July 2017



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The Pen Turner's Corner: Hexagonal Pen Barrels

Penn State Industries introduced the Vertex pens a couple of years ago. The metal nib and clip ends have hexagon sections. Ever since I first made one of the vertex click pens I though how nice it would look if the barrel had a hexagon shape as well. The vertex pens are available in a click version as well as rollerballs and fountain pen. The rollerballs and fountain pens have magnetic caps. The cap easily posts magnetically onto the nib and back of the pen without the use of threads. The vertex pens can be seen on the PSI website at https://www.pennstateind.com/store/vertex-pen-kits.html


Figure 1: The nib and clip ends of the vertex click pen.


I have the tool that allows making hexagonal pen barrels an easy task: The Beall Tool Company’s Pen Wizard. I got the box off the shelf, dusted off the Pen Wizard and proceeded to make a hexagonal pen barrel for a vertex click pen.  I chose a black and white ebony burl blank and a chrome vertex kit. I think the combination worked quite well together.


Figure 2: The black and white ebony burl vertex made for this article.


The Beall Tool Company manufactures the Pen Wizard in the USA. From the Beall Tool website: "The Pen Wizard is a stand-alone ornamental lathe especially developed to create novel and interesting patterns on pens and pencils."  More information is available at http://www.bealltool.com/products/penwizard/penwiz.php . There is not a great deal of information on how to use The Pen Wizard but information is available:

·      http://yoyospin.com/tutorials/ 

·      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXgBPEpWuoQ

·      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M8LkDPpujE

·      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW9QGpRmk1g

·      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNPxQ308YrU

·      Other tutorials or videos may show up…Google search for the latest.


Figure 3: The Pen Wizard from the Beall Tool Company.


The above picture has no cutting tool in the tool holder. The Pen Wizard can accommodate a Dremel rotatory tool, a Proxxon rotary tool, or a Fordom rotary tool. I use the flexible shaft rotary tool from Harbor Freight (item #40432). The flexible shaft on my version will drive the Foredom 44T handset that will hold a ¼ inch shaft diameter router bits. The handset that comes with the Harbor Freight tool will not, and neither will the dremel or Proxxon.

I’ve been told the new Harbor Freight Flexible shaft grinder/carver’s flex shaft will not plug into the Foredom 44T handset. I have not confirmed this.


Figure 4: Closeup of the  tool holder which will hold either the Foredom 44T handset or a Dremel tool. The Proxxon requires an adapter.



Figure 5: The Harbor Freight Flexible Shaft Grinder/Carver attached to the Pen Wizard.


Figure 6: The Foredom 44T handset


The bit I used for these hexagonal barrels is a straight bit that will cut on the end or on the sides. Different bits can be used to make different style cuts. I will explore other applications of the Pen Wizard in later articles.


Figure 7: The straight cutter used for the hexagonal barrel.


The blank used for the hexagonal barrel first needs to be mounted on a standard lathe and turned round. The barrels used for this article were actually Sierra barrels. The sierra bushings have a diameter of .474 inches and I turned the blank to a consistent diameter of .650 inches.

For the vertex pen, the distance between opposite faces of the hexagonal pen parts is .432 inches. The barrel I made for the vertex had a distance of .441 inches between opposite faces. This worked really well for the pen. I turned the barrel to a diameter .200 inches larger than the pen-bushing diameter. This leaves a veneer thickness of .100 inches around the tube.

The rounded pen barrel is then moved to the mandrel of the Pen Wizard using the bushing for the pen. Extra bushings are used as spacers. The blank is then locked in place and ready for cutting.


Figure 8: The blank locked in place on the mandrel and the cutter in position.


A measurement that has worked well for me is to position the cutter .015 inches above the bushing. I use a feeler gauge to do the cutter placement. Keeping the cutter off the bushing is one goal. I have used both the .012 and .015 gauge successfully. Position the cutter and lock it in place.


Figure 9: The cutter positioned using a feeler gauge.


The Pen Wizard has a gearbox on one end. Rotating the lead screw handle starts a series of gears that rotate the mandrel as the cutter moves horizontally. The rotating mandrel combined with the horizontal cutter movement causes spiral cutting. Changing the gears will change the pitch. There is also a Guilloché attachment that works in conjunction with the gearbox causing the mandrel to rock back and forth instead of fully rotating as the lead screw is turned. This produces waves instead of spirals. Both the amplitude and frequency can be manipulated to produce various patterns. A gear change will reverse the mandrel rotation, reversing the spirals cuts also. Spiral cuts in both right and left hand pitch are possible. Take a look at the Pen Wizard instructions at http://www.bealltool.com/pdfs/PW_Instruction.pdf .


Figure 10: The gearbox and Guilloché attachment.


