Sunday, October 18, 2015

Why buy handmade crafts?

Part of my research into setting up GalwayPens was of course developing the dreaded business plan. I wrote one in 2012 which was 48 pages long (and hated doing it as I’d rather have spent the time turning). I had it looked at by a friend who owns a large manufacturing business here in Galway (which he inherited from his father). He read through the document and handed it back to me one night when we went out for a few pints. I took a notebook and one of my pens with me that night and we brainstormed as much ideas about the business as the pints allowed (yes I give him the pen at the end of the night and didn’t charge him). My friend has spent all his working life working in high-volume manufacturing environment. Like me, as soon as he could do something for the family business e.g. sweep the floor, or operate a CNC machine, his father had him working too. He couldn’t get his head around why I wanted to start to produce low-volume once-off pieces. He suggested to me that I should set up a small workshop to mass produce wooden pens (he was aware of my years spent in manufacturing). Or better still; out-source the whole production to a third party, for example go to China. His idea was that I would develop and keep the brand-name but get someone else to make the pens.

I remembered thinking that this mass producing and outsourcing idea made me feel uncomfortable. It went against the direction I wanted my business to go in. I recounted the story to him of the six pens I made from granny’s chair and the emotions attached to them. I wanted to get the idea across to him that buying something that is hand-made locally is different than the mass produced items we buy every day. I tried to explain to him that hand-made crafts have a connection to the person who has made something special for you. They have put their blood and sweat, and heart and soul into making something of more value than just money alone. This was good stuff, and I had to write this down. Looking back on the notes I took during that night out, I realised I was “turning soul into wood”. I had actually written this down as we tried to develop an elevator pitch (something I’ll come back to in another post). This was later to become the tagline for my business. It was a simple way of telling my story. I needed to find a way to tell this story to more people. The notes became more and more disjointed as the night and the lovely pints continued. He went home that night with my pen in his pocket, but I don’t think it meant anything to him. There was no story attached to it that meant something to him. He wasn’t aware of the effort I’d put into making the pen for him or even what the pen was made from (too many pints at that stage). Reading back on my notes, I’d actually written that fact that he wasn’t too impressed by the pen as I hadn’t reinforced the effort I’d made in making the pen. To him it was just a thing to write with. I still have the pages of notes I took that night. They are summarised as follows: I had to make stuff that mattered and the stuff had to matter to the person who wanted it.

I continued my research and I came across this quote from St. Francis of Assisi:

He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

I think this best describes my work. I have always worked hard and put the maximum effort into everything I did or made. Now I needed to convince people to buy from me. I was always aware that when you buy something from an artist/craftsman, you are actually buying more than a simple object. What people are actually buying is the result many hours spent making mistakes and experimenting. I’ve spent five years experimenting and learning. Don’t forget the many times of pure frustration, getting hit in the face by wood chips, the grazed knuckles, cut fingers, the many breakouts (where the timber fractures along natural internal fault-lines which you can’t see until you start spinning the piece of timber) and catches (where I lose control of the chisels and it digs into the timber while on the lathe causing the timber to snap off the chuck at high speed), but also the moments of pure joy when you make something beautiful, when the polish brings up the best in the timber. Not to forget the simple joy of digging through an old woodshed and finding a piece of timber which I would use to make lovely pens. I dread to think how many hours I spent in my self-imposed apprenticeship trying to make the next pen better than the last one. I had to forget about my mistakes and time spent learning, and to remember all the lessons learnt. Also one of the things my father always said to us when we were young was quite simple “do it right, or don’t do it at all.” Everything I made had to be made right.

So back to the question I posed at the start; why buy crafts? Well the answer is simple. You’re not just buying a thing – a mass produced object which you will have no hesitation in dumping in a bin; you’re actually buying a piece of heart, a piece of soul, and quite literally a small piece of someone else’s life. You’re buying something that is real and honest, something you can keep and use (and preferably reuse) on your journey through life. Hence my tagline “turning soul into wood”. Every pen I make has more than just a piece if timber and a few pen parts. It has a small piece of my soul in it.

