4. Pens, Watches and Small Personal Items

    Pens, pencils, pocket watches, and other personal items are excellent candidates for the "bare wood" finish discussed in Part 3 of this series. Various sources have described the "best" finish as a friction polish, such as lacquer, shellac, CA glue, epoxy, and other materials. I agree that all will look good when new, and that some will wear longer than others, but all will succumb to the wear and contact with perspiration and body acids from daily use. Some of these finishes may outlast the 24k plating on the fittings, but none will outlast the Titanium-Gold plating on the premium pen fittings.
    Consider that the best finish for these personal items may be none at all. The natural wood will develop a patina and a polished oil finish from use and exposure to our body oils. The finish will never wear away; instead, it is maintained and enhanced by daily use and handling. I use Perfect Pen Polish (PPP)® by Hut Products as a temporary protection on a highly polished natural wood surface. The finish is removed by wear and replaced with body oils after a short time of regular use, and the transition is unnoticeable.

Finishing Naturally
    Turn and sand the pen barrels as described by the parts suppliers' literature, but sand through at least 1500-grit. I usually sand dry to 320, and then wet sand with the finer grits up to 2000-grit, using Watco® Liquid Finishing Wax as a lubricant. Then I burnish the wood until the wax is dry with a piece of grocery-bag paper (2500-grit). Any good quality finishing wax can be used instead of the Watco® product.
     The Perfect Pen Polish (PPP) is then applied as directed on the package with the lathe running at full speed. You will now have a highly polished natural wood surface that has a temporary wax protection. It may not have the most surface gloss now, but it will be the best looking after several months of daily use.

Hardening The Wood With CA Glue
     Soft, porous, or cracked wood can be hardened and stabilized with thin CA glue after dry sanding with 320-grit. An applicator for the CA can be made by covering a strip of 1" masking tape about 1" long with synthetic batting (available in any sewing supply store). Then wrap another piece of tape around the center, leaving a " long applicator on either side of the tape handle. The batting material has no reaction with the CA glue, while the cellulose in either paper towel or cotton cloth acts as an accelerator. Then resume sanding with either 280 or 320 to remove all of the CA on the wood surface because it is being used as a filler, not as a finish.

Plastic Pen Barrels
    There are many acetate and acrylic materials, such as crushed Velvet, available for turning pen barrels. These plastic materials require somewhat different turning and finishing techniques from wood because of their low melting temperatures. It is an absolute requirement that NO heat can be generated during the turning, sanding, or finishing of plastics. Judging from the poor quality of finish that I often see on these materials, many turners are not aware of this difference between wood and plastic.
    Use a very sharp tool for turning, and watch the chips that are being formed. The chip should curl off the tool in a continuous flowing unbroken ribbon. If it is breaking up into little balls, the plastic is getting too hot in the cutting area and it is melting. Use a slower lathe speed or take a lighter cut with a tool that is honed to a keener edge. Sometimes both are needed. If the problem persists, wipe the surface with a little kerosene before turning each pass. The smoke that is generated will prove that the kerosene is doing its job.

Sanding Plastic
    Wet-sand the barrel, using kerosene as the lubricant, at a medium lathe speed no faster than about 600 RPM. Finish with 600 grit. Then run the lathe a bit faster, but not over 1200 RPM, and wet-sand with Crocus Cloth, again lubricated with kerosene. Keep the surface very wet to prevent any heat from ruining the surface finish. Crocus Cloth has a 1200-grit jeweler's rouge abrasive on a cloth backing.
Wipe the surface clean. If it isn't highly polished, or it has circular sanding-type rings, the surface got too hot. Start over at a slower lathe speed, and use more kerosene.
    Wax is an optional step to give some temporary protection to the surface. If you wish to use a stick-wax product, use only the white (or light colored) PPP by Hut Products. The dark wax has abrasives that aren't needed after using the crocus cloth. DO NOT use a hard carnauba wax stick such as Libron, regular Hut, etc. They are too hard and their melting temperature is so high that they can melt and "drag" the plastic surface before they start to flow. The PPP has a lower melting temperature that will not damage the plastic. Cocobolo and Ebony woods respond very well to the same sanding and finishing treatment as the plastic.

An Alternate Finish
    One of the shellac based friction polishes can be used for a higher gloss and a more durable finish. It will wear longer than the wax, but it will still be removed by wear and exposure to body oils and acids. Therefore it is still necessary to sand the wood to the same high polish as described.
    My favorite of these finishes is Shellawax, but there are similar products by Mylands, Hut, Penn State, and others. Remember to use a small amount and at a high lathe speed as described in Section 10 - Friction Polishes.

CA Glue As A Finish
    Michael Dresdner describes a unique method for using cyanoacrylate (CA) glue as a finish on his website, This finishing requires a slow acting CA glue, and the slower the better. Most of the "thick" varieties with a cure time of 1-minute will work. The application of the finish is quick and simple, and takes about as long as it takes the CA glue to cure. Using a faster glue requires a faster reaction on our part and increases the risk of permanently attaching the pen barrel to the mandrel (a risk whenever using CA glue on a pen)

  1. Sand the pen to at least 600-grit, and wipe it clean with a clean paper towel.
  2. Apply a liberal coat of the "Thick" CA Glue. Make sure it is a uniform coat that covers the entire pen.
  3. Immediately apply a liberal coat of Boiled Linseed Oil.
  4. Increase the lathe speed and buff the finish with the wet rag that was used to apply the Linseed Oil.
  5. When the danger of slinging the finish in your face has passed, increase the lathe speed to as fast as it will go, and buff the finish with a clean towel until it is dry.
    The result will be a awesome gloss that will last longer than anything else that you can put on the wood. However, like all good things, there is a price to pay for the gloss and durability. This is a CA glue finish and it will have the appearance of being a plastic, and it will wear like a plastic rather than like a wood. The gloss finish on a plastic will become dull from the tiny scratches that are made on its surface from use and wear, while wood has the unique ability to take on a more polished patina when exposed to the same conditions.

© 2002 - 2009 by Russ Fairfield. All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.