Pen turning is hugely popular amongst woodturners because it is easy and fun. But there are economic reasons as well. In the world of buying lathe accessories, pen-turning equipment, even the good stuff, is cheap.
If you own a woodturning lathe, you have the right one for turning pens. Any lathe from a benchtop mini to the biggest floor models will do nicely. Also, turning chisels that handle spindle work will at least get you started with turning pens. Most turners do not feel a need for special or mini-tools to make all but highly specialized pens.
(Fig. 1) Most woodworkers have lots of pen blanks hidden in the various pieces of wood in the scrap bin. Because pen blanks are usually ¾”- square and under 3”-long, many previously discarded cutoffs can be cut into nearly free pen blanks.
Tip: When cutting your own pen blanks, the grain should run along the long axis. It turns easier and has less of a tendency to split off the brass tubes.
In addition, pen-sized blanks precut from exotic woods, are available at most outlets that handle pen supplies. Because you buy only the material needed for the pen, using exotic woods is surprisingly affordable.
For under $150 you can set up your shop to turn pens, if you buy all of the associated tools used in pen turning. You can spend less with some improvisation or building your own. The value of these tools and accessories is extended because they can be used to make other projects like letter openers, magnifying glasses, mechanical pencils, perfume atomizers and more.
(Fig. 2) The one piece of hardware you will have to buy is a pen mandrel. The options here are few, primarily between fixed and adjustable length models with prices ranging from around $10 to $25. The main advantage of the adjustable versions is not having to find or remove spacers when the length of the pen barrels change.
Mandrels mount in the spindle with a Morse taper. The other end of the mandrel shaft has a cone-shaped recess that accepts the point of the tailstock live center. Supported on both ends, the mandrel runs steady even at higher speeds.
Pen & bushing kits
(Fig. 3) All of the metal parts for building a pen come in a kit, including the ink refill. The kits include two (usually) brass tubes to which the wood blanks are glued. The remaining metal parts are pressed into the tubes during final assembly.
Equally complete parts kits are available for all of he projects that can be produced with pen-making tools. Pen kits generally cost between $4 and $6 with discounts frequently offered when buying larger numbers of kits.
(Fig. 4) The key to turning wooden barrels that match the diameter of a pen kits metal parts is a bushing set designed for that pen style. These metal sleeves have a common inside diameter that fits the mandrel, and the outside dimensions are designed to match the metal parts for a specific pen kit. Most bushing kits have three pieces, one for either end and another that is mounted between the barrels on the mandrel. Some bushing kits also have a ring that floats on the center bushing to be used for sizing a tenon cut in the upper barrel for a decorative ring.
Bushing kits cost $3 to $5 and can be used to make dozens of pens. The biggest problem is keeping track of which bushings go with what pen style. Wise pen turners label their bushing kits with the pen kits they work with.
In this story we will build a #06S45, Euro Style Pen (twist action) using the #06S62 European Bushing Kit, both from the local Woodcraft store. This is a very popular style but also makes a good “learning” pen as it uses a set of techniques that are common to making many other styles.
Preparing the blanks
(Fig. 5) A key to building a goodlooking pen is getting the wood even with and square to the brass tubes. Cutting the wood blanks approximately ¼"-longer than the brass tube leaves enough material for cleaning up with a barrel trimmer, insuring the ends are perfectly flat and square to the tubes.
To drill the hole through the center, we need a way to hold the wooden blanks on end, square to the drill bit. Special vises are available for about $42 but I decided to make my own from a standard drill press vise.
(Fig. 6) The metal jaw inserts were removed and used as templates to drill mounting holes in a pair of 4"-wide by 2 ½"-tall and 3/4"-thick hardwood replacements. After attaching the wooden jaws to the vise, they were closed and a 1/8"-diameter, brad-point bit was used (in the drill press) to drill a 2"-deep hole, centered on the seam between the faces. This produces a shallow groove on each jaw face that is perfectly square to my drill press.
