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

Tiger Myrtle Sedona

After tackling the Mont Blanc, I had a closer look at the Sedona kits that I (re)discovered in my pen kit, and decided it wouldn’t actually be a complicated build.  It has a large-diameter brass tube core, so I opted for a larger blank I had to ensure that I didn’t suffer any splitting during the drilling step.  And I had a perfect piece of Tiger Myrtle for the job.

This was also a good test of the drilling vice – how easy it copes with changing the size of the blank, and it proved to be no drama.

Sedona Fountain Pen

The pen lid is threaded, and can screw onto the end when the pen is used, giving it a very nice feel, weight and balance.  It is also interesting writing with a fountain pen – a completely different feel to a ball point.  I haven’t used one since the Navy – it is traditional to hand write letters (posting acceptance letters from vague memory) using a fountain pen.  12 or so years on, and I’m rediscovering fountain pens as a writing implement.  They also make quite a statement when you use one in a meeting, just have no idea what that statement is!


Even capped, the style has a bit of punch, but it is interesting watching the reaction when the cap is removed and they discover the iridium nib, rather than the ball point they were expecting. The finish, like normal for me these days is the significantly durable and glossy (by choice) CA finish. (CA = Cyanoacrylate = Superglue)


The pen obviously comes apart for refilling, and comes with both a standard ink cartridge (purchasable from stationary shops).  It also comes with an interesting cartridge that has a bit of a syringe thing happening.  It is a reloadable cartridge, designed to be used with an ink bottle to refill.

Refillable Ink Cartridge

So another pen design experienced – by no means the cheapest (or the most expensive). Around $25 for the pen mechanism.

It is a nice pen 🙂

Pink Pen

Used a quick turning practice session to get my eye in for a new pen I was about to try by turning a blank I’d purchased for my daughter.

She’s 3, and unsurprisingly, her favourite colour is pink.

Pink Pen

It is an EB (elegant beauty), with rose gold components, and pink acrylic body.

Giving it a try-out

Happy Camper

It’s in Disguise!

Had a chance at part two – to finish off the Mont Blanc camo pen.  This is the top, with the initial turning completed and ready for finishing.  Although the difference in diameters at either end looks quite severe, it is nowhere near as pronounced when the pen is assembled.  So with Paul Kelly cranking out of the stereo about making gravy, I started working on the finish.

Finishing the Acrylic

Running the lathe near flat out (it is after all a very small diameter, so the edge speed is pretty low even at maximum RPM), it is important not to allow the temperature to rise.  Acrylic will melt very easily, and timber has a tendency to blow out.  You can often get away with it with timber, but it is better practice to keep the temp down.

When working with acrylic, the acrylic sanding pads work extremely well, and have the benefit of being used wet, so they are good for keeping the workpiece cool.  If the water runs out/evaporates off, the temperature can spike very quickly, so constant vigilance is the order of the day.

Acrylic Polishing Pads

The pads are colour coded (and again I’m getting that wiggly red line telling me that I’m wrong spelling it that way)

The pads are colour coded, so you can easily identify each grit and work up through them – do not be tempted to skip any, otherwise you are almost guaranteed to have scratches in the finish.  The other thing is to make sure the workpiece, and the abrasive are flushed regularly (or in the case of the workpiece, at least carefully wiped down), particularly when dealing with the large grits.  If any have become dislodged, they can cause significant scars in the finish.

Scoring the Shoulder Width

This pen design has a sleeve that fits on the top half of the pen, so a shoulder needed to be cut.  It was meant to be 7/32″, which means nothing to me – I’m sure it should but I can’t picture what it is.  So with the FastCap calculator, it converted to 5.55mm.  Setting the digital caliper to this, I then used the inside diameter points to become a set of accurate dividers, and to then score the line.

Forming the Shoulder

Using a parting tool as a scraper, it formed a sharp shoulder ready for the sleeve. I originally bought the shoulder down to the diameter of the bush, but it turns out it was not very accurate.  At least it was too large, so I was able to still work down to the right diameter.  It did result in me having to test the fit almost a dozen times, but when it got there, the fit was perfect – no glue required. Slow and steady – if you are in a rush, or impatient, pen turning is a chore rather than meditative, or whatever you get out of it. Again, the digital caliper worked very well, allowing the sleeve internal diameter to be accurately measured, and compared to the forming shoulder.

