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Turning Pens – Tips For Creating A Durable High Gloss Finish
One of the most enduring quests of woodturners is the pursuit of a perfect pen finish. A perfect finish would provide exceptional durability and visual clarity, with a deep and rich “wet” look. While this is a size order for any pen finish, careful selection of pen blank material, combined with advanced finishing protocols, can provide a near-perfect pen finish. Plastic and stabilized wood blanks offer a great option for pen turners looking to create durable glossy finishes for their hand-turned writing pens.
One of the most challenging aspects of creating a durable, glossy pen finish is the typical environment that pens are subjected to during use. Getting in and out of pockets, purses and desk drawers, coupled with the natural oils and sweat from our hands, makes it difficult for many finishes to retain their shiny finish. Additionally, some hardwoods are considerably less dense than others, allowing the shafts of softer hardwoods to be easily damaged.
Denser native woods and most exotic woods are a better choice in many cases for a very durable pen body. However, softer hardwoods can be used with equal success if the blank has been stabilized with thin acrylics or penetrating epoxies before turning on the lathe. These “stabilized” pen blanks are an excellent choice for wooden writing pens. Stabilized pen blanks provide greater barrel surface hardness and durability compared to using natural woods.
Pen blanks in alternative materials
Alternative materials such as plastics, acrylics, stabilized exotic and native woods, horn, deer antler, fossilized ivory, cast acrylics and similar materials can easily produce a brilliant luster when used for pen barrels. Some materials, both natural and man-made, can be polished to a higher luster than others. For example, plastics can be easily polished to 12,000 grit, producing a visually stunning and deep effect. wet look into the surface of the barrel.
However, natural woods do not produce the same degree of luster as plastics, even when sanded to the same abrasive level. Stabilized pen blanks generally produce a higher luster than the same wood without stabilization. This is because the acrylics and epoxies used in the stabilizing process allow the barrels to be polished to a higher level than untreated wood blanks.
Advanced abrasive and finishing protocols
In addition to careful barrel material selection, the application of advanced abrasive and finishing protocols can go a long way in providing long-lasting, lustrous pen finishes. Proper surface preparation, including sanding and polishing the barrel surface before applying the desired finish, will allow the finish to expand the underlying honed surface. This will produce a much higher perceived level of shine on the surface of the barrel.
High performance cloth backed abrasives are available to produce a 12,000 grit surface. At this ultra high level the human eye cannot see the surface scratch pattern resulting in an exceptionally high level of gloss. raised to the surface. Careful selection of barrel finish can also affect the overall luster and longevity of the finish.
Types of Finishes for Stabilized Pen Blanks
Waxes are among the easiest finishes to apply, but may not last long with normal use on a writing pen. Shellac rubbing varnishes offer better overall durability than waxes and are also easy to apply. Lacquers provide even greater durability, but require multiple coats and extended drying times between coats. Cyanoacrylate Esters (CA or Super Glue) and Binary Epoxies provide extreme durability, but require advanced application protocols. For this and other reasons, plastics are growing in popularity, especially where a high gloss sheen is desired.
Basic Protocol for Finishing Plastic and Celluloid Pen Blanks
If possible, use steroid coated abrasives or wet-dry abrasives to avoid loading the abrasive surface when sanding. To achieve the highest luster and clarity from the surface of the plastic barrel, you have two options:
- Sand with traditional or wet-dry abrasives up to 1200 grit. Then buff the barrel surface with a plastic lathe polishing compound. A cloth buffing wheel loaded with a fine plastic polishing compound can also be used to increase the luster to the desired level.
- Sand with standard micro-mesh abrasives, which can be used wet or dry and are available in nine grits from 1500 to 12000 grits. The visual surface when polished to 12000 grit is nothing short of spectacular, making the plastic so shiny it looks liquid.
An added benefit of using plastics for your pen bodies is that the plastic surface can be polished to a high luster, without the need for a surface finish. Since there is no surface finish on the body of the pen, nothing can wear off over time like you would with a traditionally finished wooden pen.
A high quality preservative microcrystalline wax should be applied to provide additional protection to the shiny surface of the barrel. Micro waxes offer excellent resistance to moisture, acids, alcohols and moderate heat and will not leave fingerprints on the high gloss surface.
Basic protocol for finishing stabilized wood blanks
If you prefer to use wood for your pen bodies, choose a stabilized pen blank if possible, for the best durability and surface luster. To produce a glossy finish on a stabilized pen blank, follow these simple steps:
- Sand barrels to 600 metric grit and remove all dust. Apply lacquer sanding sealer (cut 50/50 with lacquer thinner) to the surface and wipe off any excess with a soft paper towel. Turn on the lathe, set to high speed and rub dry over the lathe with a soft paper towel. Apply a small amount of Tripoli Cutting Wax (wax that contains an ultra-fine abrasive) to a piece of paper towel and apply to the barrel surface, while turning on the lathe at high rpm. Move back and forth slowly to allow the compound to polish the surface of the barrel.
- Reapply cutting wax until desired level of shine is achieved. Remove any excess with a soft paper towel and buff to a brilliant shine.
- Then apply the desired finish. (Listed in order of overall durability) Microcrystalline wax, friction shellac, shellac, cyanoacrylate ester, and binary epoxies can be used for the next level finish. Depending on the specific finish being used, a final application of cutting wax may be required to increase the luster to the desired level.
- Apply a preservative grade microcrystalline wax to the surface with the turn off and lightly wipe off the excess. Buff until shiny with high RPM, using a soft, clean paper towel.
If you invest a little more time in sanding and polishing your pen bodies using the protocols above, you will be rewarded with a long-lasting, glossy finish for your hand-turned writing pens.
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