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When you (GASP) have to use a biro

I was asked to accompany a respondent in a court case to one of their hearings. Sensing that it wasn’t my wicked sense of humor that prompted the request, I guessed that they needed an observer who could take decent notes. I’d have to do all that from a chair in the gallery so I couldn’t pack my usual battery of gear.

In such places, I like using small notebooks or memo books. My current fave (and the only one I have on hand) is Field Notes’ Expedition series. These are lovely little journals that make use of Yupo or polyester paper. Yupo is so waterproof that some friends of mine use it to improvise watercolor mixing palettes. The tricky part is that Expeditions (and the similar Rite In The Rain notebooks) don’t work with nibs or gel pens at all.

I could use a pencil but I wanted something that laid down ink. Google took me to a Brad Dowdy article that recommended ballpoints for use with Yupo. Not having a biro handy, I hit the local bookstore and bought a few ballpens to test on an Expedition pocket journal.

These were readily available at my neighborhood bookstore. I wondered if they were any good.

 

Exploded view of the three. The refill at the bottom is pressurized, just like a Fisher Space Pen cartridge.
 
First up was Pilot’s Acroball. The 0.7 or Fine version had the drying time of wet paint. It was not immune to smudging even after half a minute of waiting. Not an acceptable outcome, but I’ll admit to being surprised at how smoothly it wrote.
This wasn’t a Papermate from my school years, for sure.

If you were the Driving Miss Daisy type, this could work.

Uni’s Jetstream was next in line. The only retractable version we get here is the 1.0 mm size. I was afraid that its lines would prove too bold but my fears were unfounded. It wrote about as wide as an American EF nib which is still within my comfort zone. It only needed a few seconds to dry and I thought, “We’re getting somewhere.” Feel was almost like a gel pen on the page and I was ready to go all-in except that I had one more pen to test. 

This is much better. The Jetstream fans didn’t lie about this thing being smooth on paper.

The last prospect was Uni’s Power Tank. (I love how the Japanese name their products!) I had never heard of the pen until I saw a couple next to a box of Signos and figured it was worth a try. The InterWebs told me it is Uni’s idea of a Fisher Space Pen. It uses a pressurized cartridge to allow the pen to write from any angle. Testing it on regular paper proved uninspiring. Smooth but nothing close to the Pilot or Jetstream. Lines were pale and I thought of chucking it right then and there. 

That’s pretty quick as far as drying times go.

The story changed when I tried it on the Expedition paper. The lines seemed darker and it glided so much better. After scribbling some jibberish, I wiped the text with my finger to see if ink would budge. Not much of it smeared after 5 seconds, and at the 10-second mark it was practically etched in stone. 

The Power Tank wasn’t the smoothest or darkest writing pen in the bunch but for the task required, it left the other two in the dust. It reminded me that sometimes, the right tool trumps what we think is the best tool in our box. I hate to admit it but ballpoints have come a long way since I last used them.

Now, off to court. 

The Power Tank gets to tag along, while the other two stay home. All gear tested was personally purchased.
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Graying the lines 

Up until 3rd Grade, I wrote with nothing but yellow No.2 Mongol pencils. My peers and I were promised that once we were old enough to wear trousers to school, we would finally be issued ballpoints. Ever the simpleton, I instantly developed a prejudice. Grownups used ballpoints and like all kids, I wanted to be a grownup. The day I claimed my Papermates from the school bookstore, I said farewell to pencils and never looked back. Excepting our mandatory art classes, I never had to use lead.

  

And then, this happened…

Lately though, I’ve been writing with graphite more frequently. This unexpected bout with crow (yes, I seem to be eating a lot of it these days) was prompted by several reasons.

  

Uni’s vaunted Kuru Togas. The Roulette version is better spec’d but I prefer the handling of its entry-level sibling.
 

Paper. Not everything I have is pen-friendly. Doane’s vaunted Moon Camera notebook barely takes a Fine nib. Field Notes don’t really play well with my pens. I happen to like their Expedition line a lot, to the point that my Fauxdori is currently in storage. These weather-resistant notebooks can be prickly with ink but boy, can they make 2B lead look dark as coal.

  

Unexpected gifts from friends who love all things that lay down lines.
 

