Making Pens (Part 2)

Pen making is not difficult and you can let your imagination run wild.  I like to do things a bit out of the ordinary, and like to make mine other than run of the mill.

My pen making buddy gave me a grocery bag of blanks and small pieces of several types of wood with which to cut my own blanks, and I generally have some scraps around to use, also.

The pen for this demo is going to have a matching pencil and a shop-made matching box, so I started off by cutting an 8-inch piece of Brazilian Cherry for the box and the pens. I then ripped two 5/8″ wide pieces from one edge of the workpiece.

I just happened to have the tall fence attached to my rip fence and there was no need to remove it before ripping the blanks to width.

Here I am preparing to make the second cut to rip the piece to final thickness.  I used 5/8″ as the width and thickness because my push stick is about 1/2″ wide and will fit between the blade and fence.

I like to glue up different pieces to make the pens and find that a 45 degree angle cut on the ends to be glued makes an interesting look. 

I have a piece of MDF with a 45-degree angle on one side, and a ninety-degree cut on the other side attached to my sliding miter table fence.

This allows me to tilt the blade to 45 degrees, slide the 45 degree cut on the fence right to the edge of a tooth and clamp the fence in place on the miter fence.

I can then set the workpiece, here a piece of spalted maple, so that the top corner of the piece is aligned with the angle cut on the fence. I can then cut the end of the piece off at an angle.

Since I am making a pen and pencil, I repeat this on the other end of the maple and on one end of each of the blanks.

Here are the three pieces cut and almost ready to glue up. The piece of maple is then cut in half at a 90 degree angle, and one of the resulting pieces is glued to the longer pieces with the 45 degree angles of each being glued together.

I use CA glue for this and other glue-ups in pen making and have started using the CA glue for other projects as well.

The next step is to cut off the maple part to the final length of maple I want to be left on the pen. I decided I wanted about 1/4 ” of maple left on top so I cut off the excess at 90 degrees. Now it is time to cut the blanks to length.

I set the aux fence so the edge of the 90-degree cut is just touching a tooth of the blade and clamped it in place to cut off the ends of the maple now, using one of the tubes from the pen kit as a gauge, I clamp a stop block onto the aux fence about 1/16″ proud of the length of the tube. This allows for squaring up the ends of the blanks once the tubes have been inserted.

Now it is time to cut the blanks. It is a rather tight fit, so I would recommend that the work piece be clamped to the fence so that you don’t have to get your fingers so close to the blade when making the cut.

If you use the resulting cut end after you have made the first cut against the stop block, you can get a pretty good grain match when you finish the pen.

It is a good idea to mark the ends that will come together for proper installing on the mandrel.

I will sometimes turn my own center rings rather than use the one in the kit, and at this point I will glue the stock for the center ring onto the bottom blank.

The center ring should be made of a very dense, hardwood as it will extend past the end of the tube and must withstand some clamping pressure at assembly time.

Ipe works well for this. You can use a piece that has been precut to the width you want your center ring to be, or you can glue on a larger piece and then cut off what you don’t want after it is glued on and set.

Next, it is time to drill the blanks. I use the jig shown on the previous page to hold the blanks on the drill press.

Although you can’t see it in the photo, there is a blank in the jig. I generally do not bother to draw diagonals onto the end of the blanks to find the center, but just “eyeball” it and get near enough to the center to work.

I use a medium speed on the drill press and back out of the hole several times to clear the waste.

You do not want to get in a hurry here, as this is where you can blow a blank the quickest and easiest. I use a backer board of scrap so that I don’t make holes in my drill press table.

Once the blanks are drilled, I test fit the tubes to insure they slide into the blanks easily. I do this because I have had a few occassions where, the tubes were overly snug and did not slide all of the way in before the glue set.

It is also important to rough up the tubes so that the glue adheres well. I tried skipping that a few times and had blanks detach from the tubes and spin freely on the mandrel making it necessary to take everything apart and re-glue. CA glue is used for this also.

Now the blanks are tubed and almost ready to put onto the mandrel. Some folks advocate letting the glue cure as long as overnight before turning them. I’ve had no problem with spinning them right away.

Before installing them on the mandrell you need to mill the ends so that they are flush with the end of the tubes and perpendicular to them.

If they are not perpendicular to the tubes, the ends will not match up right when you assemble them. If I’m going to turn my own center ring, I will mill that end of the blank until I see that the mill is cutting its full width all of the way around the end.

Regardless, the procedure is simple, insert the shaft of the mill into the hole and turn it while applying pressure. On the ends with tubes, I mill until the brass at the end of the tube is shiny all the way around.

Now you slide a bushing onto the pen mandrel, then a blank and another bushing, finally the second blank and a third bushing. Put the washer on then the threaded nut, and snug it down pretty tight by hand.

I generally put the bottom pen blank on first oriented so that the grain match end is toward the second blank, then install the top blank oriented as the pen will be assembled.

