Saturday, June 25, 2011

Latest From the Shop – More Damned Pens (updated)


Pen making is a subset of lathework, or what is more commonly called “turning.”

There are folks who turn only pens using small specialized pencrafter lathes and specialized turning knives. There are organizations, such as the International Association of Penturners, that are dedicated specifically to the art.  There are contests and conventions and many, many books dedicated to the craft of pen making.

I’ve been turning and carving for going on 40 years, but I mostly turn bowls and vases, and the odd bird house and tabletop.  I only started turning pens within the last couple of years. 

I really didn’t think I’d enjoy penturning, but any artist is always looking to expand their skill set and turners are no different. So I thought I’d try my hand at pen making, just so I could say I’d done it.

My first few attempts were certainly functional, if pedestrian, but I was interested enough in the process (and pen making is a process) to buy some dedicated equipment specifically for penturning.  

I turned  some more pens, and bought some more equipment. 

I learned which shapes I liked and which ones I didn’t.

I learned which pen kits I liked and which ones I didn’t.

I bought more equipment – including a specialized drillpress dedicated just to pen making and nothing else.

I bought a number of books.

I went to a convention.

And then, one day, when I found myself in the shop at 5AM turning pens before going to work, I realized I was hooked. 


Nowadays I hunt eBay and the local woodshops looking for unusual and exotic wood blanks. I’ve got an inventory of hundreds, maybe thousands, of pen blanks, stacked and sorted by type on my wood rack.  I also look for interesting materials that I can incorporate into the designs.

And it’s a rare week goes by when I don’t make at least one or two or a dozen wooden pens.


Now, pens are just about the worst thing you can turn wood into.

Pens are clenched in hot sweaty hands. They are chewed on and tapped on tables and used to pry the lids off things. They’re stuffed into pockets, or buried in purses with keys and change and other hard abrasive items. As such they need to be made from materials that can stand up to punishment. Many of my current designs incorporate Corian –  a hard, wear-resistant, resin-based product typically used for countertops – which makes an excellent material for the grip area and turns easily with standard turning knives. Corian never loses its polish, and indeed becomes more polished with use, and will stand up to years of abuse and wear.

I’ve settled on a signature design based on the Euro Style Twist pen kit:


From right to left: 

Pau Amarello, commonly called Yellowheart for obvious reasons, the wood is naturally a bright canary yellow and comes exclusively from Para, Brazil. The wood has a beautiful sun-like shimmer in strong light.

Cocobolo, an extremely hard and expensive wood from South America.  Typically cocobolo is used for gun grips and knife handles and for fine musical instruments.

Sunken Heart of Pine, from the heartwood of Michigan white pine, salvaged from the bottom of Lake Superior.  The wood is extremely oily and dense and glows with a translucent shine in strong sunlight.

Redheart, a highly figured Central American hardwood that grows from southern Mexico to Honduras.  I love the blood red, tiger-striped look of Redheart.


And the last pen on the left is made from Pau Ferro, commonly called Morado, a very hard, highly figured Bolivian hardwood:


The decorative material at the grip and top end of the pen is not Corian.  It’s an experimental matrix I made from chips of Readheart, walnut, and Pau Ferro in a polymer binder.  The material is mixed together and pressed into a mold with the Morado end pieces, then clamped tightly and allowed to cure for 24 hours.  This was an experiment and it worked even better than I’d hoped.  Now that I know the technique works, future variations will incorporate precious metals and crushed semi-precious stone – say like the copper and turquoise I’ll be mixing up today. 


So, what are you doing with your weekend?



Coffee grounds, walnut chunks, copper, and turquoise.  Just in case you wondered what I did with my day




  1. Gardening, trying to get my photo skills back to what they were decades ago.

    Reading your blog.

  2. This ought to be interesting :) Do your homework on the gem materials you plan to use. For instance - anything with good to perfect cleavage should be avoided, many shells and copper bearing minerals yield toxic dust. Things like that last are kind of important :) If you know any lapidaries, or have access to a mineral club, they might be useful people to know for this experiment.

  3. What am I doing with my weekend? Ordering more damned pens, that's what.

    I'll take one Cocobolo, one sunken heart of pine, and one Pau Ferro. Send me bill, per usual.

    Signed, I can never get out of here for less than $100.

  4. I'm familiar with the material, Magpie, I use metals and other material commonly in my artwork. And the dust from the minerals is nothing compared to the poisonous dust from exotic hardwood - that cocobolo, for example, can cause extremely unpleasant allergic reactions. I use very, very good dust collection equipment in my shop and I wear protective equipment, including a powered filter helmet when working with exotic woods and toxic materials.

