Studio Fu: Carve Your Own Bamboo Pens | Jen Dixon | Skillshare

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Studio Fu: Carve Your Own Bamboo Pens

teacher avatar Jen Dixon, Abstract & figurative artist, educator

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Introduction and Materials List


    • 2.

      Choosing Your Bamboo


    • 3.

      Cutting Bamboo


    • 4.

      Begin Shaping the Nib


    • 5.

      Drill, Notch, and Split


    • 6.

      Test, Tweak, and Thank You


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About This Class


Hi, I’m Jen Dixon artist and tutor, and I’ve been selling my work for over thirty years.
In that time, I’ve picked up and made up a bunch of tips and tricks for making the most of my art space and practice.
Studio Fu is my take on Kung Fu, which literally means “time spent at skilful work.” Studio Fu classes are short, and will help you make the most of your time, tools, and techniques as an artist.

In this episode of Studio Fu we’re going to make our own bamboo pens. Why on earth would we do that when you can buy them? Because you get the satisfaction of a new skill, you can make as many as you have time and bamboo for, and you get killer knife skills (which naturally come with bragging rights).

The introduction video has the materials list (which you can find in the Project section too) and I know you’re going to enjoy this very hands-on, sharp things, power tools and glory class.

Let’s get started!


Meet Your Teacher

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Jen Dixon

Abstract & figurative artist, educator

Top Teacher

Whether you want to learn new skills or brush up on rusty ones, I would love to help. I have been a selling artist for around 35 years. In my own practice I use pen & ink, pastels, oils, acrylics, and watercolours regularly. My work hangs in private collections around the world.
I love what I do, and I teach what I love. We can do good things together here, so let's get started...

About me:
I’m an Ameri-Brit (dual citizen), living on the North Cornwall coast of the UK. I’ve been here nearly two decades, but have lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Berkshire (UK). I am studying Spanish daily with an aim for becoming bilingual. Hola, artistas.

My work covers everything from graffiti-influenced illustration & mixed m... See full profile