Planners. Yes, I still live in the digital age and Google Calendar has made life so much easier for me. Still, I like writing my schedule down and recapping my days on paper. It helps me remember things more clearly, and allows me to better prepare for the day to come. Someone introduced me to the Hobonichi Techo, and its paper will take anything you can throw at it. But schedules change as quickly as the weather, and I’d rather look at a neatly written agenda than a field of crossed out entries. Pencils give me this flexibility.

 

Writing on the go. I don’t mean scribbling away at some café table. I mean taking notes while its Standing-Room-Only at the conference room. Ever try jotting down a client’s instructions while your cabbie is zipping through traffic? Or writing down a number/email in a teeny-weeny notepad cradled in your hand as you’re queued at the bank? Even my best nibs don’t perform well in these situations. Gel tips and ballpoints fare a bit better but a pencil does the job oh so well. Also, those who’ve had their papers take a Venti Americano shower can testify how ink probably washed away, while penciled comments remained unruffled.

  

If i could keep just one, it would be Pentel’s Sharp Kerry.
 

Which ones do I like? I have a Pilot 0.7 mm that fits me like a glove, and a Staedtler 2 mm that handles like a dream. However, the ones I reach for most are all 0.5 mm models – a Platinum Oleenu High Grade, an entry level Kuru Toga, and a Pentel Sharp Kerry. I favored 2B leads for so long, but some softer 4Bs just arrived and I’m anxious to see how we get along. 

 

I still enjoy a well-tuned nib, but using the right tool for the task is often more important than just having good tools. If it’s been a while since you’ve picked up a pencil, maybe it’s time to renew old friendships.

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A Karas Christmas

 

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The Bolt G2 is about as long as a Midori ruler. The Retrakt sports familiar looks in a grittier package.

December brought two Karas Kustoms pens to my basket of spoils. The Bolt G2 is a tumbled raw aluminium variant, while the Retrakt pairs a brushed aluminum upper with a grey anodized barrel. I’ve used them frequently enough to form some opinions and thought I’d share my notes in this space.

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The Copper Bolt G2 exudes a warm and inviting glow, but the aluminium version is far easier to use as a daily writer.

The Bolt has a distinct tool-like vibe. It features a unique actuation mechanism that is simple,  foolproof, and quite fun to toy around with once you learn how the system works. Owing to its 6+inch length, the Bolt is just barely top-heavy. I’ve never used a pen of this size before but a page of journaling was enough to get used to its stride.

 

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Parker’s Jotter seems to shrink beside the Retrakt it inspired.

The Retrakt is best described as a Parker Jotter that gorged on steroids. Its massive clicker is ninja-quiet to the point of being spooky. Its barrel sports a long tapered tip, versus the Bolt’s more rounded business end. I expected the Retrakt to offer a more neutral balance, but its chromed brass knock and tapered front create a palpably back-weighted (yet not unwieldy) pen. While the Bolt is totally bare of any surface machining, the Retrakt has a thick band of signature Karas knurling just below the knock.

 

Both pens are comfortable writers. The finishing is cleanly done and nothing abrades any part of my hand. Aluminum construction makes these pens noticeably agile. Should you require the heft of Mjolnir however, both models are available in full brass or copper trim. I’ve handled a friend’s copper Bolt G2 and I can’t do anything more than sign stuff with it. I’m glad I didn’t go with heavy metal in these pens.

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Refills are easy to find, and hacks are half of the fun.

So how do these write? About as well as the refill you choose. Rolling stock is Pilot’s standard 0.5 mm G2 refill in black. It’s a decent albeit uninspiring performer. Wanting better, I tried a 0.7 mm G2 tip, a V5 Precise RT refill, and even the innards of a Zebra Sarasa Clip. I eventually settled on 0.38 mm black refills in both pens – a G2 in the Retrakt, and a Juice in the Bolt. The lines are fine enough for my daily tasks, as my Techo will attest to.

 

Between the two, I prefer the Bolt by the slightest margin. Either pen would make an excellent road warrior. For those whose conquests are waged with a pen rather than a sword, you can choose one Karas or another, and take the field.

Hello, Ateleia!

  
It did not sport a nib, but its sleek look was just too desirable to ignore. I just couldn’t stop playing with the brass Ateleia that the great enabler had lying about, even though it’s been ages since I’ve picked up a gel tip or rollerball.

