Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pen Making 2008


My focus always seems to move in the fall from sailing to wood working. This year has been just like that. I have turned about 20 pens so far this fall, and I would like to do maybe another dozen before Christmas. They are a great fund raiser for my shop. I always manage to sell a few to friends, and the rest make great gifts.


Most of the pens I make are based on the Comfort Pen kit from Penn State Industries. I like them for several reasons. The design is very forgiving. I don't have to worry about getting diameters exact. And if the barrels end up a little short, they still work fine. After all the prep work I can turn and finish a Comfort Pen in about 10 minutes. The prep work, however, takes a long time.


This year I have branched into a new kit. It is called a Designer pen. It makes a larger pen that is very nice looking. This particular kit requires greater attention to detail as there are several cuts and diameters that must be done with precision. The top and bottom barrels are different lengths, and the outer diameters are different also. There is a tenon joint that must be turned onto the upper barrel. That process requires me to stop the lathe repeatedly to take measurements. I may get faster as I get more practice, but right now the process takes at least twice as long as it does to make the Comfort pen. The results are pretty impressive and I might be able to sell these for twice as much!


I finish my pens by sanding to 400 grit, then polishing to 2000 with EEE Ultrashine. The finish I use is Shellawax Cream. It is a mixture of shellac and carnauba wax. I apply it to the spinning pen parts with a paper towel. The friction causes enough heat to melt the wax and cure the shellac. According to the instructions, it penetrates the surface of the wood rather than coating it. And that seems to be true. The shine of the Shellawax is only slightly more shinny than the wood that you put it on. So if the wood is not glossy smooth before you apply the Shellawax, it will not be shinny when you are done. If the wood is not well polished the Shellawax finish will become dull when the pen is handled. It is also true that it will not hold a high gloss shine on porous wood.


It appears that Shellawax has been reformulated since I bought it last. The first batch I got was smooth and creamy. The one that just arrived was filled with granulated wax, some of it in lumps. I sent a message back to Pen State Industries, but they so far have not replied. The good news is that it still works. The granulated wax still melts and provides a nice polish.


I experienced a couple of failures in my recent round of pen making. I don't know if it is good news or bad, but I now think they were all errors on my part.


The first problem I had was a batch of epoxy that did not set up. I initially thought that I just had some old epoxy. It was the 5 minute variety. It seemed to be setting up, but when I started trimming the blanks I noticed that the tubes were moving. The wood blanks were my favorite wood too! I have just a few scraps of it left. Many years ago I salvaged some olive wood from the burn pile on the family ranch. It is a very highly figured wood and it has sentimental value.


I logged on to the pen making group at Yahoo Groups and asked if anyone knew how to get epoxy off when it doesn't set up. I was able to learn that it probably didn't work because it was mixed with too much hardener. One must be careful to make sure you always are mixing equal amounts of both parts of the epoxy! The online discussion also recommended using acetone to remove the gooey glue. I soaked the parts in the acetone (aka: nail polish remover) and I was able to disassemble the tubes from the wood blanks. The glue then became hard when exposed to the air. I don't know yet if I will be able to salvage the wood blanks, but I am going to try.


The second problem I had was with the new Designer pen kit. I managed to get 3 or 4 of them together without incident. Then for some unknown reason I could not get the ink cartridge to go into the barrel (after pressing in the mechanism). I had no idea what was going on. I thought maybe I had some glue in there that had gotten loose and got in the way.


I poked a length of wire through the pen barrel and it went right through. But still the ink cartridge would not go in! I created a tool that I thought I could use to pull the pen mechanism out of the barrel, and that didn't work. I gently gripped the mechanism with pliers and tried to pull it out, it would not budge. At this point I knew I was going to have to sacrifice the mechanism to get the pen apart. I kept increasing the carnage until I was finally drilling out the old mechanism. When I finally got most of it out I turned the pen barrel over, and out falls the little rubber cap that comes on the end of the ink cartridge! Wow, I felt stupid. In my rush to assemble the pen I neglected to take the rubber cap off the cartridge and I managed to cram it into the pen barrel where it made a nice effective plug.


The good news is that my surgery was successful. I was able to drill out the old mechanism and remove the problem. I replaced it with a new one and reassembled the pen. No harm, no foul. And now I have a good start on a collection of spare parts. If you do this hobby long enough, you will eventually have some wood that self destructs on the lathe, or pencil mechanisms that fail, or just some days when you don't pay enough attention and you get to invent new errors like I do! So the spare parts are not such a bad idea. (In therapy they call that a "re-frame"!)


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