A plea for B&Ms

These days, we are spoiled for choice and convenience. A couple of mouse clicks and a piece of plastic are all you need to have your goodies and grails delivered to your door.

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The online world offers plenty of choices and 24/7 shopping.

Names like Goulet, Chatterly, Binder and Mottishaw (and many others) built their enterprises on the vast frontier of the Web, and have done well. They have revived interest in writing instruments, and have brought fresh young recruits into this geeky hoarde.

Their success has also built swift bridges between small makers and a diverse global market. Brands like Bexley, Edison, Nakaya and Danitrio found devoted followings in areas outside their countries of origin, thanks to strong online channels.  But where one star rises, another wanes. This long tail has exacted a toll on what was once the lifeblood of pen companies – B&Ms.

Personally, this should worry us a bit. Pens after all are very personal articles. Blogs, forums and online vendors have tons of reviews of models from most every maker still standing. Yet nothing beats sight and feel. Holding the pen in your hands tells you clearly if the pen will dance, shake or stumble. And it is pen shops that allow us to do just that before we fork over our cash.

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When the buying stops, the bricks come down.

Pen shops (in my area at least) are also the biggest supporters of local pen clubs. They listen to our recommendations and base many of their imports on our suggestions. They train their staff to make the purchasing experience a pleasant if not educational one. (If this sounds elementary, I can tell you that dip testing was not customary three years ago.) They handle warranty claims with genuine care, and badger the factory to insure that our stuff gets sorted out promptly.

They may or may not be present at the pen meets but they never fail to donate a prize (or three) to the club anniversary and Christmas gatherings. I have yet to hear them pitch a hard sell or lament that their inventory was moving slower than expected.

Taxes, licenses, payroll and rent do not make their uphill climb any easier but rather than tremble, they forge ahead. In fact, one brave shop is putting up another branch to bring their merch closer to curious crowds and pen fans in the rough. When you do the math, you quickly realize that all these labors exceed their monetary gains.

We don’t need to surrender our online chase but perhaps this year is a chance to help the stores find even a bit of respite. Buy local if the choice isn’t terribly painful. It may cost a few bucks more but it will do the hobby a world of good.

Of the twelve flasks of ink that we score each year, maybe three or four can come from the local store. If we wanted to gift a friend with a gateway pen, the neighborhood Brick & Mortar might have just the thing on sale. The damascened piston filler on display may be a tad rich for your blood but a few spare stubs for that trusty Taiwanese demonstrator won’t land anyone in the dog house. Plus your hand gets to know if italics are a good idea before you dispatch your precious Owner’s Club for a regrind.

These small bits add up and that’s the point. The community stays alive not because of epic productions, but by the steady modest patronage of every ink-stained hand in this addictive pursuit.

So pay your local pen store a visit. They’ve been waiting for you.

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Culling the herd

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They followed me home. Honest!

We all go through “The Binge.”

From the time you lay hands on your first pen, it takes but weeks to get to 60, with yet another mixed lot coming in the mail. Soon, you have scores of pens you didn’t really want or need. Buyer’s remorse sets in and domestic peace enters a fragile state.

How do you get out of the rut?

Listen to your hands. What sounded so perfect on the forums may be the wrong fit for you. Lamy 200os, Parker 51s and Sheaffer Triumphs do not lack for champions but many soon find that they can’t agree with conical or hooded nibs. Not yet, or not ever even.

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These small pens are as intricate as the jewelry of the time. They write as well as any of their big brethren but will your hand like them?

If the pen is too big or too small, your hands will not appreciate using the pen for long. Pens that are too heavy or too light may have the same effect. Your grip will settle down in time, but fighting an ill-fitting pen early in the game is something you want to avoid.

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The Edison Huron Grande in the middle lives up to its name. It may do for signatures but few can use it for note taking. The amber TWSBI or the ringed Platinum might fare better for such uses.

Hint: Which pens do you reach for first on a daily basis? Your hands might be telling you something.

Look at your writing. If your scripts are on the smallish side, a lush Broad will make your scribbles look like a Rorschach blob.  The paper at work also tells you what nib sizes you can employ. Cheap fodder favors finer nibs with drier flow. If you are lucky to have decent paper between 9 to 5, then you have more options. But let your usual writing size guide your nib selection.

Consider your writing pressure too. Needlepoints require a light touch. Flex nibs will suffer pressure one way but not another.  If your hand is too heavy for the nib, worn tips and even sprung tines await. Your hand will evolve as you get comfortable with your scripts. By then, you will get a firmer idea of which nibs suit your daily use and which are best used for special writing needs like holiday cards and letters.

Dress smartly.  A person working in a tech or creative environment can get away with Fuyu Gaki sloshing about in a big clear demonstrator. Someone in a law practice, bank or a government office  might want a more sober pen filled with a less eye-searing ink. It need not be boring and it should never be. Look at your hoard with a critical eye and you should find a couple of acquisitions that will be up to the task.

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They share a lot in terms of looks. But the Chartres Blue (bottom) is built so much better than the Waterman Kultur. If you had to choose just one, which would you keep?

Go for quality. A lot of folks use student pens for their daily rotation and leave their better pens at home. Nothing wrong with that. But if those upscale writers see no use at all, then they serve very little purpose. Be careful with your stuff but don’t be afraid to call on them as daily writers. Good pens are built to last and they will keep ticking long after you keel over. Don’t hesitate to charge into the breach with your best pens in hand.

