Create geometric shapes with your router and a shopmade jig.
By Charles Mak
You can make attractive wooden pens without a lathe. All you need is a plunge router and a shop-made jig. The jig takes a while to build—certainly longer than it takes to rout a pen with it. But once you’ve built the jig, you’ll be ready to rout pens by the dozens in many different geometric shapes.
Of course, you’ll also need pen hardware kits and wooden pen blanks. Pen kits include all the pen’s necessary metal components, such as the ink cartridge and the decorative tip. They’re available in woodworking specialty stores and online (see Sources, below). You can buy wooden pen blanks or make your own. Some pen kits include pen blanks.
I first learned about this pen-making method from Neil McCaw, a retired, self-taught woodworker. Although I never saw Neil make a pen, I created this jig based on his explanation, and now I teach pen-making classes at a local woodworking store.
Build the jig
Use lumber, plywood or MDF to build the jig (Figs. A and B, above). The jig shown in the photos is made of poplar. All the parts are 1/2" thick, except for the index block (A). Make sure the pieces are flat. Angled lines drawn on the index block are the key to making different geometric shapes. Changing the angle of these lines changes the shape. I keep several different index blocks on hand (Photo 1).
1. Glue the top (B) together using a pair of 1/2" wide pieces to establish the length and width of the slot.
2. Use a drill press equipped with a fence to accurately drill countersunk holes for #6 screws in the left side of the top and countersunk slots for 1/4–20 machine screws in the right side. Make sure the screw heads rest slightly below the surface so the router will travel smoothly.
3. Cut the legs and feet (C–E) to final size. Mark the legs “left” and “right.” Drill countersunk holes for #6 screws in the feet.
4. Drill holes in both legs for the carriage bolt. To make sure the holes are perfectly aligned, stack the legs, hold their top ends against the fence and make sure their sides are flush before drilling.
5. Use the same setup to drill the hole in each index block that you make. Reposition the fence to drill the hole in the depth block (F).
6. On the left leg, drill a 3/16" deep counterbore for the carriage bolt.
7. Drill pilot holes in the top and bottom of the left leg. First, mark the exact location of each hole: With the leg standing or clamped in a vise, position the top on it, so the sides are flush and the leg is centered on the top’s screw holes. Then drill shallow starting holes in the end grain, using a hand-held drill and the same bit you used to drill the holes in the top. Remove the top and chuck a 1/8" bit to drill the pilot holes. Note: Take care to drill straight. Any variance from 90° will result in a misaligned jig.
8. Follow a similar procedure to drill pilot holes in the right leg. After positioning the top, mark the sides of the slots on the top of the leg. Then drill centered 1/8" pilot holes, using the marks to position the bit. Finish by boring out the pilot holes with a 1/4" bit.
9. Drill holes in the right leg for the 10 mm cross dowels (see Sources).
10. Fasten the depth block to the left leg with a brad nail or small screw, so it’s easy to replace. Insert the carriage bolt to align the holes and use a try square to align the block and the leg. The depth block dimensioned in Figure B produces the 9/16" dia. hexagonal pen bodies shown on in the lead photo above. To create slimmer or wider pen bodies, make additional depth blocks with different hole locations.
11. Glue and screw the feet to the legs. Then glue and screw the top to the left leg. Keep all of these joints square and flush. Use machine screws and cross dowels to attach the top to the right leg.
Prepare the blanks
Wooden pen blanks are commonly 3/4" square and up to 6" long. Study the pen blank preparation instructions included in your pen kit before proceeding.
12. Cut each blank 1/16" longer than the brass tubes included in your pen kit. Mark the center of each blank, and drill the center hole using the recommended drill bit. The tube should slide through the hole without binding or wobbling. It’s OK if the hole isn’t perfectly centered.
