Introduction: Simple 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 an avid fountain pen collector, and a firm believer that I should use the pens I collect -- they really shouldn't just sit unused. Unused fountain pens are sad fountain pens!

Because I love my fountain pens, I don't just want to throw them in a cup with a bunch of hotel ballpoints and click-pens from my local insurance agent. Fountain pens, almost uniformly and irrespective of price, are beautiful pens, and deserve to be displayed and coddled. Unfortunately, commercial display boxes can be very expensive! You can spend many hundreds of dollars to acquire a chest that will hold even a moderate collection of pens.

My previous solution to this was to build my own pen chest, which you can see right here on Instructables (link to my Fountain Pen Chest Instructable).

But what if you don't have a woodshop, or aren't really a woodworker, or don't want to spend a week or more building a custom pen chest? In that case, it is possible to adapt a commercial box of drawers that will protect and display your pens, all for a very reasonable price. In this Instructable, we'll take a set of acrylic utility drawers and transform it into a pen display chest that can hold 50 pens.

Step 1: Materials

The basis for this pen chest is a set of clear acrylic drawers that I found for desk organization (you might also try looking for them in the make-up section of your local store, where they are sold for organization). It has 5 individual drawers, each measuring 1 inch deep, 6-1/2 inches long, and 9-1/2 inches wide. I like the acrylic drawers because I can always see my pens, but any similar drawer set would work for this project, provided the drawers are long enough for the pens you want to store. I used this particular set from the Container Store.

In addition, I used the following:

  • 5 pieces of chipboard cardboard (I use the old backs from legal pads)
  • 5 pieces of sticky-back black felt
  • 8 48" long dowels, 3/16" diameter
  • white glue
  • black spray paint

Legal pad backs are an excellent source of chipboard for projects like this; each time I use up a new pad, I put the backs in my hobby supply. They come in different thicknesses -- I picked reasonably stiff ones for this project.

Step 2: Baseboards of Drawer Inserts

The idea of a pen chest is to have long channels, typically lined in something soft, to cradle each pen in its own space. This keeps the pen protected so it isn't banging around against all your other pens, and also lets you see each one. You can find drawer inserts for almost anything related to jewelry, but long narrow channels suitable for pens are hard to find. So I decided to build my own.

In the spirit of making this Instructable doable by anyone, my only criteria was the inserts had to be easy to make using ordinary implements (scissors, and maybe an exacto knife), and able to be made on your dining room table. The cost of making the inserts also had to be low.

The basic design of the channel inserts is a piece of heavy chipboard cut to fit in the drawer, with dowel rods glued on top to make channels, and adhesive felt covering the entire piece to give it a nice, protective surface for the pens.

I started by making a paper insert that I was sure would fit in the drawers with just a smidge of room around the outside edge. I had measured the inside dimensions of the drawers, but this paper insert was to check that those measurements were, in fact, accurate -- I always worry that the top dimensions of the drawer might not be the same as the bottom dimensions, particularly with plastic drawers.

Next I cut a cardboard insert for each drawer to the dimensions of the paper test insert. These are the bases of the pen channels. To make the cuts through the chipboard, I used a box cutter, guided by the edge of a metal ruler. I find it best not to try and cut all the way through the chipboard in one go -- I make several shallow cuts, each one a bit deeper. It requires less pressure when I'm cutting, and helps insure I can easily (and safely!) stay up against the edge of the metal ruler.

After I made the first insert, I used it as a template to trace out the others. On each insert, draw a set of lines where each of the edges between the pen channels will be. Mine were each about 15/16" wide, to give me 10 channels in each drawer.

Step 3: Cutting Dowels

To make the raised walls between the channels, I glued small dowels on the cardboard bases. I use 3/16" diameter dowels, each cut to 6-1/2" long.

To cut the dowels, I mark the correct length using my baseboards as a guide, then using light pressure roll the dowel under my box cutter blade. This creates an initial score on top of my pencil mark that goes completely around the dowel. Repeat this several times, pressing a little deeper each time.

Once you are into the dowel through a good portion of the thickness, you can snap the dowel at the seam you made with your cutter. As long as you've gone deep enough it will be very clean, with maybe a small nub that can be sanded off with a light brush of sandpaper.

In all, I needed 11 dowels for each drawer insert. As I made them, I put them in the drawer to make sure they were all the correct length!

Step 4: Making Pen Channels

The dowels are the walls of the pen channels, and need to be permanently adhered to the chipboard bases. I used ordinary white glue, laid out along the pre-drawn lines, and pressed a dowel onto each one. I wanted there to be end channels, so I also glued one dowel on each end of the chipboard. Note that is glued on top of the chipboard, so it doesn't hang out over the end and make the insert too large to fit in the drawers.

In order to keep everything flat and in place as the glue dried, I put the assemblies under my cutting mat and put some heavy books on top of them while the glue dried.

Step 5: Finishing and Painting

Because the drawers I am using are clear acrylic, I felt like the drawer inserts needed some finishing since they would be visible from the outside. Once the glue was dried, I did some light sanding with 150 grit sandpaper of the edges to smooth off the cuts from the box cutter.

I then spray painted both the tops and bottoms of the inserts with black paint, to match the black felt I put on in the next step. Waiting for the spray paint to dry was the longest part of this project! :-D

Step 6: Felt Laydown

To protect your pens and provide a uniform neutral background to really show them off, the inserts are covered in felt. In this case I used sheets of sticky back felt. I took whole sheets (9"x12") and cut them to the depth of the box, so I had 6.5" x 12" sheets.

To do the layout, I begin by just pulling back a bit of the paper covering the adhesive, and then sticking it to one end of the insert, on top of the dowel that forms the edge of the endmost channel. Then, I press the exposed sticky felt down into the first channel, using my ruler as a pressing tool. This insures it forms around the dowel and gets pressed into the crease along the entire length. Continuing with the ruler, I flattened across the bottom of the channel, then pressed into the crease on the other side of the channel by the next dowel.

Expose a new little bit of the adhesive, and repeat for the next channel. Continue until you've reached the far end of the insert. There will be some small portion of felt left over at the end -- trim it off with scissors or your exacto knife.

Step 7: All Done!

You are done! Drop one insert into each of the drawers, and use your new pen chest to protect and display your pen collection!

Since the drawers are clear, it is best to not display them someplace that receives directly sunlight. Fountain pen materials are subject to fading, especially vintage pens.

Hopefully you found this useful and it inspires you to make your own storage chest. It is quick and simple, and can be done with simple materials at home. It was easy enough I think I could make another if my pen collection grows that large, and it is easy to adapt to smaller or fewer drawers.

If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know in the comments. Happy pen collecting!