Pen Turner's Workbook

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Choosing a Lathe

Purchasing a lathe is a personal choice, and one that can not be made solely on the recommendations of others. When considering the possible purchase of a lathe, take time to reflect and ask yourself the following questions:

• What type of turning will you want to accomplish? Lathes come in a variety of sizes and styles, and it is important to identify the type of turning you would like to do before you make a purchase. Investing in the wrong type of lathe can limit the number and types of pieces you can create. And if you’re a beginner, the wrong type of lathe can make your first turning experience less than wonderful. For this book, I’ll he using a mini-lathe. As the name suggests, mini- lathes are smaller than regular-sized lathes and are particularly well- suited to smaller projects such as pens, pencils, ornaments, smaller bowls, hollow vessels and bottle stoppers.

• Will you concentrate your energies strictly on pens? Turning is a great hobby, and even if you only turn pens, there will be more than enough pens to keep you very busy. Pens come in all shapes and sizes and can be made from a variety of materials including, but not limited to, all sorts of domestic and exotic hardwoods, plastics, antler, bone and solid surface substances like Corian®. In this book, you will learn how to turn five different pen styles. You will also learn to turn a sampling of some of the most common materials used in turning pens. Using your imagination to combine styles and materials will keep you busy with a never-ending array of projects for your new hobby.

• Are you interested in turning smaller bowls or vessels now or possibly in the future? As mentioned, the mini is a great tool for a variety of additional, small projects, including miniature bowls, perfume bottles, money clips and more. If you are even remotely interested in expanding your hobby to include more than pens, you’ll want to take that interest into consideration when you make your lathe purchase. (Please note: Those additional items are not addressed in this book.)

• How much money are you willing to commit to your purchase? Mini-lathes vary greatly in price depending on the manufacturer and the accessories included. General uricin can run anywhere from just around $100 to hundreds of dollars. Again, think long and hard about how you want to use your lathe. Buying a more expensive lathe now may be a better use of your money than buying an inexpensive lathe now and a second, more expensive lathe shortly thereafter. (A sampling of mini manufacturers is listed in the back of this hook.)

• How much room do you have to devote to your lathe? Mini-lathes are just that: miniature lathes. They measure about three feet across and about a foot or so deep. They are perfectly suited to small workshops, such as those in a garage or corner of a basement. My mini-lathe fits comfortably in my one car garage, and it shares space with a dust collector, a band saw, a scroll saw, a wide variety of shop tools and uncounted blocks and boards of wood that will soon turn into beautiful lathe or scroll saw projects.

• Are you interested in a floor-mounted lathe or a bench-top lathe? Your choice of a floor-mounted lathe or a bench-top lathe is determined by your workspace. If you choose a bench-top lathe, make sure the bench is positioned correctly so that you aren’t turning too low or too high. Make sure that your lathe is bolted to your henchtop to avoid vibration. A floor lathe should have a sturdy mount, preferably one designed for this particular purpose.

• Do you want a belt driven lathe or one with variable speed control? Both of these lathes are of such quality that the only advantage or disadvantage to them is time. Switching belts can take time out of your schedule, and if you are someone who has only a limited amount of time to turn, you may opt for the variable speed control.

Tips for Choosing a Mini-Lathe

1.) Visit woodworking outlets and inspect the lathes for the features that are important to you. 

2.) Check.the internet for reviews of the lathe you are interested in purchasing.

3.) Personally test as many lathes as you can. Do not just let the salesperson demonstrate the lathe to you. In most cases the salesperson will he very proficient on his or her piece of equipment. 

4.) Turn the lathe on and listen to it. Ask to change speeds on a belt-driven lathe by changing the belt (now you will see how difficult it is to change the speed) or by using the dial on a lathe with a variable speed control.

5.) Place your hand on the headstock and note how much vibration the lathe is generating. Now, conduct the “point to point” test. Place a point in both the headstock and the tail stock and run them together. Turn the lathe on and check it fir accuracy. If the points do not line up precisely point to point, even while running, walk away and do not look hack—even if the salesperson is offering a “great” deal. Remember the old axiom: it is always best to buy the best you can afford, because quality usually a reflection of the price.

6.) Finally, check that the lathe you intend to purchase is manufactured by a reputable company and find out exactly what the warranty includes.

Pen Turner's Workbook

Selecting Pen Turning Tools

There are many manufacturers of turning tools today, Search the internet for turning tools and you will be inundated with information on kinds of tools and the numerous companies who make them. You will find each company claims that its tools are the best and will give you the cleanest cut while holding an edge longer than any of its competitors. The reality of the situation for today’s turning needs is that you have two choices. You can choose carbon steel tools or you can choose tools made of high-speed steel (HSS).

Carbon steel tools are just that: tools that are made from carbon steel. These tools are not as expensive as tools made from high speed steel. They will keep a sharp edge for a short amount of time depending on the material that you are cutting.

Pen Turner's Workbook

There are many various grades of high speed steel. 4 They are identified by Ml, M2, M7 and M50, with Ml being the most expensive grade and also the most brittle. Today, most of the HSS tools are made from M2 grade HSS or better. When turning woods and plastics, all grades of HSS tools will far outlast the lesser expensive carbon steel tools. On the average, high speed steel tools will hold an edge up to six times longer than carbon steel tools.

Now that you have selected which steel you want, which manufacturer do you choose? There are many reputable manufacturers of turning tools, Here again, the internet can be a valuable resource in choosing the correct manufacturer for yourself.

Pen Turner's Workbook

The basic turning tools that I recommend to my students are sometimes packaged as a set or purchased separately. The HSS set of pen-making tools below consists of a 3/4” roughing gouge, ½” spindle master (a unique tool that is a cross between a skew and a spindle gouge) and a As” parting tool. This is a basic pen set for anyone interested in turning pens. 

The next two tools purchased would be a 1/4” spindle gouge and a ½” skew. The skew is called the “white knuckle” tool because it is a difficult tool to master when you are just beginning your turning experience. However, the skew is a very valuable tool and can be used for many purposes including extra clean finishing cuts. With a little practice this tool will become a very valuable part of your turning arsenal.

Pen Turner's Workbook

With just these five tools, you will be well-equipped to turn any pen.

Ancillary Workshop Machinery

The following equipment is not necessary but it is nice to have in order to save you time in prep your pen blanks. 

Drill press and drill centering vise: Used to center and drill the holes in your pen blanks for the brass pen tubes

Pen mill: Used to square the end of the pen blank to the barrel of the pen tube

Hand drill: Used in conjunction with pen mill to square off the pen blank

Bandsaw: Used to cut the pen blanks 

Grinding system: Used to sharpen turning tools

A drill centering vise, as shown here, is a handy extra around the shop. It will precisely drill the pen blank and minimize wandering of the drill bit.

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