As M3 Metal Composite is not a natural material, it is not “native” to anywhere although it is manufactured in New Jersey, firmly in the United States. From there, the material is potentially exported anywhere in the world it is desired.
M3 Metal Composite pen blanks are manufactured from a type of composite used to make everything from the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” to the International Space Station. The material happened to also be aesthetically pleasing as well as structurally sound and useful for engineering solutions for the aerospace, medical, and marine industries. Because of that coupled with the ability of the composite to take on a mirror-like, gem quality finish, additional applications in crafts and jewelry making were developed and marketed.
The metal versions of the composite are up to 85% real metals including copper, brass, aluminum, and titanium. The metals are very finely ground and distributed throughout the composite matrix providing for a unique appearance for each blank; no two are ever exactly alike.
In many respects M3 Metal Composite pen blanks are similar to the more common, and much more affordable, acrylic pen blanks of which there are a wide variety of different formulations, colors, and designs.
The M3 Metal Composite pen blank material is fairly hard, although not anywhere near as brittle as most acrylics. Because the material is so dense care must be taken to avoid excess heat generation during drilling, turning, or sanding to avoid deformation or melting. Also, the Composite will sand aggressively so care must also be taken to ensure that one doesn’t accidentally sand more than is intended.
The slower turning speeds for both drilling and the actual turning process necessary for acrylics, however, are not required here. In fact, the manufacturer recommends speeds of up to 3,000 RPM which is about 3 times higher than the speeds I generally use with wood.
The material cuts slowly and most effectively with carbide cutters that can be easily replaced. Light cuts are essential to avoid chunking the material off in large hunks. Heat generation must be controlled as well during turning and light cuts will help with that as well. Once the corners of the square blank are cut off the turning process is greatly simplified. My experience was that long curling ribbons of the composite material would come off during the turning process as long as consistent pressure and cutter orientation was maintained. Occasionally, these ribbons would become so long that it was necessary to stop the lathe to remove them to prevent them from obscuring the work surface as they wound around the mandrel. This is an effect I don’t ever see with wood blanks.
The material cuts with a bit of a hazy effect and routine as well as micro-sanding efforts do not completely remove this. The manufacturer sells a two-step metal polish and I used this to fantastic effect. I have no idea what is in the polishing compounds, perhaps better than I don’t know, but when used as directed in sequence they do produce an amazing mirror-like high gloss finish that is not like anything remotely possible with wood.
And here’s the rub. The cheapest of these blanks, in no more than a ¾” x ¾” x 3” size is a whopping $25. Longer or thicker sizes start rapidly climbing the scales of price. These are, without a doubt, the most expensive pen blanks on the market today.
Availability is a bit of an issue at this time. Several years ago, many of the big turning supply retailers, including Craft Supply USA and Woodcraft, sold these blank through their stores and websites along with the polishing compound. In fact, it was through one of these sources that I first encountered these blanks. However, the big stores no longer carry these blanks and I can only guess that the reception was poor due to the very high prices commanded.
Currently the only vendor I can find, in the United States, is the company itself. They are a bit slow in the shipping process but they are ultimately reliable. If you want to use these pen blanks, plan ahead as you won’t get them last minute. And if you don’t already have the polishing compounds, get some to ensure completely success.
The only other source I could locate was in the United Kingdom and once you pay shipping you won’t get a better deal, and besides, the pound to dollar conversion means you would slightly pay more even without shipping.
While the base composite material is used in a wide range of advanced technological applications, including in space and airplane vehicles, the pen blanks are used for very high end pen making as well as for other turned objects that can be made from pen blank sized pieces of material.
The company also sells billets for jewelry making as well as knife handle and bottle stopper blanks through their website. As is often the case, the larger the piece the higher the price. Also, some formulations are priced up to 33% higher than others, so check prices carefully based on exactly what color/material you want.
In addition, if you have very deep pockets, you can purchase flat stock pieces in sizes up to 6” x 6” x 1”, which I would bet I could make a shallow bowl or platter from, provided I had the $900 asking price (some different colors and materials can be had for as “little” as $400).
