Woodturning a Plywood Cigar Pen




Introduction: Woodturning a Plywood Cigar Pen

About: I've been designing and building things out of wood since high school -- many moons ago! I currently spend most of my woodworking time on the lathe turning bowls, platters, vases, pens, bottle stoppers. That…


The project that I'm presenting here is how to make a plywood Cigar Pen. I've made pens out of many different materials (wood, deer antler, aluminum, Corian, acrylics, OSB - Orthogonal Stranded Board...) but this is the first time I have created one from plywood. The plywood contest on Instructables.com inspired me to take this challenge. Making the pen out of plywood added some measure of difficulty as plywood is prone to splitting and chipping out. I'll provide some solutions to the problems I encountered.

The Cigar Pen is also a medium difficulty pen to make. It is constructed from two different lengths of wood, and there will be four different diameter bushing used during the turning process. It is critical to pay attention during setup to ensure that you create a high quality pen. I selected the Cigar Pen for this project because it is fatter than many pens allowing me to shape it so that the layers of plywood will become visible. Most other pen kits would not enable me to expose multiple layers of the plywood as nicely as the Cigar pen.

I feel that anyone that has had some limited experience turning spindles can create a similar handcrafted Cigar pen. I hope that you attempt to make one, and enjoy showing your family, friends and coworkers what you have made. I know that I do! Pens make great gifts (I give one to everyone that works for me when they leave my group), in addition they sell good as well. I reinvest the profits from my sales back into my workshop enabling me to purchase new tools or upgrade existing tools.

About Me:

I'm an advanced woodworker, and about 70% of my work is done on the lathe these days. I've enjoyed woodworking and building things since I was in Junior high in the mid 70's. In 1999 my uncle let me know that he had purchased a lathe, and the next time I visited him he would teach me to use it. I had never touched a lathe, and the only lathe work I had seen done was by Norm Abrams who turned some table legs. I was not very excited, however, while on vacation I made some pens and a bowl and really enjoyed it! Within a month I had purchased a lathe and the rest is history!

I find working on the lathe very relaxing. I can complete most of my wood-turning projects within a couple hours rather than the weeks or months it takes to complete with "flat work" (working with lumber)! In 2007 I was hired by a local woodworking school to teach an introductory woodturning class. In 2010 a second woodworking school hired me to provide intermediate woodturning instruction.

Step 1: Parts and Tools


Skew (see first photo above)

Spindle gouge (see first photo above)

Lathe (see second photo above)

Drill press & 10mm drill bit

Disk sander (see third photo above)

Barrel trimmer (see third photo above)

Pen mandrel (see fourth photo above)

Mandrel saver (see fourth photo above)

Cigar pen bushings (seep fifth photo above)


I'm using 3/4 inch thick cabinet grade plywood for this pen.

I'm using a Cigar pen kit for this project, the cost of that was less than $8, here is a link to purchase that


Thin viscosity CA glue

Medium viscosity CA glue

Assorted sandpaper (grits 120 - 800)

Accelerator for curing the CA glue

Step 2: Preparing the Pen Blank

First we need to start with a square pen blank. In the first picture above you can see that I have cut the 3/4 inch plywood into a 3/4 x 3/4 inch square blank. I over estimated the length I needed when I cut the pen blank on purpose so that I could eliminate any voids (areas where the interior plies of the plywood are missing) in the plywood. Inspect your pen blank for any voids, if you detect one, either fill it with wood putty or epoxy...or discard that section. There were fortunately no voids in the pen blank that I cut, however, there is one just out of the picture.

The second picture shows a sled that I made and used to cut the pen blank. This sled fits into the slot of my bandsaw table ensuring a square cut across the pen blank. The sled is made of three pieces of wood, a base, a runner and a backer board. The backer board is perpendicular to the runner and is attached to the bottom of the base with glue. I marked 1/8 inch and inch increments from the blade slot in both directions so I could quickly place a blank on the sled and cut it to the proper length. A sled is not necessary to cut the pen blanks, I made this sled so that I could cut 6 pen blanks at a time when preparing pen blanks for a class I was teaching in order to save myself time. The sled permitted me to gang cut up-to 10 blanks at a time.

