The Making of a Pen

Welcome to the making of a pen.  These are the steps I go through to make a basic pen.  The pen I am making here is a Sierra-style pen with a copper finish and a body turned from white oak that was part of a barrel once used to make Jack Daniels Whiskey.  Lets start with the finished pen.

Most of the pens I make start with a 'kit' consisting of the mechanical parts of the pen and a brass tube.  I select a blank to go with the kit and decide the final shape I want the pen to be.  The kit components for this particular pen are shown here.  Depending on the pen, there may be other components included in the kit, including multiple brass tubes.

The brass tube is used to mark the chosen blank for length.  The blank is then cut to length, drilled for the brass tube, and the tube is then epoxied into the blank.  For resin blanks there is another step after drilling - the inside of the blank is painted with enamel paint in a color complementary to the blank colors.  The reason for this is the resin may wind up being turned thin enough that you would be able to see the brass tube and epoxy through the blank, which is not usually desired.  The paint prevents that from happening.  Once the paint is dry, the tube is glued into the blank using epoxy.

After the epoxy has cured, the blank is then sanded so the ends are flush and square with the brass tube.  To allow for this, the blank is typically cut 1/16" longer than the tube, and the tube roughly centered in the blank when it is glued in place.  After squaring the ends, the blank is ready to be turned.

To turn the blank, bushings are used that let me know how far down to turn the ends of the blank so they match the kit components.  This is the blank mounted on the lathe and ready to be turned.

A tool called a roughing gouge is used to make the blank round.  Some resin blanks, notably the DIAMONDCAST blanks, are already round so this step is not necessary.  The blank looks like this after the roughing stage.

After the blank is roughed, another tool is used to get the blank to the approximate final shape and size.  The tool used here depends somewhat on the material being turned.  I most often use a round carbide scraper for this stage.  The roughly shaped and sized blank looks like this.

To get the blank to its final shape and size, a tool called a skew is used.  This tool allows for a much nicer and smoother cut than a scraper.  It also is, in my opinion, one of the most versatile tools a turner can use.  I have a lot better fine control over the skew and how it cuts than with just about any other tool.  After the skew, the blank looks like this.

Now that the blank is down to the correct size and shape, it is time to finish the blank.  The first step, regardless of the blank material, is sanding to remove any remaining tool marks.  I typically start at 120 grit, then use 240, 320, 400 and 600 grit sandpaper on a rotary bowl sander.  The 120 removes the tool marks, the remaining grits remove the sanding marks from the previous grit.  Care is used so as to not remove too much material, or the blank may end up being too small.  The blank has been sanded through 600 grit in this next image.

At this point, the process changes a bit if the blank is a resin blank.  Hybrid blanks (resin and wood or other materials) and antler blanks are typically treated like a wood blank.  For a resin blank, no additional finish is applied - we skip right to the wet polishing steps.  For the rest of the blanks, we take them off the lathe and remove the bushings used to turn the blank to size.  The blank is then remounted on the late on a mandrel using non-stick bushings.  These are typically made of a material such as Delrin or HDPE.  When the blank is remounted, it is given a wipe down with denatured alcohol.  There are several reasons for the wipe down.  First, it removes any surface oils on the blank - either naturally occurring in the wood, or from handling the sanded blank.  Second, it removes any sanding dust on the blank.  The oils can interfere with the adhesion of the finish, and the dust can appear as spots in the finish.  The cleaned blank is shown here.

Now that the blank has been cleaned, the finish is applied.  In most cases, I use a cyanoacrylate (CA) finish - essentially super glue.  What I use is not really good as a glue, though - it has been specifically formulated to be used as a wood finish.  I use a total of 12 coats of finish - 6 thin and 6 medium viscosity.  After applying the CA finish, the blank looks like this.

Due to the gloss, the camera in my phone was having trouble focusing on the blank.  Sometimes, when applying the CA finish, small ridges may form.  Most of the time, they will come out in the first polishing stage.  If they appear to be too large, or there is a slightly rough spot, the blank is lightly sanded with 400, then 600 grit, or just 600 grit sandpaper using a rotary bowl sander.  This, of course, dulls the finish a bit.  That does not matter, as there are still several steps until the blank is fully finished.  The sanded finished blank looks like this.

The blank is then given an initial polish using a wet polishing process that 'sands' it using a special polishing paper.  The paper has particles embedded in it, much like sandpaper, that start at around 30 microns in size and go down to a 1 micron particle size.  To put those numbers in perspective, a human hair averages around 90 microns in diameter.  The wet polishing applies to both resin and CA-finished blanks.  This image is our Jack Daniels blank wet polished down to the 1 micron paper.

We are not done yet.  A final polish is performed using a polishing compound with a grit size of less than 1 micron to give the final shine.  This is done to both resin and CA finished blanks.  Our Jack Daniels blank now looks like this.

At this point, the blank is removed from the lathe.  Any excess CA 'flash' on the ends is carefully sanded off, and the pen parts are pressed into the body giving us the final pen.