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Conversations with Jeffrey Abell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jeffrey Abell.   

Jeffrey, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I would have to say that my story really starts with my parents – both of whom helped me gain a real appreciation for the art and craft of making things. My dad has always been a good DIY handyman, and my mom a very clever crafter. I learned how to do a lot of things, from sewing and cross-stitching to fixing things around the house and woodworking. It also taught me early on that I get a great sense of accomplishment from having fixed or made something for myself. 

I was also always naturally curious about how things worked, and I enjoyed taking things apart and (sometimes) putting them back together. That curiosity dovetailed very nicely into my enjoyment of making things, and also gave me an appreciation for the details and planning of a project. 

I received my degree from the University of Illinois in Engineering Mechanics in 2007 and started a job at a software company in the CAD industry. I had always really enjoyed working with a computer to design things and my CAD work helped with my visualization and planning skills as well. But as much satisfaction as I got from that, it didn’t quite “scratch the itch” of sometimes wanting to have something more tangible as the result of my efforts. 

I started working more on projects around the house and used them as an excuse to research, learn, and practice a new skill. Eventually, I decided to expand into working on custom furniture for my wife and I, with a somewhat rustic aesthetic. Again, this goes back to the satisfaction of building something for yourself, something you can touch, made with real purpose in mind. 

Making custom furniture is rewarding because it gives me the chance to make exactly what we want – in the size and style we want. Every new piece is an opportunity to put what I have learned into practice, and to always work to get better. Each piece also has its own flaws, which nobody but I will ever notice, that contribute to their unique nature and distinguishes them from something machine-made. 

One day I decided somewhat on a whim to take a pen turning class at a local woodshop. I had always found turning on a lathe fascinating but had never done it, as the tools and equipment can be expensive and I did not want to invest in something that might not be as enjoyable as I thought. But then I found the chance to test drive it for a few bucks and a couple of hours of my time and immediately confirmed that my interest had been well placed. After the first class, I was pretty hooked and it wasn’t long before I had made the investment in my own lathe and turning tools to start making pens and other turned items. 

I started out originally making them as gifts – a pen for my dad, wine bottle toppers for friends, etc. but quickly found that I was making more things than I could find gift recipients for. I started listing some of my items, especially pens, for sale on Etsy and to be frank I had pretty low expectations. Initially, a lot of my orders were from friends and family to give as gifts, but I was surprised to find that the more I sold, the more it seemed other people could find me and I started to get a wider audience than I ever expected. 

Every pen is unique – from a run-of-the-mill maple ballpoint to an over-the-top diamond laced rainbow acrylic. It is always an exciting adventure to see how the grain of a wood blank or the swirled colors of an acrylic will change during the shaping of the pen, each with its own one-of-a-kind charm. Even starting with two identical blanks can produce wildly different results, a little bit of a gamble but one that almost always pays off. 

The results I get are tied to the diligence in the making process. Every wood pen is shaped and then sanded through at least 8 grits of sandpaper, then wax polished and finished with a shellac friction polish and buffed. Acrylic pens require even more attention, where skipping even a single grit or step can leave a scratch in an otherwise glass-smooth finish. There something almost soothing about watching the transformation during the finishing process from a roughly turned shape through to a finish that hopefully shines like a mirror. 

Making things that people buy as gifts for others is a real privilege and honor and it is tremendously gratifying to have my work considered worth being a given as a gift to a friend or loved one. 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
To be honest, the biggest challenge was just finally deciding that I was good enough for my work to be worth presenting to other people. It can be really intimidating to compare work against that of a master maker and it has become so much easier to do just that in the social media age. My feeds are so full of such amazing work that makes me think “I could never do that.” But it can also be a source of inspiration as well – seeing what other creative people are doing can fuel you to try new things and push yourself to get better. The truth is I will never be the best or most creative maker in the world, but if I am getting better and making things that make people happy that is a great success. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I specialize in making pens, in wood and acrylic. I am most proud of the way I have built up my confidence from not feeling like my work was good enough for the public to having a great rating from my customers, many of whom are repeat buyers. 

I would say that one thing that sets me apart from some others is that I am most excited to do custom work for people. Having someone give me their trust in finding something that I think they will love is very rewarding. 

I also make a lot of wide-bodied pens, because I think they are fun and have a more opulent and extravagant feel, especially when they’re brightly colored and shiny. 

Networking and finding a mentor can have such a positive impact on one’s life and career. Any advice?
I have found that social media in the maker community is very collaborative and that in almost every instance if you reach out for advice or input people are willing to help. Being open to learning new things and unafraid to ask questions is key too. And it’s a two-way street there, sharing knowledge you have with the larger community helps others improve as well. 

Pricing:

  • Pens: $28 to $89
  • Custom Furniture: project-specific
  • Keepsake Boxes: project-specific

Contact Info:

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