Turning Pens with Mr. Ohnishi
Do you ever think about the amount of work that goes into making a single pen? Or indeed where it comes from? In 2018 we travelled to the suburbs of Japan to meet expert craftsman Mr.Ohnishi, in his small workshop, to discover how he produces his range of celluloid and acetate writing instruments.
Each Ohnishi Seisakusho pen is hand turned by the man, the myth, the legend: Mr.Ohnishi himself. He was the apprentice of “the Father of Pens” Mr.Kato, and when Mr.Kato sadly died in 2010 at the age of 85, Ohnishi inherited the company. He has continued to produce writing instruments using the materials and skills inherited from Mr.Kato in the spirit of Mr.Kato’s mantra: “Make an economy pen for the people who want it”. Although the Ohnishi range is not inexpensive, compared to decorative Urushi lacquer pens and other Japanese speciality pens it is very affordable!
Each pen or pencil starts life as a celluloid, an early thermo-plastic typically used in spectacle or camera film production, or acetate rod - these look like sticks of rock and can be seen floating around the studio. From this Mr Ohnishi cuts the length of the pen components using a small saw; as many of the rods are finite due to celluloid no longer being manufactured, it is important that this task is done with precision to make the most of the increasingly rare materials. Each section is then placed into a bamboo chuck which spins around with the aid of a belt driven motor and where several wooden rings of varying thicknesses slide into different positions on the bamboo to hold the pen in place. Mr Ohnishi then uses a sharp tool to bore out a hole which will be the inside of the pen. Once this is completed for both the barrel and lid, the sections are put onto a horizontal lathe which is where the external profile of the pen is turned. Around the studio you can see many sharp tools designed to cut through and shape the celluloid as it spins on the lathe, many of which are made by hand by Mr.Ohnishi himself to meet his personal specification.
Even though you can see some callipers on his tool bench, when we watched him make a pen from scratch he did not use these as he could just tell if the pen had reached the perfect silhouette with a combination of a well trained eye, muscle memory and by feeling the weight of the celluloid or acetate. He even carves the threading into each component by eye so sections of the pen perfectly screw together - it is fair to say Mr.Ohnishi has put over 10,000 hours in to master this skill! As the tools cut through the celluloid the individual colours in the material come alive and once polished look like the inside of a precious gemstone. We absolutely loved the cotton-candy offcuts of the celluloid as they spin of the lathe. Finally the individual components are assembled to reveal the finished product! The Ohnishi fountain pen comes with a German Fine Schmidt nib which is smooth and suitable for everyday writing.
You can find hand-turned fountain pens, ballpoint pens, 0.5mm mechanical pencils (including hand-turned dainty push buttons) and pencil extenders in our vitrine at Choosing Keeping. Top tip: Celluloid is no longer manufactured industrially in Japan so due to lack of supply we have seen several Ohnishi models become increasingly unavailable and eventually discontinued - the design you like may not be around tomorrow so snap it up!
Celluloid and acetate rods; waiting to be turned into pens!