When it comes to financing his education, this 13-year-old has the write stuff.
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Turning Pens into Cash

13-year old has the write stuff

Aspiring heart surgeons need steady hands, a delicate touch, mental focus--and a whole lot of money for school. Some quality time at the lathe helps Alex Lesniak, above address each of those needs as he plans for a career in medicine.

Alex discovered woodturning a month before his 11th birthday during a trip to a woodworking show near his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Fascinated by the lathe from the moment he saw one demonstrated at the show, Alex begged his father, George, for one of his own. "You know how kids can be," George says, "so I challenged him. He had to sell me on the idea of getting a lathe." After that, they both had to convince Alex's mom, Cathleen. "I was kind of skeptical at first," she says. "But then Alex said 'Mom, I can turn pens and sell them and make money for college.' " That moment of entrepeneurial insight sealed the deal.

Crafting his first pen

Soon, Alex brought home his brand-new, variable-speed midi-lathe. He watched videos and visited Web sites to learn all he could about turning. Within two months, he was crafting his first pens.

A trip to the North Carolina Woodworker's Club picnic sparked initial demand for Alex's work. Although intended to be just a "show and tell" event, he ended up selling several pens. Then, at a contest sponsored by a woodworking store in Raleigh, Alex won first, second, and Best-of-Show for his age group...and sold more pens. Repeated inquiries prompted Cathleen to put together a Web site (pensforcollege.com), shown below showcasing Alex's work. A new business was underway.


Two sleek designs

Mixed media
Alex turns a variety of materials including resins, acrylic, Tru-stone (shown below, and all types of domestic and exotic hardwoods and burls.

Black pen
A pen turned from Tru-Stone, a mixof crushed semiprecious stones andresin, has contrasting "veins" for amarbled look.

One signature Alex Lesniak detail is the Celtic knot (shown below). He first saw the technique online. With some experimentation, he elevated it from a simple inlay of a contrasting wood to an eye-catching feature with delicate metal accents.

Brown pen
Aluminum gutter flashing l am inated to walnut enhances the over-and-under weave of a Celtic knot in a pen of figured maple.

Stock pens of every style

During the non-holiday season, Alex works about 10 hours a week in his father's shop turning "stock", below, to sell on his Web site and to fill orders. Now, as he enters 8th grade, he's gearing up for full weekends of turning to meet holiday demand.

Boy working at Lathe
From catalogs and Web sites, Alexorders kits with the metal pen parts.These pens, turned from big-leafmaple, show a sample of styles.

With hundreds of pens already sold, most in the $75+ range, Alex's college fund is off to a strong start. If he achieves his career goal, every time he fills out a medical chart, he'll be holding a reminder of how he got there.

Four Hours to a Lustrous Sheen

Achieving the deep, lustrous sheen on a wood pen can require up to four hours. Alex begins by sanding the barrel to 800 grit. With the lathe spinning at about 1,100 rpm, he applies the first coat of his finish, thin cyanoacrylate (CA) glue, with a paper towel, then sprays on a CA accelerator to quickly cure the finish.

Pen being wiped on lathe

Quick Tip! Use tape as a finger pad. Alex wears nitrile gloves and wraps several layers of painter's tape around his index finger, as shown at right. As CA bleeding through the paper towel builds up on the tape, he simply peels off a layer to reveal a fresh surface. The tape also insulates his finger from heat buildup.

After three or four coats of CA, Alex steps up the speed to 2,600 rpm and sands lightly with 400-grit sandpaper to reveal low spots in the finish. After filling them with CA and sanding again, he wet-sands with MicroMesh abrasive sheets working up to 12,000 grit. Then he buffs with the No. 1 grade of Novus polish, moves on to Meguiar's Plastx polish, and finally a coat of Renaissance wax. The result is a durable, glass-like finish.

Sources: Find Meguiar's Plastx polish and Novus polish at car-care stores and on these Web sites: meguiars.com, novuspolish.com; Find MicroMesh abrasives and Renaissance wax at Woodcraft, woodcraft.com, 800-225-1153.

For more Information

We want to hear about other youngsters doing cool things with wood. Send an e-mail to woodmail@woodmagazine.com or write to WOOD® magazine, 1716 Locust LS221, Des Moines, IA 50309.

Watch Alex's self-produced video making a Celtic knot, "The Homework Ultimatum."

Create a Celtic Knot

Don't let the curves or fine lines of this eye-catching inlay fool you. To make your own, simply cut kerfs in a squared turning blank, glue in splines built up from contrasting veneers, then shape it on the lathe.

Cut away of bowl

To demonstrate the process, we incorporated a Celtic knot in the Table Lamp from issue 177 (July 2007). The procedure adapts easily to a variety of turnings.

Large image of knot

Fill the Kerf

To determine the thickness of the splines, use your tablesaw to cut a kerf through a piece of scrap. Stack layers of veneer to fit snugly in the kerf [Photo A]. Cut a 3x12" strip of veneer for each layer and true up one long edge of each strip.

PhotoA PenTurning.jpg

Make a veneer press out of two pieces of 34 "-thick plywood, covering one face of each piece with painter's tape to prevent glue from adhering to the plywood. Any wood glue will work for this step, but for speed we chose five-minute epoxy to laminate the veneers [Photos B, C]. After the epoxy cures, unclamp the press, scrape away any tape sticking to the lamination, and true up one edge.

PhotoB PenTurning.jpg
PhotoC PenTurning.jpg

For the knot to appear balanced and even, your turning blank must be square in profile. After squaring it up and cutting it to length, rotate it and number adjacent faces in this order: 1-3-2-4.

Tilt your tablesaw blade to 45° and raise the blade so that it stops 1/8" short of cutting all the way through the blank. (A 214 "-square blank was the thickest we could use, as our blade reaches 218 " above the table.) Attach an extension to your miter gauge and cut a kerf through it. Clamp a stopblock to the extension to position the knot in the desired position on your blank. (For the lamp, we set the stopblock 812 " from the bottom of the kerf.)

Make the First Cut

With the face numbered "1" up, cut a kerf through the turning blank [Photo D]. Mix up a small amount of five-minute epoxy, and glue and clamp the laminated spline blank into the kerf [Photo E]. After the epoxy cures, bandsaw away the excess spline and sand the spline flush with the faces of the blank.

PhotoD PenTurning.jpg
PhotoE PenTurning.jpg

Repeat this process on the remaining three faces, cutting in numerical order.

Layout the Shaft Shape

Turning the blank round reveals the Celtic knot. (Follow the instructions in issue 177 for turning the lamp [Photo F]. Aligning the pattern as shown below centers the knot where the shaft tapers away evenly in both directions, keeping the knot symmetrical.)

PhotoF PenTurning.jpg

To buy the complete plan and patterns for the Turned Lamp, click here.

© Copyright Meredith Corporation 2004, 2010