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A Shinobi creeps in

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.

This was the donor pen, a birthday present from 2013.

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. 

I don’t have a balcony so the training wheels option will have to do.
Regular vs Slim. Choose what fits your mitts.

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.

The stub that started this whole project. You don’t find too many of these in the wild.
Proper factory ebonite feed is marked “W” for “WET!!!”

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.

This might be the beginning of an amber demonstrator kick.

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.

That step in the barrel is never felt. Like a true Shinobi.

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.”

And my hand rocks the nest.

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.

Plain doesn’t always mean drab.

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.

Birds love to sun, or so I’m told.

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.

Because rolling stock is boring.

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.

 

Finally found THE gall

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.

One is safe. The other will eat your nib alive.

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.

Konrad mixes every batch of ink that bears his name. I love this small batch production method.

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!!!”

Reminds me of Herbin’s older formula for Poussiere de Lune

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.

Fresh off the nib. Pelikan F on top. Masuyama needlepoint below.

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.)

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Getting a hold(er) yourself

The nib lays down ink, but the holder is what you wield. Any gear nut eventually seeks out the better mousetrap and lots of good holders are met on the road to discovery. Here are some of my own souvenirs.

The first oblique holders I ever used are from Paper & Ink Arts, the online mecca for all things calligraphy. I bought a pencil staff Bullock adjustable, and Chief Enabler loaned me the more refined Hourglass adjustable for a spell. Custom pen makers like Chris Yoke have praised these as the best production holders available and I have held custom pens that do not handle as well as these PIA stalwarts. The bonus? Neither will set you back more than $50, which is a great deal for a Bullock-flanged oblique. I converted these to oblique pencils, and you can see what they look like here.

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The Curious Artisan is a Philippine maker turning holders that are second to none. This is their expression of a Zanerian design.
The Curious Artisan (TCA) makes a Zanerian oblique from richly grained cuts of Bayur wood. The classic hourglass shape with its gracefully long tail casts an undeniably seductive pose. Like the PIAs, it wears a pinned Bullock-pattern flange. TCA’s pricing is well within the custom holder range, but they are better finished than some American or Asian custom pens I’ve seen. Hard to go wrong with any of the Artisan’s holders.

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Antique Golden Mahogany lives up to its name.
The newer Bolo is TCA’s expression of an ergonomic holder. This offering is made even more special by its material. The Artisan uses a precious stash of reclaimed centuries-old Golden Mahogany for my particular variant, further bolstering its cachet.

I have yet to develop a consistent grip with it but the times that I’ve held it as it wanted, it felt like an epiphany. Folks who are forever on the go will be pleased to learn that it easily fits into a pen case as compact as a Nock Sinclair.

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Simple design hides the experience that shaped its form.
In addition to keeping American cursive penmanship alive, Michael Sull turns holders in his Kansas workshop. His prices are in the $40 to $50 range, which makes these pens easy enough to afford. The varnished finish, maker’s brand, and handmade flange give his holders a rather rustic charm. The one I got is turned from canarywood, but Sull also uses other timbers and even spectraply. It’s best to email him to ask for photos of what he currently has in stock.

My copy looks quite simple but gripping it speaks to how a Master Penman knows what a proper pen should be. I can’t explain why or how it seems to feel so…right. All I know is that it does and as I hobble along Spencerian road, it is one of two that I am likely to reach for first.

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As the Grail Knight said, “You have chosen wisely.”

Rodger Mayeda, an IAMPETH Penman from New Mexico, isn’t a high profile maker but his pens are truly top shelf. His Etsy shop, Rodger’s Pen Box, is the the only sales channel for his obliques. This cocobolo model is typical of his designs and is visibly slimmer than many of the holders out there. It does not feel intuitive until you actually read the instructions that Rodger includes with the pen. Once you grip it the way Mayeda suggests, hours of writing practice are easy to put in. Like Sull, he prices his holders democratically given the excellent woods he uses for his wares. His pens may lack flash, but they are some of the very best you will ever write with.

I could make do with less, but I will certainly not need more.
There are many skilled makers out there, each offering great pens. Pricing varies according to the materials used but you don’t have to break the bank to obtain an heirloom piece. For the price of a Lamy AL Star, you can get a well-crafted holder that even your grandchildren can learn with.

Have fun, and keep learning!