On the backer board I wrote the dimensions of the pen blanks that were required for the different pens I was making. This eliminated the need to refer to the instruction sheet. See the third picture.

An alternate way to measure the pen blank is to lay the brass tube from the pen kit on top of the blank and mark them about 1/8 of an inch longer than the tube. (see the fourth picture) Using this method is nearly flawless and requires no measurement with a ruler! I draw a line across the area where I'm going to cut the pen blanks. This line serves multiple purposes, one is so that I can drill from the center of the pen and it also ensures the best matched grain pattern in the middle of the pen when it is assembled. (see the fifth picture)

When I was gang cutting the pen blanks for classes I would add a number or letter to both sides of the cut so I could match them up later. Imagine having 12 pieces of wood and trying to match them without marks...a mistake I only made one time! lol

Step 3: Drilling the Blanks

The drill bit needs to go through the pen blank as vertical as possible. Shown in the first picture above is my drilling vice. It consists of two metal pieces each with a "V" cut in them to hold the pen blank vertical. By turning the knob on the right both plates move inward simultaneously, thus pinching the wood. Once the wood is sandwiched tightly, it is ready to be drilled. I've had this vice since 1999, and it has served me well. Here is a link to purchase one:


The Cigar pen requires a 10mm hole. I have a bradpoint bit in the drill's chuck shown in the first picture. Lower the drill bit into the blank slowly and clear the flutes of the drill bit often by raising the bit out of the wood. If you don't, the flutes become packed with sawdust you risk the drill wondering towards one side or "blowing out the bottom". Even though I cleared the bit several times I blew out the bottom of the blank along the glue lines of the wood cores. Luckily the blown out wood was attached to the drill bit and I recovered from this error. I reattached the wooden piece back in the blank by pushing it in place then flooding the area with thin CA glue. If you look closely in the second picture above, you can see where the drill exited the blank, but not the glue line where I put it back together. Putting the blank back in the vice I was able to continue to drill the hole.

Thin CA glue has the consistency of water and wicks into the wood quite well. Therefore before drilling the second blank I poured some on both sides and ends of the the second blank where the cores were visible. The glue provides additional hardness and adhesion of the wood fibers. See the third picture above. I was able to drill the second pen blank without incident.

Step 4: Preparing the Blanks

Now that the blanks are drilled we need to prepare them for turning.

I take the pen parts and dump them into a plastic tub. This prevents the parts from rolling off the table and becoming lost in the sawdust on the floor of my shop, or kicked under some tool or cabinet. When this happens, I look for them for only a minute, then get another kit out! I believe the dropped parts go to the same place that the missing socks from the dryer go! lol Keep the other pen parts so that you have spares the next time you drop a different part!

Take the two brass tubes from the kit and use 220 grit sandpaper (and keep that sandpaper and use it for all of your brass tubes -- never use it for sanding wood or it will leave dark stains on the wood). This light standing is to remove the oxidation that has formed on the brass tube so that the glue attaches to the brass and the wood. 150 grit can be used, however, I think it removes some brass and leaves deeper scratches.

I now poured some of the thin CA glue in the drilled hole of the plywood. This was to provide additional strength to the layers of plies in the wood. After that is dry I test fit the two brass tubes (make sure that you put the short tube in the shorter piece of wood!). I push the tube in from the end with the pencil mark I made on it, in other words the tubes are inserted into the pen blanks from the center of the pen. In the second picture you can see that both marked ends are pointed towards the camera. Inserting the brass tube in this way will limit the amount of wood that is lost when we square up the ends of the pen blanks (next step). If the tube easily slides in, I coat the tube with some medium CA glue and rotate the tube as I slide it into the wood which evenly spreads the glue. Work fairly quickly here or you will end up with the tube not being fully inserted. CA glue dries with the absence of air, so it dries more quickly in humid areas. Only glue one pen tube at a time for this step. The glue will be set up in a minute or so. However, if you are impatient and don't want to wait you can spray some accelerator on the ends of the pen blank which instantaneously cures the glue.

I put a pizza box on my bench when gluing the blanks with CA glue. If there is excess glue and it runs down the blank, it is much easier and less destructive to tear the paper from the cardboard than it is to separate the pen blank from your bench! Several sheets of paper can also be used...but I love pizza and if I destroy the cardboard it gives me a reason to order a pizza!

