Introduction to Pen Turning

This year I went to the local woodworking show, where tool manufacturers, local wood clubs and a woodworking magazine take over an expo center for the weekend to talk about sawdust creation. The attendees were quite a diverse crowd! Some fit the stereotype of what you’d expect: backwoods looking guys in ratty jeans with scarred and calloused fingers. They were actually the exception more than the norm though. A lot of the clientele were families who would look more at place walking in the park with a balloon or watching a little league game. The vendors were a good mix of everything from flea market leftovers to the latest in power tools running into the thousands of dollars. A theme among the smaller vendors and craftsmen seemed to be pen turning.

On the way in, there was a stand where you could buy a pen turning kit for $5.00 (donation to the Wounded Warrior Project) containing a block of wood (called a blank) and the internal mechanics of a pen. You would then take the ticket over to one of a number of booths where somebody would walk you through the steps to turn your blank into a beautiful pen. I’m always looking for ways to make my wife smile, and figured a pen for a teacher would be a nice gift!

I knew nothing about turning pens, so I simply let the woman behind the counter know I wanted to make something pretty for my wife. She sold me a kit with a multicolored block of wood and the internals, and I went to wait in line to learn what to do. There are entire books and classes dedicated to the art of making turned pens and pencils, so I won’t go into the details too deeply

After a fairly lengthy wait (seems like everyone wants to make pens!) I settled in at a small lathe with my tutor for the session. The blank was partially prepared to save some time, by drilling down the center of the two halves and super-gluing a tube in the middle. I later learned that woodworkers simply call super-glue “CA Glue”, for Cyanoacrylate – the main ingredient. With the blank on the lathe, I used a carbide tipped tool that looked like a screwdriver with a blade on the end. This trimmed off the outer layers of the blank, allowing me to reduce the blank down to the thickness required by the pen mechanism.

Once the wood was trimmed down to the proper thickness (thin-ness?) its time to sand and finish the piece. We sanded in stages, starting with 150 grit and down to 600 grit. After that we used what looked like foam sponges, which were actually even finer abrasives. After using a soft cloth to wipe away any sawdust – you’d be amazed how much comes from one pen blank – we were ready to polish. There seem to be two main camps in the pen turning world when it comes to the preferred polish. Some swear by a layer of CA Glue, and others insist on a finish called Friction Polish. The group teaching me how to make pens used friction polish. The first layer goes on fairly thick and sloppy, then you put a little more on the cloth and apply some pressure as you spin it on the lathe. This builds up heat, which turns the liquid into a solid finish on your pen.

Now there are two nicely turned, sanded and polished pieces of wood still on the lathe… For the sake of expediency, my tutor assembled the pen for me. That simply entailed putting the pieces together with a specialized clamp that held everything still while applying end-to-end pressure gently to fit the mechanism into the tubes that were glued into the middle of each piece of blank.

I brushed off the sawdust from my shirt (and pants, and face, and…) as I marveled at my new pen! The striations in the wood showed off very nicely the polish had a nice shine to it, and when I got home with it, my wife loved her new pen!

SIDE NOTE – I went to the show with a friend who also happens to be a shop teacher and my contractor. He watched me and his son make our pens, and was so intrigued he brought home a small lathe from his shop, invested in the accessories and a stack of blanks, and now makes pens probably several nights a week after work. For several weeks in a row, I’ve gone over to his house to further explore the new hobby with him… I’ll post some of my pens here, along with lesson learned. For instance, one thing I would have done differently with my wife’s pen is apply a second coat of the friction polish. Later pens I’ve created have a much nicer shine to them, but there was a long line for making pens at the show, so even if I’d known better I would have been holding up everyone else in my search for perfection.