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Pen-Making 101
A Basic Tutorial for Turning a Pen on a Wood Lathe


DISCLAIMER:

The reader assumes all responsibility and liability associated with the hazards of woodworking. The author has no control over how a reader will act as a result of obtaining information in this article. The author shall not be responsible for any errors or omissions that may be present in this article. Accordingly, the author shall assume no liability for any action or inaction of a reader.

This article is directed toward a hobbyist audience and is not intended for application in a commercial, institutional, or industrial setting. Commercial woodshops are generally governed by a complex set of worker safety regulations, such as those mandated by OSHA. Satisfying the compliance of such regulations is beyond the scope of this article.


Pen-turning is one of those activities that is easy to learn -- but more challenging to do well. This makes the learning curve all the more fun, and it's easy to obtain success the first time. With practice, you can quickly advance to more creative and sophisticated pen designs. For under $500, you can start creating hand-made pens in your shop or a spare room. Unlike many other woodworking projects, it doesn't require an expansive shop or a huge time commitment to create a pen. In fact, with some practice, you can make a pen start to finish in under an hour.

Pens can be turned from many kinds of materials: exotic woods, burls, laminates, composites, polymers, metals, even old bowling balls. Narrow blocks of wood and other substances - pen blanks - can be purchased for turning on the lathe. Pen blanks of rare and exotic woods, laminates and other materials can be obtained for as little as a dollar or two apiece. The pen hardware kits are readily available for around $2-$5 each. Pen turning is also a great way to use up some of the small scraps of wood laying around. I have photos of some of my pens here.

Below is my chronicle of how to create a basic pen. I have chosen the so-called "Slimline" style for my tutorial, as this is the simplest pen for the beginner to make. This article is intended as a basic primer to pen-making. If you want a more in-depth instruction, Penn State Industries offers a very informative (and free) pen-making DVD. Another excellent excellent DVD (not so free, but worth every cent) can be found here.

Before beginning, it is imperative that you fully understand the hazards that are associated with using a lathe. If you are new to woodturning, or if you would like a refresher in basic lathe safety, the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) has a helpful set of safety guidelines. Good personal protective equipment is essential, including a face shield, respirator, and hearing protection.

First of all you are going to need some tools and supplies. Below is the sequence of a typical pen-turning session, showing the equipment used.


A typical lathe for pen-turning. This one is a midi lathe, but just about any wood lathe will do. You can find good models at reasonable prices from Penn State Industries, Harbor Freight, Amazon, and other quality tool vendors. Make sure your lathe is constructed from robust cast iron (avoid cheap models made from aluminum or stamped metal), and is capable of operating at several speeds.

A pen-turning mandrel. The mandrel has a collet (left end) that grasps the mandrel shaft. The tapered end (left) fits into the morse taper cavity of the lathe's headstock. Pen mandrels usually come with 7mm bushings, the size needed for turning the Slimline pen.

A basic set of pen-turning chisels: a parting tool (top), skew (center), and roughing gouge (bottom). Pay a little extra and get a set made from high-speed steel (HSS). Tools made from HSS hold an edge longer than carbon steel and are more resistant to heat. Don't forget a good sharpening stone, as you will be honing these tools from time to time.

Drill press and machinist's vise. You will need a drill press to drill holes in your pen blanks. Make sure your drill press has at least a 2-1/2" depth of plunge, to enable it to drill the entire length of your pen blanks. A machinist's vise will hold your pen blanks perpendicular for drilling.

Brad-point drill bit for drilling your pen blanks. You will need a 7mm bit for Slimline pens.

Barrel trimming set. This is useful for trimming your pen blanks to their proper lengths and ensuring squareness of their ends. You can also trim blanks with a belt or disc sander (and sometimes this is preferred), however you must ensure that the surface of the sander is perpendicular to the tube, which is not necessarily perpendicular to the sides of the blank (unless the hole you drilled in it is perfectly true). This barrel trimmer is 30 dollars well spent, but it is not ideal for all woods, as it can cause tearout in certains kinds of wood (I will discuss this below).

