Pen Finishing on a Shoe String

The Roving Reporter pointed me in the direction of this video by which is one of the woodturning pen suppliers in Australia.

The CA finish is something I have demonstrated on this site before (have a check under Shed.TV), but this is a bit of a different version of the technique which is interesting in itself.  The white glaze he was getting during the video I often associated with a failed finish, but even that is something I will now reassess after watching this segment.

One thing we (I assume) agree on, is CA accelerator is best done by aerosol.  I’ve tried the pump spray applicator and have a strong loathing for it (for finishing) – where it comes to just setting off the CA glue I’ve used to repair a crack in a turning, or after gluing something up, it is perfectly acceptable, but I like a nice even coat of CA, followed by a nice even covering of accelerator, rinse and repeat 20 times when doing a CA finish.

However, the aerosol can be tricky to track down (especially if you run out on a weekend, and don’t want to waste time driving to the woodwork supplier wherever that happens to be, or wait for the postman if you order online), so here is an interesting alternative. Glen 20!

It costs 1/2 as much for twice the quantity compared with a commercial accelerator.  A very curious proposition.

So time for some research. MSDS (material safety data sheets) are an excellent source of information!

Superglue / CA is ethyl cyanoacrylate which polymerises in the presence of water (and thus why it is particularly good at gluing skin!! Many claim the best accelerator is to use the fingers, although with a few difficult side effects!)

The standard accelerator is around 95% acetone (which is a ketone for those diving for their old organic chemistry books), with 2.5% toluidine (methylaniline), which is a benzene based compound.  Fortunately not all accelerators use it, as it is carcinogenic. Others use toluene which is not only a very similar compound (and is also benzene-based) but is not as toxic (still, I wouldn’t be drinking it!)  And 2.5% quinone (cyclohexadienedione) which is also benzene-based.

However it is the 95% component that interests me.  Acetone – anyone with wives, girlfriends, daughters is quite likely to have some of this in their bathroom cupboard, being the primary ingredient in nail polish remover.  What is really curious, is acetone is also effective as a CA glue remover – so why is it so effective as an accelerator??  (And from my misguided youth, I can also reveal that chloroform is a very effective CA glue remover!!) Acetone is also used as paint thinner, so as far as organic chemicals go, it is very readily available.

So what about Glen 20? Well for one, there is no benzene-based compounds.  But nor is there any acetone or other ketone (although there is a “hydrocarbon propellant”, namely butane, and that makes up around 20% of the contents).  The rest is good ol’ fashioned ethanol (around 50%) and then some undeclared stuff (which being non-hazardous is a. not likely to be an organic chemical, and b. is most likely water with a bit of scent added, but they don’t really want to tell you that you’ve just bought ethanol and water!)  Ethanol – I have a fair amount of that at home as well- in my drinks cabinet.  One in particular would probably be getting close in proportion to Glen 20 – vodka!  20% ethanol, 80% water or thereabouts.  Perhaps I should ‘clean’ more often!

Some people have mentioned baking soda is another accelerant for CA.  I’m not convinced.  Certainly, baking soda is used as a filler in conjunction with CA, and when you do that the curing of the CA is quite exothermic but I’d think that can be put down to the greater contact surface area providing more nucleation points for the glue to cure from (and the faster it cures, the hotter the result).  In that respect it has accelerated the curing process, but it has had to become a part of the bond to perform the role.  You end up with a different result than if the CA had cured of its own accord, whereas traditional CA accelerants result in an identical result, just faster.

The question is then: how does Glen 20 work?  We can go on the anecdotal evidence from Timberbits’ video that it does.  Work that is.

I wonder, and I probably won’t get an answer on this, but the polymerisation of CA requires water.  More precisely, it requires hydroxide ions.  And what is alcohol, but an alkane carbon chain with a hydroxide ion attached?



Either way, there is the hydroxide ion the CA requires (and for those playing at home, it is the red-white ball combination, with red representing oxygen, and white hydrogen).  And if not from the ethanol, there is still a fair chunk of water in Glen 20.  I’ll have to try it to see if just simply spraying with water is sufficient to speed up the process.  I’m sure someone must have a tube nearby that they can try and report back!

The Camera is (still) Mightier than the Pen

There is a pen style to suit everyone, from the thinnest slimline designs, through to the bulkiest, heaviest ones.  The price can vary from a few dollars to $100 or so, simply for the mechanism.  You’d certainly want to be on your turning game when working with the expensive models.

Elegant Beauty Kit

There are stacks of different pen kits out there, from slimlines, through sierras, sedonas to emperors and on and on.  Some require one turned section, some 2, either the same diameter, or with lids, or other sections.

Sedona Kit

Some are more complicated than others!

Blank Drilling Vice

A blank drilling vice holds the blank steady, and parallel to the drill bit.  Until recently, I used a standard metalworking drill press vice which was ok, but this style of dedicated vice eliminates the problem of ensuring the blank is actually vertical.  It also makes it easy moving from one blank to the next, or to remount a blank for redrilling.  Changing to a larger or smaller blank is easy – certainly no harder (and I’d say easier) than a standard screw vice.  The quick-action lever is a definite boon.

