"Why an instructable about turning a pen?" you might be asking. And you will be right. A pen is something we can buy at the dollar store and still come out with change.
Yet, for woodturners at large, turning pens is one of the best exercises for skill and design there is. Let's not mention they are by far the most profitable item in our arsenal, when you calculate materials, time invested and return when selling these (not counting extraordinary artists that sell their work for thousands and thousands of dollars each).
A pen will test your skills with different tools, or you might choose to make them with a single chisel, the notoriously hard to master skew. It can be a nice, quick gift for a friend or family member, you can personalize them in many different ways, you can use wood leftovers to make them, and the variety of different pen kits on the market is beyond belief.
So with all that in mind, let's jump right into making a relatively simple pen, with a few personalized touches.
Step 1: Preparation and Materials
The image says it all, but let's go over it for a second, to make sure what I'm showing you here, why is it there, and what can we really do without.
1. Lathe - well, we are going to turn this pen on a lathe, so it would useful to have one, or a makeshift lathe made out of a drill and some wood blocks. Weirder things have happened.
2. Pen blank - this is the wood we are going to use to make the pen out of. Mind you some pen kits are sold with pre drilled wood in them, but most will not have the blank at all, let alone drilled, so you need to get your own. You can either buy those online, or cut your own, about 2x2x15 cm should work, which is exactly what I did here, from a piece of locally salvaged Mulberry.
3. Pen kit - these are the actual parts of the pen, composed of brass tubes, and an assortment of bits and pieces. Different pen kits will be made from different materials, colors, mechanisms, and some will even include parts for helping you turn the pen, and not just parts of the pen itself (specialty bushings). These can cost as low as 2 dollars, and as high as 100 dollars, depending on many variables. This is a 3 dollar pen kit, which is quite common.
4. Glue - either CA (super / krazy) glue, or epoxy, even wood glue if you have nothing else.
5. Drill bit - unless your pen kit will come with a pre drilled blank, you will have to drill yours, and in a diameter that fits your brass tubes. In our care, 7 mm. You can use a drill press, a hand drill, your lathe or even a hand cranked drill, it's just for making a hole in the wood.
Everything else in this picture is optional and you can do without, but it sure helps.
6. Pen press - this special press can be made (like mine) or bought, but you don't need it to make a pen. In fact, unless you are planning on making a batch of pens instead of one or two, you simply don't need it. You can use a woodworking or metalworking vise or even your lathe and tailstock as a press!
7. Pen Mandrel - Although this is quite a useful kit for turning pens, it is not necessary to have this kit. An experienced wood turner can turn the whole pen right on the lathe. Mind you these kits come with different stock widths for different types of pens (the most common is 7 mm) and different morse cones (the tapered bit which fits into the lathe headstock) for different sized lathes, and even different types of bushings.
8. Saw - we will use this to cut our wood blank to size.
9. Ruler or calipers - we use these contraptions to measure things accurately.
10. Time - this is your responsibilty to find and free up.
Step 2: Cutting Your Blank to Size
Although this sounds simple enough, there is some thought to be given for this step. And I will explain.
Each different type of pen kit will have different length and width of brass tubes, which is why pen blanks are shipped as a single, slightly longer, slightly thicker than needed piece of wood. That way you can cut each to size depending on the kit you have.
My kit has two tubes which are 5.2 cm long and 7 mm wide. I will cut one piece 5.5 cm long from one end, and this is important, I will cut the second 5.5 cm piece as a continued piece from the same side and not from the other end. We do this so the grain on both sides of the pen pieces will match up as best we can.
PRO tip: save your small wood leftover, the piece will look small and insignificant, but you can make a crazy segmented pen blank using those small pieces from different woods!
After cutting out both your pieces, match the grain up, and mark a horizontal line across them (unless you did that step before hand), this will help us with orienting the pieces in the pen mandrel.
Step 3: Gluing the Tubes
Now you might say "Yuval! you didn't show how you drilled the hole in the blanks!" to which I will answer "There are so many ways one can drill a hole in the wood it was pointless to show me plunging the drill bit into the wood using my drill press, it's a luxury tool which most people won't have, also, I forgot to take pictures or video of that part and didn't want to fake it", so give me points for honesty!!
