Saturday, February 18, 2012

Baltz Fine Writing Instruments "The Carraway"

I like when people and companies can find their happy place and make it work really well for themselves. It feels like that's entirely the case with the good guys over at Baltz.

Prepare for a long, related ramble here- do you know what it feels like to go down to the corner market and buy fresh bread from the baker who smiles and gives you exactly what you ask for and at the end of the day you probably would have been comfortable paying twice the price and still feel like you are getting a good deal?
That's what it's like to work with the guys from Baltz Fine Writing.

You can read about their background here, but the short version is that two guys decided to pursue their dreams and start a company hand turning distinct pens. Dream job...

I already knew a little about this company but I was really excited to get a chance to get my hands on one of their pens and discuss the business side with them.

Please meet Bart Creasman and Cass Baltz, the two nice guys behind Baltz. Let's start with the interview:

Good Pens: First of all, thank you for your time and before we even get started, when it comes to pens, I am sort of a silver snob, so thank you for not using gold plating. Conscious decision or was it based on the quality of pens that you wanted to create?
Bart: When we were initially designing our first line of pens, we both thought the rhodium plating would look best with the wood combinations we wanted to use. We also anticipated that people would be using these in professional settings, and silver looks better with the color scheme of most business attire and accessories like watch bands and belt buckles. Also, Rhodium is supposed to be one of the most durable and lustrous plating materials available.

Good Pens: So.. what's the idea behind Baltz Fine Writing Instruments?
Cass: Primarily, we each have an interest in well-made, nice things. To that point, we both enjoy style and fashion – with pens piquing our interest due to the limitless creative opportunities they present in terms of design and style. So that’s how we initially got interested in luxury pens.

With these pens, our number one goal was to create a product that could emote a personal connection between it and the user. We felt the most effective way to do that would be through handmaking the pens. From our experience, there seems to be a lingering connection between the maker and owner of hand made products… it’s much more personal and seems to lend more pride to the owner than mass manufactured goods. We want our pens to be unique to their owner through design, the individuality of each piece of wood used, and the process through which each pen is made. Believe it or not, there is quite a bit of adaptation necessary for producing each pen… whether it is in combining the wood parts or in our finishing process. No two pens will be exactly the same, and that’s something we believe is very important and special.

Good Pens: Are you both getting dusty or is one of you the businessman?
Bart: Cass probably spends a bit more time in the shop than I do, but we both make these pens. He spent a lot of time over the course of a couple of years learning and refining the process for making our pens. He then was able to teach me how to hand-turn pens, but not without a chipped piece of wood or two! I quickly found that turning a raw piece of wood into a beautiful writing instrument that someone will enjoy for many, many years is quite the inspiration.

Good Pens: You seemed to have found a niche market between over the top custom pens that people are terrified to use and your common average hobbyist making pens... was that the goal?
Cass: That’s exactly right. We wanted something that would be distinguishable, affordable, and well-made. This is how we sort of nestled into our mid-$100 price point. A lot of the handmade pens on the market were very plain with the hardware and wood design. We knew we could do better. For this reason, we shot for the mid-$100 price point when figuring out labor and materials. This price allows us to make a very nice product with quality materials and craftsmanship, which helps to facilitate that meaningful connection between owner and product. The idea behind our company was accessibility. In essence, we wanted to create a product that was special, but accessible to a reasonable number of people.

The B is a nice touch!

Good Pens:You don't want these pens sitting in a pen box gathering dust right?
Bart: Definitely not. We came up with the unique design so that people could show off and talk about their pens.

Good Pens:I love the idea of casting the hardware for these did that come about and what can you share about the process?
Bart: Well, we wanted to make our clip and cap stand out, as these are the parts of the pen that people see when it's being worn as an accessory. We had briefly explored getting the clip bent into its final shape, but that's difficult to do with the unique curvature in our design. Casting was the best solution, plus we prefer how it's a solid piece of metal. It definitely seems more substantial compared to the metal clips of most pens. As for the caps, we originally had those cast as well, but we have since changed to a precision milling technique for their production. We needed an exact fit (down to .001 of an inch) for the internal part of the cap, as this piece actually turns the mechanism that retracts the ink insert.

Good Pens:Full time pen makers right?
Cass: Yes, that's right

Good Pens: That's a rare occurrence. Did you quit jobs to do this? I can't imagine how sweet it would have been to tell your boss that you are starting a pen company. What was that like?
Bart: Haha. Well, I quit my job about halfway through our Kickstarter campaign, once we had surpassed our goal and secured the rest of the start-up funding. I actually avoided telling everyone exactly what I was doing unless they asked, for fear of a long explanation followed by a blank stare. I'm still pretty sure no one believed me even after I told them, but it was one of the better moments in my life to be able to leave an unfulfilling job to follow a dream. So yeah, that was pretty sweet.

Cass: Funny was a little different for me, because I was working for my father’s cabinet shop at the time. He and my mom were incredibly supportive of our decision to pursue this passion full time. Bart and my parents helped us get off the ground running with some financial help. We are very fortunate to have such supportive parents.

