For Beginners: Other Tooling Needed to Make Pens

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Dan Masshardt

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Getting Started: Other Tooling Needed to Make Pens

We are fortunate to see many new and prospective pen turners on a regular basis. That means - understandably - that the same questions come up frequently. I previously shared some advice for choosing a lathe. This post will cover some of the basic tooling required and some of the choices that you will have to make on how to go about the process. My attempt is to be fair to the options, even though I have opinions as to what I like best. Others will surely disagree and that’s fine. A forum and library search will yield many discussions, reviews and opinions on each of the areas mentioned. This post is not intended to be exhaustive, only to provide a brief overview for the beginning pen turner.

Cutting Pen Blanks - Pen blanks will usually need to be cut to the correct length for each pen style. For this task you will need some kind of saw. You could use a handsaw and a miter box, a powered miter saw, a table saw sled or a bandsaw. I’ve found a bandsaw to be extremely valuable for many different turning tasks and would recommend that you consider purchasing one at some point. For pen blanks, a bench top model will suffice. If you intend to turn bowls as well, a 14” (or larger) floor model will come in very handy.

Drilling Pen Blanks - although it is possible to buy pre-drilled pen blanks, there are not many options available and so you will initially or eventually need to find a way to drill a hole through your pen blank to glue the brass tube in. It is possible to do this with a hand drill but this is not ideal. Getting the hole straight through and without expanding the hole will be difficult. Woodcraft sells a vice that will hold blanks to use with a hand drill, but I have not used it personally.

The traditional method for drilling pen blanks has been to use a drill press and some sort of vice to hold the blank straight. This method is still very popular and it can work very well at drilling a blank straight through accurately. The important consideration here is to either choose a drill press that has a long enough quill travel to drill your longest pen tube or plan to raise the table or but a block under to raise the blank and complete the hole. Every drill press varies but often floor standing models have more quill travel than bench top models. To hold the blank straight, many different pen blank vises are available on the market. You might also use a wooden hand screw clamp with notches cut out as a budget option.

The other popular option is to drill on the lathe. This method requires the purchase of a Jacobs chuck (drill chuck) with the appropriate morse taper arbor for your tailstock as well as a chuck to hold your pen blank at the headstock. There is a dedicated pen blank drilling chuck available through a major supplier or you may purchase a scroll chuck with interchangeable jaws that can be used for many other turning projects such as bowls. If you choose the scroll chuck, you will need to purchase an additional set of jaws (either pin jaws or pen blank jaws). Make sure that the chuck will fit the threads on your lathe’s headstock.

Some turners instead choose to round their blanks between centers and then use a collet chuck to hold the blank for drilling. This requires the purchase of both the collet chuck body appropriately threaded for your headstock threads as well as a collet set.

You will need to obtain whatever drill bits are needed for the pen kits you want to use. There is some overlap between certain styles. There are also different styles and qualities of drill bits available. It’s best to do some additional research (and perhaps experimentation) to see which type you like best.

Squaring Pen Blanks - After the brass tube is glued in the drilled blank, some method must be used to ensure that the ends of the blank are square and flush with the brass tube. One common method to do this is with a pen mill / trimmer set. This consists of a cutter head with interchangeable shafts or adapters for each size tube. If used with the correct size shaft, this tool will clean out any glue residue that may be in the tube as well as squaring the ends. If you choose this option, you may want to purchase a small diamond hone to keep the cutter sharp. The pen mill is used in a drill or drill press.

There are other options for accomplishing this task as well. Several common methods involve using sanding methods to square the ends. You might choose to use a belt or disk sander with a jig to keep the blank properly aligned. Others use a sanding disk attached to a faceplate or arbor in the lathe’s headstock along with a transfer punch set in a Jacobs chuck in the tailstock.

An additional option that adds no additional cost if you already have a chuck is to trim and square the ends of the blank on the lathe. This method involves holding the tubed blank in a chuck or collet chuck and using a skew or parting tool etc. to trim the ends flush. There are other methods as well. These seem to me to be the most common.

