Pen Turning

pens can be as simple or complex as you wish to make it.  Me, I prefer relatively simple.  

The example in this demonstration requires basic skills and well sharpened tools.

The raw stock for producing pens is known as a pen blank.  There are many materials to choose from.  
Me, I prefer cheap or free when I can get it.

Pen Blank

These pen blanks were cut from the same stock for the green wood salad bowls.  

The blanks were dried in a microwave using  the Defrost cycle.

Pay attention to what is going on as I don't think a spouse would be particularly thrilled to
see a a rotating platter of sticks on fire in her kitchen microwave..

Remove the pen blanks and let them cool off.  Repeat the process until they appear dry.
I usually use touch as a determination.  Set them aside for a couple days to stabilize moisture content.

Some folks use a gram scale to measure the moisture content after microwaving.  
I don't bother with that because I think they still need to stabilize for a few days.

Pen blanks are generally cut with the grain.  These are not.  

Cross - grain turning is not usually recommended because the blank has a tendency to shatter and it is rough on tools.  

Pens produced this way are certainly unique in appearance.  

I always use glasses and face shield when doing this type of turning.  Ensure your tools are well sharpened.

The material in thepen  blank is usually the same type and density. These are not.

The white color  at the ends of the blanks is the cambium layer just under the bark.  

This is  generally pretty soft.

The center of the pen blank is much harder than the cambium layer.  

This means that care is going to have to be used when turning and sanding so the outer,
softer parts of the blank are turned at the same rate as the harder material on the inside.

Measuring for the Cut

Cut the pen blank into two pieces .

The length should be about 1/8" longer than the brass tubes.  

Leave a little extra when dealing with wood you have no experience with.  

Drilling Blanks

The blanks are then drilled.

Gluing Tubes  

Take some sand paper and rough up the brass tubes.  
Apply  CA glue to the tubes and insert into the blanks, twisting the tubes to get good glue coverage.

Save the caps from the CA glue bottles.  
These are useful for holding the brass tubes and keeping glue off your fingers.

Pen Mill

A pen mill is then used to mill the wood down to the brass tube.  
It ensures the ends are flat and perpendicular to the blank.  
I am only using the lathe to hold the mill and am turning it by hand.  
I know the cadmium is soft so I use a little extra caution.

Gluing the ends

Stop milling when you see new brass.  
I apply a few drops of thin ca glue to the wood surrounding the tube.
It seems to help prevent tear out and also helps ensure the blank is glued to the brass.

On the Lathe

Pen blanks mounted on a mandrel which is then attached to the  lathe.  
They are separated by bushings.
The blanks are tensioned using the knurled brass nut pictured on the right side.
Hand Tight is usually sufficient.  
Over-tightening will cause the  mandrel to bend.

Turning Slow Speed

Turning speed is slow while getting the pen blanks round.  
Use light pressure and patience during this step, bearing in mind that cutting is cross-grain.

Sizing Blanks

So far so good. No explosions or other major problems.  
I generally turn the both pen blanks using the same general pattern before making
a determination as to which end will be the pen top and bottom.  

Measuring for Fit

I use a caliper to determine the proper thickness.  
My track record in doing this by site alone is not good.


The pen blanks are turned down to match the diameter of the bushings separating them.  
It seems that when turning cross-grain, the closer you are to the end result, the more likely the
wood is to explode.

So, I chickened out because turning  is going so well. I am going to sand the rest of the way down.  

Because some of the wood is soft, I use a sanding block to sand with.
The block in this case is another blank.  
This way I have less chance of taking too much off the ends.  

I start with 150 grit and will finish with 600 grit.
 I usually stop at 400 grit but cross-cut wood can really shine if you take that extra step.

Checking Fit

Ever walked down a set of stairs and always seem to catch your heel on one step?  
This is because the carpenter got it wrong and one step is at least 1/4" different in height  from the others.  
Your foot can detect the difference.

That is meant to be sort of analogous to the difference between the diameter of the wood versus
the diameter of the the pen pieces.

You will feel a catch if there is a difference, even if it is very slight.

I remove the pen blanks from the lathe and check the actual fit before the final finish using a special tool.

Pen pieces are press - fit and it is tough to disassemble a pen once the parts are pressed in place.

I took a spare nib and filed down the part that inserts into the brass tube.
It easily inserts into the pen blank to perform a final check.

If I feel a catch, I can return it to the lathe and take a little more off. 

It is an extra step, but I think it is worth it.

Checking Fit

Both sides check out fine.

I put the pen parts back on the lathe without the bushings as a final step
and use  600 grit sand paper to smooth the edges off a little.


There are all kinds of different ways to finish pens. 

I've probably been through most of them and most do not hold up to the Purse Test.

Purse Test

1.  Ask a female who has a purse to carry and use one of your finished pens for a couple months.

2.  Remove from purse and examine finish.

Odds are the finish doesn't look too good.

My personal finishing solution:

1.  Apply EEE-Ultrashine using the directions on the jar.

This is a friction polish that is something similar to some lapidary compounds in that there is a grit in the finish.

Use a lot of friction, getting the wood good and hot so all the wax is removed.  Paper towels work well  as an applicator.

2.  Apply a small amount of Ultrashine to a paper towel and spread it out a little.

Add a couple drops of CA glue to the center of the Ultrashine on the towel.

The CA glue will pool on top of the wax.

Note: I tried taking a couple pictures of this but the end result ended up looking like something rather, well - unsanitary.

3.  Start the lathe and apply the CA glue and Ultrashine to the wood.

Slowly rub it in using normal pressure.

4.  Clean off the excess and use finger pressure to get the wood good and hot again.

5.  Repeat steps 2, 3 and 4.

The end result is a very nice looking hard finish.

It does not look glassy or plasticy like some of the other CA finishing techniques.

It is very durable and actually passes the Purse Test.

Finished Polishing

The finished pen blanks can now be removed from the lathe.

Pen Parts

The last thing I do with the to finish the pen barrels is to use the pen mill and give each end a couple
light twists, removing any glue or was buildup.

I then use the chamfering tool pictured (upper right) on each end to make the press-fits easier.

Pressing Bottom

The bottom portion of the pen  is pressed together using a pen press.

Pen Top

So is the  top.


The finished pen  looks pretty nice for a product from the urban jungle.

There are three reasons I  generally use this particular profile.

1.  I like it

2.  Purse Test  feedback reveals this design works very well because the pen stays in check book
 holders where the normally profiled pen slips out and ends up getting bounced around..

3.  The design seems to enhance natural characteristics of wood by refracting light differently.  
With cross or diagonally cut woods, the effect can be very eye catching.

That's all there is to it.

Unless you wish to turn a pencil and make a matched set.....


This set was for Gene, a friend from work whose last day is coming up soon.