Pen Mandrels:
Maintaining Accuracy

Double mandrel for turning pens and other projects

Maintaining Pen Mandrels Overview: One of the more popular projects for new woodturners to turn is writing pens. There is something uniquely satisfying about turning your own writing pen, so it's no surprise that it's one of the most popular areas of interest in woodturning today. Much like the feeling you get as you settle into the drivers seat of a fine high performance automobile, using a finely crafted writing instrument feeds the soul and fires your imagination.

Even if you don't care for turning writing pens, the mandrels pens are turned on can be used for lots of other types of projects including perfume and aromatherapy pens, key chains, toothpick holders, letter openers and magnifiers, sewing kits and similar projects. One of the keys to successfully turning all of these projects is to make sure your mandrel is accurate when you mount and turn your projects. Improper mounting or storage of the mandrel can cause any mandrel to loose its accuracy. Here are a few tips to insure that your mandrel is not only mounted properly, but stored properly as well.

Pen Mandrels: General Tips

Beall collet chuck with mandrel shaft installed

  • Use the best and most accurate mandrel you can buy. I have had good luck with the Pro Pen mandrels and the Adjustable Pen mandrels that Craft Supplies sells. My favorite mandrel system however, is a Beall Collet Chuck fitted with a standard mandrel shaft. This is the most accurate pen mandrel fixing I have ever used and is the only fixing used on my high-end projects.
  • For production work, I like to use two double mandrels. One is reserved exclusively for pens and the other is used for anything else, ie: perfume pens, key chains, magnifying glass handles etc. The reason for this is I want to limit the usage on the pen mandrel, so it maintains its accuracy longer.
  • Be careful when ordering mandrels from turning suppliers. I have received mandrels that were improperly packed (in the bottom of a box of heavy blanks for example) that arrived hopelessly bent upon arrival. Most of the better suppliers will ship mandrels in PVC tubes to protect them in transit. If your supplier does not do this, find another supplier or demand that your current supplier pack your purchase correctly.

Pen Mandrels: Mounting Tips

#2 Morse Taper cleaner

  • Before you turn a project on your mandrel, always use a Morse taper cleaner to clean the spindle on your lathe. If you do not have one, shoot a blast of compressed air into the spindle to insure there is no loose debris in the taper prior to mounting. Even a single tiny shaving in the taper can cause the mandrel to seat incorrectly, which will create challenges for you when turning your project.
  • When you mount the blank on the mandrel, the amount of torque you use to tighten the brass nut and the amount of tailstock pressure you apply is critical! Most pen mandrels now have a brass nut that you can tighten by hand. This is far superior to the older style of mandrels that required a wrench to secure the blanks on the mandrel. Use just enough pressure so the blank does not spin freely on the shaft when securing the blanks.
  • When you bring up the tailstock, advance it near the end of the mandrel and lock the tailstock into place. For the final adjustment of the 60 degree revolving ball bearing center point, use the hand wheel of the tailstock to advance it the last few millimeters. Only advance the ram until the ball bearing center begins to turn. Also, do not bang the tailstock into the end of the mandrel when you are moving it up, as this can cause the mandrel to bend, or flex.

Note: You must be very careful here... The tailstock ram can easily bend/bow the mandrel if you apply too much force when seating the ram. This will cause you to turn an ellipse instead of a circle and your pen parts will not fit correctly.

Turning Tips

Henry Taylor 1/4" micro spindle gouge
with swept back Texas Irish grind

  • In my studio, I do not "cut the corners" off my pen blanks prior to rounding them over. In a production environment this is not cost effective. Therefore, I must pay particular attention to how I round the blanks over. Your mandrel can become bent or inaccurate from an overly aggressive rounding over technique. This is especially true with the longer double mandrels. For rounding over my pen blanks, I use a 1/4" Henry Taylor Micro Spindle Gouge, with a swept back Texas Irish Grind on the profile. This tool takes very light cuts and does not apply excessive force to the mandrel when turning.
  • This is very important... After you have rounded the blank over, stop your lathe and re-adjust the tension on the brass nut. The rounding over process has a tendency to over tighten the nut when turning. This is especially true when turning larger blanks, like 1" square or larger, or some really hard alternative materials like Antler or some of the man-made composites. Too much tension on this nut can cause the mandrel to bow. After you have rounded the blank over, very little pressure is needed to keep the blank from spinning when completing your project.

Close-up of the swept back Texas Irish grind

When you are finished with the project, be careful how you remove the blanks. If a bit of finish has made its way into the bushing - blank - tube union it may stick a bit upon removal. Take care to remove the blank inline with the mandrel and support the free end of the mandrel if necessary, until the blank is released.

Pen Mandrels: Storage Tips

A short section of PVC pipe can be
used to safely store mandrels

When you've completed your project and you're ready to put the mandrel away, you need to insure that the mandrel is housed in some type of protective cover to prevent damage when it's stored. If you just place the mandrel in your tool chest without any protection, any tool that happens to fall onto it may damage it. There is no way to easily straighten a bent mandrel, so if you damage it you will have to purchase another mandrel shaft.

I use short pieces of PVC tubing to protect all of my single, double and adjustable mandrels. They work very well and are cheap and easy to make. You can also make up wooden boxes for your mandrels, or use short sections of steel tubing, or conduit. Whatever material you choose, the few minutes you spend making up a protective cover for your mandrel will be time well spent.

Pen Mandrels: Final Thoughts

If you follow these tips, you will be producing beautiful, accurate pens and other mandrel projects for a long time. In my production studio, mandrels only last about three years before they loose their accuracy. If you are a hobby turner, you may well get many more years out of a mandrel. However, you must exercise caution when using and storing the mandrel. If you do, you will be rewarded with a pleasant turning experience and beautiful accurate projects for a long time to come.

Note: If you would like more information on how I turn pens in my studio on a double mandrel, check out my DVD video "Turning Elegant Writing Pens." A short preview and full information on my pen turning video are located here.

This video covers all the steps necessary to turn an elegant writing pen. Steps include blank selection and preparation, gluing, drilling, milling, mounting, roughing, finish turning, sanding, multi-step finishing options, assembly and more.

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.