The main considerations when applying your clay are:
Preparing the barrel
Height relative to the rest of the pen hardware
Smoothing the barrel as much as possible before baking
Preparing the barrel
I don’t have a definitive answer on this. Some people say it’s critical to sand the barrel first — others say that’s only for woodworkers, and it’s better to have the barrel smooth. Others say you should coat the barrel first with PVA glue and let it dry.
I haven’t tried the PVA glue, but I’ve done both smooth and textured barrels and not been able to notice a difference between them.
I do find that when applying canes it’s nice to have the barrel a little tacky, so PVA glue may help with that.
Another solution (which is what I usually do) is covering the barrel with a sheet of clay rolled on the thinnest setting on your pasta machine, and then further rolled thin by rolling the barrel against the table with my hands and trimming the excess clay that comes off the ends. It technically adds a bit of height to the pen, meaning you’ll have to slice a wee bit thinner or sand a wee bit more, but it’s a minimal amount.
Applying clay to your pen
Whether you are covering your pen with cane slices of flowers, etc. like many artists do, or in kaleidoscope patterns like I do, you will need to slice your clay very thin.
For applying cane slices of flowers, etc., I prefer to apply them right on the barrel and design my pen there.
For my kaleidoscopes, I usually do four rows of triangles. I assemble three rows on a piece of waxed paper (like a deli sheet), roll the pen barrel on them by placing it on the middle row and then cupping the deli sheet around the barrel, and then I apply the fourth row directly on the barrel. This is because my canes are not usually the perfect size, and that lets me adjust the final row to be slightly smaller or slightly bigger as needed.
When I’m doing squares, I do the same: one fewer rows than I will have as my final total of rows done on the deli paper, and then the final one applied on the pen, even if it means I have to stretch my final row of squares a little bit.
If you want to make sure your pen is a consistent height with the rest of the hardware, you will want to be aware of how much clay you can add before exceeding the bushings. Some kits, like the Slimline, don’t have much space between the barrel and the top of the bushing, making them a deceptively hard kit to use if you aren’t good at slicing thin slices and don’t want to do a lot of sanding.
Consistent slices are also important: when you’re working on a flat surface you can often cheat with slices that are thicker by shaving them down after joining all your slices together. But on a curved and small surface like a pen barrel, this is much harder or impossible to do.
When you roll the barrel later, slightly-thicker slices will flatten more and push your other slices out of alignment. It makes it very hard to maintain an even-looking kaleidoscope pattern.
Patterns with black lines separating each triangle look even messier, because the wavy lines are much more obvious so consider this when deciding how to design your pen or design a pen that takes advantage of the waviness.
Smoothing the barrel
When rolling the barrel, either use the palm of your hand, or use a flat surface — if you use your fingers, you can introduce distortion and hills and valleys in your barrel. I prefer a clear acrylic block like the sort that is used for rubber stamps that don’t come with a back, because it’s easy to see what’s going on.
As you roll, you’re likely to notice the clay scooting off the end of your barrels — left unaddressed, that will cause your designs to stretch out at the ends of each of your barrels and be much more distorted there.
I pause every 20-30 seconds when rolling to gently nudge the edges back in, so I don’t lose that clay and have distorted ends.
The more work you do now smoothing the better. If you are good at both height and smoothing, you can start as high as ~800 grit sandpaper and do very little sanding.
If you are over height and want to get down to bushing height, you may need to start as low as 60 or 80 grit. Make sure if you’re over height that it’s due to cane slices and not just a thick tube covering, otherwise when you try to sand down to bushing height you may sand right through your cane slices.
Finishing the ends
When I’m done, I used do a final trim around the ends — but too often that meant that the clay pulled away from the barrel or I cut a bit past the barrel end, which looks a bit messy when the barrel is finished.
Now I trim the ends but do a final little roll to let the edges protrude just a bit beyond the edge, and then I sand those down quickly after baking.
Making a pen is a more technical process than much of what we do with polymer clay, so there are a lot of places where things can go wrong, particularly when you combine different materials and equipment.
