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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.

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Minimum Equipment to Make a Pen

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:

If you’re interested in some optional equipment that makes it easier to make quality pen, take a look at my article on quality of life equipment upgrades for pen making.

Options for the pen hardware

Cover a disposable pen

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.

They have the advantage over the basic bics listed above of being retractable, so you don’t need to worry about a pen cap. Here’s a link, but they’re purchaseable many places: BIC 8373971 Soft Feel Retractable Ballpoint Pen, Medium Point, Black, 12-Count

Use a regular 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.

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.

Options for making the barrel

Do nothing special

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 have a drill or lathe, consider Novus 1 Plastic Clean and Shine for your final buffing/polishing step. If not, any buffing wheels are a good choice, though these wool buffing wheels are the absolute best I’ve ever used and I don’t use anything else at this point.

Lost your pen kit directions?

The IAP (International Association of Penturners) has a very nice database of bushings and barrels and instructions that you can view online or email and print.

They also have a cheap app version of it for iOS and Android.

More?

If you’re interested in some optional equipment that makes it easier to make quality pen, take a look at my article on quality of life equipment upgrades for pen making.