At the lathe

Bill Porrin works on a lathe making a pen.

Andrew Bundy

BROCKWAY — Bill Porrin graduated from Brockway Area Junior-Senior High School last May. He may have been done with the school, but the lessons he learned there in his shop classes came with him.

Porrin had discovered the joy of making pens when his shop teacher, John Barrow, showed him pen-making kits from Penn State Industries. He gets the metal and internal workings of a pen and, using wood blanks, turns them into works of art.

At first, Porrin used different woods, gluing together various designs, lathing the wood blanks down, and then taking orders and customizing pens for friends and teachers. The hobby got even bigger when, for his senior project, he did pens for the Freedom Pen Project. He got 20 blanks and sent them to the company. In turn, the company sent the pens to soldiers and veterans.

“He kept making pens right up to the end of school last year,” Barrow recalled. “He was good at it and really enjoyed doing it.”

After graduation, it seemed like Porrin’s hobby was at an end. Porrin was fortunate enough to go to a school that had a functioning shop where he had every tool he needed to do his unique pens. Once graduation came, access to the equipment ended, and Porrin could have just chalked that experience up to a good time in high school and moved on.

However, he wanted to continue. And while working at Phoenix Sintered Metals, Porrin planned on saving up money to buy what he needed, but the Brockway Schools and Community Education Foundation came in with a scholarship. This allowed Bill to buy a table saw, drill press, a wood lathe, and other equipment to set up shop right away.

“I got everything I need to buy the kits and make the pens,” Porrin said. “I can work on them and resell them.”

“Our superintendent, Dan Hawkins, was really instrumental in getting that equipment to Bill,” Barrow said. “He helped Bill get supplies and figure out the equipment he needed. He had me come in and look at tools as well.”

Lisa Rutherford, the executive director of the Brockway Schools and Community Education Foundation, said that Porrin using the money for equipment is right within the expectations of the Foundation.

“It’s important to meet the needs of every student at Brockway Schools,” Rutherford said. “Some Brockway students don’t plan to go to college or seek higher education. Some are interested in a vocation that involves a certain type of skill, and the school district tries to identify those needs and foster them as well. We get to provide them with an opportunity that may otherwise have never come to fruition.”

The Brockway Schools and Community Education Foundation is not actually part of the school district, but an independent charity. It is not funded by taxpayer money, but by Educational Improvement Tax Credits and community contributions. It gives out scholarships every year to students in the Brockway Area School District.

With that money, Porrin has graduated from just using wood blanks to also using deer antlers, acrylics, or anything that can sustain the design. He gets bolt-action pen kits and designs the outer casing. Once the kit is assembled, Porrin sells them, and word-of-mouth has made this hobby, as he said, “blow up.”

“At first, I just got requests from people at school,” he said. “Now people talk to me through Facebook Messenger. I think I’ve made around 300 pens.”

One of the more unique opportunities Porrin had at Brockway was to teach German exchange students how to design their own pens.

“They have focused tracks in Germany,” he said. “These students were in the college track, so they really didn’t have any hands-on shop experience. They really enjoyed it.”

After graduation, Porrin credited the penmaking as a hobby that makes him a better fit for the workforce.

“I had to learn patience and how to follow directions,” Porrin said. “You have to be careful, set the machine up right. You also have to concentrate on what you’re doing so you don’t mess anything up. If you work too fast, you shatter the wood and have to start over.”

Just starting out in life, Porrin is pragmatic about how the penmaking will do as a full-time career.

“I keep doing this as a hobby that gives me money,” he said. “I enjoy doing it and I don’t want it to ever feel like work. Phoenix is a really good factory, and it gives me money to buy materials to make more pens. I can do both.”

With the Facebook Messenger orders coming in and the Foundation-purchased equipment humming in his workshop, Porrin is looking to the future.

“I’m prepared for life after high school,” he said. “I’m doing well. This is a great hobby that I learned how to do in high school. In the future, I’m looking to setting up a website and selling them online. Right now, I’m just calling them ‘Bill’s Pens.’”

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