Before we can glue the tubes into the blanks (two that were one) we need to scuff them up, or else they wouldn't bind to the wood, so using 180 grit sandpaper (you can use 120, or 240, whichever you have handy) scuff up the tubes really well, they need to be really scratched up for the glue to grab hold to.
PRO tip: you can use CA, epoxy or any glue you have handy, the stronger the better, and should time be an issue, the quicker to cure is better.
I'm using a thin CA glue (also known as superglue or krazy glue [spelled with a "k"]) to drop a few drops into the hole of the wood and spin it around to spread the glue inside. I then push the tube half way in, while spinning it, again, helping to spread the glue inside, and then I add a bead of glue to the connecting point of the wood and tube. When I press and spin the tube the rest of the way in, it will pull the glue in along with it. This technique takes time to master, and time is something you don't have with thin CA, it will cure in about 5 seconds, so you can imagine how quickly you have to complete this series of actions (I'll tell you, you have 5 seconds). You can use a slower drying glue (medium CA, about 30-60 seconds, epoxy, about 3-10 minutes, depending on brand) if you're not comfortable working at the speed of sound. I usually add a drop of thin CA to the bottom lip of the blank I just worked on, since the end grain of the wood will suck the glue in, fixing the top of the tube in place, in case the glue didn't make it all the way there. When you're done, make sure there is no glue residue inside the tube, since it will prevent you from assembling your pen. Clean it off if you can, scrape it gently away so you wouldn't widen the tube even a fraction.
Step 4: Sanding Your Blanks Flush
The glue has dried and we're ready to go on, but our tubes are inside the wood! We need to bring the ends of the blanks flush with the tubes inside. I'm using a sanding wheel mounted in my lathe, and I use my table saw sled upside down as a rest for sanding, after I aligne the tracks of the sled to the disk using an angle ruler.
It is very VERY important you don't sand away the tubes. The pen kit is designed with those tubes and their length in mind and shortening them more than a fraction of a millimeter could mean you won't be able to assemble the pen when you're done turning, so be mindful, sand in small portions, and check and recheck you are not sanding off too much. You can also saw the leftover (which I used to do before I made this sanding disk for my lathe) and then sand it flush on a piece of sandpaper laid down on a flat surface, like a tabletop or a pane of glass. Make sure you sand both ends of both half blanks as needed.
Step 5: Assembling the Pan Mandrel
So this is the pan mandrel. This device helps us to turn both parts of the pen blank in the right orientation, at the same time, to the correct width of the endpoints to fit our pen kit.
The little spacers are called bushings and there are several type of those, and some specialty kits with abnormal parts sizes might come with a different set of bushings to help you turn your blank to the right size. In this case we will use the straight bushings that came with the mandrel kit, but before we do that we need to mount all our pieces in the correct order for us to start turning.
We start with a bushing, then a half blank, than another bushing, the second half blank, and the last bushing, capping it all off with the screw, and closing that up with the lock nut. You want to lock everything up tight so the blanks wouldn't spin in place while we are trying to turn them into shape, but not so strong as to distort the shaft of the mandrel or break our wood blanks (something that shouldn't happen if you sanded the wood flush with the brass tubes).
Step 6: Turning the Pen
When placing the mandrel into the morse cone of your lathe, you need to bring your tail stock in and close it on the mandrel using a 60 degree cone (most pointy live centers are sporting a 60 degree point) that will fit a hole at the end of the shaft (there are also specialty pen turning live centers but they are expansive!!). You want to close it tight enough for the live center to spin and not stop with a little pressure, but not so much as it will cause the shaft to bend, which can cause uneven cutting, or even breaking the shaft if too much force is applied. I like to spin the lathe, then screw the live center closer until it start spinning, and then some more for a light pressure.
You can use your spindle gouge, your bowl gouge or even a roughing gouge to shape the blanks, but I prefer to use the skew, which is hard to use correctly and/or safely, but when mastered, it is one of the most versatile tools to use on a spindle turning, and the quality of the cut is unmatched by any other tool. Of course if you are inexperienced, the chanced of a disaster are so much greater with this tool, so take care!
