Must Have Guide to Pen Making

Monday 9 July 2018

One of the most popular projects for new woodturners is turning handcrafted writing pens. There is something uniquely satisfying about turning your own writing pen that continues to lure beginners and seasoned pros alike. Writing pens are a unique and portable way to visually express your skills and passion for woodturning. If you are just getting into woodturning and you have been considering turning a writing pen, you are in good company. Pen turning is as popular today as it was when I first opened my studio, more than 13 years ago.

Pen turning is also a great introduction to woodturning tools, techniques, abrasives, finishes and assembly protocols. Most pens can be turned and completed in a short amount of time, using only basic tools and accessories. If you are looking for a great introduction to turning at the lathe, writing pens are a fun project to begin your exploration of woodturning.

This article will focus on the tools and accessories necessary for turning pens.

Basic pen turning: Step-by-step

Step 1

Firstly, select your pen kit – there are hundreds of different styles for you to choose from

Step 2

Select your pen blank and cut it into two pieces, according to the instructions in your pen kit

Step 3

Drill the required hole through the centre of each blank

Step 4

Lightly scuff the outside of the pen tubes with 240 grit abrasive and glue the tubes from your kit inside their respective pen blanks

Step 5

Use your barrel trimmer to square the ends of the tubes to the centre of the tube. This will ensure a proper mounting on your pen mandrel

Step 6

Mount your mandrel in your lathe spindle and then mount the pen

blanks and bushings on the mandrel according to the instructions supplied with your pen kit

Step 7

Turn and sand your pen barrels using the bushings as a guide for the proper outside diameter of each end of the pen barrel

Step 8

Finish your pen with your chosen finish and assemble the pen with the pen components from your kit. Most pen components are pressed into the end of the pen tubes during assembly, making the assembly process simple

Step 9

Now sit back and enjoy your wonderful hand-crafted writing instrument

Now, let's take a look at the equipment and materials needed to turn a pen in greater detail.

Tools for pen turning

Writing pens can be turned on almost any type of lathe that features an accurately centred tailstock assembly, including large heavy-duty lathes, mini-lathes and even micro lathes. A variable speed controller for the motor is a nice addition to have when finishing, but this is not necessarily required

Drill press

Before you can mount your pen blank on the mandrel for turning, you need to drill the correct size hole through the centre of the blank. A drill press is typically used for this task, in conjunction with some type of drill press vise to keep the blank stationary. If you are careful, you can also drill the blanks by hand using an ordinary hand drill.

Drill bits

Each pen kit will indicate the correct size drill bit required for the upper and lower pen tubes. Although standard twist drill bits can be used for drilling some pen blank materials, speciality bits like bullet nose, parabolic and brad point bits are a better choice for dense exotics, synthetic materials, horn, antler and many alternative materials.

Barrel trimmer

Barrel trimmers are used to square up the ends of the pen blanks, once the tubes are glued inside the blanks. Pen mills feature a round cutter head with several sharp teeth that are connected to a metal pilot shaft that’s the same size as the inside of the pen tube. Once the mill is inserted into the tube, it cuts the end of the blank, square to the drilled axis of the hole. If the end of the tube is not properly squared before mounting on the mandrel, the pen blanks will not fit on the mandrel correctly.

Pen mandrels

The pen mandrel is what you mount your pen barrels and bushings on to turn your pen. There are several styles of pen mandrels available, however, double mandrels are the most popular. Double mandrels allow you to mount both the upper and lower barrel of your pen on the mandrel at the same time for turning and finishing. Single mandrels are also available, as well as adjustable mandrels that feature a moveable shaft that can be moved in or out, for various projects.

Pen bushings

Pen bushings are mounted on the pen mandrel at each end of the pen blanks and are used as a guide for you to correctly determine the outside diameter of the barrels. The pen bushings are the same size as the metal components that you will use from your kit when you assemble your completed pen. Pen bushings are unique to each style of pen and therefore, you will need a different set of bushings for each style of pen you wish to turn. The bushings are reusable and can be used for many different pen projects.

Turning tools

One of the great things about pen turning is that you do not need special pen tools to turn a pen. Almost any turning tool you have can be used to turn your pen projects. Having said that, I prefer using micro turning tools for turning pens, as I feel they allow for a more elegant cut and their smaller bevels are easier to manipulate on the small blanks used for pens. For most pens, four turning tools are all that is required. These are: a 20mm (3/4in) roughing gouge, 12mm (1/2in) skew chisel, 1.5mm (1 1/6in) super thin parting tool and a small 5mm (3/16in) or 6mm (1/4in) micro spindle gouge.

