I’ve sampled a bunch of picks over the past few weeks and reviewed them in previous posts to this series. One of the things I wondered about was how would you make a plectrum for yourself. How do small pick makers made picks as a business. Let me be clear. I have no interest in competing against either the Jim Dunlop and D’Andrea pick makers much less the boutique businesses. I don’t even like playing with a guitar pick. I prefer my thumb and fingers. But, I am curious.
Some years ago I was given a pick punch as a present. You stick a sheet of plastic under it, press down, and it punches out a guitar pick. There are some limitations. You need a different punch for every shape. You still need to smooth and polish the edges. The biggest problem is unless you favor thin picks made from plastics easily cut by the punch, you are out of luck. I’m fairly certain the punch won’t cut through 2 mm or thicker acrylic.
The Amazon Affiliate product links found on this site can earn me a commission when clicked.
A company that makes the punches has many shapes originiated by D’Andrea available. D’Andrea was the first manufacturer to produce plastic picks.
The first plastic guitar pick was made from cellulose nitrate plastic by Luigi D’Andrea in 1922. The pick shape designations such as 351, 346, and 385 originated with D’Andrea. Fender and others use the same numbers to specify their pick shapes.
Celluloid. AKA Cellulose nitrate. The original material for plastic picks. Can be punched with pick punch.
Acetate. Trade names include Plexiglass. Comes in different thicknesses and colors. Would a punch cut through an acetate sheet? Maybe if it is very thin, but think it would be difficult to impossible.
Delrin. Dunlop and others have used Delrin and related plastics for picks. Many of the plastics in this list are described as thermoplastics, meaning it can be molded or shaped at higher temperatures but is hard at room temperature. Delrin was an early thermoplastic used for picks that after celluloid.
Nylon. I haven’t tried nylon picks. Softer than Delrin. It’s one of the materials used for Dunlop’s popular jazz pick shape, although jazz picks are made from other materials too. It can probably be cut, perhaps punched.
Casein. Sheets of casein can be purchased under the trade name of Galalith in the USA. Casein is a milk protein and early plastic. Picks made from casein are said to have properties similar to turtle shell without harming any animals.
Polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is found in listings of acrylic plastics but is harder, used in eyeglass lenses among other uses. You won’t be using a pick punch on a sheet of this.
Wood, nutshells, and exotic materials. It’s amazing what materials have been tried for picks. Metal is obvious. Animal horns have been made into picks. Stone. Glass. Saws, knives, and power tools are likely needed to form a pick from these.
Once you’ve chosen a material, how will you cut out the pick shape you desire? I’ve already mentioned the pick punch. I’ve seen rotary tools common for craft projects suggested for cutting and shaping picks e.g. a Dremel tool . A scroll saw might also work. The problem is picks are small and whatever you choose has to be able to handle delicate, fine shapes.
The easiest way to cut harder plastics such as acetate is to have the shapes cut by laser. There are companies that will do this for you. You send them your design as a PDF file and identify the plastic you will use and their machine cuts the design from the plastic. The design can include etching and holes and you can produce quite a few picks from a single sheet. This is probably what most boutique makers are doing, although if you want to make large scale picks, you can purchase your own laser cutting machine for only a thousand to ten thousand dollars. I haven’t investigated the exact prices for making a handful of picks from a single piece of acetate but it could be less than $50.
Getting the pick cut from plastic is only the first step. You need to polish and shape the edges and perhaps the point. This can be done by hand with files, sandpaper, grinders, and/or microfiber polishing sponges.
But if you want to polish many picks, tumblers, as used in rock polishing, is an option I’ve seen mentioned. I have no details as to how easy or effective it is.