The publisher of Caliber Magazine is a pen friend and asked if I would write about the 2017 Fountain Pen Day Philippines gathering. That’s like asking a lush if he’d like more booze on a Saturday night.
Check out the link below to see how we, to quote Montell Jordan, “flip the track, bring the old school back.”
I have willfully and happily gone from 20 pens to 12 to 6 and now, just three. In fact, I often carry just one. Shocking, I know. Like folks from the turn of the 20th up to the 70s didn’t do just that.
So which do I carry most often?
This black Aerometric sat unused and uninked in Enabler’s Cup of Stasis. The “51”s aren’t typically her speed, so I figured I’d stretch the Parker’s legs for a bit. Ink leeched through the filling unit’s window when I tried to gas it up. Either the Pli-glass sac was damaged, or the sac nipple had crumbled. I didn’t have spare Pli-glass on hand, and a busted nipple wasn’t something I could fix.
Ron Zorn is my Obi Wan when I seek brave new hope for vintage pens. I mailed the pen to him and asked that he restore the Parker to its working glory. While he was at it, I inquired if he would take the Medium-Broad nib in trade for something narrower. Lucky for me, he had an EF in stock.
The sac nipple was fine so the damaged sac was ditched for a modern equivalent from David Nishimura. To finish the restoration, he repaired a cap ding, fixed the inner cap, replaced the cracked jewel, re-frosted the Lustraloy, and polished all the Lucite bits. It took a few months for the lot to come together but good things, and good work, take time.
So why the “51”? Why did a sixty-year old pen displace a pair of esteemed Pilot #15s (a 743 and 823) as my daily driver?
Size and ergonomics are right, as the “51” shows remarkable design genius. There is enough to hold on to, but no more than necessary. The seamless transition between cap and barrel makes for one long and smooth grip section. At times it feels like holding a worn bar of soap. It is tough to beat that degree of comfort.
The slip cap makes it easy to deploy. For journaling and other leisurely writing, a screw cap is no bother. When folks ambush you throughout the day with stuff to sign, drafts to mark, and forms to fill, a slip cap is a kind mercy.
Cap-off time is amazing. Ever get stuck in a two-hour meeting? I’ve had many nibs dry out, especially when the AC is working as it should. Yes, I can revive a stalled nib with a bit of “calligrapher’s elixir” but I can never get used to Blue Black’s bitterness. I’ve had the “51” stay uncapped for twenty minutes and it still wrote when I needed it to. My taste buds rejoice.
Nib feel is firm but grants smoothness and speed that a flex or semi-flex can’t provide. Paired with light overall weight, the pen makes a wonderful, reliable workhorse that just happens to look good.
With all their manufacturing tech, Parker might do well to revive this design. The average convert comes from a ballpoint or rollerball past, and the “51” makes a daunting shift a lot easier for new folks.
Midori’s Traveler Notebook is an iconic piece of kit. Pen geeks, paper fiends, leatherheads, journaling fans and stationery junkies all seem to have at least one of these elegantly simple notebook covers. I’ve owned a few of them myself but despite their overwhelming popularity, I think they have some serious shortcomings.
The back cover has a hole where the knotted elastic keeper slips through. This isn’t a distraction if one has two or three notebooks installed but if you’re the type to use just one book, you may quickly feel that knot jarring your writing rhythm. Like the Princess and the Pea, some might be more sensitive to this than others. I am, and it has bugged me with every Midori TN I’ve owned.
Then we have the lead crimp that affixes the elastics to the inner spine of the cover. Circular in shape, it feels like a speed bump along a road that I had expected to be smooth and cosseting. It sounds like splitting hairs but because I use the notebook on improvised writing surfaces, the crimp unsettles me a fair bit.
Lastly, there’s the skin itself. Every Midori Traveler I’ve seen strikes a dashing pose. But the feel of the hide is a bit of a disconnect. The cover is made in Thailand for Midori so I don’t quite know what exact leather they use, or how it’s tanned. What I do know is that the surface feels a bit tacky. Using saddle soap to smoothen the hide strips whatever topcoat exists. Once that layer is washed away, the leather looks and feels rougher to the touch. Not even mink or neatsfoot oil helps much and it doesn’t take a lot of conditioner to render the leather floppy. That the Midori costs a fair bit of coin aggravates the tragedy.
