Beginner turner questions regarding pens

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Forum topic by Eric_S posted 11-22-2010 06:32 PM 1763 views 1 time favorited 9 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1565 posts in 3434 days

11-22-2010 06:32 PM

I am a newbie turner. In fact, my lathe ( wont be unpacked until later this week when I finish the stand for it( after hearing that the stand that comes with this one is crap. This stand I’m building is a beast and is extremely heavy, even without the ballast filled with 60lb sand. Its about 60% complete and I plan on posting pics of it when finished.

I decided to make turned items for family gifts this year since they can be made quickly and relatively cheaply. I have some decent length spindle blocks of maple to use for practicing with turning tools before attempting pens. I bought the book Learn to Turn ( which is an excellent read that goes over how to sharpen and use each individual turning tool. It also has some practices to do and some beginner projects. I’ve also watched countless videos on turning so I’m itching to get started.

So, my questions to all you experienced wood turners out there:
I already have a MT#2 Keyless mandrel, a drill chuck, and 7mm/8mm/10mm pen blank trimming/cutting kit.

1. While I plan on making some of my own pen blanks from leftovers over time, for this year’s gifts I’ll be buying most of my blanks. Where is the best place online to buy blanks and which are the easiest to turn for beginners while still looking very nice? I hear burls while looking gorgeous are more difficult to turn, as are some of the neat ones like coffee beans, snakeskin, etc. So, what woods do you recommend for beginning turning so that I don’t waste money and screw up blanks? Also, is it necessary to stabilize all wood blanks with CA?

2. Are these grab bags any good? They say they come with standard and jumbo size so will they work with all pen kits?

3. I purchased this MT#2 mandrel, Do you recommend the Pen Mandrel Saver for the tailstock ?

4. What are the hazordous woods I should avoid or make sure I’m protected from if I use?

Any other tips you can offer would be appreciated. Thanks for your time.

-- - Eric Noblesville, IN

9 replies so far

View jeepturner's profile


939 posts in 3031 days

#1 posted 11-22-2010 07:01 PM

I have been turning for ten years. I have never turned a pen. I can’t answer any of your questions, except the last. The most hazardous wood that you can sand is anything spalted. The lines of the spalting are from mold. We hear so much about the dangers of mold in our homes, and most of it is reliable. So if you are sanding you should have a dust mask on, but if you are sanding anything spalted then make sure you are protected.

-- Mel,

View Eric_S's profile


1565 posts in 3434 days

#2 posted 11-22-2010 07:10 PM

Mel, thanks for the tip.

-- - Eric Noblesville, IN

View EricRFP's profile


106 posts in 3333 days

#3 posted 11-22-2010 07:23 PM

One easy but nice looking blank would be the Sierra, Wall Street 2 or one like it. Some burl is very easy to turn. I have some really nice Redwood burl that is easy to turn and it’s very forgiving. Just turn it near the bushing and sand the rest.

If you want some “beginner” blanks, I send them to you for free, just pay the shipping. PM me if you are interested.


-- Eric, NorCal

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 3313 days

#4 posted 11-22-2010 07:30 PM

I describe myself as a “recovering penoholic” (i.e. I used to be addicted to making pens and I have made hundreds but I am now in recovery.)

The actual wood you use has little impact on how hard it is to turn. I will only advise you to avoid any soft woods. I never found burls to be particularly hard to deal with.

The best advice I can give you is to keep your cutting tools sharp – very sharp.

If you want to buy blanks, the grab bags are usually a good value for the money – especially for the starter. However, if you have a table saw, you can buy boards and cut your own blanks for a fraction of what it cost to buy pre-cut blanks.

I’ve never used a mandrel saver. I have a multi-tip live center tail piece like this – -

I have one tip that is designated to use with a mandrel. I don’t worry about the mandrel wearing out. I worry about point on the tail piece getting dull. That’s why I use one designated tip.

You can generate some pretty fine dust when sanding on the lathe. I recommend using a mask for all woods, especially the rosewoods. But don’t avoid the rosewoods. They are some of the most beautiful woods available.

If you are serious about the quality of your pens, I recommend buying refills directly from Cross for the ballpoint pens. The refills that come with the kits are of very poor quality.

Start with a simple kit (slimline) and stick with it until you develop some skill and comfort. You can do a lot with a slimline. Note – you can still make a fat pen with the slimline kit. I also recommend starting with the comfort pens.

Want more advise or have more questions? – send me a PM.

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

View Eric_S's profile


1565 posts in 3434 days

#5 posted 11-22-2010 07:48 PM

Eric thanks for the offer. I sent you a PM.

Rich, thanks for the excellent advice. I figured turning is like planing, the sharpness of the blade is more important than the wood, but I still hear about certain woods being more prone to tearout/blowouts while turning. I take it Rosewood dust is more hazordous by the way you mention it?

I think I’ll hold off on the mandrel saver and get the one you linked instead(at a later time). I’ve seen this before and thought about it. Thanks.

-- - Eric Noblesville, IN

View Elizabeth's profile


817 posts in 3382 days

#6 posted 11-22-2010 07:54 PM

The only problem with grab bags is that the blanks are not labelled with the species name, and the first question any gift recipient is going to ask is “what kind of wood is this?”. You might have better luck with job lots on ebay which sometimes list the species names in the listing, and if you ask the seller they might label some of the blanks themselves so you can tell which type is which.

View Eric_S's profile


1565 posts in 3434 days

#7 posted 11-22-2010 07:58 PM

Good point Elizabeth thanks. I would really like to just make my own blanks. I have everything needed to do so except woods besides cherry and maple. I was just thinking it would be much quicker to buy them with only a few weeks left to go before the holidays.

If I was to buy a few scrap pieces of wood to make blanks from, what is the typical blank size? 5/8” squared by 5”?

-- - Eric Noblesville, IN

View JerrySats's profile


237 posts in 3849 days

#8 posted 11-24-2010 02:14 AM

Check out this place , you’ll find hours of reading to help you along the way. I’ll second the advice about turning, Sierra or Wall Street 2 type pens , their real easy to do and make a beautiful pen . Most good size blanks will yield you two Sierra blanks . Have fun and I almost forgot , get some type of breathing mask , you don’t want to inhale CA fumes they aren’t good for ya .

View Eric_S's profile


1565 posts in 3434 days

#9 posted 11-24-2010 02:34 AM

Jerry, thank you for the link and advice. That site looks like it will be of great help. I do have a breathing mask,. It’s one I saw TheWoodWhisperer use and it is excellent. Very comfortable to wear, takes a number of different filters and cartridges. It’s the 3M 7503 Respirator Facepiece.

-- - Eric Noblesville, IN

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