After turning the blanks to shape, and each pen will have a different shape, depending on the width of each part of the pen, and by the capacity and flex the pen clip has. You can turn your pen a little wider and still get away with the clip by gently bending it outward when we do the final assembly, but not by much, it will simply break. This is something that comes with experience, and some pen kits will come with detailed instructions with all sizes and measurements needed, but don't count on it. The edges of the two halves of the blank should be turned to the width of the bushings, or a little thicker, to be sanded flush with the bushings later on.
After shaping the blanks, we will sand them smooth from 80 (or higher, depending on your quality of cut, if I use the skew correctly I can start sanding with 240, but don't discount the low grit sanding paper as a tool for shaping the final curves and endings of the pen). I normally sand my pens all the way to 1500 grit, but you can go higher or lower.
When done sending, I like to burnish the surface of the wood by pressing wood shavings firmly around the blanks at high speed. This will close off and smooth out the grain of the wood, and will bring out the natural shine in the wood oils and/or resin.
Step 7: Applying the Patented (pending) No Hassle CA Finish
Now that our pen is sanded down, we are ready to tackle the finish. You can use a variety of finishes, from oil (mineral, tung, linseed) to laqueur, from friction polish to beeswax, but by far the most popular, for its durability and availability, is the CA finish.
Not many people know that, but once cured, CA is more like plastic than anything else, and is completely safe. A child can chew on your CA finished pen without worry, although I wouldn't think it's a good idea under any circumstances. You might have seen videos where people apply a CA finish to a pen, or maybe a bottle stopper, or a razor handle, which are all good uses for this kind of finish, as it will last long, resist water, and it looks just fantastic after it is polished to a shine. There are many ways to apply this finish, some have their down points and I will try to point those out as we go along.
As you can see in the first image in this step, I am applying beeswax to the bushings, this will prevent the CA from sticking to the bushings, but it also means you have to be extra careful when polishing the pen later, since you don't want any of this wax to get on the pen, it will ruin the finish. But don't be discouraged! You can always sand away the layers of CA back to wood, and reapply it from scratch. This part is optional, the CA won't harm your bushings, but you will have to sand it lightly away or else your bushing will get thicker and thicker with layers of CA.
PRO tip: when dealing with CA, wear gloves and a respirator. Getting CA off your fingers is hard, wear a facemask, when applying the CA to the spinning wood it can spray droplets all over the place, and CA droplets in your eyes, face and hair is just nasty. The CA will react to the moisture in the wood and will give off fumes. You don't want to breath those and it will cause your eyes to burn. WEAR PROTECTIVE GEAR, you'll live longer.
When we are ready to apply the finish, we start up the lathe on the lowest speed we can (50-500 rpm works fine)and we take a piece of folded printing paper (some people use paper towels, I don't like to do so, since if I'm too slow, and the glue cures while I'm still applying it, a paper towel will leave fibers in the glue which means we will have to sand it off and start again, the dense fibers of the printer paper will hold on longer), and we place a drop or two of thin CA on it. A couple of drops of CA will cover the whole pen. We then press the paper to the pen, leaving a layer of CA on the wood, we swipe our hand over the whole pen in one go, we don't back track, it will stick your paper to the blank. We start with thin CA since it will penetrate the grain of the wood and seal it. If you don't have thin CA, normal store bought CA will work as well.
We let the layer we have just applied dry off, it can take from a few seconds to a minute or two. I like to leave the lathe spinning for the drying part in case I beaded up too much glue, that way the forces of the spinning lathe will spread the glue around, while if we stop it, the glue might run down to the lowest point. We want to try and get an even surface as possible, but don't worry too much about it, as it will all work out in the end. Some people like to sand lightly with a high grit sandpaper, or wire wool, between layers, but I don't bother with that. I did say a no hassle finish after all.
I apply three layers of thin CA, then I apply two more of medium CA. Like before, if all you have is "standard" store bought CA, it will work fine, but consider doing 6-10 layers in total. Once all layers have been applied you will end up with a funky looking finish. We will fix that in our next step.
Step 8: Polishing the Finish
This is the magical step. Your pen doesn't look like much right now, more like a bumpy half covered in plastic looking tubes. All we need to do is smooth it out, then polish it up, and it will shine with a radiance of distant suns. Well, maybe not that bright, but it will be shiny and smooth with a hard finish that will last for years.
