Turning the Pen Blanks
What You’ll Need to Turn Your Blanks
After much preparation of your pen blanks, you’ve finally arrived at the “turning” part of this pen turning tutorial. You don’t need quite as many tools for this part of the tutorial, but you will need many supplies:
- A midi or mini-lathe
- A respirator (recommended – your nose, throat, and lungs will thank you)
- A skew and a gouge – both can be purchased as part of a 3-piece lathe chisel set
- A pen mandrel, and I also recommend a mandrel saver (optional)
- Bushings for turning a slimline pen kit
There are a couple of things above that I recommend (but aren’t required) and you will see why throughout this part of the tutorial. You’re going to get sawdust everywhere regardless of any effort you make. If you’re new to the world of woodworking – it just comes with the territory. If you don’t believe me, ask Marcy. She was snooping around the shop with a couple of her sisters as my wife shot all of the pictures for this tutorial:
Even Marcy now understands the daunting omnipresence of sawdust. If you have any furry friends wandering around your shop while you work, make sure you’ve removed any hazardous substances as well as sharp tools from within their reach.
Now that you have everything you need and I’ve given the proper disclaimer for having pets in the shop, let’s start pen turning!
Scroll to the top of this page and click “Step 1” to read about setting your blanks up on the lathe.
Setting Your Blanks Up On the Lathe
The first thing we need to do before turning our pen is changing our lathe accessories. We need to remove the accessories we used for drilling and replace them with the accessories for turning. This only takes a few seconds.
The mandrel saver tailstock attachment serves two purposes. First of all, it prevents your mandrels from becoming slightly bent like they can be when you use a traditional system that incorporates the use of a live center. Even the slightest bit of bend in your pen mandrel can cause your blanks to turn out of round (OOR), meaning that they’ll be slightly oval instead of perfectly round. This can cause a lot of nasty imperfections, including dullness in your finishes, uneven sanding, and finished pen blanks that don’t meet up perfectly flush with your accessories.
The second reason is that, as you use your live center repeatedly over time, the metal against metal connection between the end of the mandrel and your live center will cause your live center’s tip to dull pretty badly, making it much less effective for pen turning or any other kind of wood turning.
So that’s why I say the mandrel saver is optional, but recommended.
Now go ahead and slide your bushings and your pen blanks on, alternating between each. If you’re still following along with all of the other steps to achieve a grain match on your finished pen, make sure you have the hash marks lined up and in the middle as you slide on your pen blanks and bushings.
I have a couple of spare bushings, so I prefer to put an extra one on each end to keep my tools away from my lathe accessories.
Typically I put them on in this order: 2 bushings, 1st pen blank, 1 bushing, 2nd pen blank, 2 bushings. Then I bring my tailstock up with the mandrel saver attachment, lock it down, then tighten it a bit using the tailstock handwheel, and lock that into place as well. Here’s what that entire process looks like:
If your lathe isn’t on it’s highest speed at this point, make sure you set it to the highest speed possible.If you have a really nice mini-lathe you can do this with a turn dial. I’ve always had mini-lathes that require me to adjust the belts manually, which is a pretty simple process once you’ve done it a couple of times. If you don’t know how to adjust your lathe’s speed, consult your owner’s manual.
Typically I turn on my highest speed (3200 RPM), sand on my second lowest speed (1100 RPM), and, personally I apply my CA finish completely by hand (which you’ll see in detail later), but if you turn your lathe on during your finish it should be at it’s lowest speed, which for my mini-lathe is 750 RPM. Everybody in this industry seems to have different preferences, but these are the speed settings that produce great results for me.
Next, bring the tool rest up as close as you can without hitting the pen blanks. Rotate the headstock handwheel one full rotation just to be sure, then lock your tool rest into place.
Now it’s time to power up the lathe and start turning!
Scroll to the top of this page and click “Step 2” to read about turning your pen blanks.
Time to Start Turning Your Pen!
I usually begin turning with my gouge and move on to my skew when I’m getting close to finishing the pen. Some people dread using the skew, and some people use it from start to finish. Regardless of the preferences you develop over time, the traditional method is to start with the gouge and move onto the skew later.
You’ll begin by rounding off the corners, which happens pretty quickly. I don’t think it usually takes me more than 3-5 minutes to turn the corners off of both blanks.
Notice in the pictures below that I am not holding the gouge perfectly flat against the tool rest or perpendicular to the pen blanks. I cock it slightly to the right in my fingers, and also hold it at about a 45 degree angle to the blanks, working my cuts from the left of the blank to the right (only work one blank at a time). The best way to practice this is just to tray and cut with the right side of the tip of your gouge, not the center of it.
Now that I’ve turned off the corners, I have a larger gap between my tool rest and my pen blanks. Simply unlock the tool rest, scoot it forward until it’s almost touching the blanks again, give the headstock handwheel a full turn to make sure you’re clear all of the way around, and start turning again.
You’ll continue this process of turning, adjusting the tool rest, turning some more, adjusting the tool rest, etc… until you’re ready to switch to the skew (which we’ll do when we get most of the material off of our blanks). Try to avoid getting any deep ruts or grooves in your blanks as you turn with the gouge, but if it happens, don’t worry about it too much. That’s what we’ll use a skew for in a little bit.
As you work off more and more material, remember that you have much less material between your tool and the brass tubes holding your material on the blank. When you’re rounding off the corners and roughing the material early in the turning process you can apply a moderate amount of pressure if you’d like, but when you start getting down to about 1/2″ I highly recommend letting the tool do all of the cutting.
Apply the absolute minimal amount of pressure necessary to make the cut otherwise you risk breaking your blank and starting over from step 1. If you’re not getting good cuts, then you probably need to sharpen your tools. NEVER apply extra pressure to compensate for a dull gouge or skew later in the pen turning process, or you WILL bust your blank and have to start over.
Once I’m down to a little over 1/8″ or 3mm, I’ll switch to my skew to work out some of the grooves. Using a skew is probably one of the most mysterious things in the pen turning community, and I’ll admit I’m not the best with it either. However, I’ve become much better over the years and I don’t dread busting my pens with it every time I turn like I did when I was a kid.
Just remember – apply the minimum amount of pressure necessary to make the cut. When you’re getting down to this little material you can bust your blank very easily if you’re not careful.
Notice how I’m cutting with the skew very similarly to the way I cut with the gouge. Cock the tool a little to the right in your fingers, hold it at about a 30 degree angle to the blank, and try to cut with the center or bottom third of the skew.
After I’ve turned off as much material as I’d like with the skew, I usually lay it flat across my tool rest and press very lightly against my pen blanks just to ensure I have as smooth and level of a blank as possible. I will usually only do 1-2 passes on each blank using this technique.
When turning a slim pen, I do not take all of the material off of my blanks using my tools. Even using tools to take the blanks down this far without busting them requires some experience and took me a few years to get really comfortable with. There is so little material left on the blanks that takes a very delicate touch and very sharp tools, so practice getting a bit better each time you turn a pen.
I take the blanks down to about 1/16″ or 1.5mm and continue working the blank with sandpaper. If you’re not comfortable taking them down this far using tools, you can stop sooner and switch over to sandpaper. My slim pen blanks usually look something like this when I switch to sanding:
What many pen turners will do at this point is round off the ends of each blank and possibly make a little groove or bump toward the tip of the pen, like this or this. Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but in my mind the only way to make a beautiful slim pen is perfectly clean, perfectly straight lines all of the way across. So I usually stop turning at this point and move on to sanding, which takes us into the next section of this pen making tutorial.