The Camera is Mightier than the Pen

With the upcoming Carbatec pen demo (31 July), I have been giving some thought to the whole pen-turning process, and just what equipment I use these days when making a pen.

Before I start (and you may have already glanced ahead at the collection of photos), remember that pen turning is a good beginner exercise, and as such you do not need such a collection of tools to produce a pen.  They help obviously, but are not mandatory.

Even the lathe is optional. You can turn a pen using other means, the primary alternative being the humble drill press.  You don’t even need turning chisels – many a pen has been made using a sharpened screwdriver.

Mini Lathe

A lathe makes life a lot easier of course.  I haven’t used a dedicated pen lathe, but my feeling is they would be too underpowered to really be effective.  You can use a belt-driven one or variable speed – I tend to run it flat out for pen turning, so that makes the decision rather moot.  I have a mini lathe, but it would be no issue using a larger lathe as well.  So long as the lathe is accurate (the two ends (head and tail stock being directly in line).

Variable Speed Mini Lathe

A variable lathe does have the advantage when dealing with larger, or more out-of-round blanks – being able to change speed easily without having to move belts between pulleys.

Drill Press

A drill press can substitute as mentioned – turning the pen vertically rather than horizontally. It also is particularly useful for drilling the centre of the blank to insert the brass tube core. This drill press has the laser attachment for centering the bit on the blank.


A bandsaw is useful for easily trimming the blanks and can also be used to knock the corners off before turning if the blank material is prone to chipping/splitting during the initial turning to round.

It also has a major advantage in preparing blanks – scavenging materials from offcuts, resawing dried branches/logs etc.  You can take a lump of timber full of defects and still extract plenty of material for pens.  If you ever get into segmented turning (and yes, you can do segmented pens), then the bandsaw becomes critical. Not sure where the photos of my harlequin pen have gone…

Harlequin Pen

…..found a poor version back from about 2006.  Made from Red-gum, Pittosperum and Purpleheart. I only made the bottom half of the pen in harlequin – wasn’t happy with the result to justify continuing this experiment, but the principle is valid.

I also made this slimline for an informal pen comp where the theme was cross.

Cross Pen

I went with a traditional cross, with the obvious religious overtones. So I decided to take the photo on the woodworker’s bible (no insult intended).

Disk Sander

I find I use a disk sander for some jobs as well – trimming the ends of a blank down close to the length of the brass insert ready for the pen mill.  It isn’t particularly critical – I use it because it is available, and convenient.

Spindle Gouge

As far as turning tools, you can go the whole hog – roughing gouges, skews, gouges.  For a long time this was the only one I needed – a basic spindle gouge.  Used it for roughing and finishing, and details.

Detailed Pen

Captive Ring Pen

Even with a pen, you are only limited by imagination.  The captive ring was made by taking a very cheap skew and sharpening it to a much longer point so it could reach right under the ring as it was forming.  You can buy dedicated captive ring chisels – never tried one (yet), but the basic tool still achieved a perfectly good ring.

Hamlet Mini Turning Chisels

For very fine detail, a set of mini turning chisels can be quite effective, but again not critical – I got these more for dollhouse furniture than pen turning.

Wood Pen Blanks

The blanks themselves can be either timber, acrylic, bone, horn, metal (cartridge) etc etc.

Acrylic Blanks

Acrylics are interesting to work with, producing some quite colourful results, but I never feel like the pen is fully my own, and it won’t until I get into producing my own acrylic blanks.  This isn’t too difficult, but I need to learn how it is done so I can really feel like some of  these pens are really fully my own creation.

Laser Cut Blank

You can get very elaborate with blanks.  This for example is a laser cut kit from Rockler, and is a development of the segmented turning concept.  Pens made from these sorts of kits are also very interesting, but you are nervous the entire construction because of the cost of the ‘blank’ (around $US50 for this one, and the one below).

Fire Pen

Drill Presses

Have had a bit of a look at drill presses out there, particularly given that it has been a while since I purchased mine (a fair few years ago now!)

I have a Woodman Drill Press as it happens, which cost under $300 at the time (and comparable models seem to still be around that price).  I haven’t tried any of the current models (across the range), so thought I might contribute my experiences of my current model in a hope it will help anyone going through the decision process.