Cutting the flutes for the hexagonal barrels requires the mandrel to not rotate. Mandrel rotation can be stopped by removing the gear connecting the lead screw to the other gears in the gearbox and putting the mandrel gear in its “neutral” position.


Figure 11: The gear connecting the lead screw gear to the others is removed and the mandrel gear is in neutral.


To more securely hold the mandrel in place and to keep it from moving, I clamp a small locking plier to the mandrel gear and the plate next to it. No movement is now possible.


Figure 12: The mandrel securely locked into place.


Indexing the mandrel the required amount of rotation is made possible by the indexing wheel. The indexing wheel is attached to the mandrel. It has 24 positions, so that calculates to 15 degrees for each position. The indexing wheel’s 24 holes are 15 degrees apart. A locking pin secures the wheel for making each pass with the cutter. For the hexagon barrel, the mandrel is rotated 60 degrees after each pass. The wheel is indexed four holes after each pass: 4 x 15 = 60 degrees rotation. 360 divided by 60 is six sides for the hexagon barrel. Barrels can have any number of sides (greater than two) that divides into 360. Just change the number of holes the wheel moves each time. Theoretically, 3 sides = 8 holes, 4 sides = 6 holes; 6 sides = 4 holes, 8 sides = 3 holes, 12 sides = 2 holes and 24 sides = 1 hole.  Hexagonal and octagonal barrels are the most practical.  As the number of sides increases, the width of each side gets smaller. So, 12 sides will almost be round. I have not tried to do 24 sides. Six and eight sides are the better choices.


Figure 13: The indexing wheel.


The white paint dots are four holes apart. This helps me count correctly and stay on course. I don’t have to think--just move to the next white dot. I need some way to remind me which direction I need to rotate. I have settled on always moving the locking pin in the clockwise direction.

The blank is locked onto the mandrel, the cutting tool is in place, the cutter is adjusted to the proper depth, the gearbox is set for stationary mandrel, so we are ready to cut. Turn on the cutting tool and crank the handle to move the cutter from one end of the blank to the other making the first of six flutes. Index the mandrel four holes or 60 degrees and make the next cutting pass. I cut in both directions but cutting in one direction is possible. Index, cut, index, cut for six passes.


Figure 14: The blank after making six passes for the hexagonal pen barrel.


Remove the barrel and remount on the lathe mandrel and gradually round over the ends down to the barrel. This eliminates the transition from pen parts to barrel with a more pleasing feel.


Figure 15: The rounded end the hexagonal pen barrel.


Sanding is done by first placing a sheet of sandpaper on a flat surface. Holding the blank between thumb and index finger with one of the flats on the paper, move the blank back and forth several times. Rotate to the next flat surface and repeat. Do this for all six sides. I normally sand 320 and 400. Apply a wipe-on finish of choice and allow the finish to dry. Assemble the pen.


Figure 16: Sanding the flat sides of the hexagonal pen barrel.


Figure 17: A completed hexagonal pen barrel.


Figure 18: Another view of the completed vertex pen.


I posted this pen on several Internet pen forums. One reply was from Pierre Bouillot who lives in France. He reported that he makes these hexagonal pen barrels using hand tools. I suggested we collaborate and Pierre agreed. The following is what he sent me.

Two hexagonal Vertex pens using hand tools
by Pierre Bouillot

When I show my hexagonal Vertex pens to other turners, they usually ask me which machine I used to make them. And when I answer “A hand plane”, they don’t necessarily trust me…

I use powered tools when I want to work without unnecessary effort, typically when I saw.  But I love hand tools because they are inexpensive and very accurate. In fact, they are usually more precise than electric tools. They are sometimes quicker than machines because they do not need a long preparation before being operational. Above all, if I want to be more precise with an electric tool, it only forces me to spend more money in a new, more effective machine; on the opposite, trying to be more accurate with a hand tool forces me to improve my skills. In fact, it makes me better.

So I will here explain how I use hand tools for my hexagonal pens, including the making of some added decoration. I will show two pens: a dark one in katalox (Swartzia cubensis) with some sycamore filets, the other one in boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) with mother-of-pearl dots. 

Blanks preparation

The katalox blank will be decorated with some white veneer. It is hand sawed in four sections of different length: I use a Japanese saw that gives me a precise cut and a very narrow kerf.


Figure 19: Using Japanese saw for thin kerf precise cuts.


The two sawn sides had to be exactly parallel, so I measured them four times (once from every side) and used my precision thickness tool: a heavy grit sanding paper glued on a piece of dead flat marble. I rubbed the wood, pressing it more where the wood is too thick.


Figure 20: Sanding the slices to get the square cross sections parallel.


Figure 21: I can reach a good precision (0.05 mm) within a minute.


In order to glue the parts with a white veneer in between, I must admit I use a machine: I found that my circular saw table was very convenient.


