I turned my first pen about three years ago when I took the very pen turning class I now teach. I’ve been hooked on turning ever since. Making pens is a great introduction to basic spindle turning. Turning your own pens results in beautiful, custom, no-two-alike masterpieces that make great gifts, each having their own character and charm. What a great excuse to sneak out to the shop for a little fun.
There are a few specialized penturning tools you’ll need to get started. Key among the products is a pen turning mandrel. It is a steel bar with a Morris taper on one end and the other end is threaded holding a knurled nut. The pen blanks are turned on the mandrel. If you buy just the basic pen-specific items and cut your own wooden blanks, you’ll spend about $40 to get going. For one-stop shopping, Rockler sells a nice starter package that includes the mandrel and drill bit, CA glue and three pen kits with blanks.
You’ll need a few basic shop tools: a handsaw or band saw for cutting the blanks to length, a drill press for drilling the holes in the blanks, a bit of sandpaper and, of course, a lathe for doing the turning. A 3/8" or 1/2" spindle gouge is sufficient to take a pen from roughing to completion.
The pen kits include two brass tubes called barrels, a pen mechanism, a pocket clip and various brass rings used to connect the brass barrels for final assembly.
• Pen mandrel with bushings
• Pen blank you cut or buy
• 7mm carbide brad-point carbide drill bit
• 7mm pen kit
• CA (cyanoacrylate) adhesive
• Finishing supplies
Pen Turning Process
There are four main steps: preparing the blanks, mounting and shaping on the lathe, applying finish and assembling the parts.
Preparing the Pen Blanks
Use a band saw or hand miter saw to cut the blanks to length. The blanks should be 1/16" longer than the final barrel length. The ends don’t have to be perfect; you’ll trim them later.
Drill 7mm-diameter centered holes through the blanks. Hold them firmly with a handscrew clamp. If both the blank and the clamp are flat against the drill press table and the table is square to the chuck, your holes will be straight.
TIP: A carbide-tipped brad point bit is preferable, although any 7mm bit will do. The carbide will stay sharp much longer, especially if you graduate to more abrasive pen materials. The brad-point tip keeps the bit from wandering.
Glue the brass barrels into the blanks with CA glue. Before applying glue to the barrels, rough them up with 120-grit sandpaper. Twist the barrel while quickly pushing it completely into the blank. Don’t dawdle, or you can get stuck with a barrel glued halfway in.
Clean out excess glue from inside the barrel using a 15/64" drill bit or a barrel trimming tool. Bring the ends of the blank flush to the barrels by rubbing them against a piece of sandpaper on a flat surface.
Mounting and Shaping the Blanks
Slip the blanks onto the threaded mandrel, and separate them with a bushing. Install the other two bushings on the opposite ends of the blanks. These bushings are the same diameter as the pen parts, so they’ll serve as guides for arriving at the final diameter of your turning. Lock the blanks and bushings onto the mandrel using the threaded nut supplied with the mandrel. Chuck the mandrel between your lathe centers, and you’re ready for turning.
Turn the blanks by making light passes with a sharp gouge. The author recommends using a 3/8" spindle gouge. Start at 1,200 rpm and ramp up to 2,200 rpm as the blanks become round. Turn the ends of the blanks to match the diameter of the bushings. Leave the middle of each blank fatter than the ends, at least on your first pen or two. If you cut too aggressively, or your gouge is dull, it’s possible to go through the wood and expose the brass barrel. There isn’t much you can do at that point except save the remaining good blank and start over. Don’t cut into the bushings; if you reduce their diameter, you won’t have accurate guides for the pen blanks.
Sand the pen. With your first couple of pens, there’s no shame in sanding the blank to its finished diameter instead of turning it. This more conservative approach will guarantee you don’t cut through the wood. Start with 150-grit sandpaper to remove gouge marks. Progress to 220- and then 400-grit paper.
Finishing the Turnings
Before applying finish, clean off the bushings with denatured alcohol. This removes the gray dust that may have accumulated while sanding. The dust can stain your pen blank during finishing. Now, apply your finish. Use a small piece of folded paper towel, wetted with finish and held against the back of the turning. Any finish, from furniture oil to shellac or lacquer, will work on pens. The author prefers to use lacquer turner’s finish, known as padding lacquer. It dries almost instantly so you can move right into assembly. Avoid using cloth applicators: a paper towel will tear if it catches on anything spinning — a good safety feature. A rag could pull your fingers into the turning. Work in a well ventilated area and wear eye protection when applying finish.
Assembling the Pen Parts
Assemble your pen parts in this order: pen tip first, pocket clip second and then the pen twist mechanism. Insert the twist mechanism until the indented ring on it is nearly even with the end of the barrel, then test the fit of the ink cartridge. The pen tip should come out far enough to write, while still retracting fully back into the pen when the mechanism is twisted closed.
If the pen tip doesn’t come out far enough, remove the ink cartridge and press the twist mechanism a little farther into the brass barrel. Now add the center ring.
It simply slips on, and press the top and bottom halves of the pen together.
Once you complete your pen, it’s time to find it a suitable home. After all your hard work, it would be a shame to store it in a plastic bag. There are a number of different pen boxes and plastic cases available for displaying or gifting your pens.
In addition to a nice box, I sometimes customize my pens by having the recipient’s name laser-engraved on the pen. Cost varies, but I can usually get it done for $5 to $10 per pen.
Pens First, then the Sky is the Limit
Mastering the technique of using a brass barrel and mandrel is the gateway to numerous great small projects that are well suited for everything from a mini-lathe to a full-size rig. The number of projects that fall into this category is nearly endless: key rings and bottle stoppers to plumb bobs and scratch awls await you. One of the things I love most about pens and other small turning projects is how little time it takes to create them. From start to finish, most can be completed in less than 30 minutes. Gotta love that kind of instant gratification!