WoodChick #5: Lathe Projects = A Deeper Involvement in Pen Turning--Stabilization and Casting

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Blog entry by sfhipchick posted 07-21-2017 06:05 PM 1087 reads 0 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 4: Some History and Things I Hope to Accomplish Part 5 of WoodChick series no next part

Years ago when I was actively turning pens, I eventually turned about 25 of them. (I have most of them and plan to photograph them once our photo studio is in place) All of them are wood of many varieties from more plain wood to heavily burled and spalted. One is segmented, and I experimented with slightly different shapes but I really like a “normal” looking pen, so I only did a couple of unusual pen turnings. The kits I used were mostly slimline, which I happen to really like because of the simple lines. I used a few others since we bought a variety pack of kits to try out, but for the most part, they are slimlines.

When we rebuilding our shop, I started to look around at pen turning resources on the internet and was delighted to find an endless number of websites, blogs, vlogs and videos dedicated to this art. I also discovered a couple of techniques that got me really excited: stabilizing wood and casting resin blanks. I am very interested in natural materials and I immediately began daydreaming about what certain things might look like if cast and turned. Steve was just as excited as me and we spent a lot of time drooling over images and videos of hybrid blanks (a combination of “worthless” cutoffs/bits of woods, burls, etc. and resin). We couldn’t wait to get started!

Stabilizing: Our First Set-Up
We bought a highly-rated single-stage 1/3 HP Zeny pump that arrived quickly. Steve bought a pot and all the fittings, we got a gauge from Ebay and ordered a sheet of Lexan clear plastic for the lid. Once everything had arrived, Steve built the vacuum chamber. The gasket for the lid required some trial and error before it would seal properly. We tried a couple of different types of rubber matting but they leaked. We eventually created a seal using silicon caulk and that did the trick.

It was time for a test! We turned on the vacuum pump and…it didn’t work. RASSEN FRASSIN!!! We were so annoyed that we hadn’t checked to make sure the pump actually WORKED when it arrived. ARGH! So we returned it and ordered a Robinaire 15310, which is recommended by many people in the wood stabilizing and casting arena. It arrived in a few days and it worked perfectly! We began our test immediately…a perfect seal! We were able to achieve a proper vacuum of about 28”. We were so excited!

Our First Stabilization
We already had our Cactus Juice wood stabilizer on-hand, so we put two spalted blanks, a pair of plywood blanks and a small chunk of burled wood into a plastic container, poured in the Juice, placed a weight on the wood so it couldn’t float, and placed the container into the vacuum chamber, covered it up and turned on the pump. IT WORKED! Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble!

We Made Mistakes Along the Way
We turned the pump off after we achieved the deepest vacuum instead of leaving the pump on until the wood stopped bubbling. We also didn’t dry the wood out before we stabilized it. That’s why the wood never stopped bubbling, even after sitting there for a whole day. We eventually released the vacuum and soaked the wood overnight.

Lexan Isn’t Infallable Even When Brand New
When we released the vacuum I noticed a very tiny, star-shaped crack in the Lexan lid and showed Steve. Amazing. We spent a lot of money on Lexan because it’s known to be so strong, and it cracked on our very first stabilization. We were so annoyed because our vacuum chamber lasted exactly one time before a failure. No way would we use that lid with that crack. Which meant either we buy another piece of Lexan or we scrap the whole idea of making our own chamber and buy a professionally made one. Both of us were fed up by all the problems we encountered so we decided we’d buy a new one that was made for the task. In the meantime we left the wood to soak in the Cactus Juice in preparation for curing tomorrow.

Moving Forward
The next day I removed each piece from the chamber, shook off the excess Juice, wrapped them in foil and popped everything into our new toaster oven. Using an oven thermometer for accuracy, it took a while to find the sweet spot for 200 degrees but I got it finally and made a Sharpie mark for the next time. I left the wood in the oven for several hours to make sure that everything cured properly.

I noticed a bit of bleed-off on the tray when I pulled out the foil packets and as I unwrapped each piece, I noticed that some bled a lot while others were fairly clean. It was all very interesting! Reading about the process online, I learned after the fact that we would likely have trouble with saturation because we didn’t keep the pump on. Oh well, live and learn. :) What a fun adventure we were having! I love quotes so here’s the perfect one right now:

“Your best teacher is your last mistake.”
~ Ralph Nader

Results of our First Stabilization
Given that we made mistakes with this first attempt, we won’t feel too badly if the penetration is lackluster but we’ll be interested to see the results.

