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 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.

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.




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.