I saved up and bought myself a mini-lathe during middle school after I fell in love with turning in wood shop. It took me a few years (okay, all of high school and college) before I got a starter set for pen turning.
One of the niceties was that for once, your creativity as a maker is ultimately bounded by what fits in your hand. At the time I had a small workshop in a shed and a minimal set of tools but I was still able to make some interesting pens for me and a few clients.
The glitter-casting (I think I’ll call it unicorn bone…) is a bit of an experiment, but we’ll see how it goes.
Woodcraft Premium Cigar Pen
Epoxy Glaze Coating
White & Blue Glitter
Pen Turning Mandrel & Tools
Lathe Buffing Wheel
Step 1: Basic Pen Turning
At the fundamental level, all pens start the same: Cut a blank to the right exterior dimensions. Drill a hole through the middle to accept the pen mechanism. Glue the inner brass tubes in place. Attach the specified bushings to the ends of the blanks and thread the project on the mandrel. Mount to your lathe and turn as desired. Once the ends meet the bushings, sand and finish the barrels and finally assemble your finished product.
Step 2: Casting
So in addition to wood, you can find pen blanks in a variety of materials, including colorful acrylics and plastic… that’s just too easy. To keep things interesting, I’ll be using an epoxy tabletop finish to cast my own blank.
The plan is not to make and turn the solid piece. If you want to try that, you can submerge the brass blank in the mix with the holes plugged to save some space. Instead, I’ll be trimming thin strips off the block and using them as inlays in a wood pen blank.
Use some scrap wood to build a trough to hold the mixture. I went with 1x1x7”. Cover the sides with masking tape to keep the epoxy from affixing to the wood. I held the sides in place with spring clamps.
Mix up your epoxy coating in a 1:1 ratio, stir for ~6 minutes and start to pour into the trough. Continually add glitter or the decoration of your choice and keep mixing. I was probably at a 4:1 ratio of blue to white glitter. Once you’ve got the trough full and have dumped in enough particulate matter, set it aside to dry for at least 72 hours or otherwise per instructions.
Step 3: Building the Blank
Time to find out what you’ve got to work with! I peeled off the sides of the form and then knocked the ends off with a tack hammer. Peel the base off and you’ll be left with an epoxy prism covered with masking tape. Use a scraper or disc sander to remove the tape and get the block relatively square.
I used a wood blank of teak burl for the body, which I’ll accent with the glitter/epoxy knot. Use a caliper or other device to measure the thickness of your miter saw blade. Set this measurement on the table saw and cut as many strips of epoxy as you can. Use a zero-clearance insert here and be careful!
For this project, we’ll use a miter saw at an angle to cut the blank and glue a strip of the epoxy blank in its place. Set the miter saw at a 45 degree angle and clamp a stop on the short side. Again, using a zero clearance insert cut the first angle and remove both halves of the blank. With CA glue, attach the epoxy where the saw blade just went. Give it an hour or so to fully cure and cut the remainder off the blank. Sand it square and go back to the miter saw. Continue this operation on all four sides.
If your measurement of the thickness of the blade is off, you won’t be able to line the pieces up. This will make the final product look lopsided, which we don’t want. It helps to mark the extreme top and bottom of the cutting area all around the blank. If the blade is too small, you can remove more material. If it removes too much, you can double-up the inlays and sand it to match.
Once all four orientations are complete, sand the blank square once again and if you have material left over, add two more stripes top and bottom at 90 degrees.
Step 4: Turning
We’re moving right along! Pretty soon we’ll have something that looks like our product!
Move to your drill press and mark the center of each blank. I keep a small center-finder around for this but if you hold the blank down a ruler will work just as well. To secure the blank while drilling, I like to clamp it in a large hand screw for stability and to give me room to grab onto. Hold a square against the blank as you tighten it down, making sure the corners of the clamp stay in contact with the table. Go slowly with the drill and back it out every few seconds to clear any debris. Once you hit the far side, check that it went through straight and glue the brass tubes in place.
Trim the sharp corners of the blank if you want before you start turning. I found it helps with tear-outs but it’s not required. Start slow with a gouge and turn the entire blank down to a cylinder. It’s worth noting that at this stage, the gouge will chip and pit the epoxy… this is normal, just don’t go too deep. Follow with a skew or scraper to remove these and any other scratches.
When I do segmented turnings, I normally leave the profile fairly simple and let the pattern be the focal point. I also try to keep the knots large and even top-to-bottom so they don’t look off-center. With a round scraper, taper the tops and bottoms to the bushings, being careful not to hit them with your tools.
Step 5: Finishing
Once the profile is correct, go through your sanding schedule to bring everything to a shine. I started at 180 grit, then moved to 240, 400, 600, 1200 and 1500 before calling it done. At the beginning, 180 made it look rough but it was required to remove the heaviest scratches. With each step, any light reflected off the blank should go from being diffuse to sharp. At the end you want to have a clear, mirror-like finish.
After going through all of the steps, mine had a nice even shine.
There’s no shortage of methods of finishing. Although I’ll often use a coating of CA for durability, this time I went with turning wax and a buffing wheel. I applied the wax while the pen was on the mandrel before removing the assembly, attaching the flannel buffing wheel and running the blank on it top-to-bottom. This gave it an even, satin shine that is easy to hold and shows no scratches of any kind. It leave a little blur in the epoxy which was otherwise clean, but I’m happy with the result.
Remove the barrels from the mandrel and assemble all the pieces. If this is a new kit for you, follow the instructions provided with your kit.
Although I could have used more glitter in the mix, I’m happy with the result as it’s just transparent enough to see through to the inside of the wood blanks. You can also see brass which isn’t quite as good but what can you do... At least it matches the wood. :) It's also pretty cool to see the individual glitter flakes floating in the epoxy.
Step 6: Lessons Learned
Of course I screwed stuff up along the way. Let my purpose be as a warning to others:
-Don’t use blue painter’s tape when mixing blue glitter. You have no idea how much you need to pour in.
-When adding glitter, add more!
-The epoxy coating I used will get soft when you heat it up (It got squishy on me while sanding). Go slowly and it’ll stay cool.
-Paint the brass tube so you don’t see it through the blank.