Should You Make Pens?
My mother-in-law asked me to make a set of pens for some colleagues. This was a follow-on order from a pen that I made her a while back. I got into the pen making game late in my Making career because I thought the investment wasn't worth the payoff. I may have been wrong but...maybe not? If you are thinking about making pens, here is a nooby's guide to pen making.
- Get Supplies
- Make a Pen Blank
- Turn the Pen Body
- Assemble the Pen
1. Get Supplies
If you are interested in making pens, I can only assume that you have purchased a lathe; yeah you're going to need one of those. If not, then I can recommend Rockler's Mini Lathe as a good starting point. Of course you can turn pens on much bigger machines, but you can also turn pens on the smallest, least expensive lathes too. I would also recommend a set of carbide turning tools, which are easier to use and easier to maintain than traditional turning tools. You'll also need a pen mandrel, some super glue, and a trimming tool; or you can get this starter set.
Choosing the style of pen you want may be daunting, there are about a million different choices and you don't often get to handle the pens before you buy the kits, you really have to go off of looks and user reviews. But to narrow down your search, think of your customer. Customer pens are a luxury item, so the fancier-looking it is, the better. I like pens that click and that write in gel in, so my search is narrowed down pretty far. If you like guns, then boy-howdy are you in luck (there are tons of firearm-themed pen kits). For this project, I chose the Stratus Click Pen kit. But, before you begin, you're going to need these very specific items.
- Your chosen pen kit (has the pen guts)
- The appropriate drill bit (has to be exact, close enough won't work)
- The correct bushings (must match your pen style, check the numbers!)
2. Make a Pen Blank
First, you need to choose a material from which to make your pen. Wood is the most common, but people make acrylic blanks or hybrid pieces from all sorts of materials. You can buy pen blanks in exotic woods that are already cut to size. If you have your own piece of material, cut it down so that it is about 3/4 of an inch thick. Then use the brass tube from the pen kit and use it to determine the blank length (note: leave a little extra material on either end of the tube). After the piece is cut to size, you'll need to drill a hole using the correct size drill bit straight through the blank.
Now scuff up that brass tube with some sand paper and get your super glue ready. Apply glue all along the tube and quickly put it in the hole you drilled. Make sure it is seated inside with no brass hanging out. Use a sander or the pen mill that came with the starter kit to flush up the edges and the brass tube.
3. Turn the Pen Body
This is the fun part; you get to add what styling you like to the pen. Put the pen mandrel into the drive end of your lathe (you may have to punch out the center chuck). Then, depending on your kit, you'll need to add some spacers. I used 4 small nuts placed on the mandrel first unless you're turning a slim-line pen, then you'll have the appropriate spacers. Then add one of the pen bushings, fat part first. Next is the pen blank, followed by the other bushing. The bushings should snuggly seat inside the blank. Then tighten the mandrel's brass knurled nut against the whole assembly. Slide the tail stock onto the end of the mandrel and secure it down.
Turn on the lathe as fast it'll go without wobbling and get carving. Be sure not to turn any lower than the outer diameter of the bushings or your pen will either explode or look stupid. Once you have a preferred size pen body, start sanding. I used Rockler's Multi-Roll Sanding Pack before doing the final finishing. To get a super glossy and smooth finish, slow down the speed and apply some super glue to the pen body using a paper towel. Keep the paper towel on the piece until the glue dries. I then bust out the Micro Mesh kit and sand up through the grits.
4. Assemble the Pen
Be sure to read through the pen kit's instructions for assembly, you can easily damage the pen's components and ruin the whole project if you're not careful. For this project, it was pretty straight forward; press in the click assembly, press in the tip coupler, add the ink cartridge and the spring, screw on the tip, then screw on the plunger. I used a 3d printed press tool that fit into the lathe to help press the parts together. I've used an F-clamp to do this, but it isn't the right tool for the job and has screwed up before. Check the click or twisting action to make sure that you've placed the components in far enough. And just like that, you've got a pen!
Was it Cost Effective?
I charged $35 a pen, which to some people sounds expensive (Penn State Industries has a feature where people can report what they've sold their pens for). But, lets break down if that was a worth-while price point. We had to purchase (not including the lathe)...
- Pen Mandrel $14.99
- Pen Milling Tool $29.99
- Super Glue $9.99
- Sandpaper $19.99
- MicroMesh $19.99
- Stratus Pen Kit $6.95
- Drill Bit $3.95
- Bushings $4.95
- Delivery Boxes (I'm not an animal) $1.45
So, an initial buy-in for pen turning will set you back $112.25. Now, of course if you wanted to make several pens, then this becomes more cost effective like any batch work. But if you wanted to get into pen turning you now have some real initial cost figures.
Like I said before, I charged $35 a pen and, for this order, had to buy 4 kits (1 for backup), the drill bit, the bushings, and 3 boxes. Estimating about $10 for shipping, I stand to make about $60 or $20 a pen. Each pen took about 15 minutes to make, and I'm sure the more you make, the faster you can get, therefore maximizing your labor profit.
So, in conclusion, was it worth it? You can see from the itemized list of costs it will take a while to pay back the cost of the lathe, the tools, and the pen making supplies if you use it exclusively to make and sell pens.