Woodturners use lathes to finish their pen blanks, because they need to carve the wood or acrylic down to size. If you have access to a lathe, that’s obviously a fine solution, but unlike pen turners who work in wood, many polymer clay artists do not have access to a lathe.
The good news is, unless you are actually trying to turn a pen using woodworking tools to carve into it after baking or to reduce its size faster than sanding alone would do, you don’t need a lathe.
In later posts I’ll cover how I use drills to finish pens, but you can sand a pen by hand without using any power equipment at all.
If you are finishing by hand, you will want to make sure it’s as smooth as possible. The best way to do this is to roll it gently on the table with a clear acrylic block or tile or other smooth surface.
Alternatively, you can use the heel of your hand, not your palm or fingers. If you use your palm or fingers you will put uneven pressure on it.
Be sure to roll gently and slowly. If you have creases in your clay from where cane slices joined, you can gently roll a knitting needle tip across them to speed up the process. But if you roll on the table too quickly or pressing too hard, you will distort your canes near the edges and may even push the clay off the pen barrel.
Start with the highest grit you can. If you were able to get the clay very smooth, that might be 240, 320, or 400. If it’s bumpy, you may need to start lower.
Cup the sandpaper in your hand and sand evenly around the whole pen barrel. Be sure to sand in both directions — back and forth as well as around — to avoid leaving scratches in one direction.
Sand as high as you can, finishing with micromesh or finishing papers if you have them, and then buff.
A note about height and bushings
Pen turners use “bushings” (small metal tubes of a particular diameter) to get their pen bodies flush with the rest of the pen hardware. If you are sanding by hand and care about a smooth transition across the length of the pen, it’s extra important to try to get the height of your pen body as close as possible before baking, so you minimize the amount of sanding you need to do.
Here’s an example of two pens I did. The first is one carefully sanded down to bushing height before being assembled. The second is one of my early ones, before I knew to pay attention to bushing height.