Pen Box



I made this presentation box as part of a birthday present for my then girlfriend. I'd already bought her a pen — a Waterman Carène in green and gold, which to this day I think is the most beautiful fountain pen in the world. But then, I thought, I can't just wrap this in paper and hand it over! So I thought I'd make a nice presentation box.

I had no idea just how invested I'd become, and given the dozens and dozens of hours I spent on the box, I suppose it became as much the gift as the pen, ultimately.

She was an assistant professor of French Literature, and we met while training Aikido. I'd long been an occasional student of Japanese, and had been practicing my calligraphy more diligently at the time, hence the engraving in Japanese.

The phrase “mito sensei” means “Beautiful Teacher”, which she surely was. It has a second meaning that is more personal, and feels almost mystically improbable. I have to thank my dear friend Keiko for her help in finding this particular arrangement of kanji, as I never would have.


The wood is poplar; the kind you get at Home Depot labeled as “Project Wood” or something. It’s decent enough for simple things, though to this day I worry over it's longevity.

Sadly, I didn't think to take in-progress shots early enough, so you can't see some of the details I'm most proud of. The box itself used traditional dovetail joinery, with a floating panel bottom. This was hard work without an actual workbench.

The pen cradle is a separate removable unit, finished using of a scrap of quilted fabric, a bit of ribbon, and some polished brass nails to call out the gold of the pen’s accents.

I wanted the piece to evoke traditional Japanese shikki (laquerware), but I didn’t have either the experience or shop environment to work with that sort of finish. In fact, I did all the work at my coffee table or on the little balcony of my apartment. Thus, the primary finish is basic acrylic paint, black mixed with a small amount of metallized gold, which you can see given the right angle...

box gold accents

Once I'd done several coats (5? 6? 10?), I scribed the kanji by very lightly scoring the paint through paper printouts of the kanji. Once the outline was scribed, I finished carving them with a single-bevel Japanese knife.


Then I filled them — a little at a time — with the same gold acrylic I'd previously mixed into the black. Again I wanted to use a more resilient and traditional material, but didn’t have the know-how. Ultimately, it may have worked out for the best… the way the acrylic wrinkled as it dried does sort of evoke beaten gold, and I’ve come to quite like it.

box closed

I finally applied many — probably 15 or 20, mostly unnecessary — coats of acrylic clear coat and polished (each) with 0000 steel wool (I think) to build a high gloss and bring out the subtle gold flecks in the underlying paint.

If I had it to do again, I’d probably do it quite differently, but ultimately I’m really proud of the work I did, using almost entirely traditional tools and methods, and learning as I went.