Woodman Drill Press

Woodman Drill Press

I went for a full height pedestal drill press, not wanting a bench mounted version (not having a bench was probably a factor, plus the increased capability of a full height (and they are not that much different in cost)).  It is belt driven, 3/4HP, 16mm keyed chuck with a MT2 morse taper, and speed range from 220 to 3480 RPM.

I was convinced by a sales guy at the time to go for this model because of the increased number of speeds, rather than a very similar press with 12 speeds and a larger table.  Always regretted that.  I only use about 3 speeds when I bother changing it at all – dead slow, medium, and maximum.  Unless I was drilling a wide variety of speed sensitive materials that needed all the precise intermediate speeds, I can’t see that it is a real advantage compared to a decent sized table.

This is less of an issue now because I’ve added the Pro Drill Press Table, but until I did that, I was always frustrated by the small table size.

3/4 HP is an absolute minimum.  I don’t recall being particularly limited by that sized motor, but I have gotten close on a number of occasions for needing more power, so I’d never go for one smaller.

The chuck is keyed, which I don’t mind, but may readdress that if I ever upgrade the chuck.  It is a 16mm chuck, which gives it good capacity for the larger diameters, but at the same time the larger chucks are limited in the size of the smallest bits they can take.  I think mine cannot grip smaller than around 3.5mm bits, which has occasionally been an issue.

The column itself is fine, but has a pretty basic method of securing top and bottom – a single grub screw top and bottom, and that has lead to slippage on occasion – with the head of the drill press being able to twist off-centre.

The other couple of variables that impact on the use of the press, is how far the centre of the bit is from the column – the further it is, the larger the item is that you can drill into.  The other is the range of the plunge.  Some people claim that there is no point having a particularly long plunge because the bits are only a certain length, but the typical length of plunge is too short to my mind.  For two reasons – some bits are longer (spade bits for example), and it would be good to be able to use their range without having to change the table height partway through drilling a hole.  The other is the number of times you have to change the table height.  For example, if I change from a 6mm bit to a 12mm bit, the chances are I am also going to have to change the table height because of the short plunge length.  This particularly impacts if drilling into metal, where you do work up through bit sizes, and especially when drilling multiple holes in the same project.

It would always pay to test the drill press runout when purchasing – shaft runout, chuck runout.

I’ve always had problems (from new) with my drill press chuck.  I even replaced the first one for the issue, but the replacement has still had jamming issues – occasionally it sticks, really badly, and I’ve found the only way to free it is to pound the daylights out of it with a wooden mallet.  One day I will toss the thing in the bin and buy a decent chuck.  At that point I will again decide between keyed and keyless, and the minimum and maximum bit sizes it can cope with.

I guess some of these frustrations I’ve had are to do with having a $300ish pedestal drill press, and not one that costs $800 and upwards.  So long as it drills accurate holes (when the chuck works), for the amount I use it, it’d be hard to justify a really expensive model (some exceed $2000, but they tend to be geared head models, not belt driven).

The Woodman Drill Presses are available in Australia, but at least a couple of suppliers (Woodman Group) of them have not listed them on their websites. Not sure if this is an omission, or means something else.

Router Bits in Drill Press

I’ve spoken in the past about whether you can use the drill press as a surrogate router (in general the answer is NO!), but there are some circumstances when it would be rather useful.

I’m not suggesting that I have changed my opinion of the use of the drill press for routing, sometimes though a router bit would be very suitable in a drill press setup.

One of the problems is the drill press chuck is specifically designed to hold a wide variety of shaft diameters, and in doing so, it’s ability to grip is compromised. A router on the other hand has a chuck that can cope with a single shaft diameter, and grips it very tightly (you do not want a router bit coming out at speed!) Also, the drill press jaws does significant damage to the shaft of a router bit which needs tightly maintained parameters to fit the router collet.

My thought is then, that a router collet is threaded onto the shaft of the router, and instead if this was a shaft that could be gripped in the drill press jaws, it would be rather useful, because then you could mount a router collet into your drill press.  Router bits could then be used in the drill press without fear of damage from the drill press jaws.

The only reason this came to mind was I was thinking about how I could use a 1/4″ solid carbide laser tip router bit to create some fine point, tapered holes, precisely placed into a grid.

