Creating High Gloss Finishes
on Plastic and Stabilised Pens

High Gloss Finishes Overview: One of the more enduring quests by pen turners is the pursuit of high lustre finishes on their pens. We all want a finish that offers exceptional durability and visual clarity, with a deep wet look. Although this is a tall order for any finish to deliver, careful selection of the pen blank material and advanced abrasive and finishing protocols can create a near perfect pen finish. Plastic and stabilised wooden blanks offer and excellent option for pen turners seeking to create durable high gloss finishes on their pens.

Basic Challenges of High Gloss Finishes

Pens finished with high
gloss finishing protocol

One of the most challenging aspects of creating a durable, glossy pen finish is the typical environment pens are subjected to when in use. In and out of pockets and purses, desk drawers and other potentially abrasive environments, coupled with the natural oils and sweat from our hands, makes it tough for many finishes to provide a lasting finish.

In addition, some hardwoods are considerably less dense than others are, which may allow pens made from softer hardwoods to become easily damaged.

Dense native woods and most exotics are a better choice in many cases for a highly durable pen barrel. However, softer hardwoods can be used with equal success, if the raw blank has first been stabilised with thin acrylics, or epoxies. These so called "stabilised" pen blanks are a superb choice for wooden pens, offering greater hardness and durability of the barrel surface vs. using non-stabilised (natural) timbers.

High Gloss Finishes on Alternative Material Pen Blanks

Alternative materials like plastics, acrylics, stabilised exotic and native woods, horn, antler, fossilised Ivory, cast acrylics and similar materials can easily produce high gloss finishes when used for pen barrels. Some materials, both natural and manmade can be polished to a higher lustre than others can. For example, plastics can be easily polished to 12000-grit, producing a visually wet look in the barrel surface.

However, natural timbers do not produce the same degree of lustre, even when taken to the same level on the bare wood surface. Stabilised pen blanks produce a higher lustre than the same timber without any stabilization. The reason for this is that the acrylics, or epoxies used in the stabilization process, take a higher polish than the raw wood, thus creating an overall higher visual lustre.

Advanced Abrasive and Finishing Protocols

In addition to the careful selection of the barrel material, the application of advanced abrasive and finishing protocols can go a long way toward providing durable and glossy pen finishes. If you want a truly glossy lustre on your pen barrels, you have to prepare the surface properly before application of any finish. Proper surface preparation, including sanding and polishing of the barrel surface prior to applying the desired finish will allow the chosen finish to magnify a visually perfected lustrous surface, resulting in a much higher perceived gloss level on the barrel surface.

High performance abrasives are available that will produce a 12000-grit surface. At this ultra high level, the human eye cannot see the surface scratch pattern, resulting in an exceptionally high gloss level on the surface. Careful selection of the finish can also affect the overall lustre and longevity of the finish. Some finishes are naturally more durable than others are.

Waxes are among the easiest of finishes to apply, but may not last long in normal use. Shellac friction finishes offer better overall durability than waxes. Lacquers offer still greater durability, as do Cyanoacrylate Esters (CA or Super Glue) and binary Epoxies. Some of these high gloss finishes are challenging to apply, but produce an extremely durable finish for your efforts.

High Gloss Finishes for Plastic Pen Blanks - Basic Protocol

If possible, use sterate coated abrasives, or wet-dry abrasives to prevent loading of the abrasive surface. To obtain the highest lustre and clarity of the plastic barrel surface, you have two options:

* Sand with traditional or wet-dry abrasives to 1200-grit. Then, buff the barrel surface with a plastic polishing compound like Craftics 20/20, or HUT Ultra Gloss on the lathe. A cloth buffing wheel loaded with a fine plastic polishing compound can also be used to raise the lustre to the desired level.

* Sand with a special abrasive system called Micro Mesh, which is a fabric-backed abrasive that can be used either wet or dry and is available in nine grits from 1500 to 12000. The visual surface when polished to 12000-grit is nothing short of spectacular, making the plastic look so glossy that it appears wet.

One additional advantage of using plastics for your barrels is that the plastic surface can be polished to a high luster, without the need for any surface finish. Since there is no surface finish on the pen barrel, nothing can wear off with time, as you would find with a traditionally finished wooden pen. A high quality conservation grade microcrystalline wax like Renaissance should be applied to provide extra protection for the glossy barrel surface. Microwaxes offer excellent resistance to moisture, acids, alcohols, and moderate heat and will not show fingerprints on the high gloss surface.

High Gloss Finishes for Stabilised Wood Blanks Basic Protocol

If you prefer to use wood for your barrels, choose a stabilised pen blank if possible for the greatest durability and luster of the surface. To produce a high luster on a stabilised pen blank, follow these steps:

* Sand the barrels to 600-grit metric. Apply a Lacquer sanding sealer to the surface and friction dry. Remove any dust and apply a cutting wax like EEE Ultra Shine to the surface, whilst spinning on the lathe at high revs, Move slowly back and forth to allow the compound to polish the barrels surface.

* Reapply the EEE Ultra Shine until the desired gloss level is achieved. Remove any excess with a small piece of kitchen paper and buff to a brilliant shine.

* Apply the desired finish next. (Listed in order of overall durability) Friction Shellacs, Lacquers, Cyanoacrylate Esters and binary Epoxies can be used for the finish. Depending on the specific finish used, a final buffing, or deluxing of the surface with a cutting wax may be required to raise the luster to the desired level.

* Apply a conservation grade microcrystalline wax to the surface with the lathe off and lightly buff to a gloss with revs set to high with a small piece of clean kitchen paper.

Need More Help? If you would like additional instruction on how to achieve high gloss finishes, 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 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.