This article was published in the Summer 2005 edition of Woodturning Design.
If you would like to be notified when I post a new article, send me an email. I'll only use the list for that purpose, and I'll mail blind cc so your address won't be any the worse for spam.
So, you spend a lot of time and energy on a pen from a kit, carefully turning, sanding, and polishing. Then you put it in your pocket and about all anybody sees is the metal pen clip—which some probably equally hardworking guy from Taiwan made. That metal clip also severely constrains your design options. This article is about my attempts to change that by making my own clips out of wood by laminating veneer into a curve. The laminated clip is glued to a small block which is cut to match the barrel diameter. I’ve tried several other wooden clip solutions such as split turning and multi-center turning, and they did work. This method, however, gives a clip that both looks more graceful and “pen-like”, and is more flexible to securely hold the pen in pockets of varying thicknesses of cloth.
The laminate is very thin, about 1/16”, depending on veneer thickness. But it’s stronger than it looks. Because three separate layers are glued together, the grain will run in three slightly different directions. This makes the clip much more resistant to splitting. I have carried laminated clips in my pocket without failure for significant periods of time. Wood is not, however, as strong or durable as metal, however, which you must consider (or educate the buyer) if you sell your work.
Because it’s probably better to try just one new thing at a time, first I’ll describe making a pen with only the clip being substantially different from a standard kit. Then I’ll briefly describe making a more decorated pen with a wooden clip, ferule, and center band for maximum design latitude.
Basic Pen—Just the Clip
I began by making a bending form for the Clip Blank. Starting with the length of a stock clip as a guide, I sketched what I wanted the clip to look like. You can use the plan in Drawing A or draft your own. Avoid sharp bends. I added some overrun on each end and transferred the drawing to a piece of 1 x 1 ½ x 2 ½” thick maple (big enough for two clips). I cut carefully along the line with a scroll saw. You could use a band saw, but you may have to sand out the “wash boarding” left by the coarser blade. The veneer stack is approximately the same thickness as the kerf, so I didn’t have to worry about differentiating the radius of the curves.
Using the back of one of the bending form halves as a template I traced three veneer pieces and cut them out with scissors. I put them on newspaper to contain slop-over, squeezed some polyurethane glue on two of them, and spread the glue with a thin piece of cardboard. Then I stacked the veneer pieces, wrapped them in waxed paper to prevent gluing to the bending form, and clamped them between the two halves of the bending form. I let the Clip Blank cure overnight.
To prepare the Pen Blanks I started with a 5/8” turning square and wrapped masking tape around the kerf location to keep track of which were the middle ends. I cut the bottom blank the usual length, but cut the top blank about ½” longer than the tube. I drilled the bottom tube through as usual, but drilled the top blank from the middle just deeper than the tube. I spread polyurethane glue inside the blanks and inserted the tubes. You may wish to tape or clamp the tube in the top blank to avoid it being forced out a bit by the foaming glue. I let the Pen Blanks cure overnight.
Preparing the Clip
I use CAD generated templates for the clips because it’s easier to get the clip symmetrical than from a pencil sketch, and because it’s easier to cut to a line I can really see. You can make a photocopy of one of the clips from Drawing A or draw your own. I printed out the template, cut it out outside the lines, and glued it to the Clip Blank with Post-it Note Glue (now called Scotch Restickable Adhesive Glue Stick?). Then I cut out the clip with my scroll saw. A coarse bandsaw blade would likely destroy something this thin and curved, so if you don’t have a scroll saw I suggest sawing by hand with a fret saw or coping saw.
After the clip was cut out I sanded it. If you use any kind of power sander be careful you don’t sand clear through a veneer layer. Since it’s so small, sanding by hand instead won’t take long. I applied finish to the underside of the clip (less the top ½”, which I masked off) because it will be inaccessible after assembly.
Turning the Pen
I mounted the pen blanks on a standard pen mandrel for turning (I don’t usually use one, and I prefer other ways, as it’s so long that vibration of more of a problem. But I wanted to show doing this with equipment most people have). As the top blank isn’t drilled through I used old excess tubes to take up space at the headstock end, and engaged the tailstock in the end of the top blank. As the barrel trimmer didn’t get the corners of my blanks, I started with a bushing in between the blanks. After I roughed the blanks to round with a roughing gouge I moved the bushing between the blanks to the headstock end. I didn’t need to use the bushing in between the blanks anymore because I was avoiding the design constraints of the center bushing by not using it.
Next I used a parting tool to size the body of the upper blank to ½”. This diameter matches a ½” round file, which I’ve found to be the easiest way to make a matching profile for the Clip Block. I turned a small bead near the top. Besides being an interesting detail, it gives a reference when gluing on the Clip Block and covers up the joint. I reduced the rest of the pen to ½”, and turned a cove and bead in the lower blank. Then I tapered the lower blank to the bushing. I held the ferule up against the pen to make sure the angles were about the same.
Once I was satisfied with the shape I sanded the pen. Then I masked off the top ½” (to avoid finish—glue problems) and applied a friction polish. Using CA glue as a finish would avoid this problem. It’s not a good idea to run a standard mandrel without tailstock support, so I left a nub at the top end. After removing the blanks from the lathe I cut off the nub, then sanded and finished the end by hand.
