I don’t know why this was so hard to get information on when I first started, but it was! So writing a short post dedicated to the topic.
Whether you use non-stick bushings or not, you will end up with CA glue all over your bushings — the main point of the non-stick bushings it to make it easy to get the bushings off your CA-finished pen, rather than to prevent it from fully sticking to the bushings.
Applying wax to the bushings ahead of time can help your pen separate after finishing (I use a caranuba wax, though I suspect any will work), but there’s still the question of getting the CA glue off the bushings after it builds up.
I have a bottle of pure acetone and several sets of non-stick bushings. After enough of them get enough CA built up, I just pour some acetone (same substance as in many nail polish removers) into a small bowl, dump my bushings in there, and then come back later.
Critically important warning: the acetone does not make the CA glue go away, it just temporarily dissolves it. If you fish your bushings out and just dump the acetone down your drain, the second it comes into contact with water that CA glue will turn right back into CA glue — in a stringy, big, sticky, drain-clogging mess.
I tend to fish my bushings out with a skewer, set them aside, add some water to the bowl to solidify the CA, fish it out and dump it, and then add more water to see if there’s any CA left. When I can add water to the bowl without any strings appearing, it’s safe.
I haven’t personally tried nail polish remover (I don’t use nail polish), but I suspect it will work as long as it’s acetone.
Also please read the warnings on the bottle of acetone: it’s not going to kill you, but it’s highly flammable, you don’t want it in your eyes or if you have a cut on your hands, etc.
Mercury also makes a “CA dissolver” product that I have not tried, and other manufacturers may as well.
Previously my recommendation was BSI odorless, because it was working sufficiently well for me, and I appreciated the “odorless” aspect, even though the same personal protective equipment is still recommended, because it reduced the chance of problems.
Recently however I got a chance to try Mercury flex, and I am now a committed Mercury fan.
Caveat: this is not a perfect comparison: technically I should compare the BSI odorless to mercury odorless, and BSI flex to mercury flex. But I don’t have the time or money to do that right now, so I’ll report on what I’ve seen so far and write more if I get a chance to do more comparisons in the future.
Bob Smith Industries (SBI) Super-gold
This CA glue works great for sure. I got good results with it, appreciated the low-odor aspects, and it comes highly recommended by experienced pen-makers like Toni Street.
But even with my technique improving in other ways, I was still having a lot of issues with bumpy CA application that I wasn’t able to get past. I suspect this is in part because I am working somewhat slapdash out of my art studio, rather than in a proper shop: stuff is clamped to the edge of my craft table and for a long time I was using just a hand drill with a mandrel attached to it.
I also found I just wasn’t comfortable without using a respirator: after doing more than one pen in a row I could feel some tightness in my chest, as it’s hard to perfectly ventilate a craft room, and I didn’t want to risk long-term health issues. So I wasn’t getting as much of a benefit off odorless as I hoped.
One nice thing about Super-Gold is that it does dry pretty fast, which BSI notes is one of the features — but I believe it was also part of my problem, along with the technique I’d come up with for applying it in my make-shift setup: I was spraying the barrel with accelerator, which was helpful, but also meant some of it hardened instantly on application, making bumps more likely.
I changed my technique to use accelerator afterwards and it was smoother, but I was still getting more bumps then I liked, and my sanding time was long as a result (and sometimes I’d have to go back and re-apply CA because I’d had to sand so far to get rid of a bump that I went right down to the clay and had to start over again.)
When discussing my lumps and bumps, a friend encouraged I try Mercury flex — it’s not odorless, but it’s thin, and also had a great track record when working on polymer clay pens.
I’ve found that the slower cure time is making it much easier to smooth everything and reduced my CA sanding time by almost half per pen. It’s a bit more likely, with the thin CA, for it to get thrown off the pen and land on clothes/items around me, but using less each time and reducing the rate of rotation has helped a lot there.
The downside is I am also having a few more issues with the odor: when I do more than one pen in a session, I’ve started to notice a bit of dry eye that may indicate some issues with the odors affecting my eyes also. I bought some goggles with a seal online and it’s reduced the problems there though the combination of the two masks is awkward and affects the seal. (Unfortunately a full-face mask with a respirator, which is the best, is quite expensive.)
I’ve continued to use the accelerator afterwards, and am getting much smoother results with that technique and the Mercury CA.
The one problem I still have is I’m now getting grooves around the pen body, I suspect due to the fact that I’m applying the CA with strips of deli paper, and it’s curving up in as I remove the paper, since they occur in the same spots repeatedly. I am considering switching to cling wrap as a replacement, and will write more if it’s more effective.