The warm, patinated surface looked great but I figured a lighter feel would make for a better pen. As if on cue, Ateleia stoked the fire by posting IG and FB snaps of a raw aluminum variant that was every bit as attractive as their initial release. A few mouse clicks quickly sent one of these featherweights my way.

Fountain pen nuts will eat crow before praising a biro derivative as a great writer. Well, I ate a flock, and then some. 

  
The pen is somewhat modular. My copy comes with two threaded inserts and various lengths of plastic tubing. Depending on the insert installed, the pen takes refills from Uni, Pilot, Pentel or Schmidt. The plastic tubing sections act as shims in case your refill of choice is a little too short to fit the barrel snugly. You do need a wrench to remove or install refills, so swapping guts isn’t lightning quick. 

I happily discovered that today’s refills are capable of providing a pretty good writing experience. One can select anything from microtips to lush wide points, incorporating things like fraud-resistant ink in the mix. Many of these options are readily available in my neighborhood bookstore, which isn’t always the case with fountain pen ink. 

I’ve used the aluminum Ateleia for a couple of months now. I rotated between the factory-installed 0.5mm Energel, a Signo 0.38mm, a G2 0.7mm, and the currently deployed Pilot Hi Tec C in 0.4mm. With all these, the Ateleia wrote far better than any rollerball or gel pen I used before I drowned in the fountain pen pool. I can even name a few fountain pens (some over the $200 mark) that didn’t feel as smooth on paper (or even write) straight from the box. None of my nibs like Field Notes’ paper but the Ateleia does just fine, thank you very much.

It is almost pencil-light in the hand. Some folks prefer a tool with more mass to allow the tip to glide on autopilot. I choose control over momentum so this lack of weight is ideal for my uses. The bare surface hasn’t picked up scratches yet,but I do keep this tucked into a pen slot in my day pack and it doesn’t mingle with keys, change or other pocket debris.

The Ateleia was intentionally designed to be carried in a journal (or a pen sleeve) so it wears no clip or roll stopper. The threaded cap is a rather small part. Loss is a real risk, so be aware of where you set this piece while you doodle away. 

  
A 10-pack of gel pens costs half of what this particular model sells for, so why buy what is essentially a machined alloy sheath for refills? My take is that it gives the ubiquitous gel pen a dose of what I think it sorely lacks : soul. For a guy who grew up listening to Hendrix, Stevie Ray and BB, that’s all the reason needed.

Corleone was right…

  

The Godfather trilogy was a huge presence in my generation’s memories of cinema. In the last installment of the franchise, an aging Michael Corleone is trying to set his house on a legitimate path when twists and turns make reverting to his old ways somewhat inevitable. In frustration, or perhaps acknowledgement of his circumstances, he exclaims in anguish, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!”

Several months ago, I bid goodbye to the readers of this blog, thinking it was a permanent farewell. At the time, the fire I had for the fountain pen hobby had died and I had more pressing matters (like finding a new job) to worry about. Well, just as Pacino’s Corleone discovered, life wouldn’t let go of me so easily. 

A monthly lifestyle magazine of a local daily invited me to do a quarterly column on pens. It wasn’t a tough ask so I decided to contribute what I could. I then discovered pointed pens and went giddy over obliques, and flex, and iron gall ink. Along the way, my interest in writing forms and their tools surged like no one’s business. 

The short version is that this blog will continue. It may tackle a fountain pen model every now and then, but I’ve decided to delimit it from self-inking nibs. I can’t quite predict how all of this will go, but you can bet that whatever fancies entrance me at the moment will be written about and shared on this space.

End of the road 

Pens were such a fun hobby for me and I throughly enjoyed the things I learned. More than these, it is the people I met while pursuing this fancy that I will always remember.

I don’t see myself blogging about pens anytime soon though. I’ve turned a new page and it is with new instruments that I must write my stories.

To the folks who thought this blog was useful, thanks for dropping by. 

Skyline Redux

My first vintage pen was supposed to be a double jewelled mustard “51”. Regrettably, my Veuve Clicquot tastes were shackled by a Budweiser budget so I happily ended up with a jet black Eversharp Skyline Executive instead. The Skyline had a distinctively streamlined look, while its nib was my initiation to the world of flex. It wasn’t intuitive but after cracking its code, my lines could swell from F to BB with ease. Unfortunately, my pen focus shifted and Japanese brands sentenced the Skyline to long-term storage. The time soon came when a grail needed funding so I sold several pens, the Eversharp included.

