Making a Pen

Article Written By:
Robert J. Blanford

For anyone wanting to make an ink pen on their lathe, following is the procedure I use:

Here are seven ink pens I made for a friend with a sentimental twist. She had a rocking chair that her grandfather made for her mother when she got pregnant with her first child. Her mother rocked her and her nine siblings in that chair. It has been passed around and each of the kids has rocked their children in it. When her mother passed, she received the chair and during a move, the chair fell off a truck and broke.

She brought me several broken rungs from the rocking chair and I turned them into pens for her seven living siblings.

Here are the broken rocking chair rungs I am using to make the pens

The spindles are cut into blanks for the lathe. I like to mark where the cut will be on the blank as well as drawing a perpendicular line so that the blank can go onto the lathe with the grain aligned. Doing it this way allows the grain of the wood to be aligned on the finished product making a more striking pen as the grain flows from top to bottom.

When making multiple pen blanks, I also use a numbering system to keep the respective pieces together.

Find and mark the center of your blanks on the ends with the perpendicular lines. There are numerous center finders available and they are very reasonable, you will need one for turning.

If you are drilling very dense wood it is a good idea to punch a divot at the center point of your blank as a starting point for the drill bit. This will keep the drill bit from moving and possibly entering the blank off center or at an angle which could ruin your blank. Use what you have, a center punch, awl or Nail will work.

I place each side of the blank into my pen drilling vise with the perpendicular line facing up to drill out the blanks. I do this because even if the drill bit wanders a tiny bit, at least the grain will still match in the center of the pen.

Also, before drilling, check your kit to ensure you are using the proper sized drill bit for the brass tubes you will be gluing into the pen blanks.

Once the blanks are drilled they are ready for the brass tubes.

The first thing is do is to rough up the brass tubes by rubbing them on some sand paper, this removes any residue and gives something for the glue to grab onto.

I use Gorilla glue or CA glue for the glue up. If you use Gorilla glue, use a Q-Tip, wet it and run it through the inside of the wood blank. Water activates the glue. Also, be sure to have some news paper or card board to set the blanks on after glue up because Gorilla glue will swell and leak out of the ends of the blank.

A pen insertion tool is very handy for this step as you can press the brass tube into the blank without getting glue all over your fingers.

I put a liberal amount of glue onto the brass tube then press it into the end of the blank with the perpendicular line. The reason for this is if I have to do any trimming, I prefer to do it from the opposite ends to keep that grain pattern lined up.

I like to twist the tube as I insert it into the blank and pull it in and out once or twice to be sure I am spreading the glue thoroughly throughout the blank. Using the insertion tool I press the tube the rest of the way into the blank making sure it is just below the surface of the blank.

Check the drying time recommendations on your glue product and follow them. If the glue is not properly dried, the blank can slip on the brass tube during turning. An accelerator can be used with the CA glue product to instantly bond the glue and allow you to move to the next step

Here are the blanks after glue has dried, notice that it does ooze out the ends of the blank, do not worry about this it will be trimmed off.

Once the glue has dried thoroughly, you will need to trim the blanks. A barrel trimmer is the easiest way to accomplish this task. Before trimming, check to make sure you have the proper size center in the barrel trimmer.

Put the blanks back into the pen vise and with the barrel trimmer trim them until you see the brass tube. Watch carefully for the tube because trimming too far beyond the tube will change the length of the blank and on some pens this will cause them not to turn out properly.

Flip the blank over and repeat the process, you must trim both ends of the blank until you see the brass tube.

Some people use their belt sander to remove the excess wood down to the brass tube. If you choose this method you will want to buy or make a jig that holds the blank straight so you have a nice flat surface. If you don’t get a flat surface, there will be unsightly gaps between your blank and pen hardware when you assemble the pen.

Here are all of the blanks trimmed and ready for the lathe. Trimming allows the bushings to properly line up with the blank and to apply pressure to keep the blanks from slipping while turning.

Place the blank on the mandrel with the perpendicular lines matching. Also, check your pen kit instructions to verify you have the correct bushings and that they are properly placed on the mandrel. This will not be a problem with slim line pens as all the bushings are 7mm. Many pen kits use bushings of varying sizes and their placement direction is critical to your turning success.

At this point use your roughing gouge to true up the blank.

Once the blanks are trued up use your tool of choice to properly shape them. Be careful not to shape them below the level of the bushing. It is better to leave a little and to sand it off until you master your tools and can shape it even with the bushing.

When the pen is shaped to your liking, it’s time for sanding. Most pen turners’ sand to either 400 or 600 grit. Common grits to run through while sanding are: 100, 240, 320, 400, and 600.

If you have a reversible lathe, you can reverse direction between grits, this helps keep the grain from lying down. I think that sanding both directions makes the pen have a better appearance. If you don’t

have a reversible lathe, you

can flip the blanks on the mandrel between grits. Many turners don’t bother to change directions, it is a personal preference, try it both ways and see what works the best for you.

After sanding, apply a finish of choice. There are as many choices on finishes as there are turners and you will have to experiment to find the one that is the best for you. For a good beginner’s finish that will produce excellent results, I recommend a friction polish like Crystal Coat.

To apply Friction Polish, with the lathe off, squirt some onto a paper towel, never use cloth on a lathe, it can get caught and pull your fingers into the lathe, paper will tear away. Wipe the polish onto the blank making sure to fully cover it. Turn the lathe on and hold the towel against the blank moving it back and forth, it will heat up, this bonds the polish to the blank. Once it heats up, move to a clean part of the towel and buff the blank. Repeat moving to clean parts of the towel. You can apply a second coat of Crystal Coat once the blank cools.

After applying the friction polish, it’s a good idea to use some wax to protect the pen from daily use.

When you are finished, remove the blank from the lathe and be sure to keep it in the same orientation in which it was turned. Lay out the pieces of the pen kit. It is a good idea to put the ink into the transmission and test it to make sure the transmission is in working order before pressing it into the pen.

Using the pen press, carefully press the nib into the pen. Be sure to watch the alignment. I like to use a small piece of cardboard to protect the blank from the metal end of the press.

Pen blank with the nib properly pressed into the end.

Press the transmission into the pen. When you do this, I prefer to only press it in up to the brass part then test fit the ink cartridge. You can always press the transmission in farther but it is very difficult to remove it if you press it in to far.

Press the cap and the clip into the top part of the pen be very careful with the clip because on softer woods, it can dent the wood if it’s allowed to move during the pressing process. I sometimes use a thin piece of cardboard from a cereal box if I know the wood I’m using is soft; I place it between the clip and the blank while pressing.

Put the cap onto the pen, close the pen and align the grain on the top and bottom halves.

All seven pens.

Please post any questions you might have about turning pens to the U.F.O.W.W. Forum under Turner’s Table.