Introduction: Fountain Pen Chest

About: I'm a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University. I do a lot of hobbies, including amateur astronomy, woodworking, and Lego modeling among many others.

I'm a fountain pen collector and user. There is a special joy in using analog technology in today's electronic world. I started using fountain pens when I was an undergraduate, and have always enjoyed using them far more than ball point pens. Over the years I've grown a small collection. I like to write with all my pens, rotating through them on a semi-regular basis. They are also fun to look at.

That means it is nice and useful to have them easily accessible. You can buy fountain pen chests, but they range in cost from just under $100 for a small chest (10-12 pens) to many hundreds of dollars for a larger chest (40-60 pens). I've never been able to convince myself to spend so much money on a pen chest when the same amount of money could be used to acquire more pens!

But I got it in my head that I could probably build one that was just as functional, protected my collection, and didn't cost a small fortune. This instructable is the result!

Step 1: Planning

Going into this I wanted the following features:

  • At least some of the pens should be visible and on display
  • It should be a "large" box, able to hold 40+ pens
  • It should have removable drawers

There were a few things I knew would be challenging.

  • Joinery for the box and drawers. I've never been skilled at creating clean and nice dovetails or laps for making classic joints for boxes and drawers; it's a skill I'm still developing. For this instructable, everything is joined with glued butt-joints.
  • I was most worried about making wells for the pens to rest in, since these would have to be flocked with velvet fabric to protect the pens. The more complicated the geometry of the wells the harder it would be to flock. I settled on not having square edge wells, but rather curved wells.

The images here are some of my early sketches I made when I was first thinking about this project. You can see I was originally thinking about making lap joints, but in an early test I decided I still couldn't make them clean enough and went back to butt joints.

Step 2: Materials

To complete this project, I used the following materials:

  • 1-1/2" x 1/4" oak stock (for drawer sides, and lid)
  • 8" x 1/4" oak stock (for sides and bottom)
  • 3mm thick hobby ply (for drawer bottoms, drawer shelves)
  • 8" x 1" poplar stock (3/4" thick; for inserts)
  • non-glare acrylic
  • small hinges
  • wooden beads (for drawer pulls)
  • black velvet fabric for flocking
  • Spray Adhesive (I used Scotch 77 from 3M)
  • Finishing stain (I used Red Chestnut and True Black from Minwax)

Step 3: Dimensioning

The fundamental dimension that will fix the size of the pen chest is the well that a given pen will reside in. The longest pens I have are actually custom made nib holders (from Shawn Newton Pens, made for some Esterbrook nibs I have) that are 6" long, so I settled on wells that were at least 6-3/4" to 7" long.

I wanted to have 4 drawers. Including the widths of stock use for the ends of the drawers and the box itself, this makes the overall diemsions: 7" high x 14-5/8" wide x 7-7/8" deep. For all the individual pieces the nominal overall dimensions I started with are:

  • (4) 13-3/8" x 6-3/4 poplar inserts
  • (8) 7" drawer ends
  • (8) 14" drawer fronts/backs
  • (2) 14-5/8" lid front and back edge
  • (2) 5-3/8" lid side edges
  • (4) 13-11/16" x 7-3/16" drawer bottoms
  • (3) 14-3/8" x 7-5/8" drawer shelves
  • (1) 14-5/8" x 6-5/8" back
  • (2) 7-1/2" x 6-5/8" sides
  • (1) 14-1/8" x 7-1/2" bottom

These pieces are all hand cut with my table saw, and as I went along each piece was cut, fit and checked, sanded and micro-trimmed again to make sure it all fit well. The plan was for 1/16" clearance on each side for the drawers to move. The final dimensions in each case are where I ended up to make the drawers move smoothly!

Step 4: Making Butt Joints

As I noted in the introduction, I made the entire box with glued but joints. The key to the entire enterprise is making sure everything glues up square. My partner in this endeavour are corner clamps. You can find these at the hardware store with the other clamps. They have channels at right angles that hold your work piece, then clamp down holding two pieces at right angles to one another.

