Pocket tops for play and pay

MarApr2016-WoodIndustry_page_01_thumbnailInstagram, Facebook, crowdfunding, 3D printing, Pay- Pal, EDC…. Indiegogo, YouTube, Kickstarter, Twitter. It is like getting caught in a Star Trek transponder. Lots of buzz. Lots of potential. No substance. Or is there?

Marketing in social media can get huge margins, payment in advance, project funding and branding. And so can the lottery pay you in the tens of millions. It’s just not likely.

But it can happen, so let’s take a look. The topic is pocket tops. Not the tops of pockets, but spinning toys. Toys that are now selling for $150 for a disk the diameter of a loonie with a handle in the middle.

Last December a fad phenomenon hit critical mass in what might be called the after-hours manufacturing sector, and it shines a light on how the internet, innovative funding sources, niche marketing and the desire to make a design statement converged.

PocketTop1Kurt Vonnegut’s infamous chronosynclastic infundibulum has materialized, right here and now. The convergence is time, money, design, wood, metal, light and just plain cool.

Backing up a bit, to 2014, J.L. Lawson and Co. was managing its millworking orders in the desert of southern California. In Oshkosh, Wis., J. Stadler Machine, Inc., was doing the same.

Although they had little in common beyond metalworking, they did have one thing. Each had a son involved in the business and anxious to try new ideas. Out in California, Jason Hui, born in Hong Kong and raised on a Montana ranch, was launching his own milling venture.

PocketTop2And half a world away, in Singapore, Ben Tan was sweating out his office job, and worrying about a “tough patch” life had passed his way. Over in the digital-social world, things were settling in after a period of growing pains.

If nothing else, the “blogosphere” has offered a haven for amateur photographers, videographers, editors and publishers to have their kick at the can for little down and nothing per month.

For an example of what passes for “content,” log on to YouTube and search for “pepper spray challenge.” One area that has attracted a fan base is the “prepper” movement. Preppers are people that are preparing for something: Armegeddon, invasion, global environmental disaster, a zombie apocalypse…. Pick your poison. However, out of the prepper movement came a series … make that a corpus … of videos of people emptying out their pockets, cars, backpacks or briefcases of everything EDC (everyday carry).

PocketTop3The idea was to show off what you had on you in case of the end of time. And one thing that started showing up among the $600 pocket knives, compasses and granola bars was tops. Pocket tops. EDC tops.

Certainly, one must have something to do at the end of time. Some metalworkers were making EDC knives; some were making lanyard beads – baubles to slide on the staple of every EDC dump: paracord.

Ben Tan in Singapore had discovered tiny vials of tritium dissolved gas, each in a different colour and each with a radioactive half-life of 12 years. Marry that with an idea and an old metal lathe in the back of his father’s house, and you could buy from Ben a paracord bead with a gentian vial encased in a latticed brass case.

PocketTop4But sales were slow, and on one of the videos Ben saw a reference to a members-only page on Facebook named PocketTopTalk, and he joined. Almost concurrently, some of the knife- and bead-makers had decided to try making tops of metal, and somebody had the idea of making them spin longer by introducing a lower coefficient of friction.

The idea was to replace the sharp, metal point upon which the top was to spin with a small, ceramic bead. That way, as the top struggled to attain equilibrium at the beginning of the spin, it could wobble on its axis but retain a fixed contact point.

Jason Hui, now of Prometheus Lights, took the idea to another level, and started making a solid-bass top, the Lambda, that had the standard, ceramic bearing, or an optional, industrial ruby. J.L. Lawson’s Anthony Lawson weighed in with a beautiful, one-inch, brass-and-wood model with inlaid amboyna burl and an amboyna dock.

Lawson is a traditionalist, and all milling is done individually with no CNC machining. Over in Singapore, Ben Tan created a tritium-vial nest on a top, started charging $300 a pop and has a 60-day backlog as he struggles to balance the security of his day job.

Likely the guru of the design side of pocket tops, Rich Stadler started off with a Kickstarter crowd-funding program to launch tops as a sideline, and smashed to prominence with his later design, the Kraken.

PocketTop5A virtuoso performance of detail, balance, colour, light and complexity, the Kraken was a limited run, each top selling for about $75 US. Now, less than six months later, they are a coveted collector’s item and are often offered for sale at $900 or better.

Pressured to make more, Stadler demurs. That design has passed, he says. He is on to something new. The way Kickstarter works is that a prospective entrepreneur logs on to the website, and creates a presentation.

In this case, a pocket top. Then, people visiting Kickstarter are invited to “pledge” the project for a range of prices, each price with its unique reward. For example, you can start with $1, $5 or $20 and get a thank-you, or an honourable mention in the literature.

Pledge more and you can get a “free” top. More, and you can get two, three, five, five with a base, etc. You can roll your own in terms of what you think the market will bear.

PocketTop6With no warning, the whole idea of pocket tops took off, leaving all the suppliers unable to fill orders, unable to find materials and heady with the guarantee of back orders, pre-paid on Kickstarter, FaceBook or Indiegogo – the materials exploding into mokume, Damascus steel, tungsten, silver, gold plate, superconductor, copper, brass, stainless — about anything that can catch and eye and hold its balance.

Then, just when the playing field was about defined, along came Shapeways with its 3D-printed top, the Tornado. Milling of both wood and metal are reductive processes. That is, you remove material to create something. In 3D, you start with nothing and add spots of metal where there was nothing.

Further, in the case of the Tornado, the top is designed in a way that makes it difficult to start up, but it has aerodynamically designed fins so when you blow on it with a straw, it stabilizes, speeds up and will spin forever as long as you add more air.

You can see a YouTube video of the top in action by searching for Shapeways Tornado. As with any item with a massive demand, associate products came available. Down in Texas, Kerry Weeks of Weeks Woodwerx started turning out spinning bases made of such exotic woods as cocobolo, complete with convex lenses and/or convex mirrors upon which to spin the tops while encouraging them not to run off the surface of your office desk, kitchen table or restaurant countertop.

Other vendors got into the act with pocket-top holsters, taking them out of the realm of the pocket and putting them on the belt, the Everest of “carry” for anything EDC.

Where does this all end? Anybody’s guess.

If you want a new toy, you can find and buy most of the items mentioned, and many more. However, if Canada’s secondary wood-products sector is looking for new or ancillary income streams, there may be a youngster out there with a dream.

He or she might start with wooden tops, but that has been done. Besides, it’s the youngster that needs the dream.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to know there are new ways of marketing, new ways of designing and new ways of finding venture capital to support the next, greatest trend.

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