This article is much more complete thanks to the second half of this article on Toni Street’s website that discusses troubleshooting common problems. I’ve written it with my own troubleshooting, but my troubleshooting was definitely helped by what I learned initially from her.
CA glue cracks a few hours after you finish
This happened when I made my first pen using a poor quality CA accelerator or glue. Read the article on CA glue basics for more help.
It can also happen if you generate too much heat in the curing process: for me this was buffing too aggressively.
Toni notes that it could be due to the glue curing too fast. See her page for more tips on that. This hasn’t been an issue for me yet.
CA is white or cloudy in spots
Your pen wasn’t dry, or you used too much accelerator or sprayed it too closely to the pen blank. This can reportedly also happen in very humid climates due to the excess water in the air.
Part of your pen isn’t shiny despite you applying CA everywhere
You sanded below your CA finish and exposed the polymer clay below it. This has happened to me when I tried to sand two barrels at once by going back and forth across both of them: I over-sanded the ends of the barrels in the middle and under-sanded the ones at the far ends, resulting in bare plastic in the middle.
The good news is the solution is simple: just start over applying more CA. You do not need to re-sand all the CA off, just make sure you thoroughly clean and dry the barrels so there’s no dust, water, or oil on them before starting again.
Your CA is very bumpy
You applied too much CA too quickly and it clumped — this will not get better with more CA, you have to sand it back down before you continue.
Check every coat or two when applying it to catch this problem early before it gets worse. You can sand in the middle of your coats and continue applying CA afterwards, just make sure it’s dust- and water-free before continuing.
Your bushings are stuck to your pen after applying CA
If it’s just a thin coat of CA between the bushing and the pen, just twist them apart. If it’s a lot of CA, you applied too much CA or your pen blank was over the bushing height before you began applying the CA, and you need to sand it down more before adding the CA.
You didn’t apply enough CA to fill in the pits in your original clay finish. Consider sanding more and/or applying more or thicker CA. Medium CA will do a better job filling in pits, which is why I always end with at least 1-2 coats.
Like any other activity, pen makers have their own specialized terminology that can be confusing when you first start.
The piece of metal that goes between two parts of the pen — e.g., where a twist pen twists.
You can get specialized bands engraved with various designs that fit specific pen kits; make sure you get one that fits your pen kit.
Used to trim down a blank to exact size after cutting it. Not necessary for making polymer clay pens.
Blanks are blocks of wood or acrylic that pen turners spin on a lathe and use woodworking tools to cut down to size. Sometimes polymer clay artists call their finished barrels “blanks” as well, especially if they’re selling just the barrels instead of the finished pens.
Bushings are small metal tubes that you use on each end of your barrel to show what height you want the end of the barrel to be. If you want, the barrel can be different heights between them, but for a smooth pen feel, each end should match the bushing for that end.
Some kits have different bushings for each end, so pay attention to your kit’s directions and make sure you create your barrel correctly and then orient it correctly when assembling the pen.
Different pens have different kits, so pay attention to what you need for which kit and consider storing your bushings in bags that identify which kit(s) they are used with.
Accelerator is sprayed on to your CA after each layer if you want it to set faster.
Cyanoacrylate Glue makes a very durable finish for pens, including polymer clay pens. While superglue is technically a brand of CA glue, it is not a good choice for finishing pens.
The top of a pen.
Used by pen turners for reducing a blank to appropriate size. Not used when making polymer clay pens unless you are turning them (which most people don’t.)
The clip is the part of the pen that attaches it to your pocket or notebook. Many pen kits that include clips can be assembled without the clip if you prefer a clip-less pen.
You can also buy specialized clips with various designs and engravings for different pen kits, just make sure you get one made for your pen kit.
Drill bits, chucks, etc.
Used by pen turners for drilling out a blank. Not necessary when making polymer clay pens.
Woodturners use lathes to turn their pens. Since we do not have to turn our pens, you can skip buying a lathe and either sand by hand or use something like a drill or Foredom.
A mandrel is just a rod you use to assemble the pen.
