Writing on wood

Brrr. I hope you all are staying warm these freezing days that feel more like the deep of mid-winter than late autumn. It’s rare that this part of Western Oregon sees temperatures into the low twenties though occasionally there might be as much as a week of such temps in January or February but it’s been getting down into the low teens without warming much above freezing – only where the sun is directly shining for a sufficient length of time. This morning the thermometer read 10 degrees. At 7:30. On our back porch. Inside the house we’ve been putting a hefty oak log in the woodstove, partially banked with the damper slightly open, before heading for bed. Then Ed or I put another log on around 3am otherwise this place would be unbearably cold. The inside thermometer registered 48 in the kitchen/living room. Our bedroom was colder. I’m so thankful for the three Pendleton blankets and a comforter! Even so, tonight we’ll add another wool blanket, the temperature is predicted to be even colder. (No, we have no other source of heat in the house. The furnace died the second time we turned it on a month or two ago.)

Over the course of the year I’ve been asked by several different people for information about how I write on our crochet hooks and spindles. Spindle underneathAt first I wasn’t keen to share my “trade secrets” since they were something that I’ve had to learn through trial and error. Many trials, especially with finding the best writing implements and ink/paints/acrylics… If a pen looked like it might work I’d buy it only to return to one of my original choices when first embarking along the lines of writing on wood.

I began the quest when Ed first started making large maple crochet hooks to sell, somewhere around 2002. Ink on maple usually bleeds and feathers easily. Not good. Hooks and needles need the sizes written on them.

I write on the bare wood before the item gets its coats of finish. The ink will penetrate into the wood and the two coats of finish will seal it in place. This is especially helpful when writing on dense hardwoods where the ink is more likely to sit on top of the wood. Acrylic is thicker and will be slightly above the surface, the finish will help to keep it from slowly being worn away with time and use. Ed uses a very old recipe to make the finish for the first coat which takes 24 hours to dry. Once it’s dry I buff the finish and add a second coat. Spindles and hairpin looms get a coat of Wood Beams (a natural product made by Aubrey of Goodies Unlimited), crochet hooks and knitting needles receive a paste wax finish.Spindle side

– Pen:  Pilot P-500 extra-fine pen is by far the best for writing on wood: wonderfully fine point; blue and black inks; quick drying ink. They’re not easy to find but worth the hunt.
– Metal yarn gauge. It’s perfect for resting your hand on while writing on a narrow, curving surface as well as providing a guide to keep letters and lines even.
When Ed began making spindles in 2005 I had no clue how to go about writing on the darker woods so for the first year I didn’t write anything. Then we realized we really needed to at least put Jenkins on them since we’d periodically see a spindle similar to Ed’s design that he hadn’t made. While I could write on the light colored woods with my trusty P-500, the hunt was on for a solution of something light that would show up clearly. Ed even joined in the hunt, often bringing home a new marker that he’d see while shopping.

While in a large office / stationery store (Cooks) in downtown Salem I saw an organizer filled with different sized nibs next to jars of styluses, all located across the aisle from a colorful array of Calligrapher acrylic inks. I bought a few nibs with different points, a jar of white acrylic and black along with a small bottle of pen cleaner. Violé! Success!acrylicsThe starkness of the white acrylic on some of the dark woods seemed too jarring after a couple of years so I began mixing my own colors using the white as a base and adding bits of other colors until I found the combination that looked good on wood. Granted, there are a few very odd spindles spinning around out there that have mint green or pinkish inks in my pursuit to figure out what worked. Once ink has dried it takes some serious sanding to remove it which would make the spindle unbalanced.