If you’re making polymer clay pens you’re probably very experienced at sanding polymer clay, but sanding pens requires some new methods.
Not experienced at finishing polymer clay, or feel like you could use some help with something that will be handled as much as a pen? I can’t recommend Ginger’s Sanding and Buffing e-book strongly enough. I thought I was an experienced polymer clay finisher before reading her book, but it absolutely took my work to an entirely new level, and I credit it for much of why moving to pens wasn’t too big a jump.
If you don’t have a drill or lathe
Your only option is to cup the sandpaper in your hand and sand as evenly as you can.
If you do have a drill or lathe
First, make sure you have the right bushings for your pen kit. Even if you don’t end up applying CA glue, your final pen will look more professional if it’s sanded to the height of the bushings.
Since the drill or lathe does the work for you, all you need is sandpaper you can hold up against the barrel as it spins.
Prepare to sand
If I’m using Abranet or other reusable sandpaper, I have two separate bowls of water: one clean, that I use to wet the new sandpaper, and the other dirty where I rinse it off.
It’s very important on something like a pen, that will be handled and be viewed close to the face that you don’t have grits from previous rounds of sanding being rubbed in when you are using a higher grit.
If I’m just using sandpaper strips, then a bowl of water I put unused sandpaper in to wet it is fine.
Remember safety, and if you normally use a dust mask when sanding, you’ll definitely want to use one here as well.
A spinning drill will happily spin off water at you and everything around you too, so you may want to drape some shop towels to protect anything in ‘blast radius’.
While your goal when building a barrel is to get it as close to the bushings before sanding as possible, this can be very hard to do — especially with kits like the Slimline (a popular, cheap kit) because there’s so little distance between the top of the bushings and the barrel itself.
If I need to, I will start as low as 60 grit to get the barrel down to size fast. You may also have to start with a low grit if you didn’t make your barrel very smooth at the start.
Regardless of what grit you start with, the steps are all the same:
Your first 1-2 grits will be the bulk of your work as you’re getting the barrel smooth and close to your bushings. Don’t hesitate to spend as much time here as necessary.
Whenever you switch grits it’s always critical to do two steps:
Always turn off your drill or lathe and sand the long way along each pen blank with gentle pressure from your fingertips. This reduces how much time you’ll have to spend on future grits because you won’t be trying to get a circular groove out
Always wipe off your pen barrel entirely, ideally with a damp rag, to make sure you get all bits of grit and plastic off — otherwise you’ll be digging grooves from the prior grit in with the new grit, and you’ll be very frustrated trying to get it smooth
Use a flashlight if you need to to check in on how well you’re doing at avoiding grooves sticking around from prior levels.
Even if you’re finishing with CA, this sanding step is critical: not only do you need to get it down to at or very slightly below bushing height, but any grooves or scratches you leave now will be amplified by the CA later.
If you’re just going to stop after sanding, feel free to go all the way through micromesh and then your polishing papers, and end with a good buff.
If you’re using CA, go down to 600-800 (or higher, if you feel you need to) and then switch to applying CA.
This article assumes you have already sanded your pen barrel down. If it is not at or ideally slightly below the bushings, you will have issues with the CA.
Accelerator is best when sprayed 12-18” away from your work, which causes a problem for many polymer clay folks because we work in small spaces. The technique I discuss below solves for that.
The importance of bushing height
If you apply too much CA glue and go too far above the bushings, all the problems I’m about to discuss get harder to deal with — so pay close attention to bushing height, and consider sanding a bit below the bushings (or at least very very close to flush) so you limit how much CA is on the bushings.
Do not expect anything you do to fully prevent the CA glue from sticking to the metal: what it will do is make it easier to peel off at the end of your finishing session. If the CA is very thick this might be tough.
But even worse than having trouble getting the CA off the bushings is having trouble getting the bushings off your pen barrel. They usually stick a bit, but if you have a lot of CA above the height of the bushings, it’s more likely it is that the CA will break or fracture on the pen barrel when you separate the bushings.
In a later section in this article I show how to separate the pen from the bushings.
Preparing your pen barrel
Always make sure your pen barrel is dry, dust free, and sanded to ~800 grit. Toni recommends 800-1500, but so far I haven’t had any visible scratches at the end when I stop at 600-800.
You can use some 99% alcohol or denatured alcohol to clean the blank to make sure there’s no dust or oil left on it before proceeding.
If you haven’t already read my article on sanding pen barrels, take a look, it has some good tips.
