Introduction: Turn Leather Belts Into a Pen

Picture of Turn Leather Belts Into a Pen

I have been part of my university woodturning club and have specialized somewhat in penturning. I like to use exotic wood and some nontraditional media (like corn cobs, banksia pods, etc.) and figured I'd try to make a pen out of leather. In this Instructable, we'll (quite literally) be turning leather belts into a pen.

In all, the project took approximately 5 hours and cost about 10 bucks (considering the belts were free, so the only cost was the pen kit and adhesives).

Materials required:
Leather (from belts, shoes, or anything, really.
Contact cement
Cyanoacrylate - NOTE: Cyanoacrylate (CA) is dangerous not just because it bonds skin, but it also reacts violently with cotton (ie bursts into flames). Do not let it touch your skin, clothes, paper towels, etc.
Pen kit (available at specialty woodturning/woodworking stores and catalogs - I used a 7mm twist mechanism kit)
Linseed oil - resin finishing mixture

Scalpel or razor
Power drill/drill press with appropriate size bit and pen mill/reamer
Mandrel and bushings of appropriate size
Woodturning tools (I used a 1/2 inch spindle gouge and a 1 inch rounded skew)
Sandpaper (150-220) and nylon sanding pads
Mallet and spare bushings (potentially)

Step 1: Preparing the Belt Leather

Picture of Preparing the Belt Leather

We first need to acquire enough leather. I sent a request over my dorm email list asking for old, unwanted belts - thank you to BG and PC for their donations (photo 1).

Use a scalpel to cut the ends off the belts to remove the buckle and the part of the belt with holes. These can be discarded. Cut the rest of the belt into six inch strips (photo 2). NOTE: I tried cutting the belt with a saw and a rotary cutting blade - they did not work nearly as well as my scalpel, so use a sharp blade.

A typical leather belt (such as these) is two strips of leather glued and sewn together. The belts I had were both black sewn over brown (photo 3). One belt is enough leather to make a pen, provided you use both sides of the belt. I wanted a black pen, so I needed two belts.

Separate the two halves by cutting off the seam and ripping the leather apart. It may be easier to cut the seam off one face and then off the other (photos 4-6). Do this for both belts.

Discard the brown pieces (if you want). The quarter is for scale (photo 7).

Congratulations, you now have enough leather strips for the pen! Make the pen blank after the jump.

Step 2: Make a Leather Pen Blank

Picture of Make a Leather Pen Blank

Stack the leather strips so they look like a rectangular prism (photo 1). You may need to switch strips around based on how cleanly cut they were and how much the leather is curved.

I alternated strips from each belt from the outside in because they were slightly different shades of black (photo 2).

Spread contact cement on the different faces of the leather and stick them together. Follow the instructions on how to do this - some contact cements require a sitting period before contact (photo 3).

Put them in a vice overnight for the cement to cure (photo 4). I put masking tape on the vice so I didn't cement the leather to my vice.

The next day, I filled in all the gaps with CA. Leather apparently is really absorptive, which made this pretty equivalent to dousing the entire thing in CA, so watch your fingers (photo 5).

Congratulations, you now have a pen blank! Prepare it for turning after the jump.

Step 3: Prepare the Pen Blank

Picture of Prepare the Pen Blank

At this point, the blank should be pretty inflexible and solid. Use a saw to cut it in half (the pen I'm making is a twist mechanism, so requires two halves - photo 1).

Drill the pen blanks with the appropriate drill bit (photo 2). My pen kit is a 7mm chrome pen (photo 3).

The pen kit I used has brass tubes. Sand the layer of oxidation off the tube with a nylon sanding pad (photos 4 and 5). This will allow the tube to better adhere to the blank. NOTE: don't sand down the circumference of the tube or it will be too small.

Cover a plastic straw with CA and feed it through one of the holes. Swivel it around to coat the inside with CA. Pull the straw out and slide one pen tube all the way in. Repeat with the other half (photo 6).

Use a saw to cut off as much excess leather on either side of the brass tubes. Use a pen mill/reamer to get all the way down to the tube (photo 7).

Congratulations, you now have a pen blank ready to turn. Load it on the lathe after the jump!

