While most of Graham Skinner’s classmates at Tatum High School are focused on digital devices, he connects with a different technology.
“I’m in love” with mechanical things, the sophomore said. “I can’t be in front of a screen all day.”
Three years ago in shop class, Skinner — then just 14 — learned how to make wooden pens on a lathe. Though he had never done any woodworking, he was enthralled.
“I just really fell in love with the lathe,” he recalled. A lathe is used to shape wood, metal or other materials; it holds the wood in place and rotates it as tools cut and modify it.
“I like the lathe because you can do many things on it. You can build a shaver, a bowl – you can build just about anything. That appeals to me,” said Skinner, now 16.
His shop teacher demonstrated how to make a wooden pen, and Skinner made one.
“After that (I knew) that’s what I had to do,” he said. “I showed it to my mom. … She said ‘Wow, we could sell this.’ ”
Skinner started a business, first selling his pens at a store owned by his father, Stephen Skinner, then at Louis Morgan Drugs No. 4 in Longview and via a website. His pens and other items now are carried by more than 30 stores in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine and New Jersey.
The business sold about 150 pens in its first year; he’s sold more than 300 so far this business year, which ends in April, said mother Alison Skinner. Prices range from $60 to $120 for his pens, pencils, wine stoppers, letter openers, bottle openers and shaving kits.
The successful business almost didn’t happen; his mother was dead set against her son taking shop class.
“When I was in school, the students who took shop class were all the rascally bad kids. I didn’t want him to be in there,” Alison Skinner said.
But her son knew shop class wasn’t like that now. He had seen students’ projects such as bird feeders and deer stands, and he wanted to do that.
But first he had to convince his mother to let him take the class.
“I begged her and begged her, but she wouldn’t budge. I told her that all I wanted for Christmas was to take shop class,” Skinner said. Finally, she relented, and he enrolled that spring semester.
Though he made pens in class, he wanted his own lathe for his own business.
He saved up the money he’d received as gifts and, with a small loan from his mother, bought a lathe.
“I had her paid back within a week” from pen sales, Skinner said proudly.
In creating his pens and his business, he shows a confidence, dedication and perseverance that is rare in adults, not to mention teenagers.
“One thing that I have learned about making pens is to remain positive. When times get tough, no matter the circumstances, you have to keep pushing to better yourself. Crafting pens has taught me manners, respect and many more things,” he said.
And they all have a personal touch.
“Each one of my pens is named for someone who is close to me or who helped start me on this journey. Each pen comes with the story behind it,” Skinner said. His “J.P.” pencil is named for Tatum ISD Superintendent J.P. Richardson, who likes pencils rather than pens.
“Dr. Richardson was very surprised. That’s the only pencil he uses. He carries it with him. … He’ll walk around school with it,” Skinner said.
His favorite woods are black walnut and crepe myrtle, a hardwood that is light in color.
“Every single pen is different. … It … depends on the grain of the wood,” he said.
Profits from his business go either into his college fund — he plans to major in mechanical engineering or real estate at Louisiana Tech — or to purchase better equipment.
Kathi Holbert, a co-owner of Louis Morgan Drugs No. 4, didn’t know Skinner when he asked to sell his pens in her store.
“I was overwhelmed by him. … He was such a polite young man, 14 years old at the time. I loved his product. He believed so strongly in what he was doing,” she said.
Holbert was so impressed she told a friend of hers with a small showroom at the Dallas Market. He met Skinner, saw his pens and was sold, too.
Later this week, for the fourth year, Skinner will show his pens at the Dallas Market, where shop owners from around the nation choose products for their stores.
Holbert said customers love the pens.
“They love the quality, the feel of the pen. It’s a gift that they’re proud to give,” she said.
Skinner’s pens are available at Louis Morgan Drugs No. 4, 110 Johnston St. in Longview’s Chaparral Shopping Center; at Cole and Co., 2467 Crow Road, Suite 100, in Tyler; and on his website at https://gskinnerdesigns.com/ .