I am not alone in making these observations. There is a burgeoning community of craftsmen worldwide offering their take on a better mousetrap, commonly called fauxdoris. Superior hides, repositioned holes and additional elastics all aim to fix the perceived shortcomings of the beloved Japanese notebook. In truth, I’ve settled on a fauxdori cut from Hermann Oak veg tan leather by a Hongkong artisan. It’s better built than the original TN in so many ways, and costs less to boot.
The popularity of fauxdoris isn’t flattery at all but a challenge to Midori to listen to the market and step up their game. Japan’s reputation for craft is legend and I’m certain Midori can draw from this heritage to offer an unchallenged product.
Japanese tanneries are some of the best in the world. Their unique methods create skins that are distinctive in the way they feel and mature. Offering something cut from nume or even shell cordovan is well within their skill set. Hardware can be improved to insure the ensemble lays flat when opened. The current keeper hole doesn’t bother an Oriental language user who will open the book from back to front, but simply moving the hole to the spine will give equal opportunity to fans from the West.
Will all these cost more? Without a doubt. But Midori need not discontinue or modify their existing line at all. Instead, they can introduce an upscale line to tap a market that is less hesitant to spend extra coin for a better expression of an already elegant idea. I’m sure more than a few of this blog’s readers would go for it.
(Thanks to @leighpod for lending me the Midori Traveler in camel so I could take comparison pics.)
Every pen geek sees his or her preferences change over time and periodically, we review our writers and ask that eternal question first posed by The Clash in 1982, “Should I stay or should I go?”
In five years of wading through this madness, I’ve passed through the typical stages of the hobby. As a newcomer, I grabbed anything with a nib. Twelve months later, I ditched everything that wasn’t German. A year after that, I turned Japanese with a bit of Italian and stayed there, quite happily, until 2016 settled in. That’s when my horde underwent a reasonably radical metamorphosis.
Here’s a peek at what the box looks like now.
Most of these are considered small by today’s standards and only two wear a tip that is wider than Fine. All are suitable for daily driving and none will merit more than a quiet nod from an approving collector. Yet each has a story or person behind it, an encounter worth remembering. I guess this is my truest (if not criminally sentimental) measure of whatever has stayed and will stay.
I got my first Hobonichi in December 2015. The little black book quickly proved useful but its plain, sober skin was most underwhelming. I sought better clothes and Keegan Uhl of One Star Leather Goods was the first tailor a friend recommended.
The Basic is his thinnest A6 cover and I opted for natural veg tan. It started out as a pinkish beige hue but my hand oils and sunlight coaxed the leather to darken progressively. After a year of regular use, the cover now wears a caramel tone.
The Basic’s slimness comes from its pattern. A single piece is cut from thin Hermann Oak veg tan or bridle, which is then folded and stitched to create the flap pockets. The Custom on the other hand, is a three-piece design that permits a thicker Horween leather to be used for the exterior. This provides additional aesthetic possibilities, and affords a bit more cushioning.
This A6’s outer is cut from a Horween tannage called Dublin. It has a wonderful “pull up” or “crackle effect,” and I can’t wait to see what sort of patina it will eventually acquire. One Star normally uses bridle for inner flaps, but Keegan found some natural Dublin that was thin enough to use for this project. The results are better than I expected.
For the A5, I specified Horween’s natural Chromexcel. It’s an uncommon taupe-ish brown that features great pull up and a soft feel. Its natural hue promises that it will develop its own character as the years pass. Being a waxy leather like Dublin, it will not require frequent conditioning. A word of caution though: casing a Cousin in leather makes a heavy book even heavier. Both you and your knapsack will definitely feel the difference.
I could have gotten Cordura covers for these books, but nylon shakes off yesterday’s adventures with a mere shrug. Leather picks up the stains, and scuffs, and gouges that life brings. With care and time, these blemishes adorn the skin with every memorable stop on the user’s life journey. They prove that scars and blows don’t truly deface the object, but instead peel off the scales to release the soul lurking within.
(I have no affiliation with Hobonichi or One Star Leather Goods, except as a satisfied paying customer.)
FPN-P, the pen club I belong to, wrapped up its Fountain Pen Day celebrations a few weeks ago. Seven of the country’s foremost vendors of writing tools set up shop to present their offerings to a visibly interested public. It was great to see many young people happily walk away with a bag or two of purchases.
As organizers, we try to show our personal gratitude by patronising each of our generous sponsors during the show. In going about my duty, I decided to support our local Lamy distributor by purchasing two popular gateway pens: the Lamy Safari, and Al Star.
