Finish for Wooden Pens

Mylands Melamine Lacquer. This is an older label.

Mylands Melamine Lacquer. This is an older label.

I got a question about finishes for turned wooden pens. Full disclosure: I’ve never turned a pen. Nor have I turned a bowl. My experience with the lathe has been turning parts for furniture I’m restoring.

But I know a bit about finishes, so I think I can answer the question.

The pen turner said he didn’t like using cyanoacrylate (CA) glue because it made the wood look too much like plastic, and the vapors burned his eyes. He wondered about using one of the mixtures of shellac and oil or shellac and wax sold to woodturners but was concerned about the finish not holding up well when held between fingers for long periods.

He was right about this. Neither shellac, nitrocellulose lacquer, water-based finish, oil or wax provide good resistance to body oils secreted from fingers. Nor do mixtures. Slowly the finish will be broken down and become soft, sticky and gummy.

Varnish, including polyurethane varnish, provides very good resistance because it’s a reactive finish that crosslinks. So one or two coats of thinned varnish (“wiping varnish”) a day would work well for durability. The problem is that varnish dries slowly and woodturners usually like to apply their finish right on the lathe in a short time.

So my recommendation for an alternative finish to CA glue is pre-catalyzed lacquer. It also crosslinks. It is sold in small containers by Craft Supplies as “Melamine.” The product comes from England, and this is what pre-cat is called there, at least by Mylands, the supplier of the finish. (Catalyzed lacquers are made with melamine.) Here’s the link to the product…

You can also buy pre-cat at paint stores that sell to the professional trade, of course. But the smallest size will be a gallon, which is a lot unless you turn a lot of pens.

Be forewarned though that this finish also has fumes, so if you’re interested in a substitute for CA glue, this may not work well for you. The solution for fumes is good airflow away from you. You can arrange this easily with a fan.

If the fumes from both CA glue and pre-cat irritate you, even with a fan, you may have to settle for an inferior finish.

— Bob Flexner

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7 thoughts on “Finish for Wooden Pens

  1. idbill

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought pre-cat lacquer had a very short lifespan. (3-6 months) This is why if I purchase it from a contractor supply house, the catalyzer is added just before purchase. Otherwise the catalyzer is provided separately and I have to mix it in. That is why it is called ‘pre-catalyzed’…

    Also note, that because of California laws (I’m not saying good or bad, but as explained to me at Sherwin-Williams), pre-cat lacquer is no longer manufactured within the US, and (at least in Seattle) it is imported from Canada.

    1. Bob FlexnerBob Flexner Post author

      Pre-cat does have a shelf life, after which the durability is reduced, but it’s usually several years depending on the manufacturer. I have no idea what it is for Myland’s Melamine. So you make a good point.
      I really doubt that pre-cat is no longer made in the US. I’m quite sure that Gemini makes their own right here in El Reno, OK. It could be that a Canadian factory is just closer to Seattle.

  2. JumpingJax

    I’ve been using an oil/varnish blend (Tru-Oil gun stock finish, Birchwood Casey) on tool handles for quite some time. I apply the finish on the lathe, heat it with shavings, touch with 320P, apply a second coat and heat with shavings again. A final touch of the dry coating with 400P or occasionally with 600P gives a very nice finish right off the lathe with no “plastic” appearance. Of course the cure continues even after that, but the initial cure is not bad for the user. Some of my tools are used in longish sessions with no development of the softening or stickiness you’ve referred to. Unless a user is a professional writer hand writing, say, the next War and Peace or The Fountainhead, the Tru-Oil should do pretty well I would think.

    1. Bob FlexnerBob Flexner Post author

      Thank you JumpingJax for your comment. I hadn’t thought of using Tru-Oil, so I had to go try it. It worked well, just as you say. It produces a fairly satin look after two coats (because all the excess is wiped off with the shavings. But I found that if I then applied another coat and left it damp, not wet, and let it dry, the shine was raised. So a tool-handle or pen turner could still do all the finishing (two coats following your instructions, then a third left damp) in a very short time as long as a method or jig was figured out for keeping the handles or pens from lying flat on a surface during drying.
      The advantage, as you point out, is that Tru-Oil isn’t going to turn soft and gummy when handled a lot because it is a crosslinking finish. One thing I would add is that drying could be slowed on exotic woods that contain a natural oily resin, though the heat generated by the shavings could counteract this.
      As it turns out, I’m working on an article on polymerized oil for Popular Woodworking and including Tru-Oil, even though the company doesn’t use the term “polymerized” in its promotion. But clearly they have done something to the linseed oil they do claim to cause it to dry much faster and glossier. The article should appear in the magazine in the fall.

      1. idbill

        I like Tru-Oil, but found that it doesn’t cure well in my 65º basement. Warming up the oil in a glue pot helps, but curing the piece in a space about 72º helps even more.

        1. WhiteyD

          I have used Tru-oil to finish a couple of gunstocks and have successfully used ArmorAll as a catalyst to expedite drying, cant see why it wouldn’t work for pens (Google it for process)

          1. JumpingJax

            I’d like to hear more about the ArmorAll as a catalyst. There are a number of ArmorAll car care products, so it would be helpful if you would be a bit more specific and let us know how you use it. Do you mix it into the Tru-Oil? Spray over the applied finish? Something else?
            While on the lathe, heating with shavings works very well and very quickly with no additional catalyst, other uses, e.g. a gun stock or other surfaces could very well benefit from a catalytic cure accelerator. Can we get you to tell us more?
            Thanks

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