Pen blanks. You can use just about any wood for this, though some woods turn much better than others. You can also use some composites, plastics, laminates, etc., to create the effect you want. Wooden pen blanks can be obtained as cheaply as a dollar apiece, and rare woods and burls can be ordered for around $3-$6 each. Make sure your blank is at least 5/8" x 5/8" x 5" long for Slimline pens, though most typical pen blanks are a little larger than this. Of course, you can cut your own blanks from a piece of wood that you like. This gives you the freedom to choose the blank size, angle of cut, the best grain features, etc.

Adhesive for gluing the brass barrel tubes inside your drilled pen blanks. I use 5-minute epoxy, as I am impatient by nature and don't like waiting hours for glue to dry. You can use cyanoacrylate (CA) adhesives or polyurethane glues. White woodworking glue is not recommended for this application.

Sandpaper. You will need lots of this for sanding blanks on the lathe, from about 150 grit, up to 600 grit or finer. Buy it in sheets and cut it into small pieces about an inch or two in length and width. I like to sand the blanks up to 800 grit, then use 0000 steel wool for the next step.

Tripoli (EEE) compound will bring your turned pen blanks to a high lustre.

Wipe-on "super gloss" clear lacquer turner's polish from Penn State Industries. This will seal the wood and provide a high gloss protective finish to your pens. The heat generated by friction against the rotating pen blank quickly dries the finish onto the surface. Just apply with a paper towel.


But why pay $20 for 8 oz. of "friction polish," when you can buy basically the same thing at any home center store? A $7 quart of ordinary high-gloss clear lacquer can be applied in the same way and it yields exactly the same finish -- for about $0.22 per ounce.

Slimline pen kit. This is what two bucks will get you. Includes all the hardware and an ink cartridge. The Slimline pen uses standard Cross type ink refills.


Now, let's make a pen...


The Slimline pen kit. Check to ensure that all the parts are there. The kit includes 2 brass barrel tubes, ink cartridge, top cap, clip, center band, twist mechanism, and tip. You should receive an instruction sheet with your kit order; otherwise you can download one here in .pdf.

A typical wooden pen blank. For this project, I have selected a Cocobolo blank. This is a dense, oily tropical wood that yields a smooth, polished finish.

Measure the length of the brass tubes and mark your blank for cutting, allowing an extra 1/16" or so of length for each section. Don't forget to allow for blade kerf as well. Label the top and bottom sections and make a hash mark across the cut line that separates the top and bottom.

A simple pen blank crosscutting sled for the band saw. This is much safer and easier than trying to cut blanks using a miter gauge. The vertical member acts as a stop to prevent cutting too far into the sled.

Cutting the blank on the band saw.

The two pen blank sections.

Drilling the pen blanks. Mark an "X" corner to corner on an end of the blank and mount the blank in a machinist's vise, with the drill bit centered on the end of the blank. Use a small square to ensure vertical orientation. Clamp the vise firmly to the drill press table. Drill the blanks using the 7mm drill bit.

The blank, ready for drilling.

Drill the blank, plunging the bit slowly. Raise the bit to clear chips every 1/4" or so of drilling depth. This minimizes heat build up and removes chips. Nice and easy here - don't rush this.

A drilled blank, ready for the brass tube.

Scuff the outside of the brass tube with a scrap of 80 grit sandpaper. This removes any oxide and provides a rough surface for the glue to adhere to.

I prefer quick-cure epoxy, but you can use CA or polyurethane adhesive. If using epoxy, mix up a small batch.

Coat the outside of the brass tube with a generous layer of adhesive. Don't skimp and leave dry spots.

Insert the tube into the blank, using an insertion tool, or a small dowel. Rotate the tube while inserting. Wipe off any excess adhesive that may collect at the ends. If any adhesive gets inside the tube, you can use a Q-Tip swab to remove it. Make sure the tubes are slightly below flush at both ends and not protruding. Set the blanks aside and allow the adhesive to cure.

Once the adhesive has hardened, square up the ends of the blank using a barrel trimmer chucked in your drill press. Do not use a hand drill. Clamp the blank in the machinist's vise, turn on the drill press, and carefully plunge the trimmer into the end. Go slowly and remove a little at a time until the trimmer just barely scrapes the end of the brass tube. It is important to keep the cutter sharp to reduce the risk of tearout. You can hone the cutter edges with a small file. Note that some woods are susceptible to tearout no matter what - particularly burls and some woods with interlocked grain. There is the risk that the trimmer will ruin the end of the blank, even if the cutter is sharp. In these cases it is better to use a benchtop disc sander to square the ends; however, accuracy is difficult to obtain without some alignment jig. Keep in mind that you are squaring the end in relation to the tube, and not necessarily in relation to the side of the blank.