Mounting the Blanks on your Lathe - There are two basic options for mounting your blanks on the lathe: turning on a mandrel and turning between centers (TBC)

If you chose to use a mandrel, you will need the mandrel itself. These are available through many suppliers and you should chose one that fits your lathe’s headstock morse taper - MT1 or MT2. Alternatively, you might consider purchasing a collet chuck and using it to hold a mandrel shaft. Adjustable mandrels are a good choice with this method as they can be shortened to the ideal length for the pen you are turning. You can choose to turn one or two blanks at a time with a mandrel.

You will also need a live center for your tailstock. You can choose either a 60 degree live center that will go into the divot at the end of your mandrel shaft or you can purchase a ‘mandrel saver.’ This version of a live center has a hole that the mandrel shaft slides through. The advantage of the mandrel saver is that it does not put pressure on the mandrel shaft which can lead to bowing and out of round pens. Using the live center that came with your lathe is not recommended as it is not a 60 degree center.

You will need bushings for each pen style that you choose to make. They are usually available through whomever you purchase your pen components (kits).

The other popular alternative is to turn between centers (TBC). With this method you will only ever turn one blank at a time. Instead of using a mandrel, a 60 degree dead center (often used with metal lathes) is purchased to fit your lathe’s headstock morse taper (MT1 or MT2)

You will also need a 60 degree live center (the same one mentioned above)

When turning between between centers, there are several methods used. It is possible to use stock bushings (except for 7mm pens) but not always advisable depending on the quality and precision of the bushings. One modification that can help is to use a center drill to put 60 degree chamfers in the stock bushings.

Another popular option is to purchase bushings specifically designed for turning between centers. They are not as extensively available but there are a few suppliers offering them. You might also have a machinist make them for you or make them yourself if you have the necessary equipment. TBC bushings have 60 degree chamfers cut in them and often are solid in the center. Generally the offer very good precision but add expense - especially if you are purchasing many sets.

A final option is to forgo the purchase and use of bushings and turn the pen directly on the centers. This method requires the use of a precision measuring tool such as digital calipers. This is necessary to measure the ends as one turns to ensure the correct size to match the pens components that will be pressed in.

If you choose to turn between centers, you might opt to purchase a shorter tool rest to get the rest close to the blank. With the frequently factory supplied 6” tool rest, it is difficult to get the rest close to the blank on many pen styles when turning between centers.

Turning tools - you will need at least one turning tool to round the blank and finish to size. High speed steel (HSS) tools are very common for various turning tasks. Common tools are gouges, scrapers, skews, and parting tools among others. HSS tools require sharpening, something which can be challenging (and add additional expense) for new turners. Sharpening can be done in various ways including a slow speed grinder, belt sander, other dedicated sharpening system and diamond or traditional sharpening stones / hones. Keep in mind that you will need some practice and possibly equipment for this task. This equipment can add expense , so do some additional research on systems and methods.

Although many different HSS tools can be used in pen turning, the most common seem to be the spindle gouge (of various sizes and shapes including the roughing gouge), the skew chisel (conventional and oval), the parting tool, and scrapers including tools like the spindlemaster.

Alternatively, you might choose to purchase and use carbide insert tools. These tools have small carbide cutters - available in a few different shapes that attach to the end of a dedicated turning tool. These cutters can be turned to a fresh edge when dull and then replaced (or possibly honed for a some extra life) when dull. These tools are attractive to many because sharpening skills and equipment is not required.

There is much discussion and sometimes debate about types of tools for pen turning. There are advantages and limitations to many tools and you will find experienced pen turners using a variety of tools - both HSS and carbide types.

Assembling the Pen - you will need a method to assemble the pen components into the turned and finished tubes. There are many choices for this task, some very inexpensive. You can use a vise (with something to cover the metal jaws) or a clamp to assemble the parts. There are inexpensive inserts available for purchase (or you can make) that will go into your lathe’s morse tapers to press the parts together. Some turners opt to purchase an arbor press to assemble parts. Others choose to purchase a dedicated pen press to assemble the parts.


There are, of course other supplies needed - glue or epoxy, blanks, components, sandpaper, finish, safety equipment… This post is intended to cover some of the equipment needed as well as the choices that a new pen turner has to make.

Have fun!
 