CAUTION: CA glue should be used in a well ventilated area. Also take care not to get it on your hands as you can easily become attached to something...or you might get "webbed fingers" lol I do keep a bottle of the CA glue debonder on hand for any glue accidents. Here is a link to purchase that:


An alternative to CA glue is 5-minute epoxy. The open time is longer on this, but you have to mix two parts together and it stinks (my wife hates the smell). The longer open times gives you more time to put the tubes in...but then you have to wait for it to dry, and I'm unaware of any accelerator to speed up the cure time for epoxy.

Step 5: Squaring Up the Blanks

Now that the tubes have dried we need to square up the ends of the pen blanks and remove the excess wood on the end of the pen blank down to the brass tube. This is important step. If the ends of the blank are not squared to the brass tube there will be visible gaps between the wooden portion and the metal portions of the finished pen.

There are two methods of squaring the ends of the blank. The first is using an end mill. The end mill consists of a metal shaft (that goes on the inside of the brass tube) and and an end mill cutter that is perpendicular to the shaft. The shaft slides into the brass tube and a drill turns the end mill which shaves the wood away. I use a drill press and a vice when using the end mill, however, other turners use a hand drill.

I decided that the end mill might delayer or break the plywood with the harsh cutting action it produces. So I'm using second method, a sanding disk with the barrel trimmer - http://www.arizonasilhouette.com/product/PSI156.h...- which is much less aggressive. This method is a must to square all laser engraved pen blanks.

First I square the table of the sander to the sanding disk and lock the table in position (see the square against the table and disk above). Second I square the miter gauge to the disk by laying the square against the miter gauge and the disk and tighten the miter gauge so that it is 90 degrees to the disk.

Now I slide the brass tube onto the metal rod of the jig and ensure that the jig is against the fence of the miter gauge. Slowly push the pen forward until it touches the rotating disk. Sand slowly and check for the brass tube to be exposed. I rotate the pen blank each time I sand it further.

With either method sanding or end mill, the goal is to remove the wood from the end of the pen blank until you just see the appearance of shiny brass ring which is the end of the brass tube. Take care not to remove too much wood/brass tube. Dont worry if you remove some of the brass because the manufactures make the brass tubes a tad long - but not too much! Repeat this process on each end of both the upper and lower pen blanks ie four times.

Step 6: Setting Up the Lathe

If you are a beginning turner you might want to cut the corners off of the blank to make it more cylindrical before proceeding to the next step. Since the plywood is laminated it will potentially be prone to splitting or cracking especially if the cutting tool catches one of the corners. I did not feel the need to cut the corners off the pen blanks.

A standard pen mandrel, as seen in first picture, is used to mount the pens on the lathe. Most mandrels are made to hold a 7mm pen tube (slimline pen kit). Manufactures make bushings that slide onto the standard mandrel, but have a "step" to hold larger sided pen blanks on this mandrel (see the second picture). The stepped portion slides into the brass tube, while the larger diameter is the size of the matching metal pieces that will be attached.

Now comes the most difficult and critical part of the set up process -- placing the correct bushing and pen blanks on the mandrel in the correct order. There are four different sized bushings for the Cigar pen, and two lengths of wood. I typically turn the pen blanks one at a time to limit "runout" (the mandrel will wobble the further it is from the headstock). However, for this project I'm going to do both halves at the same time. First I identify the differen diameters of the bushings and place them on a flat surface in order. The two smallest bushings are close to being the same diameter. In order to determine the smallest/second smallest, I put them together as shown in the third picture and use my fingers to determine which is the second smallest diameter. I place the second smallest diameter bushing on the mandrel first, followed by the shorter of the two pen blanks (the top of the pen). The next bushing to be placed on the mandrel is the largest bushing. The second largest bushing is now slid onto the mandrel and against the larger bushing. Next the longer wooden blank (the lower part of the pen) is slid in place followed by the smallest bushing. I oriented the two wooden pen blanks so that the lines I drew drew on the blanks are next to each other. The pen is now on the mandrel with the top of the pen to the left (headstock side) and the tip of the pen to the right (the tailstock side) as shown in the fourth picture above.