I once blogged that the Safari may be the best set of training wheels for someone new to nibs. I still believe this to be true, but wondered if the years may have altered that opinion. My first Safaris (ca. 2012) struck me as dry writers and the nibs weren’t always smooth out-of-the-box. With 2016 being the 50th anniversary of Lamy Design, I was curious to see if these current productions gained an improved build.
For this experiment — that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it – I chose an ubiquitous matte charcoal Safari, and a graphite Al Star. Both came with Fine nibs but I was surprised that they wrote as wide as the Mediums from four years ago. The tipping appears to be within spec for Fines, so I assume better ink flow is what caused the lusher lines.
Both pens draw from the same DNA pool even though the Al Star is clearly the more upscale option. While the Safari is molded from ABS plastic, the Al Star is machined aluminum with an anodized finish. The Safari is slightly slimmer though you won’t notice that until both models are side by side. The Al Star’s section edges feel less sharp than the Safari’s, and despite being made from metal, the Al Star isn’t that much heavier than its resin predecessor.
The section flats are what make the Safari/Al Star a rather painful experience for a beginner. Even more experienced hands can sometimes disagree with how the pen wants to be held. While I wrestled with this shape in my early days of learning, it now felt logical if not familiar.
One of the pen’s strong points is its inexpensive and easily interchangeable nib. Naturally, nibs at this price point are mass-produced and aren’t perfect. Slits are typically off-center but if the tines mate properly, the pen will be smooth enough for government work. I purchased a pair of black EF points, as well as a 1.1mm italic. All wrote well, with none ever feeling dry or rough. Because these are daily writers, I left the EFs mounted and soldiered on.
These Lamys aren’t the prettiest pens I have, but that’s okay. All of the pens I kept after five years in this hobby have a profound story, and I’d hate to lose any of these cherished memories. It is certainly refreshing to have simpler tools on hand – sterile things that work uncomplainingly well and are easily replaced should they fall to absentmindedness or misfortune.
One of my best writers is a gray striped 1939 Vacumatic Long Major. It was Enabler’s birthday gift to me some three years ago, and sports a rare factory stub. Trouble was that it busted its diaphragm annually, often at the worst possible time. I really didn’t want to deal with sacs and such anymore, and decided a custom pen built around the Parker’s nib might cure my pains.
Many pen friends loved and owned Shawn Newton’s work, so he was the only craftsman I looked up. Going through Newton’s site, I saw that he makes anything a reasonable customer could want. After measuring dimensions of the pens I tended to use most often, I had a clear idea of what I wanted him to build.
I asked for an eyedroppered Shinobi in slim size, long length, with a subtly pinched grip section. For the acrylics, I chose a translucent amber tortoise for cap and body, paired with an opaque wine red swirl for the section. As we finalized details, I decided to have a second section made for a Platinum Century EF nib and feed. The nibs were mailed to Arkansas, and the wait began.
Four months later, Shawn sent me pics of the pen taking shape. Within a day, it was completed and not long after, began its trans-Pacific voyage home.
Shawn warned me that my stub had a minor tine alignment issue, so the first order of business after unboxing was to pull the nib and balance the tines. Fifteen minutes with a loupe and a gentle touch proved adequate. I inked the pen with Sailor Rikyu-Cha and let the rubber meet the road.
I had forgotten how wet this nib is! Rikyu-Cha usually dries to a bronzed tone of brown but in this pen, it went down like dark chocolate and stayed that way. Califolio’s blues are typically subdued so I tried Botany Bay next. Again, the ink dried darker than usual. I decided to go with my current fave, KWZ Gummiberry, and was met with lines as dark as Diamine Eclipse. More my speed.
Handling is excellent. I worried that the step in the barrel might prove discomforting in use. It does not meet the web of my hand so I don’t feel it while writing. The section welcomed my grip like an old pair of loafers and overall balance (with a full tank of gas) was just perfect for me.
Enabler has a different grip and found the pen just a bit too slim. She loved the material choices though, and thought it similar to the translucent copper Shinobi that peaceablewriter holds and favors. With no small dose of chutzpah, I disagreed and said this was better. As that old Marine Corps mantra goes, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this is mine.”
Most of my early pens were modern Pelikans. I had a trio of M205s, saved up for an M600 and even adopted an M1005 Demonstrator for a spell. Yet none of them stayed for very long. While they all wrote smoothly enough, they had no trace of passion, and so to new homes each one went.