When you are turning a wooden pen, or finishing any pen (including polymer clay), you want a threaded mandrel so you can use nuts to tighten your barrels against the bushings so they don’t spin when you try to turn them or sand them.
You can assemble your own mandrel or buy one.
A pen kit contains the hardware necessary to assemble a pen. It will have the ink, the tip, the appropriate mechanism (twist or click), and some brass barrels you will put clay around.
It will not include bushings, you will need to buy those separately if you want them.
A specialized piece of equipment that makes it easier to assemble a pen kit. You can also use a vice, though they can be harder to keep the pen kit in proper alignment, and if you don’t already have one they can cost almost as much as buying a pen press.
Pen Tube Insertion Tool
Not required for polymer clay pens, it’s used by pen turners who are drilling out blanks and need to insert the tube into the drilled blank.
Pen kits are usually designed like normal pens you purchase are and you can replace the ink when it is used up. Make sure you look up your kit and take a note of what refills it takes.
The point of a pen that the ink cartridge comes out of so you can write with it.
Pen kits come with brass tubes that you will apply polymer clay to, to create the decorated barrels for your final kit. Different kits use different length tubes and sometimes a kit with two tubes has two different sizes or diameters for those tubes.
You can also just buy tubes on their own without the kits, which is cheaper and a good option if you want to experiment more or sell polymer clay “blanks” rather than finished pens.
If you haven’t yet applied CA glue, you can always peel your clay off a tube and re-use the tube if you didn’t like the pen you made, even after baking. If it doesn’t come off the tube by picking at it with your fingers, you can use a blade to slice into the clay and peel it off.
If you have already applied glue you could sand it down enough to be able to peel off the clay, but tubes are cheap enough (and can be bought on their own, without the pen kits) that that may not be worth the time and effort.
Much of the information online about pen turning is confusing because it’s difficult to sort out what actually applies to making polymer clay pens and what doesn’t.
Do I need a lathe?
No. I have posts here about how to use a drill to finish pens, and you can even just sand them by hand if you want. They are linked off my page on Making Pens with Polymer Clay.
Do I need to buy blanks?
No, you will form your clay right on the brass tubes that come with a pen kit. All you need to do is buy a kit (search “pen kits” in your favorite search engine to find many sources for buying them.)
If you just want to practice, or want to make “blanks” (barrels) to sell, you can buy tubes separately.
Do I need to drill out the center?Superglue the tube to the clay?
No, that’s because woodturners get solid blocks of wood or acrylic that they need to drill out and then superglue (aka CA glue) the tube in. Since we form our “blanks” right on brass barrels, there’s no need to drill them out.
Do I need to buy wood turning tools like a chisel?
No, not unless you are planning on building a solid clay blank and turning it like it were wood. Most polymer clay pens are formed close to their final shape and size, and you can use your standard sanding tools to sand them down and smooth them.
Do I need a mandrel? Bushings?
No, you can make your own mandrel and while bushings are helpful, they’re not required. See my article on the minimum equipment necessary to make a pen for information on how to create your own tools from cheap hardware store components.
Do I need specialized sanding or polishing equipment?
No, you can use what you already use for polymer clay. Just realize that, like jewelry, polymer clay pens will be handled up close so you need to sand and polish them very well and, unlike jewelry, it’s very hard to use resin on them.
You may want to read my article on optional tools that make penmaking easier and higher quality, which discusses some specific sanding and polishing options.
Do I need a pen kit?
Eventually you may like one, but you can start using disposable Bics (or potentially even other brands, just check that the barrel (without the ink cartridge) can stand up to your oven at your clay’s temperature for your normal baking time. Bic Clic Stic, Bic Soft Feel Retractable, and Bic Round Stic are all pens I have heard will work, though it’s always worth double-checking yourself in case the manufacturer changed the formula.
You will need to pull the pens apart, cover the barrel (remove the ink cartridge!), bake, sand/finish, and then put the pen back together.
It’s definitely not required, but I’ve found it a useful reference and for $0.99 it’s a nice way to thank them for keeping the database up to date as well.