By the way, I recently caught up with my old friend and we went for a few pints again. He asked about the business and how far along I was with it. I told him I was nearly ready to launch.  I asked him about the pen. It turns out that his wife found it in his shirt pocket the next morning before it went into the wash, and she kept it. She took a shine to it and he told me she still had it in her bag and used the pen daily. He admitted he should have kept it as it was quite a nice pen (when he looked at it without the beer goggles on) – it was made from bog oak and has gold plated parts on it. Naturally he asked me for another one. This time I charged him. Success. I included a hand-written note in the box when he collected it. It’s a quote from Elbert Hubbard: “One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man”. He agreed.

Why woodturning Part B.

Why Woodturning?

Continuing from my first post, I try to answer why I “do” woodturning. In the last post, I explained my background, and how I started woodturning. I spent a few years pottering away in my #ManShed when the following occurred. I call the story “granny’s six pens”.

One day in autumn 2013, an elderly client of my father’s called to my house and asked me if I could fix a wooden chair he had. He brought me to the boot of his car and in was a pile of smelly damp wood-wormed pieces stuffed into and old plastic fertiliser bag. When I took the pile out of the boot, some of the pieces of the chair were rotten or missing. He accepted it couldn’t be repaired, but of the few pieces remaining, I told him I’d make a few pens for him. He told me to go ahead, as he was only going to burn the pieces otherwise. I turned six pens that night. The chair was made from very old oak and the pens took a wonderful sheen when they were polished. Each pen was a light brown in colour and I used silver plated pen parts to finish them. I even got a few boxes from a local jeweller. This was the first time I had a pen in a box for a client. The next day, I called into the man’s office in town (he was a managing partner in an old Galway law firm) and nervously presented the pens to him. He took the pens, sat down at his desk, and broke down in tears. I was shocked as I thought I’d done a good job on the pens. He explained his emotional outburst was caused by the fact the chair was his grandmothers. As a young boy, over sixty years ago, he remembered sitting in her lap as she sat in the chair by the fireside and she held him telling him stories. He said that the pens gleamed like the way the turf fire-light used to glint on the old chair as his grandmother took pride in keeping it clean (his grandmother had inherited it from her grandparents as one of her wedding gifts). Over time, he told me, his grandparents passed, and the family grew up and scattered. The roof eventually fell in on the old house and everything rotted. He told me he has visited his grandparents’ house recently and found the remains of the chair still by the fireside which he took and put in the boot of his car. He opened a drawer in his desk and took out a small wad of money and started to count out some notes. I refused to take any payment from him, telling him they were a present. To be honest, after seeing his emotional response, I just couldn’t take a penny from him. I met the same man two days before Christmas later that year. He told me he had given a pen to each of his siblings, and they too had a similar emotional response. He said they were all writing down the stories they could remember and that if he would ever publish them, he would acknowledge me. The stories were to be put into a book and copy was to be handed out to all his grandchildren and his siblings’ grandchildren too. When I think about the pens I made for him, they came from a piece of timber that passed through five generations of his family and by the time his grandchildren inherit the pens, the piece of timber will have passed through seven generations of his family. He has now semi-retired from work, and I meet him out walking regularly. He always has one of my pens in his jacket pocket.

This story of how the timber was reused and upcycled influenced and inspired me to think about going into business. This would be one of my unique selling points. I would take timber from a client, or source some timber and turn it into a nice pen that actually meant something to the owner. After all in this digital age, we learned to write first before we learned to type and who doesn’t like using a nice pen? However, I would spend the next two years continuing to practice my turning, getting my fingers smashed up, experimenting with different timbers and finishes, working on my social media and learning how to build my brand GalwayPens.

