As I young woodturner I remember spending hours and hours in front of the lathe making pens. I loved how quickly I could produce a beautiful finished product that could earn me a few extra dollars to spend on new wood and pen blanks. With a few tools, it is extremely easy to get started making your own pens, and choosing a pen turning lathe is the first step to getting started!
Pen turning lathes, while not an official classification of wood lathes, are typically benchtop models with a high upper-speed range. These lathes are compact and perfect for the smaller shop or even to run as a second lathe for dedicated pen turning and other spindle projects.
There is a fairly wide price range for pen turning lathes but most are fairly inexpensive. You can easily get started running your own pen turning business for under $1,000! All you really need is a pen turning lathe, a small drill press, a starter pack of pen turning wood and kits, some carbide turning tools, and a pen turning kit.
What Makes for A Good Pen Turning Lathe?
Luckily, pen turning doesn’t require too many bells and whistles from a lathe. But there are still a few things you should consider to make your pen turning experience an enjoyable one.
Almost any benchtop or full-size lathe can be used for pen turning so long as the headstock and tailstock are well aligned. Most pen mandrel kits use an MT2 system which cuts down on the overall length of the kit. Even the smallest benchtop lathes are still usually at least 15 inches between centers which leaves more than enough room for any pen turning kit.
With pen turning there is no need to worry about the amount of swing over the bed so lathes with as little as 8 inches of swing will work just fine.
The speed controls on the lathe, on the other hand, are a much bigger component. Many lower end pen turning lathes will be equipped with a simple pulley system that will lock in your speed options at 5 or 6 different set speeds.
While these are just fine when turning the pen as that process is typically a set it and forget it process. It makes other parts of the pen turning process like drilling out blanks or applying a CA glue finish a bit more difficult.
If you can afford it then we really recommend selecting a pen turning lathe that has a low end speed of around 200rpm. You’ll see that many pen lathes coming in at around 600 – 700rpm at their lowest speed. Applying CA glue finishes at these speeds can lead to the glue drying too fast and leaving an uneven finish.
Headstock and Tailstock Size
Headstock and tailstock tapers come in two sizes; MT1 and MT2. MT2 is the far more prevalent size choice and it will be easier to find accesories that fit into this size versus MT1.
You won’t find MT1 size tapers on many lathes but they are out there so keep that in mind. If you ever plan on upgrading to a larger or more advanced bench top lathe in the future then choosing an MT2 setup now will prevent you from having to buy all new accessories in the future.
Our Favorite Pen Turning Lathe Options
Here are a few of our favorite pen turning lathes on the market rigth now.
JET JWL-1015VS (or JWL-1015)
Both lathes are the same size at 10″ of swing and 15″ between centers. The variable-speed version offers a huge advantage though with its speed options. The JWL-1015 uses a set pulley system that locks in your speed options at 500/840/1,240/1,800/2,630/3,975rpm. This a great upper-end speed but 500rpm at the lowest is still a bit on the fast side for finishing. Having to physically change the pulleys can get old as well if you’re turning a lot of pens.
The 1015vs offers a variable speed system that has a low-end speed of 200rpm while still offering a max speed of 3,600 rpm.
These lathes both a small enough in size for even the smallest workspaces. They also offer MT2 tapers in both the headstock and tailstock which makes them compatible with virtually all pen turning kits.
Coming in at by far the cheapest of the lathes listed here, the WEN 3421 is a solid starter pen turning lathe for those on a budget. Even though you may end up quickly outgrowing this lathe it would only take selling a few pens to make your initial investment back.
Some of the drawbacks of this lathe are the extremely high low-end speed (750rpm), MT1 tapers in the headstock and tailstock, and questionable quality that comes with a lathe at this low of a price.
If you’re just looking for a lathe to get started on though as you learn the ropes and start making money then this can be a great choice.
The Rikon 70-105 is a solid, mid-range pen turning lathe that balances some things good – cast iron body, MT2 headstock and tailstock, and good high end speeds – with some drawbacks; no variable speed and lowest speeds are still fairly high for finishing.
