Revisiting an old nemesis

FPN-P, the pen club I belong to, wrapped up its Fountain Pen Day celebrations a few weeks ago. Seven of the country’s foremost vendors of writing tools set up shop to present their offerings to a visibly interested public. It was great to see many young people happily walk away with a bag or two of purchases.

 

As organizers, we try to show our personal gratitude by patronising each of our generous sponsors during the show. In going about my duty, I decided to support our local Lamy distributor by purchasing two popular gateway pens: the Lamy Safari, and Al Star.


I once blogged that the Safari may be the best set of training wheels for someone new to nibs. I still believe this to be true, but wondered if the years may have altered that opinion. My first Safaris (ca. 2012) struck me as dry writers and the nibs weren’t always smooth out-of-the-box. With 2016 being the 50th anniversary of Lamy Design, I was curious to see if these current productions gained an improved build.

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Neither suffered any ill effects from an iron gall diet.
For this experiment — that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it – I chose an ubiquitous matte charcoal Safari, and a graphite Al Star. Both came with Fine nibs but I was surprised that they wrote as wide as the Mediums from four years ago. The tipping appears to be within spec for Fines, so I assume better ink flow is what caused the lusher lines.

Both pens draw from the same DNA pool even though the Al Star is clearly the more upscale option. While the Safari is molded from ABS plastic, the Al Star is machined aluminum with an anodized finish. The Safari is slightly slimmer though you won’t notice that until both models are side by side. The Al Star’s section edges feel less sharp than the Safari’s, and despite being made from metal, the Al Star isn’t that much heavier than its resin predecessor.

 

You either learn to love this shape, or banish it from long-term memory.

The section flats are what make the Safari/Al Star a rather painful experience for a beginner. Even more experienced hands can sometimes disagree with how the pen wants to be held. While I wrestled with this shape in my early days of learning, it now felt logical if not familiar.

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A bit of Scotch tape is all you need to make the switch. The nibs won’t cost you much either.
One of the pen’s strong points is its inexpensive and easily interchangeable nib. Naturally, nibs at this price point are mass-produced and aren’t perfect. Slits are typically off-center but if the tines mate properly, the pen will be smooth enough for government work. I purchased a pair of black EF points, as well as a 1.1mm italic. All wrote well, with none ever feeling dry or rough. Because these are daily writers, I left the EFs mounted and soldiered on.

 

These Lamys aren’t the prettiest pens I have, but that’s okay. All of the pens I kept after five years in this hobby have a profound story, and I’d hate to lose any of these cherished memories. It is certainly refreshing to have simpler tools on hand – sterile things that work uncomplainingly well and are easily replaced should they fall to absentmindedness or misfortune.

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Sucking it up for science

 

Everyone else has stellar luck with their TWSBI 530s, 540s, and Ecos. For reasons known only to the Cosmos, I have not fared as well. Lions and lemons are not a typical pairing, but I somehow ended up with Mufasa’s share of a Meyer orchard. So I ditched every TWSBI I had and promised never to be lured by the Taiwanese mark again.

 

Enter KWZ’s iron gall ink. The maker told me that he uses his IG formula in a variety of stainless nibs to include (drum roll, please) TWSBIs. Now I have several Franklin-Christoph nibs in High Performance Stainless but I wasn’t about to risk them on impulse. So while killing some time at the mall, I discovered a workable formula:

 

            B&M Discount Coupon + TWSBI Vac 700 EF = Test Mule

 

The plan was to fill the pen with KWZ Gummiberry for six weeks, then resell the pen after the test and recover a chunk of my investment.

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The main players in this experiment. Will it work?
I filled the pen, not bothering to flush the guts clean of any oil or residue. The first few days validated the 700’s rep as a dry writer, but she settled in quickly. I thought the ink would stall in a nib this fine and arid, but it never did. I left the pen unused for a week, and it started the moment I wrote with it. I let it rest for another ten days, and it still wrote when asked. The ink may have had a lot to do with this, but I could not discount the contributions of the JoWo feed and nib.

 

Intrigued, I decided to place it in rotation. The 700’s handling is good. The step from barrel to section is pronounced but not uncomfortable. When the tank is filled to the brim, the balance point hovers above the web of my hand. I’ve never felt the pen to be back-heavy but then again, I don’t post.

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It’s not much bigger than some popular small pens. But it is big enough. 
When the time came to refill, I rinsed the Vac with clean water. I pulled the nib and scrubbed the feed with some toothpaste. No inky muck was found so I figured the ink was as friendly as an IG can be. After loading up, I noticed that the flow improved noticeably and lines are now closer to what I expect a Western EF to lay down.