13. Glue in the tube with CA glue or 5-minute epoxy (Photo 2).
14. Square both ends of the blank and trim its length to match the brass tube.
Rout the blanks
15. Slide a pair of blanks onto the carriage bolt between the depth block and an index block that’s marked to create hexagonal blanks (Photo 3). Install the right leg assembly and securely tighten the wing nut to anchor the carriage bolt’s square shoulder in the left leg. You shouldn’t be able to rotate the blanks with your fingers. Square the right leg assembly to the top and align the edges. Then secure it by tightening the machine screws (Photo 4). Note: To create tapered geometric shapes, simply install two or three playing cards between the right leg and the top before you tighten the machine screws.
16. Outfit your plunge router with a 1/2" o.d. guide bushing and a 3/8" straight bit (Photo 5 and Sources). Set the router’s speed to about 18,000 rpm.
17. Mount the router on the jig to set the final depth of cut (Photo 6). Then mark the end of the routing pass (Photo 7).
18. Return the router to the left end of the slot and lower the bit to remove about 1/8" of material on the first pass. Then rout from left to right (Photo 8).
19. Turn off the router and wait until the bit stops. Then lower the bit for the next pass. Repeat Steps 18 and 19 until you reach the final depth of cut.
20. Remove the router and slightly loosen the machine screws and the wing nut so you can rotate the pen blanks with your fingers.
21. Turn the jig upside down and rotate both blanks clockwise until the newly-routed facet aligns with the diagonal lines drawn on the index block (Photo 9). Retighten the wing nut. Then turn the jig upright, square the leg, align the ends and tighten the carriage screws.
22. Place the router back on the jig and repeat the process until all six facets have been routed (Photo 10). Then remove the blanks.
Finish the blanks
23. Lay sandpaper of various grits on a flat surface. Hand sand each facet with the grain, using the same number of strokes. (Oversanding any one facet will ruin the blank’s symmetry.)
24. Apply your favorite finish. I spray on two coats of gloss lacquer or polyurethane.
Assemble the pen
25. Decide how to orient the blanks on the pen.
26. Use a C-clamp or a bench vise to press the tip (or “nib”) into the bottom end of the lower blank. Then press the twist mechanism (brass end first) into the other end, up to the indention on the mechanism. Install the cartridge (it screws into the twist mechanism) and check its projection at the tip, to make sure you don’t press the mechanism in too far. Slip the center band over the twist mechanism.
27. Press the cap and clip together into the top end of the upper blank. Then slide it onto the twist mechanism.
Fig. A: Pen-Routing Jig
Fig. B: Dimensions
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Index blocks with lines drawn at different angles allow using the jig to create pens with a variety of geometric shapes.
2. Start by gluing the brass tubes from a pen kit into a pair of wood pen blanks. Mark the blanks to keep the grain oriented correctly.
3. Disassemble the jig to install the blanks and the index block. Then reinstall the right leg assembly and tighten the wing nut.
4. Lock everything in place by screwing the stove bolts into the cross dowels that are mounted in the right leg assembly.
5. Install a guide bushing in your router to ride in the slot in the top of the jig. Use a straight bit for routing.
6. Set the plunge depth. Lower the bit until it touches the jig’s depth block. Then lock the router’s depth stop.
7. Mark where to stop routing. Slide the router until the bit touches the index block. Then trace around the router’s base.
8. Rout the first facet on both blanks. Make several passes from left to right, removing no more than 1/8" with each pass.
9. Reposition the blanks with the jig upside down. Rotate them clockwise until the newlyrouted facet aligns with the index block’s marks.
10. Create the hexagonal shape by repeating the steps shown in Photos 8 and 9.
11. Assemble the pen, using the remaining parts from the pen kit.
Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.
Lee Valley Tools, leevalley.com, 800-871-8158, Ballpoint Twist Pen Hardware Kit, #88K70.02; Pen Blanks, prices vary; 10mm x 16mm Cross Dowel, #00N18.16, (2 req.); 1/2” Guide Bushing, #46J91.15; Guide Bushing Ring nut #46J91.11.
Woodcraft, woodcraft.com, 800-225-1153, Pen Hardware Kit, #123052; Pen Blanks; Freud 3/8” straight bit, #828669.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February/March 2011, issue #152.