Minnesota Entrepreneur Breaks New Ground in Custom Pen-Making Industry with Tormach PCNC 1100

St. Paul, MN–based programmer Joe Hoover, came up with an innovative idea in custom pen manufacturing that lets anybody create a one-of-a-kind machined pen on his Web site, www.bellisi.me. “The Web site has a widget that works like a mini-CAD system. It lets users design a pen with easy-to-use parameters,” he explains. To get the word out, Joe’s launched a campaign on Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding platform.

[Not a valid template]With Joe’s bellisi.me widget tool, users can create their own pen and receive a basic rendering of the final design. “On the backend, I pull that design out of the database and – using other software that I wrote – generate everything that is needed to mill that pen on my Tormach PCNC 1100,” he says. “I have a program that creates a G-Code from the data that the widget sends me.”

Once the program is created, Joe turns to his Tormach PCNC 1100 to mill each pen from a unique pen blank he creates himself. “I thread mill the blanks with triple start threads and then I thread mill the inside,” he says. For the finish milling of each pen, Joe leverages his Tormach PCNC 1100’s 4th axis, which greatly increases the owner’s range of applications like carving, scanning and indexing. “Most of what I do is with the 4th axis rotary table. There’s a lot of cutting where the stock is rotating. Most of the cutting is side milling, where the cutter is kind of fixed in the Z location, and it moves in the X- , Y- , and A- axes” he explains.

Joe began dabbling with CNC as a clockmaker. “My initial interest came because I originally got into CNC with some of my clock making and I wanted to challenge myself. I started out thinking about making pillars for a skeleton clock…, so I wrote the software to generate the designs.” Soon, he realized the commercial potential of his software idea, and began looking for opportunities to apply the concept to a more commonly used item – custom pen making. “I also figured that other people might like to be able to design without having to learn and acquire a CAD program.”

Prior to purchasing his PCNC 1100, Joe used desktop CNC machines to learn some of the basics of machining, but the Tormach mill has opened up new opportunities for him. “I don’t come from a machining background. I’m more of a programmer than a machinist. I write software for a living,” he explains. “[The Tormach] is way beyond my $3,000 lathe, and way beyond anything else I’ve had before.”

Joe is a member of the Twin Cities Tormach User Group, which has been a great resource for learning and sharing tips and techniques with other Tormach users in the area. “I don’t know a lot of machinists. There are a lot of resources online, but it’s good to talk one-on-one with others that are using the machines,” he says. If all goes well – and the Kickstarter campaign receives funding – Joe plans to make all of the custom-designed pens on his PCNC 1100. Should product demand pick up too quickly, he plans to look to the Tormach User Group if he falls behind schedule. “I’ve talked to them about running jobs off their machines if I can’t keep up. I could just easily send G-Code to any of those guys and they can easily run the job for me.”

Joe is already planning for future projects on his Tormach mill. By continuing to leverage his programming background, he hopes to get into building customized knife handles and blades. “It seems like there’s a lot of interest in that market, and it’s a little simpler than a pen,” he says. “The idea that you can go online and create your own design that can be milled is kind of alien to a lot of people,” he explains.

Chris Fox

Chris comes from a publishing background with years of experience in science, technology, and engineering publications. Previously an editor with Product Design and Development and Gizmag, he has a keen eye on the maker community and the changing landscape of the world of prototyping, product development, and small-scale manufacturing. Chris has been working with clients to create Tormach's customer success stories since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheChris_Fox

Chris Fox