Carbide Pen Turning Tool Set - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

A better choice for smaller scale woodturning - comfortable to hold, easier to control.

Rockler Carbide Pen Turning Tool Set

Carbide Pen Turning Tool Set

Smaller turning tools are a better choice for small scale turning than are full-sized lathe tools. They're more comfortable to hold and easier to control. Over the past few years we've seen a number of companies using insert tooling on full-sized lathe tools. Rockler has recently brought out a couple of turning tool sets that also feature Insert tooling.

Basically, insert tooling refers to any any tool that has a replaceable cutter – the tool body is re-usable, while the cutter is replaced when worn or damaged. Insert tooling offers tremendous advantages to both professional and amateur turners. One of the greatest benefits is increased productivity - cutters are very quick to replace, significantly reducing down-time, particularly in a production environment. Not having to bother with re-sharpening is another important time saver. As well, most cutters are made of tungsten carbide, and the grade of carbide used typically has a finer grain structure and is harder than carbide brazed onto tool bodies. The result is a longer wear life and better cutting performance.

For novice turners an important benefit is that there is no need to purchase the gear necessary to sharpen tools, nor learn how to properly do the sharpening. You get to spend more time turning.

(L) Pen Turning Set; (R) Mini Turning Set

Rockler offers two small turning tool sets: the Carbide Mini Turning Tool Set (#45142) and the Carbide Pen Turning Tool Set (#47600), which I have been using for the past couple of months. There are two differences between these sets. The Pen Turning Set tools are 9-1/2" overall, with a 3" shaft, while the Mini Set tools are 13-1/2" long and have 4" shafts. Additionally, the Pen Turning Set includes a traditional 1/8" parting tool while the Mini Set features a disposable diamond tip.

Tips on the Pen Turning Tools, L to R: square, round, 1/8" parting

The Pen Turning set is a mixed bag. Two of the tools come with 1/2" replaceable, turnable cutters: a square (or more accurately slightly radiused) cutter and a round cutter. The third tool is a traditional 1/8" parting tool. The name of the set (Carbide Pen Turning Tool Set) is a bit of a misnomer, as only the replaceable cutters are carbide. The parting tool is made of high speed steel. While you can purchase replaceable tips, Rockler doesn't offer a replacement parting tool. Perhaps it's because they feel that as the parting tool will be used much less frequently than the other two tools, it will last considerably longer. Still, it would be nice to have the option of replacing the tool if the need arises.

The square cutter is used for quick removal of stock and for creating flat or convex profiles while the round cutter is best for light finishing, particularly on convex surfaces, and for forming coves. The parting tool is used to separate the finished turning from the mounted stock, and for cutting narrow slots and tenons.

Size perspective: 9-1/2" Pen Turning tool contrasted with 20-5/8" Sorby TurnMaster

These really are small tools - among the shortest turning tools I've used. While specifically designed to meet the needs of pen turners, they'll work admirably for any kind of small scale turning - drawer handles, pulls, tool handles, and the like – which is what I've been using them for. I think they also make an ideal first set of tools for youngsters who have an interest in turning, as their small overall size will better fit smaller hands.

Ash handles with rubber grip 

The 6-1/2" long handles are made from Ash, and covered with a pliable rubber grip. At their widest, the handles measure about 1-1/4", which I found to be a good size, affording me a secure, and very comfortable grip. I also find the tools well balanced in the hand, and extremely light weighing in at about 5 ounces each. 

Shafts have flat backs for stability in use

The tools with replaceable cutters have stainless steel shafts roughly 3/8" x 3", round on the top, but flat on the bottom. The flat base is important, because, in use, it's important to keep the tools flat on the tool rest, and parallel to the lathe bed. As you can see in the photo above, the tip of the shafts have been milled at the same angle as the edge of the cutters; this ensures that the cutters are fully supported at the edge of the tool, where the downward force is greatest. The end of the shafts have been precisely milled to accept the carbide cutters. Additionally, the edges of the shafts are lightly rounder over, so that they move more smoothly across the tool rest, and are more comfortable to hold.

Rotate cutters to expose a fresh cutting surface

When the replaceable cutters become dull you simply rotate them to expose a fresh cutting edge. It takes about 15 seconds using the supplied wrench. The cutters aren't meant to be resharpened, though it is possible to do so if you've the will. Replacement cutter are just under $20. Of course, you'll still need to sharpen the parting tool. This can be done on a grinding wheel, or a waterstone.

The perfect tools for small scale turning

I found these tools a delight to use. Their small size makes them much more convenient to use than full size tools. And, the cutters are super sharp (according to Rockler they're sharpened on a diamond wheel up to 1500 grit). 

If you've not used insert tipped tools before you'll want to practice with them before committing to a project. There are a few things to keep in mind. It's best to keep the tool flat on the tool rest, gliding it back and forth, rather than rotating it side-to-side. Anyone new to turning should find this an easy concept to understand and adopt. The tools work best if kept parallel to the lathe bed rather than tilted upwards. You'll also want to set the tool rest so that the top of the cutter is centered on the stock.

The ideal match for a benchtop lathe

These tools are an ideal complement to a benchtop lathe, like the Nova Comet II. At about $45 per tool they may seem expensive, but considering they'll last a lifetime – or close to it – it's not such a bad investment. And if you love to turn but hate to sharpen, then these tools have you covered.


  • Overall length: 9-1/2"
  • Handle length: 6-1/2"
  • Ash handles with rubber grips
  • High speed steel parting tool
  • Carbide cutters (square and round)
  • Includes: 1/8" HSS parting tool, 1/2" square carbide cutter, 1/2" round carbide cutter, two tool handles, wrench, storage box

PRICE:$129.99 US
Replacement square cutter: $19.99
Replacement round cutter: $17.99
May 2014

Carl Duguay
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