To answer the question, why woodturning, well I think the best answer is that I do it because I like it. It’s true that if you do something you actually enjoy, you’ll never work a day in your life again. Working with your hands, and using your head, is real and honest work. There is a level of pride and satisfaction in doing it that could never be achieved by working for someone else. I’m not knocking being employed in a day job by someone else, I work hard and deliver results every day, but doing something you enjoy, especially for yourself, gives you a different, and positive emotional satisfaction that helps bring a better balance in your life (I’m reminded of a motivational quote that helped inspire me – if you don’t build your own dream, the best you can hope for is to be hired to help someone else build theirs). By August 2015 I’d made and given away over five hundred pens. I decided it’s time finish my self-imposed apprenticeship and to go into business making and selling hand-made wooden pens. I know that I’ll never make enough money to leave my current job, but I don’t think it was ever in it for the money anyways (if your only goal in life is to make money then you’ll never become rich). However that’s a story (blog post) for another time.

Big Hairy Audacious Goal


A BHAG (pronounced Bee-HAG) is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal – a strategic business statement which is created to focus an organisation on a single medium-long term organisational-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not regarded as impossible. A true BHAG is clear and compelling, and serves as a point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It’s a clear finish line so the organisation can know when it has achieved the goal. People like to shoot for the finish lines instead of meandering along.

Everyone knows that @NASA achieved their vision of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” @Google has a mission to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Closer to home, @CityBin here in Galway, have a vision to have their bin service in one million Irish homes by 2020.

How do you decide what your BHAG is?
I got a copy of the book “Built to Last” (Jerry Porras and Jim Collins) where they introduce the concept of BHAGs. They didn’t define exactly what it is. President Kennedy simply said “man on the moon.” It’s along the lines of you throwing a hat over a wall and then you figure out the best way to get it back. A BHAG has four characteristics:
1.     They're very, very big.
2.     They will take several years to achieve.
3.     You won't yet know the details of how to accomplish the goal when you set it.
4.     The goal is specific enough that everyone will know if you achieve it.

Think about the following when setting a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. According to Jim Collins, that involves answering three important questions in no particular order:
·         What can you be the best in the world at?
·         What are you passionate about?
·         What will drive your economic engine (where does the money come from)?

I have been wondering what my BHAG is. I’ve given some thought to the questions above. Recently (while in launch mode) I’ve been so busy learning, making, healing (a dislocated thumb, and a few cuts and scratches, not forgetting the chuck key which hit me in the unmentionables), business building, meeting people, going to seminars, giving demonstrations, giving away free stuff, that I think I’ve lost some of my focus. Apart from the love of #woodturning, why do I do what I do? Will I ever make money? Am I in it for the money? What am I learning? What do I want out of this? So I need to think about my ultimate Big Hairy Audacious Gaol. After a lot of soul searching and thinking I think I’ve got it.

BHAG: to be able to enjoy the #woodturning journey all the time

Well I know that won’t happen until I hit retirement age, and I’m not sure at the moment how I’m going to do it, but I think it’s a good goal to start to focus on. I like the sound of it, and I haven’t got a clue right now how I’m going to achieve it but I’ll go ahead anyways and throw my hat over the wall. In the meantime I can focus on a much simpler goal – simply to get my business into a position where it is self-sufficient. However, I’ll still keep my BHAG in mind. I’ll have to do something unique, or do something uniquely well. I’m still very fond of the saying that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life again. Food for thought.

What’s your BHAG?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why Woodturning Part A

Why Woodturning?

This is a question I’ve been asked many times: why do I “do” woodturning? Recently, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and have decided to share my thoughts in this blog. The initial answer to the question was a bit long, so I’ve split it into two posts. Here is the first part.

