Turning Wood into Pens

When Sylvan Township resident Jim Randolph retired from the University of Michigan several years ago, he was looking for meaningful ways to volunteer. That was when he met the Chelsea Retirement Community (CRC) Life Enrichment team. One of them suggested he teach pen turning as an activity that might appeal to the men living at CRC, says Jim. Although he had never done pen turning himself before, he decided to give it a try. Now six years and nearly 700 pens later, Jim, recently named as the 2017 Chelsea Citizen of the Year, can be seen every Monday and Thursday volunteering at CRC to the delight of residents who have taken up the activity.

“I love seeing their accomplishments,” says Jim of his students. “It’s wonderful to see the pride on their face when they make their first pen.”

Not a woodworker himself, Jim collects scraps of oak, walnut, and other varieties of wood from friends and others to cut into two small blocks, drilling a hole in the middle, that make up the pen. He also uses scrap wood and sand paper to make the sanding blocks, one for each resident, to use to turn their pens. Once the small blocks of wood have been turned to the appropriate sized cylinders, Jim assembles the pieces that make up the pen, sanding the wood smooth and adding oil to make it shine.

Each pen can take several weeks of turning by each participant. But the residents are having too much fun to mind. “One of the many benefits of pen turning is the social get-together. I sometimes tell them they could make more pens if they didn’t talk so much,” says Jim with a grin.

Pen turning also has a physical therapy element to it, working arm muscles and providing activity for older adults. One of Jim’s students at CRC’s Glazier Commons Assisted Living center is visually impaired, feeling the shape and thickness of the wood to know how much more turning is needed to complete his pen.

Hazel Mead of CRC’s Life Enrichment team says, “I love Jim’s sense of humor and just love him as a person. He volunteers everywhere.” In addition to volunteering at CRC, Jim is actively involved at the Chelsea Senior Center and Chelsea Kiwanis Club.

The best part of pen turning is the final product: residents have a beautiful pen when they’re finished, and many have given them as treasured gifts to family members and even UMRC Board members over the years. CRC resident Erma Summer says she has made about a dozen pens over the years. “It’s all new, but a lot of fun.”