Austin Saunders Went From Shaping Surfboards to Crafting Pens
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The custom pens had already come into his life.
A cousin’s grandfather had died a couple years earlier, and funeral organizers did a 21-gun salute for him. Afterward, the cousin got to keep the spent shell casings, carrying one of them around on a key chain. She asked Saunders’ uncle, Joe, a man whose hands can do just about anything asked of them, if he could make something with the casings.
Joe made two pens. He showed them to Saunders first. “And I was like, ‘This is awesome. I need you to show me how to make this,’” Saunders says.
He and Joe, who worked for Austin at his surf shop, made a pair for one of his sisters and her husband. Then, he started selling them in his surf shop and online, through Facebook and Instagram. They sold well. In one month, he had more followers on his Instagram account for the pens than the one for surfboards.
When he quit surfboards, Saunders wasn’t exactly sure what to do. But he thought he’d keep selling pens and figure out the rest. He didn’t have to look any further.
He named the business High Caliber Craftsman. He sells the pens for about $50 a pop—some go as high as $115—and makes them out of a workshop behind his house.
It’s not easy to tell that both ends of the pen are shell casings from .308-caliber machine guns. (They’re the perfect size for pens.) The casings are sanded, most are coated with a firearm finish called cerakote, and their designs are stenciled and sprayed on—just like Austin did with the artwork on his surfboards.
Saunders offers superhero and movie-related pens, featuring characters like the Hulk, Boba Fett and Stormtroopers. He’s also got “first responder” pens that cater to police officers, firefighters and paramedics. His two most popular models are the America and Thin Blue Line pens.
“Because police officers write all day,” he says. “They’re writing tickets.”
Saunders is bearded and burly and looks more lumberjack than surfer. This time, he’s not the face of the business. No one is. The biography on the website doesn’t mention him. It offers an email address but no phone number, stating: “Sorry, we don’t accept phone orders. Emails are the best way to reach us.”
“Faceless,” Saunders says. “Faceless operation.”
His affinity for bullet pens came naturally—his family loves guns. Dove hunting is their thing, dating back to Saunders’ grandparents. Saunders got his first gun at 5. His backyard is dotted with shooting targets. Most moms tell their loved ones to bring a casserole to Thanksgiving dinner; Saunders’ mom reminds them to bring their firearms.
The drive out to Saunders’ house, near Fentress Airfield in Chesapeake’s heartland, is a step into a Tidewater time machine. Residents have names for their expansive properties like “Tara Plantation.” Some have ramshackle barns that are one good storm from being a pile of wood. And a trip to the mailbox, for some, is considered going on a walk.
Evidence of Saunders’ former life surrounds him. Parked behind his home is a black and white box truck with his surfing logo on the sides and a license plate that reads: “SRF BRDS.” He can’t remember the last time he drove it.
In his workshop, at the end of his long driveway, the floor mat just inside the door says: “Austin custom surf boards.” And the 10-foot light-box sign that once welcomed customers to his surf shop hangs on the rear wall of the workshop.
His staff hasn’t changed much, either. There’s Uncle Joe, who would rough shape Austin’s surfboards before Austin did the precision shaping. And then there’s his cousin, 25-year-old Cody Adams, who started sweeping foam dust off the surf shop’s floor at age 11.
Joe, a former iron worker with a bum knee, is the workhorse. That’s just fine for Saunders and Adams, who like to knock off and sneak over to Sandbridge when the waves are pumping.
Adams is the likeable slacker with long hair. He also doubles as a “manny” for Saunders’ young son and takes Saunders’ friendly teasing in stride.
The shop is broken up into stations. The first is for removing a piece called the “primer” from the shell casings, which are recycled, military-fired rounds Saunders buys from a government auction website. The next is for drilling a hole through them. Then, the pen’s housing is glued into the casing. And so on.
One Monday afternoon in January, Joe is sanding the casings so they can be coated. Behind him, Adams has been gluing pen housing into casings for a few hours.
A Johnny Cash song hums in the background. The conversation turns to when they got started working that morning. Joe got there bright and early at 3 a.m. Adams, not so much.
“We don’t need to talk about times,” he said.
The group keeps things loose and informal. It was the same at the surf shop. If Saunders wants to stop work to build a chicken coop for his backyard, then that’s what they do.
Saunders doesn’t want to talk about the businesses’ finances. But he said he sold twice as many pens during Christmas 2016 as he did the year before. And it was during that first Christmas, overwhelmed with orders, that he recalls telling his wife: “So, this is what a real business is like.”
His success has made it easier to move on from a career he thought would be his one and only. But some of his customers—Saunders had a fiercely loyal following—aren’t ready to give up on him yet. Neff is hoping Saunders will shape boards on a limited basis in the future.
In Kennebunk, Aromando recently ran into a woman who owns two Austin boards. She rides one of them; her son rides the other. Aromando told her that Saunders had stopped making boards and joked that she shouldn’t sell the ones she has, even though they’re likely to increase in value.
Don’t worry, she said, she never planned on selling them anyway.