I also use a mandrel saver - http://www.arizonasilhouette.com/product/PSI132.ht... . When I started making pens I used a live center mounted in the tailstock to hold the end of the mandrel in place. A brass threaded piece would snug down on the bushing creating friction so the wood could be turned. This pressure from the tailstock could (and did) bend the mandrel slightly, and the result was a pen that was not perfectly round. Most people would not know the difference, but I did! My mandrel saver is in the fourth picture above and I have blue tape on it so that I can easily locate my personal one from the ones that belong to in the classroom where I teach. The mandrel slides into the mandrel saver and the pressure from the tailstock forces the mandrel saver against the bushing rather than the end of the mandrel. This is a much better set up than using the live center and in my opinion produces a higher quality pen.

The mandrel saver has a hole in it that the mandrel fits in. Slide the tailstock up until the mandrel goes into the mandrel saver. Lock the tailstock down and crank the handle pushing the the mandrel saver against the smallest bushing. The pressure applied from the tailstock pinches the wooden pieces so that it turns as a complete unit so that you can cut the wooden portions of the pen.

Another advantage for the mandrel saver -- most bushings are steel so when I drop them into the pile of shavings that is always under my lathe I can use a magnet attached to a stick to find them. When I would drop the brass nut..well I would be on my hands and knees pawing thru the shavings and saw dust hoping to find it. Eventually I glued a rare earth magnet to it which helped to locate it with my magnetic stick, but with the mandrel saver, I don't require the brass nut at all!

Step 7: Turning Finally!

I don't particularly enjoy the set up to make a pen...but that is over and the fun part is ready to begin!

Verify one more time that the pen blanks are positioned correctly and that the bushings are in the right spots. Make sure that the tailstock is securing the mandrel correctly and that the pen blanks are securely held in place. Bring the tool rest in position, parallel and close to the pen blank. Adjust the height of the tool rest so that the cutting edge of the tool will be in the middle of the spinning wood. Turn the mandrel one revolution by hand to make sure the wood does not contact the tool rest before turning on the lathe.

Safety note: Wear safety glasses or a face shield.

Turn on the lathe and adjust the speed to one that what you feel comfortable -- I turn pens at about 2000 rpm. A faster spinning piece of wood will leave a better cut surface on it -- but don't worry, this is a small project and sanding will not take long at all.

The tools that are most commonly used for pens are spindle rouging gouges, spindle gouges, bowl gouges or skews. I've included a picture of both a skew and the spindle gouge that I prefer. I often will shape the wood round with the spindle gouge and then switch to the skew as it leaves a much better surface on the wood. In the first picture above I'm using my 3/4" spindle gouge to rough cut the shape of the pen.

The first step in shaping the upper and lower portions of the pen is removing the corners of the wood and making them into cylinders. In the first picture I have made the lower part pen into a cylinder. Once the wood is completely round (no flat spots) start to shape the wood to your desire. The final goal is for the ends of the blanks to be the same diameter as the bushings. I'm turning this pen to have a convex curve on it to enhance the visibility of the layers of plywood. The high spot of the curve is in the center of the upper and lower pen blanks. The second picture is taken with the lathe stopped and you can see that I have removed the corners of the upper pen, and created the curve of the lower portion of the pen. Also note that the wood on the lower pen is the same diameter as the bushings.

I have also included a video of me performing a one handed cut while holding the camera with my left hand. Keeping both hands on the cutting tool is desirable. I wanted to show what the cutting looked like -- this video shows a very light cut across the lower pen blank. I did not feel comfortable enough to use the skew one handed, so I don't have a video of that to include. However, using the skew I was able to produce a better surface than I could with the gouge. The surface that I ended up with was smooth enough that I could start sanding with 220 grit sand paper. However, don't worry about having a slight bumpy surface, just start sanding at a lower grit, 120 or 150 grit.

In the picture of the tools, note that I have used a black marker to indicate on the skew the range of cutting edge that you should use. Cutting too close to either the toe or heel of the skew can cause problems. By keeping the skew about 45 degrees to the wood you will create a very small cutting edge between the tool and the wood. Presenting a small cutting edge from a sharp skew on the pen blank will produce an extremely smooth surface. The skew is more difficult to use than the spindle gouge, so if you are not comfortable using the skew I would not recommend using it on this project, but rather to practice on some scrap wood until you become comfortable.