Step 4: Turn the Pen

Picture of Turn the Pen

Load the pen blank on the lathe using a mandrel and bushings (photo 1).

Start turning the pen. I set the speed to around 2500 RPM. NOTE: Please wear goggles at the very least. I'd advise wearing a face shield and also a respirator - turning this produces a lot of particulate matter covered in contact cement and CA.

I used a spindle gouge at first to start bringing the blank to round (photos 2 and 3). Throughout the turning process, the leather strips will probably start to pull apart (photo 4). You'll be able to hear it flapping if this happens. CA the strip back on if necessary (photo 5). Work slowly and carefully to prevent this from happening (and sharpen your tools often).

Bring the blank to round (photo 6). After the blank is in round, switch from the spindle gouge to a skew. Use a plunge cut next to every bushing so each end is the same width as the bushings (photo 7). This will act as a guide for the width of the pen.

Using the skew, keep working the blank down. I recommend a toe-first cut if you can; I found the heel-first cut was more likely to pull the strips apart (photos 8-10).

When the pen is just slightly larger than the bushings and/or has the shape you desire, start sanding with 150 grit. Work your way up to 220, and then switch to nylon sanding pads up to your desired grit (photo 11).

Use a polishing rag to cover the piece with linseed oil - resin finishing mixture and wet sand with the nylon pads once more. This will fill in any gaps with an oil-resin-leather slurry to make the pen extra smooth (photos 12-16).

Congratulations, you have now turned your pen! Assemble it after the jump.

Step 5: Assemble the Pen

Picture of Assemble the Pen

Take the mandrel off the lathe (photo 1). Take the pen tubes off the mandrel (photo 2). NOTE: If the pen tubes got CA-ed to the mandrel, stack extra bushings along the length of the mandrel and use a mallet to get the pen tubes off.

Follow the instructions included with the pen kit to assemble your pen. For my pen kit:

Jam fit the pen cap into one of the tubes using a vice (photo 3). Jam fit the twist mechanism into the other end of that tube (photo 4). NOTE: Test the twist mechanism repeatedly as you jam fit it in to make sure you don't over extend it. Jam it in until the tip twists out the amount you want (photo 5 - I prefer long pen tips).

Jam fit the cap and clip into the end of the other tube (photo 6).

Push the top tube onto the twist mechanism (photo 7). Depending on the leather, your pen may have a "grain." Align the grain in the open or closed position according to your preference - I prefer aligning it closed because the pen is covered by my hand when open.

Congratulations, your pen is now complete! (Photo 8 with a detail shot of the grain photo 9).


KagedCreations (author)2015-10-31

Cool project, it's always nice to see other mediums being used in turning projects

3366carlos (author)2013-02-19

very nice.

jdelaney-1 (author)2011-08-18

i've turned acrylic before for a 7mm pen, and the hardest part by far is drilling , they seem alot more prone to cracking then any wood blanks

CrLz (author)2010-12-06

Nice pen, I can imagine it has a good, warm feel to the grip. Beautiful idea.

frazeeg (author)2010-11-22

I'm curious to see how this holds up in the long term. I've got a couple pens I turned from oak burl a few years ago that are starting to crack and chip - probably as a result of keeping them in my pants pocket all day.

Definitely an interesting reuse project. Some of the things I see turned into pens on Rockler and the like never cease to amaze me (antlers, snakeskin, etc.). I hope the leather lasts you a while.

chi chi chippy (author)frazeeg2010-12-02

my dad makes wood and antler pens. his antler ones he uses a rifle cartrige and a real copper bullet for the writing tip. he has some on a pen turners form. if you would like to see one i could send u a pic.

jk.hardy (author)frazeeg2010-11-27

I've never seen snakeskin used as a medium before - thanks for the heads up, I'll look into it.

As for the pens, I've had a couple for 3 years plus that barely have a scratch on them. How are you finishing yours? My finish is a combination of oil and resin, and the resin really helps protect the pens. Burls in general are more prone to cracks, but you might want to look into some stronger finishes if they're falling apart on you.

frazeeg (author)jk.hardy2010-11-28

I use a friction polish that you apply with a rag while the pen is turning. It gives a nice shine but it seems to wear out after a while. I made my dad a nice birdseye maple pen/pencil set and it's starting to turn a little green.

