As every woodworker knows, materials are precious. Exotic wood can be expensive, and nothing should go to waste. So what do you do with your cut offs? You make smaller things out of them. In this article I’m going to explain how to take the smallest of your scraps and turn them into beautiful pens.
Building Your Blank
The first thing to consider when preparing your wood is the grain orientation. You want to group your cutoffs in two groups: Edge grain and End grain. We do this so that when we turn them on the lathe, we don’t have the entire blank blowing apart on us. Edge grain is pretty straight forward, all you have to do is glue thin strips together until you have a 3/4″ blank. It doesn’t matter if the strips are wider than 3/4″ while gluing them up, we will rip the whole blank to width on the band saw. End grain requires a little more work but makes a more interesting blank.
Anyone who does a lot of pen turning knows that you never use the full blank for a pen project, so many of your small scraps may come from other pen blanks. This is great because they are already dimensioned to 3/4″x3/4″. the rest of your end grain scraps may be from making cutting boards, or just trimming boards to length for other projects. What I do with these is draw out 3/4″x3/4″ squares on them and then cut them out on the band saw. You want to make sure the faces that are going to be glued together are good and smooth so the glue adheres properly. I like to arrange the pieces next to the brass tube that will be glued into them, making sure to leave enough space on each end for the barrel trimming to come later. Then you just glue them up with some wood glue, and clamp them up. After the glue is dry you want to sand the blanks and get them as square as possible, this will help you to get a straight hole drilled through the center.
This is the point where you can create a Celtic knot design on your blanks if you desire. The way I did this was to first make a sled for my band saw with a 45 degree angle fence. A lot of folks like to use a 30 degree angle for these. You can use whatever angle you like, the greater the angle, the wider the knot will be. Then you want to cut some very thin strips from a contrasting wood. I used pecan for mine, because it is light in color and the blank was dark. These strips need to be the same width as the kerf of your band saw, about 1/16″ for mine. After cutting them I smoothed them with sandpaper and tested them on a saw kerf to make sure they fit snugly. Now you want to cut a kerf in your blank. Using your angled sled, clamp a stop block at the appropriate length so that all 4 of your cuts are exactly lined up. The trick to making this work is to cut ALMOST all the way through your blank. If you cut all the way through, it will be very difficult to line things up properly. Next you want to glue one of your strips into the kerf, and place a few clamps to hold everything together. After the glue dries you want to cut off the excess and sand everything flat. Back to the band saw, place your blank back on the sled turn the blank a quarter turn and repeat the same cut from before. Glue in another strip, let dry, cut off the excess. You will repeat this step for all four sides of the blank. Now you’re ready to drill them out.
Preparing Your Blanks for the Lathe
The pen kits I used for these pens are cigar pen kits. They go by several different names depending on who you’re buying them from (Cuban, Big Ben Cigar, etc) but they are all the same as far as I can tell. The first thing we have to do is drill a 10mm hole through the center.
There are many ways of drilling out your blanks, I’ve used my drill press in the past but always had trouble keeping the hole centered. The method I use now is the lathe. I have special pen jaws for my nova chuck that hold them really well. I put the drill bit in a jacobs chuck on the tail stock. This keeps everything straight because the blank is spinning, not the drill bit.
Once they are drilled out you will glue your tubes in the blanks. I use medium viscosity cyanoacrylate glue (known as CA glue , super glue, or krazy glue) You want to use plenty of glue and work fast. I will wrap a rubber band around a pencil, or dowel so that it fits tightly in the tube, then cover the tube with glue and run it back and forth through the blank while spinning it to ensure that the blank and tube are both coated with glue. Keep moving until you have it covered, if you stop for too long the glue will set before you have the tube all the way in. When I have the tube where I want it I will spray the end with activator to instantly harden the glue on that end, then pull my pencil/dowel out of the other end and spray that end with activator.
After gluing your tubes in you want to barrel trim the blanks, this ensures that the ends are flat, and that the wood doesn’t protrude past the tubes on the ends. I use the drill press for this, but I don’t use any jigs or vices. I just hold the blank firmly with some clamps to keep it from rotating and take as little material off as possible. When you can see the end of your brass tube shining, you know you have gone far enough. If you go too far you will shorten your tube and your blank and your pen won’t go together properly. Your blanks are now ready for the lathe.
Turning Your Blanks
At this point you will need a few items. Most importantly, a lathe. You’ll also need a pen mandrel, and the bushings for the kit you’re using. The bushings are there to help you get your ends to the right size for the pen kit. In between those ends you can do whatever you want. Most will have a bit of a swell in the design, some will go straight across, some will add embellishments (beads, coves, etc). I won’t go into this much because this is where your own artistry comes in to play. I will say that with the Celtic Knot pen I put a swell on it to accentuate the knot.
As far as the turning goes, I used a spindle gouge for most of the work. On the Celtic Knot I did a few finishing passes with a skew chisel because the grain of the strips were going all different directions and it was causing tear out with the spindle gouge. Then I sanded the blanks, starting with 220 grit and working down to 600. This was probably overkill, but I wanted to make sure the final product was as smooth as possible.
Finishing Your Blanks
I used a CA glue finish on these pens. I also used non stick bushings while applying the glue I started with thin CA, which is like water and soaks into the wood. I applied several coats while the blanks were turning on the lathe and waited several seconds between coats. The glue dries quickly so you can really build up the coats. If it starts to get gummy, or isn’t trying after 15 seconds or so, I will shoot some activator on it. After about seven coats of thin CA I’ll lightly sand it smooth again, as the CA will give it a bit of a rough texture. Then I switch to medium CA Glue, which is thicker, obviously. Each coat will take longer to harden so you may want to use the activator more often. Go easy with the activator and let it dry or wipe off the excess before adding the next coat. If you add a coat while there is still activator on the blank it will harden immediately and heat up the glue you’re still trying to apply. I’ve had this happen and actually burn through my glove, it was unpleasant. After several coats of medium CA glue you’re ready to sand and polish your blank.
I will very lightly sand with 600 grit paper just to get the high spots down where the glue built up unevenly, then switch to wet sanding with micro mesh pads. Micro Mesh is a set of 8 or 9 sanding pads that range from 1,500 grit to 12,000 grit. You want to stop your lathe after each grit and sand with the grain to make sure you remove all of the scratches from the previous grit. Once you’ve done this you can apply a little bit of plastic polish, I will apply it slow and then turn the speed on my lathe all the way up and buff with a soft cloth or paper towel. Now it’s time for assembly!
You will most likely have some ca glue build up on the ends of your tubes. I remedy this by placing sticky back sandpaper to a flat surface and sanding the ends back down to the tubes.
Then you will assemble the pen kit, following the instructions for that particular kit. You can purchase a pen press for this, and if you plan on making a lot of pens to sell, it might not be a bad investment. I use an F style clamp for this, it is a bit of a headache because it’s not easy to keep things aligned. If you go slow and pay attention you can get by with it.
On your edge grain blanks you want to make sure your stripes line up either when the pen is opened or closed, depending on how you want to present it. I like to have them line up when it’s closed.
This process for building pen blanks out of scraps is a long process, with a lot of waiting around for glue to dry. It does, however, make for very interesting and beautiful pens. If you’re making this for yourself or as a gift for a loved one, the time spent is irrelevant. If you’re making these to sell, you will probably want to charge a premium for the amount of work that goes into them. Because of this you want to make sure you use a good pen kit, so that the hardware is as nice as your work. I will probably sell these pens for $75 a piece, if i decide to sell them at all. This same pen kit, made with just a solid blank would go for $50, but could also be made in a fraction of the time. If you make a premium product you can sell it for a premium price.