Top Assembled

Using the new pen assembly press, it all went together very easily.  The press worked well, but it has way too much flex in the base. Not hard to fix – I will simply attach it at a number of points to a heavy, straight (probably wooden) base.  Other than that (which is an easy fix), having a dedicated pen assembly press is a definite bonus.  And a lot more convenient than setting up a SuperJaws which is how I’ve done it in the past.  A bit more of an appropriate sized tool for the job too!

Polishing Pads

Polishing the lower half – the pen is currently turning (3000 RPM) – the flash of the camera has mostly frozen the pen.  Again, working through the grits to get the required finish.  I started with 180 grit sandpaper (dry) to compensate for some irregularities in the surface caused by my less-than-perfect turning abilities.  This sends the acrylic an astonishingly opaque white, but have faith, it all comes right fi you diligently work through the grits of the acrylic finishing pads, with plenty of water to keep the surface cool and clean.

Pen Supplies

Just before I finish, this (for those who haven’t seen it) is my pen turning box – full of different pen kits, some of the tools of the trade, bushes, etc.  It is double sided, so lots of interesting bits n pieces in there.  Found a couple of kits that I forgot I had, so more to try out in the near future.

The Finished Pen

The resulting pen – I haven’t made a decent pen-photographing setup, but I think it comes across ok here anyway.  Has a very nice feel, not as heavy as some (I discovered I like heavy pens after making some Sierras and EBs (Elegant Beauty)), but still closer to what I like than the slimlines, which just seem too thin and too light to me these days.

And the camo makes for a very interesting design as well.

Start of a pen

I was hoping to have a full set of photos of this pen construction – the first time I’ve tried making a BT-401 (a version of the Mont-Blanc pen style) from Carbatec in preparation for the demo day I’m putting on 31 July (last Saturday of the month) at Carbatec, Melbourne (10am-12pm)  Thought I’d better actually try making one or two before the day!

Pen Vice

I started by choosing a blank, in this case an acrylic camo pen blank I bought at the Brisbane Wood Show.  Using the pen vice I recently got from Carbatec, this was the first time I used it for an actual pen rather than playing with it, and it worked perfectly – it is a very well-made pen vice, and for the first time I didn’t have to think about whether the blank was actually vertical.  It may not be essential for making pens, but it is nice having a tool dedicated to a specific task – it removes any small stresses that otherwise result from compromise.  The one thing I still need to acquire here (other than a drill press with less run-out!) is a drill bit that is more suitable, and closer in diameter to the brass insert.  At the moment the bit is 0.25mm oversized, and I feel it results in a fit that is a little looser than I’d like.

I also don’t think the standard bit works as well dealing with the waste material, especially acrylic.  If the waste isn’t cleared efficiently, and the bit doesn’t cut as well as it should there is a potential for the operation getting hotter than is necessary, and I personally believe that overheating the blank at this point results in more failures during the turning and finishing stages than any other step.  Too much heat weakens the blank, whether it is acrylic (which already suffers badly from heat), or timber which dries and/or develops microcracks when overheated.  You don’t realise it at this step, but pay the price near the end when the blank is turned down to final (thin wall) dimensions.

Now you see it..... soon you won't!

Mounted on the lathe with the correct bushes and started turning down the first blank.  I will be very curious to see it actually works – first time with any new pen design is always a little uncertain. I got most of the first half of the pen turned, then the demands of having an under 5 year-old in the household called me away, so I haven’t managed to progress the pen any further at this stage.  The camo blank looks to be working well too – more of a vietnam era jungle green than a modern camo, but that is fine too.  This came from one of the 1m long blanks I bought in Brisbane – very little waste so far!

More to come as the pen is finished.

Pen Tools

The Stu’s Shed demos are still happening at Carbatec – on the last Saturday of the month.  This month (26th June) will be looking at MagSwitch, including tablesaw safety, and resawing on the bandsaw.  In July, I will be doing some pen turning (31 July).  I definitely do not profess to being a pen turning expert, but what I want to demonstrate is even someone with little turning experience can produce a decent pen.

To aid my production, I will also be demonstrating these two new products in the Carbatec range:

The Blank Drilling Vice and

Blank Drilling Vice

The Pen Press.

Pen Press

The vice in particular is some very nice engineering – simple, clever, holds tightly with a presettable holding pressure.  The  notch works equally as well on square pen blanks as well as round.  It really makes that step very easy – the blank is well held and perfectly upright – something I have long struggled with, eyeballing the blank from one side then the other to get it as upright as possible.  No longer.