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1. Introduction and Materials List: Hi, I'm Jen Dixon, artist and tutor, and I've been selling my work for over 30 years. In that time, I've picked up and made up a bunch of tips and tricks for making the most of my art space and practice. Studio Fu is my take on kung fu, which literally means time spent on skillful work. Studio Fu classes are short and will help you to make the most of your time tools and techniques as an artist. Thank you for joining me and let's get started. To create your Bamboo Pen, here's what you need. You'll need some bamboo. You should be able to get that at your local garden center. You'll need woodworking knives or a very good pocket knife. You'll need a stanley blade or a snap off knife. You'll want a drill or a dremel with that teeny tiny drill bit. You'll want a soul ends masking tape, or I'm going to use the cutting wheel on my dremel, a sandpaper, a chunk of scrap wood, some protective gear. These are cut proof gloves and I'll be wearing my normal glasses, and I also have a custom thimble that I put on my thumb just to protect the pad of my thumb. Now, if you don't have something similar, you can just rely on the thumb of the glove or you can wrap a cotton ball with a band-aid around it. Of course, an ink, and you'll need about 15 minutes to carve. 2. Choosing Your Bamboo: When picking the bamboo, you're going to work with, make sure that it's a good piece. This piece is split. It's extra dry looking, it's split all the way up here. This is a really weathered piece. This one was already out in the garden for sometime, and I'm going to avoid that for making pens and I'm going to take it back to the garden because that's no good. These are really good pieces. What are you going to look for, when you want a piece for making a pen, something that's about a centimeter in diameter, maybe a half an inch, and it's nice and smooth. It's not cracked, and you've got a nice bit of wood above one of these joints in stock. That's what you're looking for, either one of these would produce several good-looking pens. I'm going to pick one of those to work with. 3. Cutting Bamboo: Bamboo is some really tough stuff. When you're going to cut it, you can use a typical saw with a little bit of masking tape around the part that you're going to cut because that's going to help keep it from splintering. Or you can do what I'm going to do and that is if you've got a dremel, use a cutting blade on your dremel. The bonus for that is it smells really good when it burns through the wood, but it makes a very good clean cut and there's no splintering. So that's how I'm going to get my next chunk of bamboo. We're about to cut the length for our bamboo, and amount that you have after a join, which is going to be the nib part, that's up to you. But what I like is I like to have enough material that I've got plenty to carve and still have a nice area that feels natural for when I hold the pen. Because that join acts as a really nice little stop. It's kind of ergonomic. What I'm going to do is I'm going to make a mark. I'm going to make a mark somewhere about probably there, and give myself plenty of handle. I'll probably give myself something about there. That's about how long. You see I'm not actually measuring anything. I'm just going by eye, and by feel, and that's fine. But I'm going to go ahead and make those cuts now. There you have it, really good length for the pen. Now, because I made the cuts with the dremel, it' a nice clean cut on the end, so I don't really have to sand it unless I want to. But that's what the sandpaper is for, is if you've got a bit of a rough bit after sawing. 4. Begin Shaping the Nib: Now it's time to begin carving or whittling. So let's have a look at some of the pens that I've already made. Now you'll notice that they curve up and they've got this nice flat bit, which is the top or one side of the bamboo. I oftentimes have the flat part that happens underneath the join, I have that on the underside. It just looks right. It feels right to me. So that's the approximate shape of the pens, the way I like to do them. It doesn't matter which pen it is they all follow suit. So this one has a little bit more length after the join, and it's a shorter nib also. So you can make any shape you like but you want to keep that top layer, that top bit flat because there are three layers to bamboo. I'll just backtrack a little bit. There are three layers to the bamboo. There's the outer hard bit, which is actually quite thin but very sturdy. There's an interior which you can see is a core, and then inside that is where it goes hollow, but it does originally have almost soft marrow to it. Most of the time when bamboo dries, that dries out and it's really easy to dig it out if you need to, but there are three layers. So the most important layer for the nib is that outermost layer because that is flexible and also very strong. So that's what we're going to use for the actual nib part. So the rest of the material we need to take away. You see I've got a cut proof glove on one hand. Let me stop tagging because that's annoying, there we go. Cut proof glove on one hand. I've got my thumb pad on the other and I'll show you exactly how I do the whittling. So I've got two knives here. If you if you've not used a woodworking knife before, I've got two knives here. One of them is the Flexicut, which is an American made knife and it's got a brilliant ergonomic handle. They come in a few different shapes. This one is from Sweden, this is an Erica frost, Mora knife and also a very good knife. Now woodworking knives, you'll notice they're really nice and thick so there's no flex at all, so you can be really sure about how you're moving the knife. Again, the Flexicut is really nice and thick. The reason why I have a preference for those versus a Stanley knife or even a snap blade, is a snap blade has a lot of flex to it. So while you're carving, it's also spring loaded, so you're going to actually be flinging material as you go and it's just not as sturdy and stable as you go when you're whittling or carving. So it's best to use a nice chunky knife to get the bulk of the