Good Pens: Your pens names are Holden, Barnes and Carraway? The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye? Or is that a coincidence?

Bart: Not a coincidence at all. We weren't sure what to name the individual pens, so we picked our favorite characters from classic American novels.

Good Pens: Whew, took a stab at that and got lucky.

Good Pens: Other than making sure you both still have 10 fingers each...What's your 5 year plan?
Bart: Yeah, well Cass had a pretty close call with his thumb and a saw the other day, so keeping our fingers intact could be tricky enough. Seriously though, we want to expand on our current line of pens, hopefully coming out with a new line every year or so. These may include a click-style pen, a cap pen, and different wood variations on all our designs. We'd also like to design some special edition pens (we have some pretty crazy ideas we need to filter through). Our main goal is to establish a reputation for making great pens, so that a lot of people are very happy with our products.

Good Pens: How did you get started with Kickstarter?
Bart: We were looking for a way to gauge interest in our pens while we held other jobs. We did manage to get positive feedback from some retailers, but this interest was not concrete enough to convince us (or any investors) that we could do this full time. We did some research and found that Kickstarter would be the perfect medium to pre-sell our pens and gauge interest, with very little to lose if our campaign failed. Not only were we able to almost double our fundraising goal, but we also convinced ourselves that we could make pens full time.

Good Pens: Any interest in putting together a fountain pen?
Cass: That’s a question we’ve been asked a few times by the hard-core pen lovers. We do believe we will eventually offer a fountain pen, although it will be a bit into the future. Fountain pens can be intimidating to the lay person, and we wanted to make our product accessible and usable on a daily basis… which goes back to your point about sitting in a box gathering dust.

Good Pens: I imagine there are a ton of challenges taking the fountain pen plunge, mainly because we like our fancy fountain pens to write really well also...that's the magic equation right?
Bart: We need an opportunity to find reliable nib makers, as we are not qualified to make the nibs ourselves. There are plenty of opportunities to get nibs for our fountain pens from Far East manufacturers, but we are very careful about finding a solution that reliable and considered to be top-class among the mavens. We have our eye on a few nibs from SCHMIDT, the same company that supplies our rollerball inserts, but need to test them first. There are a lot of things that are necessary to bring a pen to market. In addition to all the exterior features, we will also have to work with machining companies to make the “guts” of the pen work together and function properly.

Good Pens: Any other projects we should keep an eye out for?
Bart: We're currently designing a new line of pens, which we can hopefully introduce later this year. I don't want to say too much, but we want to integrate some rare wood types with very distinct character.

Good Pens: Pop Quiz Opinion Poll: Mont Blanc...over used and too trendy or a good pen for pen people?
Bart: They are the most recognizable pen company for a reason - some of their special edition and higher end pens look amazing, and all of their marketing is incredible. But you do pay a premium for the white star.
Cass: My boss a couple jobs back had a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck. Truthfully, his pen is what initially sparked my interest in fine writing instruments. Mont Blancs are nice. I hated how his ballpoint wrote, though. That was part of the reason for us sourcing the SCMIDT rollerball inserts. They’re much smoother than his Mont Blanc’s ballpoint.

Good Pens: Did you know you can put a Mont Blanc refill in a Pilot G2?
Cass: No, but it’s believable. Our SCHMIDT is a Parker style insert which could be used or interchanged with other types of pens.

Good Pens: So...who's a good customer for you? Who do you want to buy your pens?
Bart: Interesting question. Before our Kickstarter campaign, we would have told you our ideal customer is someone who works in a professional field such as doctor, lawyer, banker, sales, etc. and needs something to help them look the part. But what we found through getting to know our Kickstarter backers, our earliest adopters, was an eclectic mix of professions interested in our pens. For instance, we had a couple teachers, few engineers, a voice actress, some doctors, some lawyers, an orthodontist, etc. So our opinion has changed. It was too simple (and quite frankly, wrong on our part) to group our ideal customers by what they do. Rather it is important for us to think about who they are. A good customer is someone who appreciates the personal connection that can be achieved through ownership of high quality, handmade products.

End of interview,there's more, but for now I will keep this shorter for everyone...

The pen line is called the Exemplar, this version is called the Carraway, the guts (as you heard) is a Schmidt EasyFlow 9000 rollerball with a nice Baltz logo and you know the spare cartridge is appreciated. I honestly like the refill, its smooth and starts up nicely every time. There's a nice weight that I wasn't expecting in a wooden pen and the detail work is surprising and appreciated. It feels like a great deal of thought went into every part of this pen and shows in the end result.

Click for better pictures... the picture looks much better larger.

Pens like this deserve to be shown AND to get written with. That's rare in this time and age and so is a company willing to got the extra mile for their customers. The quality across the board seems above and beyond what I expected. Normally, a pen like this would seem to me like a perfect gift, but in this case...feel free to get selfish.

Here's a link to where you can shop away:

Good Pens.

Moonman AKA The Camry

OK,  Camry MIGHT be a little bit of a stretch comparison.   Low cost and will run forever.  The Moonman M2 is a super fun Chines...