Intro: Turning an Ironwood Pen on a Lathe
So, why would I want to make my own hardwood pen? I'm glad you asked. There's not much interesting about a a skinny ink pen that cost (almost) literally a dime a dozen. Because wood is a natural, organic material, each pen make from wood is truly unique. Another reason is because lathe work is very satisfying, and turning pens is a relatively easy way to get started.
Let's talk about the tools and materials you'll need. (Incoming long list! Just stick with me, it's not as much as you think!)
- This instructable is going to feature Ironwood (AKA Lignum Vitae) which is the hardest wood in the world. However, you can use any type of hardwood you want, from domestically available oak, to exotic and colorful African hardwoods. However, I wouldn't really recommend softwoods like pine, poplar, or cedar, especially for a beginner. Hardwood pen blanks are easily found online for pretty cheap.
- A pen kit.
- This is easily found in specialty woodworking shops like Woodcraft. If there isn't a woodworking shop in your area, you can find tons of different kits online. A quick google search should turn up a lot of results.
- Access to a lathe.
- You're probably thinking, "I don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on specialized machines just to have a cool writing pen!" and I'm here to say that you don't have to. You only need a mini or midi sized lathe for small spindle turning, and those lathes can be found as cheap as 100 bucks, especially if you buy used. You can also look into local makerspaces that have lathes, or ask around, and find someone who will let you use theirs. Make sure the lathe has a spindle adapter. This can be found for like 30 bucks online, and used for a lot more than just pens.
- These are little metal spacers that show you how much material to remove. These are super cheap (like 2 bucks) and your pen kit will tell you which ones to get.
- Lathe tools.
- You only really need a spindle gouge and a smallish skew. Make sure they're sharp though!
- A drill press.
- You don't need a big one. Access to a $100 benchtop press will do. You'll also need the appropriote sized drill bit, which will be specified in the pen kit instructions.
- A saw.
- This could be anything from an old hacksaw to the fanciest of miter saws. Anything that can chop a 3/4" piece of hardwood
- A vice.
- Or basically anything that can hold your pen blank perpendicular while you drill a hole in it. If you don't want to buy a vice, you can probably get creative with a few planks and a handful of clamps.
- A pen barrel trimmer. (optional)
- This is a cool little tool that can be chucked onto the lathe or a drill press. I'll explain what this is for in a later step.
- Cyanoacrylate Glue.
- Or CA glue. Basically, it's just superglue.
- Sand paper.
- You want as many grits as you can get your hands on. For this project, I used 150, 220, 320, 420, and a friction polish, but it's not a bad idea to use even more.
- A finish for you pen.
- You can use a variety of finishes, and it's really up to what you want to use, and what you have access too. I'm using a shellac/wax finish, but you can use oils, polys, and you can even use that same CA glue we talked about.
- A pen makers press (optional)
- This is a handy little jig that helps me assemble pens. It's just a simple press that I bought online for 30 or 40 bucks. You don't need one, but it helps. You can just carefully use a small hammer or a vice.
- A pencil.
- Yes, you need a pencil to make a pen. I know...
Step 1: Cutting Your Blank
Okay, we have a chunk of wood. Believe it or not, this will soon be the coolest pen you've ever owned! This is called the pen "blank" because it hasn't been shaped yet. The kit I'm using is the Executive ballpoint pen kit from Penn State Industries. The first thing we're going to do is cut the blank to length using any type of saw you have on hand. My tube is 2 inches long, so I'm going to cut the blank 2 1/8 inches, so we have a little leeway during the glue up. It should go without saying, but make sure you take all safety precautions like using eye and ear protection, proper saw usage, and adult supervision if you are a young woodworker!
Step 2: Drilling and Gluing Your Blank
Once it's cut, we need to drill a hold down the center for the brass tube. Before you drill, use a straight edge and a pencil to find the center point on the end of the blank. I use a pen-turners vice, but you can get creative a make it work without one. Now, drill right through that center point. Make sure to go slow! It's also a good idea to drill a little bit, and then retract the bit so the dust can escape, using the "in-n-out" method (not a technical term). If your vice and blank aren't clamped down securely, you need to do so!
Now that your blank is cut and drilled, time to stick that brass tube in there. Pro tip: give that tube a quick sanding before you glue, so that the adhesive has a little more surface area to grab onto. You don't need to be conservative with that CA glue. Read the drying times on the glue packaging, and follow them.
Step 3: Turning Your Pen
Okay, our Ironwood is cut, drilled, and glued. Remember how I cut the blank a little proud (i.e. longer than the tube)? That gave us a little leeway during the glue up, but now we need to trim the blank to the exact size of the brass tube. You can use a fancy pen barrel trimmer (again, you can easily find this online) to do this quickly, or you can take a little more time and just cut and sand it down (carefully!)
Now you want to affix this on the spindle of your lathe. Make sure you use all the proper bushings, and tightly screw the brass fastener at the end of the spindle. Also make sure you have secured the live center of your lathe, and have the tool rest at the correct height. At this point, make sure any loose hair is tied back, roll up long sleeves, and tuck in those little strings if you're wearing a hoodie. And definitely don't wear gloves. Lathes can be dangerous machines, and you don't want to take the risk!
Now, it's time to turn your pen! Start by carefully taking off the corners with the a spindle gouge. You don't even want to look at the skew until your blank is completely round. Once your corners are completely rounded, you can get a little more aggressive with the material, if you're comfortable with it. Some turners can make a pen in like 5 minutes, but that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong if takes you well over an hour. Move at your own pace!
Once you have the rough shape you like, you can refine and shape the pen with the skew. You want to use a pretty light touch with the skew, to avoid a blowout. Now that you have your pen shaped, it's time to start sanding.
Step 4: Sanding and Finishing Your Pen
You'll want to use the lowest grit, and gradually move through the higher grits. So I start by sanding the pen with 150 grit while the lathe is on. Then I turn it off and give it a quick sanding with the grain to remove the machine marks. I do that for each grit, and generally, you can't spend too much time sanding. Once you get to the higher grits, it feels a little redundant, but I promise it's worth it!
After sanding, I apply the friction polish. I do this by wiping it on while the lathe is off. I then turn on the lathe and wipe it off, applying some pressure. You'll sort of get a feel for the right amount of pressure. I love this part because the color and characteristics of the wood really come to life!
Finally, the pen is ready for the finish. The type of finish you use will determine how you apply it, but generally, I put a small amount of finish on a rag, and apply it to the wood while the lathe is on. Be careful using rags and sandpaper because the material might try to grab it. In that case, don't try to hold onto the rag/sandpaper. Your lathe is stronger than you! Just let go and turn of the lathe!
Step 5: Assembling Your Pen
We're almost done! We just have to assemble the pen. This is probably the easiest part, but you still must be patent and careful. The instructions for your pen kit should detail how to put this together, so I won't go into much detail here.
I use a pen makers press, which helps me accurately and precisely assemble my pens. If you're only looking to make a few pens, you certainly don't need to buy one of these. Just carefully use a mallet or a vice if you have one. Just take care to not scratch or mark the finish on your hard work while assembling!
Step 6: You're Done!!!
You made a pen! Take a second to appreciate all your hard work! I hope this instructable helps you understand the process of turning a hardwood pen on the lathe. This was a pretty detailed and long write up, but you'll find that it's not as challenging once you get into it. The first few attempts might be a little daunting, but it's a satisfying little project. I have now made a few hundred pens, and each one is different, and just as enjoyable as the last! It's also fun to try different types of kits, such as fountain pens, mechanical pencils, and the other hundreds (thousands?) of different things you can turn on a lathe!
Thanks for reading!