The small chunk of oak burl: We are pretty confident that we got nice penetration because it’s quite heavy and we sawed a slice off and it’s solid and hard inside. Not sure how deep the penetration went. We didn’t want to saw any more off because this piece needs to be cast in resin and we need it to be organized. We’re really excited about this little chunk though—lots of swirls and figure in there!

Plywood blank: I turned this blank and succeeded in turning one side but the other side blew up. I suspect a small knot in the wood was the cause but it may have been the tube or perhaps the catch was due to improper stabilizing.

Spalted blanks: We haven’t turned these yet, though mine is all ready to go: tubes in and just waiting for the time to turn it. I’m a bit nervous because the wood is gorgeous and I really don’t want it to blow up on me. I’ve destroyed one spalted pen in the past before I understood about stabilizing, so it will be super to have a success! I am totally excited!!

Our Second Stabilization
We ordered a 5-gallon GlassVac chamber and we were really impressed. The heavy Pyrex lid is really something! Though this chamber cost us a bit of cash, it’s big, it’s solid, and it’s got a lid that won’t crack and seals perfectly.

This time we decided to try stabilizing some interesting manzanita branch pieces found on our property along with a pair of blanks we cut from a fallen Oak branch. We also tossed in some very light burled blanks from Cook Woods that looked like they would benefit by some strengthening.

Another Mistake
We kept the pump on this time and saw that the bubbles never stopped, even after many hours. That’s because I didn’t think about drying the wood beforehand. I just didn’t think about it! The thing is that it’s really hot here right now (highs of 85-95 and up to 105+) and everything is so dry. How could our wood NOT be dry? However, no matter how dry you THINK it is, there is usually plenty of humidity in the air and wood absorbs the moisture. I did a quick check on the humidity in this area and was a bit embarrassed to discover that it’s at least 50% on most days. Oops. Won’t make that mistake again. I also learned that after drying material, it should be placed into air-tight containers or stabilized asap.

We had the pump on for many hours, let the chamber sit at vacuum overnight, turned on the vacuum for another few hours and then turned it off. An hour or so later we released the vacuum and let it soak overnight. The next morning I prepared all of the blanks for baking, and all went as planned. All the wood looked right after unwrapping with minimal bleeding because the temperature wasn’t fluctuating as it did when I was trying to get the right number.

Results of Second Stabilization Manzanita branch pieces: The only thing I’ve tested so far was one these. We cut a piece down to a pen blank and were really excited at the figure inside. I turned a pen and it turned out just beautiful, similar in color to Cocobolo! Unfortunately there is a tiny hairline crack that was part of the wood and could not be turned out—I tried so hard but it went all the way down, boo hoo! It’s not noticeable unless you’re looking for it though, and we’re hoping that the other pieces are crack-free. (Pictures coming soon)

Oak branch blanks: there are some voids in the blank I’ll be turning so we’ll be using it in our first resin casting experiments, something we’ll be trying this weekend hopefully.

Lightly burled blanks from Cook Woods: These are heavy, solid, and I’ve got one ready to turn. I’ll post results and pictures when each is compete!

What’s Next? Why, Resin Casting of Course!
We’re just about to embark on our Pressure Cooker adventure! We bought a Harbor Freight paint pressure pot and are almost done with preparations. We made a HDPE casting mold that has a removable center and will fit either 3 or 6 blanks so we can try different materials. We’ve got Alumilite resin, dyes and silver metallic dust. We are accumulating a wonderful assortment of materials to try casting. Both of us can’t wait to get started! :) Stay tuned for more as we move along!

-- Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. ~ Brian Tracy

3 comments so far

View Wildwood's profile


2793 posts in 2742 days

#1 posted 07-27-2017 07:20 PM

If haven’t signed up & joined this site already might take a look. Their library and forums could save you lot of time and money. I learned a lot there and still a member.

-- Bill

View sfhipchick's profile


77 posts in 924 days

#2 posted 07-27-2017 08:52 PM

If haven’t signed up & joined this site already might take a look. Their library and forums could save you lot of time and money. I learned a lot there and still a member.

- Wildwood

Hi Wildwood! :)

I am indeed a member and have been learning a great deal from forums and also YouTubes, etc. I thought it would be fun to start a blog over here since I am interested in both woodworking and turning. There are always new things to learn and tweak, what fun!

-- Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new. ~ Brian Tracy

View Cathie Zimmerman's profile

Cathie Zimmerman

103 posts in 1420 days

#3 posted 09-15-2018 08:43 AM

Hey there! Just checking in to see how pen turning is going? It’s almost time for it to cool down here in Phoenix, AZ so that means it’s time for me to get materials for projects when it cools down more. Sometimes in the summer the shop gets to be 110+ degrees. So, I’m only in there when it doesn’t get above 90.

Anyway, just checking in to see how it’s going!

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