Set a target. And stick to it. This is the hardest thing to do and quotas are as varied as pen people themselves. I have friends who are trying to get to 40 pens from 300. Others are working to trim their flock from 20 to 10. If you draw with pens, your flock may be larger than someone who just needs something to sign checks with.

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An artist’s pen wrap holds all the nibs she could need for the day – flex, music, sharp italic and a round nib for daily writing.

In my case, my limit of 12 gives me a variety of nibs to use for whatever writing need that comes with my job and interests. If I have never breached this limit (yet, fingers crossed) it is because I tend to rehome whatever is redundant.

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One man’s covey of modern pens. Each pen was chosen to fill a need and whim.

If there is something you want to acquire or if you are gifted a nice pen that fills a useful role, you may want to try releasing as quickly as you catch. If you keep this cycle manageable, domestic bliss will never suffer.

Birthday Pen 2013

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Parker Vacumatics are undeniably popular pens. Collectors prowl flea markets, pen boards and eBay hoping to score uncommon variants.  Like this one.

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The Long Major size is not so easily found. They do turn up but you have to look around a bit. Silver pearl is not a rare color, but finding one with clean white trim is another matter as the nickel bits, once tarnished, are almost impossible to restore.

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(Top) The Blue Diamond marks a lifetime guarantee from Parker.
(Bottom) Self-colored jewels were typical of the higher line models of the series.

This one saw light in the second quarter of 1939. For a 74-year old pen, it is in great shape. The celluloid remains glossy and its transparency is excellent for its age. This striped splendor makes it easy to understand why these celluloid marvels become obsessions for collectors worldwide.

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Those ambered stripes must have turned heads in 1939.

Its genteel appearance hides a secret –  a two-toned factory stub. Most Vacs came in Fine. Stubs accounted for less than one per hundred Vacumatics made, giving this one added cachet. It has some bite to it and is particular about how it is held to the page. Once its sweet spot is learned though, it’ll shake its moneymaker all night long.

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The two-tone look is starting to fade but that tip is sharper than ever.

I am told Mike Masuyama tweaked the flow on this one, so it does not suffer the dryness common to Vacs. It is a slick writer which I can still use for meeting notes without consuming a small forest’s worth of paper.
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They were right about the Long part.

What truly bestows immeasurable value on this pen is its provenance: it was a birthday gift from my best-est friend. When your significant other is also your Number 1 enabler, epic surprises like this make you weak-kneed and sentimental.

Thanks, Leigh!

A Century in blue

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I first saw the Chartres Blue Century behind Aesthetic Bay glass, parked beside its Bourgogne sibling. In free air, it looks better than I remember.  The first 2,000 pieces come with a numbered blotter and a rubber stamp in addition to the requisite converter and starter cartridge. As if to highlight the new Slip & Seal system, the included ink cart is Pigment Blue rather than the usual Black.

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A lucky number might make this a lucky pen.

Platinum heralds the Century as an evolution in its revered #3776 series. It looks no different from its ascendants whilst capped, and reveals its distinctions only when it hangs its hat.

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The modest step in the Century’s barrel betrays its slightly increased girth. It makes the pen more comfortable in the hand compared to its predecessor.

The barrel now has a slight flare near the threads, creating a step where there once was none. Trim ring has been moved aft of the section. The gold bits wear a lighter tone which agrees with the deep blue acrylic employed by the maker.

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Two bands and a block font now adorn the Century’s cap. Some might miss the old school script on the older pens.

I have not made the pilgrimage to Chartres so I cannot say if the hue accurately mimics that of the cathedral’s stained glass. It is a striking blue however, with enough pop to be different but not distracting.

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(Left) The Century’s nib wears a lighter tone.
(Right) The new feed shows sharper edges and closer spacing between fins.

The nib ornamentation remains all business without being bland. The feed is a new design and I hear the nib is a fresh pattern too. A test drive would reveal if these were true enhancements. A bottle of Pigment Blue provided the fuel while Midori and Kokuyo formed the track where rubber could finally meet asphalt.

Feedback is noticably reduced on this iteration. What typically hummed now whispers. None of the #3776 Fines I owned or tried felt like this and I mean that in a good way. Flow is wetter too. Not Sailor wet, but not far from it either.

The old #3776 is a race-tuned roadster. You feel every nuance of the page through the nib. This one is more Grand Touring in execution. You sense enough of what’s going on but you remain cosseted throughout the ride. I like it.

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It may demand more frequent baths but I (heart) this ink.

(The pen has been filled only with Platinum Pigment Blue since it was unboxed. I noticed a bit of sluggishness after its second fill. Flushing the feed and nib with water restored its flow. Keep this in mind if you want to try inks like Carbon Black or Pigment Blue.)

It is a sincere Japanese Fine. My 90s Celluloid Medium writes a stingy line between EF to F while my ’09 Zogan Fine renders plump strokes closer to Medium. This one is dead on.

It feels more mature, like a skinny #3776 No.1 that filled out enough for a suit to get a proper drape. That suit may still be more H&M than bespoke but the Century wears it with enough chutzpah to charm.

The pen has not been idle since I got it. It has been used for mundane office chores, serious writing work and frequent doodling between meetings. I sense it will be quite a while before I find out if the Slip & Seal really works.

Related links:

  • Margana over at Inkophile did a great comparo between a Chartres Blue in Broad and a #3776 Music. You can find her post here
  • Great Gear, a TV show on Japan’s NHK, also did a short feature on the Century here