Skip to main content

21 Levels of Pen Spinning: Easy to Complex

Champion pen spinner Peter Davis explains pen spinning in 21 levels of difficulty, from easy to complex. Pen spinning is a lot like juggling, and Peter goes over some simple techniques like charging and wipers before moving onto more complicated moves like threading and charge removal.

Released on 04/27/2023


I'm Peter Davis.

I've been pen spinning since 2011

and most recently I won the standup theme

in the 2022 pen spinning Olympics.

I've been challenged today to break down

pen spinning into 21 levels of increasing complexity.

[upbeat music]

Pen spinning is actually a lot like juggling.

You basically use your fingers, your hands,

sometimes your wrists and arms are even knees to toss,

to spin, to throw the pen

or pen-shaped object in any way that you'd like.

As a disclaimer, this is my interpretation of the challenge.

Level one: Charge.

The charge uses conical rotation in one spot of the hand

but just spins conically in one spot

and conical rotation means that the pen is not

actually spinning end over end in a full circle.

It's just tracing out a conical motion

on both sides of the hand.

Level 2: Pass.

Passes are very simple tricks

in pen spinning and you might not even have noticed

you doing them yourself just in daily life.

They involve passing the pen from one finger slot

to the next one and they can go either over the finger

or under the finger in either direction.

The pass is slightly more complex than the charge

because the pen is actually changing position in the hand.

You have to clear the outside finger that you're passing

from and then duck the other finger under or over.

That involves a couple more things that you have to get used

to when you're really gaining fluency in them.

Next up: Wipers.

Wipers are done near the tip of the pen

and that's because the pen has to pass

through the finger slot with a half rotation of spin.

Wipers to me are more complex and passes simply

'cause they can go wrong in many more ways.

If you're not near the tip of the pen,

then the parts of your hand that you're trying to pass

through might get in the way and stop your wiper.

And also when you're near the tip of the pen,

almost all the weight is on the other side.

So controlling that momentum and keeping the pen

from slipping out of your hand can be really difficult to do

on more complex wipers.

The Triangle Pass consists

of three different finger switches.

You can hold the pen to start in all three

and then you lift one from the barrel

while it passes about a third of a rotation

and then you bring the finger back down

on the other side of the pen while lifting the next finger.

So each finger switch is a third of a rotation

and you're always gripping the pen

between two fingers as it rotates.

So every full triangle pass completed that is

every three finger switches, is half a rotation,

180 degrees.

Each finger switch accounts for roughly 60 degrees of that

and every two triangle passes you complete is

a full rotation or 360 degrees.

You're not fully gripping the pen at any point

so if you're off center in one direction or the other,

it makes it really easy for the pen to fall out.

Level 5: Sonic.

The basic sonic involves charge

which is conical rotation and two different finger switches.

So you do half a charge in one slot and then you clear

that lower finger down until the pen comes in contact

with the next finger up and then as that charge continues,

that finger that you move down comes back into contact

with the pen completing a full 360 degree rotation.

You can also make Sonic's inverse.

You do a charge and then you clear that finger

up out of the way and then it comes back down

and the middle comes into contact with it that way.

And you can combine these modifiers in a a lot of ways.

You can keep the charge rotation the same

but switch the finger switches,

which is what's known as Moonwalk Sonic

and you can add a lot of complexity in those ways.

Level 6: Thumbaround.

The thumbaround is a trick you've likely seen

in TV or movies or anime

and it involves the pen going around the thumb

and then being caught again with the index finger.

People tend to mess up thumbaround when learning it is

by starting too near to the center of the pen.

So in a round tricks, the barrel of the pen

has to trace over the entire circumference

of the finger or thumb that it's rotating around.

So to learn a thumb around you need to start

with most of the weight on the pinky side

of the hand and then by the time you're done,

you'll be on the opposite part of the barrel.

For the rest of the levels we're gonna be

incorporating pen modifications.

Weight and length can have a big influence on the types

of pen spinning tricks that you can do and how well

you can do them and how difficult they are to do.

These basically have characteristics that make it

easier to learn harder tricks.

They have balanced weight,

a little more weight toward the tips, maybe a good grip.

Different pen spinners prefer different mods.

To me, the natural next step in complexity is the Backfall.

The backfall involves four different arounds

that are linked together with passes.

All four fingers are used and a back is done on the index

then the middle, then the ring, then the pinky.

And in between each completed back, the pen passes

under the finger from one slot to the next.

In the early days of pen spinning the backfall

was a really important impressive trick that

if you could do it smoothly you were one of the best.

These days people can pick it up in their first half year

of pen spinning for the most part, but to do it smoothly

with a light pen and do it elegantly is still

rather impressive and tough to figure out.

Level 8: Index Bust.

The index bust is basically a continuous around,

done on the index finger, which is just the same

as a back but with the opposite direction of rotation.

In around tricks the pen ends up in a different position

than when it started.

So to make them continuous you have to get back

to that original position.

Sometimes it involves a bit of a slide.

Most of the time it involves a little bit

of airtime to move your hand

to the position where the around began.

Index busts in particular are probably one of

the most common finishing tricks you'll ever see in combos.

