A large window at the south end of Gene Asbill’s garage provides enough light for him to work.
The 82-year-old Fresno man’s eyes are focused on a small piece of wood spinning at full throttle on a lathe. Asbill slowly moves a chisel toward the wood, sending tiny chips of Burmese redwood floating into the air. Within a few minutes, the reticular wood has been carved into the round casing for a writing pen.
“I started doing this about a year ago,” Asbill says. “I have been doing woodwork all my life. But a couple of guys at the club were making pens, and I decided to give it a try.”
That club is the San Joaquin Fine Woodworkers Association. In an era of plastic imitations and mass-produced products, these club members prefer to use their woodworking skills to make items that are one-of-a-kind.
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Asbill’s North Fresno home is filled with original wood items. A tin box holds a couple dozen of the pens he has made. The others have been given away as gifts to relatives, friends and even to the pastors at his church.
The fact Asbill has thrown himself into this work fits his nature. When he wasn’t serving in World War II as a scuba diver for a ship that saved downed submarines, Asbill worked in the oil business. His back was broken in 1948 when a load of metal pipers was dropped on him.
He spent a year in a body cast, but he bounced back to work for another 40 years. He finally retired from Mobile Oil in 1991 because of new problems with his back. He’s survived prostate cancer, a blocked artery and having part of his lung removed.
Working with wood became the way he filled his days. He’s been good with his hands since he was a child. Just inside the door of his house is a small bookcase that he made in the seventh grade.
“I told him one time I needed a place to do my sewing,” says his wife, Verlon Asbill. So he made her a massive piece of furniture that fills part of a guest bedroom and has more moving parts than a transformer.
Asbill’s garage/workshop is loaded with pieces of wood — both great and small — that will one day be a bookshelf, basket or the next of the 75-plus pens he has made already.
Tiny blocks of wood — just over five-inches long and less than one-inch wide — are stored in plastic bags. Some pieces are scattered on the table in the center of the garage. It is like the aftermath of a child’s tantrum with building blocks.
Asbill orders bits of rare wood from around the world through a catalogue or purchases it at one of the local craft stores. “This is Zebrawood. It is from Africa,” Asbill says turning over a tiny block of wood in his hands that is light-colored with dark stripes.
He also has pieces of African mahogany, Amonyna Burl, white Holly, osage orange, applewood, Baltic birch and his favorite, black walnut.
Each small piece of wood costs between $1 and $7. The prices vary because of the quality of the wood and its rarity.
“I used to be able to order pink ivory wood. But the last time I tried to get some, they said they were out. That’s because they are not cutting down anymore of the trees in Africa,” Asbill says.
Getting pieces of olive wood is almost as difficult. The trees grow in Israel. They are not cut down. Pieces of the wood are only available when a tree gets trimmed or it falls down.
The wood he uses changes, but the process of making a pen is the same.
It starts with a hole being drilled into the two pieces of wood that will eventually be the halves of the ink pen. The wood is fastened to the lathe. Then, Asbill carves the basic shape using the chisel.
He uses no form to shape the pen. He doesn’t measure the width. It is all done by feel.
As soon as the pen feels right, Asbill begins to smooth the surface with sandpaper — using a series of pieces from the heavy grade of 120 to the ultra fine 1,500.Asbill uses a white rag to apply two coats of a conditioning oil to the spinning wood. Because the wood is spinning at such a high rate, the oil dries almost as fast as it hits the wood.
The end result is a pen that is smooth and shiny.
All that’s left is to put the mechanics in the wood holders.
“I buy these kits,” Asbill explains as he holds up one of the clear plastic packages filled with ink pen parts. Depending on the quality of pen he wants to make, the kits can cost between $5 and $7.
The entire process takes about 30 minutes (Asbill jokes that others can make pens faster).
Asbill has been dealing with some arthritis in his hands. He credits working with wood for keep the arthritis under control. There is no feeling in his left thumb, the result of an accident in the shop.
Some of his works have won prizes at the fair or through the club. Asbill was a founding member of the SJFW and takes every opportunity to get people to attend a meeting or at least visit the club Web site of sanjoaquinfine woodworkers.com. He stresses the nonprofit organization is open to everyone, even those who have never worked with wood before.
The club is a place to share ideas about new projects. If Asbill can’t find a pattern in one of the many wood-working magazines to make an item, he creates the pattern himself.
“We bought a microwave. I like the table it was on. So I went back to the store three or four times to measure it,” Asbill says.
And he is never without a way to sketch the plans for the next project. If he ever runs out of pens, he can just make another.