Pro Drill Press Table (again)

A while ago I showed an upgrade I had done to my drill press- the addition of the Pro DrillPress table from Professional Woodworkers Supplies. As part of the upgrade, and because of the handle on the DP, I had added a drawer to act as a spacer and storage.

As some of you observed (can’t get anything by you), more recently I had removed all that and was using some cast iron tablesaw wings to provide a much larger, solid table that could also take MagSwitch technology.

That experiment has ended, more than anything else than because of the exceptional weight that table ended up being. Good for a router table, bad for the drill press.

So the Pro Table is returning, in this situation, its benefits outweight that of MagSwitch tech!

There are a couple of issues I need to address in this recommissioning. First, access to the height adjusting handle, and that is the subject of the photo here.

I’ve removed the original DP handle (secured with a grubscrew), and have replaced it with an extension from an old socketset (one I did try to sell at a garage sale a year or so ago- it plus a bunch of sockets and bits for $2 and still no takers!) Now it just adds extra weight to the mantra “never throw anything away”!

On the DP, I did have to create a square on the round shaft the handle came off, but that was seconds of work with an angle grinder. I want to secure it in place, and it will end up being supported along its length (and it needs a new handle- hmm sounds like a height winding wheel off a tablesaw would be PERFECT!)

I still need to do something about the tablelock for access, and also I have been finding the Pro Top does flex the way I have it, so will add some extra support for it in the form of a new top for the drawer unit.

So on with the recommissioning (and I’m positive that the DP height wheel rather than height handle will prove awesome. Just remember you read it here first!)

Bits n Pieces around the shed

Think I have found a good location in the shed for the drum sander.  It may not be the perfect solution for the machine in every workshop, but how I use the machine, this solution works for me, and saves the machine footprint as well.

Drum Sander & Thicknesser

Drum Sander & Thicknesser

This solution works on a number of levels.  Because my thicknesser has a fixed head, there is no load on the height mechanism having the sander on top, and the thicknesser is certainly strong enough to cope with this load.  It doesn’t interfere with any of the thicknesser mechanisms, and it means I use the same infeed and outfeed areas for two machines with similar requirements.

I’ve also been playing with the drill press, trying out different tabletop combinations.  This current look isn’t working too well – it weights way too much to be functional, so I imagine I will be restoring the Pro Drill Press table shortly.  Just wanted to give this a try anyway.

Trying a CI Drill Press Tabletop

Trying a CI Drill Press Tabletop

My ideal would be a CI top with the features and sizing of the Pro Drill Press Table.

It took me a long time to get around to it, but I’ve finally found a home for the Incra Mitre Express, and the coving jig.

Jig Storage

Jig Storage

I did drill a couple of holes in the mitre express to allow it to be hung.  So much better than having it kick around the shed floor.

I had a chance to have a quick look at the panel clamps I’m reviewing for the Australian Wood Review Article.  Clamping them overhead wasn’t really the plan, but once I started, I just kept going!

Some Panel Clamps

Some Panel Clamps

CompressX Panel Clamp

CompressX Panel Clamp

Not every clamp was able to clamp overhead of course!

Still hoping to have Frontline Engineering’s version included.  I’ve managed to get a bit of an extension on the article deadline, so that should help. Aussie products always especially welcome!

SW09 – Kickback

kick-1There are all sorts of risks in the workshop.  But the one that really seems to give woodworkers the willies is kickback.

When a kickback occurs, it is always pretty startling, you find yourself with the deer in the headlights look, and once your wits start returning, you start looking for claret.

I’ve had some pretty impressive kickbacks, and I can guarantee you something in every single case.  User error.  (Of course I do have that router bit that seems to kickback no matter what I try, but let’s ignore that here).

I’ve had kickbacks from tablesaws, routers (table mounted primarily), thicknessers, bandsaws, lathes, drill press…….  Pretty much anything with a blade can kickback.  That list isn’t a badge of honour.  What is then, is that I still have intact bodyparts.  One kickback I had from a tablesaw a few years ago gave me a bruise/mark that took a year to fade.

So just what is a kickback? I tend to think a kickback is when the cutting surface (be that a tooth, a blade or whatever) fails to do its intended task, and instead propels the work instead (which more often than not is back towards the operator!)

I’m not covering prevention here- that will be tomorrow’s article.  This is looking at causes of kickback.


