Marylander carves out market for handmade wooden pens

Emily Kimball Pope —  July 8, 2013
Bryan Bornfriend pens

Maryland business owner Bryan Bornfriend creates one of his signature Bornfriend pens.

Just under three years ago, Bryan Bornfriend’s home was filling with candlesticks.

“Every room in the house had one or two pairs of candlesticks and my wife was like, ‘Bryan, chill out with the candlesticks’—so I started Googling what else I could make,” Bornfriend said.

His tool of choice was a wood lathe, which spins a block of wood as a chisel is used to form a design. While his grandfather first taught him how to use a wood lathe as a child, Bornfriend hardly considered himself a craftsman. After selling his software company, he turned to woodworking simply as a hobby, one he hoped to someday share with his young son.

All of that changed when Bornfriend—out of the workshop in his Jarrettsville, Maryland home—made his first wooden pen.

“All of a sudden, I had 40 requests from friends and family for pens. More requests started coming in and it was starting to get expensive giving them all away for free,” he said, “I started selling them, first at trade shows and now wholesale, as well, throughout Maryland and across the country. You would be amazed by the number of people who collect pens.”

Bornfriend Woodworks was born, and has since expanded into pens made of metal, stone, lava rock, acrylic and other blended materials. As his company’s sole employee, Bornfriend has personally handcrafted over 3,000 pens.

“It keeps me busy. I easily work 15 hours a day, six days a week. I do it because I enjoy it, it doesn’t even feel like work right now,” he said. “I’m just about to that point where I want to hire another person, but I still need to cross that hump where I can still afford to pay myself and hire someone else to assist.”

Bornfriend, like many producers of retail products, felt the full weight of his business this past Christmas season.

“I said yes to everybody, and I was doing 20 hours a day for almost a month and a half—it almost killed me. I know not to do that anymore, obviously, but that was the only time it felt like work,” he said.

Bornfriend’s pens can be custom built with divots, custom grips and intricately patterned side clips. He is currently experimenting with segmented wood designs. In one of his recent creations, he celebrates the Baltimore Ravens with a checkerboard pattern of purple heart, ebony and white maple. In another, the pen’s shape and texture replicates a cigar.

Before being shaped, all of the woods are stabilized by injecting them with resin in a vacuum chamber.

“The process takes the water inside the wood and replaces it with resin, basically turning it into a rock, so it will never crack. It will last longer than you or me. Other woods will crack over time in the humidity. I really specialize in that, which has caught on with pen collectors,” he said.

Bornfriend said he turns to local wood suppliers as much as possible. “Maryland is a great source of hard woods, a good variety—local walnut, cherry and poplar all make great pens,” he said.

Keeping production in Maryland has other advantages, as well. “Maryland has a great demographic, compared to several areas farther south, I can sell things for a much better price. My best area is between D.C. and Gaithersberg,” he said.

Bornfriend advises other small producers not to undercut themselves by underestimating their true costs in labor, depreciation of equipment and unused materials. He also urges others to take pride in their products.

“Deliver a quality product and stand behind it. I guarantee every pen I make. You should be able to warranty everything. That’s why I stabilize the wood, so I know it will last,” he said.

He hopes his dedication to quality will someday bring his company the same name recognition as Montblanc, Waterman, Monteverde and other fine writing instrument makers.

In the meantime, he’s continuing to develop his technique.

“I never considered myself an artist in the past. Now I’m motivated by constantly experimenting. That’s really what keeps me going, the drive to create something unique. I look at it more as an art than simply making a writing instrument,” he said.

Recently, Bornfriend’s son, now 5 years old, had a friend over to visit. He wanted to show off, so he asked his father if he could make another pen. So far, they’ve crafted about 18 pens together.

“That was a great feeling, I was so proud to hear that. I’m looking forward to a couple of years from now, having him out here with me for hours at a time,” he said.

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