The Zen of Pen Creation


I love pens. I remember as a young boy when I found my mother’s old Parker fountain pen stuck in the back of the desk drawer. I was immediately drawn to it, mainly because it was so different than the ballpoint pens that had replaced centuries of fountain pens only a decade before. I pestered my mother until she showed me how it worked, filled it with ink and let me write with it a little. Years of disuse had taken its toll and it soon ceased to work at all. I never forgot that fountain pen, though.

A few years ago, I saw a fountain pen made from wood in a magazine. I was instantly drawn to the thought that I, a woodworker, could make my own writing instruments. I ordered the materials and taught myself to make pens. I can’t stop. I have made well over 300 pens now, each unique and special as I match the pen to the writer. The deep texture of a purpleheart roller ball went to the author of mystery novels. The avid journal writer chose a lacy boxelder burl fountain pen. A dear friend commissioned a very special pen to give to her guide and mentor. The list goes on. If you love writing and what your pen says about you, I hope you will let me match you with the perfect wood pen.

Each pen begins with the selection of a piece of wood 5″ x 3/4″ x 3/4″. I favor the most exotic burls and woods in the world. After making over 300 pens, it is still difficult to predict what the wood looks like on the inside. I exam the grain and the ends of the wood to get an idea what might in there.
   The next step is to cut the blank to the lengths necessary for the pen. This is where the first artistic decisions take place. I try to place the prettiest part of the wood on the upper part of the pen for maximum appeal.The pile of cut off ends in the upper left are saved to make refrigerator magnets. More on those soon.
 Next, a hole has to be drilled exactly down the center of each blank. A brass tube will be glued in to received the metal pen fittings later. I use the vise to hold the blank perpendicular and steady. The large black hose on the right goes to a huge vacuum which keeps dust out of the air (and my nose) and the area clean while I’m drilling.  
   Here, all the blanks have been cut and drilled. The holes are exactly the size of the brass tubes.
The brass tubes are glued into the blanks next. I have learned the hard way to use latex gloves for this process or risk becoming permanently “attached” to my work. Here, I apply thick cyanoacrylate or CA glue (super glue) to the tube. Once on the tube, I have about 30 seconds to get everything done.  
  I rotate the tube as I push it into the blank to spread the glue over the entire surface. The blank is about a quarter inch longer than the tube, so there is about an eighth of an inch of wood beyond the end of the tube on each end.
Here are all the blanks, glued and drying. Notice I have put paper down over the kitchen table? This saves me in case some glue should drip, permanently affix the blank to the dining room table and my name to the list of doghouse dwellers.  
  Back to the drill press to square up the ends of the blanks to the tubes. Having the wood exactly square to the tube is important, as this is where the metal pen parts will meet up. If the wood edge isn’t perpendicular to the tube, there will be an unacceptable gap between the wood and the metal.This is accomplished by a pen mill, a set of sharp scrapers attached at 90 degrees to a long barrel. The rod is inserted into the tube and the scrapers clean up the wood to the top of the tube.
I stop when we get to the brass tube. It is very easy to go too far and cut away the brass tube as well. It takes a little practice to know exactly where to stop.  
  Here is a pen blank, mounted on a metal rod, all set to turn. The sliver metal pieces at each end of the block are called bushings and the exact width of the metal pen piece that will soon be attached. This provides me a target size as I turn off the wood.
 Here is the lathe, with the pen nearly complete. The lathe turns the wood rapidly and I use very sharp chisels to cut the wood to the size and shape desired. This is the artistic side of pen making.  
  Let’s back up a little and see it in action. The chisel is at the bottom right. I use several kinds of chisels, each with its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the wood. The more complex the grain, the more likely a gouge will have problems, so I use the Spindlemaker (shown). The gouge works better on straight grain woods.
The chisel is sharpened and honed to a very sharp edge. As the wood spins, the chisel peels the wood off in fine, wispy curls. These fly off and fall all over my arms and feet. I love this part. It is very relaxing. The wood smells great and the shavings tickle.  
  After turning off the corners of the block, I get my first chance to see what is going on inside the wood. I also start deciding what the final shape should be. I tend toward classic, subtly curved lines.
A little more work with the chisel and here we have the final shape. As you can see, the edges are flush with the bushings. Now it is time to start sanding.  
  I usually start with 100 grit sandpaper. I reduce the speed of the lathe and give it a good rubbing down. Occasionally there are small voids in the wood. I fill those with the dust and secure it with a touch of super glue.Watching someone sand wood is more boring than doing it, so I will spare you. I work through 200, 320 and 400 grits in order.
I have found the most durable finish is thin CA super glue. Other finishes I have tried don’t last very long with the daily use a pen endures. CA glue is much trickier to apply, but lasts much longer and shines glass-like.I cover my finger with a small plastic bag the metal pen parts come in. With the lathe turning on its slowest setting, I dribble on a thin coat of glue, smoothing it out with my finger. Thin CA sets in 10 to 15 seconds, so there isn’t much room for error.