I remember seeing the snakeskin pen blanks in the woodworking catalog before but can't find it now. This site has them but they're quite pricey.  I've wanted to try using them but haven't turned with acrylic before and didn't want to make my first (and probably worst) one out of something so expensive.

jk.hardy (author)frazeeg2010-11-28

Thanks for the link - that's a pretty neat pen blank. I'm not crazy about turning acrylic - it doesn't have the same feel as turning wood, but definitely would make a unique pen. If I end up making one, I'll let you know.

Most friction polishes are shellac based - in my experience, shellac seems to be the "weakling" of the resin finishes. I'd try finding a combination linseed oil - tree resin finish. Wet sand the pen from 220 grit on up, and when you're done sanding, friction finish with a polishing rag - the concept is the same as with a standard friction polish, but using a tree resin will probably give a more durable finish. Hope this helps!

Arghus (author)2010-11-26

Why oh why?
It seems like a huge waste of Time/Effort for a bloody pen..

jk.hardy (author)Arghus2010-11-27

I think you could ask that question about the majority of things on a DIY blog.

I did it because it was fun, interesting, and now I have a pen made out of leather - which, in what I can tell, is relatively unique.

I probably won't do it again because it was a lot more time and effort than making one out of wood, but it's a high quality pen in a new medium that I had the satisfaction of making myself. If that's not reason enough, I don't what is.

fly_boy_bc (author)2010-11-21

And why is there no warning on the package? And why as a daily user of the stuff have I never heard this before? I have had CA spills inside cardboard boxes. If this had caused a fire Zap A Gap would have seen a nasty lawsuit because they did not warn me.

I find this most disturbing what's next? Will my glass cleaner kill me with fumes they have not told me about? I just can't get over the fact that this is NEW INFORMATION to me. Various CA suppliers have RISKED THE LIVES OF MY CHILDREN for no reason! How DARE they not disclose IN LARGE PRINT this DEADLY possibility?!??

I have stored this stuff in my field box which also contained COTTON rags for cleaning glue spills AND HIGH POWER SOLID ROCKET MOTORS. Once again a BIG lawsuit if there had been any problems because I WAS NOT TOLD!

I am REALLY pissed! I don't like being kept ignorant of such important safety issues!

sqeeek (author)fly_boy_bc2010-11-21

I believe that small containers such as Superglue tubes don't contain warnings (other than 'irritant') because there's not enough to be a danger in shipping and normal use. Notice they don't usually sell it in large containers.

fly_boy_bc (author)sqeeek2010-11-22

Oh? Just how much does it take to be a GRAVE LETHAL DANGER when stored alongside of HIGH POWER SOLID ROCKET MOTORS such as I had them?

Besides a single little tube CAN start a small fire and all a small fire needs to become a HUGE CONFLAGRATION is a VERY short period of time.

Load of gibberish to say that the ammount of glue makes any difference. One single match can start the worlds largest fire.

jk.hardy (author)fly_boy_bc2010-11-27

Sorry fly-boy, don't know what to say - the MSDS reports include the cotton/wool clause, and I only looked it up after a paper towel started smoldering on my kitchen counter. Best of luck, and be careful.

kmpres (author)2010-11-21

Nice job! I'd love to try it. I'm gearing up to do some pen turning myself soon. Got the lathe, tools, woods, etc, but still working on a way to sharpen my chisels. I want to make a belt sander with fine grit belts but that will have to wait until I can afford the parts.

A comment and a question:
First, the comment:

I never heard of the fire hazard with CA glue and cotton before. Been using the stuff for 20 years on model airplanes and anything else that breaks in my house with no such reaction. Are you sure you're not thinking of something else?

Now the question:
What is the finishing formula you're using? I have to make my own as where I live (Japan), no one has heard of it. I could import a ready-made finishing polish but it is ridiculously expensive. 

jk.hardy (author)kmpres2010-11-27

I've used different CAs for years and haven't had any problem with some of them, have had a couple incidents with some others. I'd venture a lot of it has to do with how pure the CA is (it's pretty hard to find pure CA - what we buy in hardware stores is relatively dilute). In any case, MSDS reports say to avoid wearing cotton and wool when using it, as does my personal experience. If you don't believe me, douse some cotton swabs (although I'd advise against it).

