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Applying Clay to a Pen Barrel

The main considerations when applying your clay are:

  • Preparing the barrel
  • Height relative to the rest of the pen hardware
  • Avoiding distortion
  • 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.

Height

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.

Avoiding distortion

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.

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Basic pen making terms

Like any other activity, pen makers have their own specialized terminology that can be confusing when you first start.

Bands

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.

Barrel trimmer

Used to trim down a blank to exact size after cutting it. Not necessary for making polymer clay pens.

Blanks

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

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.

CA Accelerator

Accelerator is sprayed on to your CA after each layer if you want it to set faster.

CA Glue

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.

Cap

The top of a pen.

Chisels

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.)

Clips

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.

IAP

The International Association of Pen Turners: https://www.penturners.org/

Lathe

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.

Mandrel

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.

Pen Kit

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.

Pen Press

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.

Refills

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.

Tip

The point of a pen that the ink cartridge comes out of so you can write with it.

Tubes

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.