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Drilling On The Lathe

What's the best way of drilling square stock like pen blanks?

A question that we are frequently asked here at The ToolPost is how best to drill square stock such as pen blanks, and whether any additional equipment is needed for this.

Because it is such a frequent question we have decided to publish our standard advice on the subject to benefit (we hope!), our loyal site visitors,as we would any email correspondent.

The drilling of square stock is often perceived to be far from easy and many folk both believe that it requires sophisticated extra equipment; equally they often find that their attempts aren't necessarily accurate and see a potential risk of the drill popping out through the side of the blank. The good news is that in the old days, long before our present 'health and safety' age, there was an effective way of drilling one's square stock to avoid the above problems so effective, in fact, that here at The ToolPost we continue to do it this way now. Here's how we do it.

1. Mount a drill chuck in the headstock spindle of your lathe and fit this with the correct-sized drill bit for the pen mechanism. Note that this is going into the powered spindle of your lathe, not the tailstock. Set the lathe to its slowest speed setting.

2. Put a live (rotating) cone centre in the tailstock of your lathe. This must be sufficiently large that the cone will sit and centre in the hole that you plan to drill in the blank a standard centre used in any sensible size of pen blank (for a hole up to 1 inch in diameter) will meet this criterion.

3. Mark the centres accurately in the two ends of your pen blank using an awl or another pointed tool to create a little divot.

4. Put your pen blank between the centres of your lathe the centre mark needs to sit on the point of the drill at the spindle end and the other should sit on the live centre point at the tailstock end.

5. Ensure that the lathe is set to run at its slowest speed and maintain this speed throughout the drilling opertion. Apply gentle tailstock pressure to the blank to ensure it is captive between the drill point and the live centre.

6. Start the lathe, while standing clear of the firing line as you should always do when starting the lathe. The blank should rotate with the drill point acting as a drive centre.

7. Bring your left hand up from underneath the blank with your palm fully open and your fingers down and out of the way, gently bringing your palm up to the blank and gripping it so that it no longer rotates. If, at any stage, the timber jams on the drill which will mean you have not cleared the shavings sufficiently let go of the blank and allow it to rotate with the drill.

8. The drill will start to make a hole. Now wind in the tailstock quill, so that the blank is pressed onto the drill. After each movement of about half an inch (15mm), unwind the tailstock quill to free the shavings from the hole you've created. As you unwind the tailstock, pull the blank back towards the tailstock so that it remains centred on the centre mark in the blank and pulls off the drill bit. Once the shavings have been cleared, resume the operation. Remember if the blank jams on the drill, let go! However, for the record, we don't recall this ever being a problem for those who release the shavings.

9. Continue until you have drilled about halfway through the blank, before withdrawing the blank from the drill completely and switching the lathe off. Bear in mind that if you are drilling pen blanks, you can make life easier by cutting them close to final length, halving them if that's what the design calls for, before drilling, to minimise the depth of hole you are required to drill.

10. Now remove the blank from the lathe and turn it end for end so that the hole you've just drilled is sitting on the live tail centre and the centre mark that was on the live centre end is now resting on the drill point.

11. Repeat the process you've just followed to drill the first half of the hole to drill the second half. The hole will as if by magic meet up precisely in the middle of the blank. Don't forget to release the shavings as you proceed.

12. Pat yourself on the back and have a cup of tea! If you're confused or unsure about any of the steps above, feel free to get in touch with us or pay us a visit at our Didcot showroom if you can, and we'll provide any required clarification, or even a demo. Allow our team here at The ToolPost to help you to experience more of the many wonders of woodturning, overseeing the most rewarding projects as a result.

Editor's Note: The ToolPost ( is represented by the search engine advertising and digital marketing specialists Jumping Spider Media. Please direct all press queries to Liz Seyi. Email: or call: +44 (0)20 3070 1959 / +34 952 783 637.

1997-2010 P. Hemsley.  The information on this website is the copyright property of Peter Hemsley.  Coeur du Bois and The ToolPost are trading styles of Peter Hemsley.  Whilst reasonable efforts are made to ensure the accuracy of information presented, no liability can be accepted for errors in this information nor for contingencies arising therefrom.  If you are inexperienced in any aspect of woodworking, we would strongly counsel that you take a course of formal instruction before commencing to practice