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.

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.

 

Ingredients:

 

 
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

 

Process:

  
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. 😃

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.

 

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.