is different than a mass-produced guitar. Let’s take my little passion of pens: I can create a pen that writes very much like the high-end mass produced offerings from Mont Blanc and Visconti and Pelikan, but I can do one thing they have a very difficult time doing on a mass scale – create unique connectedness. I can take a piece of wood from the family homestead or mountain top where a marriage proposal was made or from a family vacation spot and create an object that connects people together so powerfully that they cry tears of joy simply holding the pen. It’s really hard to achieve emotional reaction on a mass-produced scale.

What does the future hold for your type of work?

I think there is a general unease in society today as our world turns increasingly towards digital communications and technology that handmade items will become passé or obsolete. Things are changing quickly for sure, but interestingly I think as we advance further and faster into the digital age and instant communications, the desire to hold, use, have, and cherish things that connect us to other people or places or experiences will only grow. We can facetime and buy software and read about almost anything discovered since the dawn of time, yet we are doing this with radio waves. We can – and do – communicate literally at the speed of light. All these zillions of 1’s and 0’s flying through the air with the entire known cosmos at one’s fingertips and yet we are becoming increasingly insulated and isolated from the human experience. We need to connect with others on an almost primordial level. There are few things that create the emotion of connection like a personally-designed, uniquely-created and superbly-crafted item – especially if that item has a utility. I think the future of handcrafted items has never been brighter!


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