  5. Nothing that beautiful, Jim. Damned fine work.

  6. Wishing it wasn't so hard for an older college student to get a job for the summer and wondering how to approach the new roommates for causing the electric bill to more than double.

  7. Those are gorgeous. (When DO they go on sale?)

    My weekend will start with me finishing off some work I didn't do yesterday, and will end with my birthday party tomorrow. (There will be cake and human hamster balls and laser tag and a pinata and ... it's scary when a grown-up makes enough money to satisfy her childlike desires.)

  8. Yes, I recall seeing some sort of contraption that makes you look like the Predator :)

  9. I think it more resembles that outfit Michael J. Fox wore in Back To The Future when he was trying to convince his 1955 Dad that he was an alien from the planet Vulcan.

  10. I am blown away by yr artistic and technical prowess

  11. Those damned pens are fricken beautiful! There's a funky exotic wood shop here in the Knoxville area that I got all my African Mahogany from. They have a mess of pen blanks of all kinds of exotic woods. I did a couple of You Tube videos of the place, search Jeffries Wood Works on You Tube. Whenever I step into the place it's like going to church for me. I'm sure it's "your" kinda place too. While you searching on You Tube check out Campbells Cellar Bar. It's what I did with all that African. All the panels, arches, mantel and bars are solid, no plywood.

    Oh yeah, I'm installing cheap cabinets in my own house this weekend.

  12. Simply beautiful! But then, your work always is. I know what I want for my birthday, now.

  13. Your pens are beautiful, but I'm one of those old-fashioned types who prefers real ink!

    My favourite pens are dip pens in various coloured laminated birch. I own three of them, and they are an aesthetic delight. They take almost all calligraphy nibs, too, except the gold ones; those are for other, older and smaller pens.

    It's a personal quirk. I have a few!

  14. Long time lurker here...(well, in internet years, anyway). This post popped up on my feed while I've been sitting here waiting out a migraine. These pens are beautiful, stunning, actually. As a spinner, I've seen many spindles listed on etsy and elsewhere where the descriptions, with pride, reference these exotic woods. But I haven't really known what they were or why they might be especially suited to an instrument that can be roughed up in use. So, thanks much for the education.

  15. Beautiful!

    Me? I'm waiting for a pre-schooler to turn up on my doorstep so her mommy can go find it if it will be a sister or a brother.


  16. My weekend? Well, today was six hours, twenty patients, two bloodworks, and one client-without-pet consult. Bracketed at 2 a.m. and 4 p.m. with after-hours (or WAY after-hours, as the case may be) emergencies. Oh, and I diagnosed a mosquito bite on a Sheltie. Plus updated my blog and read yours. Later I'll be seeking medical attention because I aspirated WAY too much coffee reading your post about Alaska drivers. I may die from that, but it'll be worth it.

    Totally love the pens. Gorgeous work, and I'm very intrigued by the idea of the metals and gemstones. I hope you post pictures of those, if it works.

    Can you install an anti-theft device in mine that delivers a painful shock to anyone except me who tries to use it? It might not completely prevent theft, but even if they can run faster than I can, it ought to be good for a few laughs as they're making their getaway.

  17. Absolutely gorgeous! One Cocobolo and one Redheart, please. I've been looking for something special for my husband as we've decided after 50 years that this marriage is going to work so we're planning on 50 more. He does so enjoy beautiful writing instruments and certainly these are perfect, just the kind of thing he would enjoy. Do you gift wrap?

  18. Just beautiful, especially the last one. Can they use gel refills?

    Glad to see you have a robust ventilation system:)

  19. I am also a turner, who is fortunate to live in New Mexico where I can still harvest burl.

    I use Sweet Acacia, which is the 3rd densest wood, Mesquite burl, and Desert Willow. I also use invasive's like Russian Olive and Salt Cedar.

    I also have the fortune of living 2 miles from a mine that contracted their turquoise to Tiffany & Co in the 1890's. The turquoise is in a Jarosite and Pennsylvanian Limestone matrix - black and gray.

    I have been experimenting with Ilmenite - a iron and titanium natural alloy that is in a 300m dike 2 miles away. Polishes like gunmetal.

    Contact other AK blog owners for the email of newmeximan if you want product.

  20. So mine, purchased a year ago, is now a collectible from Jim's early period? Neat!

    If only I'd ever gotten it to write well; the poor thing sits on my desk and looks attractive, but doesn't get used because the ink feed is so poor. Which, I hasten to add, is the mechanism's fault, and not anything Jim did.