You will know that the blank has been trimmed to its correct length when the cutter just barely scrapes the ends of the tube. You will see a shiny end of the tube from where the cutter scraped it. Don't trim too far, or your pen may not look right or function properly.

The pen turning mandrel is mounted onto the lathe. The mandrel has a collet assembly that fits into the morse taper opening of the lathe's headstock. The collet grips the mandrel shaft. Note the bushings on the mandrel shaft. Make sure you are using the correct bushings for your particular type of pen. Many mandrels come with a set of bushings designed for the Slimline pen.

Mount the two blanks onto the mandrel, making sure to orient them correctly. That's why you put the hash mark across the center cut. Place one or two bushings to the left of the first blank, a bushing between the two blanks, and a bushing or two to the right of the second blank. Make sure that the last bushing on the right extends over the threaded portion of the mandrel shaft - if it comes up short, add more bushings or move the shaft further into the collet and re-tighten the collet. Thread the knurled brass nut onto the shaft finger-tight. Extend the tailstock center point into the small aperture in the end of the mandrel shaft and lock into place. Position the tool rest in front of the blanks, with its top edge about level with or slightly above the horizontal axis of the blanks, and forward to within about 1/8" of the corners of the blanks. Manually rotate the lathe handwheel before you power up the lathe to ensure that the corners of the blanks don't strike the toolrest.

A good face shield is a necessity to protect you from flying chips. Goggles do not provide sufficient protection - you need to protect your whole face.

Start turning the blanks using the roughing gouge. Move the tool slowly from left to right, using your thumb and forefinger to maintain the tool at an even distance from the blank. I like to start out running the lathe at around 1000-1500 RPM. As the diameter of the blanks decreases, you can speed up the lathe to about 2000-3000 RPM.

Continue turning the blanks with the roughing gouge until the blanks are about 1/8" greater than the desired final diameter.

Your blanks should be fairly consistent at this point. Don't worry that the surface appears rough. (Why do you think they call it a roughing gouge?)

You can start shaping the blanks if you desire. In this example, I tapered the ends to give them some form. If you are not comfortable shaping them, that's O.K. You can keep them nice and simple with straight sides. This is a learning experience and you will have ample opportunity to try more creative designs on later pen projects.

You can now work the surface with the skew chisel. That rough surface you created a moment ago with the gouge will now become much smoother.

Go slow and gentle with the skew chisel, taking only a small amount of material with each pass.

When you have your blanks turned close to the shape and diameter you desire, they are now ready for the sanding process. The blanks are ready when the ends are just a bit larger than the bushing diameter - you want to leave this bit of material for sanding. If you turn the ends flush with the bushings, your blanks will end up being too thin after sanding.

A final check with the calipers ensures that the blanks are close to the proper diameter.

Before sanding, be sure to wear a good dust mask or respirator. The dust from many kinds of wood, particularly tropical woods like Cocobolo, can be harmful if breathed.

With the lathe turning at about 2000-3000 RPM, start sanding with 150 grit paper. Keep the paper moving across the surface, to prevent heat buildup and clogging.

Turn off the lathe and lightly sand the blanks along their lengths with 150 grit paper to remove the circular scratches. Wipe the blanks with a paper towel, or blow the dust off with compressed air. Turn the lathe back on and repeat the sanding process with the next finer grit. Progress from 150 grit to 220, then 320, 400, 600, etc. Don't skip a grit.

After the blanks have been sanded to about 600 or 800 grit, they will start looking very smooth. Lightly polish with a wad of 0000 steel wool while the blanks are rotating.

The next polishing step is to use EEE ("Tripoli") compound. Apply to the rotating blanks using a piece of paper towel. Work the compound from the center of the blank toward the outsides, not outside in. This prevents metallic contamination that rubs off the bushings from staining your blanks. After polishing with Tripoli, gently wipe the excess from the blanks with a clean paper towel - again, moving from inside to outside.

