Introduction: How to Turn a Wood Pen
The act of taking a square/rectangular piece of wood and making it round on a lathe is called "turning". It's tons of fun and where I got my start with woodworking. The most common type of pen that people usually start with learning is the "slimline" pen. There are some examples at the top here.
Step 1: Turning a Wood Pen
Slimline's are nice, very lightweight and smooth to the touch (when you finish them right!) and are one of our best selling items. It takes a while to get used to the process and using the chisels, but once you get the hang of it you can turn a pen in about 45 minutes or so from start to finish.
The big difference between all the many tutorials out there is in how you finish the pen and that will end up being your preference. Want it to have a glass-like finish? Do what I have below. Want it to be more wood-like, since it's wood? Then you probably don't want to do the CA finish. But I like mine smooth and shiny, so that's what you get. Some people put 20 coats of CA glue to make the pen look and feel like glass. Some people do only a few (like I do) and others may not use CA at all.
Step 2: Materials
You'll need the following materials to complete this Instructable:
- pen blank
- slimline pen kit
- 7mm bushing set
- 7mm drill bit
- 7mm barrel trimmer set
- pen tube insertion tool (this makes it easier, but not required)
- a pen mandrel
- a vise (I prefer the pen blank self-centering vice)
- CA glue (both medium and thin)
- CA glue activator
- sandpaper (100 to 600 grit)
- micromesh sandpaper (1500 to 12000)
- Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO)
- denatured alcohol
- pen press
- drill press
Step 3: Mark the Pen Blank
The first thing I do is take my pen blank and draw an arrow and a cross hatch on it to show me which way the grain runs. This helps on final assembly to give it the wow factor. This way the grain will match from the top of the pen to the bottom.
If it's a particularly long blank, measure out the brass tubes against the wood to ensure you don't get too much extra wood in there. You'll want to give yourself 1/16th of an inch on either of the tube. You may need to cut one of the ends off to make the blank shorter and not give yourself too much extra material. The extra material makes it harder to complete steps further down the line.
Once you've done all that, cut it in half with whatever your preferred method is (bandsaw!). For what it's worth, back in the early days when I didn't have a bandsaw I used a hacksaw to cut them in half. Takes longer, but it's cheaper.
Step 4: Mark the Centers
You only need to complete this step on one end of each half of the blank.
On the end of each block, draw an X from edge to edge to get the center. I like to use a punch to make it to make it easier for the drill press to find it and not wander. Slimlines are a little more forgiving so if you don't get it exactly centered it's not necessarily a cause for concern.
Step 5: Drill Out the Center
Install the 7mm drill bit into the drill press.
Place each piece in your vise one at a time and drill out the center.
Step 6: Prepare and Glue the Tubes
Take the brass tubes that were included with your kit and sand them using an 80 or 100 grit paper to rough them up (you want them very scratched up). This gives the CA glue something to stick to.
Place the tube on the insertion tool or if you're feeling lucky just pick up the tube in your fingers. Either way, I suggest wearing latex disposable gloves for this.
Spread lines of the medium CA glue on the brass tube and coat it copiously. Acting relatively quickly (cause the sucker dries fast), place the tube inside the wood. Try to leave a bit of wood on both ends of the tube and quickly remove the insertion tool (or your fingers).
It may take a while to get the hang of this, so feel free to use a fingernail to do this. I've taken to wearing latex gloves since I've glued my fingers together a lot.
Spray the activator on both ends to set the glue.This sets the glue and helps it dry faster.
Even though the glue should dry quickly since you used the activator I usually take a 30 minute break to let it fully set and either go work on something else or have some refreshments.
Step 7: Squaring the Blank
What do I mean by "squaring the blank"? If you look at the picture above you can see that we're trimming the wood down to where the end of the brass tube is. This ensures that all 4 ends of the blanks are straight and that you know where you need to trim the extra wood from. If you don't do this step you could end up destroying your blank when you go to assemble.
There are several ways to square the blank.
- Mounting the barrel trimmer in the drill press (my current way)
- Mounting the barrel trimmer in your regular drill
- Using a sander
I won't really cover the sander way of doing this. You can look up some videos on that if you really need to. I've never been that successful with doing it that way.
I used to barrel trim using the drill and it's a fine way to do things. However at one point I realized that the drill press would make this way faster and since I'm usually making 20 pens at a time this is a great way to cut time down. However, using the drill press requires a little bit of finesse as it's powerful enough to chew right through the brass tubes. Until you get the feel for it be very gentle and only take a little bit of wood out at a time.
Putting the barrel trimmer in your drill press, use the trimmer on both ends of each piece to square the wood. Your goal is to get the wood down to where you can see the glimmer of the yellow in the brass tubes.