Update 6 July 2016: I took a class from a Master Penman just last week and he explained how a proper pen should be constructed. More on this in a another post but suffice to say, it is best to take a class before going wild on holders. There is a palpable difference between a pen that is almost right and spot on.

Oblique pencil, anyone?

Practicing with an oblique pointed pen isn’t always convenient. You need ample desk space for all the gear, and decent (read: pricey) paper to handle ink. Luckily, esteemed penman Dr. Joe M. Vitolo posted a helpful hack not too long ago, and I decided to give this a shot. My first experiment was eagerly expropriated by @leighpod and not long after, @dandon375 asked for the recipe. Well, here it is.

 

Ingredients:

 

 
1 oblique holder with a Bullock flange. (Vitolo recommends the Paper & Ink Arts Hourglass Adjustable Oblique. The Paper & Ink Arts straight staff Adjustable Oblique worked for me too.)

 

1 compass with a detachable pencil component. (This one takes 2mm leads.)

 

Masking tape

 

Screwdriver to match the size of the screw on the Bullock flange

 

Process:

  
Detach the pencil component from the compass. Check the fit of the component’s shank vs. the flange’s crow quill slot.

  
If the fit is loose, build up the shank using masking tape.

  
Remove the screw from the Bullock flange, and gently pry open the bottom of the flange. 

  
Brass doesn’t like to be worked too hard so lift just enough to allow the pencil shank to slide into the crow quill slot.

  
Reinstall the flange screw and tighten until snug.

  
Adjust the length of the graphite as needed. Ideally, it should mimic a properly set nib, so the tip of the lead should line up with the middle of the penstaff.

 

Once the holder is set up, I suggest dedicating it to the pencil. Regularly swapping between the pencil and nibs may cause the flange to eventually fail. The PI&A holders aren’t terribly expensive so if you want consistency, you can get two identical holders – one to take nibs and another to wear the pencil attachment.

 

Again, this idea isn’t mine. It came from the kind Dr. Vitolo. If you benefit from this hack, do the right thing and drop him a thank you email. 😃

The surprise that was Franklin-Christoph

When I first heard of Franklin-Christoph early last year, my only reaction was, “Who?” 

However, Chief Enabler raved so compellingly about this unknown (to me) maker that I decided to finally look them up on the InterWebs. My initial online experience was decidedly lukewarm. I thought their pens wore overly plain, if not monochromatic clothes, and figured they wouldn’t be landing on my wish list any time soon.

Several weeks passed and Chief Enabler surprised me with a clipless Model 20 Marietta in standard Franklin-Christoph black. It looked almost too simple and felt almost too light. Almost. Yet the more I held it, the more it seemed to meld with my hand. Its voodoo oozed from its design. Being slip capped, it needed no threads on its barrel or section. This created an impeccably uninterrupted surface along its entire length, and nothing I have written with has felt this seamless or comfortable. Ever.

  

It initially wore a prototype black Medium nib that was tuned to flow like a monsoon flood. So wet it was that I mistook it for a BB until I read its size mark. Its lines took an eternity to dry on good paper and on the cheap stuff, it wrote like a Sharpie. Fun as this was, I couldn’t use it for my daily needs.

Many months later, I scoured the F-C website to look for a suitable replacement nib and came across a lovely version of their flagship Model 02 Intrinsic. The newly minted amber orange material bestowed a seductive character on the pen. The very moment I saw its glamour shots, I was reeled in. Chief Enabler sent a few email queries to Wake Forest and after a reasonably short wait, the goodies arrived.

  

The Intrinsic looked even better in hand than it did in pics. Like most F-Cs, the threads were cut at the very tip of the section in a smooth bloc pattern, removing any risk of abrading the hand as the pen is used. The flecked Cinnamaroon acrylic finial was a subtle yet perfect complement to the warm orange resin. The steel Masuyama Medium Stub was so refined and forgiving, even someone new to italics can easily find its sweet spot.

  

Oh, and the Marietta? An Extra Fine turned it into the perfect daily driver. It writes more like a Japanese F-M but it’s still within my comfort zone for notes and journaling.

  
Both pens take International cartridges or converters but a modest sliver of silicone grease unlocks their fullest potential. With no metal bits in their guts, the Marietta and Intrinsic easily morph into eyedroppers. I have a ton of ink on tap without having to worry about piston shafts or seals. Unless I’m trying out a new ink, this is how I choose to fill my F-Cs.

