Keeping it clean

A lot of quirky pens usually calm down after a proper cleaning. I have revived my own fair share of sluggish writers and here are some things I learned:

Some are gentler than others.

Know your inks – Pigment inks from Platinum and Sailor withstand a deluge better than a Patagonia parka, but they can throw a wrench into the works if you don’t flush often enough. Leave them (or any ink for that matter) to cake in the feed and you can kiss your weekend goodbye. I have not used Noodler’s Bay State Blue but I have seen it disfigure the feeds and sections on my friends’ Lamys and Pilots. If you’re ink is particular about who it plays with, you best know beforehand.

Shifting gears between acidic and alkaline inks can also cause flow issues if your feed is not clean between fills. Flush every week (or every other converter/cartridge/tank full) and you should be golden. Go for a more thorough soak every couple of months, and you need not worry about losing your Saturday nights.

Patience and a light touch will save you grief and cash – Dismantling the pen makes it easier to get the job done but be careful in taking your pens apart. If you use force, you might be scouring eBay for a parts pen sooner than you think. Water is your friend. Soak the pen for a few days and see if things start to yield to a gentle turn. If not, you can escalate to an ammonia solution or a commercial pen cleaner like Speedball, Bombay, Rapido Eze or Platinum. Let the stuff do its work. Wait for the turning point. It will come.

These don't look like much but they work wonders for maintenance.

Converters suck at flushing pens – A nasal aspirator works a lot better and usually takes just a minute or two to drive all the gunk out of your pen’s innards. For cleaning converters, I use a syringe and needle to flush the ink chamber. This also works for Pelikan barrels once you have the nib out.

An ultrasonic cleaner is heaven-sent until you find out the hard way – These small machines can be had for cheap. However, some things should not be sonicated. Inlaid nibs are usually glued onto the section. An ultrasonic can release this bond and give you a world of pain. Parker 61s can lose their signets for the same reason. Some vintage materials like celluloid or ebonite may discolor or haze in the bath so ask around if your pen is safe for dunking.

The key is to use these sparingly and gently.

Some modern plastics may lose a bit of luster after a trip to the 40-kHz spa. Be prepared to give them a gentle (and I mean gentle) polish afterwards. You also want to make sure that the water stays cool. If it feels warm to the touch, replace the water before cleaning more pens. If you know their limits, ultrasonics make quick work out of some really tough jobs. I love them for reviving demonstrators and purging dried ink from feeds and nibs.

One more cycle should clear the faintly stained section. And yes, TWSBI wrenches work on Pelikans too.

Rinse and repeat – If one cleaning doesn’t do the trick, go for another one. I’ve had ornery pens that spent a few weeks in pen solution soaks and ultrasonic rinses before they breathed easy.

When in doubt, do your homework. The various pen boards and blogs have a wealth of information. Nibmeisters and pen repair people are an email away. The local pen posse is often a great resource if you can reach out to them. That’s how I found the FPN-P crew and as such, my spiral into the abyss began.


The forgotten President

The clear favorite is sometimes less obvious.

Platinum’s flagship can’t seem to get enough respect. Meanwhile, Mont Blanc sells 149s faster than they can make them. Parker faithful still devoutly venerate the Duofold and Vacumatic. Sailor’s 1911 easily finds harbor in many shores outside Japan, while Pilot’s Custom 742 and 743 ranges enjoy grail status with pen people from all walks.

They may look alike but Big Brother is not just another pretty black pen. (Top to bottom: #3776 No. 1, #3776 Higo Zogan, President)

Yet, while the President is owed the throne, it is the #3776 that the masses and classes hail. This sentence is tragic as the President is not vestigial in any way, having earned its birthright through time and serious thought.

Some months ago, I had the good fortune to chat with Toshiya Nakata (the current CEO of both Platinum and Nakaya, and grandson of Platinum founder Shunichi Nakata.) Among the things he talked about excitedly was the President and its design origins.

Those stripes were earned the hard way.

Over the years, their company observed that many customers choose the wrong nibs for their writing pressure. Typically, these clients opt for something too fine. Even the best tines are inevitably stressed and increasingly scratchy writing feel ensues. Nakata also mentioned that there are Western writing strokes which do not exist in oriental styles. Since their nibs are cut primarily for Asian penmanship, some Western users may find the Platinum tips scratchy during certain upstrokes.

The chevronned nib looks more stately than the carefree 18k #3776.

In response, Platinum folks designed a nib that would better resist this punishment. It had to be firm and smooth, and based on my own time with the President, it is exactly that. While the #3776 nibs tend to hum, this one floats like a Geisha. Mine wears a stubbish Broad with wettish flow. The downstroke is about 0.6mm wide while the cross-strokes are about half that. (It’s making the trek to Peachtree City and I hope Mike It Work can coax a bit more variation out of it.)

The President’s trim is decidedly Deco. The stepped clip and the chevronned  duo-tone nib were plucked straight from the années folles. Like a pair of cuff links peeking from beneath a sober suit’s sleeves, the clever application of trim rings on section, barrel and cap, give the pen enough panache to hint at its storied pedigree. And if basic black seems a tad pedestrian, other choices like yellow, burgundy and even uroko-mon maki-e are available.

Which one do you prefer to ride the river with?
(Top to bottom: Pilot 742, Sailor 1911 Large Demonstrator, President)

Ergonomics are excellent. It feels as light as a Pilot Custom 742 and fills the hand better than a Sailor 1911 Large even though they are all about the same size. The section is an equal opportunity player, and friends with various hand sizes quickly found comfortable holds when they test drove the pen. Its neutral balance lends it the agility of Gondolin steel (minus the turning blue when orcs are about) and I reach for this Platinum first  for any extended writing tasks.