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flyitfast

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Dan, where were you when I started pen turning and my excess contribution to "The Vortex"! :eek:
You have written a very complete index to the planning needed to get started in pen turning and it should definitely be included in the Library. It answers all the previous posts (many, many) that ask that burning question - "What do I need?":confused: It is Chapter 1 in a pen turning book.
Thanks for taking the time to organize and write this post.
Gordon
 

Dan Masshardt

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Thanks guys. My hope is that it's helpful to new turners as well as giving us one source to point them to instead of lengthy posts everyone someone says, "I'm excited to get started! What do I need to get?" That frequent question tends to require long answers.

I hope my thoughts were fair to different methods. I certainly do have my preferences but that's not what I tried to accomplish.
 

shastastan

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Thanks guys. My hope is that it's helpful to new turners as well as giving us one source to point them to instead of lengthy posts everyone someone says, "I'm excited to get started! What do I need to get?" That frequent question tends to require long answers.

I hope my thoughts were fair to different methods. I certainly do have my preferences but that's not what I tried to accomplish.

I think you made a comprehensive and understandable post, Dan. There's obviously a lot of info available, but you can't include it all the first time around. Just yesterday, I was thinking that turning is really a lot more complicated than many people think. For me it's also a lot more challenging than wood carving, intarsia, and even making a murphy bed. YMMV.
 

LeeR

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The list of tools I am "forced" to buy just keeps growing. Like a monster that is incapable of being stopped. At best I've just slowed the beast. :biggrin:

I finally threw in the towel and bought a Wolverine jig. I could grind a skew with acceptable results, but my roughing gouge looks just plain old butt-ugly. I did have a nice aftermarket platform, which helped, I just found that rolling the gouges freehand was just too difficult to do and obtain a professional looking edge.

I bought a bowl gouge last year so I could try turning bowls, but have not tried it yet, since I did not want to ruin its good looks by introducing it to my grinder. :eek:

I have a Delta 6" grinder with a Norton wheel on one side, so I'll try that out for awhile with the Wolverine jig. Rather than adding a second Norton wheel, I'll get a slow speed 8" grinder sometime this year and invest in aluminum oxide wheels for it. I'm leaning toward the Rikon since it has aluminum oxide wheels standard. And then there are those pricey CBN wheels that look like a good upgrade. Oh yeah, I need to look into better options for honing, and then ... :biggrin:
 

shastastan

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I think I might have felt like you do at one time. There does come a time, though, when you just have to try sharpening. Like learning to use a skew, you just have to do it yourself. I just recently did that after my big skew just stayed in the tool rack for 7 years. I did buy a smaller one for pens. Look around and see if you can find something to practice on a little, like an old beat up screwdriver just to get the feel of your sharpening system. Yes, 1750 rpms rather than 3400rpms make a big difference in sharpening..
 

shastastan

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Remember Lee, there are a lot of different tools that accomplish the same end result. I'm by no means rich, but I don't think the Wolverine system is all that expensive--especially over time. I don't have that system myself, because I had already been using a belt sander. Whatever system/tool you have, the best way to use it is to practice with it. I'm just trying to learn the Joyner offset chuck now and I've sort of messed up a couple of pendants and that's because I didn't follow Captain Eddies advice and practice first. However, I have more of the same stock to use so the time spent was not a total waste either.

Learning is not all by practice though. I just bought an excellent book on chucks and how to secure your stock in a lathe. It's called," Fixtures and Chucks For Woodturning" by Doc Green. Great info in this book with lots of pictures. As I said in another post, turning is more complicated than many people think. Books like this and people like Capt. Eddie can really show you some valuable pointers and provide you with a reference to refer to on future projects. Finally, don't make the mistake (among many) that I did and buy a bunch of tools without carefully thinking about if you really need them and how often you will use them. I've ended up selling some of my tools that were like new for 50 cents on the dollar and this is not the way to go.
 

Kragax

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I am learning that this is an expensive start up for a hobby. I have been studying this for a while and think I have found ways around some of the initial expense like not buying a pen press right away and making my tube insertion tool. I do wood carving so I can sharpen tools by hand to a certain extent. I have spent time on a metal speed lathe in the past and sure wish I had access to one now. Anybody try turning delron or any of the harder nylon element with your wood turning tools?
 