They will be updating the database again soon, according to their website, so while you may find some missing kits (I haven’t yet, but I’m using pretty standard kits) an update is supposedly coming.
I used these PolyClay Tube Cutters from Penn State on every pen I make and find them well worth the $7 I paid for the set.
There are different sizes that will allow you to quickly and easily cut clay to fit (with no overlap) around the most popular pen barrel sizes: 7mm, 8mm, 3/8 in., 27/64 in. and 10mm.
They’re extra long, so they work with a variety of tube lengths, and you can easily trim the ends off your barrel after wrapping it.
When I’m doing a kaleidoscope I don’t use them, since I want it to tile perfectly (then I use my graph paper templates), but since I often like to work on a base layer of clay, they’re perfect for getting an easy base layer in place rolled out on the very thinnest level on my pasta machine.
I haven’t regretted the purchase though: the slightly flattened end nuts, long threaded rod, and knurled connecting nuts make it a breeze to use on my drill and I reach for it every time rather than my home made setups.
At $15 it’s not the cheapest thing out there, but for me it’s been worthwhile.
Round Cane Slicing Jig
I do not use this personally, because I don’t make pens like this, but many do, so I’m mentioning it as an option. If you’ve used it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments on this post!
Penn State also produces a PolyClay Cane Slicing Jig to make it easier to hand-slice round canes without distortion. If you already have one of the fancier slicers you may not be interested, or if you don’t do round canes often (like me), but at $10 it might be a useful purchase for the right person.
Thomas Scientific Blades
Switching to these Thomas Scientific Tissue Blades made a big difference for me in cutting my canes. They are thin but not overly flexible, and my slices have gotten much more even and thin.
LindasArtSpot sells them in 5, 10, and 25 packs. You may also be able to find them other places, but this is the source I know and where I got mine. They aren’t cheap — these are not the generic “tissue blades” you will find searching, they’re a specific brand I’ve found is significantly better than others I’ve tried — but I now use nothing else to slice my canes for my pens.
It doesn’t leave nearly as many micro scratches behind, and as long as you buff thoroughly, it’s the best surface I’ve been able to get on clay using a buffing wheel.
Novus Plastic Clean and Shine works great if you’re working on a drill or lathe, and has less of a chance of damaging your CA finish with the heat from a buffing wheel. The abrasive is suspended in a liquid, which helps heat disappation.
They also offer “Novus Polish Mate”, but having tried it, even though it’s cheap, I agree with the reviewers on amazon: it’s basically paper towels. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are having issues with paper towels.
I was very hesitant to start using CA glue but I’m so glad I did. I love the finish and the confidence to hand my pens over to people to use long term. One experienced polymer clay maker reported that she’s had a CA-coated pen in her backpack for almost a decade and the clay+CA surface is just as good as it was on the day she made it — the pen hardware has gotten more beaten up than the clay surface.
I wrote a lot of articles on how to use CA, since it’s an unfamiliar topic to experienced clay artists. They’re all listed on my index page for my articles on Making Polymer Clay Covered Pens.
I confess: I am not a perfect slicer. And I slice too thick. Even with the blades above. Given that I make a lot of slimlines, this means I end up sanding…a lot.
I’ve come to love my Abranet mesh paper for sanding my pens. It’s much more durable than any other sandpaper I’ve used, and holds up well to even long sanding sessions as I get a barrel down to size.
(Note that you will find much cheaper mesh sandpapers available, but read the reviews carefully. Part of why Abranet is so popular is it sands well and lasts a long time, and other mesh sandpapers often don’t have the same qualities.)
Micro Mesh Sanding Pads
I used to use polishing papers, but about a year ago I switched to micromesh sanding pads and am very happy I did. (There’s also what appear to be very similar sanding sheets, though I haven’t used them.)
The set I bought didn’t include this dispenser, and you can probably find some that doesn’t, but I suspect the dispenser is actually really useful — one of the problems I always have is fumbling for the right color and keeping them straight, and I really like the construction of the one here.
Note that when you look at any micromesh pads you will see confused people writing negative reviews about how the pads are labeled wrong — they aren’t, they’re using a different labeling system.
