While I consider handmade pens as art, the reason they are so beautiful must be credited to the wood from which they are made. So, what, then makes a handcrafted pen art? For wooden pens, there is a specific term that is used to describe how that species looks. It is called grain.
“Grain” is what gives wood its unique characteristics. What determines the wood’s grain is how the tree grew before it was cut. On the bark, it is easy to tell where a knot or burl would be because there is a big circle or bulge on the side of the tree. Any tree that has an elbow joint or branch will have a drastic change in grain, from one direction to another.
There are some pieces of wood that come straight-grained, that is, they do not have very many special attributes. These pieces of wood mostly produce a solid pattern and may primarily be of a single color. Some types / species of wood are more prone to being straight-grained. Some, are more prone to having unusual grain. Although there isn't a hard and fast rule, there are trends. More often than not, Walnut has a straight-grain pattern. But, when you find a piece with knots or other figure, it becomes special.
Wood that is named “curly” have properties where its grain swirls often in a back and forth pattern. It has an unusual visual effect which pertains to the way light reflects from the wood. It is iridescent. When a wood with this quality is held in light, there will be parts of the wood that shine and others that do not. This quality runs across the entire piece of wood. Curly Maple is a common wood that has this quality. The wood is of one color, but the light bends, or shines, differently in places.
Some woods have a knot in them. This is a place where a branch had been growing on a tree and then died, creating a dark circle where the dead branch was. This part of the wood is highly unstable because it changes the direction the grain runs, but, if handled properly, can add character and beauty to the wood. There is also a special type of knotting in the grain called Birdseye. A wood with Birdseye has little knots mixed in with the grain which look like a bird’s eye. Birdseye Maple is a great example of this feature.
Most species of wood can produce a burl. In a burl, there is little consistent grain. A wood with this quality can have a variety of imperfections from darker sections of grain to heavy knots. Burls are highly unstable which means that the wood can move on its own easily. The best time to use a burl is when it is dry. Because of how unstable burls are, extreme caution must be taken so that the wood doesn’t split in two.
A species of wood can have multiple grain types. Maple does not have to have just one type of grain pattern. Curly Birdseye Maple has the curly effect along with Birdseye in the grain. Because burls have inconsistent grain, many types of grain can be found in them. A slab of cherry burl can have some thicker discolorations among its grain along with some Birdseye and knotting.
One wood in particular has very unique grain: Snakewood. Snakewood is a brownish wood that is super dense; it is one of the few woods that will sink in water. The grain on it looks like snake skin all the way through the wood and no visible growth rings can be seen. When finished, the wood turns out to be very beautiful.
Wood also has heartwood and sapwood. Sapwood is found on the outer part of the tree, while the heart wood lies in the “heart” (center) of the tree. There is a distinct difference between the two: Sapwood is lighter in color and softer that the heartwood. Pens can be made out of just sapwood, heartwood, or a combination of both to create a drastic color change.
Some of my pens are made out of wood that is laminated. Laminated wood consists of multiple pieces of wood that are arranged in a specific pattern. These blanks must be prepared before being turned. For this type of wood, the pattern in which the wood is laminated can be considered the grain.
If it were not for the vast peculiarities and differences between pieces of wood then all of pens would look the same. From straight-grained wood to the wildest of burls, the imperfections of the wood cause breathtaking impact. Essentially, the more imperfect the wood, the more unique the work of art. The wood itself is art.