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.