material out. Now I did mention that you could use a pocket knife, it also has a nice thick blade. So that in a pinch will do for the wiggling. I am going to start with the Flexicut, and I've got the underside of my pen exposed, I'm just going to begin removing material. So you get through that outer layer pretty quickly. That's a particularly tough piece of bamboo and that's okay, it can be a nice sturdy pen. But you can see I'm already down through that outer layer and I'm down to what actually gives the bamboo the stability. Now you'll notice the way I'm carving. I push with my thumb and I turn with my knife holding hand. So everything moves at the same time, and you don't have to take huge amounts of material out all at ones. There, I've just broken through. So now I'm into the core where it gets a little pulpy. So keep going. We just need to keep removing materials. You saw the shape that we're going for, we're going for something like that. So we're just going to keep removing material until we get to something where it's just that outer layer. Now we don't need to worry about the shape yet, we're just going to get down to that outer layer. I'm going to switch knives, because actually I think I prefer this one. There comes a point where you start carving both sides at the same time, that's when you want to start being extra careful because you're getting really close to just being in that outer layer. But it gets exciting at that point because you know you're working your way towards having a nib. That's far too short for what I want, so I'm just going to. work a little bit further back each side. Just take a little bit more material out, and you see that I'm doing a real turn with the wrist and a push on the wide back of the knife using my padded thumb. I can't stress enough how much better it feels to have a pad on the thumb because you will bruise really quickly otherwise. I'm still getting down to just that outer layer, and I've gone completely sideways on this. I'm just going to take some material off this side and try and work my way back. You know what? That's fine, I've got plenty of material to work with. Just I think I held it in my hand a little bit crookedly, so I started turning it instead of it being like that off to this direction. Let me see what I can do to correct that a little. You can see why you wear eye protection, because stuff goes flying everywhere. There we go, just take it back a little bit. Now you might be asking yourself, can't I buy these already made? Yes, you can and you can buy them pretty cheaply. You can, of course, do that. But I actually just really like making them. I find it like whittling itself, which I used to do a long time ago. I still have my very first Girl Scout knife and used to do that outside on step. Just get a stick and do a bit of whittling. I find it really relaxing. You can do this and get that meditation that I find comes along with that woodworking. You get the smug satisfaction of knowing you're pretty good with a knife at the end of it too. I'm beginning to get that shape and you can see that with my scooping action, that rotation in the wrist, I'm getting that nice curve that I'm looking for. It's always this back, but it's a little bit tricky to get. Just take your time and be careful. You can always get another stick. You cannot get another finger. Do be careful. Right, I think that's about where that piece wants to leave it. Just dig a bit out. Remember, never cut towards you. That's just a bad idea. Okay. I've got my basic shape and it's a little bit wonky. I'm just going to tidy that up and also looking at some of the pens I've made before, I can tell that I've got a lot more nib than I probably really need. Now the longer your nib, the more difficult it will be to control it and to have, because we're going to put a split in it. It's going to be more difficult to keep that split together enough to make a good line without having a center blank space in that line. You'll see what I mean in a little bit. But I'm going to use another one as my guide and you can see about how much I'm going to trim it down. This is where having a Stanley knife or a snap blade is really handy because you can get in there with the delicate stuff. It's just really nice and sharp. But again, it would never remove the material like one of these others. Just do a little shaving. I'm pretty happy with that. I managed to bring it a little bit more on target with having this flat bit of the joint on the underside. I'm fairly pleased with that. Now we're just going to take my glove off and show you. See that flex? That's what we're looking for. Because when you use a metal dip pen or calligraphy pen, that metal has that flex and that's what we're looking for. That's just that outer layer of the bamboo. I'm going to decide on how long I want that now. I'm going to give it a chop. Maybe I'll use that one to give it a chop. There we go. That's the hardest part of the bamboo, so takes a little bit of pressure to get through there. That looks pretty good. What I'll do is, it's not easy to sand it without fraying it, without splitting it, because you can just see that the bamboo has this stranding to it. If you're not careful, you will shred that end. But I'm just going to tidy it a little bit so it doesn't catch on my paper. Any small rough bits get sanded off. That's much better. Right, I like the way that looks. The next task is to make sure you've got as much of that pulpy stuff out of the inside as you can dig out. Because what happens there is it just hold onto water and it holds onto ink, but not in a good way, It just gets soggy. Get that a little clean out. Yeah, I'm pretty pleased with that. Now the next step is beginning to create the way in which the ink travels. We've got the basic pen, which is a good shape. Now, depending on the pen, I have created different types of ink travel inside the nib. We know that it needs to have a split for the ink to travel down. You can see there's holes in all of these. Those holes hold ink. When you dip it into the ink, a drop of ink gets stuck in there. Now, it may be a little bit difficult to tell in the video. I'll make sure that you can see