The first step is to sand the CA down smooth, and you do that by using a high grit sandpaper (I used 1200 and then 1500) and water. Plain water. At this point, the wood, even if it doesn't look like it, is covered in plastic, and the water won't bother it. Just rememeber to wipe off the mandrel and lathe bed when you're done or else they will rust.
Dipping the sandpaper (and you don't need much of it) in water, and bringing it to the wood will create a plastic paste, ignore it, dip your paper in water to clean it up, and back to the wood until it feels smooth. When you are done with your highest grit, simply wipe the wood clean with a paper towel. It is still not shiny (unless you sanded it to 2500 or more, which will put a nice shine on it already). The magic ingredient is forthcoming, but you've already seen the pictures or the video, so you know. Automotive paint abrasive paste. This is used to polish car paint, car head lights and more. You can find this in hardware stores, in car shops, and probably in almost any gas station. I buy mine in a general home stuff discount store and it works a charm.
Apply a nice amount of paste to the wood using a paper towel, really lap it on, the solvent that keeps the abrasive powder in a paste form will evaporate quickly from the heat generated by the friction, which you will supply a good amount of using the paper towel. You are slowly grinding away the scratches made by the high grit sand paper and smoothing the surface of the finish. The paste will dry and crumble away as powder. Apply more paste and keep rubbing it until you achieve the high luster you are looking for. Every once in awhile wipe the pen clean with a fresh paper towel, and examine your work until you are satisfied.
The last picture in this step shows the polished pen half blanks, but the picture does no justice to the finish, you will see it better in later steps.
Step 9: Adding a Personal Touch
To add a personal touch to this pen, since I'm making it as a gift for a dear friend, I am etching his logo onto the pen using a very cheap laser printer I bought on dealextreme. You can check out my Youtube channel for the review of the printer (Laser printer review), it was very cheap and works wonders. Even though it is not meant for curved surfaces, it worked just fine on this, and other pens. You can also see the quality of the finish, which previous picture did not show well enough.
Step 10: Final Assembly
Now all the parts come together.
I'm using my own home made pen press. You don't need one of those. You can use a vise if you have any (woodworking or metalworking), you can even use your lathe as a press, holding a board against the chuck or spindle and one against the tailstock, and use the tailstock screw to clamp things down, but if you plan on making a few pens at a time, making one of these or buying one is highly recommended, and I might do a build video on the pen press if I'll have enough requests to do one.
First we press the tip of the pen to the "lower" half blank. We can choose either as the lower one, but I chose the printed half blank as the top one, so the other half is now the "lower" half. It takes a lot of force to press these together, and once you do, it won't come out any more, or at least it won't come out leaving the pen in one piece.
Second, we press in the swivel mechanism. It is the mechanical part which pushes the writing tip in and out of the pen tip. Pressing this part to the right depth is crucial. Press it too deep, and your writing tip won't retract deep enough to be called closed into the pen tip. Don't press it deep enough, and it won't come out enough to write comfortably. Press it in until the brass part is fully inside the tube, but not more! Screw the pen cartridge into the mechanism and spin it around, checking the depth of the writing tip. If you are happy with it, leave it in, if not, screw it out and press it a little bit more and test it again. Repeat until happy, or until you've pressed it too far... in which case you can pretty much start on a new pen.
Third goes the middle ring. Again, this step might not apply to you, if you have a different style pen kit. It should go in fine by hand.
Forth goes the second half blank, again, by hand, but firmly. This part can come out with a nice pull, so you could replace the ink cartridge once it is spent (new cartridges can be bought in any stationery supply shops). This is also the part you swivel to open and close the pen writing tip.
Last goes in the cap with the clip of the pen inserted into it, which will lock the pen up. This part needs the press, or vice, to close it up well.
Step 11: Bling It Up
I've taken a narrow wooden box, and I laser etched my logo on it. Inside it I've placed black English Walnut shavings I had left over from a different project (I always save interesting colored or good smelling wood shavings just for this kind of packing) to complete my gift.
When you look at it from a turner's point of view, making a pen like this should not take more than an hour of work, and more in the lines of half an hour. It is quick, it is fun, it helps to hone you skills doing fine turning, and it is a wonderful gift and a very desirable sellable item.
I hope you enjoyed this instructable.