Like most people, I have been to a beach and have collected shells. Also, like most people, those shells just end up sitting in a bucket. I was looking for something to do with them so off to the workshop I went.
- pen kit
- 7mm drill (or whatever diameter your pen tubes are, try to get metal bits if possible)
- two smaller bits for pilot holes
- Barrel trimmer
- toilet paper tubes
- CA glue (super glue, the little tubes are great)
- vacuum chamber is helpful
- lathe tools
- wax paper and aluminum foil
- masking tape
- toilet paper tubes
- 1″ dowel rod (suggested)
- wood finish
- 220, 400, 800, 2000 grit sandpaper
Step 1: Preparations
Start by sorting your shells. By the time I was through this first step, I had already made my life miserable. They key to this step is:
CHOOSE THIN SHELLS
I went with “thick” shells (1-2mm thick) thinking that they would look pretty one the cross section was exposed through turning. You should stick with shells that you can crack by hand. The swirly shells like you find in snails aren’t that bad to work with but they do leave voids even with the vacuum. The voids are easy enough to repair/
Then, cut your toilet paper tubes. I should note that I discovered that these rolls come in two different lengths. I believe the Kirkland brand is the longer variety and is almost 1/2″ longer than Charmin or Angle Soft. The brands don’t matter, just make certain you can fit a pen inside the tube.
I wrapped mine around a 1″ dowel rod after cutting. This was to lessen the amount of material that I would have to remove yet still allow me to have large chunks of shells. It worked well. Tape up your new seam. Then place your tube on top of some wax paper and seal up the bottom by folding the sides of the wax paper up. The better you wrap the tube, the less epoxy will leak out of the bottom.
Then, sort your shells by color if you want. Crush them and add them to the tube. Do not fill the tube completely. You will want space at the top for the epoxy.
Step 2: Make your blanks
Secure your tube in an upright manner. I just built a quick aluminum foil holder. It’s sloppy but it does the trick and also prevents epoxy from getting on the bottom of your vacuum chamber.
Mix your epoxy and add it to your tubes.
Step 3: Vacuum out the air
Use a vacuum chamber to remove the air bubbles. Once you have pulled a vacuum, release the vacuum and top off your tubes more shells and more epoxy. This sill give the ends of your blanks the shells. Place under a vacuum and release the vacuum. Remove the blanks from the chamber and top off with the rest of your epoxy.
Note: If you leave the epoxy under a vacuum to cure, it forces bubbles to appear in the epoxy. Then it takes on the consistency of a hard rubbery foam. Repeatedly drawing a vacuum and releasing it does the same thing. Basically, just use the vacuum as little as possible.
Step 4: Prepare to drill some holes
Flatten the bottom of your blanks to the best of your ability. You don’t have to go crazy here but drill on a flat surface is easier than drilling on an irregular surface. Then, measure and cut your blank in half. These pieces will become two sides of your pen.
Step 5: Drill your holes, set and trim your tubes
After cutting these in half with a hacksaw I noticed that they were incredibly hard. I opted to use multiple bits to work my way up to the desired 7mm bit that I would need. I suggest using metal bits because these blanks will ruin a soft wood bit. Once you have 7mm diameter holes, it’s time to set your tubes.
Set your tubes by roughing them up with sandpaper, coating them in superglue, and then using a vise to press the tubes deep into the holes.
Use a barrel trimmer to true the ends of your blanks.
Step 6: Get Lathing!
Mount this mess on your mandrel and get to work. Start slow and with a file to knock off the major junk. Then, use whatever tool gets the job done. Be ready to sharpen those tools frequently!
Eventually, the blanks are going to break. You will also notice voids. Take some time to make repairs as needed. At once point, I made another batch of epoxy, filled my voids, wrapped it all in wax paper and tape (to keep the rough shape and the epoxy where it needed to be). I didn’t take photos because I was frustrated, sorry.
Step 7: Make lemonade!
Life is going to hand you lemons during this process. Don’t let that shake you. You’ve made it this far, it’s time to improvise!
You can see on the right side of the mandrel where a large portion of my blank has broken off. The left side would eventually completely crumble. That left me with a bulbous but acceptable piece. So, I trued up the end of the surviving piece.
Thankfully, I had some maple bits around from a previous project. I simply drill them to 7mm and cut them to the size I needed. Then, I insert a barrel into on piece and glued the other piece on to my seashell blank.
Then, back to the lathe to finish the shaping.
Step 8: Finish the pen
Start with 220 grit sandpaper and sand the entire pen. Repeat until smooth with 400, 800, and 2000 grit. Then, apply your wood finish to your wood. Let it dry.
Once your wood finish is dry, apply 4-5 coats of CA glue to the pen letting it dry between each coat. Next, wet sand your pen starting with 800 grit sandpaper and finishing with a 2000 grit wet sand.
Step 9: Assemble your pen
Insert your tip, use your wood vise to force it into place. Insert the mechanism brass end first and press it up to the line. Assemble and insert your clip into the rear end. Add your ink cartridge and collar then press the two ends together!
Step 10: Lessons learned
This thing was incredibly difficult and time consuming but I really think it is due to the shells I chose. I think crushing the shells completely into 1/16″ or 1/8″ pieces would make for a blank that would turn easier. Likewise, choosing shells that you can snap with your fingers would make this an enjoyable build. I am very happy with the swirl shells and those didn’t give me many problems other than the voids.
(don’t forget to check out our instructables page where you can find more projects like this seashell pen)