Assembly jig

Once your pen has been turned and finished, you need to assemble it with the pen kit components. A pen assembly jig is nice to have, as they are adjustable for various types and sizes of pens and they will not damage your pen plated components. If you do not have an assembly jig, you can use a good hand clamp, a bench clamp, or even a drill press. Simply insert a wooden plug in the Jacobs chuck and another wood scrap on the drill press table and use the drill press to press your components into the ends of the completed pen tubes.

Project supplies

Project kits

Project kits contain all of the pen components to assemble your pen, less the pen blank. These include the nib, upper and lower pen tubes, the cap, the clip, the transmission mechanism and the pen ink refill. Depending on the particular style of pen, some of these components may not be present, or the kit may contain other types of components.

Pen blanks

Pen blanks are the material you will use to make the upper and lower barrels on your turned pen. Traditional materials include exotic or local timbers, burrs, plastic or resin based materials, man-made marble, stabilised timbers and/or burrs, horn, antler, segmented blanks and many other materials.

With pens, you are only limited by your own imagination. You will be amazed at the range of materials available for turning pens.


Adhesives are used to adhere the pen tubes to the inside of the

drilled pen blanks. Popular adhesive choices include Cyanoacrylates (or CA glue), binary epoxies and one-part polyurethane adhesive


Various abrasives are used to sand and perfect the barrels prior to finishing, including wet and dry abrasives for alternative materials and standard abrasives for timber, or similar materials. The specific abrasive choice used depends on the type of material being turned for the pen barrels.


The favourite finish used for writing pens varies from turner to turner. Commonly used finishes include friction-based waxes and shellac based-products, spray or brush-on lacquers, Cyanoacrylates, penetrating oils, binary epoxies and numerous homemade blended finishes.

Optional equipment


If you want to cut and dry your own pen blanks, you need some way to process your pen blanks from larger stock. A bandsaw is a great tool for cutting pen blanks, since the saw kerf is so thin. You could also use a tablesaw, or even a handsaw, if this

is necessary.

Collet chuck

Collet chucks are one of the most accurate ways to hold your pen project on the mandrel whilst you are turning your pen. Because of their high precision, they are a popular choice among many pen turners. Some adjustable pen mandrels on the market feature a collet-like mechanism to hold the pen mandrel shaft. These are a less expensive way to achieve the precision holding afforded by a

collet chuck.

Coloured/plated pen tubes

In recent years, plated and coloured pen tubes have become available for use with translucent pen blanks, or with slimline pens whose barrels are so thin that they tend to show some of the pen tube. Nickel platings (silver) and black pen tubes are two common colours of pen tubes that are now available, if the standard gold

brass colour is unacceptable.

Arbor mounted buffing wheel

Although you can finish many different types of pen finishes while the pen is mounted on the mandrel, some pen turners prefer to buff the pen finish by hand, using an arbor mounted buffing wheel and the appropriate buffing compound. Buffing wheels are commonly used with plastic pen blanks and hard cured finishes like binary epoxies, user catalysed lacquers, etc.

Digital calliper

If you will be turning lots of different styles of pens, a good digital (or manual) calliper is good to have on hand. This will allow you to measure the outside diameters of your pen components to ensure that they accurately fit your pen barrels when the pen is assembled. Since the sizes of pen components and bushings can sometimes vary slightly, double-checking with a calliper will produce. The best possible fitment when the pen is finally assembled

Speciality abrasives

Micro-mesh cushioned abrasives

Micro-mesh abrasives are a very popular type of cushioned wet and dry abrasive that is available in nine grits. These include 1,500, 1,800, 2,400, 3,200, 3,600, 4,000, 6,000, 8,000 and 12,000 grit. Micro-mesh can be used to perfect hard cured finishes, or directly on the surface of plastic and resin based materials, as well as many other types of materials. Although they are typically used wet, they can also be used dry, if proper precautions are observed.

Personal protection

Face shield

Like any other type of turning, you need to protect your face and eyes from flying debris when turning pens. You will find that a good full-face safety shield, and safety glasses are money well spent.


Some of the finishes used for pens can be hazardous in their liquid uncured state. If you will be working with one or any of these finishes for your pen, observe any manufacturers safety notices about fumes, or protective gloves when finishing your pen. Be sure to review any MSDS sheets for your finish in the US, or COSHH sheets in the UK for safety or hazard information. Be safe and mindful of these at all times.

Dust mask

When sanding your pen barrels on the lathe, a good quality dust mask or respirator is needed to protect your respiratory system. Many of the exotic timbers used for pens are particularly irritating to the respiratory system, as are numerous types of stabilised, plastic and resin based pen blanks. Always use a good quality dust mask, or respirator when you are sanding at the lathe.