Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in American Woodwork #142, June/July 2009.
I stumbled onto pen making seven years ago, as I was scouring through my husband Jerry’s woodworking magazines and catalogs, looking for a special Christmas gift for him. I came across a mini-lathe that was advertised as the perfect tool for making custom pens…and I knew I was hooked.
I envisioned myself sitting at a little student-sized workbench with my new mini-lathe, diligently working away on tiny projects. I ordered the lathe and lobbied Jerry for space in his basement workshop, assuring him that I would only need a teeny bit of room. I had no woodworking experience, so I bought some books about turning pens. When my lathe arrived, Jerry showed me how to hold a gouge and skew.
As my interest in pen turning grew, my notion of adequate space changed. Jerry and I now share the basement, with my area having grown into a full-fledged 12′ by 12′ pen turning shop. It accommodates everything I need to make a pen—a large 8′ workbench and four other smaller work surfaces, 24 drawers and 18 cabinets. Jerry custom-built them all for me—a great return on my investment for all those years of woodworking oriented Christmas presents!
The workbenches, shelves and cabinets support the scaled-down tools of my five inch turning trade: three mini lathes, a mini drill press, a mini disk sander, a mini shaper (for the pen boxes), a mini air filter, a mini metal cut-off saw (for brass tubes), a mini duplicator, mini air compressors and a mini vacuum. Following my theme of small-scale tools, I cut my pen blanks to length with a Bosch fine-cut power handsaw, instead of a using a miter saw. In fact, the only full-size tools in my area are my turning tools.
In addition to pens, I now make a host of other “five inch” projects, including letter openers, wine bottle stoppers, fishing lures and game calls. These small projects don’t throw a lot of sawdust around, so my shop is easy to keep clean and neat. I store my respirators, face protection, project hardware, bits, calipers, rulers, files, glues, gloves, and sanding and finishing supplies inside cabinets and drawers, where they stay dust free and easily accessible.
My projects don’t require a lot of material (I can get up to 12 blanks out of a small piece of bowl or turning stock), so storage space isn’t an issue. I’ve accumulated over a hundred different local and exotic hardwood turning blanks. I study books and articles about their origins and the legends that surround some of them, and wherever Jerry and I go, I watch for anecdotes about how they have been or are being used. I write that information on cards that accompany my pens.
I get teased about the 144 square feet of space that I “need” to make a pen, but sharing woodworking with Jerry is one of the high points of our 40 years together. —Lynn Vanderpool
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