Items to have:
– Square of canvas duck cloth for catching the inevitable blobs and drips.
– Nibs: The higher the number on the nib, the finer the point. (Those numbers can be very hard to see!) N° 109 is best though 107 seems easier to find.
– Stylus that is comfortable in your hand and fits with the way you like to hold your pen. If a nib is a bit loose in the stylus wrap it with some masking tape to keep it securely in the stylus. You don’t want it falling out into the jar of ink!
– Calligraphy acrylic ink.  Not all black calligraphy inks are created equal! Speedball is the best for writing on wood. Other brands tend to be thinner causing it to feather on wood. One exception is the sepia that I use to temper the white’s brightness which Speedball doesn’t seem to carry.
– Pen cleaner (Higgins or Speedball) If the acrylic gets thick and you find yourself needing to continually clean the nib and re-dip, add some drops of the pen cleaner  to the acrylic and shake well.
– Lint-free cloth to wipe the nib before dipping it in the cleaner and for wiping it dry. This will keep the pen cleaner from getting muddy and useless.
– Sharp knife (The kind used for fancy paper-cutting art) for those accidents that are bound to happen from time to time. (Twice the other day I wrote 2014 on a couple of spindles. I must be getting eager for the New Year!)090
If this happens, immediately, delicately scrape the acrylic with the edge of the knife blade to remove it without too much of a mess. (It’s a practiced thing!) Hard, dense woods have smooth surfaces which are best for writing on such as Holly, Bolivian Rosewood. Be extra careful with porous woods such as purpleheart, and spalted woods- not only do the pores hinder the nib, the acrylic will immediately settle into the pores making it very hard to remove.
– Small postal scale that can toggle between ounces and one gram increments for weighing the spindles.
– Last put perhaps most important – reading glasses! Seriously. You’ll be writing fine print on a small surface and though you may think it’s not a strain on your eyes, it can be. Especially if you do very much. I use to have excellent close-work eyesight until after a couple of years of writing on hundreds of hooks and needles. By not using reading glasses I unknowingly strained my eyes to the point that I now have to use reading glasses for most of the handwork I do.

Writing on spindles and Ed’s other fiber arts tools is my favorite job!

If you should ever find yourself wanting to write on wood and you have questions about the process please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer them.

My feet and legs are feeling chilled. Time to put the oak piece in the woodstove and call it a night.

Necklace of needles


Author: Wanda J

I never dreamed my life would be entangled with fiber and the tools used to produce fibery items. When I bought a boat shuttle used in weaving Ed looked at it, decided to make a better one and the rest is history. For a decade he made shuttles, crochet hooks, knitting needles, until his spindles became so popular that he had to devote his time to making them, as well as Walking Wheels. Free time is spent reading, trying to coax food from the ground, and playing in the creek near our place. I love long walks and camping far from crowds. Playing a fiddle beside a stream or with good friends brings sweetness to my soul. Sundays are set aside for worshiping God with our small Quaker meeting.

9 thoughts on “Writing on wood”

  1. Thanks Wanda!
    I always wondered about the writing….and how its stays put.
    A very happy christmas to you both and stay warm. I recommend furry thick soled boots in the house and chunky hand spun socks in bed. Feet are warm: everything feels better.
    Sara x x

  2. Really interesting to learn more about the process of finishing the spindles! Stay warm – it was 5 degrees here when I got up this morning, so I can sympathize!

  3. I don’t really have much of an interest in writing on wood. But now I can smile knowingly when I spin on my Aegean and Turkish Delight spindles 🙂
    I had to go look for the “Jenkins” on my Turkish delight…it was hidden on the smaller cross arm. It’s time for me to ply that cop anyway.

    BTW….”someone” has a birthday coming up soon. Hope you have a warm and wonderful one

  4. Thanks so much for the information Wanda. That may just come in handy!

    Stay warm there…we have cold temps here too, but at least our furnace is working!


  5. Brrr! Just reading your post made me shiver – and here I’ve been thinking our nights in the high 30s were cold :). This is a great tutorial on writing on wood – i probably won’t ever do it, but I was spinning on my Aegean last night, enjoying the results.

  6. It is cold here in southern Ontario, Canada. I dress very warmly to walk the dog but this morning I needed a warmer hat. Your post reminded my of my Nanaimo, BC days where I had to get up at 3 a.m. every night to stick another piece of wood in the stove. We had electric heat too but we tried not to use it much, as it was expensive and wood was free from our friend’s farm. On the lovely circular needles I have which Ed made, your writing has worn off but otherwise the needles are still beautiful, smooth and pointy. If I forget which size they are I just poke them in my needle gauge. I actually have a project on them, a vest for a friend. I think of you and Ed every time I pick them up.

  7. If you have any spare holly kicking around, that will bank a longer hotter fire than anything I’ve seen. (I used to live in a holly orchard, where we always had the stuff around.) It’s the perfect wood for baking too. Oak will definitely do the trick.

    When I lived in Spokane and we had these cold spells, it would feel like tee-shirt weather when it warmed up to freezing! That’s what I feel like, now that the cold spell has broken. Somehow, I doubt that it’s the last of the cold weather that we will see this winter 🙂

  8. brrrr that sure is cold. I hope you two are keeping warm enough!

    I always wondered how you wrote on the spindles but never thought to ask. I was especially curious when I got my TdF spindle and noticed the green which I loved. Unfortunately though it seems the green wasn’t as stay put as the other ink as some of it smeared off before I even opened the package. I was going to mention it to you but absent mindlessly forgot. Earlier this month I started my first major project with that spindle it’s so cute one of my favorite spindles. 🙂

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