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

Starting out on a lathe

This is a comment I made on the Australian Woodworking BB in reference to giving turning a try- thought it would be good recording it here as well.

You can still do some pretty acceptable work on a $99 GMC lathe. May not be the highest quality lathe, but for the occasional turning job for toymaking, it may be all that you need, and isn’t a large outlay.

If you find that the bug then really grabs, no real loss if you upgrade.

Grab a (small) lump of wood, jamb it on the lathe, grab a chisel and give it a try. (The U shaped one ) 5 minutes (literally), and you’ll start to see how it can aid your toy making ventures. Do a little more practice each time – even if it is just turning a block to round.

You will discover what not to do very quickly, but also find that there is success pretty quickly as well. (Then years to master it, but the rest of us can still get something useful out of it, even without really knowing what we are doing).

Borrow some books from the library, perhaps a DVD or two.

In the end, like all our tools – you don’t learn by having it sit in the corner gathering dust.

Triton Wet and Dry Sharpener Revisited

As mentioned, I had an opportunity to try out a few Tormek jigs on the Triton Sharpener the other night, and was very impressed.

First things first – one point-of-view is that it is the Tormek jigs making the Triton look good and I have no problem with that.  Whether you’ve forked out a couple hundred for the Triton, or a grand or so for the Tormek, in either case, you still need the jigs.  I hope Triton do bring out some other jigs, at a much lower price point than the current available (non Triton) jigs, but if they do, they need to retain the quality and accuracy of these jigs.

So onto my experiences.

I started by testing how accurate the Triton Sharpener was.  I did this with a Wixey Digital Angle Gauge.

Now this may or may not sound like spin, but I have only just received my Wixey Gauge, provided by Professional Woodworkers Supplies.  They have also provided some other tools that will be seen in the near future in a podcast near you, but in the meantime, I had this gauge and it occurred to me that it would be the absolute perfect tool to test the accuracy of my Sharpener.  What I have been concerned with, and wanted to test, was how accurate (ie parallel) the support arm (that carries the jigs) is to the body of the Sharpener, and specifically the shaft that carries the grinding wheel.

I wasn’t expecting much.  Boy, was I surprised.  After zeroing the gauge off the tool, I tested the support arm. 0.1 degrees deviation.  I can SO live with that!!  So not only am I pleased with the accuracy of the Triton Sharpener, this Wixey Digital Angle Gauge has already proved its value – I really don’t know how I would have otherwise have done this test this easily (it took seconds literally).  I am definitely looking forward to finding out other applications for this, and a few are coming to mind as I type.  Setting the table on the bandsaw and drillpress to specific angles (zeroing off the blade, or bit as applicable, then placing it on the table to set the angle.)  Also, if setting an angle on the jointer/planer fence, this will make life very easy.  Even proving the in and outfeed tables are coplanar, etc etc etc.  This tool is going to become invaluable in my shop, and that is no spin intended!

Anyway, back to the Sharpener.  Happy that the support arm was accurate, I then took the Tormek diamond dresser, and dressed the grinding wheel, so that the surface of the wheel was parallel with the support arm.  The wheel is quite soft, so this wasn’t too difficult.  I can see the benefit of the new Tormek dresser, where you actually wind the dresser across the surface, so can be done in a very even, smooth pass, but in this case I was using the manual version.

To actually try out the unit, I decided to do one of my spindle gouges (a lathe chisel in basic terms).  It had been badly abused by me not being able to sharpen properly in the past on a standard grinder, and was not symmetrical, and had almost become a fingernail gouge.  Set it up in the Tormek gouge jig, and off I went.  Took about 10 minutes or so till I finally had a tool that was back to being sharp, and the right shape.  Because of the jig, I was assured an accurate result, and because of the slow, watercooled wheel, there was no burning of the steel, and I didn’t remove any more steel than was necessary.  Sure, ‘real’ woodturners would (rightfully) scoff at all this, but I haven’t the time to gain the experience to do this the quick and nasty way, as my previous efforts had proven.  Now it is back to being the right shape, it will be much, much easier to maintain.

I then turned to the buffing wheel.  In no time at all, I had a mirror finish that this tool has never seen.  It almost looked wrong – turning tools are not meant to be mirror sharp!  I haven’t had a chance to actually try it out, but I am sure looking forward to getting my other planes and chisels to the same point (sic).

So in summary, with the right jig, and a dressed wheel, the Triton Sharpener can definitely deliver the goods.  If I wasn’t impressed before (I knew it had potential, but didn’t have the confidence in the accuracy until I tested it with the Wixey) I certainly am now.

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