Step 5: Making Channel (Dado) Cuts

This project uses channel cuts in two places -- the bottom of each drawer, and the shelves the drawers slide back and forth on. The channels are cut with a table saw.

The channel cut is made by running the piece against the table saw fence with pushers; the saw does not cut all the way through the piece so pushers are essential for safety, to keep your hands well away from the blade. The saw cuts a 1/8" wide channel, which holds the 3mm hobby ply snugly.

The drawers are simple affairs made out of 1-1/2"x 1/4" oak strips. Each of the 4 pieces has an insert channel cut near the lower edge with a table saw. The cut is 1/8" from the lower edge, and 3/16" deep. Similarly the sides and the back of the chest have channels to hold the shelves the drawers ride on. A channel cut like this is called a "dado."

Step 6: Drawer Assembly

Each drawer is assembled as a single monolithic piece. Begin by applying glue to the butt ends of two side pieces, then fastening them to a front piece using two corner clamps.

Spread glue in the channel using a toothpick, and insert the plywood bottom into the channel. You'll have to work it in, probably flexing the plywood if it is bowed at all, and make sure it is seated in the channel on all sides.

Lastly, apply glue and attach the remaining front piece, making sure the plywood is seated in the channel. Secure with two more corner clamps and let the assembly dry.

I also ran a bead of glue around the bottom of the drawer at the interface with the sides.

Step 7: Drawer Pulls

It is hard to find tiny knobs for drawer pulls, so I decided to make my own. For this, I repurposed some faceted wooden beads from my odds and ends hobby supply. Some pen chests have two rows of drawer pulls, but I opted to have a single drawer pull in the center.

The first order of business was filling in the end holes with wood putty to give them a finished look. When the putty was dry I colored over the end with a touch-up marker made for covering up scratches on wood furniture.

I was going to screw the pulls into the drawer fronts, and didn't want to split them with a screw, so I drilled pilot holes in each one. To do that, I gripped the bead in a pair of vice grips to hold it steady while making the pilot hole on my drill press.

To mount the drawer pulls, I put a small screw from the inside of the drawer through into the bead. To prevent the screw head from interfering with the pen well inserts, I countersunk each screw head by simply holding my countersinking bit in my hand and twisting it back and forth.

Step 8: Assembling the Box

I assembled the box in several stages. The first stage was to glue the sides to the bottom, with the aid of the corner clamps. This creates a U-shape of the bottom and the sides.

Once the first assembly is dry, I glue the back to the U assembly, using corner clamps together with regular bar clamps to make sure it ends up square and all the sides are glued down.

Since I'm using butt joints, I had to make choices about which pieces are end glued and which pieces are overlapped in the joints. At this step, the bottom completely rests inside the back and sides.

Step 9: Box Shelves

The drawers slide back and forth on simple shelves made of hobby plywood. Like the drawer bottoms, these are seated in channels cut with the table saw, 1/8" wide and 3/16" deep in the sides and backs of the box. The spacing between the top of one channel and the bottom of the next channel is about 1-9/16" -- the drawers are 1-1/2" tall, and I left only 1-16" clearance for the drawers on the top since they sit on the shelves.

As with the drawer bottoms, I spread glue in the channel using a toothpick, insert the plywood into the channel, and clamp while the glue dries.

Step 10: Lid Assembly

The lid is made of 4 pieces bonded together to form a frame that will hold a piece of clear acrylic, allowing you to see the pens in the top drawer. Before they were glued together, a shallow trench was routered around the inside edge of each piece using my router table. This makes a small shelf where the acrylic window will be bonded to the lid.

The corner clamps were too large to allow the lid to be glued in one step; I had to glue and clamp the sides to one end, then remove the clamps and glue and clamp the other end separately.

Step 11: Lid Hinges

The lid is hinged so I can get to the pens in the top drawer without pulling the drawer out. I used small jewelry hinges for the attachment. Even though the screws were small, they attach so closely to the edge of the lid and the top edge of the box I was afraid they might break out through the edge. To prevent this, I drilled small pilot holes for the screws, then attached the screws.

