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.
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.
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.