How to apply the CA glue
There are many ways to do this. This is the one I’ve found gives me the most consistent and effective results. It also avoids getting accelerator all over my clay work surface.
If you prefer to explore other ways to apply CA, you can take a look at the videos I saved to my YouTube Pen Making play list, or simply search YouTube for more CA glue wood turning videos.
This is the video I learned from and is worth watching:
This method works by applying the accelerator with a paper towel or wax paper with accelerator on it before applying the CA, rather than applying the CA first and then spraying the accelerator on
March 2020 update: I found this was causing ridges in my glue from it curing too fast, and have switched to applying the accelerator afterwards, and it’s working much better. That said, this is the first method I used that really helped me “get it” in terms of effectively applying CA, so I’m still leaving my write-up.
The advantages of this method are:
You don’t need to get 12-18 inches back to spray accelerator on your barrels, which means you avoid spraying it all over your craft room
The glue dries quickly so your total work time is lower
The disadvantages are:
The CA glue is curing as you are applying it, so it will generate heat
The CA cures quickly, so you need to make sure you are alternating sides to start with the CA, so one side doesn’t get all the CA on it
Always start with thin to fill in the small scratches you can’t see before moving on to medium to get a thicker coat.
I do 4-6 coats of thin CA and then 1-2 of medium, but that’s very dependent on how well-sanded your barrel is to start (more scratches means you need more thin CA) and how close you are to your bushings (you don’t want to go too high above the bushings with the CA, as noted earlier.) Some do many more coats of thin, some many more of medium.
Regardless of how you apply your CA, keep these things in mind
If you are doing two barrels at once, apply to each barrel separately, refreshing your glue each time
Be careful about going back and forth too many times — you’ll learn to notice when it starts feeling tacky and stop. But before you learn, you’ll likely mess up your CA — it’s okay, just sand it down and start over
Always alternate which side you “start” from when applying CA, or you will get too much of a build-up of CA on one side
You’ll see a lot of woodworkers applying the thin CA directly to the barrel — I don’t do that because it requires two hands. I prefer to put it on a paper towel or wax paper
Always start with thin CA and do at least a few coats
If you are getting bumps in your CA you are trying to apply too much at once — do less each time and more coats total, I usually only do 2-3 drops each time
Fix bumps in your CA by sanding them off, going up to 400 grit, and then applying more CA
If you are getting white spots after spraying on accelerator, you’re using too much or spraying it too close
The point of applying CA smoothly andlearning how to avoid bumps is that you don’t have to do extremely low grits later to get the CA smooth. Too much CA sanding produces excess heat, which can cloud the CA, and also risks over-sanding to get through all the grits and removing all that CA you took the time to apply.
It’s worth practicing your CA application, paying attention after each coat or two to check to see if you introduced too many bumps because they will just keep getting worse if you don’t sand them back down.
Getting your bushings off your barrels
Even non-stick bushings will stick to your barrels via the CA glue. The point of non-stick bushings, and of the paste wax for regular bushings, is to make it easier to separate the bushing from the barrel, not to prevent them from sticking at all.
When removing your bushings from your barrel, remember that CA glue has very high tensile strength, but is much easier to break by shearing.
So don’t despair if you can’t pull your bushings straight off your pen — try to twist them or, if that doesn’t work, wiggle it back and forth in a sheared direction. You can also use a thin chisel to score the intersection between the barrels and the bushings to encourage it to let go without cracking on the barrel.
Your goal is to get the CA to let loose from the bushing but stay firmly attached to your pen without cracking.
If for some reason you do destroy your CA finish, you can always sand it down and re-apply it. I’ve done that three times on the same barrel when I was learning how to apply CA effectively.
If you are using regular (i.e. not non-stick) bushings, you may find it helpful to do a bunch of sanding first before trying to remove your bushings, as that will also sand down the CA glue on the bushings and make it thinner and easier to remove.
The advantage to non-stick bushings, even with odorless CA glue
I’ve been using non-stick bushings even with the odorless glue (I put some paste wax on them to help it come off, though I don’t know for sure how much it’s helping because I don’t want to risk trying it and not being able to get the glue off my bushings) because they have a key advantage:
Non-stick bushings are narrower than even slimline barrels, so there is a gap between their end and the end of your barrel.
I’ve found this has made it a lot easier to separate my bushings from my barrels before sanding and without cracking the CA on my barrels.
Here’s a pair of pictures illustrating the difference between how non-stick bushings have a bit of a gap between the barrel and the bushing, versus the slimline bushings which rest right against the barrel (there’s a few coats of CA on the barrels in the bottom picture, which is why they don’t look perfectly smooth.)