As the M3 Metal Composite is man-made it is incapable of being “threatened” in the traditional sense. However, that said, the materials are derived, in some part, from petroleum, including the polishing compound. Petroleum is inherently an unsustainable resource that also contributes greatly to pollution and world-wide corruption and inequality, especially in many of the countries from which it is extracted. Some metals are toxic in their own right, while most all mining to obtain these metals is environmentally disastrous and often comes with social and politic problems similar to those associated with petroleum. And, ultimately, the additional components of the composite material are highly likely to contain, or require during some part, or parts, of the synthetization process toxic substances that may linger in the environment and cause differing degrees of harm.
All that said, why in the world would anyone use this material?
In my mental calculus, these materials are being made for high-technology applications whether I buy them or not, and the minimal amounts of metals used, comparatively, in the manufacture of a pen blank compared to industrial uses is so minuscule, even if all the metals used by the entire company over its lifetime are considered, as to be irrelevant. And while I understand that the biggest messes are made up of small parts, I still can’t help but think that this niche application can’t be contributing on any significant scale to any environmental disaster. Maybe I am just behaving like the proverbial ostrich with my head in the sand (real ostriches, by the way, do not actually do that), but for the incredibly beautiful and unique look that this M3 Metal Composite creates for a very small number of craft projects that I make (I can’t afford to use it widely or often) I guess I have concluded it is worth the risk. And, I never claimed to be a die-hard environmentalist to begin with.
Specific health risks associated with using this material are not disclosed, but in bold, red, and all capital letter print on the information sheet is the admonition to use a dust mask meeting or exceeding NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) 42 CFR 84 requirements along with eye protection. So, I have to assume there is SOME risk present even if I am not exactly for sure what it is.
Appropriate protective equipment is always recommended, especially eye protection, when turning any material. The risks associated with long term exposure to wood dust from any species are well documented, so dust masks make good sense when turning and sanding regardless of the material being used. It would seem to me that the same basic common-sense precautions employed by any wood-turner with half a brain and any sense of self-preservation will suffice for working with M3 Metal Composite blanks.
I suppose if one was really curious, it should be possible to contact the manufacturer through their website or phone number and request a Materials Safety Data Sheet for both the blanks and the polishing compound. I have not felt the need to do this.
I experienced no negative side effects from working with M3 Metal Composite blanks to my knowledge.
My Personal Experiences
I had used these metal blanks long ago when they were more readily available from the larger wood-turning supply houses and I still have a fair number of blanks left from those purchases years ago. However, I had to re-order to have two blanks of adequate size to make the razor and stand due to the 3” lengths required for both as all I had on hand were the 5” long blanks with no two of the same color to achieve the 6” overall length necessary to make both pieces.
It had been a good while since I had used the material and I didn’t remember it well although I did remember that I was very pleased with the final outcome in the form of a pen I kept for myself, but cannot find at the moment. I specifically chose this material for the recipient in question because I wanted to use something unique and special for a, hopefully, high-impact gift.
I had no great difficulty in drilling or turning the blank although I was a bit apprehensive about it. In fact, although the material turns slowly, I didn’t find it any more difficult to work with than most any wood and it was considerably easier to use than most any acrylic product I have ever attempted. M3 Metal Composite might even be easier to use than some common woods used for pen making, such as Snakewood for example. I like the finished product a good deal as it is comes out to a high gloss, is impervious to water and skin oils, should prove very durable, and provides an absolutely unique look to items made with it. I don’t know if it would be possible to ever turn a profit using it for items intended for sale, unless the buyer was aware of the materials cost, so I might not want to use it for that application.
I would happily use it again, despite its cost, for high-end projects or for gift making for people that are high on my list of worthy recipients. It isn’t the type of material you would use for just any old project or for just any person. If you can wrap your head around the cost of it, I would recommend it to any wood-turner, or knife handle carver, etc., who wants to experiment with a very unique product that provides an out-of-this-world appearance to the finished item.
As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!