Last month, Penny Arcade ran a comic about specialty dice. I thought it was amusing, except Gabe’s mammoth-ivory D20 sounded like one of those impossibly ridiculous, yet real things that only well-heeled gaming geeks purchased. A quick turn around the ol’ Google later, and I found out they do exist and, at $248 for a single D20, as expensive as I suspected! Turns out this bit of geek alchemy is the brainchild of Charlie Brumfield, head of Artisan Dice.
“Mammoth ivory is actually a lot more common than you’d think.” He told me when I got a hold of him at his Dallas, Texas office. “The trick is finding a piece that’s suitable to being milled.”
Charlie is a passionate guy. He’s passionate about his materials. He’s passionate about his products. He’s passionate about his customers. And he’s got a serious love/hate relationship with his process. “I’m knee deep in spreadsheets trying to get our CNC machines back online. It’s funny, I hated Math in school, now I’m surrounded by it every day! If you’d told me three years ago, we would be doing the volume of orders that we’re doing now, I would’ve told you that you were nuts. I’m constantly amazed at how rabid our fans are. They love what we do. And to that end, we’re always trying to make things better and better and better.”
He got started a few years ago with blocks of exotic wood that he milled into fudge dice for his Dresden Files gaming group. Artisan Dice now has dozens of metals, 150 woods, not to mention acrylics, carbon fiber, gator bone, stone, and other, even rarer materials. Sure, there are other specialty dice out there (you can barely log in to Kickstarter without seeing one of them); but no one is trying to do the scale of production that Artisan Dice is. And there’s good reason for that.
“If you talk to a machinist, they’ll tell you that what we do can’t be done. If you talk to a woodworker, they’ll tell you what we do can’t be done. I didn’t know…I wasn’t a machinist, I wasn’t a woodworker when I started this. So I did everything just exactly wrong enough to make it work.”
Here, Charlie pauses and muses for a bit on the disparity between the machines made for his product and the sheer volume of product he’d like to be able to put out to keep up with his fans. “Nobody makes small industrial machines. We had to get high-end hobby grade machines made for small batches. What we’re doing right now is upgrading those machines that we’ve worn slap out because they’re not designed to do large production runs. We’re having to upgrade them with components now to make them ‘mini industrial’ machines.”
And they have to upgrade them, because those gorgeous metal dice take a toll on the equipment. “We machine all kinds of exotic metals. We do everything from aluminum, copper, brass, bronze, and stainless steel to niobium, nickel, tungsten, titanium. We machine all kinds of really hard metals that machinists will go ‘I don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole.'”
But it’s not just metal that goes into the CNC machines. Artisan Dice offers up a staggering amount of rare and exotic wooden dice.
“I like cool exotic materials, stuff no one has heard of…we do 150 different species of exotic woods. You can’t just go down to the local lumber yard and buy these materials. I spend 10-15 hours a week sourcing my materials. We source from all over the world.”
And the dedication to finding new, beautiful woods to turn into dice translates into a cornucopia of woods, most of which I’ve never heard of outside of a master woodworker’s shop. But Charlie is doing it right. He could turn an even quicker buck if he cut corners. There’s endangered African Blackwood that’s easy to find if you don’t care if your source harvested the trees illegally. But he’ll only buy from a legitimate company that funds reforestation projects in Africa. One of his favorite woods, the Boise de Rose, has been illegal to import since 1968. It’s impossible to get more of it if you’re playing by the rules, so despite the huge backlog of buyers that he has for Boise de Rose dice, he’ll only make half a dozen products each year from the two logs he obtained from the last legal supplier in the U.S. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.
But some woods are just exotic because they’re seemingly impossible to get.
“Take our ancient bog oak. It’s been sitting at the bottom of a swamp for 5,000 years. The water leaches the minerals out and replaces them with tannins, giving it the black coloration. If you let this process continue for eons, you’d have petrified wood. Or like our 50,000 year old New Zealand Kauri trees, which is that process, just with another 45,000 years tacked on to it…they have a beautiful shimmer.”
