Update as of 6/1/10- it became painfully evident to me that the level of skill required in creating these boxes far exceeded my own abilities. Though I still appreciate these writing boxes, I am not pursuing building them for myself. ~Brian Goulet
So here are some fundamental ideas I have about my potential writing boxes, the Goulet writing boxes. I have a good foundation in, and incurable passion for, woodworking. With my unique experience of pen making and all of the nuances and eccentricities that go with pens, I have some very interesting ideas for designs that I could implement into writing boxes. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned from my penmaking experience, it is that ‘custom building’ is not nearly as straightforward as it sounds, especially when it comes to a relatively unique and unknown product like writing boxes.
I have gone through MANY variations on my website trying to incorporate custom building options for my pens, but it’s always resulted in a tremendous amount of work for me (and my wife, who does all of the web work!) with an underwhelming response from customers because of the sheer confusion and lack of ability to visualize the finished product. I think that part of the reason antique writing boxes are popular is because you’re seeing exactly what you get. If you want to test my theory, try to tell a friend of yours exactly what any given writing box looks like using only your words and see how excited they get (and also how confused they get). Then show them a picture of the box you were trying to describe and see how differently they view it. The fact is, most people get much more excited about seeing exactly what they are going to get than trying to visualize an object that doesn’t yet exist.
So going off of this main concept, I would really work to create pieces of art. These would be boxes the likes of which no one has ever seen, incorporating the ornate stylings of the Tunbridge ware and Regency styles of boxes, but with more modern adaptations to suit the function of today’s writer. I would look to incorporate features like pen storage, recognizing that serious fountain pen enthusiasts might have a dozen or so pens inked up at a time, and having dedicated storage for them in their box would be a huge benefit. This is a consideration that no antique box has, since fountain pens were not yet invented, and people didn’t ‘collect’ quills in the same manner.
I have several eccentric techniques to incorporate into the designs of my boxes, which are available due to technology that didn’t exist in the 1800’s. Things like modern dyes and resins and I can use for inlays either into engraved designs or in crack and knots on exotic burls. I have wood stabilizers that would allow me to successfully use punky or otherwise unstable woods that would look entirely unique. I have practiced gilding and patinizing metal leaf, which in and of itself can be a unique design for each box never seen before. I have an artist airbrush, which I can use to do such things as transitional dying colors to get ‘fading’ effects, using chemicals to bleach or patina woods to get interesting colors that might take decades to naturally occur. And most interestingly, I have a laser engraving machine which will allow me to do the most intricate and ornate engraving and inlay work using a whole host of materials. A writing box like the ebony wood with mother of pearl inlay might have taken a master craftsman years to complete will be much more accessible to me with the recent technology of the laser engraver. The possibilities are almost so endless that it’s comparable to putting a painter in the middle of an art supply store and saying ‘here, use anything you want here and paint something’. I have so many ideas and techniques at my disposal that I can hardly even think where to begin!
So as you may have guessed by now, I’m pretty excited about these boxes. I will likely start with a more basic writing slope or ‘lap desk’, which will be more of a ‘no frills’ type of functional box, working my way up to the more elaborate designs as I get into more of a groove. There are tools and techniques that I will need considerable practice, or that I may have to adapt from my pen making. This will take time for me to do, and with a 2-month old baby boy, will undoubtedly take a considerable amount of time to create. The goal for me though will not be money…these boxes will be purely a byproduct of my sheer passion. Let me share my whole story.
I have had an unnatural attraction to building things my entire life. Growing up with Lincoln Logs, Leggos, and (my favorite) K’Nex, I would literally lock myself in my room as a kid for an entire day and build things until my hands were cramped and my fingers had blisters on them from snapping so many plastic pieces together. I would build a large ferris wheel or roller coaster to spec with the provided plans, then when finished, I would add to it with my own add-ons, reinforcing weak areas, building high parts higher, long parts longer, until I ran out of pieces. Then I would stress-test the structure, ultimately destroy it, and do it all over again.
When I outgrew these toys and reach my teenage years, my attention turned to tools. I became a Craftsman Club member at age 15, and started buying as many hand tools as I could afford. Hammers, chisels, tool boxes (to store the hammers and chisels), saws, drills…..you name it, and if I saw any need for using that tool in the future, I would get it. I ended up with a pretty hefty collection by the time I went to college. I paid my way through Virginia Tech by cleaning and sealing wood decks and doing handyman work for friends and neighbors.
After graduating (and marrying my incredibly wonderful and enabling wife), I discovered Norm Abram and the New Yankee Workshop for the first time. Norm inspired me to a degree that I had never been before. I saw the rewards of a lifetime of experience and dedication to a true craft, creating beautiful pieces of art week after week. I was inspired yet frustrated because my wife and I were living in an apartment with only a covered balcony to do my ‘work’. My tool collection at this point was borderline ridiculous, especially since we were in an apartment with a maintenance staff! I had more tools than most homeowners at that point, so I took over the covered balcony and set up my first ‘workshop’. It was a sight to behold, let me tell you. There was no electricity there, so I had to run extension cords out of the window. There was an outlet in the light fixture in the storage closet attached to the balcony, so I put in a droplight with an outlet on it that I could drag to any point on the balcony. At the apex, I had a tablesaw, router table, bandsaw, drill press, lathe, multiple workbenches, fluorescent lighting, and even a pegboard storage system out on that balcony. Thank goodness the staff never walked by to see it all!! The craziest part was when it rained I had to run out and cover it all with tarps to keep all my tools from rusting out. It was 3 weeks after starting turning pens that I sold my first corporate order for 120 pens (much less expensive back then) that I realized I needed a real shop, so we moved.
What is interesting for me to experience is that the very inspiration that I initially had from Norm Abram, to build modern reproductions of antique period furniture, has now come full circle. I started out making pens as a way to get my hands dirty in a way that I could logistically do so on an apartment balcony. Selling pens allowed me to build up my skills and equipment to become a legitimate craftsman. The pens led me to fountain pens and the whole writing experience, which led me to the ink and paper that is now the staple of my business. And the storage of the ink and paper has led me to writing boxes, which throw back to the inspiration I initially had from the New Yankee Workshop. It’s funny how things work when you just pursue your passion.
The moral of this whole story is really that these writing boxes are not a financial decision for me. Running any business there are always considerations of supply and demand, price comparing with your competitors, yadda yadda yadda. It’s all important stuff but it’s not ‘artistic’, it’s business. For me, these boxes are a calling. They are something that I simply feel compelled to pursue. I don’t know exactly why, but I know that to ignore this calling would be ignoring who I am. I will put everything that I have into building the most spectacular and unique boxes that I hope will be cherished hundreds of years after I pass. I want to inspire and be inspired, so please, give me any and all feedback you have about how these writing boxes inspire you!