Bullets and Ink: A Man's Spin On Life | Arts & Culture
Doyle Wheeler approaches life just like he does pens; everything is possible. Throw anything his way and he will make it work for him.
The first lathe Wheeler ever received was from his father. He tinkered with it off and on, not really committing to the craft but enjoying the rhythm of turning a pen. The first ones he ever made became Christmas gifts for family and friends but he insists they weren't any good.
It's what every budding artist – excuse me, craftsman – would say of their early work.
Craftsmanship is in Wheeler's blood. His grandparents built their home in Spokane from the ground up. So, as a teen, Wheeler decided he wanted to be a 'collision repair guy.'
He skipped college to work and train at an auto-body shop and eventually landed a job doing what he loved. Wheeler was living his dream until a car hit him in September of 2008.
“You're laying there doped up because you can't move around, they couldn't figure out what was wrong,” Wheeler said.
The car hit him in the back – the L5 vertebra – and gave him a nasty case of whiplash.
He waited weeks for an MRI and in that time his wife of 13 years, Carrie, tended to him. What she brought to her husband on one of those immobile days would define the next few years of their lives – among other things, hunting magazines and pen catalogs.
The combination gave him a new purpose – he would take another stab at pens.
“Once I got out to my shop I found out I couldn't sit, and so that's what I did, I just stood out in my shop and tinkered,” Wheeler said. “It was trial and error, once I figured out how to master [pens] it was Christmas time in 2009.”
His friends bought Wheeler's pens, and that gave him his next boost to begin what's now called AmmoHeadesign.
“Just the idea that, you know, I make them out of twigs, why not bullets?” Wheeler said.
And with that simple statement, you get the essence of Wheeler – everything is possible in his world.
If pens are his babies, then the bullet pen would be his first born; they are the namesake of his business, after all. He drills the tips of bullets himself to make room for a ball point or fountain head, and then fits it with materials like deer antler that he spins at eye-blurring speeds on his lathe.
He's finished within minutes, humbly presenting the pen. It's perfectly elegant, capped with a clip that looks like a rifle, but never too girlie.
“I make sure my pens have a manly finish,” Wheeler quipped.
In his shop, you'll find snake skin with rattles still attached draping from his cabinets and milk crate after milk crate of deer antlers, which he gets by trading pens with Spokane Tribe hunters.
“Pheasant feathers, archery arrows, shredded money,” Wheeler listed (and the list continues to includes a material I promised for his own sake I wouldn't name until he actually finishes the pen).
Strips of what look like tie-dyed taffy lay curled in a corner of Wheeler's shop. It's actually abstract art that belonged to local artist Edward Gilmore.
During a visit with Gilmore at his studio, Wheeler recalls seeing scraps of art laying on a table. 'I can make those into pens,' he remembered thinking to himself.
Gilmore, who can sell one of his paintings for $30 grand, gave his castoffs to Wheeler to manipulate and stretch as he pleases to make pens.
The art goes through a special process to detach the canvas from the paint. After it's attached to a pen, you end up with a graphic, bumpy and colorful creation.
There's nothing Wheeler can't make into a pen – he's even making a sterling silver bullet pen for a man writing a book about werewolves.
And coffee beans? Why not? Wheeler made a pen out of Starbucks coffee beans, contrasting their dark color with a lime green amalgam (that stuff dentists use to fill your cavities).
He speaks of his pens with jovial fondness, like reminiscing with an old friend. When asked if he's thought about pitching his coffee bean pens to Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz his face turned serious.
“I will at some point,” Wheeler said, and almost as quickly returned to his light banter about pens.
Time and time again throughout the interview, there were flashes of that serious face. Like when he was questioned about returning to auto-body repair full-time: 'I will own a body shop,' Wheeler returned confidently. Or when I challenged him to make a pen made of the most ridiculous material I could offer: 'I can do that,” Wheeler said, without skipping a beat.
The words 'can't' and 'impossible' aren't words he'll consider.
“I have a family to provide for,” Wheeler said. “There's no stopping, you can't lay around and stop, there's always something to do."
Wheeler discovered he can keep busy scavenging for scraps to make into pens. Three years after he got up off the couch to turn on a lathe he's selling pens in shops around Spokane. His AmmoHeadesign Facebook and Twitter pages are growing in popularity every day.
“I would have never discovered the power of social media without my pens,” Wheeler said. “You realize how close-knit Spokane is when you hop on social media.”
Though he's found a purpose and success with pens, Wheeler still dreams of getting back into the auto-body shop.
Wheeler's pens can be fond at Nectar Tasting Room, Latah Creek Winery, Townsend Winery (made out of used wine barrels), Finders Keepers I, Studio 66 Art Gallery and Devtan Trading Company. You can also visit his website.
And if you're really intrigued, you can find Wheeler on Twitter at @AmmoHeadesign.
Photo Gallery: Visit Wheeler in his shop where we found him working on two different pens - one of them will be made out of a deer antler.