Tips for Working
With Deer Antler

When choosing deer antler for writing pens,
look for tines that are as straight as possible

Overview: One of the more enjoyable things about being a turner, is that we get to work with lots of different types of alternative materials (alternative materials are any material other than wood) like plastics, bone, metal, composites, soft stones, horn and antler to name a few. Turning unusual materials allows you to hone your overall turning skills, as you master the unique properties that each material presents.

One of the very first alternative materials I ever turned in my studio was Whitetail Deer Antler. A close friend of mine gave me a few antler sheds just after I opened my studio. I began using the straighter parts of these deer antlers for pens, and the larger sections for letter opener and magnifying glass handles. Antler is a very provocative material to work with and much like wood, each blank presents it's own unique set of challenges and rewards.

Through the years, I've turned many different types of antlers including Deer, Moose and Elk. My favorite Deer antler comes from Utah and Colorado. The Deer grow much larger out west than those in Texas, so the antlers are larger and offer more artistic possibilities. If you've never turned deer antler before, I encourage you to give it a go. When finished, deer antler can look like polished Marble (the harder material near the surface of the antler), or Granite (the softer material near the center of the antler). Here are a few tips to help you get started working with this unique alternative material.

General Tips For Working With Deer Antler

  • Wear a good respirator when turning antler. It can have a strong smell at times. Most of the pieces I've turned have not been that bad, but I use a respirator with an organic filter cartridge anyway.
  • Do not use fresh deer antler for your turnings. I like to let my antler dry in the studio for a year before using it. If the antler you obtain has been outside for a long time exposed to the weather, it will become brittle and difficult to use. Antler stored inside and away from direct sunlight will last for many years.
  • You also want to make sure that you're wearing a good respirator when sanding deer antler. The dust can be very irritating if inhaled. I've looked at some of the antler shavings under magnification and they have barbed edges. You do not want to be breathing antler dust! Just like wood dust, we should not be breathing any dust from any material when sanding in our studio.

Note: A high quality respirator, with an organic filter cartridge can be purchased for around $50.00 USD at most major home centers or any large paint store.

Pen Blank Preparation Tips For Deer Antler

  • If you will be making pens with your antlers, try to use the harder and denser material near the points. If you're picking your own antler material, look for antlers that are as straight as possible. Slightly curved sections are ok, but radically curved pieces will make it hard to get a section long enough for your pen blank. Straighter sections will also make drilling the holes for your pen tubes easier.
  • Many turners prefer to use a skew when turning antler. This is a good overall choice, but I prefer to use a 1/4" Henry Taylor micro spindle gouge to turn my antler pens, using an Irish grind on the profile. For fine detail areas, I switch to a 3/16" micro spindle gouge, also with an Irish grind on the profile. These tools produce a very fine shaving and eliminate much of the sanding that is required before finishing. In addition to these micro tools, I like to use a 1/16" Stott super thin parting tool for making tennons for center bands, or channels for inlays.
  • It can be a challenge to drill a slightly curved section of antler accurately for your pen tube. An easy way to simplify the drilling of the antler is to mount each section of the pen tube between centers and slightly round over the blank to remove some of the curved areas. This will allow you to insert the rounded over antler in your drill press vice, or clamp for easier drilling.
  • Another way to prepare your antler for drilling is to use a belt sander to sand a small flat on one side of the antler. This allows you to achieve a better grip on the blank when clamping it in a vise for drilling vs. trying to clamp a curved antler. You can also sand two flats on opposing sides of the antler for a better grip when drilling.
  • When gluing in your pen tubes, do not use cyanocrylate ester (CA Glue) adhesives. CA adhesives do not expand during the cure cycle and since the center of the antler is pithy, you want to use a good gap-filling adhesive like Polyurethane glue. Polyurethane adhesive expands about 400% during the cure cycle, and provides and excellent bond between the antler and the brass tube.
  • You can also use a binary (2-part) epoxy to glue in your brass tubes with very good results. If you opt for epoxy, use the slow curing variety and make sure you pump the tube up and down a few times, (while spinning it at the same time) to insure a good coating of the epoxy inside the drilled hole.

Pen Turning Tips

  • Antler is somewhat abrasive, so you will need to sharpen your tools frequently for the best results. I typically use a 120 grit wheel for sharpening micro tools if using a dry grinder. If I'm using a wet grinder like a Tormek, I will sharpen the tools with the stone graded to 1000 grit.
  • Antler is usually easy to turn and presents few challenges to most turners. It is however, a challenge in one respect – the outside material is very dense and hard, while the inner portion is softer and pithy. Depending on the profile of your pen, your barrel may incorporate both the hard and softer sections of the antler.
  • If your turning reveals the center pithy area in the antler, you will need to fill it with a thick CA glue to keep a smooth barrel. It may take several applications of CA glue to get every tiny hole filled in this pithy area. This area looks similar to Granite when finished.
  • The larger sections of the antler near the buttons make nice letter opener and magnifying glass handles. Even if this area is curved a bit, you can make some really nice handles for desk accessories.
  • Keep your tools sharp and take very light cuts to obtain the best possible surface off your tool. I typically turn, sand and finish antler at 3,900 RPM and turn it using the same turning protocols as a dense hardwood exotic blank.

Finishing Tips

  • Deer antler sands easily on the lathe, but care should be taken to not overheat it. I prefer to use aluminum oxide abrasives when sanding antler blanks. Antler also responds well to Micro Mesh abrasives and can be taken sanded to 12000-grit very quickly. At 12000-grit, the surface of the antler looks like highly polished stone with an amazing depth and luster.
  • Most finishes can be used on antler including wax, shellac, lacquer, cyanoacrylate, and epoxy. I personally prefer a high gloss luster on my antler turnings, but I have seen some satin finished pieces that look very nice as well. Most of my antler pens feature a lacquer, CA, or epoxy finish with a Renaissance Wax topcoat to eliminate fingerprints on the barrel.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • After you've turned several antler pens, you will have lots of the antler tips left over. These are the small points at the end of each tine that are too small for a pen. These tips can be used for many different projects including small finial tops, natural key rings, or perhaps turned into a custom pen cap.
  • You can also add the tips to larger projects. For example, how about turning a small tenon on one end of the tip and adding them as a single band around the outside rim of a platter? Or perhaps, how about under the bead on a large bowl? You're only limited by your imagination, so go ahead and enjoy your multi-media experiments!

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 the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a 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 articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.