Simple solutions are truly the most elegant answers to most woes, and Franklin-Christoph’s prescriptions are exactly what the doctor (or enabler) require.

(These pens were purchased directly from the maker but pen geeks in Manila can look up Franklin-Christoph’s local dealer at everythingcalligraphy.com )

 

 

A place for the multi-pen

Multi-pens are the Swiss Army Knives of writing instruments. Just as the little red slipjoints keep a bunch of useful tools on hand, multi-pens offer a selection of tips and colors in a single package. But where the Swiss rule the pocket knife world, the Japanese reign king in the realm of multi-pens.

I’ve been rotating through several models from Pilot and Uni, employing them alongside fountain pens and machined steel hulls that house gel sticks. I now feel comfortable enough to comment on these models and hope my notes will prove useful to folks who use ballpoints/rollers primarily, as well as fountain pen geeks who need a wash-and-wear tool on occasion.

Where I live, Pilot is the dominant player but their local distributor is overly conservative when it comes to offering good stuff. Only last November did they see it fit to bring in the Hi Tec C Coleto series and even then, they did not offer the full range of refill colors and pen bodies. Still, it was genuine progress for the local stationery fiends.

 

Coleto refills integrate knocks that show ink color and tip size.

I have used 3-slot bodies in both the Basic and N variants. Of the two, the N is what I prefer but either is good enough to serve as a daily writer. The pen bodies come empty, and the buyer purchases the refills separately. This gives room to set up the pen to match the writing tasks required. Priming the pen is easy. One flips the latched top of the body open, and inserts refills in each empty groove. The tabs on the top of the refill not only serve as knocks. They are also indicators of color and tip size.

I once read Brad Dowdy’s comment that while standard Hi Tec C would sometimes give him hard starts, the Coletos just soldiered on with no complaints. My experience mirrored his and even the 0.3 mm refills worked on demand each time, every time. I cannot say the same for the Hi Tecs and Maicas I have used.

I also spent time with a Frixion multi-pen in high grade trim. It was an attractive design that boasted of a metal body, wood overlay section and good heft but somehow, I could never agree with how Frixions wrote. They didn’t feel smooth on paper, and the saturation was quite lacking. Granted, this was designed as an erasable pen but certainly Pilot could try and infuse more spunk into their ink. This is one that I tried so hard to like but it just couldn’t win my heart.

 

Four colors AND a pencil. What more could you possibly need?

Moving on to Uni, I have had great success with their Jetstream and Style Fit pens. The Jetstream is a ballpoint that feels almost like a rollerball. The 4+1 model even incorporates a mechanical pencil into the body and for the average Joe and Jane, this may well be the one pen to rule them all.

Japanese planner maker Hobonichi packages a co-branded Jetstream with every Techo they sell. The body’s colorway changes every year but the writing performance of the tool is consistently good. Hobonichi is careful to curate the items they pair with their iconic journals and their confidence in Uni is not misplaced. I only wish that it wasn’t bound to the staid ink load of black, blue and red.

 
For the roll-your-own crowd, Uni thankfully makes the Style Fit series. While the competing Coleto makes use of a needlepoint refill, the Style Fit employs a conical tipped configuration offered in three sizes, with sixteen colors available per size. The 0.28 mm flavors require a light touch and a bit of a break in but once they get going, they write smoothly until they hit empty.

 

You have to squint really hard to read the tip size markers. (The blue tack on the other hand, plays photobomber.)

The Style Fit bodies integrate the knocks into the pen so they fill differently from the Coleto. One unscrews the barrel and inserts the refills into corresponding holes in the body’s upper half. The only hull I’ve used is the basic 3-slot clipless version in clear acrylic, and I feel no pressing need to upgrade. I wouldn’t carry it in a pocket but tucked into a Nock case or Hobo cover, it survives the grind well.

All isn’t perfect though in multi-penland. Coleto and Style Fit refills are petite and will run dry sooner than a regular gel stick. Each costs about a dollar a piece (or as much as a standard Hi Tec C or Signo DX) so cost-effectivity is not the multi-pen’s long suit. But if you want a fistful of possibility in your quiver, or an easy way to gain street cred with the local stationery geeks, these tools are so hard to beat.