In the years that followed, I kept track of Pelikan’s annual launch of special releases. The 101N’s in green, red and lizard looked period correct. The M800 brown tortoise was so very well received. (Ok, devoured would be a better term.) This year’s M1000 Sunrise Raden sent pendom scrambling for their credit cards . These short runs all cast dapper shadows, but none goaded me into placing an order.
The 120 reissue was a different story. I liked its simple lines and its size was just right for my tastes. What I couldn’t wrap my head around was the asking price. It was cheaper than a 400, but a lot more expensive than a similarly trimmed M200 green marble. Adding to woe, it wore a humble steel nib. Good as that tip could be, it wasn’t worth a pair of Platinum Centurys in cost.
One afternoon, I saw Enabler playing with some new loot from the local B&M. One of these just happened to be the M120 Black Green reissue. Feeling a bit impish, I nicked it from beneath her nose while she was chatting with her crew, and withdrew to a quiet corner to play with the pen.
Fit? Perfect! Aesthetics? Exactly what I prefer. Nib? Well…not bad, but could be better. I found a monotone Fine from a 101N reissue lying around and swapped it into the pen.
Unposted, its shorter than an M400 but still usable. I’ve not posted a pen in two years and I wasn’t about to change my habits now. Luckily, there is enough barrel for my Ewok hands to cradle, so filling the pen was the only task left to accomplish.
I inked it with Waterman Mysterious Blue, more as a test than anything else. Lines were as wide as I will tolerate on a Western Fine which made for a good start. After a week, I cleaned the Pelikan and loaded it with KWZ Iron Gall Green #4. I don’t typically like green inks but this one grew on me right quick. Besides, the lines turn black after some time so if the novelty wears thin, I won’t suffer irritation for long.
As a stalwart in Pelikan’s student pen line, the section is bare of any metal trim rings. Some might prefer a more sartorial treatment on a pen that retails for about two Benjamins. But given my current addiction to KWZ iron gall, the naked section leaves no plating to flake off or corrode. Think of it as an open cab G Wagon instead of a Range Rover Autobiography, and your expectations will be met.
It may not look like much, but this is the only Hannover bird that I’ve actually made off with without remorse. I’m glad Enabler didn’t mind me rocking the nest.
As a noob, Waterman Blue Black was something I waited over a year to get. However, my excitement went poof when scribbles turned from blue to teal. I wanted an ink that dried dark blue or black, not green. Houston (or in this case, Manila) we had a problem.
Google revealed that a true blue black needs nature to strut its mojo. The oxides in a colorless base fluid darken with exposure. Chemists add a blue dye to allow the writer to see exactly what he or she is penning before the magic happens. As air and light caress the page, the ink turns black as a moonless winter. This is the stuff that countless poets, philosophers, bookkeepers and monarchs used before self-fillers came of age.
The permanence comes at great cost. Iron galls are cruel to less noble metals. Even the hardy stainless manga nibs from Nikko or Zebra burn at both ends. Quickly. In their purest form, iron gall inks are bad juju for fountain pens.
Less concentrated versions are more congenial. Montblanc’s discontinued Midnight, and Diamine Registrar’s work up to a point. Nibs stall if I even pause to think about my next phrase, but their biggest failing is that they feel dry. Like fingernails scratching pavement. Not fun, so I gave up on IGs altogether.
Enter the Polish ink KWZ, named after its chemist-owner Konrad Żurawski. Their iron gall formulation is advertised as safe to use in fountain pens. More exciting is that they offer colors in green, mandarin and something called Gummiberry. I was intrigued to the point that when Enabler asked me if I wanted anything from Vanness Pens, I smiled and exclaimed, “Gummiberry!!!”
My test drive involved a 14k needlepoint. If the ink would choke, it would do so in an XXXF. Surprisingly, the ink flowed like bootleg rye in a backroom speakeasy. The color bore a charming resemblance to the old Poussiere de Lune. After several minutes, it darkened to a black with barely discernable purplish undertones. Its most remarkable feat was that the tip actually had LOTS of glide. No iron gall ink I’ve used has ever felt this way.
I then gassed up a few more pens with wider nibs. The color was more assertive, taking a longer spell to change clothes. Even when I didn’t write with the pens for days, the nibs started immediately.
