(Susan M. Pigott is a fountain pen collector, pen and paperholic, photographer, and professor. You can find more from Susan on her blog Scribalishess.)
I asked Shawn Newton of Newton Pens if he would do an in-depth interview with me for The Pen Addict. I've been impressed, not only with Shawn's beautiful pen designs but also with the scholarships he provides for students in need. I wanted to find out more about his personal background, how he became interested in fountain pens, and his journey in pen turning. We corresponded via email and snail mail. All but one of the photos for this interview were provided by Shawn or plucked from his website. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.
Shawn is married to Elizabeth Newton, and they have two boys, ages 6 and 9.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
"I was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and lived there until I was almost 12, when we moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, thanks to a job transfer my dad got. It was a very good move, and I'm thankful my dad was given the opportunity to take it."
Where did you go to college? What did you major in? What teachers/professors most influenced you?
"I went to two colleges. First was Garland County Community College for my basics. I dropped out my fifth semester but finished a couple of years later.* I went to Henderson State University and graduated with a BSE in Art Education, but I had nearly enough hours to have gotten a Studio Arts Degree. I took every art class I had time for and even figured out ways to take some that I didn't have time for, thanks to some very accommodating teachers. (*GCCC became National Park Community College and is now just National Park College).
As for the teachers I had, one from NPCC helped me out with gas money, moral support, and, when I dropped out, he helped find grant money so I could come back.
After I got my Associate of Arts, he told me who to go talk to at Henderson and I left there with scholarships! I was given so much help and support by people who believed in me, from teachers to my wife, who always pushed and encouraged me to keep at it. I'll forever be grateful to these people."
What did you teach when you taught school?
"I went to college to be an art teacher, so that's what I did. I taught two years of K-6 at Centerpoint School District and then five years of 7-12 grades at Mountain Pine School District. Both were small schools. I was lucky to get hired, only because somebody recommended me at both places. I was surprised how hard it was to find a job teaching if you don't know somebody there."
When and how did you first become interested in fountain pens?
"I give all the credit for my introduction to fountain pens to my wife. She bought a Sheaffer's Viewpoint italic pen for me on Valentine's Day of 2010. It was my second year teaching and the kids at school loved seeing something so different."
Were you a fountain pen user for a long time before you became a pen turner?
"I bought and used fountain pens for about two years before I started making my own."
When did you decide you wanted to start pen turning? How did you learn the craft? Did you study under someone or did you teach yourself?
"I started making pens a while after learning about the whole custom market. I thought it would be a great way for me to maybe spend less money buying pens for myself.
I learned a lot from YouTube but mostly from a few pen makers who very kindly answered all my questions. Prior to this I had never used a lathe, so I had to learn that plus how to cut threads for pens."
What was the first pen you ever made? Do you still have it?
"I still have the first pen I ever made. Somebody called it the Clown Vomit pen. That name suits it, too."
What sparked your idea for the scholarship for your students using postcards drawn by them? How much money have you raised? How many students have benefited from this scholarship?
"The scholarship came about before the postcards did. I was selling 'raffle tickets' online with somebody winning a custom pen almost every month. The idea for the scholarships came from wanting to pay forward the kindness that was shown to me when I graduated high school. A friend's mom offered to pay for my first two years of school at the local community college. Without her help I never would have gone to school in the first place. I probably never would have met Elizabeth and never learned about fountain pens. I certainly wouldn't have been able to afford the hobby.
So far, fourteen kids have received scholarships of $1,000 each."
If you'd like to learn more about Newton Pens Scholarships, click here.
When did you decide you wanted to do pen turning full time? How did you and your wife plan for this? How did you feel about quitting your job as a teacher to pursue this full time? What have been the best things about going full time? Have there been any negatives?
"When I first started making pens, I never thought it would become a money maker, and I never thought I would quit teaching to do it full time.
I was pretty nervous about quitting my job, but the income from this is just so much greater than teaching it was just the best decision to make, really. It was mostly the fear of change to something new that I was nervous about. So far things have been very good. I just hope it continues.
The best things? Working for myself and not answering to a principal, superintendent, or disgruntled parents. No--I had really great experiences with everybody when I taught. The best thing about this is making people happy with my art. I've been some kind of artist my entire life, mostly pen and ink and later printmaking, but nobody wanted my art nearly as much as I wanted to make it. With fountain pens, though, I can hardly keep up with the demand."
What is the most complicated pen you've yet made? What made it so complicated?
"I think the piston filler has been the most complicated. Some are difficult for different reasons, but none have required the amount of planning as the piston mechanisms. But as it is with anything else, the process gets easier with each build."
What is your favorite pen you've made? What makes this your favorite?
"My favorite pen . . . . That's hard for me. Probably all of the ones I've made from any of the ripple ebonites that I use. I love the ripples more than just about anything else. I love the patterns, feel, and even the smells so unique to this material."
Where do you hope to be in five years with your pen turning? Do you hope to one day to make your own nibs, for example? Do you hope to have a store?
"In five years I hope to be better established, better known, better at what I do and able to do more. I have a jeweler friend who is already making nibs for me, but I'm perfectly happy with JoWo nibs. And, of course, if a customer wants to provide their own nibs I'm more than happy to install those in my pens. I don't know about having a store, though. I'm not sure that would make much sense for me. Who knows, though?"
What is the most unusual custom pen you've made?
"Goodness, I'm not sure I would call any of the pens I've ever made 'unusual.' I did make a couple of pens that looked very pregnant a couple of years back. No pictures exist, thankfully."
Have you ever had someone request a pen you simply would not make?
"I prefer not to copy other existing pens. Sometimes I will make something similar to a long out of production vintage pen, but I flat out refuse to copy logos (yes, I've been asked!) For the most part I never get asked to make a pen that I would consider ugly. I guess all of my customers just have really good taste!"
What is a typical day like now that you're pen turning full time? Describe your schedule.
"A typical day starts with getting the kids off to school, a cup of coffee, and catching up with email. Once the crust is out of my eyes, I turn the lathe on and get started."
How do you plan out a custom pen?
"Every pen begins with a sketch. Depending on what the client wants, I might be very meticulous and draw everything out to scale, or I may draw a rough sketch with measurements written over each of the parts."
What is the hardest part about your job? The easiest?
"The hardest part is time management. I get distracted too easily and have to work hard to stay directed and focused. More than one of my friends has commented seriously that I probably have ADD.
The easiest part is actually making the pens. I love my job."