Nancy Wortmann is very happy her husband Dick has his own workshop.

“(She) is definitely happy I can go out to my workshop – keeps me out of her hair,” Wortmann said laughing. When she is frustrated with him, she tells him she needs some firewood and his shop will be a good place to start – he laughs at her. But when he dies, he has given her permission to sell his wood and gets a good laugh out of that, too.

Wortmann is a retired dairy farmer, living on his family’s homeplace north of Crofton, and a lifelong carpenter.

“When I was about six years old, my dad and mom gave me a scroll saw for Christmas and I started cutting things,” Wortmann said. “I used peach crate boards for my lumber and I had a small farm, so I built pens and things.”

Wortmann said that was how he learned to work with wood and what he could do with it.

It became Wortmann’s passion.

“I knew then I wanted to work with wood and I even had a job with a local contractor, ready to start after high school, when my brother, who was farming with my dad, fell and hurt his back,” Wortmann said. “There was no one to work with dad so I stayed home on the farm and have been here ever since.”

Over the years there have been plenty of opportunities on the farm for Wortmann to use his carpenter skills but now, as he watches his ‘boys’ run the farm, he has cut down the carpenter work to creating a selection of finely hand-made ball point pens. Several years ago, he built a workshop and today it is filled with wood, power tools and the best part, creative inspiration.

“Making pens is my favorite thing to do,” Wortmann said.

Wortmann’s pens are all made from native wood grown in the area, including many cuts from trees on his farm, and that is his specialty – his niche, but he does have a collection of wood from all over the United States. People bring him certain species or types and may have a request for a pen, salt and pepper shakers, a cutting board – almost anything he can make. A good friend, a carpenter in his own right, brought him some wood from Alaska or then there’s a friend who had a tree on their property which may need to be torn down and they bring a piece for a project they want. He has cherry wood, plum wood and even deer or elk antlers for special projects.

“I like to make pens in particular because I can come in here in the evening after I have finished work and make a pen from start to finish,” Wortmann said. “I feel like I have accomplished something – it’s fulfilling.”

Wortmann noted he has pens in 35 states and four foreign countries. A photo in his office area shows a field salesman Wortmann used to work with presenting one of Wortmann’s pens to a Japanese official he was trying to persuade to purchase his feed type. When the salesman was getting ready to go the Japan, he was told it was proper to present the Japanese with a gift and he decided one of Wortmann’s pen would be perfect.

Wortmann quickly shows off his power equipment, a saw, a planer, but the turning lathe is his favorite – his buddy. He compares his workshop to a small sawmill where he can take bigger pieces of logs and saw them to the size he wants for any project. The walls are lined with shelving for his diverse collection of wood boards.

“I spend hours looking for ‘pretty’ wood, pieces which have a unique design,” Wortmann said.

Picking up a piece of Hackberry, Wortmann points out the spalting in the grain which occurs from moisture and environment. He has found some which have purple spalting and are very rare and hard to find. A neighbor woodcutter is always on the lookout for pieces with this appearance and shares the wood with him. Pens made with this type of wood grain sell quickly when he displays them at craft fairs and show in the region, anywhere from Mitchell in South Dakota to Fremont, a couple hours south of Crofton.

One special piece Wortmann has came from a cottonwood tree in his pasture which was dropped during a tornado. The trunk was rotten but way at the top of the tree were burls, which grew there after an injury or disease to the tree and are a woodworker’s dream because the patterns in the wood are eye-catching and create beautiful pieces wherever used.

For his pens Wortmann starts with a block of wood about one-inch square and four inches long. He first bores a hole, inserts a hollow tube and goes to his ‘buddy’, the turning lathe to smooth out a barrel. For other pieces. like the kaleidoscope he makes, he can carve out a design on the barrel at the turning lathe.

Wortmann gets inspirations from woodworker magazines and that’s where the kaleidoscope project started to take shape. He made 10 of the scopes which were 12 inches long and he also makes a small handheld version only three inches long.

“The kaleidoscopic is very time consuming not only because of the wood crafting but constructing the total piece is a slow process and very difficult,” Wortmann said. After the barrel is made, the mirrors have to be aligned inside and then the glass crystals placed. The large scope is a beautiful piece but a little spendy and the smaller hand-held size sell much better because of the price.

The easiest part of the scope construction was finding the glass crystals. He visited a local stained-glass restorer near Hartington and asked if he had any broken glass pieces from his work. The craftsman said, ‘How much do you want?’, and took him behind his shop where he had two-50-gallon drums full of glass pieces after restoring church windows.

Crafting enough inventory for shows is a lot of work Wortmann said. He probably leaves home with 50 pens but there’s other wood pieces he creates and sells. There are the kaleidoscopes and sometimes he has the old wood hammer blocks with pegs for children or during the Christmas holidays he makes wooden Santa and evergreen trees.

He even polishes small rocks he collects during the year and gives them away to children for their fish aquariums.

“I love working with kids and I think this is something kids are missing; they don’t do stuff like that anymore and they need to,” Wortmann said. “The parents need to see if their children are interested in it and help them if they are.”

Thinking along those lines, Wortmann attended a summer camp last summer in Sioux Falls with his portable turning lathe and taught kids how to turn. His nephew is a fire engineer in the city and this is one of the volunteer projects he works with - running the camp. He invited his uncle to participate.

Wortmann offered a workshop for the kids with a couple projects using a turning lathe. They made small baseball bats using the lathe and a simple wooden pen cover. He drilled the hole in the pen barrel ahead of time and then the kids turned the pen on the lathe. With the purchase of a simple ballpoint pen, they removed the ink barrel and inserted into the wooden pen to be used over and over. At the end of the workshop, he asked the kids to grade him and he got A+ all across the board. He was tired at the end of the day but felt fulfilled he did something for those kids – and he will go back.

Wortmann spent the cold month of February remodeling the bathroom in his home with the help of a neighboring carpenter and made all the bathroom and hallway cabinets in his workshop. There were 22 doors in all. He is now ready to work on smaller projects in his shop like a large butcher block cutting board for his daughter-in-law or his new project – pens with pheasant feathers.

“My new thing is pens with pheasant feathers,” Wortmann said. He has made a variety of specialty pens in the past like pens for policemen or firefighters, but this is a different type of project. He glues the small feather pieces to the pen barrel and encases them in a plastic cover. He anticipates they will sell quite well for the bird lovers just like pens from deer antlers are very popular for hunters.

This last year Wortmann attended the Colorado Wood Turning Symposium with a woodworker friend from Creighton. He estimates there were well over a thousand people there associated with turning and some premier experts like the world’s best turner. A large display room is available, and participants are invited to display an item they have created. He placed one of his pens setting on a deer antler pen holder he makes and on the last morning of the event, they acknowledge 30 outstanding pieces out of all in the room. He was very pleased to have his pen display chosen.

“I won’t be selling that pen,” Wortmann said smiling.