Making the Clip Block
To make the Clip Block I started by cutting a piece of wood matching the clip to 3/8 x 3/8 x 1/2”. Then I clamped it in a vise and used a ½” round file to create a recess on one long side that matches the barrel diameter. If you don’t have a round file this big, then you can turn a dowel and wrap sandpaper around it (when turning the dowel, be sure to allow for sandpaper thickness). You could also use a router table and a round bottom bit if you did a long enough strip to be safe. I checked frequently as I filed to make sure the recess was in the middle, and stopped when I had sharp edges on both sides.
To start assembly I spread a coat of medium CA glue to the Clip Block recess and clamped it to the top of the barrel with a small Quick Grip Clamp. Yes, super glue sets fast, and finger pressure may be all that’s necessary, but a lot of stress will be on this small joint, so I clamped it. After giving the glue a while to cure I held the clip up against the barrel and traced about where it should be cut. It looks more graceful if the clip angles in towards the top of the pen. After the glue cured I applied finish to the unfinished parts of the pen barrel and the Clip Block. This is harder to do after the Clip is in place.
At first I tried cutting the block close to the dimensions I wanted and then filing to fit. This worked, but I had trouble maintaining a truly flat surface, as any rocking of the file would round over the block. So I made a jig. I took a scrap block, about 2 ½ x 4 x 1 ¼”, drew a V-notch 3/8” deep about ½” from one end, and cut the V-Notch on the bandsaw. Then I ripped a strip about ½” off of one side, ripped it again to ½” thick, and drilled a hole in the strip about 1 ½” from the V-Notch end. I used the hole to screw the strip to the block, lining up the V-Notches. The hole was bigger than the screw, allowing the strip to pivot a bit. I had to cut the front of the jig on an angle to provide clearance, and to lower the front edge of the V-Notch a bit to get the clip in to test for fit.
To use the jig I put the pen barrel in the V-Notch, with the Clip Block up against the side of the block, and tightened the screw. Yes, a carriage bolt and wing nut would be a good investment for heavy use. Then I trimmed the block oversize on the bandsaw, and then adjusted the fit by sanding on a disk sander, pausing frequently to check the fit of the clip.
Once I was satisfied with the fit of the Clip, I removed the barrel from the jig. I spread medium CA glue on the top of the Clip Block and clamped the clip in place with a Quick Grip Clamp, being careful to keep it aligned with the barrel. After the glue had a chance to cure I removed the clamp, and corrected any Clip/Block misalignment with a small knife and sandpaper. Then I touched up any unfinished areas. The last step was to press the ferule and twist mechanism into the lower barrel. Ready for my pocket.
Using a laminated wooden clip can open up additional design freedom. Since the clip isn’t attached by an end cap, additional decorative elements can be added above the clip. Adding a turned center band and ferule can completely free you from the kit constraints. About the only design constraint left is that the pen has to be comfortable (or at least possible) to hold. In this part of the article I’ll briefly describe these extra steps. The result is a fancier (if not gaudy) pen. The stock was prepared in much the same way except the upper body blank was about 3” long.
Ferule and Lower Body
To make a wooden ferule I mounted a piece of Maple (about 5/8 x 5/8 x 1 ½”) in my collet chuck. After turning it round and squaring off the end, I drilled a 1/8” hole 13/16” deep. Then I drilled about ½” deeper with a #45 drill. I turned a ¼” long tenon to fit in the pen tube, spread some CA glue on the tenon, then used the tailstock to clamp the lower barrel to it. Once the glue cured I cut off the ferule ¾” past the barrel blank.
I cut a 3/8” long piece of 5/8” square maple for the center band, and drilled it through with a D bit. I mounted a D drill blank in my collet chuck to use as a mandrel. I mounted a small scrap block, the center band blank, and the barrel/ferule blank, holding it on the mandrel with the tailstock. Then I turned all these parts to shape, sanded, and applied finish.
Upper Body with Band and Inlay
To turn the Upper Body I mounted a the scrap block and the Upper Blank on the D drill blank held in my collet chuck, again using the tailstock to hold it in place. I turned a 3/8” tenon about 1 ½” long on the end of the Upper Blank, then glued on a ¾” long piece of maple that had been drilled through with a 3/8” drill. When the glue was dry I turned the Upper Barrel to shape. Previously I had prepared some stock for inlay by gluing four thin Camateo pieces around 1/8” square pewter wire and then turning it to ¼” round. I marked the barrel at three spots 90° apart (the clip covers the vacant spot) and drilled shallow ¼” holes. Then I used CA glue to glue in the inlay rod in each hole in turn, cutting it off flush after the glue cured. Then I turned the inlay flush and turned the finial. I sanded, applied finish, and attached the clip as before.
I took two pieces of Camateo and fastened them together with double stick tape (a quick, easier to clean off, substitute for a paper joint; I learned this from Glen Zepp of the SCPT). I mounted it between cup centers to avoid splitting the joint, and turned a tenon to fit in my collet chuck. I mounted it in the collet chuck and turned a finial, sanded and finished it. I cut off the finial and separated the halves. I cleaned away tape residue with mineral spirits and glued the half finial on the clip.
Well, after all this, final assembly is easy. The only part to be pressed in is the twist mechanism. In or out of pocket, this pen doesn’t hide.
Materials and Supplies
Twist Pen Kit
5/8” turning square for pen blanks
Matching or contrasting veneer for clip
Scrap wood for jigs
Post-it Note Glue or other temporary bonding glue
Tools appropriate for pen turning
½” round file
Sandpaper and Finish
Twist Pen kits are available at most turning suppliers
Post-it Note Glue is available at large office supply stores.
A wide variety of files are available at metalworking supply houses, such as MSC (www.mscdirect.com, 1-800-645-7270.
David Reed Smith lives in