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We just reviewed the new Tuff Writer Mini-Click Gen 2 tactical pen — click here to read that review. During our research on the pen, we had the opportunity to interview Tuff Writer founder Jack Roman. Read on for the uncut transcript of that interview. It provides some insight into precision-machining, design philosophy, and how Jack developed his small business in the USA.
OG: How did Tuff Writer get started? Tell us about what inspired you to make your very first pens.
The original idea for the pens came when I “fell in with a good crowd”. I used to train boxing out of Blue Corner Boxing in Chandler, Arizona, but as much as I loved getting punched in the face, I was also interested in learning other martial arts.
While looking around I ran into a bunch of guys at my gym training some really, really nasty stuff. It didn’t look like anything I had seen before. I asked them if I could join the class and the instructor, Sifu Wes Infiesto, told me that they were just a small training group and weren’t taking new people. I kept pestering them, and they finally told me that they trained quite hard and I probably wouldn’t like it. In short, they beat the piss out of me for about a month and then it was “welcome to the group”.
Sifu was a former Army special operations guy and the group was comprised of some fairly high-speed individuals. We trained everything from empty hand to stick, knife and improvised weapons tactics, firearms integration, as well as nasty stuff I’d never seen before.
At one point we were discussing improvised weapons and I suggested that maybe we should try pens. Sifu mentioned that they had tried that but the pens broke too easily. Since I worked for the Judicial Branch in court buildings all the time and carried a pen everywhere but could not carry a firearm inside the courts, I suggested that someone should make a pen that would serve as an improvised defensive tool. His reply was, “Great idea [expletive], why don’t you do that and make us some.”
At the same time I was in graduate school for finance and had to create a new product category for my marketing class, I decided to take this idea and called it the “tactical pen”. The idea was just stuck in my head so I took the money I had in savings, hired a mechanical engineer to help me with the first design and got to work.
None of the local machine shops took this seriously and most wouldn’t even quote me, but I remembered that my friend Chris in Chicago took over his family’s machine shop (Automatic Precision) so I called him up and asked if he’d help. After some persuading, he agreed to help, and we got the first pens made. They were fantastic — the Frontline Series.
Once I put the web site up we started getting phone calls, primarily from military and law enforcement members plus the occasional martial artist who were looking for something exactly like this. We continued to improve the design and eventually came out with the Operator Series which was a more functional pen, and then eventually the clicky versions.
OG: In an industry where manufacturing is often outsourced to other countries, you've chosen to keep making your products in the USA. Has that been a challenging decision?
Outsourcing was never part of the plan. That was conscious decision from the very start and it’s probably cost us in some ways, but I feel that it’s also paid off in many more ways. You can usually make it cheaper somewhere else but rarely can you make it better somewhere else. For us, keeping manufacturing in the USA is and always will be a core value.
We now have 3 CNC machines and do everything from design to prototyping and machining as well as post machine finishing (tumbling, brushing, flaming and polishing, etc.) in-house. We still out source some specialized machining and anodizing but we now control the manufacturing process from start to finish. Again, this allows us to design and build quality in from the very beginning and not as an afterthought.
OG: What led to the development of your original Mini-Click pen?
The original Mini-Click came about after sitting around the table and drinking a few beers with Roy Huntington and Mike Janich one night after the BLADE Show in Atlanta a few years back. At first I was skeptical that a smaller pen was the way to go but Roy and Mike made some really good arguments in terms of usability and shirt-pocket carry so I started designing. We launched the project on Kickstarter to see if people would be receptive, and they absolutely were.
OG: How has the Mini-Click design evolved for the second-generation?
After the first Mini-Click pen took off quite a few people started asking about a titanium version. I took the opportunity to incorporate some small design improvements here and there based on user feedback, and pretty soon I found that virtually every piece had changed. We were looking at a Gen2 Mini-Click.
The tip opening is now .002″ larger to let various different refills cycle more easily. The top O-ring groove is now also below the tip to body mating seam and the O-rings are Buna-70 and thicker as well as being recessed deeper. Finally the clip is slightly thinner to make it more flexible and we've updated the mechanism with yet another improved race design (custom tooling to cut the race and remove burs in one toolpath).
OG: It's clear that there has already been a tremendous community response to your Kickstarter project. How has Kickstarter played a role in the success of Tuff Writer?
Kickstarter has been really pivotal for us, not just from the funding aspect but also the direct feedback from backers – being able to keep them in the loop during the manufacturing process. Many of our improvements and design changes actually come from users in the field who have an idea on how to make the pen better, more reliable or just more awesome. After the last project for the Mini-Click pen people have been peppering us with requests for more material options including Titanium, Copper and Brass. The new version of the Mini-Click incorporates those changes, and the backer community is constantly helping us to keep improving by providing continual feedback.
One of the other rewarding aspects of the crowdfunding projects is when people come up to us at trade shows and tell us, “Hey, I learned about you guys on Kickstarter and wanted to come over and talk about the pens.” Again, it gives us the ability to interact with our customers on a more personal level which is something important in a business sense but also very personally rewarding.
OG: What does the future hold for Tuff Writer? Can you give us any hints about upcoming projects?
We’ve had a few people ask for fountain pens but up until now we’ve been too busy with existing projects. In the next year we’re considering revising the Operator Series pen and possibly adding a fountain pen version as well. I have to learn a little bit more about fountain pens because we don’t want to make “just another fountain pen” but rather something worth adding to the Tuff Writer lineup.
Since we’ve brought prototyping and manufacturing in-house we’ve had a few people in the industry come to us with napkin sketches and help turn them into actual finished products. We’ve done projects with some high-end knife makers, other pen makers, flashlight companies and EDC accessory makers.
One of the other pen companies who have been having reliability problems with their pen mechanisms asked if we’d consider making mechanisms for them as well. We’ve even had a local firearms company come to us and ask us to help them with design and prototype work.
I don’t necessarily see us as becoming a job shop but we’ve already collaborated with other makers on projects and I’d love to keep that part of the business going because you get to make some great relationships and work on fantastic projects that you’d never dream of otherwise. As small manufacturers we’re really all in it together and I’ve always found that working collaboratively pays off in ways that are impossible to predict.
OG: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us, and for letting us check out the new Mini-Click pen. Do you have any closing thoughts for our readers?
Mostly just a big “thank you” to everyone who has come along on the ride with us. I feel privileged to be a part of this industry and the community. I’m a big believer in the idea that we’re all in it together, to that end I invite everyone to keep in touch by following us on Instagram or on Facebook and seeing what we’ve got going on. Also, stop by at the shows to say hi, or send us an email telling us what you think or what you’d like to see next.