A love for woodworking: Veteran’s pen business a ‘soothing’ endeavour

Chris Oatley works on a project in his workshop. The Navy veteran said he finds woodworking soothing.

The scratching of sandpaper and a mechanical buzz hum throughout Chris Oatley’s small garage turned woodshop.

In an otherwise quiet Oak Harbor neighborhood, these sounds signal a creative endeavor years in the making — Oatley’s modest woodturning business, only now well underway.

“One of my favorite things in high school was working on a lathe,” Oatley said of a machine used for shaping wood. “It was my favorite tool because it let me turn recovered wood into something beautiful.”

Surrounded by stacks of such wood, Oatley now has a lathe of his own and uses it to handcraft unique items under the business moniker Crow’s Woodturnings.

A Navy veteran, Oatley first arrived on Whidbey Island in 1997 after having served 17 years in military communications before retiring in 2002. It wasn’t until after his family put down roots on the island that Oatley was able to revisit his passion for wood work first discovered in high school.

Two years ago he began crafting pens, now offering some that feature a variety of military insignia including Navy, Air Force and Marines emblems.

To craft a pen, Oatley starts by choosing his materials. Sometimes he works exclusively with wood, while other times he uses dyed acrylic or even deer antler.

After cutting his material down to the size of a pen barrel or cap, Oatley drills a hole in the center and glues a brass tube that reinforces the shell.  Then he mounts the piece to the lathe’s rotating drive, shaping and sanding the chunky shell until it resembles a writing utensil. Lastly, he polishes the pieces before assembling the pen from materials bought online.

“You never know what’s going to come out of the wood once you start shaping and polishing it,” Oatley says of the pens, which cost between $30 and $60 apiece.

“Each one naturally has a unique design.”

Oatley say his other items, such as bottle stoppers, sometimes feature insignias also.

His most popular items are a military-style bolt action pen with bullet finishings and a pen he makes with olive wood from the Middle East.

Right now Oatley is working to expand his inventory, which currently includes anything from classic ice cream scoops and seam rippers to high-tech steampunk lamps with built-in bluetooth speakers.

He sells all his items at craft fairs, on Amazon’s handmade market and sometimes through his Facebook page.

“I’ve got my inventory up right now, so I’m just kind of trying to plan on getting out to the fairs and markets,” Oatley said.

Oatley also recently joined the Whidbey Island Small Business Association and plans to participate in more craft fairs, including the group’s Christmas in July Fair on July 30.

Still, Oatley is committed to fulfilling custom orders even while he strives to stock up on popular items.

In the past, he custom built spoon racks, crafted pens out of pieces of wood significant to his customers and has tracked down ways to include even the smallest embellishments requested by customers.

“I’ll do just about anything if it’s possible,” Oatley says. “I think of this as more of a monotonous and relaxing hobby, but special orders are really cool to do.”

Though Oatley’s business is taking off, he doesn’t plan to turn his hobby into a full-time operation.

“I don’t plan to get rich off of it, if anything it keeps me out of the bars,” he joke with a chuckle. “Really, I do it because I enjoy woodturning.”

“It’s soothing,” he said.