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.
Want to learn more about finishing from Bob Flexner?
Check out his book “Flexner on Finishing,” at shopwoodworking.com