You will likely have a bit of CA sticking off the edge of the barrel from the bushings. It’s very critical that you sand this off, or you will likely crack the CA off your barrel when you press the pen together.
Just put some sandpaper of any low-ish grit flat on the table and sand each end of each barrel in a circle until the CA is flush with the brass barrel. (You can also do this process now, or earlier, to make sure the polymer is flush with the brass barrel.)
Don’t sand the end of the barrel on a surface with any give to it (like a towel), as that will cause the sandpaper to curl up over the edges of the barrel and sand those further down as well.
I use ~120-180 grit but honestly, anything low works. I just happen to have a lot of that grit.
Sanding the CA
By applying the CA, you added some height to your pen, and you will want to get it back down to closer to the bushing height.
If you used non-stick bushings, remove them and put your regular bushings back on.
If you used regular bushings, pull the CA off them.
I prefer to use abranet and micromesh for sanding CA, but you can use any sanding or polishing materials.
Note that all the sanding below is wet sanding.
First, you want to sand each barrel thoroughly: I use 600-800 grit abranet mesh for this. “Thoroughly” means you see almost no shiny spots (which are places where the CA is lower, and therefore not sanded yet.) The fewer shiny spots, the smoother and glossier your final surface will be. This is the most critical step.
If you are feeling the need to go down to 120 or 220 grit sandpaper, You probably have too many bumps in your CA and need to adjust your technique.
Next, go through your levels of micromesh or sandpaper at 800+ and then finishing paper. Just like when you sanded the pen barrel, always sand length-wise after each grit (read my article on sanding pen barrels for more information; much applies to the CA sanding as well.)
Don’t sand too much — or maybe do
Remember it is completely possible to actually sand all the CA off your barrel — which may be exactly what you want to do if you messed up.
You can always start over with CA again, even if there’s a bit of CA left on an over-sanded barrel. It’ll work just like applying a second coat of CA did before.
If you find a flat spot, or a spot with too little CA, you can always add more.
Just squirt some on something like a low or lint-free paper towel or cotton cloth or whatever, and rub it back and forth while your pen barrels spin for 10-20 seconds.
Don’t apply so much that it flies off the barrel and decorates your clay room — you can always add more if you want to do more polishing.
While you certainly can buff, like you’re used to with other polymer clay projects, it has two disadvantages:
Pen blanks aren’t the easiest to hold while buffing and can more easily slip out of your hands (though buffing them on the mandrel helps, you will need to use your fingers to stop them from spinning too much), but more importantly
Buffing creates heat, and heat that high can cause CA glue to get cloudy
Given the low price of products like Novus, and long shelf life, my recommendation would be a plastic polish instead, despite it being a bit messier and another product to buy.
You need to apply CA with a lathe or other spin-creating tool (see my articles on cordless and lock-on drills for lathe alternatives). And since your barrels will be spinning, you will need a threaded rod and nuts to keep them held firmly and moving around with the drill.
If you don’t have something like a PolyClay Mandrel or some knurled round coupling nuts or similar threaded low-profile nuts, I’d recommend using extra bushings to separate the nuts from where you will be applying CA glue, as you want your hand to be able to move smoothly from end to end.
Choosing your CA glue and accelerator
The random glue you have in your drawer or just bought from Hobby Lobby will probably cause cracking problems for you and be frustrating. Start by choosing a CA glue that will work well with pens: CA Glue Basics
As a polymer clay pen-maker, you need bushings for a few reasons:
They help you sand and finish your pen barrels to the correct height to work with the rest of the pen
They keep your pen barrels separated from each other, when you have two (which is very useful when applying CA glue)
They keep your pen barrels separate from your drill so you don’t get CA glue on more expensive components
They keep your pen barrels separate the nuts you’re using to tighten everything on your mandrel, so you can move your hands freely back and forth while applying the CA.
Woodturners need multiple sets of bushings, due to their stronger cutting tools, but as a poly clay artist you will likely need only one set for each type of pen kit unless you are using extra bushings for separating barrels when baking or on your mandrel.
If you are using CA glue, I think it’s useful to have an extra set or two of slimline bushings to keep space between your barrels and your drill and nuts.
Preparing your bushings
If you are using regular CA glue, then the best bushings are non-stick bushings (which I believe are made from HDPE). You can order them off Amazon or get them from wherever you are getting your pen supplies.
You will likely need only one set of four.