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Everything rinsed clean. That haze on the piston is just water.

And none of the shiny bits were hurt in the making of this picture…
As the weeks passed, I kept tabs on all the shiny bits. No corrosion or pitting formed, not even on the section trim ring. The plunger shaft did not lose its polish, and I detected no precipitates or residue forming anywhere within the tank. When I terminated the test, I took the pen apart, rinsed it clean and again, found no incriminating sludge or crud. I loaded up with Herbin’s Poussiere de Lune and the Vac ticked like a Timex.

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Sailor Sapporo and Franklin-Christoph Marietta shown for size comparison. Capped, the Vac 700 doesn’t look bad at all.
I figure this 700 will stay with me for a while.

A Shinobi creeps in

One of my best writers is a gray striped 1939 Vacumatic Long Major. It was Enabler’s birthday gift to me some three years ago, and sports a rare factory stub. Trouble was that it busted its diaphragm annually, often at the worst possible time. I really didn’t want to deal with sacs and such anymore, and decided a custom pen built around the Parker’s nib might cure my pains.

This was the donor pen, a birthday present from 2013.

Many pen friends loved and owned Shawn Newton’s work, so he was the only craftsman I looked up. Going through Newton’s site, I saw that he makes anything a reasonable customer could want. After measuring dimensions of the pens I tended to use most often, I had a clear idea of what I wanted him to build.

I asked for an eyedroppered Shinobi in slim size, long length, with a subtly pinched grip section. For the acrylics, I chose a translucent amber tortoise for cap and body, paired with an opaque wine red swirl for the section. As we finalized details, I decided to have a second section made for a Platinum Century EF nib and feed. The nibs were mailed to Arkansas, and the wait began.

Four months later, Shawn sent me pics of the pen taking shape. Within a day, it was completed and not long after, began its trans-Pacific voyage home. 

I don’t have a balcony so the training wheels option will have to do.
Regular vs Slim. Choose what fits your mitts.

Shawn warned me that my stub had a minor tine alignment issue, so the first order of business after unboxing was to pull the nib and balance the tines. Fifteen minutes with a loupe and a gentle touch proved adequate. I inked the pen with Sailor Rikyu-Cha and let the rubber meet the road.

The stub that started this whole project. You don’t find too many of these in the wild.
Proper factory ebonite feed is marked “W” for “WET!!!”

I had forgotten how wet this nib is! Rikyu-Cha usually dries to a bronzed tone of brown but in this pen, it went down like dark chocolate and stayed that way. Califolio’s blues are typically subdued so I tried Botany Bay next. Again, the ink dried darker than usual. I decided to go with my current fave, KWZ Gummiberry, and was met with lines as dark as Diamine Eclipse. More my speed.

This might be the beginning of an amber demonstrator kick.

Handling is excellent. I worried that the step in the barrel might prove discomforting in use. It does not meet the web of my hand so I don’t feel it while writing. The section welcomed my grip like an old pair of loafers and overall balance (with a full tank of gas) was just perfect for me.

That step in the barrel is never felt. Like a true Shinobi.

Enabler has a different grip and found the pen just a bit too slim. She loved the material choices though, and thought it similar to the translucent copper Shinobi that peaceablewriter holds and favors. With no small dose of chutzpah, I disagreed and said this was better. As that old Marine Corps mantra goes, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this is mine.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hello, Ateleia!

  
It did not sport a nib, but its sleek look was just too desirable to ignore. I just couldn’t stop playing with the brass Ateleia that the great enabler had lying about, even though it’s been ages since I’ve picked up a gel tip or rollerball.

The warm, patinated surface looked great but I figured a lighter feel would make for a better pen. As if on cue, Ateleia stoked the fire by posting IG and FB snaps of a raw aluminum variant that was every bit as attractive as their initial release. A few mouse clicks quickly sent one of these featherweights my way.

Fountain pen nuts will eat crow before praising a biro derivative as a great writer. Well, I ate a flock, and then some. 

  
The pen is somewhat modular. My copy comes with two threaded inserts and various lengths of plastic tubing. Depending on the insert installed, the pen takes refills from Uni, Pilot, Pentel or Schmidt. The plastic tubing sections act as shims in case your refill of choice is a little too short to fit the barrel snugly. You do need a wrench to remove or install refills, so swapping guts isn’t lightning quick. 

I happily discovered that today’s refills are capable of providing a pretty good writing experience. One can select anything from microtips to lush wide points, incorporating things like fraud-resistant ink in the mix. Many of these options are readily available in my neighborhood bookstore, which isn’t always the case with fountain pen ink. 

