Flying solo

I have willfully and happily gone from 20 pens to 12 to 6 and now, just three. In fact, I often carry just one. Shocking, I know. Like folks from the turn of the 20th up to the 70s didn’t do just that.

So which do I carry most often?

This black Aerometric sat unused and uninked in Enabler’s Cup of Stasis. The “51”s aren’t typically her speed, so I figured I’d stretch the Parker’s legs for a bit. Ink leeched through the filling unit’s window when I tried to gas it up. Either the Pli-glass sac was damaged, or the sac nipple had crumbled. I didn’t have spare Pli-glass on hand, and a busted nipple wasn’t something I could fix.

Ron Zorn is my Obi Wan when I seek brave new hope for vintage pens. I mailed the pen to him and asked that he restore the Parker to its working glory. While he was at it, I inquired if he would take the Medium-Broad nib in trade for something narrower. Lucky for me, he had an EF in stock.

The sac nipple was fine so the damaged sac was ditched for a modern equivalent from David Nishimura. To finish the restoration, he repaired a cap ding, fixed the inner cap, replaced the cracked jewel, re-frosted the Lustraloy, and polished all the Lucite bits. It took a few months for the lot to come together but good things, and good work, take time.

So why the “51”? Why did a sixty-year old pen displace a pair of esteemed Pilot #15s (a 743 and 823) as my daily driver?

Size and ergonomics are right, as the “51” shows remarkable design genius. There is enough to hold on to, but no more than necessary. The seamless transition between cap and barrel makes for one long and smooth grip section. At times it feels like holding a worn bar of soap. It is tough to beat that degree of comfort.

The slip cap makes it easy to deploy. For journaling and other leisurely writing, a screw cap is no bother. When folks ambush you throughout the day with stuff to sign, drafts to mark, and forms to fill, a slip cap is a kind mercy.

Cap-off time is amazing. Ever get stuck in a two-hour meeting? I’ve had many nibs dry out, especially when the AC is working as it should. Yes, I can revive a stalled nib with a bit of “calligrapher’s elixir” but I can never get used to Blue Black’s bitterness. I’ve had the “51” stay uncapped for twenty minutes and it still wrote when I needed it to. My taste buds rejoice.

Nib feel is firm but grants smoothness and speed that a flex or semi-flex can’t provide. Paired with light overall weight, the pen makes a wonderful, reliable workhorse that just happens to look good.

With all their manufacturing tech, Parker might do well to revive this design. The average convert comes from a ballpoint or rollerball past, and the “51” makes a daunting shift a lot easier for new folks.


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.

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.

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.

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.”


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.


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.


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?



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.



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.




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.



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.


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…


Just black, please.

It’s true of every cup I order in a café. Well, almost. Maybe three visits in a hundred, I’ll ask for a latte but I typically choose plain old black, preferably using beans that are ground just before brewing. Better if they were roasted in the past week. No cream. No sweetener of any kind. Just black, thank you very much.

If I have a say in preparation, I’ll opt for whatever suits my moods; Aeropress if I’m in a rush, syphon brew if it’s a leisurely afternoon, hand pour if I crave depth. Seems like a lot of trouble for a plain old cup of black, but it’s the craft and detail that go into the brew that make a rather plain drink so very special compared to what you mix from a sachet.


In some ways, the same thinking carries over to pens. Take the case of picking out a black pen. It should be the easiest thing in the world. Every maker worth their name offers a decent black writer and you will not lack for choice regardless of your budget. From Monteverde to Montblanc, faceted to torpedo, simple to garish, one can get a smooth flowing pen that will likely outlive its owner. Being a bit of a gear snob however,  I wanted something with a bit more craft to it.

The stars aligned when work brought me to Singapore. I had a day to kill before my conference began, and Leigh messaged to ask me to visit Aesthetic Bay. She wanted me to see if the new Mizu Iro Nakayas were in stock and indeed they were.  I marveled at the enchanting water-like hues of this new finish. Depending on how light was cast on the pens, the color would shift from mint, to gray, to blue, much as the sea’s tones change in the course of the day. As the staff gently returned those treasures to the display counter, I spied a lustrous Long Piccolo nestled quietly in the corner of the showcase. I asked to see it and you can probably guess what happened not long thereafter.