The pen blank is clamped with opposing corners in the drilled grooves. Mark the center of the blank and carefully drill completely through it. The Euro Pen kit calls for a 7mm hole and I have found that a good quality brad point bit insures a clean, straight hole.
Note: Because blanks are often sliced from scrap, they may be less than perfectly square and the hole can exit the blank a bit off-line. With a ¾"-square blank, plenty of material remains to round it out unless the hole is drastically off center.
Installing the tubes
(Fig. 7) To insure a good bond between the brass tubes and wooden blanks, roughing up the outer surface of the tube is necessary. Wrap coarse sandpaper (80 or 100-grit) around the tube and twist it to make scratches that run around the tube’s diameter, not along its length. The small scratches give the glue places to flow into before harden-ing, locking the tube in the blank.
Pen makers use all sorts of glue to secure the tubes in the blanks, from epoxy to polyurethane and my favorite, thick CA (cyanoacrylate). If the brass tubes are roughed up well, any of these glues work very well.
Tip: Before applying glue, make sure the correct tube is paired with the right blank. Many pen kits have two different tube lengths, the longer usually used for the bottom barrel.
(Photo # 008A) I add a drop or two of thick CA into the hole from one end of the blank, insert the tube in the other end just enough to hold it, apply a few drops of CA to the outer surface of the tube and then push it in, giving it a twist as it goes. A piece of wood scrap can be used to seat the tube within the hole so it is roughly centered between the blanks ends. A special tube insertion tool is also available that makes this step even easier. Allow the glue to dry completely before moving on to the next step.
True the blanks
(Fig. 8) I have tried many ways of squaring the ends of pen barrels but only one, a purpose designed pen mill, actually works reliably. The pen mill has a pilot shaft that fits inside the brass tube, accurately aligning the cutter that trims the wood square to the centerline of the tube. Unless the ends of the pen barrels are flat and square, the metal parts cannot fit properly later.
(Fig. 9) In addition to guiding the cutter, the pilot shaft has a reaming cutter ground into its end that clears the inevitable glue buildup inside the tubes that occurs when they are inserted into the blank.
Pen mill kits are available that include several pilot shafts to fit the common pen tube inside diameters - 7mm, 8mm, 3/8" and 10mm. A complete pen mill kit will cost approximately $35.
Turning the barrels
(Fig. 10) With the mandrel in the lathe, mount the barrel blanks and bushings on the shaft, making sure they are in the correct order. Instruction sheets that show this arrangement for each style of pen kit are available from the retailer or often on line. I find it easiest to always put the upper barrel to my left. This “habit” allows visualizing the final shape of the pen and reduces the chance of turning the wrong shape on the wrong barrel.
Some center bushings have two different end sizes and must be installed on the mandrel facing the correct way. This is most common when the center bushing has a floating ring used to size a tenon for a decorative ring to be installed during final assembly, as does our Euro Pen set being used here. The floating ring and the step in the bushing on which it rides must face the upper barrel.
(Fig. 11) After tightening the barrels and bushings on the mandrel, bring the tailstock up to the end of the mandrel. The point of the tailstock’s live center fits into a recess in the end of the mandrel to support it. Lock the tailstock in position and apply just enough pressure against the end of the mandrel to support it. Excessive pressure can “bow” the mandrel and cause a dangerous vibration.
Start the lathe on its slowest speed and slowly increase the rpm to a comfortable rate that does not induce vibration. Round the blanks so both are smooth, shut the lathe off and adjust the tool rest in to the new diameter.
In most cases, a considerable amount of wood must be removed. I find it easiest to begin forming the final shape of the pen barrels as soon as they are rounded. This allows reducing the material close to the bushing diameters in steps with less chance of removing too much wood
Tip: Though experienced pen turners let their imaginations run free, save the wild shapes for after you gain familiarity with the process. Gentle curves make learning to match the bushing diameters precisely much easier.