I’ve used the aluminum Ateleia for a couple of months now. I rotated between the factory-installed 0.5mm Energel, a Signo 0.38mm, a G2 0.7mm, and the currently deployed Pilot Hi Tec C in 0.4mm. With all these, the Ateleia wrote far better than any rollerball or gel pen I used before I drowned in the fountain pen pool. I can even name a few fountain pens (some over the $200 mark) that didn’t feel as smooth on paper (or even write) straight from the box. None of my nibs like Field Notes’ paper but the Ateleia does just fine, thank you very much.

It is almost pencil-light in the hand. Some folks prefer a tool with more mass to allow the tip to glide on autopilot. I choose control over momentum so this lack of weight is ideal for my uses. The bare surface hasn’t picked up scratches yet,but I do keep this tucked into a pen slot in my day pack and it doesn’t mingle with keys, change or other pocket debris.

The Ateleia was intentionally designed to be carried in a journal (or a pen sleeve) so it wears no clip or roll stopper. The threaded cap is a rather small part. Loss is a real risk, so be aware of where you set this piece while you doodle away. 

  
A 10-pack of gel pens costs half of what this particular model sells for, so why buy what is essentially a machined alloy sheath for refills? My take is that it gives the ubiquitous gel pen a dose of what I think it sorely lacks : soul. For a guy who grew up listening to Hendrix, Stevie Ray and BB, that’s all the reason needed.

Two brothers (and a gatecrasher)

These two share one name and not much else. One looks genteel and refined. The other is dark and edgy, a certified bad boy in designer Goth.

The guy on the right didn't have an invite. I'll let Leigh talk about him some other time.
The guy on the right didn’t have an invite. I’ll let Leigh talk about him some other time.
The respectable member of the brood is the Ogiva. Its torpedo silhouette is a 1927 design, launched at a time when Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and the Gershwins were all the rage. Style was a non-negotiable commodity and the Ogiva never had to plead for anyone’s sympathies. Over decades, not once did it lose its sense of élan and OMAS have made it available in various sizes and materials, keeping it tasteful and attractive regardless of what fashions prevailed.

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OMAS draped this particular pen in a wonderful celluloid material called Saft Green. Granting a slight nod to modern tastes, rose gold was chosen for this Ogiva’s decor. The pink hues cast a warm and more welcoming look compared to the rather vibrant moods of yellow gold. While the rose gold rage will fade soon enough, this treatment, like a pair of bespoke Balmorals, will survive the ebb and flow of fads.

One will dance if it likes your tune. The other headbangs.
One will dance if it likes your tune. The other headbangs.
The nib is an Extra Fine Extra Flessible which I think is the best width from among Omas’s soft nibs. I’ve handled their Fine Extra Flessible before and while it had spring in it step, its line variation was more modest than a Catholic school dress code. The EF on the other hand is capable of a bit more flair but not along the lines of a vintage semi-flex. Snapback is good and thankfully, the feed never struggles to match the whims of the nib. (If you know box-stock Italian pens, this is nothing short of miraculous.)

Then we have the offspring from a totally different era. This one doesn’t swing to bebop but bangs to the likes of LL Cool J, the Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The 360 came about in 1996, in the middle of a decade committed to insane (read: tacky) opulence and a worldwide obsession with technology and the Internet. Not exactly an ideal period for writing instruments, let alone new designs. But OMAS boldly took up the cause that the Triad Pen Company unsuccessfully championed in the 1930s and introduced a pen with a triangular cross-section.

Round isn't the only shape out there.
Round isn’t the only shape out there.
Of course, the immediate question is, “Why?” Round and even faceted shapes worked so well for so many hands. What did a triangular shape bring to an admittedly cramped table? A few years ago, I would have said, “Nothing.” But a pen friend I respect tremendously told me that the 360 is the most ergonomic pen she had ever used. Now she has an impressive collection of really nice pens and doesn’t impress easily. At all. So her unusually high praise is what I considered a clue. Of course, she was right. The 360 shape doesn’t look like it’ll work but if your grip is close to what the schoolmarms insisted on, it’ll fit you like a pair of well-worn Luchesses.

Look closer and you'll see that black isn't always completely so.
Look closer and you’ll see that black isn’t always completely so.
This model is wrought from cotton resin, which thankfully makes it a little more accessible than its older sibling. It is not close to being as rich or warm as celluloid, but OMAS cleverly make up for this by etching an intricate diamond weave pattern into both barrel and cap. Ruthenium is wisely employed to trim this pen and the overall effect is dark without being flat. The resin retains some transparency and if you hold the pen to the light, you see not just the ink sloshing about but also a slight aubergine hue lurking beneath the material. It is an über cool nuance and one of the small details that set OMAS apart from many other makers.

