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Quality of life equipment upgrades for pen making

Got the basics purchased but interested in some ways to make penmaking easier by spending a bit of money? Here are some of my favorite tools.

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.

Kits and Tubes App

The International Association of Pen Turners has a database of bushings and tube sizes, but they also provide it in app form for iOS for $0.99: IAP Bushings & Tubes Reference. There’s also an Android version I haven’t personally used.

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.

Cutters

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.

PolyClay Mandrel

Also from Penn State, this PolyClay-specific mandrel makes it very easy for me to sand, finish, and polish my barrels on my drill. You can make one yourself (I give suggestions in my article on the minimum equipment necessary for penmaking), but I didn’t know that at the time.

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.

Wool buffing wheel

If you aren’t using a plastic polish and/or CA glue, this is a significantly better buffing wheel than any other one I have used: Buffing Shank with Wool Polishing Head 1”

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 Polish

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.

CA Glue

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.

Abranet

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.

Pen Press

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.

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Sanding a Polymer Clay Pen

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.

I have Abranet, which works quite well, but I also like the systems like this one that store roles of sandpaper: PSI Woodworking SPSETMOD Modular Sandpaper System

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’.

Start sanding

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

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