Step 8: Sanding

I slowed the lathe down to about 700 RPM before sanding. You should select the finest grit sandpaper that will remove any tool marks from the wood. Watch the wood as you sand for any dark or light spots/lines which can indicate a tool mark. Sand until these these marks are gone and the surface is smooth. I stop the lathe and sand with the grain when turning a solid wooden blank and wiping it down with my hand or a rag to get rid of any loose grit that might have dislodged from the paper before moving to the next higher grit. Try to only sand the wood and to keep the sand paper off the bushings. Sanding the bushings will reduce the diameter of the bushings and they will have to be replaced sooner than later. A second reason is the sand paper will "pick up" the metal from the bushings and when it comes in contact with the wood can cause dark stains to form especially on light color woods -- the metal flakes are rubbed onto the wood surface.

Also, sand from the bottom of the pen as seen in the picture above. There are two reasons, first the sawdust will go away from you, and the second is that there is no chance to have the pen blank jam your fingers (more of an issue with sanding bowls than pens). If the paper grips the wood it will be pulled away from you rather than being pushed back at you.

Do not skip grits of sand paper. When I tear off a section of sandpaper from a roll I write on the back of it what grit is its for future reference. If I cant find any markings on the sandpaper I toss it, Murphy's law will ensure you will sand with a lower grit than your last one if you don't! Here is a guide for sanding grits to follow: 80 grit; 120 grit; 150 grit; 220 grit; 320 grit; 400 grit; 600 grit; 800 grit.

Note -- You will spend more time on your first grit sandpaper getting rid of the tool marks more than you will on any of the other grits! This sanding process goes very quickly.

Safety note: To get rid of sanding dust I run a small fan behind my lathe that draws the dust away from me. Try not to breath the saw dust in, painters mask, or other breathing apparatus can prevent sawdust from entering your lungs.

Step 9: Finishing the Wood

Now that you have the wood sanded to your satisfaction we are ready to apply a finish. The finish I applied is a CA (Cyanoacrylate) finish which will put a protective layer between the owner and the wood. Commercial friction polish finishes are alternatives to the CA finish I'm going to provide instructions for.

Tips & Safety -- Use the plastic bag that held the tip of the pen to cover your finger so you dont come in contact with the CA glue during the application. Also use paper towels for applicators -- they are cheap and easy to sand away if they become attached to your pen. Cloth can be dangerous as an applicator for the CA glue, and you should NEVER wrap a cloth around your finger near the lathe!

Because the plywood is soft and layered I start with three or four coats of thin CA glue. I initially pour it onto the pen and let it absorb with the lathe turned off. Dont put too much on as it will form a drip on the low side of the pen. Once the first application of glue was absorbed into the wood and dried I power the lathe and run it at 400 rpm. I then tear off a small square of paper towel and folded it several times making a rectangle 1"x3". Drip as small amount of thin CA glue onto the paper towel and apply the glue to the pen blanks rubbing the paper towel back and forth as the wood turns. Once you have coated the pen remove the applicator from the pen and either wait for the glue to dry, or spray accelerator on the CA coated wood to quickly cure the glue. Repeat this three to four times using a new piece of paper towel for each additional coat of CA glue. I then switch to medium viscosity CA glue. Using the same process to apply 4-5 coats of medium CA glue to the pen, again using a new paper towel for each application. Do not attempt to apply too much medium glue on the pen at a time as it will just create ridges, a couple drips 2-3 per application is sufficient.

Once the final coat has cured it is time to sand the CA glue to produce a smooth surface.

With the lathe running, use 320 grit paper to lightly sand the blanks smooth -- remove any ridges that were caused in the application of the CA glue. Once the ridges are removed I change over to acrylic sanding pads http://www.arizonasilhouette.com/product/BG114.htm... . These are double sided pads, each having a different grit (600, 800, 1500, 2400, 4000 and 1200). Soak the pads in water and rub them back and forth on the wood while the lathe on. (see the first picture above) Placing a towel on the bed of the lathe is a good idea to prevent water from contacting the iron which will cause rust. A white slurry will develop on the pad and pen, I wipe that slurry off and switch to the next grit. Continue this progress all the way up through 1200 grit. The finish on the pen will look really good at this point, but there are two more steps to further improve the look.

