"The Swanson"
A maple scrap-wood pen.
-Allen Keehall-
Goal: Years ago I lost my favorite wood pen at an Atlanta eatery.  Perhaps the scary animatronic animal heads distracted me and I forgot it on the table after finishing an engineering sketch on a napkin.   I really miss that pen and I've always wanted to try making one of heirloom quality.

Background: I once worked with a fellow named J. Swanson (only first initial for his privacy).  JS was one of the nicest people you'll ever meet.  I didn't relate to his whimsical illegal substance issues but we did share some musical and woodworking interests.  My background was more in guitar repair.

One day the subject of electric guitars came up and he told me that his brother had just been incarcerated.  He was tasked to clean out his house and found a 5-gallon jug half filled with blackberry wine and a good amount of very well aged rock maple in the basement.  JS had in the past made an electric guitar from this lot and wasn't interested in making another.  So he brought me samples and I was rather impressed with both the wine and the maple.  Sorry to say, I only got a pint of wine.  But this maple was the hardest wood I'd ever encountered and he was kind enough to give me a large box of these 2 foot long pieces in various thicknesses and widths; mostly rough-cut with some planed sides.

For about 6 years this box moved around with me until I parked it in my father's garage.  Ten years later and to my discomfort, I discovered that he had been using it to make jigs and other unworthy things.  I wasn't too happy with that, but he's been known to use AAA furniture grade lumber for much worse things.  So I took one of the scrapped jigs and rescued the wood in an attempt to balance the universe.

I'd never made a pen, but how difficult could that be?  You buy the hardware and go from there.  I'm not going to go into the fine details of pen turning or sourcing, but I made all the turning jigs and bushings from drill rod.  I'm not showing you how to turn a pen here, but I think the venture is worth discussing.

Construction: I originally planed the scrap because you really want a nice square piece to reference on a vise and make the pilot hole with a drill press.  There are a few schools of thought on drilling the pilot hole, but I've figured out an easier way than on a drill press and using fancy jigs.  I mark the centers on both ends of the raw stock, use a live-center on the tailstock, use a small "pin" center in the lathe chuck, and use a rubber bumper around the chuck center; pushed tightly against the jaws and the wood blank.

I turn the material and the bumper acts like a lathe-dog, until it's mostly round.  Then I chuck it (no centers), clean it up really nice, section for the pen top and bottom since the drill bit isn't long enough for the entire length of a pen, then flip the work piece to finish the cleanup and drill both pieces.  EASY!  You can get a better look at the process here.

Conclusion:  This is my fourth pen, and I'm still getting the hang of it.  But I think the next one will meet my 99.95% satisfaction standard.  This one came close except for a couple of imperceptible issues.

A Few Notes:  I'm using a metal lathe for turning, so working the wood chisels is a little difficult with a temporarily rigged rest.  But the cleanup steps are easy with a metal lathe (use of carriage).  The pen hardware will vary.  And even with wood, I like to keep things to within 0.003".  So keep calipers handy!

I use epoxy to set the brass tubing, since you can't get a tight fit after drilling and certain species are too porous for thin adhesives.  I also have difficulty keeping the grain clean with silicon carbide sandpaper (use methanol or a gum eraser for cleaning), so with lighter woods stay with aluminum oxide or garnet.

I've been using cyanoacrylate and boiled linseed oil for the finish.  With practice it provides either a satin or gloss surface without giving it a heavy lacquer or plastic feel.  -4/23/2007-
Maple and nickle, adjustable clip.
 Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.  -Scott Adams-
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