And repeatable – blank after blank without struggle.  I had tried a different pen vice in the past, and it is chalk and cheese the difference between them.  This one is excellent.

I’ll reserve my opinion of the pen press.  It looks like it will do the job, and is significantly more convenient than having to set up a SuperJaws which is how I’ve done it in the past.  But until I actually use it, I cannot say if it is living up to expectations.

PS Tools Mini Lathe

The PS Tools Variable Speed Mini Lathe, from Pop’s Shed doesn’t make for too bad a starting point for a new turner, both with the convenience of variable speed, as well as the accessories that Pop’s Shed bundle with it.  The price is $695 (including around $100 worth of chisels, a $75 keyless Jacob’s Chuck, and about $125 worth of mini lathe chuck) which brings the lathe itself down to around $400 in value.  The Jet VS is around $675 without accessories fwiw, and doesn’t include the speed readout.

With Pen Blank, Ready for Turning

The lathe uses the standard #2 morse taper for mounting tools, which makes it easy to upgrade or add other live centres, drive spurs, drill chucks etc and has a threaded section on the drive shaft for various jaw chucks.   The head speed indicator was a particularly interesting inclusion, something that isn’t on the VS Jet, and although not essential, as Nova Lathe users will probably testify it is useful getting accurate speed readings, at least in some circumstances.  I certainly liked being able to dial-in a specific speed, and found myself wishing I had a variable speed unit on my Jet lathe.

Mini Chuck

The mini-chuck is a smaller version of a standard self-centering chuck, and it comes with 4 different jaw sets, as well as a mounting plate (used by screwing directly to the timber for odd shapes etc that cannot be otherwise mounted on the lathe).

Mini Chuck Accessories

If compared to a full-sized chuck (such as the Nova G3) and the equivalent jaw sets, it is quite a saving although with considerable less capacity.  However, on a mini-lathe it at least ensures you are not tempted to grossly exceed the lathe’s capabilities.

Keyless Jacobs Chuck

The keyless Jacob’s Chuck was actually rather interesting.  Without getting inside it to see about the quality of the build, it seemed to operate smoothly, and the jaws closed down to pretty much zero clearance (allowing the smallest of drill bits to be mounted).  Drilling on a lathe has a fundamental difference to drilling on the drill press.  Instead of the chuck revolving with the drill bit, it is (rotationally) stationary, and instead the workpiece revolves.  The drill bit is wound into the revolving workpiece via the tail stock thread.

On this lathe (and sadly with a number of threaded tools coming out of China), they don’t seem to be able to make a really smooth operating thread.  I may at some stage see if I can get the tail stock apart and see if the thread can be cleaned up so it operates smoother.  It works as is, but there is working, and then working well.

Speed Sensor Wheel

Inside the headstock there is this toothed wheel next to the belt drives.  The belts still have 3 pulleys, so the variable speed can be set to one of three speed ranges, covering a total speed range of around 600RPm to 3000RPM.  The method for determining speed is the same as old (ie non laser/optical) computer mice, using a light transmitter/receiver shining through a toothed wheel and the rate the light is strobed is used to calculate head speed.

Beginner Tool Set

The chisel set has the more popular chisel types (bowl gouge, roughing gouge, skew, parting tool, scraper, spindle gouge), and will get you started.  As your skills develop, you’ll want to start replacing the chisels you most commonly use with better quality (ie expensive) ones, but having a basic set such as this will at least give you a feel for the different types, and plenty of sharpening practice without doing so on an expensive chisel.  (Given the entire set is worth around $100, and a decent chisel costs about that individually, I’m not being unreasonably harsh).  This set will get you started on the journey (and trust me, wood turning is a slippery slope!)

In checking the lathe itself, I started by turning the fire-pen from Rockler, and it went smoothly until I got down to near the end.  I found the pen was slightly off-centre, but I am putting that down to user error – I hadn’t mounted the pen spindle as central as I needed to, because when I checked the alignment of the head and tail stock, I couldn’t see any problem there.

Head Stock / Tail Stock alignment

Checking how the head drive spur and live centre in the tail stock line up is one of the fundamental checks if a lathe is made properly, and the PS Tools lathe had no issues there, as you can see from the above-photo.

I’ve had some off-line comments sent through about another brand that looked very similar to this lathe, and I will keep an eye on those pickup points, but at this stage I haven’t experienced any of the problems mentioned, and it may just be a case of similar models/brands, but not the same.

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