Having learned about around of tricks,

the natural next step of complexity

to me is half around tricks

which brings us to the Powerpass.

The powerpass is a sequence

of four half arounds which can appear similar

to passes 'cause they take up 180 degrees of rotation

and the pen moves from one slot to an adjacent slot.

The main distinction between a pass and a half around

or powerpass is that the powerpass is what we

call fingerless, meaning that there aren't two points

of contact with the pen.

So you're not actually gripping the pen between two fingers

but it's sort of resting on one or another

and you can put forces in the pen in different ways.

Powerpasses down on the backside of the hand

involve four different tricks.

The normal powerpass involves the fingers curling

from index to pinky and the pen moving clockwise.

Then powerpass reverse involves those same fingers

uncurling pinky to index and the pen going counterclockwise.

The mirrored powerpass involves all the fingers

moving in the reverse order.

And then mirrored powerpass reverse involves the reverse

of that one which means that the fingers uncurl

from index to pinky and the pen moves clockwise.

You'll find that you don't actually have to

flex your fingers really hard,

you'll just learn how the pen feels on your fingers

so that the angle is correct

so that you don't have to keep those fingers

out of the way quite as much.

Level 10: Back 1.5.

So as we went over with the arounds,

when you begin an around, you're in one position of the pen

and when you end you're in a completely different position.

Another way to do an around

after doing the same around is to add just a half rotation

of spin on the back of the hand.

You can learn back 1.5s on any implement

but it's always gonna be easier to use a pen

that's nearly perfectly balanced.

The reason for that is that from one back 1.5 to the next

you're starting on the opposite sides of the pen.

So if those have different weights

it's gonna be really hard to get used

to doing one after the other.

Next up, Cardioids.

[upbeat music]

Cardiod tricks are hybrids

between arounds and wipers, but they actually

tend to be pretty complex and difficult to execute.

Cardiods are another way of dealing

with the problem of ending in a different position

than you started when sequencing arounds

one after the other.

So the reason that I've put cardiods in this position is

that the number of ways you can mess it up

is pretty darn high and you have to be super precise

with your positioning on the pen

and the margin of error timing-wise is really slim.

Up next: Dual Pass.

In a dual pass you might recognize the resemblance

to a triangle pass.

Every execution of it is a full 180 degrees

but there are only two fingers instead of three.

And this makes it a lot more complex

and a lot more difficult to execute.

You'll sort of learn how it feels to have the pen spinning

on one fingertip while moving the other one.

And you wanna stay basically again right in the center

of the pen because you have very little control of it.

So the momentum can take it off of your fingers

basically at any moment.

Level 13: Power Tricks.

Basic power tricks are sequences

of tricks that are all fingerless

often involving a lot of airtime.

[upbeat music]

I start with an extended thumb around bust release x 2,

meaning that the pen rotates for a full rotation

and a half in the air,

and then I catch it with the index.

I do a half powerpass to the pinky

then do that again and then release with the pinky again

in what's called a spread.

And then I'll catch it on the thumb

and do a thumb around fingerlessly spin the pen

for half a rotation on these two fingers

that are curled known as a spider spin 'cause

the sort of spider-man gesture it gives,

release again with the thumbaround,

do the same thing with a palm spin and then release again

and then do what's called a Hai Tua,

which is where the pen goes around the thumb rotates

half a rotation on the back of the hand

and then is released off of the pinky.

You'll see that I'm using a bunch of power tricks

that all use the same exact direction of rotation.

And this is the main way that people learn power tricks

because since they're fingerless, they rely heavily

on maintaining one direction of momentum so that

when you're sequencing all these fingerless tricks together

it's really important to keep that momentum going.

Level 14: Inverse Powerpass.

The inverse powerpasses are quite a bit harder

than the ones that are done in the back of the hand

because your fingers can only bend in one direction.

So if you were to make it inverse perfectly

you'd want your fingers to bend backwards,

but you can't do that.

So instead of having the pen rotate

on the curled finger every time,

at each stage of the inverse powerpass,

the pen is only touching one finger at a time

and is sort of balancing on the side.

So in the inverse powerpass,

since the pen is never resting on a surface

you have to maintain that momentum very carefully

and have each of your fingers curl or uncurl

at the precise moment that they need to.

Next up: Fingercross.

So far through all of these levels

we've had the four main finger slots: between the thumb

the index, index and middle and so on.

The fingers proceed in this order as they do on your hand

but you can actually cross your fingers over one another

so that the order of these finger slots changes quite a bit.

The best way to incorporate finger crosses

into your pen spinning is to make sure they're active

meaning that they're touching the pen

while they're crossing over one another.

So if you have the pen between the ring and pinky fingers,

you have that pen within those fingers

as they cross over one another

and you get a full 180 degree rotation.

Level 16: One Pen, Two Hands.

So you don't have to spin pens in just one hand.

A lot of people involve both hands, wrists,

other parts of the body even,

but it's very common for people to specialize in one pen

two hand spinning where one pen is spun,

but two hands can be involved either independently

or interconnected.

When you move into two hand spinning,

some things will feel a lot easier than they did originally

and some things will feel pretty weird.

