Turning Archive 2007
Handy Poteet man crafts cow dung into ballpoints
Web Posted: 12/11/2007 01:11 AM CST
Sara Inés Calderón
POTEET — One cow's excrement is one man's fine writing instrument.
At least it is for John Lopez, 42, who began making his South Texas Cow Patty Pens six years ago with local, natural materials.
He perfected the process through trial and error. The end result: flecks of brown suspended in a clear plastic, looking almost like wood from a distance.
"I take my pen kits and feed 'em to the cows and then go out in the pasture and pick 'em up," Lopez joked, stroking his mustache from behind the desk at JS Shop, his lawnmower repair business in downtown Poteet.
Cow patties may be Lopez's current specialty, but when he began the craft in 2000 he used wood, bone, deer antler and other materials to encase mail-ordered ballpoints.
'That's where the supply comes from,' Lopez says of his cows that provide the patties he uses.
"I was bored, poor," he said. "I had bought some tools" and decided to give handmade pens a try. But after hawking them at craft shows and county fairs, he realized his wares looked like everyone else's.
So he started looking for a way to distinguish his work. Exotic materials were hard to find in Poteet, but he came across the solution in his own backyard.
E-N video: Cow poo pens
"There's not much money in this area, so I need to make things with the finances (I have) and I need the materials the same way," he said.
His original brand name for the pens included a vulgar barnyard term, but it offended customers and other vendors at craft shows, so he retreated to the safer "South Texas Cow Patty Pen."
Listening to Lopez describe how he arrived at his production method is like listening to a scientist describe a breakthrough discovery. The cow patties can't be too dry — but they can't be too fresh, either. Also important is the type of feed the cattle in question are eating.
Eligible patties must be made from pure coastal grass, never grain, Lopez said adamantly, gesturing with both hands — otherwise the patty "won't be natural."
Once selected and harvested, the winners are ground into a powder, placed in a tray and mixed with a plastic resin. After four days, he can cut the hardened plastic into small blocks for further custom milling. He said it's the hardest substance he has ever cut because of sand ingested by the cows along with the grass.
The blocks are spun on a wood lathe at 3,900 revolutions per minute, worked into a cylinder, assembled with parts bought from a catalog and polished. The process yields 10 to 15 pens and takes six to eight hours, Lopez said.
The finished product goes for $45.
"It's not an easy-made pen," Lopez said.
A jack-of-all-trades, Lopez has made everything from patio furniture to metal coat racks and even earrings, but only pens, darts, knife handles and letter openers from cow patties.
Lopez's pens have become fairly well known around Atascosa County, one collector of his work said.
"Probably nowhere but South Texas you'll come across that," said a laughing David Soward, who owns a few of Lopez's antler and wood ballpoints and whose sister-in-law gave him a cow patty pen as a gag gift.
Local demand for the pens has spread via humorous word of mouth, said Soward, the Atascosa County Sheriff's Department's chief deputy.
"It's just a novelty item," he said. "I get a kick out of it."
Lopez has spent his life in South Texas, loves his home and wants his work to reflect his natural surroundings.
"That's where I live, and I'm not a Yankee," he said with pride, adding: "I've been up north once. I've been to Oklahoma, and I didn't care for it."
John Lopez may be reached at his shop in Poteet at (830) 742-8377.