Polishing is the next step. I use an acrylic scratch remover. http://www.arizonasilhouette.com/product/BG017.ht... With the lathe on, I put a drop on my finger and rub it back and forth on the blank for a short period of time and then wipe it off with a clean paper towel. (see the second picture above) The pen looks even better after this step, however there is an even better finish that we can produce!

Buffing is my final finishing step in getting the ultimate finish. I use a buffing system that is very high quality. It is mounted on a mantel that attaches to the headsock of my lathe http://www.arizonasilhouette.com/product/BG012.htm... (See the third picture above). With the lather running, load the first pad with the blue buffing compound. I put the pen blank against the pad and rotated it ensuring that the entire piece is polished. Hold the pieces tightly and repeat for both the upper and lower pen halves. Once that is complete, I then buff them on the final wheel to improve the depth once again! (See the forth picture above to see the polishing)

Step 10: Assembling the Pen

The metal pen parts attach to the wooden part via a compression fitting.

I use a press to assemble my pens. If you don't have a pen press you can use a clamp to press the pieces together. In the first picture above, you can see I have collocated all of the parts to be assembled together. First I start with the tip of the pen -- another critical time to make sure that you pay attention as you don't want to mess up in the final step! In the second picture above, the tip is being pressed into the thinner diameter end of long piece of wood. All of the pressed parts are compression fitting and require no glue. I always keep the metal parts of the pen against the acrylic portion of the pen press to limit the potential for marring the metal pieces during assembly.

Next press the threaded portion into the other end of the longer wood blank as seen in the third photo. The lower portion of the pen is now complete.

Working on the shorter piece of wood (upper portion of the pen), the gold ring (washer looking piece) slides over the big black piece and that is pressed into the larger diameter end of the pen. (See photo four above) The clip is then attached to the other end. This is where I diverge from the manufacture's instructions I assemble the parts in photo five before pressing them into the pen. I slide the clip over the threaded portion of the tube and threading the top on to that. If you assemble this before you press it into the pen as I described, there is no way to push the threaded piece too far into the pen (a mistake made by several of my students...so I came up with this method to prevent the error). Once we have those three pieces assembled, look a the pen and determine if there is any feature that you want to stand out or a bad spot that you want to hide with the clip. Align the clip accordingly and press fit that into the pen as seen in picture six.

Note: I'm very careful to make sure that there is no metal to metal contact when I'm using my pen press. One end of the press is metal, the other is an acrylic piece. The metal to metal contact could mar the surface of the metal and thus reducing the quality of the pen.

Now insert the ink cartridge into the lower portion of the pen and thread the transmission onto it as seen in photos 7 and 8. The top portion of the pen is pressed onto the lower part by hand. Before pushing them together align "the grain" so that they match on the upper and lower portions of the pen.

Now your pen is complete.

Step 11: Final Notes

I made this pen using plywood aligned length wise with the pen. During the drilling process I had some tear out. I used CA glue to correct this problem. Alternate solutions:

1) Cut the two pen blanks 1/4" longer than required so that the resulting blow out could be sanded or cut off.

2) Cut the plywood so that the plywood was oriented sideways to the pen by layering/stacking several 3/4x3/4 inch squares. The look of this pen would be such that it would have concentric rings up and down the pen.

3) Another solution would have been to sandwich the plywood parts with solid wood on either end before drilling.

I hope you make one of these pens and show it off to your friends and family! Comments are very welcome.

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Before and After Contest 2016

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    6 years ago

    Very nice write up!


    Reply 6 years ago

    Thank you! I'm in the process of writing another with more basic information for true beginners.


    Reply 5 years ago

    Great. A lot of people ask how I make them, so I thought I would put something together. You don't realize how much is involved until you walk the process


    Reply 5 years ago

    Please feel free to send them to my page to look at my instructions. Also I have another instructable that covers more pen making. Here is the link to that one https://www.instructables.com/id/Slimline-Pen-Making-a-Gold-and-Black-Steelers-Pen/