We’ve never been secretive about our production processes, posting behind-the-scenes videos and photos on our Instagram and openly talking about nearly every step of the manufacturing and finishing process. We’ve also been relatively open about our desire to increase production capacity whenever possible. We regularly take steps to increase efficiency by re-engineering products, tweaking our programming, improving our machines and tooling, and increasing the number of machines in the shop. This time we decided to step outside of the box a bit and look at manufacturing our own resin. Looking back at that decision, there were a lot of intermediate steps that brought us to the point where we decided to invest time and money into making our own resin. Let’s take a peek behind the curtain and walk through the process a bit.
The ball started rolling in a way that wasn’t planned. About a year and a half ago we purchased a few new machines. One was a specifically purchased for non-metal machining, it would primarily work on Vertex manufacturing and if we could decrease our production time, we’d also use it to manufacture the next batch of Decograph fountain pens. Initially, the process of getting used to the new machine was time-consuming. It required drastic changes to our programming, and eventually led us to design multiple custom tools that improved our finished product. Once we had the machine dialed in, we started cranking out Vertex pens, and quickly had about 700 pens ready for sanding and polishing.
Due to this massive increase in production, we needed to hire someone to take over the job of sanding and polishing because Bill had been doing all of that when the batches coming off the machines at a much slower rate. We interviewed multiple people, and ultimately Bill hired our current Sanding & Polishing Technician, Zoe. She had a background in production welding as well as familiarity with other aspects of a machine shop but was looking for a position like this. She fit in perfectly and immediately got to work perfecting our sanding and polishing process. In her capable hands, the finishing process of our Vertex pens went from a four-step process, to a seven-step process that was only slightly longer but produced higher quality work with much less rework. She has also increased her overall speed allowing her to move into other areas, one of which is our resin manufacturing.
Around the time Bill started interviewing for the new position, he also started looking at the feasibility of making our own machinable resin, specifically Alumalite. There are numerous small pen makers who use their own Alumalite, many of them sell their Alumalite to other manufacturers, and we’ve purchased material from Jonathon Brooks in the past for a run of Vertex fountain pens. While we love working with small US makers, they’re also experiencing high demand for their product; and rather than join a massive queue for an order of 100 rods, we decided to experiment with making our own material. The actual “casting” of Alumalite is relatively easy and doesn’t require a huge investment. The hardest part is making the Alumalite look “pretty”, it’s an artform that makers like Brooks have spent hundreds of hours perfecting. We knew the learning curve would be steep to get our resin to look anything close to what is available on the market. Luckily, Zoe has a deep artistic streak and a keen eye; her test batches looked great and we knew early on the process would be successful as along as we could scale it.
During the early months of 2021, Zoe would test different techniques with different silicone molds. She started a resin journal, writing down her recipes and ratios of color, mica, glitter, etc. She would crank out a few different materials each week. Then in July, we pooled all of her test blanks and started machining them. Not all of them turned out. Some where molded too short to be usable. Others had air bubbles or imperfections. But we were able to get about 80 working pens in multiple colors to offer on our new Vertex Small Batch Releases. The pens vary from just a few colors and micas, to some with clear transparent bodies and caps and big flakes of glitter. Zoe worked hard during the casting process, then went back to work sanding and polishing them with the same care she puts into all of her work. Now that we’re wrapping up the final Small Batch Releases, she’s turning her attention to scaling our resin casting production to runs of 50 of each material. The material will still be highly unique from rod to rod, but they’ll be similar colors and swirls. We hope to have a few of these pens available for the holidays.
We’re not done with our European resins either, we’ve received roughly 20 new colors from The Turner’s Workshop in the United Kingdom. A mix of material sourced from old stock Omas and Conway Stewart, with some newly made resins that Vince has been able to get his hands on. Our resin manufacturing is a way to control the process to get colors we want as well as keep our machines running, but we know we’ll still be offering more traditional acrylates. Not only that, we have plans to add other modern industrial resins and plastics to the Vertex. This entire process has been another step for us in our desire to provide our customers with as many options as possible, and if we can start to do more of this in-house it’s a win-win in our book.
Keep your eyes peeled for more new materials from Karas Pen Co in the coming months!