I like working with walnut, but I hate marking it. Its dark color makes pencil lines disappear. And its open grain hide knife lines as well. Dovetailing is a particular problem for me. Part of this is personal , my vision is quite poor; I’m legally blind without my glasses on. But even if I had perfect vision (like eagle-eyed Senior Editor David Thiel) walnut would still be a problem.
One of the perks of this job is that you can take an afternoon to try to crack a nut like this, spend $30 of the company’s money and try out a variety of solutions , all in the name of helping our readers.
The first stop was the Staples store to pick up some Pilot P-500 gel pens with the extra fine (0.5 mm) tip. These have been recommended by other woodworkers. I tried the P-500 once a couple years ago, remember being impressed and then I lost the pen. The nice think about the gel ink is that it seems to be like gel stain in that it doesn’t absorb into the wood as much, making a blotchy mess. It makes a nice fine line if you make your mark swiftly and lightly. I wish they sold it in white ink, however.
One of the other editors recalled a former employee here who would write notes to fellow employees on black PostIts with white or silver gel ink. Hmmmm. A little searching turned up the right pen: the Sakura Gelly Roll pen. The editor called around to the local art stores and they were all sold out of the white ink version. A dead end? Of course not.
On a lark I went to our local art supplies store (let me say that woodworkers have nothing on artists when it comes to pricey and specialized tools). They had a display for the Sakura Gelly Roll pens and were indeed out of the white ink. So I bought a bright yellow one and a silver one ($1.19 each at our local store). Out of the corner of my eye I saw another Sakura display in the “wall of pens.” They have another brand “Pen-touch,” which is more expensive ($2.38), but it is offered in white and has a pretty fine point (0.7 mm).
We also found a Sharpie Poster-Paint pen in our company’s office supply catalog.
Here’s what I concluded: The yellow gel stinks. It was less visible than a pencil line. That one is going to my kids to play with. The silver Sakura Gelly Roll was better than the yellow. You could see the line especially well if you caught its reflection in the light. Of course, you can sometimes do that trick with a pencil line on walnut. The Sharpie was big and white. Too big, really.
The best of the bunch was the Sakura Pen-Touch. When wielded with a light touch, like a calligraphy pen, it would lay down a nice thin line that was brilliantly visible. It might not be the marking solution for dovetails, but for cutting cabriole legs and basic pattern work, it’s a good solution.