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Revisiting an old nemesis

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.

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Neither suffered any ill effects from an iron gall diet.
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.

 

You either learn to love this shape, or banish it from long-term memory.

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.

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A bit of Scotch tape is all you need to make the switch. The nibs won’t cost you much either.
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.

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Sucking it up for science

 

Everyone else has stellar luck with their TWSBI 530s, 540s, and Ecos. For reasons known only to the Cosmos, I have not fared as well. Lions and lemons are not a typical pairing, but I somehow ended up with Mufasa’s share of a Meyer orchard. So I ditched every TWSBI I had and promised never to be lured by the Taiwanese mark again.

 

Enter KWZ’s iron gall ink. The maker told me that he uses his IG formula in a variety of stainless nibs to include (drum roll, please) TWSBIs. Now I have several Franklin-Christoph nibs in High Performance Stainless but I wasn’t about to risk them on impulse. So while killing some time at the mall, I discovered a workable formula:

 

            B&M Discount Coupon + TWSBI Vac 700 EF = Test Mule

 

The plan was to fill the pen with KWZ Gummiberry for six weeks, then resell the pen after the test and recover a chunk of my investment.

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The main players in this experiment. Will it work?
I filled the pen, not bothering to flush the guts clean of any oil or residue. The first few days validated the 700’s rep as a dry writer, but she settled in quickly. I thought the ink would stall in a nib this fine and arid, but it never did. I left the pen unused for a week, and it started the moment I wrote with it. I let it rest for another ten days, and it still wrote when asked. The ink may have had a lot to do with this, but I could not discount the contributions of the JoWo feed and nib.

 

Intrigued, I decided to place it in rotation. The 700’s handling is good. The step from barrel to section is pronounced but not uncomfortable. When the tank is filled to the brim, the balance point hovers above the web of my hand. I’ve never felt the pen to be back-heavy but then again, I don’t post.

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It’s not much bigger than some popular small pens. But it is big enough. 
When the time came to refill, I rinsed the Vac with clean water. I pulled the nib and scrubbed the feed with some toothpaste. No inky muck was found so I figured the ink was as friendly as an IG can be. After loading up, I noticed that the flow improved noticeably and lines are now closer to what I expect a Western EF to lay down.

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Everything rinsed clean. That haze on the piston is just water.

And none of the shiny bits were hurt in the making of this picture…
As the weeks passed, I kept tabs on all the shiny bits. No corrosion or pitting formed, not even on the section trim ring. The plunger shaft did not lose its polish, and I detected no precipitates or residue forming anywhere within the tank. When I terminated the test, I took the pen apart, rinsed it clean and again, found no incriminating sludge or crud. I loaded up with Herbin’s Poussiere de Lune and the Vac ticked like a Timex.

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Sailor Sapporo and Franklin-Christoph Marietta shown for size comparison. Capped, the Vac 700 doesn’t look bad at all.
I figure this 700 will stay with me for a while.

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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, 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. 

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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. 😃