Most of you understand the constant search for the best pen. We love the experience of going to a pen store, clicking pens, and writing with different refills to find the perfect one for us. In fact, Tactile Turn started because we found a ton of fantastic refills but they were almost always put into extremely cheap plastic bodies that just never quite felt like a premium writing experience.
Late last year, I ran across a pen that has an incredibly satisfying side click, the Mitsubishi BOXY, and immediately took it apart to understand how it worked, expecting a lot of small, injection molded pieces. What I found was two fairly simple friction fit pieces and I knew I had to try to make an all metal version.
A click history
Click pens are a common staple but the issue is that all mechanisms are not created equally. Some are better than others and some are MUCH better than others. Our first click pens used an off-the-shelf mechanism and it wasn’t as durable as we wanted. We then made a mechanism that was much more durable, but it left us wanting a better feel because it had no satisfying sound or actual *click* to the action.
The new Side Click has the best action of any click mechanism I have ever felt. Not only the feel, but also the sound it creates is reassuring and firm. Tactile Turn has always been dedicated to the tactile sensations that are a part of the writing experience. It started with our texture, but it is also a part of every design choice we make on a pen.
The development process
We have also tried to make as much of our pens “in house” as possible since the beginning and this journey started by buying a Citizen L20 Swiss lathe with most of the bells and whistles because the other machines were running about 100 hours a week trying to keep up with demand and I knew the only way to make a new line of pens was to get a new machine. After drawing up a theoretical design and buying a $250k machine on little more than a hunch was a good idea, we got the push button internal piece to work after a few weeks. The body that would fit it came quickly in once we figured out how to make the flat spring.
I started researching ways to make a spring that would push out on an interior wall and it just so happened that a friend who’s renting space from us has a wire EDM. Wire EDM’s use electricity to cut flat parts and they are by far the most accurate way, often used in watchmaking for intricate pieces that can’t be machined. The first few designs for a flat spring weren’t promising but, after about 20 iterations, we had one that worked pretty well. Another 20-30 more iterations and we got them working really well.
The previous clips we used could not be adapted to work on this style of pen, so I started designing a milled clip with another friend, Matt, and he helped us figure out a production plan. I don’t talk all that much about my role here at the shop, but I have a shop manager, Cameron, and an assembly/shipping manager Paul. I have a business partner that came on last year, John, and he started taking care of the website, and he works with another guy, Scott for advertising. These guys keep things running day to day, and my wife Alyssa and I do customer service and I try to dedicate time to designing new ideas. When I realized we needed a milled clip I also realized that we were not really “mill” people. When I say that, I meant that there is a strange phenomenon in machine shops where oftentimes a shop specializes in “turned” work done on a lathe or “milled” work made on a mill. We have always been more of a turning shop. We bought a new mill in 2018, and I had a full time programmer for a little while, but he got an opportunity to work on some aerospace parts not too long after he started, so we haven’t been running the mill too much.
After talking through what I wanted, Matt figured out that we could use pallets made from aluminum with pressed, hardened steel inserts and each pallet could hold 45 clips. If we were going to try to make 1000+ clips a week, we needed fixtures that could hold up for years and the hardened steel inserts will hold up really well over time. We currently have four pallets in the mill at any time and that allows us to do 90 of the first and second operations, laser engraved with our logo, and then tumbled in our new (used) high energy centrifugal tumbler. It’s a process I am extremely happy with and it allows us to really control the clips and make them entirely in house.
To hold those clips on the pens, we use some custom T8 torx socket head screws with a 4-40 thread pitch. Initially, I considered having another shop make these for us but, when we had a machine down for a couple weeks in March, I realized that we needed some extra capacity. So we bought a fairly barebones Citizen A20 with a barfeed, fire suppression, and a mist collector and figured out a pretty cool way to make the torx pattern on the screws. All I’ll say is that we are not using a wobble broach and we are not milling the pattern, but it is faster than both of those and we made about 5000 on one tool. Of course, this machine can make a bunch of stuff so we have it running making several other parts, too.
This journey has been stressful at times because it involved jumping into some things we were not sure would work but, now that a process has been figured out, the end result is amazingly satisfying. Before all this started we had one dual spindle lathe, one Swiss lathe, two single spindle lathes, and a mill that mostly sat idle. In the last few months, we’ve added two Citizen Swiss lathes and gotten the mill running nearly around the clock, nearly doubling what we can produce in a day and adding three new full time employees.
The Side Click is the most significant contribution in the history of Tactile Turn trying to innovate mechanisms. The Bolt Action line of pens has been our best seller since they were introduced in 2017. We were not the first to do a Bolt Action, but the EDC pen market has certainly had a LOT of Bolt Action pens introduced in the last few years. They are a simple design that is reliable and feels good and this new line of Side Click pens are similarly simple and bulletproof. For those of you that know me, I love elegant simplicity. I’m still proud of the Mover and Shaker line (now the Click and Click Short, but the mechanisms on those pens were never really exciting or satisfying like these new Side Click and even the Bolt Action mechanisms.
As one reviewer said recently:
“In many ways the Side Click feels like the culmination of a lot of work done by dozens of folks to make the best machined pen possible.”
Anthony Sculimbrene, everydaycommentary.com
We’ve taken everything we know about pens and made a new line that I am really proud of.
Thanks for reading,
Will Hodges • Owner/Designer/Janitor • Tactile Turn