So You Want to Turn Pens?
Hardly a week goes by that I am not called or emailed with the question, “How do I get started turning pens?” The following tips are my simple response:
- Define your objectives by answering the following questions.
- Do not pass GO! Do not collect $100! Do not admit yourself for treatment unless you answer the above questions before you consider turning writing instruments.
I have an admission to make: I am still a novice machinist. I have spent the past sixteen years turning pens (a few thousand by now), but I still consider myself a hobbyist at best. One can only begin to lay claim to a title as he learns what the questions are in taking on a new challenge. We don’t deserve the title of skilled laborer until we know the answers to intelligent questions. So my skills and knowledge do not yet rise to the title of “machinist”. (I am still dealing with asking the right questions.)
However, I would like to offer some suggestions. These are things I have learned as I have grappled with queries that arise. If I were just now considering turning pens, I would first decide whether I wanted to turn them for my own use or whether I wished to sell some.
If you are going to engage in this hobby for yourself you will need to plan to spend about $10,000 over a period of time. You can turn some pens on a wood turner’s lathe, but the decision to purchase such a machine is very shortsighted for many reasons. Wood turning machines are not designed to be used in a machinist setting. The wood turner uses tools that are handheld and balanced on a tool rest (although there are exceptions). Having said that, I confess that the first several hundred pens I turned were fashioned on a Shopsmith machine: a great machine for the kit pen industry. I only realized its limitations after I purchased a machinist lathe.
I also acquired a very old Dewalt lathe. I never used it to turn pens, but rather chucked up a 5/8-inch diameter, 48 inch long, all thread and mounted in series 7, 6 inch buffing wheels. I pushed the tail stock, with a live center, up to the end of the all thread and had a buffing machine that has served me well for several years now. I did need to place the all thread through a support bearing which I mounted on a riser block at the midpoint of the all thread. This was a great use for a very old wood turner’s lathe.
My first personal experience with machinist lathes was when I obtained a hobbyist long bed Sherline. I purchased the pen turners tooling accessories kit and in addition to the 3 jaw chuck, which is standard with the machine, I purchased an additional 4 jaw chuck. What a great little machine for the person who just want to turn small uncomplicated parts. Its major limitation was power, and the fact that it does not provide the opportunity to turn materials that need to be constantly flooded with coolant.
I have turned hundreds of pens using manmade materials without the benefit of coolant; but after I graduated to a machine that had provision for coolant, I swore “never again” to return to my old way of doing things.
My next purchase was a German-made Pratz S.D. 300 with milling attachment: a big step above the Sherline in power but again, no coolant. I modified this machine and built my own flooding coolant system. It works great! I have turned well over a thousand pens on this machine.
The list of reasons why I would not bother with either of these machines again is too long for this brief essay. The basic reason, however, is that these machines are for someone who wants to turn a few pens. My needs have far exceeded the ability and design of these two machines. They still occupy space in my shop but my gaze is upward and onward, toward meeting small business demand.
This next level (small business) takes for granted that one is going to build several copies of one design, which requires an investment greater than $10,000 just for the lathe, not to mention all the support tools and tooling. These expenses can easily extend the investment to $40,000 or more.
If I really were to start over again I would do the following:
I would purchase two used Hardinge lathes. One would be a “first operation” lathe (it has a tail stock). The second one would be a “second operation” lathe with a six-position tool turret. I would equip one with a bar feeder and 5C collet system. The other would be equipped with a 5C collet system plus an automatic threading attachment. Organize your tools, set your stops and you are off and running.
Now if I had another $40-$70,000 to invest I would set the two Hardinge lathes over to the side of the shop because they are still going to get a lot of use. Then I would purchase an Emco-Mier Concept Turn 155 CNC, with C Axis and live power (at $60,000+). Then I would be in the pen business. With C Axis and Live Power application, I could do all my side slotting work, cut out filigrees, and engrave my name, all before the finished part dropped into the parts chute. After programming, that process would take only a few minutes for each part.
My investment to date is approximately $40,000 in tools and equipment. I can make a replica of the Waterman’s 58 with full filigree using the equipment I have. From start to finish it requires approximately 25 hours to make each pen (every part with the exception of nib, pocket clip and lever box); that is, if I don’t make any mistakes or break anything.
The job gets done either way; with a small investment (turning pens as a hobby) or with a larger outlay (to start a small business). Some would argue that something is lost when one makes the choice to let technology do the hard work that might be done by hand. I tend to agree, and understand the feeling. However, something else is lost when I come home very late at night and my four year-old boy asks, “Dad, where were you tonight?”