It didn't come to me incredibly easily.

It can be really unfamiliar at first,

but you'll probably pick stuff up a bit quicker than you did

initially because you sort of know how the tricks work.

Level 17: Changing the Plane Of Rotation.

The first thing I'm doing is taking a normal powerpass

and executing it so that my palm is facing outward.

What this does is similar

to what makes inverse powerpasses so much more complex.

When my fingers aren't curling in this direction,

I don't have this knuckle where the pen can rest and spin

and I have to have the pen touch just one finger at a time.

I also can't really see my hand very well

and see exactly how close I am to the center of the pen.

And it's actually a bit harder to flex your fingers

fully when your forearm is pronated like this.

The second thing I'm showing is an index bust

but my hand is just flipped 180 degrees upside down

and this simply makes the trick a lot harder

because you're fighting against gravity a lot more.

You don't have the back of your hand

where the pen can sort of rest and rotate.

When you're changing the plane of rotation for your tricks,

you sort of have to retrain both your brain

and your fingers to relearn exactly what the mechanic is

and what your fingers are supposed to do.

Whether that's fighting against gravity

'cause there's a lot more airtime and you have less

of your hand to rely on, or whether it's just how different

your hand can feel when it's facing different directions.

Up next: Charge Removal.

So a lot of what we've been dealing with so far

is adding things, adding more mechanics, adding more tricks.

Charge removal is sort of the opposite.

You're removing certain things that feel natural,

in order to make the margin of error a lot tighter.

Charge removal can be pretty subtle

and difficult to notice and that's why it's actually

called Japanese motion sometimes

because Japanese spinners used it a lot in a variety of ways

and some people just didn't really notice

or pick up on it all that much.

So the way it often works is when the palm changes position

when you're doing passes or sonics or arounds or anything

there's a natural charge or half charge that's added in

to account for that changing of the palm position.

But with tighter timing and different mechanics,

you can actually take out that extra charge

and snap your hand into position

and it looks really clean and precise.

Level 19: Advanced Sonic Hybrids.

A lot of pen spinners out there really focus

on very thorny combinations of sonics

that require a lot of flexibility,

really tight timing and might not be that elegant.

I like to focus on ones that involve maintaining

a conical rotation cleanly

while moving the hands very precisely.

So what I'm showing here starts with half of a normal sonic.

You clear the middle down and you hold it

with the ring and index, then it's interrupted

by a reverse powerpass on the middle finger,

so the index gets out of the way.

You lift that middle finger fingerlessly,

and the pen is about to enter the slot

between the index and the middle finger.

Then the trick is interrupted again, and while

the pen is rotating counterclockwise on the middle finger,

the hand can rotate a little bit out of the way.

You flick that middle finger down

and with no rotations added, recatch the pen

in that charge rotation between the middle and ring fingers.

This sort of thing is really useful

because often you have to get from one finger slot

to another one.

You can add in these degrees

of complexity to add tiny tricks in

while moving simply from one finger slot to another one.

Level 20: Threading.

Threading is a concept that was recently developed

by a Malaysian pen spinner

who has extremely flexible fingers and has been very,

very instrumental in developing finger cross tricks.

Threading involves a non-adjacent finger cross, meaning

that the fingers that are crossed aren't right

next to each other.

There are a number of ways to fail.

One of the ways is in threading,

your fingers can just get stuck on the way through

and not make it all the way through.

If you cross your fingers too much or too little,

the actual finger cross can come undone

or you won't leave enough space for a finger to go through.

And in trying to execute these cleanly,

it's really tough to make the rotation smooth.

Having hitches in your rotation

while you execute any finger cross trick is

gonna be the case until you get really confident with them.

[upbeat music]

Level 21: Advanced Combos.

These are the sorts of things that you'll see

in any pen spinning collaboration video at a high level.

I try to add a good variety of visual flavor, changes

in direction, changes in planes of rotation.

A lot of different mechanics, maybe varying the pace,

some slow sections, some fast sections,

and that lends itself really well to showing

a wide variety of the types of tricks

that we've been going over.

In this combo, I start out with some fingerless

around reverses or backs, and then I change the plane

of rotation to do a mirrored powerpass reverse

with my palm facing forward.

Then I'll do some simple wipers and passes to set

up the next section, which is related to the back

1.5s that we saw earlier,

the direction of rotation changed

and the palm facing up instead.

To finish the combo off, I do some quick passes

and fingerless passes to get the pen between my middle

and ring fingers, and then do a simple twisted sonic

that then hybridizes into a more advanced sonic trick

that sets up a rotated index bust release finish.

[upbeat music]

When you're first starting, it is easy to get discouraged

because things can come at different paces for everybody

but it's important to realize that there's so much out there

that people can learn and contribute to.

In 2022, the World Cup Champion Team featured a

pen spinner who had been pen spinning for under two years.

The great thing about pen spinning is

that you can really do it anywhere, anytime.

You can learn at your own pace using whatever you want.

So I hope this encourages you to pick up a pen, a pencil,

even a stick, and start learning these tricks.

Thanks for watching.

[upbeat tune plays]