Using a sharp gouge (I like a ½" spindle gouge) take light, smooth cuts to begin forming the shape of the barrels. The goal is to achieve the desired shape with the diameter of the wood slightly larger than the bushings to allow for final sanding. Naturally, the smoother your cuts, the less sanding that will be needed, but leave a little extra diameter on the first few pens - just in case.
Decorative ring tenon
The Euro Pen kit has a decorative ring, fitted to the lower end of the upper barrel. The bushing set has a floating sizing ring on the center bushing that helps cut a properly sized tenon.
(Fig. 12) I use a sharp, ¼"-wide parting tool to cut this tenon because an ultra-smooth surface is not necessary. In fact, a little roughness enhances the bond between the ring and tenon.
The width of the tenon is also important so the barrel ends do not show where they meet. I usually cut the tenon about 1/16" narrower than the decorative ring to hide this junction.
(Fig. 13) Hold the decorative ring on the blank, mark the length of the tenon and slowly reduce its diameter. Stop the lathe frequently to check your progress by trying to slide the sizing ring onto the tenon. Ideally, the sizing ring slips onto the tenon with just a little resistance.
Also, the upper barrel diameter next to the tenon should match the outer diameter of the sizing ring. Like the barrel ends, leave this slightly oversize so it can be sanded down to match the bushing diameter perfectly. Sanding
(Fig. 14) Caution: Sanding a spinning object can be dangerous, particularly if the sand paper is wrapped around the fingers. Hold a folded piece of sandpaper between your fingers so that if it should catch, it pulls out of your grasp rather than pulling your hand into the piece!
Until you become more comfortable with turning pens, sanding may be part of the final shaping and sizing process in addition to refining the surface for finishing. The good news is that such a small piece of wood can be turned at relatively high speeds, making sanding more effective and less time consuming. We also have to remember that we are sanding on a thin metal rod (the mandrel shaft) making it important to use light pressure to avoid distorting the mandrel.
In most cases, 220-grit paper is sufficiently coarse to begin the sanding process, even if some shaping is required. Gently refine the shape and diameter until the ends are nearly flush with the bushings. Changing to 320-grit paper for the final sizing will also produce a smooth surface for finishing. Some like to sand down to 600-grit or finer and there is nothing wrong with that. I have had good luck with 320-grit paper applied lightly until the bare wood develops a dull sheen.
(Fig. 15) Caution: Like sanding, applying finishes to a spinning piece is an accepted part of turning but the same cautions apply. Use small pieces of cloth to polish the finishes and never wrap the material around your fingers. Fold it into a pad and hold it between the fingers so if it should catch, it is pulled away from your hand.
Finishing is one of the more mysterious parts of pen turning. The problem is developing a glossy finish with the durability to withstand handling by human fingers and the natural oils and acids common to them. Over the years, I have turned lots of pens, finishing few the same way as the last one. In this search for a perpetually shiny finish, a broad range of finishing techniques, materials and sequences of application were tried. In the end, they all succumbed to the wear and tear of the human fingers to some degree.
For your early pens, keep finishing simple. The first pens will probably reside on your desk or in the shop. Using one of the “burn on” wax sticks or friction liquids is easy and achieves good initial results. Probably the most popular sticks and liquid finish come from Hut and are available nearly anywhere turning supplies are sold.
The key to using these finishes is to apply small amounts and then “burn them in” with a clean, soft rag. Burning in is simply creating enough heat to melt the finish material so it flows into the wood. To do this the speed of the lathe is increased and the cloth is held against the wood and moved over the surface slow enough to maintain the heat developed by friction. Like sanding, we need not apply heavy pressure. The speed of the wood rubbing against the cloth will generate more than enough heat to spread the wax-based finishes.
A common mistake when applying finishes is using too much. Too much finish material can make it just as difficult to achieve a nice shine as using too little. Learning the difference is largely a trial and error process. Changing spots on the polishing cloth will show how much of the finish material is transferring to it. When the transfer of finish material to the cloth begins to disappear, the amount on the wood is close to perfect.