Nothing could be seemingly plainer but Nakaya excel at making even the simplest objects exude a profound charm. This one is totally devoid of metal trim. Unlike its tamenuri kin, there is no hint of color peeking from beneath the pen’s finished edges. It is all black but perfectly so, with a shimmer and depth that would make a Steinway’s keys seem ashen in comparison. You can stare into the finish all day and never discover where the bottom of the lacquer lies, and the radiance of the urushi betrays how a living and breathing Japanese craftsman spent countless hours unearthing the beauty hidden within a lowly tree sap.

The Long Piccolo is exclusive to Aesthetic Bay and I confess to liking this shape a lot. Mottishaw’s Naka-Ai, another personal favorite, is a little more agile but the Long Piccolo gives you a bit of welcome chunk and a more pleasing visual balance. All Nakayas look good but in my opinion, this is the one that wears kuro roiro best.


The monotone BB is a pleasant departure from Nakaya’s conservative nib norms. Like all Nakaya nibs, it needs no coaxing at all to write smoothly without stumble or stutter. But I have never ever handled a stock Nakaya that is this lush. I find it to be a notch wetter than an M4xx Pelikan B, a nib that is many things but stingy. It writes so well that it need not visit with John Mottishaw for a regrind. I generally like italic cuts on wide nibs but when something is this exceptional, I can learn to look the other way.

The best part about this pen is that it attracts no attention from the crowd. Only those familiar with Japanese pens would probably give it a second glance and even then, they would ask themselves doubtingly, “Could it be a Nakaya?” This prompts them to perhaps look closer and look closer still. Only when it is in one’s hand is the magic revealed.

Much like a perfect cup of black.




Where nibmeisters differ





If you’ve been jonesin’ to get a regrind , then you’ve already checked out a few nibmeisters. Italic mods such as stubs, cursive and formal are often standard on their menu. Tip reduction down to needlepoints are not uncommon, and some even offer the addition of flex to an otherwise rigid nib. But while their service lists appear cloned, each craftsman differs in how they express the work requested.

This is a writing sample of three stubs wrought from Platinum/Nakaya nibs. They all began as identical factory Broads and it is the concerned nibmeister’s work that influenced the final feel and behavior of each nib.


Shinichi Yoshida is Nakaya’s resident nib wizard. He grinds conservatively, leaving a lot of iridium at the tip. Line variation is the least dramatic of the bunch, but it is there. There is a bit of feedback but nothing disturbing. More like silky reminders of each stroke you make.

John Mottishaw’s nib was spec’d to be slightly narrower than the other two. Despite its trimmer size,  it is the most forgiving of the three. Even a novice will find this nib easy to use and I suspect its wide and radiused sweet spot is what makes this possible.

Mike Masuyama’s stub seems to have the best line variation, but it will stop writing if you stray from its comfort zone. Its smoothness falls between Yoshida’s grind and Mottishaw’s. The sweet spot is wider than Yoshida’s nib as well, but the nib does not tolerate rotation at all.

The Yoshida stub captured here is an off-the-rack cut. It was ground to a safe window, without a particular hand in mind. It is clearly a good nib, but you can tell that a lot of its potential remains throttled. The other two were done to suit a unique user and so the nib wrights had license to be more aggressive in applying cut and polish.

This point underscores what  makes a nib modification stand or fall. It is a tailored service, intended to fit your hand before anyone else’s.  Do your due diligence and research your intended nib wright’s success rate in the work you seek. (Just because he offers a needlepoint grind doesn’t mean it’s his long suit.)

The clearer you are about what you want, the better his chances of getting it right. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Provide vivid details on what you want to achieve and listen well to the recommendations of the craftsman and his reasons for making them.

Take your time in this quest. It is too easy to have a nib buggered by an amateur, and rushing a miracle man makes for bad miracles.