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Pen master Jim Cunningham carves his niche

BRISTOL — Keypads on our computers, smart phones or tablets might dominate a lot of our communication these days, but the good old fashioned pen hasn’t gone out of style either. Especially not the hand carved wooden pens made by Jim Cunningham in Bristol.
Early in his woodworking career, Cunningham ran a rustic handmade furniture company and was a member of Vermont WoodNet — a local group of woodcrafters. “WoodNet was a good group to help me get going,” he said.
One day, National Wildlife Foundation came to a WoodNet meeting and asked Cunningham to make pens; that was 16 years ago. When Cunningham realized there was a market for his pens — and how much easier the production was on his hands — he closed his furniture business and has dedicated his efforts to hand-crafted pens ever since. “I never would have made pens if National Wildlife hadn’t come to that meeting,” Cunningham said.
While his pen-business was budding, Cunningham did demos on the porch of the Shelburne Museum’s General Store once a week for about three years. “Then I got so busy keeping up with the orders,” said Cunningham. At the height of his pen-business, Cunningham estimated he was making 1,000 pens or more in a year. Today, he guesses it’s somewhere closer to 600-800 pens in a year.
The Tennessean native moved to Vermont in 1984. Why? “Why does anyone ever move,” Cunningham asked, rhetorically. “For love or money,” he answered himself. For Cunningham it was love. “I was married to a girl for about three years, but then we split up. But I love it here,” he said. And so he stayed.
As for training, Cunningham is entirely self taught. “I’m kind of a thinker,” he said. “If I think about it for long enough, then I can just do it.” From clocks to chairs, benches, shelfs, mirrors, sconces and pens, Cunningham employs that Nike-spirit and just does it.
Cunningham only needs about 2.5- to 3-inches of wood to turn pens. He takes the wood, splits it up into four pieces called “blanks,” lets those dry for a few months, pre-turns the wood to the basic oval shape and size, and then adds the parts that make it a pen. “They’re really very simple,” he said.
The wood he uses for the pens comes primarily from Tom Lathrop’s in Bristol. “It’s the waste wood from their flooring projects,” said Cunningham. “I couldn’t go out and buy the kind of wood I’m getting from Tommy… some of the nicest wood is Ash.”
Most of his pens are customized with a laser engraving for large organizations, universities and non-profits. A handful of pens are distributed to local stores (Art on Main in Bristol has them) and given away as Christmas presents.
“I’m a maker of need-full things,” said Cunningham. “I’ve always made and done things that people use every day.”
The 66-year-old hopes to keep doing just that, but is interested in scaling back his pen-production and ramping up his knife sharpening business that he kicked off about five years ago.
You might remember Cunningham’s cedar shingled knife-sharpening cart at the Farmer’s Markets, but that’s been sold. Now he’s sharpening knifes at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op on the first Saturday of the month. It’s 4 bucks per knife, and Cunningham uses his belt sander and a steady hand to make your knives scary sharp.
To learn more about Cunningham’s pens visit www.vermonthardwoodpens.com and for knife-sharpening visit www.knivessharpened.com.

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