These lathes often go on sale at woodworking shops like Woodcraft so you can get a pretty good deal on a nice pen lathe if you’re willing to wait for the right price.
The Jet JWL-1221VS is one of the most popular benchtop lathes on the market. It is larger than most pen turning lathes listed but that is certainly useful if you want to use your lathe for more purposes than just turning pens.
With a 12″ swing and 21″ length between centers this lathe is capable of turning small bowls, rolling pins, wands, and more!
This lathe’s heavier weight also means a smoother turning experience. It can even be upgraded with a stand alone base if you need to free up bench space in the future.
Other Pen Turning Accessories to Get Started
As with any woodturning project there are always a few extra accessories you’ll need to get started. Pen turning is no exception so here are some of the tools we recommend picking up to make your pen turning projects run smoothly.
Drilling Holes in Pen Blanks
Pen blanks can be purchased predrilled but in the long term, it’s best to set up a system for drilling your own holes. This “can” be done with a hand drill but it is no recommended as you will inevitably end up with gaps between the wood and brass tubes.
The two best options for drilling out pen blanks accurately are with a drill press or by chucking the blanks onto your lathe and using a chuck in your tailstock to hold a drill bit.
Drilling Pen Blanks with a Drill Press
Benchtop drill presses typically don’t have enough travel, usually, 2 to 2 1/2 inches versus the 3 needed to drill out a pen blank, so keep in mind that you may need to adjust the blanks to drill them out in two passes or look for a drill press with a full 3 inches of travel.
These two bench top drill presses are recommended as they offer a full 3 inches of travel:
Another accessory that will make drilling out blanks a quick process is a self-centering jig that can be attached to the drill press table. There are a few jigs that claim to be both a drilling jig and pen vice but they typically do neither job all that well. We recommend this jig for drilling out pen blanks on your drill press.
Drilling Pen Blanks with a Lathe
In our shop we don’t own a drill press so we end up using the lathe a lot for drilling out holes in a number of the products we sell on Etsy. While it isn’t the quickest process it does a perfectly good job.
To drill out pen blanks on your lathe you will need a chuck for the headstock to hold the wood and a drill chuck that fits into your tailstock.
There are a ton of options for headstock chucks. PSI makes a cheaper option that includes a few sets of different jaws.
At the upper end of the market you have this chuck from easy wood tools. It features a quick change system so changing between different jaw sets is a snap versus everything else on the market.
In our shop, we use a few different chucks from Vicmarc, which we honestly feel are the best chucks on the market.
In the tailstock, an inexpensive drill chuck, designed to fit into an MT1 or MT2, can be used to hold the drill bit. As most benchtop lathes don’t have a full 3 inches of quill travel you will need to drill partway then move the tailstock forward but that isn’t a big deal.
Trimming the Pen Barrel
Barrel trimmers are used after the brass tube has been glued into the blank to flush the wood to the tube. These can either be used with a hand drill, on the drill press, or on the lathe. Most folks preferred method is to just clamp the wood and use the trimmer on a hand drill as it gives you the most control over the cut.
Pen Mandrel Kit
A pen mandrel kit is used to hold the pen blanks while they are turned. This version fits into both the headstock and tailstock which eliminates the need for a live center in your tailstock.
Pen Turning Tools
Pen turning can be done, theoretically, with a single carbide tool! This mini rougher tool from Easy Wood is a popular choice.
Pen blanks come in literally 100s of styles now which will help make your finished pens stand out. If you’re just getting started we recommend variety packs like these so you can get a sense of the different styles available.
Wood blanks are sold in almost any wood and color imaginable. You can buy solid wood, laminated skateboards, acrylic, colored wood, resin and burl combinations, antler, etc.
CA glue is a popular finish for pens as it gives a durable finish with a high shine. A set of thick, medium, and thin glues along with drying activator is useful both for finishing and gluing the pen tubes into the wood blanks
Micro-Mesh sanding pads vary in grits from 1,200 to 12,000 and are perfect for leaving a crystal clear finish after apply the CA glue.
For final assembly, a pen press is ideal for pressing the components of the pen together without damaging the pen kit or the finished wood.