It takes about five minutes for the glue to cure completely and be ready for the next coat. In between coats of glue, I will sand it lightly with 400 grit sandpaper. I put on between three and five coats of glue, depending on how it feels and looks.
Another advantage of using a CA glue finish is it fills any cracks or pits in the surface as it builds. It also can be tricky to keep smooth. There have been more than a few times I have had to sand it all off and start over again. One hint I have learned is to always use fresh glue. If it gets slightly old, it makes a big mess.
After applying the final coat of finish, I sand with micromesh sandpaper. This is the sandpaper used to finish violins. The grits run from 450 to 12,000.
After sanding to 12,000, the shine is pretty good. Not good enough for me, though.
I have found wheel buffing gives me the finish I want on my pens. I use two, the first being a red rouge, a fine grit polish.
The final step to finishing is the white diamond wheel. It has an extremely fine grit that polishes to a mirror finish. The polishes come in a stick that is applied to the spinning wheel.
This is what I hope for in a finish. It highlights the beauty of the wood and is strong and durable.
The final step is to assemble the pen. I am quite picky in the quality of the parts I buy. The metal pieces are electroplated with the expensive metals, such as platinum, gold and titanium. As 10k and 24k gold are soft and rub off easily, I only buy titanium gold alloys, which I have found to wear for many years of daily use. No sense having the beautiful wood wear longer than the metal.
The pen pieces are pressed into the brass tubes. The long arm of the pen press allows very minute adjustments. I carefully align the fittings to maximize the view of the grain.
 Here is a finished black ash burl Jr. Statesman. I pride myself in matching the wood grain between the top and bottom, restoring natures flow. This pen can be either a fountain or roller ball. I use the finest German-made ceramic roller ball inserts. The ink flows like a fountain pen, but dries instantly. Lefties love them! The ball, made from ceramic instead of steel, glides easily over paper and is like nothing I have ever experienced. Writing with one of these pens is so sumptuous, the creative juices flow naturally. This pen is in high demand for journal writers, authors and business professionals.

As you can see, I love making each and every pen. I love releasing the beauty Mother Nature has buried within each piece of wood. There is something about using a fine writing instrument. Unlock your muse today by selecting a handmade pen. What will your pen say for you?

 Posted by at 10:35 pm

  9 Responses to “The Zen of Pen Creation”

  1. This was great to see and read, Dan. I do feel special every time I use the set you made for me. I use the pen only to write in my “Books Read” log/journal. I’ve logged every book I’ve read from 1975.. I am a “list” person. The pen has become a specialty item and sits in the little box that holds my bookmarks on my library shelf. I need to send you the pencil. I dropped it earlier this summer and the tip was damaged. It may need new innards.. poor thing

    • An excuse to get together for lunch!! I have a spare mechanism for the pencil on hand. May cost you lunch, though. 🙂 I am honored to have a place at the “Books Read” list. This list must be getting quite long.

  2. Hi, I just bought two pens and want to know that you got my order and when I will receive them. They look beautiful! Laurie

  3. I just found your photos and description of making pens. I love my pen (and Dad’s) but appreciate them even more when I see all the work that goes into making them and the skills and tools that are required. I’m considering taking out an apple tree. Want any wood?

  4. Hi there,

    These are just beautiful and I enjoyed viewing the process you use to make them. I have a few questions if you don’t mind answering. Where do you purchase your exotic woods for these pens, where do you purchase the mechanisms for inside the pens and how long does it take you to make one approx.?

    Thanks for sharing 🙂


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