Step 8: Mount the Blank on the Lathe
You'll want to assemble the blank on the mandrel using the bushings as separators:
bushing - top - bushing - bottom - bushing
What the bushings do for you is give you a guide for where you need to take the ends of the wood to. In other words, that's how thick each end of the blank needs to be.
Step 9: Carving!
Now you finally get to carve.
The cheap way to go is to buy a starter set of chisels that give you a roughing gouge and a skew or random chisel of your choice. The problem with normal chisels is that you have to sharpen them, which sends you down a another rabbit hole of getting a grinder and a jig for the grinder that lets you put the perfect grind on them.
It's a little more expensive but a while back I converted over to carbide chisels and let me tell you, it's saved me so much time. I like the Easy Wood Tools square and circle cutters to do my pens and they're just amazing.
No matter how you do it, use your roughing gouge to start and get the blank to round. And then use the chisel of your choice to trim it down.
Your goal with the carving is to get the ends flush with the bushings so that the hardware will fit. One other tip I have is that if you get a knot or a chip in the wood (as seen above), put a dab of CA thin glue in the hole and fill it with shavings. Don't worry, you'll sand it down later.
You can carve whatever shape you want, just make it pen-like. For a true slimline, make the blanks uniform from end to end. Or you can go fancy and make the bottom half a little fatter around the middle and tapered down. You'll just want to make sure that on the top half you make it mostly the slimline shape as the pen clip will ultimately go there and it needs to be uniform for that.
One other tip is to leave yourself a little extra wood on the bushing ends for sanding. You can always take wood away the sandpaper, but you can never add it back.
Step 10: Sanding
For sanding, you'll want to set your lathe at a slower speed that you're comfortable with. Probably around 800 rpm's. You can go faster, but you run the risk of burning your fingers. If your lathe has a reverse mode, use that for sanding as all your dust will fly backward.
Starting at 150 grit, sand your pen blank down to get your final shape. You'll probably go through more 150 grit than any other grit in the pack. But it's important to make sure your ends are flush to the bushings and that you like your final shape.Once you're good with that, turn off the lathe and you'll be able to see the grit markings on the wood. To fix this you should now take that same grit and rub it cross-wise on the blank, slowly turning it until you get all the way around. This should get rid of the rest of your tool marks and your sandpaper scratches.
Repeat for each grit up through 600.
Clean with denatured alcohol after 600 grit. I use a paper towel and wet it with the alcohol, then turning the lathe back on wipe it down. I usually do this 2 or 3 times. You'll be able to tell when you're done as you'll stop getting dirt and blackness on your paper towel.
Next we'll wet sand with the micromesh. Get a cup of water and dip each pad in the water as you go. Keeping the lathe on, wet sand from the 1500 grit all the way up to the 12000, drying with a paper towel between each grit. No need to do the horizontal sanding with these.
What we're doing here is that the water will raise the grain of the wood and then the sanding pad will sand it back down. This ensures a super smooth piece of wood.
The BLO and CA finish is a little hard to explain. We're doing one half at a time.
- With the lathe on, put some BLO on a piece of paper towel and run it over the piece of blank. Run it back and forth, until the BLO is completely dried.
- Then place 3 drops of the thin CA on the paper towel over the spot where the BLO was. Run it back and forth over the same piece of wood, quickly, until it dries out as well.
- You'll want to keep the paper towel moving the whole time or it might stick to the wood.
- Repeat for 3 -12 coats per piece. I usually stop at 4 but I've seen people who go up to a dozen. Completely depends on what kind of finish you want.
- If you mess up the CA at any stage you can fix it by just starting over with the sanding at 150. Just be careful to only take the finish off and not too much wood.
Sometimes I let this dry for a while before continuing on, but more often than not I just proceed to the next step immediately.
Step 11: Optional: Polishing
I normally don't do this step because I like the look and feel of my pens at this point, but another possible step is to put a protective coating on the wood with something like a friction polish and/or carnauba wax. I suggest you at least play with this a couple times to see if that's how you want your pens finish, or if it's good enough the way it is.
Step 12: Final Assembly
Carefully take your pen blank off the lathe and lay down on a cloth. Make sure to keep your ends aligned so that you know what goes there (if you're trying to match the grains).
See the instructions for your hardware kit on what order to put it together. Be careful not to use too much pressure.
Step 13: Other Pen Styles
Now that you're on your way to mastering the slimline, you can go wild and get different pen kits. Just be aware that any new kind of pen kit you get you'll need the correct drill bit, the correct bushing set, the correct barrel trimmer, etc.
See the above pictures for some different ideas. The first one is a fountain pen kit that we make, the second is a mesa kit, and the 3rd is a rollerball.
Let me know if you have any questions, or feel free to check out our store at https://www.agoodturnco.com for more pen ideas.