Just remember that the sanding pads use a different grit system. The 1500 grit sanding pad is equivalent to a 400-600 grit sandpaper. Therefore, there’s no point in using your Abranet or sanding paper up to 800 or 1200 and then switching back to the lowest grit micromesh — you’re just undoing a bunch of work.
If you are using a vice today (or a rubber hammer), you may want to consider investing in a pen press. The best answer is a real pen press — and there’s one for sale on Amazon right now that is $38, which is very competitive with vice prices (and there’s one at Penn State for $50.) You may be able to find one cheaper somewhere else as well.
An alternative is the Assembly/Disassembly Pen Press from Penn State, which is the the one I have and can personally vouch for it working very well. I like having the option to dissemble a pen I’ve messed up, even if I don’t use it often.
Unlike woodworkers, we’re unlikely to have any of the basics necessary to make a pen other than the clay, so here’s several levels of “what’s the minimum list of stuff I need to make a pen?” lists for buying the pen hardware, assembling the pen, making the barrel, baking the barrel, and finishing the barrels.
I do not get any commission from any links on my site, not even from Amazon. I am just sharing things I’ve found effective and helpful.
I assume you have basic polymer clay supplies: clay, blades, rollers or pasta machines, etc. If not, here are two great guides to beginner basic supplies for the clay portion:
The most basic thing to do is cover a bic pen. They’re fun, easy, cheap, and a good way to decide if you like working at such a small scale. All you need is a pen that won’t melt in the oven. You can try any pen that’s cheap and easy for you to get. Bic Clic Stic, Bic Soft Feel Retractable, and Bic Round Stic are all pens I have heard will work, though it’s always worth double-checking yourself in case the manufacturer changed the formula. (And at least in the US, you can often get these locally at an office supply shop as they are a common brand.)
Be sure to remove the ink from the barrel before baking.
The way most people make them (applying clay around the existing barrel) means the pen cap will no longer fit on if you are using the Bic Round Stic.
You can manufacture a new barrel yourself out of copper sheets, but it will have many of the same challenges of being a small diameter that the slimline pen kit has.
You can also make a cap, though I was never successful in making one with enough tolerance to actually stay on, so they were more “sitting on my desk” pens than anything else.
Most of the tutorials you’ll find online for polymer clay pens are for covering this type of pen.
Use a no-press pen kit
If you like the idea of a more traditional looking pen but don’t want to mess around with pressing a pen together, you can use a no press pen kit. I found them to be not as sturdy as the regular pen kits, but that may have been my error or the specific kit I bought.
Disassemble and Reassemble a Bic Soft Feel retractable
I haven’t tried these personally, but Michelle Dorn Hoffner suggested them as an in between alternative, since you do need to use a press or vice to re-assemble, but they’re much cheaper if you mess them up than a metal pen kit.
You can find these on amazon or from any one of many pen kit suppliers — just search Google for pen kits.
Be aware that while Slimline pens often appear like a good beginner pen, the bushings (i.e. the height of the pen hardware itself, that you want your clay to be exactly as tall as) aren’t much taller than the brass barrel itself, making them hard to use because your clay (e.g. your cane slices) needs to be much thinner.
Specifically, a slimline pen has room for about four playing cards of clay before you’re exceeding the bushings. (Not familiar with the playing card method of measuring clay height? Read about it here. 10 cards should equal approximately 2.5-3mm.)
For my Atlas, for example, where 0 is my thickest setting and 9 is the thinnest, four playing cards translates to 5 thickness being a tad too high over the bushings and 6 being a tad low. I usually pick a 5 and sand back down. You can do a similar measurement with your own pasta machine to figure out what thicknesses are appropriate for your machine (all are different, even if they’re the same brand and same model, since they are not precision machines.)
That said, if you don’t care about having your first few pen barrels flush with the hardware (I didn’t!), then slimlines are great because they are cheap and plentiful and a good way to see if this is something you enjoy doing.