it in an illustration and in photographs. But there are also notches that go across and that also holds ink. I also have some that have a more elongated hole, so that will hold more ink than say this one. But it's all a little bit of experimentation because sometimes I find that depending on how I've carved the pen and how I have put the notches in and just the piece of bamboo itself, sometimes the ones with just a single hole, hold plenty of ink. This is why it's fun to make so many different types. The next step is to put those holes in. We put the holes in first because if you're going to split the wood, what you don't want to happen is something that happened on this particular pen, which was one of the first ones that I made. That's why it's got a color of red tape on it. That's dark tape. I made the split, and it had just hairline split a little bit further up than I wanted to make the hole. When I drilled the hole, it was already fractured. Then when I dipped it into water and I was swirling it around to clean it, the water swelled the wood and when it dried, it cracked. You can see how far up the crack is going, and I didn't want to waste the pen and so I've just colored it. The idea is to drill first. That way, you've got a stopping point and whatever split you put in cannot go up any further. We're going to do that next. I'm just going to prep my drill bit now. 5. Drill, Notch, and Split: The placement of the hole is really something to experiment with. Now, each one of these has a slightly different placement of that hole. Some of them are within where the pulp has been dug out from the middle, some of them are further down the nib, it just really depends on what you want to do with it. The results, each one of these makes a mark. That's not something to worry about, you're not going to put it in the wrong place. However, I encourage you to make more than one pen and to just experiment with placement. For this one, I'm going to take position just inside where if you look at it, you can see that it's a teardrop shape. I'm just going to put it at the top of the teardrop. There we have the hole, so that is the well that's going to hold the extra ink. Now, on some of these I made the elongated hole. What I'm going to do is I'm just going to do a little bit somewhere in between. It's not going to be two holes wide it's not going to be just a single hole wide, what I'm going to do is we're just going rock my drill move back and forth, so I just carve a little bit more out. I've just made that hole a tiny bit wider, it's almost the same original diameter on the outside, but I've just rocked it, made it a little bit wider on the inside. Next thing to do is to make some of those cross ridges. To do that, I'm going to use the snap off blade style. I'm just going to throw a few in there. Now, if I take it and cut in at a slight angle and then back the other direction, again at a slight angle, I can remove this little v-shaped chunk of wood, and with this particular knife, I don't really need to worry too much about going through the pen because the blade just doesn't have the strength to it but the woodcarving blades have. I'm just getting a little bit of material out, making some lines, so the ink has something to cling to. It's pretty fat but that's okay. Just going to take one, back near the hole. Now I just have a few hatches going side to side and I've got a hole now it's time for me to make the split. I'm going to use my snap blade to do, align it up, just going to work it nice and gently and there going all the way through. If it's slightly off center, don't worry, you can make it centered. This knife is really good for financing, you can just take little more material off until seems to be centered and that's it. That's a bamboo pen, it's time to test it out. 6. Test, Tweak, and Thank You: Now here's a little trick that I do, I color code things. On the back end of my pens, I like to have them color coded a little bit, just so that I know at a glance, because they look the same. I know at a glance which one I'm favoring, and so this one is one that I made earlier. Just going to dip it in some pure Indian ink which I've put into a smaller pot just to make it easier to work with. I'm going to get it right up to that reservoir, the holes that I've made. Get any excess drops off. I'm just going to show you how nice and smoothly that write. Makes a lovely mark, and I've done a lot of artwork using these natural bamboo pens. Just really satisfying to make. They can be quite expressive. Really lovely to work with. Let's see how the one we've just made measures up. Taken up right up to the little well, the hole that we made. That's pretty nice. I don't think it holds enough ink for my liking though. What do we do to change that? Just seems to go dry a little bit quickly. That means our ink isn't traveling well enough. I'm just going to rinse this, and then we'll come back to it. How do we problem-solve that? There's a couple of things you can do to alter the flow of the ink. Now when we made our split, we only split it. We didn't make any sort of channel to make ink go down towards the tip. We're going to do a little bit of that modification now. I'm going to take my snap blade knife again, we want to go in from the hole. Get it towards the edge so it's easier to do, there we go. Get it towards the hole and just take out a little slender V-shape. That will help the ink flow down towards the tip. It may be a little bit difficult to see, but basically what I've done is I pointed the way, so I've given it a little channel to go down towards the split. Now just making that modification alone, let's see the difference. Much nicer. Definitely it's channeling that ink, I can actually see it. You may not be able to see it on the video, but I can actually see the ink is going down towards the tip, whereas it was giving up rather quickly before. Look at all the ink it's managed to hold on to. Now it's giving up. That's normal for a dip pen, you do need to keep going back and forth to the inkwell. That's pretty good. I'm going to leave that one as is, and I hope that your first pen turns out as nice as this one has. Have a great day.