(Fig. 16) Many pen turners use thin CA glue in the finishing process, building multiple coats of CA and polishing them to a high luster.
With the lathe set at its slowest speed, the CA is dribbled onto the wood and spread with a finger shielded behind a plastic bag. You have to be reasonably quick and spread the CA in one pass over the wood before allowing to dry. Let the CA harden fully before sanding with very fine paper (320 to 600-grit) to level it out and repeat.
I have had limited success using CA as a stand alone finish system but do use it regularly as a base for my (current) favorite pen finishing method.
With the barrels sanded, I apply one coat of CA glue to the surface and allow it to dry. That surface is smoothed with fine sandpaper, usually a worn out piece of 320-grit, and the barrels removed from the mandrel.
Tip: After finishing on the mandrel, go back to the pen mill and lightly touch up the ends of the barrels to be sure there is no build-up of finish or glue that might cause problems when the metal parts are installed.
(Fig. 17) After the CA glue, the only finish I apply is Carnauba wax, regarded by most as the hardest wax available. I use the Beall Buff system, going through both abrasive wheel stages, followed by the Carnauba wax buffed on last. This system has produced good results that appear to be lasting at least as long as anything I have tried – so far.
(Fig. 18) Tip: I initially resisted spending the $40 or so dollars to buy a purpose designed pen press. Instead, I used my bench vise, pipe clamps, C-clamps and a drill press to assemble pens. Unfortunately, I managed to destroy more than one pen kit with each of them before realizing the combined cost of those ruined kits was quickly approaching the price of the press I knew from the beginning would work better. To cut my losses, I purchased the pen press used in the accompanying photos and have not killed a pen kit since.
(Fig. 19) Identify the ends of the barrels to be sure the parts are pressed into the correct ends. They will fit in either end but the diameters often differ.
Start assembly by pressing the pocket clip retainer into the top of the upper barrel, just enough to seat it. In most cases, the end of this assembly unscrews to install the clip itself. While this can be pressed in fully assembled, adding the clip afterwards reduces the chance of scratching the barrel.
(Fig. 20) Apply one or two drops of thick CA glue to the tenon and slide the decorative ring on, giving it a twist to spread the glue. Make sure the rounded edge of the ring (if it has one) faces the end of the barrel.
Push the nosepiece into the bottom barrel. Before installing the twist mechanism, read the instructions carefully for suggestions on its installed depth. This is the easiest part of assembling a pen to make a mistake because the depth of the mechanism is critical and the margin for error small.
(Fig. 21) Press the twist mechanism into the barrel, the brass tip going into the tube first. This is what actually secures the action in the tube. In most cases, there is a crimped ring around the mechanism that is used as a landmark during installation. I usually press the mechanism in just enough to hide that crimped ring, screw the refill in place and then operate the mechanism to check how close the writing tip is to the end of the nose. Go slow when adjusting this position because if you go too far, moving the mechanism back out without damage is very difficult.
(Fig. 22) When the mechanism is twisted, the goal is to have the writing tip fully exposed through the nose but retract completely when turned through the full travel the other way.
With the refill installed, press the upper barrel onto the exposed part of the operating mechanism by hand. This is not a tight fit and is meant to be taken apart to replace the refill. Since the upper barrel is not keyed to the lower portion, you can align it as desired to create the most attractive grain lines.
Check the operation of the mechanism one final time and your pen is complete.
Once you become familiar with turning and assembling a basic pen, there remains a wide range of pen styles, mechanical pencils and an evergrowing array of other small projects that can be made using the pen making equipment. As is usually the case in woodturning, the only real limiting factor is your imagination.
CAUTION: Do not let the relatively small size of the wood being turned fool you. Turning pens can still produce flying chips and splinters that can be dangerous. Wearing a good-quality face shield while turning and a dust mask during sanding is still required.
A 30-year maker of furniture and wooden boxes, Doug teaches at the Clear Spring School, Arrowmont, Marc Adams School and the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter on a wooded hillside overlooking Eureka Springs, Ark.