Options for assembling the pen
For this you will need some way to press the parts together. At a bare minimum you need a rubber hammer to use that to gently tap the parts together — but I wouldn’t recommend it, and if you don’t already own one I definitely wouldn’t recommend buying one.
You can also use a bench vice — it will need to be one that can go as wide as your widest piece you need to press, which could be several inches. While woodworkers often already have a vice in their shop, polymer clay artists are less likely to. And once you start looking at 4-5” vices, they don’t seem to be much cheaper than $30-$40 (though you may be able to get one used somewhere.) They also have the disadvantage that it’s harder to keep the pen fully in alignment — and if you don’t, you could bend the hardware and ruin the kit or even your barrel.
The best answer is a real pen press — and there’s one for sale on Amazon right now that is $38, which is very competitive with vice prices (and there’s one at Penn State for $50.) You may be able to find one cheaper somewhere else as well.
This will result in a pen that’s probably not flush with the hardware — but that may not matter to you.
It’s how I did my first few pens and plenty of people happily make their pens that way.
Use a home-made mandrel
Any 1/4-20 threaded rod (or M6 in metric) will work, but so will a knitting needle if you have a ~6-7mm needle (sizes 2-4 UK, or 10-10.5 US). If your needle is on the smaller end of that range, you will want to use masking tape to thicken it a bit, or use rubber bands or a similar solution to hold the tube in place.
You can also buy 7mm smooth rods, which work great and are a bit easier to slide the unbaked barrels back and forth on.
I prefer having something that is 1/4” or 7mm (M6) exactly and then put my bushings on also: this makes it much easier to get my pen barrel to the right height even if I’m not using a drill to sand it down and will be doing it by hand.
Buy a mandrel (or use a threaded rod) and attach it to your drill/lathe
Penn State sells a nice PolyClay Mandrel that works great either by hand, or if you’re attaching it to your drill or lathe.
Alternatively, you can use a threaded rod, but I found a 6” one (the largest my local hardware store had) to be too short to comfortably do two pen barrels so I’m happy with my mandrel purchase and I use my threaded rods for baking instead. But a longer one would work just fine (or do only one barrel on your drill at once.)
Options for baking the barrel
If you have the mandrel from Penn State, it’s designed with flat bottoms on the two large nuts on the ends so it won’t roll, and you can bake your barrels right on that.
You can use any bead rack you have or have made.
Or, I made little ‘feet’ out of polymer clay for my smooth rods as you can see in the image to the left here. The bottom is four layers of the thickest setting on my pasta machine, and the top is a single layer to hold the rod in place.
I made eight of them so I can use them to hold or bake multiple sets at once.
I like using spare slimline bushings to protect the end of the barrels so they don’t bump up into sharp edges on the feet before baking.
Options for finishing the barrel
I have several articles on hardware options for finishing the barrels, so I won’t repeat that here:
If you are finishing by hand, any sandpaper, polishing papers, and buffing method you’re used to using is sufficient.
If you are finishing with a drill or lathe, you can use your existing sandpaper and polishing papers, or you can look into abranet or sanding tape (I use both and find them very effective with the drill doing the work.)
You can also consider using CA glue (see my Making Pens page to see all my posts on using CA glue), but it’s a bigger investment than just normal sanding and buffing.
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.
One little-discussed risk around CA glue is the fact that it will cause an exothermic reaction (heat/fire) when it comes into contact with natural materials like cotton, leather, wool, etc. — which includes things like your jeans, T-shirt, paper towels, etc.
The reaction can be fast, and depending on the amount, you could burn yourself or release a smoke that will irritate your lungs.
Please be very careful if you are working in a T-shirt or jeans — the safety data sheets for CA glues will tell you not to wear them while using CA.
I found this the hard way when applying CA with a paper towel, not thinking about what it was made from: I had put some accelerator on my pen body and started to apply the CA and my fingertips got suddenly very hot.
Luckily I did not get burned, and I solved my problem by slipping on a pair of gardening gloves which provided just enough insulation for my fingers given the small amounts of CA I was using — but it caught me by surprise, and I was glad it wasn’t worse.
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.