  21. Phiala, I feel bad about that. It's got to be the ink. A number of folks purchased that type of fountain pen from me, hell, I use one myself, and they work fine. I use the ink pump, and the other folks use the cartridges, both seem to work OK. But, I did have to try three or four different brands until I found one that flows well. I don't remember the type (my ink bottle is at work) I'll look when I get there. I bought it at Blaine's art supply.

    I will happily send you a new pen to replace that one if you like.

  22. Those pens are absolutely gorgeous. I spent my weekend training new whitewater rafting guides. :-)

  23. I don't think so, Jim, because I use that ink in all my other pens with good results, and I've never seen any reports of anyone having problems with Noodler's Black.

    Something is not right with the converter feed. I need to see if I can fix it somehow.

    I still haven't tried it with the cartridge you sent me, just the converter. I will have to do that.

  24. Nice! The one with coffee grounds, mm-mmm-mm!

    I spent part of the weekend sanding out and finishing second-turned bowls (from back in January) and trying to figure why the hell I still pay ACS for my internet connectivity. Helped a friend demo a rotting roof deck, layed out tile for a new countertop, roofed a new wood shed, watched Star Wars episodes IV, V, and I, and topped it off with a couple loads of laundry. And there was beer in there someplace, if I recall, and flying insects.

    Ever do anything with chokecherry? I have a few feet of log around here that I can drop off next trip south.

  25. Phiala, I'm doing an order this week for a batch of new pen kits. I'll include a different model fountain pen, from a different manufacturer. It'll take about two weeks for the kits to arrive, then I'll make you a new one to replace the defective pen - hopefully with much improved results. Hopefully ;)

  26. Karl, nope, never turned chokecherry. I've heard it's pretty neat stuff though.

  27. It's got some great colors when it's green - I expect they come back at finishing time.

    I salvaged (removed for free) from a friend's yard the better parts from a largish tree that was broken by wind and got 4 good blanks out of the bottom of the trunk - 2 dried too quickly and cracked bad enough for the fire pile, two are showing rot but I hope I can work around that.

    I have a couple ~6-7" diameter chunks I have yet to turn and one section about 4 feet long that has your name on it.

    Turns like buttah when it's green and gooshy.

  28. Sigh. Beautiful stuff, but letting a ham-handed lefty like me loose on one of those would be criminal. I'll have to wait for more birdhouses.

  29. wow. REALLY gorgeous. Are you making fountain pens?

  30. Wow, the turquoise (etc) one turned out just gorgeous. Now I want one.

  31. And now I'm wondering if the last pen smells like coffee...even though I'm almost certain it doesn't! LOL

    There's a gentleman down our way who turns antlers into pens. I bought one for my dad several years ago (it's beautiful), and he refuses to use it for all the reasons you mentioned - sweaty hands and such.

  32. First, great pens. It appears from the comments that you sell them, and you 'do' fountain pens. I am always on the lookout for a great fountain pen (extra fine nib).

    Is there a site you use to sell your work?
    I looked for a link, but didn't see one.


  33. Bee-yoo-tee-full, as usual.

    I love the last pen, but I want to be able to use a roller ball or gel insert. Can you make something like that for that? I guess that would require a cap -- is that more difficult? I could even pick it up IN PERSON in less than 2 weeks.

  34. Oh my, that last one is /beautiful/.

  35. Pen turning is a sickness with no cure. Fortunately or not, I've been too busy lately to get down into the shop. I like to have a pen or two with me to give to acquaintances.

  36. WOW, those are lovely! Did I miss how much they cost? I looked but did not see a price!

  37. Prices on pens vary, anywhere from $25 to $60 (or more) depending on what they're made from and how much effort I put into them.

    I'm currently setting up an internet store. That will be ready at the end of next week, when I get back from fishing on the Russian River. Speaking of which...

  38. Yeah for the Internet pen store! Can't wait.

  39. The spouse gifted me one of your pens; it is lovely and writes beautifully. Now I want more of them, especially those with metals and precious stones.

    Looking forward to your Internet sales site!

    I know I'm late to this topic, but that weekend I was hiking moors and trying to keep the spouse from driving too far to the left of the roads. "Too far left! Too far left! Get back in your lane!" was my chorus for three days. Thank the great goddess; or the British tax system, for the extensive trains, trams, and buses network throughout the rest of the country! I was very happy to leave the car behind in Cornwall.

  40. Love the heart of pine & the coffee/turquoise is an unusual but very striking combination!

  41. How much do they weigh? I've found that my favorite pens as I've gotten older are HEAVY for some reason.


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