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Craft Work

Life after retirement: Wiley Patterson's antler art.

Wiley Patterson grasps the tine of a deer antler and carefully begins drilling a hole through its center, where the buck’s marrow once pulsed. The bone is about the thickness of a Magic Marker and requires his full attention so the cut he makes will be straight and true. As the drill whines, bits of bone and antler dust fly through the air. Yet from this humble beginning will gradually emerge a thing of beauty — a writing pen.

Patterson turns antlers in a workshop behind his home in East Memphis, a space that could easily pass for an inventor’s lab. There are lathes and buffers, sweepers and drills, and he’s even adapted a few tools to accommodate his craft. Then, there’s his filing system: shelves filled with rows of glass jars brimming with antler tines, shell casings, widgets and bones, even skull bits and deer hooves, if you know where to look.

Like many good craftsmen, Patterson is an inveterate saver, letting nothing go to waste. Which might explain why the economy of recycling deer sheds holds such appeal. Patterson takes pride in transforming one of nature’s most impressive weapons into a comparable tool of precision and beauty. He begins by studying each antler carefully, sizing up its curvature and markings to determine how it will best be shaped.

“Every antler differs in size, shape, bend, twist, and color,” Patterson observes. “So you don’t know what you’ll come up with every time. You’ve got to learn as you go.”

The upper part of the rack is best suited for pens or pencils, thicker pieces towards the skull lend themselves to duck calls, pistol grips, or knife handles. Once cut to size, he puts the antler on the lathe, where he whittles away excess bone until nothing remains but two milky white cylinders. Patterson works to bring out the character of the bone, be it the rough burls at its base or the shed line where horn and skull once converged. When such ruggedness is present, he says, it reminds the owner that this was once a living creature, bold and beautiful.

Patterson sells his work at art shows, though he’ll tell you he’s really just a hobbyist. His wife and son gave him a lathe as a gift eight years ago, when he retired from FedEx. He made a few wooden pens, but they didn’t present much of a challenge. Then he met another craftsman who was producing antler pens and found his calling.  

To create a high-quality product, Patterson needs sheds that are in good condition. Since antler is nearly 90 percent calcium and highly nutritious, it’s a coveted meal for rodents foraging in midwinter, when they’re shed. Nonetheless, he’s developed a few sources over the years: farmers, wild game processors, even a retired cop in Canada whose dogs retrieve sheds in the snow. But some of the best have come in through the back door, you might say.

“I’ve gotten lots of good antlers from ex-wives,” Patterson says with a smile. “Though I can’t imagine why.”

That comment leads Patterson to a story about the devoted wife who brought in one of her husband’s mounts, asking Patterson to create a set of pencils and pens for his birthday. Patterson realized it was a trophy mount and asked her if she was certain.

“No, it’s quite alright,” said the well-meaning woman, “It’s a gift, I want to surprise him.” So he honored her request, and a few weeks later, delivered the goods. She was delighted, and that was the end of it, or so he thought.

A few months later, a stranger approached his booth at a local flower show and asked brusquely, “Are you the guy who made a bunch of pens out of my trophy mount?” Patterson smiled nervously, unsure of what was coming.

“Well,” the man answered, “the only reason I’m not wuppin’ up on you right now is because I really love those pens. And I took a picture of that rack, so I’ve still got bragging rights.”  

Which is, perhaps, the best a good hunter hopes for: bragging rights, embellished by a handsome pen to ink the deal.

Interested in purchasing a pen of your own? Contact Wiley Patterson @ 901.685.6346 

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