There are plenty of tutorials and classes that you can find in our local area if you’re interested in making your own pens, but here is a brief overview of Black Cat Woodworking’s process. I am always working on improving my process, so please leave any recommendations in the comments! I look forward to improving materials and tools as I grow as a small business owner.
1. The first part of making a pen is to cut your blank to size. The blank should typically not be much bigger than the size of your finished product. It is much easier to remove material with your table saw before you even put the blank on the lathe. For example, rounding a ¾” square blank on your lathe is quicker and easier than trying to take the corners off a 1” square blank. By estimating the diameter of your finished product and adding half an inch, you should have a good size for your blank. If your slimline pen will be approximately ¼” thick when finished, a ¾ inch blank should do nicely.
Make your blanks approximately ¼” longer than the brass tubes that should come with your kit. This way, you will be able to square up the end and make sure the blank is perfectly flush with the brass tubes in step 4.
2. Find the centers of your blank by drawing lines from the corners on the ends of the blank, and using the centers you just found, drill a hole lengthwise through your blank. The diameter of your drill depends on what kind of pen you are making and what the kit calls for. Most (if not all) slimlines require a 0.7mm drill bit. A drill press is extremely useful but not necessary if you are confident in your ability to drill straight through the blank. There are also drill chucks you can get for your lathe that effectively turn it into a small drill press. The longer the blank, the more any deviation from the center will show once you have drilled all the way through. Additionally, having a drill press or drill chuck makes it less risky for you to cut your blanks thinner, giving you less wasted material, since it is much less likely that you will drill off center and go too close to the edge of the blank. If you do decide to hand drill your blanks, you might consider cutting them a little wider just in case you drill them a little crooked.
3. Scratch the surface of the brass tubes that came in your kit with some low grit sandpaper so glue is more effective in holding them in place. Squeeze a bead of glue around one end of the brass tube, so that when you insert that end into the blank, the glue is spread over the length of the tube. Position the tube in the middle of the blank. It should be a little shorter than the blank on both ends.
Gorilla Glue has always worked well for me. It expands when it dries, creating pressure between the brass tube and the blank. It should be dry in a couple hours, but I usually let mine dry overnight.
4. It’s time to trim the ends of the blank down to the length of the tubes glued inside. Use a pen reamer of the appropriate diameter to clear any dried glue from inside the tube and to grind down the length of the blank. Go slowly and make sure you don’t apply too much pressure, or else the end of the blank may split during this step.
5. Your blanks are now ready to throw on the lathe. Arrange them on your mandrel with bushings to show how much wood to take off. Since the pen blanks are so narrow, you will have to turn your lathe up higher than you would set it for a bowl. Around 1300-1500 RPM is ideal.
Start rounding your blank with a roughing gouge. Once the corners have been taken off, I switch to my skew chisel. It gives you a much cleaner cut, which means you don’t need to sand as much, which is important when you are working with limited material. Precision is key in getting your pen to the right diameter in order for it to line up with your kit.
6. When you are happy with your pen’s profile, it is time to start the finishing process. The purpose of sanding is to remove tool marks and any visible blemishes, not to remove more of the stock or to further shape your piece. I start sanding with grit around 200, then work up to around the 600s.
Now it’s time to apply your finish. I have always used CA glue (cyanoacrolate glue, commonly known as superglue). Bottles can be found at most craft stores. It dries hard, it’s durable, and can be polished to a mirror smooth finish. It can be found in thick, medium, and thin formulas, which refer to how viscous the glue will be and how quickly it dries. I have found that thin CA glue works best for this application.
Apply 3-4 drops to a piece of paper towel folded over a few times, then with your lathe as low as it can possibly go, rub the glue back and forth on your pen. You will have a few seconds before the glue starts getting tacky. If you feel the paper towel start sticking, immediately remove it from your pen. Letting the glue get too tacky while in contact with the paper towel could ruin the finish, and you will have to sand it off and start over. Take care to not let any torn edges of the paper towel come in contact with the pen, or else loose fibers from the paper towel will get stuck in the glue. These will show up again when you think you’re done with the pen. Wait 2-3 minutes between coats.
Once you get several coats of CA glue (about 4-5) you can examine your pen and decide whether you want to keep polishing or if you like it the way it is. At this stage, the pen will be very smooth, but still rough enough to make the pen look and feel a little bit more natural. It will not have a mirror smooth finish, but you will be able to feel the grain a big more. This appeals to some people, and it is ultimately your decision. If you decide to take your pen further, you will need some Micro Mesh pads to achieve that ultra smooth finish. Soak the pads in water and work up through the grits. It is important to keep the pads wet to extend their useful life and to use them effectively. The water helps remove tiny pieces of CA glue from the working surface. Otherwise, the particles would remain on the pen and pad and potentially damage the surface of the pen, preventing you from achieving that finish you’re trying to get. After finishing with each pad, don’t forget to clean the slurry from your pen. After working up through the different grits of Micro Mesh, you should have that ultra shiny, smooth finish you were trying to get. The highest grit will not leave any marks discernable by the human eye.
7. At this point, you should be ready to assemble your pen! There are pen assembly jigs you can buy for approximately $50, but using a vise works nearly as well and has far more applications past assembling pens. Use scrap blocks of wood between the surface of the vise and the pen kit to avoid scratching the finish on the kit.
Thank you again for your interest, let me know if you have any questions or contact me if you’d like to work with me!