Pen Making 101
Pen making as a hobby has been around for over 20 years, but it’s only lately that this pastime has really taken off. There are many reasons for its popularity. It’s a relatively easy and inexpensive hobby to get into as it doesn’t require a large amount of space or a vast array of tools. It also doesn’t take a long time to complete a pen – most turners can turn and finish a pen in about two hours.
Over the last few years, penturning has evolved from simple twist pens out of wood into a multitude of kits, styles, platings and materials that are attracting turners from all walks of life.
But with so many options choose from, it can be a little overwhelming when you are first getting started. The following hints and tips should make it easier for you to get on your way to becoming a penturner.
This low-cost type of pen allow new pen turners to get into the game without spending a lot of money.
This type of pen typically has a higher quality ink cartridge that provides a better writing experience.
This pen style has become popular again due to its ‘old school’ feel and writing style.
Hold it all together
The mandrel holds the blanks and bushings together on the lathe while you turn the pen.
A hockey sock of choices
The types and colours of materials available for pen turning are almost endless.
This cutter squares up the blank once the hole is drilled and the brass tube is installed.
There is no end to the types, shapes and colors of pens you can turn at the lathe.
There are three basic pen styles a penturner can choose from: ballpoint (twist and click), rollerball and fountain pen kits.
Twist pens have a transmission mechanism that extends the ballpoint refill forward. These kits generally come with ‘Crossor Parker-style’ refills, usually available in black or blue ink, with a spring at the nib end of the refill. Because of their lower cost, these are the kits that most turners use when getting started.
Rollerball pens don’t have a twist mechanism. Instead, they come with a removable cap that can be posted onto the end of the pen with certain styles. A rollerball is a superior refill that writes more smoothly than a ballpoint. In many cases, refills are German-made, and available in black or blue ink. Many rollerball kits are easier to assemble than ballpoint kits because even though they have more parts, they do not have a transmission that needs to be pushed in to an exact depth.
Fountain pens have an ink cartridge, nib and removable cap. This is a more upscale style that has seen resurgence in popularity due to the nostalgia associated with it. Most kits will come with an ink refill cartridge that simply presses into a pin located on the back end of the fountain pen nib. Alternatively, most kits come with an ink pump, which lets you draw ink out of a bottle and insert the pump into the body of the pen. Most kits come with a medium nib, but fine and broad nibs are often available separately. Most nibs are German-made with iridium tips.
The basic kit platings are 24K gold and chrome, as they are the most economical metals. As pens have evolved, however, so has the offering of platings.
The plating on a 24K gold pen can wear off quickly as the metal is quite soft. This is why many more serious pen makers will select upgraded platings like titanium gold, black titanium or sterling silver, which are more durable and longer-lasting. There’s nothing more frustrating than to have a beautifully made pen from an exquisite piece of wood but find the plating wearing off.
Titanium gold and black titanium are the most durable platings – the old adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ certainly applies here. Most pen kits are manufactured in Taiwan or China; the quality of Taiwanese kits is superior.
What You Need to Make a Pen
You must have a lathe, drill press and a saw like a band saw or mitre saw to cut the blanks to the appropriate length. A typical pen turner’s chisel set will include a small gouge, a skew and a parting tool.
You’ll need a pen kit, which includes all the components necessary to make the pen, with the exception of the blank.
A set of bushings will serve as a guide to the finished outside diameter of the pen once you have mounted them on the mandrel.
You’ll need a drill of appropriate size to match the barrel or barrels for the pen style you have chosen. Some pens will require two drills because the upper and lower barrels are different sizes.
Mandrel and arbor
A mandrel is the steel rod onto which you will mount your bushings and your blanks in order to turn them on the lathe. A Morse Taper (MT) arbor fits into the headstock of the lathe and the mandrel is screwed into the arbor, which holds it in place. The tailstock of the lathe is fitted up against the other end of the mandrel to hold it firmly in place.
The blank makes up the body of your pen. The possibilities are endless: wood, acrylic or any other exotic material of your choosing. It can be as simple as straight-grained wood like maple or walnut to curly woods or more challenging burls that have much more figuring in them.
Stabilized woods have been impregnated with a resin to prevent the blank from expanding and contracting with moisture levels in the air. It also enhances the figuring of the blank and dye can often be added during the stabilization process to create some unusual figure and colour. Acrylic blanks are very popular and come in an endless array of colours and patterns.
Really exotic blanks include coffee beans or other materials cast in acrylic, snake skin blanks or corn cobs that have been stabilized.
Pen mill and pilot shaft
In order to square off the ends of the blank once you have drilled a hole lengthwise through it and glued a brass tube inside, you will need a pen mill shaft and cutter head. The shaft is mounted in the drill press and fits inside the brass tube. Shaft sizes will vary according to the size of the barrel. The blank is secured with a vise to the drill press table. The cutter head is attached to the shaft and you lower the entire pen mill assembly into the brass tube. The spinning cutter head will trim the wood down to the brass tube, ensuring that it is perfectly square on all sides. This is important so that you don’t end up with any gaps between the blank and the pen hardware that is pressed up against it.
You’ll need to glue the brass pen tube into the blank. Two of the most popular glues are thick CA (cyanoacrylate) and two-part epoxy. While both work well, the epoxy will give you a bit more working time (five minutes), which is important, especially if you’re just getting into pen making. The CA will set up much faster.
Sandpaper is needed to sand down your blanks after turning but before applying your finish. Start at 120 and go up to at least 400 or 600 grit. For a super-smooth finish, there is a cloth-back, reusable abrasive called Micro Mesh, which comes in grits from 1,500 to 12,000.
Some of the easiest finishes to use when you are just starting out are friction polishes, like Mylands or Shellawax, for example. They are applied to the sanded blank as it is spinning on the lathe. Place a small drop on a lint-free cloth and rub it back and forth over the blank as the blank is spinning on the lathe. But there are many different types of finishes and each turner will develop his or her own favourite. Part of the fun in pen turning is experimentation.
Pen Families, Bushings and Drills
Most people starting out in pen turning will get their feet wet with a simple, inexpensive twist pen kit. But as the skill level increases, so does the appetite to try new kits, which will often require different drills and bushings. This is because as the size of the pen increases, so does the size of the brass tube on the inside of the barrel, which requires you to use a larger drill bit. Also, the outside diameter of the barrels will vary according to the size, which means you need different bushings.
Some pens come in ‘families,’ which means that you can use the same tooling (bushings and drills) to make more than one pen style. Some will also have matching pencils, letter openers, key chains or other project kits that also take the same tooling.
Accessories and Project Kits
Once you have the basics covered, there are many different accessories available to help you improve your skills as you get deeper into pen making – like centering vises, assembly presses, boxes and pouches for marketing, different nibs and refills, display cases, replacement tubes and disassembly tools.
Project kits can use the same or similar tooling as pen kits and are often made in a similar fashion. Again, the variety is almost limitless, with everything from key rings and letter openers to bottle stoppers and pepper grinders.
Intrigued? Take a course, visit online forums like penturnersparadise.ca or penturners.org to learn from others, or get some supplies and start learning by doing. If you’re like most pen turners, you’ll find this a satisfying and relaxing hobby.