Finishing Pens
by Bill Grumbine


A few days ago the question was raised. How do you finish your pens quickly and with a high quality finish? The answer is a lot easier than a lot of people think. Sanding a pen and putting on a good, durable finish can be accomplished in less than a minute. There is no need for exotic sanding materials or complicated rituals, just attention to detail and a little practice.

Once a pen barrel is turned, it needs to be sanded. Sometimes sanding is needed to make it smoother, and sometimes, it is needed to rough it up a little. Sanding gives the wood a uniform surface with a uniform sheen. In the vast majority of cases, all that is needed is 220 and 400 grit paper. The lathe should be running at a lower speed, say in the 1500 rpm range. Remember, this is a teeny tiny spindle, so 1500 rpm isn't all that fast, like it would be for a 10" bowl. It is surface speed we are concerned with here.

Start by sanding the barrel to a uniform scratch pattern with 220 grit paper. If you have problems such as bulges or grooves, go down to 120 grit. Once the barrel is smooth with 220 grit, move up to 400. Conventional sanding wisdom says not to skip grits in between, but I have never had a problem doing this on such small pieces. Once the barrel is sanded to a uniform scratch pattern with 400 grit, you are ready for the final sanding step. There is no need to go to 600, 800, 1200, and so on up to micro mesh like some folks recommend.

Until now, all the sanding has taken place under power, with the lathe turning. Now we have to (gasp!) turn the lathe off for the final sanding. This is anathema for some turners, who think the only way to get sanding scratches out is to keep on turning and sanding under power to finer and finer grits. This method is faster, easier, cheaper, and ultimately, better.

With the lathe off, start sanding along the grain from one end of the barrel to the other. Rotate the spindle by hand, paying special attention to the ends of the barrels, which is where most mistakes are made. The goal is to remove circular scratches while not sanding the bushings. Sanding the bushings introduces metal filings to the wood surface. It also makes the bushings smaller, as well as irregular, and shortens their life.

Once you have removed all the circular scratches with the 400 grit paper, you're done! I used to demo this and proclaim how the scratches had "disappeared". When everyone would voice their agreement, I would remind them that the scratches were still there, and still the same size as the circular ones; we just couldn't see them anymore. This method works great on coarse woods like red oak. It also works great on woods like gaboon ebony or cocobolo, which are two of the hardest woods to get looking good on a pen.

Now it's time to make it shiny. Again, this is a lot simpler than lots of people make it out to be. If you are into making your own finish, have at it. I'm a turner, not a finish manufacturer, and I'd rather be turning than concocting some arcane formulation designed to work better than anything the commercial people can make. I have found that the people at Behlens know a thing or two about finishing products, and their Woodturner's Finish, which is a padding lacquer, is a great way to go for small turnings like pens. Another thing I have learned about this particular finish, is that if one actually follows the directions printed on the back of the bottle, one will achieve the desired results.

For pens, the finish may be applied full strength, right out of the bottle. Far and away, the best applicator I have found is a well used, well washed, white tube sock or cloth diaper. Now some of you younger folks may not know what a cloth diaper is, but we used about 10,000 of them when the kids were small, and they make great rags for other things once toilet training has been accomplished. Things not to use are cotton balls, new tube socks that you are never going to wear anyway, etc. You want a cloth that is as lint free as possible. Otherwise you will end up with the "wooly sheep" look, and I can testify from hard experience that the combination of padding lacquer and cotton fiber is hard enough to use as reentry plating on the space shuttle.

Crank the lathe up to high speed. I apply finish at top speed on my machine, which is about 3600 rpm. If you can't go that fast, don't worry. You can still get your pen shiny, it'll just take longer. Start with a WET rag, or more to the point, a WET spot on the rag. Keeping it WET is important for the first stages. If it is only damp, or dries out, you are going to get lap marks that will have to be removed. Start at one end of the barrel and move the rag SLOWLY across it to the other end. You want to keep the surface wet, but not dripping. Moving the rag too fast will cause lap marks, especially on dense woods like cocobolo. Continue to move the rag back and forth, gradually increasing the speed of movement. The combination of your movement and the spinning of the lathe will cause the surface to dry out behind your rag as you move along. Once you get it to the point where it remains wet, you are in good shape. At this point you can begin to buff the barrel by rapidly moving the rag back and forth. At a certain point, the finish will "pop", becoming very shiny. You can switch to a dry section of rag once you are satisfied with the sheen you have achieved and continue to buff it lightly for a few seconds. The friction generated will help the finish to dry out quickly. Too much pressure will cause the finish to melt and clump up, so gentle is the operational word here.

Now, turn the lathe off and inspect your work. You should have a very shiny barrel with no sanding or lap marks. The next thing to avoid is fingerprints. Make sure the finish is dry, or at the least make sure you can handle the barrel by its edges only. Put it aside to cure completely. The finish will be cured to the point that it may be handled in about 30 minutes or so, depending on temperature and humidity.

So how durable is this finish? Nothing lasts forever, and this stuff falls under that category. For some reason pen turners are determined to find a finish that will outlast the pyramids. Pens get rough treatment. The are carried around in pockets or purses, roll around in drawers, and are held in hands with an infinite variety of chemical makeups. Searching for that ultimate finish will only cause you grief and make your hair fall out. However, I have found this finish to have that unique combination of ease of application and reasonable durability. If someone asks you if the finish is going to wear off, look them right in the eye and say "Yes." Then you tell them that like any fine piece of furniture, the pen will develop a patina that only comes with use by its owner, and that is what gives it its unique characteristics. The best part is, all of what you have just said is true, compared to the guy who will lie through his teeth and tell a customer he has a finish that will never wear off. Just about everyone will accept your answer and buy your pen. The rest are usually people looking for something that doesn't exist anyway and are miserable no matter what.

Good luck and go practice. You will have great looking pens before you know it.


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© 2003 by Ellis Walentine by special arrangement with Wayne Miller of Badger Pond. All rights reserved.
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