A kickback on the tablesaw can be a frightening experience.  This can be a 3HP machine, with a large diameter cutter (10″+) and given the speed they run, the blade tip speed can easily exceed 200 km/hr.  If a piece of work doesn’t cut, and instead is propelled, then that is the sort of speed it is going to come flying out at.

There are  couple of places on the blade that are most likely to kickback – the side (which then lifts the work to the top of the blade where it gets propelled with a large degree of rotation), and the back edge (where you get massive acceleration of the workpiece).

Tablesaws have been known to propel a piece of timber so fast back towards the operator that it has punched right through the wall of the shed.  You don’t want to be standing in the line of fire.  Ever!

A rear kickback is when the workpiece is lifted by the rapidly rising teeth, and propelled over the top of the blade.  This can happen when an offcut works its way into the back of the blade, or when a workpiece is not adequately restrained and floats (lifts) because of those rapidly rising teeth.

A side kickback is often when a piece is not restrained properly as it passes the blade, and twists, (which obviously is then wider than the gap between blade and fence (measure across the diagonal).  The blade then chucks the piece.  It can also be when the fence is not parallel to the blade, and angles towards the rear of the blade.

It can also be caused when the operator pulls the material back towards him on completion of the cut (or when the piece becomes trapped because of the non-parallel fence), and is pulling it in the same direction as the blade is trying to throw it.

Router Table:

A kickback here is generally parallel to the fence, and to the right of the table.  Less likely to be directly at the operator (unless you happen to be standing down there).

Causes are many and varies again.  Incorrect feed direction is a biggie.  Feeding from the left, (or feeding in from the right but to the wrong side of the router bit), so the feed direction is in the same direction as the cutter is spinning.  A router loves to accelerate and propel pieces, like a small spinning wheel (but one that is going up to 20000 RPM!).  Tip speed of the router bit tends to be around the 150 km/hr.  Climb cutting is rarely a good idea.

I’ve had some other instances when a kickback has occurred, even though everything seems to be correct, and these are freaky, as they are completely unexpected.  Some I still haven’t been able to determine the cause, and have put them down to the router bit itself (one that I have chosen to retire).

Feeding too aggressively is also possible, or when starting a cut, engaging the router bit at the wrong angle can all be causes.

What is really scary about a router bit kickback, is its tendency to pull the operator’s hand towards the cutter.  A few kickbacks I’ve had on the router table, I’ve come away ashen faced, checking the hand to see if it is all still there. (The shock of the impact is quite explosive, and can leave the hand feeling numb, so you can’t actually tell if you’ve been cut or not).  I’ve not, but they have been very strong reminders that extreme care is definitely needed on these machines – the consequences of getting it wrong can be dramatic.


Not a common machine to kickback, but it is possible.  I’ve only managed it once – cutting a resawn piece of timber where I had gotten the resaw cut way to uneven, and the blade had managed to catch, rather than cut.  It is also possible when cutting something too thin, which can twist, and rise (especially the leading edge) into the cutter, hitting it at the wrong angle.

Thicknessers tend to be pretty good – some have antikickback fingers, and there is that leading roller that helps constrain the timber so it is cut rather than propelled.


Has teeth, can kickback.  However, the cutting direction is vertically downward, straight into the table so the result is pretty much a non-event (from a danger to operatior point-of-view).  The highest risk then is breaking the blade.


This is unusual, in that the workpiece is rotating, and the tool is not moving (the chisel).  It can still kickback though, particularly if you get the angle of attack wrong (or the one I had was……the skew chisel).  Instead of the workpiece flying at you, the lathe propels the cutting edge towards you (mainly down).  The main one I had was the skew, and it was like a firework going off with a loud bang.  Took me a few seconds to realise just what had happened, and I couldn’t feel a thing – my hand and arm were so numb from the shock it took quite a while to complete checking to see if I was in one piece.

Drill press:

Again, a bit unusual – the drill bit can grab the workpiece, so instead of cutting the workpiece becomes a helicopter.  As it rotates around rapidly, it will hit anything in its path, including the operator.

So that is just a brief overview of kickback, and some of the machines that can cause it.

One of the scariest events that can happen for a woodworker, because it is so fast, and dramatic (and there are definitely potential consequences!)

The next article will look at prevention.

Drill Press Portability Result

Here’s a 1000 words:

Portable Drill Press

Portable Drill Press

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