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The nib is a standard firm Fine. Well, firm isn’t completely accurate. It has a very (and I mean very) slight bit of give, which feels pleasant on paper. It also possesses a hint of feedback. Some may not like this but this is exactly how I prefer my fine nibs to behave. Flow is dry-ish but not arid, and gives some interesting variation to its cross-strokes. Compared to the Arte Italiana Noir that I wrote about recently, this one gave me no trouble at all.

Even the nib ornamentation is a little passive aggressive on this one.
Even the nib ornamentation is a little passive aggressive on this one.
So there you have the tale of two brothers. One struts about in Battistoni threads. The other dons Zilli leather before mounting a Ducati. It’s hard to choose between these two but luckily, I don’t have to.

(The Vintage LE Paragon in Arco celluloid makes its guest appearance courtesy of Leigh.)

A caped crusader…Italian style

In a pile of Western pens, it’s always easy to spot an Omas. They just seem to be the most elegantly coiffed in the bunch, sporting details that belie an inner playfulness. Whether it’s a gemstone roller on a clip, ornate nib decor, or vivid colors swirling deep within layered celluloid, these subtle touches deftly skirt the lines that divide drab, dapper and gaudy.

However, when Omas announced they were doing a stealth pen I cringed and wondered if their expression would defile everything their pedigree stood for. After all, Omas are masters of pomp that never offends. They veer away from the limits of brash and leave concepts like the Chaos pen in the able hands of Montegrappa. Would their Dark Knight prove to be their champion or their undoing?

 

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Enter the Arte Italiana Noir, a Milord in this case. It may be kid brother to the Paragon but scrawny it is not. It is about the size of a Souveran M800 or a 146 Le Grande. Not obscenely huge but a fist full of pen nonetheless. Signature Omas design cues frame the Noir – faceted shape, roller clip, Greek key motif on the cap band, and the trademark O inlay on the cap finial. These are all hallowed hallmarks of the brand’s DNA but the craftsmen of Bologna added a dash or two of spice to the genetic mix.

 

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Its finishing is one its most obvious distinctions. Watchmakers reserve guilloche to embellish the dials and movements of their high-line timepieces, and Omas chose this regal treatment for both barrel and cap. The pattern is evenly applied across all facets and surfaces, with no nicks or blemishes found. I am unsure if this was molded into the resin or executed by machine prior to finishing. However this dark magic was conjured, the results stand above the unadorned matte or satin surfaces of the lesser stealth pens in the market.

 

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The trim is nothing short of spectacular. I’ve seen various flavors of ruthenium plating, ranging in hue from dark pewter to glossy black nickel. The plating on the Noir is closer to a smoky shade of charcoal without overdosing on sheen. This complements the guilloche perfectly and permits the engraving on the metal bits to emerge cleanly yet discretely.

 

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Gripping section is thankfully rendered in resin (I dislike the feel of metal in this area) with the transition from barrel to the section being effortless. The threads never intrude on the writing experience and the balance of the pen is spot on. The bias favors the nib ever so slightly, which makes handling easy and sharp. Filling is done via an international cartridge or the included converter. I know real men use pistons but C/C’s are far easier to clean and maintain.

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My copy came with a factory Stub, and here is where the guardian of Gotham meets Bane. From the get-go, this nib was temperamental and rather dry. I figured I could eventually coax it to settle down. I spent several hours aligning the tines, massaging the rough spots with a bit of lapping film, and flossing the slit with a brass shim. No matter what I did, ink flow remained erratic and the tips taunted me with their incessant clicking, indicating that the gap might still be too tight.

With my DIY options running low, I stripped the feed and nib and rolled up my sleeves. The feed was scrubbed with a soapy water solution, rinsed and then cleaned in an ultrasonic tank. I balanced the tines while the nib as off-feed, working the shoulders gently until the tips aligned. I heat-set the feed to the nib, and reseated the whole mess into the section while chanting every prayer I knew to the gods of pendom. The improvements were dramatic but sadly, insufficient to give me the reliability I demand in a daily driver.

If this were a Japanese writer, I’d be severely disappointed. But I’ve long accepted that the dashing good looks of Italian pens are often accompanied by peculiar quirks. These are part of the ownership experience and with some professional help, are easily overcome.

Now if I can only find John Mottishaw’s email address…