If you are using odorless, it’s a bit trickier, since it sticks to HDPE. In that case I use a trick I learned from Toni Street’s page on finishing pens: Rub some paste wax on the bushings first, though it took some experimenting to figure out a good technique.
I apply the paste wax liberally to each of the bushings and the coupling nuts, including the ends, give it a chance to dry, and then buff it out.
Prepare your workspace
CA glue will stick to anything it touches, and if it’s natural fibers, it will emit heat and potentially a lung-irritating smoke.
I keep some acetone around (e.g. nail polish remover with acetone) for clean up, but mostly try to avoid having to clean up.
I use wax paper (e.g. deli sheets) sliced into small squares to apply the CA glue rather than paper towel, which can react with the CA glue and create heat/smoke/fire (though you will see lots of woodturners using paper towels, and I’ve used them too. Just be aware of the risk if you do.)
I use polyethylene to protect surfaces: whether it’s a polyethylene disposable glove that I put used wax paper on, or a polyethylene sheet on my lap to protect my jeans, it’s worth a bit of work up front.
Pen makers can use “CA” glue to finish their pen barrels, and works regardless of whether your pen barrels are wood, acrylic, or polymer clay. It even works fine with many standard polymer clay surface treatments.
CA glue is sometimes called Superglue or Crazyglue, but those are both specific brand names. “CA” comes from “Cyanoacrylate” (Wikipedia) — and no, there is no cyanide in it despite the “cyan” in the name. It’s an acrylic resin.
They form their bond when exposed to moisture, which means they bond very well and quickly to human skin, and also means that their bonding time is faster in humid air and slower in dry air. So if you live in a climate that swings between very dry and very wet, you will need to adjust your technique, and if you live in an exceptionally dry or humid area, be aware that you may end up with more or less time to work than what you see in videos.
Take proper cautions around fumes, avoid having your skin glued together, and be careful of exothermic reactions, but remember that CA glues are agreed upon to generally be safe by the UK and US.
The next few posts after this one go into more detail on CA glue safety.
CA glue does not have a long shelf life. Opened it lasts for about a month (though Mercury says their bottles have caps that let them last longer) and unopened only about a year. Most people will want to buy the smallest bottle they can, as you don’t use very much on each pen.
If you do end up buying in bulk, you can put it in the refrigerator to increase the shelf life from 12 to ~15 months, but make sure it warms up throughly before you open it: condensation inside the bottle would start the bond and could ruin the bottle.
Brands of CA
Not all CA is created equally for pens. If you have had issues in the past with cracking or cloudy CA, it may have been how you were applying it but may also have been the brand.
Per the excellent information on Toni’s site, one of the key things to look for is a CA glue with “flex”, to reduce the chance that you will get cracks or spidering during stress. One example is PMMA (poly methyl methacrylate).
I chose to buy Bob Smith Industries CA glue due to the recommendation on Toni’s site: “Other brands such as super-gold by BSI use other ingredients which works even better.” I got the Supergold thin and Supergold+ Medium because I wanted odorless CA (see below.)
I’ve also heard good things about Mercury from some other polymer clay pen makers.
Odorless CA costs about twice as much, but (quoting from the Bob Smith Industries page on Supergold) “eliminates the irritating fumes from the evaporating monomer that make repeated use of CA unpleasant at times.” (But: see my article on CA Glue Safety: Fumes before assuming that Odorless CA or accelerator are perfectly safe.)
Because you’re just spreading CA on a surface, rather than pressing two pieces together, and then putting on multiple coats, you may find CA Accelerator useful. However, as I learned on Toni’s site, the ingredients in accelerators can cause some of the cracking/clouding problems.
Specifically, the page says, you want to avoid accelerators with acetone in them, and look for ones like Naptha and Heptane. If you aren’t sure, you need to find the manufacturer’s website, they will have the MSDS/SDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) there and you can read what’s in them. For example, here is the relevant part of the BSI accelerator’s SDS:
She recommends the following brands, but I suggest you click through to the page to see if there have been any new ones added, and to see the ones she is recommending against as well.
I am very grateful toTony Ransfield Street (Etsy) and Ed Street for posting a primer on using CA Glue when making polymer clay pens. While I’ve expanded on it here with what I’ve learned, theirs was the first really good information I was able to find and I appreciate their generosity.
None of the information here is certified or warrantied in any way. I am a hobbiest and sharing the best information I’ve learned, but I may be 100% wrong on everything and your safety is always your responsibility and you should verify and confirm information for yourself. Where possible I have included links to serve as a starting point for research for you.