Turning Pens – Tips For Creating A Durable High Gloss Finish


One of the more enduring quests by woodturners, is the pursuit of a perfect pen finish. A perfect finish would offer exceptional durability and visual clarity, with a deep, rich “wet” look. Although this is a tall order for any pen finish to deliver, careful selection of the pen blank material, coupled with advanced finishing protocols, can deliver a near perfect pen finish. Plastic and stabilized wooden blanks offer an excellent option for pen turners seeking to create durable high gloss finishes for their hand turned writing pens.

Basic Challenges

One of the most challenging aspects of creating a durable and glossy pen finish, is the typical environment pens are subjected to in use. Moving in and out of pockets, purses and desk drawers, coupled with the natural oils and sweat from our hands, makes it tough for many finishes to retain their glossy finish. In addition, some hardwoods are considerably less dense than others, allowing the barrels on softer hardwoods to be easily damaged.

Denser native woods and most exotics are a better choice in many cases for a highly durable pen barrel. However, softer hardwoods can be used with equal success if the blank has been stabilized with thin acrylics, or penetrating epoxies prior to turning on the lathe. These “stabilized” pen blanks are a superb choice for wooden writing pens. Stabilized pen blanks offer greater hardness and durability of the barrel surface vs. using natural timbers.

Alternative Material Pen Blanks

Alternative materials like plastics, acrylics, stabilized exotic and native woods, horn, antler, fossilised Ivory, cast acrylics and similar materials, can easily produce a glossy lustre when used for pen barrels. Some materials, both natural and man made can be polished to a higher lustre than others. For example, plastics can be easily polished to 12000-grit, producing a visually stunning, deep wet look in the barrel surface.

However, natural timbers do not produce the same degree of lustre as plastics, even when sanded to the same abrasive level. Stabilized pen blanks typically produce a higher lustre than the same timber without stabilization. This is because the acrylics and epoxies used in the stabilization process, allow the barrels to be polished to a higher level than untreated wood blanks.

Advanced Abrasive and Finishing Protocols

In addition to the careful selection of the barrel material, the application of advanced abrasive and finishing protocols can go a long way toward providing durable and glossy pen finishes. Proper surface preparation, including sanding and polishing of the barrel surface prior to applying the desired finish, will allow the finish to magnify the underlying perfected surface. This will produce a much higher perceived gloss level on the barrel surface.

High performance cloth backed abrasives are available that will produce a 12000-grit surface. At this ultra high level, the human eye cannot see the surface scratch pattern, resulting in an exceptionally high gloss level on the surface. Careful selection of the barrel finish can also affect the overall lustre and longevity of the finish.

Types of Finishes for Stabilized Pen Blanks

Waxes are among the easiest of all finishes to apply, but may not last long in normal use on a writing pen. Shellac friction polishes offer better overall durability than waxes and are also easy to apply. Lacquers offer still greater durability, but require multiple coats and extended drying times between coats. Cyanoacrylate Esters (CA or Super Glue) and binary Epoxies offer extreme durability, but require advanced application protocols. For this reason and others plastics are gaining in popularity, especially when an ultra-high gloss lustre is desired.

Basic Protocol for Finishing Plastic and Celluloid Pen Blanks

If possible, use sterate coated abrasives, or wet-dry abrasives to prevent loading of the abrasive surface when sanding. To obtain the highest lustre and clarity of the plastic barrel surface, you have two options:

  • Sand with traditional, or wet-dry abrasives to 1200-grit. Then, buff the barrel surface with a plastic polishing compound on the lathe. A cloth buffing wheel loaded with a fine plastic polishing compound can also be used to raise the lustre to the desired level.
  • Sand with standard micro mesh abrasives, which can be used either wet or dry and are available in nine grits from 1500 to 12000-grit. The visual surface when polished to 12000-grit is nothing short of spectacular, making the plastic look so glossy that it appears liquid.

One additional advantage of using plastics for your pen barrels is that the plastic surface can be polished to a high luster, without the need for any surface finish. Since there is no surface finish on the pen barrel, nothing can wear off with time as you would find with a traditionally finished wooden pen.

A high quality conservation grade Microcrystalline wax should be applied to provide extra protection for the glossy barrel surface. Microwaxes offer excellent resistance to moisture, acids, alcohols and moderate heat and will not show fingerprints on the high gloss surface.

Basic Protocol for Finishing Stabilized Wood Blanks

If you prefer to use wood for your pen barrels, choose a stabilized pen blank if possible, for the greatest durability and luster on the surface. To produce a high gloss finish on a stabilized pen blank, follow these easy steps:

  • Sand the barrels to 600-grit metric and remove any dust. Apply a 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 revs and friction dry on the lathe with a soft paper towel. Apply a small amount of Tripoli cutting wax (wax that contains an ultra-fine abrasive) on a piece of paper towel and apply to the barrel surface, whilst spinning on the lathe at high revs. Move slowly back and forth to allow the compound to polish the barrel surface.
  • Reapply the cutting wax until the desired gloss level is achieved. Remove any excess with a soft paper towel and buff to a brilliant shine.
  • Apply your desired finish next. (Listed in order of overall durability) Microcrystalline Wax, Friction Shellac, Lacquer, Cyanoacrylate Ester and binary Epoxies can be used for the top level finish. Depending on the specific finish used, a final application of the cutting wax may be required to raise the luster to the desired level.
  • Apply a conservation grade Microcrystalline wax to the surface with the lathe off and lightly wipe off the excess. Buff to a gloss with revs set to high, using a soft clean paper towel.

If you invest just a little more time sanding and polishing your pen barrels using the above protocols, you will be rewarded with a durable, high gloss finish for your hand turned writing pens.