You can argue that the easiest thing to turn on a lathe is a pen. It’s incredibly simple. Anyone can do it. In order to turn a pen you will need a few items. I’ll show you quite a few things here but keep in mind that you don’t need all of them.
The first item is a bunch of items. It’s a beginners pen turning kit. The key word there is kit, not beginners. These kits have all of the essentials for pen turning. You don’t NEED everything in this kit but everything it is there for a reason. A kit like this will also save some money in the long run compared to buying the items individually.
The kit contains a pen mandrel. It’s what will hold the wood while you turn. Keep in mind that not all lathes take the same mandrel. The headstock taper determines what mandrel to get. MT1 or MT2 are the most common taper sizes. My lathe, and my previous lathe, has a MT2 taper.
CA glue (super glue) will be used to glue the pen tubes into the wood blanks.
A pen mill is included. This is a tool designed to clean out the inside of the tubes after they are glued in place in the event that glue gets inside. The mill also trims the blank to the exact length of the tubes
Each kit may contain a different pen kit. I’m not sure on that part. This turning kit came with three slimline pen kits. Slimline is the easiest pen to make because, as the name implies, it’s a slim design without major detail.
Each pen kit needs bushings. The purpose of the bushings is to give a reference diameter to turn the wood down to. These will get beat up and wore down over time. They are inexpensive and easily replaced.
And finally, this turning kit comes with three wood pen blanks: bubinga, olivewood, and bloodwood.
The blanks will need holes drilled in them. One inexpensive method to hold them upright on the drill press table is to use a wooden handscrew clamp. This method works fine but isn’t as quick or precise as a vise.
You will also need something to press the pen together after the parts are turned. Again, a simple F-style clamp will get the job done but it’s not as quick or precise as a vise or pen press.
This is the Rockler pen press/drilling jig. It costs more than the clamp options listed above but offers faster repeat ability for drilling and a little more control than a clamp for pressing. Not required but nice to use if you’ve got one.
Sandpaper is an obvious need when working with wood. A high grit sanding pack like this is convenient.
Inside a slimline pen kit you will have the pen tip, lower tube, twist mechanism, decorative ring, upper tube, clip, and the cap. The pen is assembled in that order as well. Before we cut the pen blank and start making the pen it’s very handy to mark the middle of the blank as indicated in the following image. This will allow us to keep track of the grain orientation so that the assembled pen has the grain flowing accordingly.
Step one is to cut the pen blanks in half. To do that I’ll use my crosscut sled.
Once they are in half I’ll put the inside face against the stop block on the sled and cut the pen blanks to a rough length. The stop block is set to be just a tiny bit longer than the tube length.
Then the pen blanks are drilled with a 7mm drill bit. Any device you have to hold the pen blank vertical is fine.
Time to glue the tubes in place. The tubes need to be sanded to scuff up the surface and allow for better glue adhesion. Then a liberal amount of CA glue is applied to one end of the tube. The tube is inserted into the blank and rotated back and forth until the tube is nearly the entire way into the blank. To finish pressing it in I normally just push it down onto a piece of scrap wood. It’s important to not back out the tube once you start to put it in the pen blank. Doing so will scrape the glue off the inside walls of the blank and get glue inside the tube.
After letting the glue harden in the blanks the pen mill can be used to do two tasks. The tip of the pen mill will clean out the inside of the tube in the event that glue did get inside it. And the mill teeth will flush the ends of the wood with the ends of the tube.
One way to get around not having a pen mill is to cut the blanks to the exact same length as the tubes before drilling the hole in the blank. This works but if you go this route you need to make sure you drill the hole exactly perpendicular to the end faces.
The loading sequence for the mandrel is bushing, wood, bushing, wood, bushing. The bushings provide a reference for the outside diameter of the turning that is needed to line up with the pen kit hardware. Again, make sure the blank is put on the lathe with the centers aligned so that you maintain grain consistency. It’s important to keep these in the same orientation when they are removed from the lathe as well.
To hold the pen blanks in place you can either use the brass retaining nut included with the mandrel and steady the mandrel with a live center OR you can remove the brass retaining nut and change out the live center for a mandrel saver that slides over the mandrel and applies pressure directly to the bushing.
If you go the traditional woodturning tool route the only tool you will need is a roughing gouge. With the lathe spinning as fast as it will go, the first step is to use the gouge to turn the square blank into a cylinder. Pens are a great “first project” for the lathe because it’s very safe. If you’re too aggressive with the tool the wood will most often just grab the tool and spin on the mandrel. If for some reason the blank chips off or even breaks apart it won’t be a crazy eventful situation because there is such a small amount of wood involved.
You can continue reducing the diameter to it’s final size or switch over to tapering the ends down to the bushing diameter. It doesn’t matter which order you choose here. The end result is the same. Not all pens need to be the same shape though. Some require larger diameter or longer cylinders. Especially if a cap is being made. But these are slimline pens and just like the name implies I’m making them slim and with very little detail. These pens allow the wood grain to do all the talking more so than the design of the turning.
I also wanted to show a carbide turning tool in action so for the entire olive wood pen I used a square radius carbide tool. Because it has a wide contact area with the wood it’s easy to get smooth faces and gradual transitions free of tool marks. The overall shape is the same and it’s just a simple back and forth process.
With the shape established you can work your way through the sanding grits. I like to sand a little with the lathe spinning slowly then stop the lathe and sand with the direction of the grain. What grit you start at is up to you. But generally speaking, the sharper the cutting tool and the smoother movements you make while using the tool the less sanding you will have to do. These didn’t require much sanding at all.
There’s a bunch of different products and methods to use when finishing a turning. I’ve turned somewhere between 50 and 100 pens and have always started with EEE-Ultra Shine and finished with Crystal Coat because it’s really easy and really fast.
For the ultra shine I’ll apply it to the wood with or without the lathe spinning. Use a slow speed if you apply it with the lathe turning and also try to avoid the bushings as much as possible because it will turn black and stain the wood, especially on lighter colored woods. Wipe off the excess and use a small piece of paper towel or paper to buff the banks. I like to get as close as I can to the bushings and then work my way back to the middle.
After that a layer of Crystal Coat can be applied for a greater shine and higher water and wear resistance. It’s applied and buffed out the same way. Very little is required though. It’s a heat activated friction finish so a little heat when buffing is a good thing. Don’t get the blanks too hot though as high heat will damage the glue bond under the wood.
Finally, the pens can be assembled making sure to keep track of the grain direction. The pen tip is pressed in first.
Followed by the twist mechanism. There is a depth line on the mechanism to let you know how far to press it in.
At this point you can insert the cartridge and test the movement to see if the cartridge is sticking out far enough from the tip. Then the ring is added followed by the upper tube.
And the clip and cap are pressed on the other end to finish off the pen.
And that’s it. Pens are incredibly easy to make and make great quick win projects that you can give out as a gift. If you’ve never made one I suggest giving it a try. You don’t need a huge lathe and there are a lot of inexpensive midi lathes on the market to choose from. And if you don’t want to buy one you might be able to find a makerspace or someone local who would be willing to give you a hand.