Tube Inserter

This simple tool is a tapered shaft, and allows the brass core to be inserted without you directly coming into contact with the finger -joining Superglue!  I tend to find it also prevents over-insertion, where the brass tube sticks out the other side (and the speed the glue sets typically prevents a fix).  However, it is a rather gentle taper, so is not as effective for the larger tube diameters.

Pen Mill

Once the tube is inserted, and the glue set, it is time to dress the ends so they are flat, and perpendicular to the tube (and therefore the components).  Some mills have different diameter central bores for the different pen types.  This helps keep the mill accurately aligned, and also cleans out any glue (etc) that happens to have gotten in where it shouldn’t have.  However I still haven’t found a mill that I am happy with.

Pen Mandrel

Have a couple of pen mandrels here – the top one is variable (ie has variable length with a chuck)  The mandrel is critical as it supports the blank as it is being turned, and given that the finished pen can be as thin as 0.5mm, providing decent support is rather important.  A knurled knob at one end holds the blank firm as it is turned.


Different pens have different diameters, both outside to match the components, and inside – the diameter of the brass tube.  Rather than have a mandrel the right diameter for each pen type, bushes are used to fit inside the brass, centering the blank on the mandrel, and the outside of the bush provides a reference for the final thickness the pen needs to be turned down to.  These are a consumable – they do get worn so occasional replacement is necessary.  However, they are only $5 – $8 for a set, so it isn’t too expensive.

Live Centre

Instead of my normal live centre, (or my new Nova one) both of which are too sharp and have too thin a cone end to fully support the end of the mandrel, I found this cheap chinese one, which is hopeless for the job it is designed for, but perfect for pen turning.

Centre matching Mandrel

The short, wide angle and blunt/rounded tip is useless as a live centre, but matches the end of the mandrel surprisingly well.


Getting the required finish requires sanding (unless you are an expert turner, and even then I imagine they use sandpaper too!), and you always need to work through the sandpaper grits to ensure there are no scratches left to ruin the finish.  This pack provides a convenient storage, and to keep it all in order.

Cyanoacrylic & Accelerator

Other than glueing the tube into the blank, I also use CA glue as a finish, typically with 18-20 coats to produce a very durable finish.  To apply so many layers, the accelerator is necessary.  If one layer is not fully set before the next one is applied the finish is ruined with a milky layer under the surface.  I prefer the aerosol can applicator – a fine, even application.

There is no different between the CA glue here and the Superglue in the small 2g tubes, other than convenience.  A 2g tube will do about a pen, including the finish, give or take.

Acrylic Sanding Pads

Getting a really fine finish requires going to an increasingly fine abrasive, and the acrylic sanding pads are excellent for this, especially when used on acrylic pens, or CA finished ones (you don’t need to CA finish an acrylic pen!)  These pads are coloured based on the grade of abrasive, so it is easy to move from one to the next.  They can be used dry, but they are superior when kept soaked in a bowl, and used wet. This cools the finish, which is important for both types – they are easily destroyed if they get too hot with the friction of sanding, leaving no option but to strip back to bare wood (if a CA finish) and start again, or if an acrylic to drop right back to a rough grade and work you way up again, hopefully the heat affected zone is not too deep.

The pads themselves are also damaged if they get too hot.  A simple rule of thumb is: when used wet, watch out for any dry spots that form which will quickly indicate an area where the temp is rapidly rising.  Watch out for any steam, and feel with your fingers too.  Keep wetting the pads down (dipping them back in the water) – not only will this keep them wet and cool, but also washes off any abrasive particles that have come loose.

The finish these pads do achieve is superb.

Hut Pen Wax

There are other finishes out there, including Hut Wax PPP (Perfect Pen Polish).  These look great straight off the lathe, but I have found them very disappointing with their lack of durability.

Ubeaut Shithot Waxtik

This is a wax by Neil Ellis of Ubeaut, and as you can see I haven’t used it yet (bought it for the name first and foremost!) It got its name from wood turners though, as each when asked how the wax stick was, remarked that it was……., and the name stuck!

Ubeaut was originally going to be called Shithot, but the business licensing organisation cracked it.  At least the product itself, with a typically Aussie approach to naming, made it to the market.

Pen Press

Finally, when it has all been finished, the final assembly can be done.  I used to use a Superjaws for this step, but a dedicated pen press is a much better solution.

Perfect Pen Presentation

Finally, it is imperative that the finished pens are displayed proudly, which leaves only one problem – deciding which one to write with!

Some Promotional Images

Been working on some images for a website, and thought I might as well throw them on here to see how they look live, as it were.




ncf-quick-ca-acceleratorThe second image is CA Accelerator – although we think of CA (superglue) as being incredibly quick-drying, when using it as a finish when turning (such as for a pen) it is beneficial to be able to get it to cure even faster, and thus this is where the CA Accelerator is useful.

Couldn’t find any, until I mentioned it on here of course, and next thing I was getting suggestions (cheers!) on where to track it down, including hobby shops, and the Woodworking Warehouse, where I sourced this can from.

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