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