At this point in my life I cannot financially afford the CNC lathe (perhaps someday soon, I hope). So I have had to become creative. When I am turning 50 pens (our Simplicity, for example) at one time, I lease time in a shop where I have the use of a CNC (computer numeric control) lathe. The going shop rate in my part of the country ranges between $65-85 per hour. One needs to plan to spend approximately 24 hours in the shop in order to turn 50 pens.
That may sound like a long time, but one needs to consider that a significant portion of that time is spent in programming each part into the memory of the machine. If one is not programming from drawings of each part, the time is increased because of trial and error. The advantage of the CNC is that once the programming is complete and one has produced the first set of parts that make up a pen, and everything fits together as it should, then things really speed up. Parts begin to fall into the parts chute very quickly.
I get a real rush as the parts start to drop and I can begin to put full pens together.
One major question one must deal with when deciding to turn pens is the learning curve. Machinists can earn higher level professional salaries because of the investment in the educational process required to become really good at this trade. Almost anyone with fair mechanical abilities can spend $1000 and bring home a hobby lathe; obtain a pen blank of raw material, and with some luck, turn a pen cap. What divides the “men from the boys” is the skill required to make all the parts fit together correctly, and then being able to repeat the process time and again within an efficient time-frame.
Having the correct tools is very important, but knowing how to use what you have efficiently is also very important. So my question is, how much do you want to learn? I would strongly suggest that you do two things if you want to learn elementary machining. First, find a friend or make a friend at a “jobber” machine shop, who will allow you to look over his/her shoulder. Watch; ask questions and touch, for as long as they will allow. You will be surprised how much you will learn. Second, enroll in an elementary machinist course at your local trade school. Take one of your pen collector textbooks with you, and show it to the instructor and tell him that you want to make pens like these. Most good instructors can’t resist the opportunity to teach. This effort will be the greatest investment you can make toward your goal of turning quality writing instruments.
Take it from me: I did not approach the task of learning the craft this way. I decided to teach myself. Now, six years later, I realize that I chose the long route toward the goal. I am just now taking the courses at the trade school and unlearning many bad habits.
Another major consideration that troubles anyone who decides to turn pens either for their own collection or to sell, is, where do I secure high quality component parts? I must tell you that I have been turning pens now for sixteen years, and this issue continues to be very troublesome.
Here is the issue: parts are proprietary in most cases. If you don’t believe me, just call one of the major pen producers and tell them you would like to order 25 nibs to use on your pens. It’s not going to happen! There are several companies that are in the business of making parts for the writing industry. They are very willing to produce parts for you. Here is what they will want from you: a down-payment of approximately $20-$40,000 for design and tooling; a financial commitment for your first order with the question, “And how many thousands do you want in your first order?”
If I’ve heard this query once, I’ve heard it 25 times. I understand it, but I don’t like it. So understand that you will need parts: bands, levers, lever boxes, pocket clips, ink filling systems, springs, feeds, nibs, and other parts. Where are you going to get them?
The answer to this dilemma for me was to have parts made by individuals in the jewelry trades. Get ready to spend lots of money if this is the decision you come to. Then finding a tradesman who will stop what he is doing to make 10 parts at a time for you, when you need them, is another challenge. A good example is the pocket clip for our Thompson Simplicity. Each clip (as today’s gold prices) cost in excess of $300 . I do not have a good solution for the acquisition of quality parts. I hope you find better answers than I have for this problem.
There is a way to produce pens with your name on them, and bypass all the issues that have been discussed in this essay. Start your business as a facilitator. Most pen companies began this way. An individual with financial resources simply hires all the work done by others. They become a gatherer of parts which they then assemble and market the end product, and pay themselves a commission. This is a very simplified explanation, but the process has worked for many people in this business.
Finally, two other issues need to be considered. One, can you and your family afford the commitment that learning a new skill requires? I have engaged in a profession (as a minister) for many years: I come home, eat dinner, kiss the kids and retire to my second job. My wife deals with the emails we receive and helps package pens to be mailed. I go to the shop with new orders or to work on last week’s business. Our day usually ends late.
These factors bring me to the final issue. Do not start turning pens unless you possess the character traits of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. The reasons these are needed could become an outline for a sermon which I will spare you here; I think you can understand why such qualities are needed for the craft.
Happy pen turning! There is no better feeling than taking a piece of raw material in your hand and, with the aid of a machine, watching it become a beautiful, useful, and powerful tool with which you can place on paper, for all time, the immediate thoughts of your soul.