Install the mandrel onto the lathe and the really fun part begins. I generally turn the both blanks down to cylinders of the largest diameter I can get from the blanks.

I used to use an old 3/4″ wood chisel for this, initially slicing to get the corners off of the blanks, then using it more as a scraper as it gets closer to being completely round.

I have since gotten a set of small turning chisels and have relegated the old 3/4″ chisel to prying stuff and all those other things we use our old junk chisels for.

I still often resort to using a skew in scraper mode with figured woods as this helps to keep the chisel from sticking in and blowing the blank.

Once I’ve got two nice cylinders, I use that bull nose scraper (that’s what I call it, although it probably has a real name) to cut in all four ends to just slightly larger than the bushings.

Once that is done I start giving the pen its final shape. I like pens with some curve, but not so much that the pens end up fat and uncomfortable to use.

Someone once told me that my pens resemble the female figure, and if that is the case, so much the better. I do happen to like the female figure. I also let the wood dictate what shape it wants to take.

I know some of you are guffawing or rolling on the floor laughing at that, but that is one of the things I have always liked about turning. If you stop often and look at the wood, you can tell by the grain pattern and coloration where you need to take a little more off, and where it is ready to sand.

Of course, this makes it difficult to make duplicates, because no two pieces of wood want to look alike.

While you are turning the pen, sometimes you will get a chunk that will blow out. But all is not lost. CA glue works great for glueing any pieces you can find back into place.

And if you can’t find all of the pieces, or you can’t get the gap completely closed, you can fix that with CA glue and the shavings that are all around your lathe.

That is, of course, if you don’t have some super sucker dust collection system hooked up. In that case, maybe you can find a sander or something in the shop to make you some sawdust to use. Course or superfine or anything in between will work.

I just squirt some CA glue into the crevice or void, sprinkle some sawdust over it and work it into the wet glue, then add a bit more CA glue on top of that and smooth it out.

Repeat as needed until you have a bit of a bulge where the hole was, let it set up a few minutes and you’re back in business.

Spalted woods especially, and others, may have natural voids or loose areas, or small areas that are weak and chip out a bit. This is another reason to shut down occassionally and take a look at your progress.

If you see any of these problems starting to develope, its CA glue to the rescue again. This is particularly true as you get down close to your final shape. I just drip some on with the lathe turning using one of the plastic bags that the kits come in, or a finger from a rubber glove to smooth the glue out a bit, let it set up a few minutes and continue.

When I have just a bit more wood to take off to get to the pre-sanding stage, I switch to my skew and take the last bit off with it, smoothing the curves and getting a pretty decent finish. I also will add a couple or three beads at the top end with the skew.

I generally start with 150 grit sand paper to begin sanding, then 220 grit. Once I have finished with 220 grit I wipe on some Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO). I love that stuff. It just pops the grain of the wood and brings out the beauty. I wipe off the excess BLO and then lay on the CA glue.

I apply it the same as described above, dripping it on with the lathe turning and smoothing it out with my birdy finger in a finger of a rubber glove. I get great use out of those gloves, one finger at a time.

Of course, I’m not really applying the glue in this picture cause I needed one hand to hold the camera. It takes two hands to apply the glue, one to drip it on, the other to smooth it out.

I put on two or three coats of glue, letting it set up dry to the touch between coats.  In the photo above, the glue has been applied and is dry enough to begin sanding.

I start off with 220 grit again to get rid of any swirls or lumps and work my way to 1500 grit automotive paper. It doesn’t take long for each grit, and you need to check your progress often.

One thing you need to watch for are white spots where voids have filled in with the sanding residue of the glue. Concentrate on getting those areas sanded out.

Sometimes in order to get the white spots sanded out, you will sand all of the ways through the glue, but another coat can be applied to remedy the situation. You may have to back up a grit size or two, but it only takes a couple of minutes.

When I get to the 1500 grit, I will sand with the paper dry, then down the pen parts with a little BLO and sand a little more. I have recently begun going a step further and use some 0000 steel wool dampened with more BLO.

Then I wipe the parts down with a clean dry rag or paper towel. Then I kick the lathe speed up a notch or two and go after it with the HUT polishing stick.

About three applications with the final one using a soft rag with a bit more BLO to do the polishing. A coat of paste wax couldn’t hurt after the polish.

Then take the mandrel off of the lathe and pull the pen parts off of the mandrel. Sometimes the parts may be glued to the bushings, but a tap on the padded work bench generally pops them loose.

You may also have to clean up one or more ends of the pen parts with a swipe across some fine-grit sandpaper holding the pen part perpendicular to the bench with the sandpaper laying on it.

Here the parts for the pen are all laid out and ready to assemble. Assembly is done according to the instructions for the particular kit.

For the Cross style pens, the bottom tip is pressed into the appropriate end, then the mechanism is installed.

The caps on the top of the pen that secure the pocket clip have a tendency to loosen up with use, so it is a good idea to put a small drop of CA glue just inside the top of the top tube before pressing the cap into place.