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.

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.

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.

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 orange Osage (I think) but Sull also uses walnut and dyed woods. 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.

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!

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.




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



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 )



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.



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.

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.


A Karas Christmas


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.

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.


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.

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.