At this point, all the major pieces are assembled enough I could see what the box was going to look like!

Step 12: Acrylic Top

Thin glass, particularly when it is flat and suspended, feels fragile, so I opted to make the top window out of acrylic. I could buy it in small sheets at my local hardware store and cut it to size with a scoring knife.

To bond it to the lid, I put a thin film of silicone adhesive around the channel that I had routered into the underside of the lid.

Step 13: Pen Cove Inserts

The drawer inserts are the heart of the project. Each insert was made separate from the drawer, and dropped in. This means it can be removed if necessary (for instance, if there was an "ink incident" that required the insert to be reflocked). Each piece starts with a piece of poplar sized to fit in the drawer.

For each drawer, I wanted to have 15 individual coves, giving me a total of 60 pen slots in the 4 drawer box. The first step was to router out straight square channels on the centerline of each cove. I used a 1/4" bit, and made the channels 1/2" deep.

After the initial square channel was made, I used a 3/4" coving bit to round out each side of each cove, giving each one a half-moon shape. When I calculated the size and spacing of the coves, I had figured there would be a thin wall of nearly vertical wood between each cove, but the router knocked this out as the coves were carved, leaving a jagged barrier between each. After all the coves were hollowed out, I went back and flattened off the tops with sandpaper.

Step 14: Staining

Before staining the pieces, I had to remove all the pencil marks I had made. There are a lot of pieces to this project, so there were marks for orientation and names all over the pieces in light pencil. To remove these, I used an old woodworkers trick of rubbing them off with rubbing alcohol, which works way better than erasing or sanding (provided the pencil marks are light enough).

I stained the entire box using Minwax Red Chestnut stain. I had done a test piece before I started the project to make sure the birch ply and the oak pieces matched each other close enough in color, and was pleased with the result.

The insides of the boxes and the sides of the box inserts I stained using Minwax True Black, so the insides of the drawers looked finished and matched the black flocking I applied in the next step.

Step 15: Flocking

In order to protect the pens and make them stand out when on display, the coves were flocked using black velvet cloth. Since there are coves carved in the inserts, the velvet has to be much longer than the insert to cover everything. To figure out the correct length, I pressed a piece of string into each cove from one end of the insert to the other. When cutting the velvet, I made sure there was plenty of overlap in each direction. This let me glue the velvet down without worrying about getting pieces lined up -- I just trimmed the excess off after the glue had dried.

I sprayed the insert piece with the spray adhesive then laid the fabric over it. To prevent the velvet of the fabric from getting glue on it, I rolled it up with the velvet on the inside, then slowly unrolled it to lay the fabric down.

At each cove, I pinched the velvet around the central ridge to insure good adhesion. At the end, I ran my fingers up and down each cove to smooth the velvet out flat and insure there was good adhesion throughout.

After the glue dried, I trimmed all the excess off to the edge of the wood using an exacto knife. When they are done, the inserts simply drop in each drawer and it's done!

Step 16: Things to Change Next Time...

Hindsight on a project is always useful. Every time you finish up a project, especially a complicated one like this, there are things you imagine you should have done differently. In this case, there are a couple of things I would think about if I were to do it over:

  1. I used non-glare acrylic, but that makes the top a bit translucent as opposed to clear. Next time I'll either use crystal clear acrylic or glass
  2. Cutting the velvet left raggedy edges that shed little pills of velvet. It was a mess to clean up. I don't know if there is a better way to cut the edges of the velvet down.

Step 17: Beauty Shots

Here are some final beauty shots of the chest, with my pens. As you can see, it barely fits my collection, which means I'll have to build another to accommodate any future pen acquisitions! I'm very happy with the way it turned out, and very pleased I didn't have to spend a small fortune to protect my pens! Up until now I've been keeping my pens in their original boxes, and it is great to be able to easily see and use them all.

I hope you find this instructable useful, and it inspires you to try your own hand at building a nice storage solution for your pen collection! Happy building!

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