In Shop Blog, Techniques

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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.

Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 7 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz

    I’ll check it out!


  • Wilfred Wright

    I found two types of machineist’s markers at Home Depot the other day. Don’t get a swelled head, Chris, I was looking for something else also. The markers are made out of soapstone. One type is a rod about a quarter inch in diameter and 6 inches long held in an aluminum pencil like tube with locking device. The other type is about six inches long by about an eighth inch ththick by a half inch wide. I bought the pencil like type for $2.77 plus tax. Refils are also available. I sharpened the rod with a pencil sharpener to a fine point and tried it. I think it gave pretty good results on unfinished mahagony. All of the walnut we have in the house is antique furniture and my wife would not be pleased if I started drawing lines all over it. No sense of discovery.

  • Robert Butler

    I’ve never tried it but the thought occurs to me that one of those chalk markers that tailors use might work. They are designed to make very thin lines. If anyone shares both interests – woodworking and tailoring – maybe they could give it a shot!

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Wilfred et al,

    If anyone can point me to a link that describes this machinists’ marker I’ll get my hands on one, give it a try and report back the results.


  • Wilfred Wright

    Machineists use a very hard marker which produces a very thin silvery-white line on steel and iron. I am not sure if it is a form of chalk or if it is a another stone; slate possibly? You will find it in a welder’s shop.
    Love your blog because it wanders everywhere. Something for everyone. Thanks, Wilfred

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Thanks for mentioning that. I’ve used chalk on knife lines before. Works on end grain; not so good on face grain because of the open pore structure.

    Plus knifing a curve can be a challenge and can be slow. The pen has been my favorite – fast and accurate.

    Also, Joel Moskowitz just called me to recommend a china marker. We use these for rough cutting (though we call them grease pencils). I’m not fond of the fact that they wear so quickly and the line width can change a bit.

  • William Claspy

    How about the chalk trick? Knife the lines you want to cut, then rub with a piece of chalk. Brush what you’ve chalked, and all that will remain is the chalk that is hiding in the valley of your knife line. This trick works particularly well for dovetails, marking the end grain of walnut and mahogany. I believe I learned it via Jim Kingshott.


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