Dan Masshardt

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I am learning that this is an expensive start up for a hobby. I have been studying this for a while and think I have found ways around some of the initial expense like not buying a pen press right away and making my tube insertion tool. I do wood carving so I can sharpen tools by hand to a certain extent. I have spent time on a metal speed lathe in the past and sure wish I had access to one now. Anybody try turning delron or any of the harder nylon element with your wood turning tools?

There are lots of ways to save money. Some people stick with inexpensive options permanently while others add on over time.

In my initial post I mentioned inexpensive options for many aspects of the process. You can use a small drill press and a handsaw and a vise or clamp. You can turn between centers without bushings. You can make your own bushings out of delrin or corian Etc. There are many ways to save money if you should desire.

I sharpen my skew, spindlemaster and parting tool almost exclusively on a $10 diamond card. I built a wooden jig to hold my roughing and spindle gouges until I later got a wolverine jig

Lots of options.

However, I now have most of the tools that I mentioned in my post and I can't think of any tool that I have that I regret. The only occasional regret is buying cheap versions to try to save money.

If I was a new turner today, the things I would spend money on first would be a scroll chuck with jaws, keyless drill chuck, high quality live center, carbide tip dead center and a short tool rest from Rick herrell.
 

BSea

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I am learning that this is an expensive start up for a hobby. I have been studying this for a while and think I have found ways around some of the initial expense like not buying a pen press right away and making my tube insertion tool. I do wood carving so I can sharpen tools by hand to a certain extent. I have spent time on a metal speed lathe in the past and sure wish I had access to one now. Anybody try turning delron or any of the harder nylon element with your wood turning tools?
I built my own pen press for about $15 using a pipe clamp, and a 24" piece of threaded pipe mounted to my bench. And one of the least used tools I have is the tube insertion tool. While I've never actually turned delrin, but I'm sure it will work fine. I've done aluminum on a wood lathe using a carbide tool. Others have even done stainless steel (using files, not turning tools). So delrin should be a breeze compared to those.
 

Cavediver

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Great post Dan. I wish this'd been around when I started last month!

I really wish I'd understood how easy it is to square blanks using a disc sander, punch, and drill chuck on the lathe. That $40 I spent on the pen mill would have bought a few decent blanks and kits...
 

shastastan

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As noted there are a lot of ways to save money . I found some in he book I mentioned above. Be careful about buying "cheap" stuff though. I bought a keyless chuck with #2 mt. for around $34. It wobbles. I then bought a South Bend keyless chuck for $69 and it works great. My point is that sometimes buying something cheap will cause you more frustration than nothing at all. Even with quality keyed chucks, you might still have to cut off part of the tang to give a workable drilling length. Research has been the key for me in the past few years. I wish it was available earlier.

Stan
 

shastastan

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Great post Dan. I wish this'd been around when I started last month!

I really wish I'd understood how easy it is to square blanks using a disc sander, punch, and drill chuck on the lathe. That $40 I spent on the pen mill would have bought a few decent blanks and kits...

I hope Dan doesn't think I'm trying to hijack his excellent post. I can't think of all the stuff at once like he can so I'm posting some as it pops into my head.

I too experimented with how to drill and square blanks. I was using a pen mill with a hand drill in holder while I held the blank. I still used a little disk sander for the outside. I then bought a pen vise and tried the floor drill press. I couldn't seem to ever get the holes straight and totally eliminate the run out. then I bought a pen chuck and drilled from the tailstock with a drill chuck. This gave me much better results after i cut off the tang tip on the chuck mt. I had already squared the ends on a disk sander, a 10" from HF that I use a lot. I had also tried the PSI trimmer bit in the tailstock, but didn't like it. One thing that I found I must always to is to have the blank very square before drilling using the pen chuck. I got a lot better centered holes when I did. I use a band saw to square the stock--always with a push stick!!
 

Warren White

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Some questions....

Dan said: "Although many different HSS tools can be used in pen turning, the most common seem to be the spindle gouge (of various sizes and shapes including the roughing gouge), the skew chisel (conventional and oval), the parting tool, and scrapers including tools like the spindle master."

I am one who has been turning for just a few months and started out with a carbide multi tip tool from PSI. I like it, but think I would like to step up a bit.

My friend who introduced me to this fascinating hobby and I are going to share the costs of a sharpening system. I am wondering what would be the best way for me to begin purchasing turning tools. I only have turned pens and that will continue to be my primary experience, at least for the foreseeable future. I want to try acrylic and have not done so out of concern for trying them with my current tool.

