Keeping the art of pen craftsmanship alive

Student creates fountain pens out of unusual materials

Mark Vainer working on pens in his workshop. 

While most students grab a coffee and hit the books after class, Matt Vainer, ArtSci ’20, heads to the workshop to perfect his latest fountain pen. 

These nib-tipped pens have lost popularity in favour of Bic ballpoints, but Vainer keeps the tradition alive through his pen-making project, Longbranch Woodcraft. 

Discovering the hobby in high school through one of his friends, Vainer has carried his craft into university, and created a small business. Partnering with local shops, he discovered a small community of niche craftsmen. You can find Vainer’s work alongside leather-bound journals in Kingston boutique, Ars Libri, or in Canada eh? a gift shop in Fort Henry run by a local silversmith. 

Although an antiquated item, Vainer’s fountain pens have found their market as gifts for men. He believes that men are more difficult to shop for, and his pens are a higher quality version of something they use every day. 

The process of making most of his pens begins with a piece of wood. He drills holes through a halved block of wood, secures the brass pen barrel, and then lines the two pieces up on a lathe to begin carving with a steel chisel. After some buffing, the rest of the metal pen parts are added. 

While the process for each pen is relatively the same, Vainer described pen making as “halfway between art and craft.”

He sees potential in a wide array of materials from Bethlehem olive wood to woolly mammoth tusks, and creates a piece that shows off the grain and texture of the media. 

Vainer also works with resin casting, which is similar to mixed media sculpture. He has the creative mobility to mix different colours and suspend a wide variety of materials in the resin. One of his most visually stunning pieces is an ocean-themed pen made from crushed pearl, abalone, turquoise, and opal, cast in a shimmery resin called pearlescent epoxy.

Materials aside, each of Vainer’s pens tells a story. He specifically chooses natural materials with either a biological or historical significance. For one, the Bethlehem olive wood comes from a 3000-year-old grove in Palestine. 

Another one of his pens is made from a piece of vine that fell off Grant Hall in a storm. His most historically significant pen was made from the oak deck of the HMS Victory, best known as Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Some pens are more sentimental. Vainer often receives requests to use wood from trees from childhood homes. In other pens, the material itself has a story. One of the most interesting materials he employs is called motor agate—a synthetic stone made from layers of paint in car factories. It looks like a precious stone, and each ring of colour is from a different car.

As a student, Vainer cannot always make it to the workshop. However, he treats his craft like a part-time job, spending the day in the workshop when he can. 

What started off as a hobby has turned into a small but successful business that he hopes to continue in the future.  


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