Peruse the Artisan Dice website and you’ll notice that it’s not just the rarity of the woods that make these dice special. In fact, some of the woods are practically pedestrian, but the thing they all have in common besides looking beautiful is that they have great stories.
“Lignum Vitae is full of wax, so they machined it to make bearings for all the Liberty ships in World War II as well as the main prop-shaft bearing for the first modern nuclear sub, the USS Nautilus.
Wooden dice are cool; but wooden dice with a story are ten times cooler. Any time we pull a wood, I research what’s behind it. Purple Heart is a purple wood, and you’d think it’d be exceedingly rare, but it’s as common as the oak in South America. But the pigmentation in the wood was used in the early 19th century for dyes and it’s the strongest wood, pound-for-pound, in the world.”
But even with all of his experience, all of his experimentation, there are things that a CNC wizard like Charlie can’t make happen. I asked him if there was anything that he wasn’t able to make work, despite his best efforts.
Charlie laughed. ‘Very first Kickstarter! ‘Let’s make some petrified wood dice, cause those are cool, right?'” He chuckles. “Turns out there’s a small problem with that. Petrified wood is agate, it’s one of the hardest stones to cut. I did not know this! Because I didn’t know any of this when I started.
Well, I still have, sitting on my desk a piece of petrified wood. It has chromium in it, so the vibrancy changes with the humidity in the air, it turns a deeper green when it’s humid. It’s really cool; but if you try to cut it on a wet saw, it explodes! I spent roughly $15,000 and three months trying all different kinds of petrified woods. We could make bars! We could make sheets! But as soon as you made that final cut to make a cube, it falls apart along the growth rings of the tree.”
And then there are those materials that aren’t impossible; but they’re going to make you work for results.
“Like Black Palm, gorgeous black wood. Turns out palm trees aren’t really trees, they’re like big grasses. They don’t have that tree ring structure; what they have instead are very hard and very soft sections that grow like a bundle of straws. So when you’re working with this stuff, it’ll chip, split, break…we have like a 50% rejection rate. And if you get a splinter from it, turns out it’ll go septic at the drop of a hat. So it’s a real pain-in-the-butt to work with; but it makes for some gorgeous dice that are nigh-indestructable, like the rest of our dice.”
But at the end of the day, we’re talking about $100 on average for dice. Something that I can get a 100 of for $20 on Amazon. Which is fine, if all you want are cheap hunks of plastic churned out by a factory machine. If you want something special, it turns out that the artisanship involved is even more rare than the materials being carved.
“Our process is a hybrid of old world hand crafting, a woodworker that was working in the Renaissance would be perfectly familiar with it, combined with modern-day CNC technology. Our polyhedral shapes are roughly machined to shape. They look sort of like a die if you had a few beers and squinted a little bit. Then myself or one of my minions takes that rough shape and, like a jeweler facets a jewel, sand it to final shape by hand. There’s not a school out there teaching how to freehand sand dice! I’ve got five full-time folks working here, and there’s only other person besides myself that can freehand sand dice. It’s not a skill that’s easily mastered or easily picked up.
We have a bucket that all things that aren’t perfect get thrown into and we have a bonfire at the end of the year. Much to the chagrin of my customers, we don’t have seconds and rejects. If it’s not fit to have the Artisan Dice brand on it? It doesn’t exist. We decided when we started doing this, if we’re going to make a premium product, it’s going to be premium. Period. We don’t spare any expense. It’s going to be the best.”
If you’re ready to seriously upgrade your saving throws, head over to the Artisan Dice site and poke around. The problem won’t be finding something to like, it’ll be keeping yourself from buying it all. Whatever you get, you’ll be getting something even rarer than Alpha Geek gaming gear; you’ll be getting a carefully crafted piece of art.