Some people think I do it to relieve the stress of the 50+ hours I currently work each week as a manager in a large retail company. However before I was a Retail Manager, I was a Manufacturing Supervisor working for a large multinational company working similar hours during the night, and before that I was a Fast Food Manager working for another multinational company (doing it their way many hours a week). I have been in management for over twenty-five years so by now I am well used to work pressures and working hard for long hours. Management is mostly head work and generally the work isn’t very much hands on unless you count all the pen pushing you have to do. I thought that if I was doing so much paperwork, I might as well have a nice pen but I could never afford a “good” one.

Before I worked in management, I was employed as a labourer on a building site, working for the family building contracting firm here in Galway. As soon as I was able to carry a block and hold I shovel and push a wheelbarrow, I was brought on the sites. Working as a labourer, I was primarily working with my hands and some basic tools; lifting things, carrying things, mixing things, pushing things, pulling things, shovelling things, sweeping things, digging things and the fun part was smashing things. Demolition was always done in a controlled manner. From an early age I learnt there was value in everything taken out of a demolition project; doors, windows, roof tiles, nails on the ground, and especially timber. The timber was always divided into two piles – for taking home for cutting up and burning, and the rest “for the shed”. The good timber from the demolition always went to the shed before it got wet with the intention of being used in a building project later on. The sheds were and are still full of wonderful pieces of timber, old doors, windows, furniture, and many other odds and ends. Some of the timber has sat in sheds for over forty years.

I always wondered what to do with all this timber and in 2010, got the loan of a lathe and some woodturning tools from a friend. I built a shed in my back garden which I christened the #ManShed. I dry lined and insulated the interior and put up a few shelves and made some simple workbenches. I wired the shed myself using reclaimed electrical fittings. I started to turn small pieces of timber into random shapes when I came home from work late at night. I hadn’t a clue what I was at initially, and grazed my fingers more than once, and dodged the flying chips many times. After watching a few YouTube videos, and getting advice from some woodturners,  I picked up some of the basic skills. Soon I was hooked on turning. I bought a kit of ten pen parts online and started making pens to hone my turning skills. The first few pens were chunky and rough efforts, but in time they got better. Soon I had to upgrade my lathe, buy new tools and a new chuck. I bought a cheap pillar drill and a second-hand table saw. I ended up giving the pens I made away for free as I never thought my pens were any good. I always believed I could make a better one.

From 2010 until 2013, I experimented with using different woodturning tools and settled on using the 5/8” gouge. I tried nearly every combination of finishes from kitchen polish, varnish, several different types of waxes, BLO (boiled linseed oil), different oils from the kitchen (e.g. walnut), and even using super glue! It took me quite a while to realise that the finish depended on the timber and not on what I wanted to use. There were times I felt like Edison (who knew 10,000 ways a lightbulb wouldn’t work). Similarly it took quite a bit of experimentation to figure out which finish to use. I knew quite a few ways which the finish on a pen would not work. I also started working with acrylic and that took a different set of skills to work on and to finish off the piece.

At the same time I was also experimenting with drying of timber. Sometimes I tried to turn wet timber, but it always fractured and caused a mess (not to mention nearly taking out my eye – thankfully I wear safety glasses and recently have also started to wear a safety mask). When the timber dried after turning, it always shrank and cracked. So I invested in a simple moisture meter I’ve learnt not to work with wood with moisture content greater than 5%. Now I had my supply issues sorted, I had a basic skill in woodturning, but I lacked the confidence in my ability and the motivation to start making pens as a business. The woodturning took a back seat as I got on with my life.

I have a story to tell on how my motivation and enthusiasm to turn wood was reinforced. I call the story “granny’s six pens” and I’ll tell it in part two of this post.

Must start to blog

Wow, its been a long time since I started this blog and I haven't published anything. Going forward, I'll try to post once or twice a week. Follow me on twitter @Galwaypens.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Local Craft Fair

Today I went to the first LOCAL Food & Craft Fair (showcasing local designers, hand crafted goods & artisan produce) in the Black Box, Galway. See for more information.

Sunday, November 11, 2012