Pen Making Tips

Alan Currans returns with this tutorial on Pen Making.


The trouble with woodturning in general is that you need a lot of equipment and, sadly, pen turning is no exception.
However, good news is at hand – with some of the items that you’ll need you have no option but to make them yourself, and the majority of the rest can be obtained without too much effort.
In my opinion, the only essential bit of kit for you to buy is the mandrel. It might also be worth noting that you don’t need to go to the expense of buying miniature turning tools for these projects, as full-size ones will do the job just as well.
Read on to learn about the tools that I personally use when turning pens.

Blank Marking Out Template
Marking out blanks for cutting is tedious but, it must be done accurately. In order to do this with minimum effort and consistent accuracy, I have made a set of templates, with one template for each style of pen.
I took some 6mm ply and ripped it into 19mm strips. I then cut a 19mm square piece of ply and glued this on the back of one of the strips the exact distance from one end that I would need to mark the nib end of the blank. I used the length of the brass tube plus 5mm to allow for trimming at each end. When the glue had gone off I measured on the other side of the 19mm square the length of both brass tubes plus 10mm. I cut my blanks on a bandsaw with a fine blade and, as the kerf is negligible, you may need to make allowance for the particular saw you are using.
To use the template, put the short end of the template against one end of the blank and mark the first cut, then reverse the template and place it against the same end of the blank to mark the overall length you need for your blank. This takes much longer to explain than to actually do!
The drawing below shows the setting out for a European pen which has a 63mm brass tube at the nib end and a 50mm tube at the clip end.

Blank Marking Template
Blank Cutting Sled
Cutting the ends of the blanks square may not be absolutely vital, but it is certainly good practice. I saw a blank cutting ‘sled’ for use with a band saw on the internet somewhere and this is my take on it.
It consists of a sheet of 6mm ply cut to an appropriate size to suit my band saw table with a softwood batten fixed on the top at the far edge for the blanks to be held against. Underneath on the right is a strip of timber running back to front which locates in the slot in the table, and another piece underneath and parallel to the front edge which limits the travel of the sled.
Simply line up your pencil mark on the blank with the slot cut by the saw blade, hold the blank firmly against the batten, and push the sled away from you in order to get a perfect 90 degree cut.

Band Saw
Vertical Drilling of Blanks
Many of us use a drill press to drill the holes in blanks for the brass tubes. Specialist vices for blank drilling are available but tend to be bit on the pricey side, i.e. north of £60.
I use an ordinary drill vice which can be bought for under £15. The problem is they are only guaranteed to hold the blank vertically in one plane. To save faffing around with a miniature square to get it plumb in the other plane, simply lower the drill bit in the drill press and use this to adjust the verticality of the blank as shown in the picture below. I spotted this technique on the web somewhere so thanks to whoever dreamed it up in the first place.
Remember to keep pulling the bit back out of the blank regularly when drilling to prevent overheating. Overheating will make the bit run out of true.

Drill Press
Sanding the Ends of Blanks
I don’t like using barrel trimmers and preferred to use my disc sander but I found I was having trouble with this because in some cases the joint between the timber and the metal pen parts was not perfect. This was undoubtedly the result of inaccurate drilling causing the brass tube to be out of parallel with the sides of the blank. When the blank was sanded on the disc sander the ends finished up perpendicular to the blank but not the tube.
Another search on the web pulled up a jig with a projecting rod arranged in such a way that it was perpendicular in both planes to the sanding disc. When the blank is inserted on the rod and pressed against the sanding disc the end cannot be anything other than square to the tube thus eliminating my problem. I made my jig with two layers of 19mm ply mounted on a hardwood strip which runs in the groove in the sander’s table. The picture below shows a blank mounted on the 7mm rod ready for sanding.
To sand a blank with a tube larger than 7mm you have to make a spacer by turning some scrap wood on a 7mm tube.

Blank Sander
Lathe Protection
If you have read my piece on finishing pens with CA glue you will know that there will be quite a bit of liquid of one type or another splashing about. None of this wants to come in contact with the bed of your lathe, particularly the CA glue. You can muck about with bits of polythene or cardboard but if you are serious about pen making you should consider doing something a bit more workmanlike.
The picture below shows a ply base carefully cut to fit between the head and tail stocks with appropriate spacers beneath to hold it in position reasonably securely. A bit of varnish should keep it going for a while. This combines the dual role of protecting the bed and giving you somewhere to put your kitchen towel pads when applying the CA.

When CA finishing you also need somewhere to put your CA glue, accelerator, Micromesh pads and container of water whilst also protecting the lathe from moisture. This picture shows a plywood tray contraption I knocked up with a block of wood beneath to sit between the ways which does the job for me. Pull it up tight to the back of the tailstock when in use. Again, a bit of varnish will help it last the course as you can see from the picture it gets a fair bit of abuse.

Lathe Protection
Pen Press
This is another potentially expensive item with prices in the £40 to £50 range. A nice bit of kit if you can run to it no doubt but not absolutely essential. There are a number of other ways of pressing the pen components together, such as :
• you can use a bench vice if you have one. I found this a bit of a fiddle trying to get my fingers in between the jaws but it is perfectly possible.
• the drill press can be used with a bit of sheet material on the table and something to soften the contact between the drill chuck and whatever you are pressing. There was too little control over the pressing in my view.
• use the lathe with appropriate softening between the head and tailstocks and whatever you are pressing. As it is in the horizontal plane you will have to turn something so the softening stays in place. The disadvantage is you will have to take your mandrel out to use this technique.
My solution was to buy a budget sash cramp for under a tenner, cut most of it off, and mount it on a wooden base with a block beneath so that it could be held in a vice or Workmate. You need to glue something to the jaws to prevent damage to the pen parts, I used some of the packaging that came with it.

Pen Press
Blank Storage
The rack shown in the photograph was constructed using 4mm diameter aluminium rod and an off-cut of 18mm MDF. It keeps both parts of the blank together and also helps stop me knocking the individual blanks flying all over the garage from time to time. I wish I had made a bigger one.

Blank Storage