 

Fast forward to about two weeks ago. I discover that a local pen buddy is now a dealer for the Wahl-Eversharp pen company, as revived by Syd “Wahlnut” Saperstein. I message Kailash who tells me his maiden shipment is arriving in a few hours. Leigh and I rush to pick up our loot that night, and I run solely with my new prize for almost two weeks before even thinking of reviewing it on this space.

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My modern Skyline comes from the Classic range. Compared to the Executive I once had, this one is a touch shorter but looks a lot more sartorial. Its silhouette remains true to the original save for two things. It lacks a filling lever and the barrel now sports a trim ring. The cap is a reprise of the Radial Engraved pattern from the ’45 – ‘48 Presentation Skylines and can understandably be mistaken for its vintage predecessor. Finish and execution are astonishing with even the famous Double Check hallmark being purposefully retained.

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Uncapping the pen reveals gold trim on the section’s flare, a feature absent on the Skylines of old. The nib wears ornamentation that draws from Wahl’s Art Deco roots, which stands in stark contrast to the almost bare décor on the vintage nibs.

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That isn’t tarnish on the nib. Ink smears are inevitable when you actually use your pens.

Inking the pen takes some figuring out. No seams are visible near the barrel threads and attempting to turn the section causes nothing to budge. It dawns on me that the barrel trim ring might hold the key and true enough, the ring marks a blind cap. Twisting this free reveals a piston knob. I later learn that this is actually a converter and owing to the pen’s redesign, long International carts are your only option if you don’t want to fill from a bottle.

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There is but one nib size, a Fine-Medium, currently available. It is not a true semi-flex by any stretch but it is as supple as Nakaya’s Soft Medium or Pilot’s Soft Fine-Medium. Slight pressure readily yields sufficient line variation and throughout weeks of writing and doodling, I feel no tooth or snags, only a hint of feedback like the Japanese nibs I love.

 

Certain that this is an OEM nib from the Orient, I ask about the part’s origins. It shocks me just a bit to learn that not only is it German, it is coated stainless steel and not gold! I have previously handled stainless nibs gifted with a bit of spring, but nothing like this. It feels more controlled or deliberate in its cadence. The snapback seems calibrated instead of being a mushy afterthought. The writing performance is familiar and novel all at once. I cannot explain how Wahl-Eversharp accomplish this feat. The long sloping shoulders may partially explain the majix but I’m sure there’s a lot more voodoo going on. Bottom line: it provides a wonderful writing experience.

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An old chevron pattern Wahl flat-top chats with our new friend.

Handling is lithe and its long section readily welcomes a host of hand sizes and grips. Some may find the unposted Skyline just a bit too light though. If you so choose to post, the cap mounts deeply and securely but shifts the pen’s balance drastically to the rear. Personally, I wouldn’t post but if it’s your pen, then it’s your rules.

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What scale means to pen geeks. From left to right: Omas 556/S Brevetto, Montblanc 1912 Heritage, 2014 Wahl Eversharp Skyline Classic, Bexley Submariner Grande Butterscotch, Sheaffer Autograph Band Snorkel, Parker UK Aerometric Duofold

Now for the $200 question: is it worth the coin? Sticker price on this model is only a few notches south of a pair of Benjamins so it isn’t exactly inexpensive. With vintage Skylines remaining available and affordable, what does this redux bring to the table?

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The bottom pen is an original blue Skyline. The newer palladium capped black Classic doesn’t seem too different.

Given what I’ve seen and learned from the new pen people in my area, this is what I think. Today’s converts may want the writing experience that only a nib can bring, but seek as rich a history and pedigree as possible within a fairly attainable price point. They desire generous doses of flair but eschew having to deal with shrinking polystyrene, cracked nibs, ossified sacs and unexpected leaks. With all this in mind, the new Skyline gives them precisely what they want without exacting unreasonable tolls.
It isn’t La Grande Dame Brut. But if Gentleman Jack is ample tipple, this will wet your whistle.

 
(All pens other than the new Skyline appear courtesy of leighpod)