Many others look like the President, but it is unimpeachably its own man.

Slipping down Fuji’s slope

One ring to rule them all. (Almost.)

Platinum of Japan makes good pens. Very good pens, I think.

While the cigar shape they favor is hardly original, their pens just work. I mean straight out of the box. Each time, every time. And like the Japanese, they will keep working until granted leave to expire. Which isn’t very often.

What’s your flava?
(Top to Bottom: Black Soft Fine, Black Ringed Celluloid Medium, Koi Celluloid Music, Higo Zogan Gingko reissue Fine)

Within this shop’s stable, it is the #3776 that is perhaps best known. Named after the metric height of Mount Fuji, its DNA is imprinted across various guises to suit every need or whim. Black yeoman versions with springy steel nibs serve students well. Glossy celluloids in striking hues  couple vintage flair with modern-day reliability. Burled European briar and bright Japanese cedar flavors cast an impressive shadow, while a ribbed variant renders tribute to the original 1978 release of this keystone model.

This is how the Japanese do bling. (Photos taken from Engeika/Wancher)

Higher up the food chain are intricate works that stir your loins faster than Barry White. Maki-e artisans use the pen as a canvas for their centuries-old craft. Charcoal ink or sumi is used to capture the Water Dragon’s dance. Shell inlays, known as raden, place the stars of night in one’s hand. Nature’s wonders and even deities are enshrined in shimmering gold dust mosaics. No photograph captures the complete splendor of these masterpieces and only by actual touch and sight can their majesty be relished.

(Top) Ebonite feed on the left. Plastic on the right.
(Bottom) The more ornate 18k Medium is from a 90s vintage pen. The other is a recent production 14k Soft Fine that just plain rocks!
Zogan wears a firm Fine and a wasp-waisted section.
The brighter Koi sports a lush Music nib.

The nibs are impeccably wrought. They come in a wide array of sizes – from Ultra Extra Fines that shame a needle’s point to Music nibs wide enough to merit a zip code. (The Soft Fine is a real treat, by the way.) Ebonite feeds were standard until the early 90s but whether the nib rides on plastic or vulcanite rubber, the factory flow is Goldilocks perfect. Not too wet and not too dry but just enough to let the tipping glide on the page.

When this model was launched in 1978, Platinum declared it to be the perfect writer in terms of balance, size and writing feel. Time has yet to refute this bold claim. Personally, I like these pens a lot and I have two that see heavy use. My fave #3776s? A black ringed celluloid in Medium and a Higo Zogan reissue in Fine.

I still have room in the pouch for one more. Should I add a Century to the pile?

(Thanks to Leigh for lending her Koi and Black No. 1 for the photos.)

Scribbles and training wheels

It isn’t hard to run low on this stuff.

Many think fountain pens to be magical artifacts – wield them and your penmanship  transforms from chicken-scratch to calligraphy. Well, it doesn’t quite happen that way.

Practice (or rather perfect practice) is what makes things happen. You need to put in the time and resources, which  means costs.  Ink and paper quickly add up as you try to revive the Palmer script from your student days. If you find that your Starbucks budget is being cramped by your Rhodia and Iroshizuku bills, you might want to try pencils as a cure to your ills.

Pencil strokes show line variation depending on pressure applied. Like a nib, a pencil point will tell you when you are bearing down too hard and when you need to turn things up a notch. Graphite does not feather so even on the cheapest fodder, you won’t be shoveling uphill.

Not convinced? My pen friend Fozzy is a professional calligrapher and in the classes she teaches, her students use a No. 2 pencil to learn all about grip and writing pressure. In fact, it was in her class that I had this light bulb moment.

The bigger challenge is finding a pencil that feels more like a pen. I find lightweight pencils tiring to use and the thinner ones cause me to grip the barrel too tightly. Luckily, there are some options available for not much money.

It isn’t from Janesville, but it isn’t bad at all.

The Parker IM has a chunky shape that feels good to most. Lacquer over brass construction gives it enough weight to make its fine lead glide on paper. As a bonus, the 0.5mm refill size has the most hardness grades to choose from.

Discontinued does not mean obsolete.

The Parker Insignia Cisele is a discontinued model but I was able to get one at a recent sale. It’s a little slim but the sterling silver gives it pleasant heft and the cross-hatched surface feels good in use. The tip retracts so you don’t have to worry about boring a hole in your shirt pocket. Like the IM it takes 0.5 mms and if you can find one, the Insignia is a decent choice.

The Ecologic makes everything else look inadequate.

Cretacolor’s Ecologic looks plain but if Mick Dundee were to whip out a pencil, this would be it. The grip section feels as comfy as your favored pair of mocs and this leadholder balances better than some top shelf pens that I have handled. The 5.6 mm leads are not the cheapest in town but they are far from unreasonable. Getting a sharpener (or lead pointer) isn’t easy but if you’re handy with sandpaper, you can get by. The best part? An entry level Ecologic costs less than two Venti Soy Chai Tea Lattes.

Staedler’s 925 is a drafting pencil that is probably better engineered than your daddy’s first car.  German its make may be but Japanese hands built this thing and the machining is as good as it gets. You even get a view port so you know what graphite grade you shoved into its guts. The 2 mm refills are not hard to find and this size stands up to my clumsy mitts better than anything in the 0.5 mm or 0.7 mm range.

A bit of time spent with lead and some cheap paper may eventually crack the penmanship code for us without breaking the bank. It is no  accident that we first learned to write using pencils. It’s those damned biros that threw wrenches into the works.