Keep on Turnin’

Once again in the shed late at night, feeling productive and not wanting to make an excess of noise, so another couple of pens got churned out.

Top one is a Sierra with a brown acrylic blank, lower one an Elegant Beauty with a new purple acrylic I found in Carbatec.

Don’t forget, this Saturday is the last of the month, so it is Demo day at Carbatec, Melbourne, and I will be demonstrating how easy pen turning is, even if you are a beginner.  I am certainly not an expert turner, so don’t expect some amazing technique with a skew or something – it will be basic, yet comprehensive, and if you have never made one before you may go away from the demo wanting to give it a try for yourself.

Warning: Pen Turning is an Addictive Hobby

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!

Great Pens of Fire!

A few months ago, Rockler released a new set of laser-cut pen blank kits which I mentioned here.  I was fortunate to be able to get hold of one, and I’ve been waiting for a chance to actually try the kit out.  There are lots of small parts, and plenty of assembly required before turning begins (and it is not a job to rush).

The Kit

The kit itself looks exciting (and looking at the components, you can see why you might be a bit nervous to start).  The smoke pieces are like fully burn matches (and you feel might be as weak as a burnt match).  The components are very clever – the black pieces are a full ring (as with the flame), but they are cut so they can be assembled.  A couple would not fit, and I finally determined that they hadn’t been cut apart (I could see where they should be separated), and it took only a little coaxing with a blade to separate the pieces.

Burning Detail

Amazing detail – a stunning component.

Completing the Jigsaw

I took my time, and got the pieces together, and was worried about the gaps, but trusted to the design so carried on to see what the result would be.  The pen was then secured with rubber bands, then flooded with superglue along each crack, allowing it to wick right into the joints.  You don’t bother trying to keep the superglue off the rubber bands – they will get cut away when turning begins.

Glued, Ready for Turning

I sanded the ends down to the length of the brass after this (staged) photo, then sharpened the chisel I planned on using, even to the extent of touching up the cutting edge with diamond stones.  This blank is a one-off – there is no second chance if there is a catch because of blunt tools.  I took the turning very slow (the lathe was running around 2200RPM, but I was very slow and careful with how much material was removed at any time.)  As material was carved away, I would stop and check if there were any gaps that needed filling, and used CA (with accelerator) where some appeared.  This was because at some points the CA hadn’t fully penetrated at the glueup, so stabilising it as I went worked very well.

I started using the PS Tools lathe, but found as I got close I wasn’t sure if it was the lathe that wasn’t set up fully, or that I hadn’t placed the mandrel properly.  Checking the alignment of head and tail stock showed very good alignment, so it was more likely me.  However, this blank was too important, so changed over to my other lathe that I knew was set up and ready.  If it was any other pen etc, I’m sure with cleaning any dust off the morse taper and sticking with the PS Tools lathe would have worked well.  I really liked the variable speed aspect of the lathe, and really, while turning I was quite happy with the lathe.  I’ll give it another go with a less important project, and fully expect it to come through well.

After turning, I finished off with some various grit chisels – from 180 right through to 1500.  I normally don’t go that far, but again, a special pen demands extra attention.  Still, I kept focus on not allowing the pen to overheat during sanding.  An exploding pen at this point would be disaster.  Following the sanding came the finishing, and I stuck with what has been working well for me – CA finish.  20 layers of CA, polished to a superb, and durable gloss.

I have taken to running a razor around at the edge of the pen – between the pen and the bush to aid separation.  Once I remove the bush, I immediately lightly sand the ends to remove any overhanging CA.  I’ve had it happen in the past that the slightest overhang causes a fracture of the surface of the finish.

The Stunning Result

I went with a gunmetal finish Sierra – seemed fitting. I am very pleased with the final product, it took easily three times as much work to get it done, but it was a pleasure to do.  I spent a long time wondering how it would go, and it was a real relief how it did work out.  The dark pieces were not as fragile as they looked, and the gaps I was worried about vanished during the turning and finishing.  And interestingly, the black….isn’t.  It has beautiful wood grain, again that I wasn’t expecting.  It is an incredible blank, and I imagine the other designs are the same.


So there you have it.  If you are looking for a pen significantly above and beyond the typical, then one of the laser cut designs from Rockler definitely fit the bill. Amazing.