I emailed KWZ to share my glee and ask about their own experiences. They responded quickly and said they use their IGs in Preppies, Plumixes, and TWSBIs all the time. No stainless nibs suffer so long as the pens are used regularly. They also told me that their oldest bottles remain stable at the 4-year mark. Encouraging news and enough to recommend the brand to other ink fiends.
Gall can be a bitter pill, but this one is oh so sweet. If you want to try a bottle, then fall in line as Konrad & Agnieska Żurawski fill their dealer’s orders.
You will pardon me though, if I choose to jump the queue.
(KWZ inks are available online from Vanness Pens in Arkansas, and from PenGrafik here in Manila.)
Addendum 5 August 2016
I’ve left a couple of pens inked but unused for a few weeks. Nibs started immediately but the ink color was closer to black. It seems the ink on the feed oxidized over time but once it sucked in stuff from the tank, the bright cheerful gummiberry tone returned. I remain impressed by how Konrad formulated this product.
These two share one name and not much else. One looks genteel and refined. The other is dark and edgy, a certified bad boy in designer Goth.
The respectable member of the brood is the Ogiva. Its torpedo silhouette is a 1927 design, launched at a time when Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and the Gershwins were all the rage. Style was a non-negotiable commodity and the Ogiva never had to plead for anyone’s sympathies. Over decades, not once did it lose its sense of élan and OMAS have made it available in various sizes and materials, keeping it tasteful and attractive regardless of what fashions prevailed.
OMAS draped this particular pen in a wonderful celluloid material called Saft Green. Granting a slight nod to modern tastes, rose gold was chosen for this Ogiva’s decor. The pink hues cast a warm and more welcoming look compared to the rather vibrant moods of yellow gold. While the rose gold rage will fade soon enough, this treatment, like a pair of bespoke Balmorals, will survive the ebb and flow of fads.
The nib is an Extra Fine Extra Flessible which I think is the best width from among Omas’s soft nibs. I’ve handled their Fine Extra Flessible before and while it had spring in it step, its line variation was more modest than a Catholic school dress code. The EF on the other hand is capable of a bit more flair but not along the lines of a vintage semi-flex. Snapback is good and thankfully, the feed never struggles to match the whims of the nib. (If you know box-stock Italian pens, this is nothing short of miraculous.)
Then we have the offspring from a totally different era. This one doesn’t swing to bebop but bangs to the likes of LL Cool J, the Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The 360 came about in 1996, in the middle of a decade committed to insane (read: tacky) opulence and a worldwide obsession with technology and the Internet. Not exactly an ideal period for writing instruments, let alone new designs. But OMAS boldly took up the cause that the Triad Pen Company unsuccessfully championed in the 1930s and introduced a pen with a triangular cross-section.
Of course, the immediate question is, “Why?” Round and even faceted shapes worked so well for so many hands. What did a triangular shape bring to an admittedly cramped table? A few years ago, I would have said, “Nothing.” But a pen friend I respect tremendously told me that the 360 is the most ergonomic pen she had ever used. Now she has an impressive collection of really nice pens and doesn’t impress easily. At all. So her unusually high praise is what I considered a clue. Of course, she was right. The 360 shape doesn’t look like it’ll work but if your grip is close to what the schoolmarms insisted on, it’ll fit you like a pair of well-worn Luchesses.
This model is wrought from cotton resin, which thankfully makes it a little more accessible than its older sibling. It is not close to being as rich or warm as celluloid, but OMAS cleverly make up for this by etching an intricate diamond weave pattern into both barrel and cap. Ruthenium is wisely employed to trim this pen and the overall effect is dark without being flat. The resin retains some transparency and if you hold the pen to the light, you see not just the ink sloshing about but also a slight aubergine hue lurking beneath the material. It is an über cool nuance and one of the small details that set OMAS apart from many other makers.
The nib is a standard firm Fine. Well, firm isn’t completely accurate. It has a very (and I mean very) slight bit of give, which feels pleasant on paper. It also possesses a hint of feedback. Some may not like this but this is exactly how I prefer my fine nibs to behave. Flow is dry-ish but not arid, and gives some interesting variation to its cross-strokes. Compared to the Arte Italiana Noir that I wrote about recently, this one gave me no trouble at all.
So there you have the tale of two brothers. One struts about in Battistoni threads. The other dons Zilli leather before mounting a Ducati. It’s hard to choose between these two but luckily, I don’t have to.
(The Vintage LE Paragon in Arco celluloid makes its guest appearance courtesy of Leigh.)