Is there a place to start in acquiring tools? Is there one or perhaps two gouges, chisels, etc. that would fill the bill most of the time? I have to say that while I am not the sort of person who looks at buying top-of-the-line, neither am I a bottom-of-the-line guy. If I should go with two tools, which would be the way to go? What size, etc. Do you have recommendations regarding manufacturers, suppliers, etc.?

Thanks in advance. Youse guys is great! (That includes youse gals as well!)
 

Dan Masshardt

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Dan said: "Although many different HSS tools can be used in pen turning, the most common seem to be the spindle gouge (of various sizes and shapes including the roughing gouge), the skew chisel (conventional and oval), the parting tool, and scrapers including tools like the spindle master." I am one who has been turning for just a few months and started out with a carbide multi tip tool from PSI. I like it, but think I would like to step up a bit. My friend who introduced me to this fascinating hobby and I are going to share the costs of a sharpening system. I am wondering what would be the best way for me to begin purchasing turning tools. I only have turned pens and that will continue to be my primary experience, at least for the foreseeable future. I want to try acrylic and have not done so out of concern for trying them with my current tool. Is there a place to start in acquiring tools? Is there one or perhaps two gouges, chisels, etc. that would fill the bill most of the time? I have to say that while I am not the sort of person who looks at buying top-of-the-line, neither am I a bottom-of-the-line guy. If I should go with two tools, which would be the way to go? What size, etc. Do you have recommendations regarding manufacturers, suppliers, etc.? Thanks in advance. Youse guys is great! (That includes youse gals as well!)

Everybody has their favorites and preferences.

For manufacturers / quality, you have your choice to purchase budget friendly tools that are halfway decent in quality (from China typically) or the higher end (usually brittish or American) tools.

The cost be be quite different.

Personally, my advice is to buy some tools from a place like pennstate industries. Learn to sharpen and use these tools and then consider replacing them with better tools as you discover your favorites / wear down the old ones.

My primary recommendations would be an oval skew and a spindle gouge of whatever size you want. I use my 3/4" skew and 1/2" spindle gouge on just about every pen. The other tool a reach for fairly often is the spindlemaster / versa chisel.

Hope that helps a little.
 

csr67

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Excellent post Dan! As a newbie to this, I just wish I'd found your post before I started a fury of buying to equip my new hobby! In the end, I learned most of what you posted by trial and error, but your instructions are very, very sound. Thanks!
 

shastastan

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Dan said: "Although many different HSS tools can be used in pen turning, the most common seem to be the spindle gouge (of various sizes and shapes including the roughing gouge), the skew chisel (conventional and oval), the parting tool, and scrapers including tools like the spindle master."

I am one who has been turning for just a few months and started out with a carbide multi tip tool from PSI. I like it, but think I would like to step up a bit.

My friend who introduced me to this fascinating hobby and I are going to share the costs of a sharpening system. I am wondering what would be the best way for me to begin purchasing turning tools. I only have turned pens and that will continue to be my primary experience, at least for the foreseeable future. I want to try acrylic and have not done so out of concern for trying them with my current tool.

Is there a place to start in acquiring tools? Is there one or perhaps two gouges, chisels, etc. that would fill the bill most of the time? I have to say that while I am not the sort of person who looks at buying top-of-the-line, neither am I a bottom-of-the-line guy. If I should go with two tools, which would be the way to go? What size, etc. Do you have recommendations regarding manufacturers, suppliers, etc.?

Thanks in advance. Youse guys is great! (That includes youse gals as well!)

You will find many different suggestions including some where a person only uses 1 or 2 tools for everything. I bought some tools just for pens. They are smaller and have short handles. Sounded like a good idea at the time. For whatever reason, I keep reaching for the larger tools with 12" handles. I just like them better. Just saying that the "pen tools" that I bought spend most of their time in the rack. I seem to have a bad habit of buying tools and then discovering that I don't like or need them after all. Don't make my dumb mistake. Think carefully before you buy. Regardless of what we tell you, it's you who has to make the final decision and spend the $$.

I do use my carbide tools a lot for pens though--but not exclusively.
 
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