The finishing oil I use is supplied by my university (so I don't have the brand name, sorry). From what I can tell, it's a generic wood finishing oil - combination of organic oils and resins. It gives a nice finish that's lasted for years on my pieces. Sorry I can't be more specific!

sqeeek (author)kmpres2010-11-21

Pour a couple of bottles of superglue on some fluffed cotton, you'll see :)

kmpres (author)sqeeek2010-11-22

Ah, then I guess my poor old cotton clothes are safe from explosions from the odd drop or two I get on them now and again.

jtobako (author)2010-11-16

"Cyanoacrylate - NOTE: Cyanoacrylate (CA) is dangerous not just because it bonds skin, but it also reacts violently with cotton (ie bursts into flames). Do not let it touch your skin, clothes, paper towels, etc."

Care to say how? I've never had a problem with it. Could you be thinking of nitrocellulose lacquer?

omnibot (author)jtobako2010-11-17

Well, I have a friend whos head burst into flames once when he tried superglue to attach dreadlocks to his hair. We figured out later that the glue reacts (don't ask me how) with both hair, on his head, and wool, in the dreadlocks.
It starts out smoldering, with a little smoke and takes a while.

woodNfish (author)omnibot2010-11-22

Maybe your friend is just a hothead. Just sayin' ya' know.

jtobako (author)omnibot2010-11-17

Cause and effect. Did you know that drinking milk causes cancer? Sure, it take a long time to develop in some people, but EVERYONE WHO HAS CANCER HAD DRUNK MILK.

Yah, I don't believe your story either-mostly because so few women with extensions run screaming down the street with their head on fire.

jtobako (author)jtobako2010-11-18

My apologies. All my spills must have been too small to create combustion or the glue contained too much additives to allow combustion.

I still have doubts-for instance, if CA will ignite paper, why is cardbord used in it's packaging?

jk.hardy (author)jtobako2010-11-17

Nitrocellulose was originally produced by mixing starch with nitric acid - any cellulose-based compound (such as paper and cotton) mixed with a nitrating agent will create nitrocellulose. It's extremely flammable (potentially explosive), but nitrocellulose can be made from paper; it doesn't react with paper.

CA is a polymerizable ester - upon touching a nucleophile (such as water, alcohol, etc.), CA monomers "cure" and polymerize in an exothermic reaction. Compounds like paper and cotton contain a high concentration of starch-bound hydroxyl groups, which act as nucleophiles. CA will polymerize rapidly when in contact with such compounds, and the resultant can ignite the medium.

From personal experience, I accidentally dropped a bottle of CA and wiped it up with a paper towel. I threw it in the sink when it started smoking and it caught alight just before I turned the faucet on.

Arbitror (author)jtobako2010-11-17


Reaction with cotton:

Applying cyanoacrylate to materials made of cotton or wool (such as cotton swabs, cotton balls, and certain yarns or fabrics) results in a powerful, rapid exothermic reaction. The heat released may cause minor burns, and if enough cyanoacrylate is used, the reaction is capable of igniting the cotton product, as well as releasing irritating vapor in the form of white smoke.[11]

Material Safety Data Sheets for cyanoacrylate instruct users not to wear cotton or wool clothing, especially cotton gloves, when applying or handling cyanoacrylates.[12]

snoopindaweb (author)2010-11-21

=////=======> ~ Y-U Sneak...HAR..! That's cOOl.! YUP.

raveeeee (author)2010-11-21

very nice,,really it requires a lot of patience./././.

Kaelessin (author)2010-11-16

This is incredible! I never would have guessed this was possible! How is the feel of the pen? I'd bet it's nicer to hold than even wood!

jk.hardy (author)Kaelessin2010-11-17

I thought the pen would feel like an acrylic blank because I used so much CA - I was surprised to find it actually feels like leather. It's a little heavier than most of the woods, and didn't take on as smooth a finish. I like it that way, though - it has a more industrial era (perhaps even masculine?) feel to it.

Kaelessin (author)jk.hardy2010-11-18

Definitely! I've been wanting to try this but lack the tools (not to mention the list of projects extends into infinity already). It'd be awesome to make a fountain pen like this.

Thanks for the great idea and writeup!

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