Addicted to Pens

At the Melbourne Wood Show I bought a couple of specialised pen blanks from Addictive Pens: an electronic one (with a circuit board) and a prairie rattlesnake skin. Both were encased in transparent acrylic, ready for turning and after a day of feeling under the weather yesterday, I finally felt up to achieving something around 10pm last night.

I started with a more traditional turning – acrylic is notoriously fussy, and as I don’t turn that often I need to practice a little to get the feel. I did one pen using an unusual timber – avocado, from Lazy Larry. It went really well (and looked rather good, including the CA finish) until I had a brain lapse during assembly. Oh well – at least I had the practice!

Next, I turned up a couple of purple heart sierras, before deciding to tackle the acrylic ones.

Acrylic can be rather tempermental, prone to chipping if approached too aggressively, and can easily overheat, again damaging the surface.

Example of acrylic blanks

On the other hand, acrylics can produce some pretty spectacular pens, especially with items embedded in it, as with the two I worked on here.

When approached with a bit of finess, you can get ribbons of acrylic peeling off the blank. Even so, I stopped each pass to clear it away- when thin it would be easy to cause them to melt and attempt to weld back to the blank. Also, they are rather hard to see the work through!

Pen Stand

This is the acrylic pen stand I picked up at the Melb Wood Show, getting loaded up with a reasonable collection.

From left to right, there is a slimline pencil and pen, both in Osage Orange, an Elegant Beauty (EB) with an unknown timber, then a Sierra Camphor, a couple of Sierra purplehearts, and the acrylics.

New Pens

Closeup of Circuitboard Pen

I really like the circuit board, but I guess it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Same with the snakeskin (which I think makes this pen illegal in NZ)

Turning Pens

In the past I’ve only ever used slimline pen kits for turning pens (and pencils), but I’ve been planning on trying some different styles.  I bought some at the Melbourne Wood Show last year, and again at the open day over the weekend I picked up another couple to try.

Unusually for me, I didn’t wait very long before giving them a go.  I was going to make a video at the same time, but I’m not thrilled with the result so will reshoot it (and that is an excuse to get another) 😉  I did catch some photos, so can step through the process.

Pen Mandrel

Pen Mandrel

This is my current pen mandrel.  It does the job, and has a #2 morse taper to fit the lathe, but I’m now planning on replacing / upgrading it to one with a chuck that allows the length of shaft to be changed to suit the pen type.  This current mandrel requires me to use various spacers depending on the pen being made.

Pen Blanks

Pen Blanks

The lower pen blank is actually resin, and is the one used for the pen that you’ll see at the end of the article. The other blank I used was a piece of red malee burl from “Brad’s Burls”.

Pen Kit

Pen Kit

This is one of the new (for me) pen kits I was giving a try.  It is an “Elegant Beauty” with a Rhodium / Black Titanium finish. As you can see from the price, it certainly isn’t the cheapest type of pen kit out there!

Turning the blank

Turning the blank

After boring a hole and gluing in the brass core, the blank is turned on the lathe, supported by the pen mandrel.  A pen mill was used beforehand to sqaure up the ends, and get the length precise.

Rather than the original live centre on the lathe which was too sharp and had the wrong angle of cone, I found this one (at the right of the mandrel in the photo), which is still accurately centred, but is blunt with a rounded end and as such is perfect for fitting into the end of the pen mandrel, supporting it.

Once the blank is turned, sanded and finished, I assemble using the JawHorse to squeeze then components together.

Red Malee Burl Elegant Beauty Pen

Red Malee Burl Elegant Beauty Pen

The other that I made at the same time is a Sierra Black Titanium pen with a black and orange/yellow/gold resin.  I made it for my wife who is a huge (AFL) Tigers fan.

Sierra Black Titanium Black and Gold Pen

Sierra Black Titanium Black and Gold Pen

I will revisit the video on making a pen, although I will make very clear now – I am by no means a good turner – I manage to get things round, but my techniques are nothing to write home about! However, if it inspires you to try to make a pen of your own, then objective achieved! And you don’t actually need a lathe (although it makes life a damned sight easier).  Many a pen has been turned by mounting the pen mandrel in a drill press and turning the pen vertically – using sharpened screwdrivers as chisels. However, there are plenty of cheap lathes out there, so there really isn’t a good excuse not to try.

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