Now you can apply a finish. You can use a lacquer-based friction polish, applied with a paper towel to the rotating blanks. Heat from friction quickly cures the polish onto the surface of the blanks. Apply as many coats as needed to give your blanks a nice lustre. After this step is complete, back away the lathe tailstock and carefully remove the finished blanks - now pen barrels - from the mandrel. Set the pen barrels on a soft cloth, keeping them properly oriented to one another. Don't lose track of which end matches which. Check inside the ends of the barrel tubes to ensure that there isn't any dried glue or other debris that might interfere with the assembly of the pen parts.

Press the tip into the end of the lower barrel until it seats. You can buy a pen press for these operations, or you can use a woodworker's vise like I do. Make sure that the tip goes in straight, or you might elongate or crack the end of the barrel.

Press the twist mechanism, brass end first, into the top end of the lower barrel. Don't press this beyond the groove in the mechanism. If you push it too far in, you won't be able to retract it. Don't rush this, or you will be seriously disappointed! I like to "sneak up" on the depth, going part way, then taking it out of the vise and checking with an ink cartridge for proper depth. If it's not in far enough, I remove the cartridge, place the barrel back in the vise, and press the mechanism a bit further, and repeat until I have it set to the correct depth.

Install the ink cartridge.

Slide the center band over the twist mechanism.

Press the top cap and clip onto the top end of the upper barrel. Make sure you have the clip turned to where you want it; once the top cap is seated, you won't be able to rotate the clip. Again, make sure that the top cap is pressed in straight or you might crack the end of the barrel.

Manually join the two sections by pushing the upper barrel onto the twist mechanism, taking care to align the grain of the wood. You now have a finished pen.

If you want to give the pen as a gift, you can get nice presentation boxes like this one for a buck or two.


Some Selected Sources of Pen-Making Tools and Supplies:

Amazon Amazon tools and hardware.
Arizona Silhouette Pen-making supplies and lots of nice project photos.
Augum's Pen Works Pen-making supplies.
Bear Tooth Woods Pen-making supplies and blanks.
Berea Hardwoods Berea Hardwoods - specializing in pen kits and other turning kits.
Bethlehem Holy Land Olive Wood Importer and distributor of rare and unique olive wood.
BG Artforms BG Artforms. Tools and supplies for pen-turning. Source of the excellent "Pen Turner's Workbook," an informative primer on the subject of pen-turning.
Corian Everything you wanted to know about Corian.
Craft Supplies USA Woodturning tools and supplies.
Diefenbacher High quality chisels and carving tools with surprisingly reasonable prices.
Exotic Woods Order unusual and hard to get woods for turning and other projects.
Exotic Wood Pictures Very comprehensive collection of color-correct photos of various woods. There are many wood galleries on the Internet, but this is by far the most complete and accurate collection of wood photos.
Goosebay Lumber Pen blanks and other turning woods.
Hobby Woods Turning and carving woods and supplies.
HUT Products Pen-turning and crafts supplies.
Hylands, Dave Hobbyist website with pen-making tutorial and plans for a pen drilling jig.
Lee Tree Woodworks Exotic wood pen blanks.
New Woodworker Information on pen-making.
Packard Woodworks Wood turning tools and supplies.
Pen Making Supplies Pen kits, tools and supplies.
Penn State Industries Woodworking tools and supplies. Specializing in woodturning and dust collection systems.
Pen Shop Discussion forum and information on pen-turning.
Pens Of Color Pen-making supplies.
Penturners International Association of Pen Turners. Lots of excellent information about pen turning.
Pen Turners Paradise Australian source of pen turning supplies.
River Ridge Products Turning blanks - featuring stabilized woods, Dymondwood, and AcryliWood.
Rockler Rockler's pen-making kits and supplies.
Sorby Robert Sorby cutting tools.
Turning Pens A good introductory tutorial on pen-making.
William Wood-Write Canadian source of pen blanks.
Wood Chips Woodturning supplies.
Woodcraft Supply Co. Woodcraft's pen kits and supplies.
Wooden Pen Detailed and thorough tutorial on making pens.
Wooden Wonders Pen-making supplies.
Wood Pen Blanks Unusual and interesting laminated pen blanks.
Wood Pen Pro Pen kits, mandrels, blanks, etc.
WoodTurningz Pen-making tools and supplies. The best prices around for pen kits.
WoodWrite, Ltd. Lathes, pen kits and supplies.


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