Figure 22: Gluing the white veneer strip in place.

 Then, I drilled the two blanks the usual way.

Turning the blanks

I then needed to turn a perfect cylinder. The diameter had to be the same as the larger diameter of the kit hexagonal nib, in fact a very little bit bigger to allow for sanding. I modified a caliper, rounding the end of the jaws. I lock the jaws at the correct diameter and use the calipers as a guide to tell me when I have taken enough wood off with my parting tool.


Figure 23: Taking the measurement needed. Notice calipers don't need to be digital as we're not really reading the measurement but just using it as a guide.


I put the lathe on with the blank on a pen mandrel, and I gently rubbed the jaws ends on the wood while cutting a mortise with a narrow parting tool.


Figure 24: Step one in getting a perfect cylinder with the required diameter.

 When the jaws go across the wood, the correct diameter is reached. It takes only seconds. I make different mortises along the blank, and then I only have to turn away the wood in between. I stop the lathe and check the whole length with the caliper; it has to run tightly but freely along the blank.

The catalox blank has been turned the usual way with the glued tube and the bushings. But since I want to drill holes for the mother-of-pearl dots in the boxwood blank, I did not glue the boxwood to the tube yet.  When the blank is on the mandrel, the unglued tube is inside, and only the bushings are holding it tight when I turn it.

Making the facets

I made a wooden device to transform my tool rest into a shelf rest. Two scraps, three nails and a clamp is all I needed--it does not have to be precisely horizontal, only steady.


Figure 25: My steady shelf.


I place the steady shelf roughly level with the lathe axis. Using the index, I draw six lines with a scratch awl.


Figure 26: Scratching the six intersection lines of the six faces of the future hexagonal barrel using the lathe indexing device.


Figure 27:  I take the blank to the bench vice to hold it for planning.


I like to use two planes. With the first one, a good old Norris, I go quickly near the lines, sometimes at the price of some very light tear-out. With the second, a very precise French plane with a metallic sole, I can take shavings 0.02 mm thick.


Figure 28: Planning started but not complete.


The smaller French plane is the perfect tool for reaching the line. I begin to “feel” the surface I made first, holding the plane on top of the blank, rocking the tool from side to side before starting to plane. I frequently check how far the lines are from the side of the newly planed surface. If I do not plane really in the center of the two lines, I have to lightly press the plane more on one side. I may glue two temporary pieces of wood on the vice jaws to better support the blank.


Figure 29: The small blocks glued in place to help support the blank while using the planes.


Some would suppose this technique is difficult; it is much easier than it seems. You need a well-tuned plane (I use two because I have them, but only one is sufficient) with a freshly sharpened blade. You have to take very light cuts especially at the end, always trying to feel the surface you bring out. If you practice on a piece of scrap wood, then you will be amazed to see how easy it is to reach the lines precisely. The process is easy, even for those who are not well-experienced using planes. In fact, I use this technique because it is accurate, inexpensive and very quick! My first try gave me a decent hexagon, and now I make them nearly perfectly in less than ten minutes. The untubed blank is thin but no damage will be caused if the vice is not too heavily tightened.


Figure 30: A completed hexagonal pen barrel. The tube is not yet glued in place.

Finishing the blanks

I now have to drill holes in the boxwood blank to insert the mother-of-pearl dots, which is rather straightforward. I draw a line in the middle of three faces, mark the place where I want the dots to be with an awl, drill with brad point bits, and of course using a hand drill.


Figure 31: Using a hand drill to make hole for the mother of pearl dots.


I pour some thick CA into the holes and insert the dots, trying not to have too much material inside the blank. When the glue is set, I use a chainsaw file to clean the inside until the tube moves freely. I usually have some mother-of-pearl on top of the blank surface. I clean it on the marble fitted with sanding paper. This is the time to get rid of any size imperfection: I carefully measure every diameter and sand more where I did not plane enough, until the hexagon is regular with parallel sides. If you feel unconfident with a plane, you may stay quite far from the lines and finish the shape on the sanding paper. You may even shape the facets only with sandpaper; it only takes a bit more time but it is very precise.


Figure 32: Any needed final sanding is now done.


Figure 33: You now have to file the little triangles at the corner of each surface to match the kit shape.


Buffing will give a nice shine to the wood and break the edges. I like to oil the wood with linseed oil to protect it from splashes, to prevent the wood fibers to raise and to prepare a nice patina that use and age will give. I assemble the kit, taking care of the orientation of the hexagon: the surfaces have to flow from top to bottom.

That’s it!


Figure 34: A pair of my completed vertex pens with hexagonal barrels.


Pierre Bouillot is a French wood turner. He likes to make pens, spinning tops and all sort of precise turnings. He is the author of “Les Rabots”, the reference book about French planes.



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