Finishing Pens with Superglue

Finishing Pens with CA Superglue
Alan Currans has written this tutorial on Finishing Pens with Superglue (CA).

If you search the web for information on finishing pens with superglue (CA) you will find numerous articles and videos. To my mind the definitive explanation of this technique can be found on an Australian website ( run by a chap called David Lim.  There is also a series of nine short videos in which he covers every stage of making a pen from preparing the blanks for drilling right through to the final step of assembling the pen. I learnt how to make pens to a decent standard by studying these videos, and this article is basically a crib (with David’s full permission I hasten to add!) of his technique for applying CA glue as a finish on pens or other small items.


The starting point for the purpose of this article is a blank which has been turned down to its final size using your weapons of choice (mine are a ½ inch roughing gouge followed by a ¾ inch square-ended scraper). The first step is obviously sanding prior to the application of the CA finish. As with all woodturning, good preparation is vital as no finish will disguise or improve an inferior substrate. I start with either 180 or 240 grit depending on the timber, and work my way up through 320, 400 and 600 grit. It is important to stop the lathe and sand along the grain on every other grit to get rid of any circumferential marks caused by sanding with the lathe running. I then burnish the blank with some 1500 grit Webrax (the grey stuff that looks like a scouring pad) and then with some shavings to give the timber a slight sheen.


You now need to make up some pads out of kitchen towel with which to apply the superglue. To do this you need to tear off two pieces of plain white kitchen towel keeping the two sheets together. Fold in half along the perforations, fold in half again parallel to the perforations, and finally in half again in the same direction. Repeat this exercise again with a further two more sheets. Put your two folded kitchen towels one above the other and cut into lengths of about 1½ inches (35mm). Depending on how wide your kitchen towel was you will end up with either five or six cuts producing pads of eight layers of kitchen towel which should be enough to keep you and the superglue safely apart. Take ten of the pads and lay them out on a piece of ply or MDF on the bed of the lathe beneath the pen. It is essential to protect the bed from splashes of superglue and the other liquids associated with this process. Each pad will be used to apply two coats of CA making twenty in all. This sounds like an awful lot of work but it only takes ten or fifteen seconds for each coat.


Cutting Kitchen Towels

Kitchen Towel Pads
The choice of precisely which superglue to use is the next thing to consider. You need to be able to apply it in drops because it should be applied sparingly. If it is too runny you will finish up using far too much which will saturate the pad. This will lead you to make two significant discoveries. The first is that superglue sticks tenaciously to human skin, you may already know this. The second is that it gets very, very hot when it dries, I suspect not many people know that as Michael Caine might say. Well I know it well enough from first-hand experience (pun intended).


At this point you have a choice of whether to continue using the pen-specific bushings or change to an alternative type. I will explain the significance of this later but for the time being we will assume that the original bushings are retained.


To apply the CA hold a kitchen towel pad lightly in contact with the bottom of the pen barrel which should be turning at about 800 revs. Start by using the third of the pad farthest from you. On one barrel you should apply three drops and move the pad briskly up and down the length of the barrel to ensure even distribution of the glue. Repeat the process on the other barrel but using only two drops as the pad will have some residual glue already on it. Spray a light coat of accelerator on the barrels to set the CA instantly.  You will notice from time to time that some fumes are given off. This is probably the solvent in the glue being evaporated by the heat as it cures. I would not like to inhale this, and neither would I like a splash of superglue in the eye, so my Trend respirator is worn when applying the CA. I strongly recommend that you take suitable precautions to protect yourself. You might also like to wear gloves until you become proficient at applying the glue. Apply a second coat in exactly the same way but using the middle third of the pad then discard it.


Finishing Pens with Superglue

In no time at all you will have used up all ten pads and you will have applied your twenty coats of CA. It is now time to cut this back and polish it. This is achieved by the use of Micromesh, either in the form of double-sided pads or as sheets, but in either case used wet with the lathe speed turned back up again. You start off with 1500 grit and work your way up through 1800, 2400, 3200, 3600, 4000, 6000 and 8000 before finishing with 12000 grit. You will see a white slurry appearing on the abrasive when you use the first few grades, but this will become less evident as you get finer and finer. The finish after the Micromesh treatment is quite impressive, but to really guild the lily you can apply a liquid polishing compound. David uses Brasso, I am still working my way through a bottle of T-Cut (an automotive polishing compound) which I found in the back of the garage. David then goes on to apply a liquid automotive wax for an even greater shine but I am quite content with the quality of the finish after the liquid polishing compound.


Cutting back CA Superglue with Micromesh Pads

If there is a disadvantage to finishing pens with superglue it raises its ugly head at this stage. The glue inevitably gets spread over the bushings as well as the timber during application, and therefore separating the barrels from the bushings can be problematical. If you just snap the bushings off there is a danger that the some of the finish on the blank might spall off thus ruining it. With the lathe stopped you therefore need to cut around the bushings as close as you dare (1 to 2mm maximum) to the timber with a craft knife. In this way when you come to snap the bushings off the CA will be encouraged to snap where you have scored through it with the knife. The resulting jagged edge needs to be removed by lightly sanding the end of the barrel with a circular motion using 240 grit paper laid flat on the bench. If the edge feels sharp you can soften it a little by holding the barrel at an angle between your fingers and rotating it with light pressure against the abrasive to form a tiny chamfer.


I mentioned earlier in the article about a possible change to the bushings before applying the CA finish. I have successfully avoided the problem of the superglue sticking to the standard bushings by changing to a set of tapered bushings which came with the pen making kit I originally bought.



The beauty of these bushings is that the part that is touching the barrel is below the surface of the timber to which you will be applying the superglue. I have found that the bushings can usually be removed quite easily and all you need to do is to lightly sand the ends of the blanks to remove any glue that might have been deposited there.


That is the end of the finishing pens with superglue process and all you have to do now is assemble the pen in the usual way. Oh – and sit back and listen to everyone telling you how wonderful the pens feel and how clever you are. I like that bit the best.