Turning Alternative Material Pens


Turning handmade writing pens, and specifically alternative material pens, continues to be one of the most popular areas of interest in woodturning. This article will focus on alternative materials using the new plastic bodied pens and stabilised wood pens. Component selection, blank preparation, turning the body, finishing and assembly will also be covered.4-

Plastic bodied writing pens.

Alternative Material Pen Turning: Quick Tips

  • Use plastic bodied, or stabilised pen blanks for best results on pens that will see heavy usage. Plastic and stabilised pen blanks require no additional finish if desired, and can be polished to a high lustre with buffing compounds.
  • Because your finished pens will be quite small, use highly figured timbers and burrs (burls) with tight well-defined figure for the best overall visual effect, if you prefer traditional wood bodied pen barrels.
  • Dense hardwoods are more durable in use than softer species. For maximum durability, choose blanks that have been stabilised with an acrylic, or epoxy resin.
  • Pens may be subjected to significant handling and wear during use. Choose high quality finishes and components that are wear resistant and are capable of withstanding daily usage.
  • Consider using a museum grade microcrystalline wax as a topcoat over your chosen pen finish. Micro-waxes provide extra protection and will not show fingerprints.

Basic Procedures for Turning the Body
on Alternative Material Pens

  • Place the upper and lower tube from your pen kit on top of the pen blank and mark the area in between the tubes for cutting. Place a registration line over the cut line to assist with realignment of the blanks on the mandrel once the blank has been cut.
  • Cut the blank in half on the drawn line, allowing approximately 1/16" additional space on each end of the tube. This excess will be trimmed with a pen mill later in the preparation.
  • Place the upper cut blank in a drill press vice and drill the necessary hole to accept the pen tube. Repeat for the lower blank. As you are drilling, pulse the drill bit in and out occasionally to clear the flutes on the drill and reduce the heat generated during drilling.
  • Scuff the outside of the pen tubes with 240-grit abrasive to prepare the surface for gluing.
  • Apply your choice of adhesive (CA, Polyurethane, Epoxy, etc) to the outside of the tube and as the tube is inserted into the blank, spin and pump the tube a few times to evenly distribute the adhesive onto the tube. It’s important to have an even coating on the tube.

Using a pen mill to square the end of the tube with the pen blank.

  • Once the adhesive has cured, insert a pen mill with the correct sized insert into the ends of the tubes and mill the ends until a uniformly bright brass tube end is exposed. Do not over mill!
  • Once all four ends are properly milled, they’re ready to mount on the pen mandrel for turning.

  • Refer to your pen kit instructions and load the pen blanks and bushings onto the mandrel in the correct order. Apply light tension to the tailstock ram (Just enough pressure to rotate your 60 degree live centre) and the mandrel thumb bolt to secure the pen and bushings.
  • If you are a new pen turner, set your lathe revs to approximately 2,000 rpm.
  • Using a 1/4" spindle gouge, gently round over the blanks moving from the headstock towards the tailstock. Use light cuts here for best results.
  • Once the blanks have been rounded over, you are ready to begin turning the pen body.

Turning the Pen Body and Finishing
Your Alternative Material Pens

  • Using the bushings as a guide, turn and shape the exterior barrels to the bushing diameters.
  • Once the barrels are turned, drop the lathe speed to 1,500 rpm and begin sanding with 240-grit abrasive paper, continuing on through 600-grit. When you have completed 600-grit, use your Micro Mesh abrasives, starting at 1,500-grit and progress through 12,000-grit for plastic bodied pens, if you desire an ultra-high gloss lustre.
  • Apply a light coating of microcrystalline wax on the upper and lower barrels and lightly buff at high speed to develop a brilliant lustre.
  • Remove the barrels and assemble according to the kit instructions. Enjoy using your and writing with your alternative material pens!

  • Sharpening Tip: Micro turning tools have very little mass and will grind away very quickly, even on slow speed grinders. To combat this, turn the grinder on, once it has reached full speed, turn it off and begin grinding your tool as the wheel begins slowing down.

Henry Taylor micro turning tools.

  • Sanding Tip#1: Sanding the pen barrels may cause wear on the pen bushings. Even if you are very careful, you may accidentally touch the bushings. To prevent wear on your best set of bushings, use an older set that is no longer accurate during sanding. Simply remove the best set and replace them with the older set before you begin sanding. This will insure that your best set of bushings will remain accurate for as long as possible.

Micro Mesh cloth-backed abrasive in various grits.

  • Sanding Tip #2: To obtain the highest lustre and clarity of the finished surface on alternative material pens, you have two options: 1) Sand with traditional, or wet-dry abrasives to 1,200-grit, or higher. Then, buff the surface with a plastic polishing compound on the lathe, or a buffing wheel loaded with a polishing compound. 2) Sand with a special abrasive product like Micro Mesh, which can be used either wet, or dry and is available in nine grits from 1,500 to 12,000. Micro Mesh will produce an optical quality finish on the surface of plastic bodied pen barrels very quickly and easily. The results, at 12,000-grit are nothing short of spectacular!

Need More Help? If you would like additional instruction on how to turn alternative material pens, check out our 70 minute step-by-step video on turning elegant writing pens.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also a regular featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his monthly articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in each issue.

If you have any questions about turning alternative material pens, please feel free to email Steve at Woodturning Videos Plus