When imitation issues a challenge

Midori’s Traveler Notebook is an iconic piece of kit. Pen geeks, paper fiends, leatherheads, journaling fans and stationery junkies all seem to have at least one of these elegantly simple notebook covers. I’ve owned a few of them myself but despite their overwhelming popularity, I think they have some serious shortcomings.

That tiny little knot can be a huge pain

The back cover has a hole where the knotted elastic keeper slips through. This isn’t a distraction if one has two or three notebooks installed but if you’re the type to use just one book, you may quickly feel that knot jarring your writing rhythm. Like the Princess and the Pea, some might be more sensitive to this than others. I am, and it has bugged me with every Midori TN I’ve owned.

Yes, there are times when we need to reinvent the wheel.

Then we have the lead crimp that affixes the elastics to the inner spine of the cover. Circular in shape, it feels like a speed bump along a road that I had expected to be smooth and cosseting. It sounds like splitting hairs but because I use the notebook on improvised writing surfaces, the crimp unsettles me a fair bit.

The Midori leather seems a little synthetic. Look at how the rough side seems to have a weave to it. The grain on the finish side seems to have been machine made.

Lastly, there’s the skin itself. Every Midori Traveler I’ve seen strikes a dashing pose.  But the feel of the hide is a bit of a disconnect. The cover is made in Thailand for Midori so I don’t quite know what exact leather they use, or how it’s tanned. What I do know is that the surface feels a bit tacky. Using saddle soap to smoothen the hide strips whatever topcoat exists. Once that layer is washed away, the leather looks and feels rougher to the touch. Not even mink or neatsfoot oil helps much and it doesn’t take a lot of conditioner to render the leather floppy. That the Midori costs a fair bit of coin aggravates the tragedy.

I am not alone in making these observations. There is a burgeoning community of craftsmen worldwide offering their take on a better mousetrap, commonly called fauxdoris. Superior hides, repositioned holes and additional elastics all aim to fix the perceived shortcomings of the beloved Japanese notebook. In truth, I’ve settled on a fauxdori cut from Hermann Oak veg tan leather by a Hongkong artisan. It’s better built than the original TN in so many ways, and costs less to boot.

Natural Hermann Oak veg tan leather. It smells and feels a lot better than what Midori uses.

The popularity of fauxdoris isn’t flattery at all but a challenge to Midori to listen to the market and step up their game. Japan’s reputation for craft is legend and I’m certain Midori can draw from this heritage to offer an unchallenged product.

New Midori Camel on the left. Year-old Hermann Oak veg tan on the right, by Eternal Leather Goods Hong Kong. Better hide makes for better wear over time.
Ditching the crimp for a slim tube, and moving the keeper knot to the spine make a world of difference.

Japanese tanneries are some of the best in the world. Their unique methods create skins that are distinctive in the way they feel and mature. Offering something cut from nume or even shell cordovan is well within their skill set. Hardware can be improved to insure the ensemble lays flat when opened. The current keeper hole doesn’t bother an Oriental language user who will open the book from back to front, but simply moving the hole to the spine will give equal opportunity to fans from the West.

Will all these cost more? Without a doubt. But Midori need not discontinue or modify their existing line at all. Instead, they can introduce an upscale line to tap  a market that is less hesitant to spend extra coin for a better expression of an already elegant idea. I’m sure more than a few of this blog’s readers would go for it.

(Thanks to @leighpod for lending me the Midori Traveler in camel so I could take comparison pics.)

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One day is Fine and the next is black

Every pen geek sees his or her preferences change over time and periodically, we review our writers and ask that eternal question first posed by The Clash in 1982, “Should I stay or should I go?”

In five years of wading through this madness, I’ve passed through the typical stages of the hobby. As a newcomer, I grabbed anything with a nib. Twelve months later, I ditched everything that wasn’t German. A year after that, I turned Japanese with a bit of Italian and stayed there, quite happily, until 2016 settled in. That’s when my horde underwent a reasonably radical metamorphosis.

Here’s a peek at what the box looks like now.

Newton Shinobi Slim cozies up to a Coco Pearl Model 03 Iterum from Franklin-Christoph.
Nakaya’s Long Piccolo wears its Aka Tamenuri suit so well. The real attraction though is its Soft Fine nib.
Agile handling + Clicker action + silky EF nib = a viable Hobonichi pen
Because everyone needs a pen that’ll write from here to eternity. 

The birds flock for a group pic. The M120 is a daily driver. The M640 was an unexpected prize. The M415 is both a gift and a memento.
Wine may age better but I can’t write with a Bordeaux. Snorkel Admiral with an X2 nib. Parker “51” aerometric with a pretty wet Medium. Platinum PP-10000 in Sterling with a winged EF.

Most of these are considered small by today’s standards and only two wear a tip that is wider than Fine. All are suitable for daily driving and none will merit more than a quiet nod from an approving collector. Yet each has a story or person behind it, an encounter worth remembering. I guess this is my truest (if not criminally sentimental) measure of whatever has stayed and will stay. 

A Hobo finds its skin

I got my first Hobonichi in December 2015. The little black book quickly proved useful but its plain, sober skin was most underwhelming. I sought better clothes and Keegan Uhl of One Star Leather Goods was the first tailor a friend recommended.

Choose the hide and thread you like, wait a couple of weeks, rinse and repeat. (Photo courtesy of One Star Leather Goods.)

The Basic is his thinnest A6 cover and I opted for natural veg tan. It started out as a pinkish beige hue but my hand oils and sunlight coaxed the leather to darken progressively. After a year of regular use, the cover now wears a caramel tone.

The tan that took 525,600 minutes to achieve.

If it’ll fit the A6 Hobo, it’ll take an A6 Midori MD with room to spare. One Star can add a sewn-in bookmark to your cover, along with a few other useful options.

The Basic’s slimness comes from its pattern. A single piece is cut from thin Hermann Oak veg tan or bridle, which is then folded and stitched to create the flap pockets. The Custom on the other hand, is a three-piece design that permits a thicker Horween leather to be used for the exterior. This provides additional aesthetic possibilities, and affords a bit more cushioning.

The Custom on the left is just a little taller and wider than the Basic on the right.

It’s hard to tell from this picture, but this dark nut brown leather has some interesting grain.

This A6’s outer is cut from a Horween tannage called Dublin. It has a wonderful “pull up” or “crackle effect,” and I can’t wait to see what sort of patina it will eventually acquire. One Star normally uses bridle for inner flaps, but Keegan found some natural Dublin that was thin enough to use for this project. The results are better than I expected.

Three shades of natural from top to bottom: Chromexcel, Natural Veg Tanned, Dublin. 

Santa, can I have a pair of boots in this shade?

For the A5, I specified Horween’s natural Chromexcel. It’s an uncommon taupe-ish brown that features great pull up and a soft feel. Its natural hue promises that it will develop its own character as the years pass. Being a waxy leather like Dublin, it will not require frequent conditioning. A word of caution though: casing a Cousin in leather makes a heavy book even heavier. Both you and your knapsack will definitely feel the difference.

I could have gotten Cordura covers for these books, but nylon shakes off yesterday’s adventures with a mere shrug. Leather picks up the stains, and scuffs, and gouges that life brings. With care and time, these blemishes adorn the skin with every memorable stop on the user’s life journey. They prove that scars and blows don’t truly deface the object, but instead peel off the scales to release the soul lurking within.

 

(I have no affiliation with Hobonichi or One Star Leather Goods, except as a satisfied paying customer.)

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. 

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 everythingcalligraphy.com )

 

 

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.