Crafting a Pen

When I tell someone that I made a pen, exactly what do I mean?  Over 90% of creating a pen has to do with producing the body of the pen. This is where most of the time, effort, and experience is involved. First let's look at the anatomy of a pen so that we're on the same page in our terminology.

This pen body is composed of two body pieces. Some pen designs have only one body piece (example). The section is the part of the pen immediately above the nib that you hold when you write. It connects the nib with the body. This is more noticeable in fountain pens, since most ballpoint pens don't have a separate section. The finial is the decorative top portion of the pen. The metallic trim pieces and mechanical components I selected for the pen pictured above are shown below.

Here we can see what the various parts of the pen look like before assembly. The metal accent parts for this pen are plated in chrome. Notice the two brass tubes where the upper and lower body sections go? These are important and we'll explore these in more detail below. For this pen, you extend or retract the refill by twisting the top cap. The small tube-like piece pictured just below the finial of this pen is the transmission. This is positioned inside the pen at the top. When you twist the top of the transmission, the motion is converted into a small push or pull on the top of the refill.

Once the body sections are complete, the actual assembly of the pen parts takes place. So in reality, when I tell someone that I made a pen, I'm really saying that I hand-crafted the body of the pen on a lathe and then assembled it with high quality components. This creates a functional work of art. Let me show you how I made the above pen so you get an idea of what's involved.

This pen body started out as a block of Bubinga, which comes from Equatorial Africa. I cut the block up into appropriate sized blanks on my bandsaw (typically 3/4" x 3/4" in cross section).

I then cut the blank to the appropriate lengths. You want each piece to be a little longer than the brass tube. These are the same brass tubes shown in the photo of the kit above.

Now we need to drill a hole through the central axis of the above blanks so we can glue the brass tubes inside. These brass tubes happen to require a 9mm hole. The diameter of the brass tubes varies depending on the style of the pen components I utilize. I find it easiest to drill these holes using my lathe. Once the holes are drilled, I use epoxy cement to glue the brass tubes inside the wood blanks.

Once the glue has hardened, I mill both ends of the wood blank so that they are smooth and perpendicular to the tube. The extra wood on each end is shaved down until I reach the brass tube. I do this for both the upper and lower body blanks. Here I am milling the ends on the lathe. Update: I now routinely use a disc sander for this step. I find it faster and produces a better result.

Here is what the blank looks like when it's ready for turning.

To hold the blanks for turning on the lathe, they are placed on a "mandrel" (the long rod-like structure that will fit into the lathe). Special bushings are placed into the brass tubes to keep the blanks centered on the mandrel. These bushings are specific for this pen type.

Here is the mandrel mounted on the lathe and ready for turning.
Update: I now routinely "turn between centers". Each body piece is individually mounted on the lathe  by supporting the brass tube at each end using cone-shaped supports. Although this method takes a little longer, I find that the results are more precise and consistent.

There are a number of different woodturning tools that can be used to "round down" the blank into cylinders. Here I am using a roughing gouge.

Here are the blanks after being turned round.

The wood has now been turned down to its final diameter. The bushings that are used have an outside diameter that is close to what you need for the pen. I use calipers to fine-tune it.

Now comes the sanding. I work my way up through multiple different grits until I get a flawless surface. At each stage, I examine the surface under 40x magnification to make sure there are no remaining sanding marks. Careful sanding is the key to a good finish.

Here are the body pieces removed from the mandrel after sanding is complete. You can see that the thickness of wood surrounding the brass tube is less than 1/16".

It's now time to put a finish on the wood. I have remounted the body pieces back on the lathe using coned-shape supports that fit into the ends of the brass tubes. I am applying the first coat of cyano-acrylate. This acrylic adhesive will dry to a rock hard surface. I usually apply 12 coats, letting it cure between each coat.  This forms a very hard and durable finish that will hold its high gloss for a long time.

The cyano-acrylate finish now needs to be wet-sanded to a glassy smoothness. Micromesh pads are used for this. They come in various grits starting with 1500 and going up to 12000 in nine steps. These are soaked in water, which acts as a lubricant. You then progressively sand the pieces with each grit. When done, I then polish each piece with a liquid polish and protect them with a coat of Renaissance wax that I buff to a high shine. This helps avoid fingerprints. The result is a mirror-like finish.

Here are the finished body pieces. You can see the glassy reflections from the finish. This gives a nice depth to the rich wood grains.

Here is the pen with all the components ready for assembly.

The various components are friction-pressed into the brass tubes of the pen body. This requires a fair amount of controlled force. I find that my drill press does a great job when used as a pen press.

Here is a close-up of the top piece being pressed into the upper body tube.  When pressing in the pen transmission, you have to take great care to get it into the precise location that will allow correct extension of the pen tip.

Finally, the completed pen. This model is called the "Bryce" and it takes a Parker style refill.