Bureau Direct profile

Selling fountain pens, inks and good paper is a niche business, clearly – but it’s also a fast-growing niche, inhabited by splendid people with refined tastes.  So it’s always good to encounter a small firm thriving by doing the right thing, and if you’re a stationery fan then you probably already know Bureau Direct is one of those!

Still run by siblings Jo and Dominic, the team is now around nine in total (it varies at peak demand times), and thanks to Mishka there’s a good chance you’ll already have encountered them via social media.  As a big deal in the online world, it’s interesting to discover that they started out with a bricks-and-mortar shop – in Covent Garden, no less. But as the internet shopping boom started, well, booming, the rents for such premises rose and the opportunities in cyber-space grew proportionately.  So the team now has a spacious base to the west of London, with racks of exotic stationery aplenty.

Fountain-pen friendly paper is a big deal for this company, and the array of black and red Rhodia items on the shelves of the warehouse are quite an impressive site.  What will grab many fountain pen fans is that there’s enough of a customer base to engage in the occasional spot of innovation too.  We ran a meta-review of one of their popular lines last week, the stapled Tomoe River notebook from Taroko Design. That’s proved so popular that Taroko have collaborated with Bureau Direct to make an even more sophisticated sewn-bound notebook, the Breeze, which we suspect is going to be a big hit too.

The team have been doing well bringing some interesting niche inks into the UK market, too, especially as one of the original trail-blazers for the impressive KWZ inks – and the news is that more colours, and possibly a few more iron-gall inks too, are on the way. Bureau Direct is the sole importer of Australia’s Blackstone inks on these shores, too; and hard as it may be to convince readers of this by text, our visiting reporter can vouch for their claim to be some of the most aromatically delightful inks you’re likely to come across.

Bureau Direct sell pencils and other paraphernalia too, of course, and one of the best ways to keep up to date with incoming temptations is to sign up for their email newsletters, which come with some very handy discounts too. But what you might not know unless you happen to be passing the warehouse is that they have gone back to their roots and set up an in-house testing area, so if you want to try out one of their range of fountain pens (Kaweco, TWSBI and Lamy are all on hand) or see how some of that rare ink behaves on some exotic paper, there’s a very tempting desk surrounded by very cool gear, and yes – you can just arrange to drop in! Expect to hear from this lovely bunch; we reckon we’ve clocked them as fellow enthusiasts. In the meantime, in the very unlikely event of you not having seen their website already, take a peek

 

Taroko Design A5 stapled notebook

A little bit of history  There are various theories about where the Austronesian family of languages sprang from, but one of the more popular has the roots on the island of Formosa, or Taiwan as we know it today.  One of these indigenous tribes, the Truku, also gave their name to an area known as Taroko, now a national park. Rather curiously, but entirely suitably for our purposes, this notebook brand therefore indirectly translates as ‘human’.  So we sent samples to a few more humans to put that rather splendid heritage to  the test.

How it looks  It looks like a basic school text book, and a pretty cheap one if truth be told. Appearances are deceptive on both counts; underneath those dull brown covers lies a rather sophisticated offer – at a price to match.

How it feels  Gossamer-thin, unnervingly light and smooooooooooooth.  This is all thanks to the famous/infamous Tomoe River, which like the Taroko national park was a Japanese innovation but is evidently configured a whole lot more usefully in the ROC.

How it fills  This is a stapled notebook, so it’s pretty much pre-filled and the thin nature of the paper makes it difficult to alter that.  But for most purposes there are enough sheets to make use of.

Crucially, how it handles a fountain pen…  This is where the investment pays off. The Tomoe River paper is thick enough to handle a fountain pen nib without wrinkling (albeit it only just), and the smooth surface is a pleasure to write on.  Like other very smooth paper surfaces (Clairefontaine Triomphe, for instance) it shows the sheen well, too. It may be flimsy, but you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Pulp! What is it good for?  It seems to be very popular for ink journals, thanks to the sheen, although it is perhaps a bit expensive just for leaking dribbly nibs on.  The low profile and featherweight qualities mark it out as an ideal travel journal, however.

VFM  These are not the cheapest notebooks out there, by any stretch of the imagination. But if you are travelling and don’t want to be without some truly fountain-pen friendly paper, or if you want sneak some inconspicuous exotica which looks like a school exercise book into work, it’s not going to break the bank.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  There’s nothing quite as thin and light as this on the market which we could recommend, but if it’s just the smoothness and sheen-loving finish you’re after then Clairefontaine’s A5 ‘age bag’ notebook does a similar job at about half the price.

Our overall recommendation  If you’re travelling or have a need for a genuinely nib-loving exercise book which you can squeeze into even the bulgingest briefcase, give it a go.

Where to get hold of one  It is sometimes possible to buy directly from Taroko studio in Taiwan, but it’s not especially straightforward.  Several of us have bought one from Bureau Direct in the UK and had no problems doing so, and the price is no greater so that looks like the smarter option in this case.

This meta-reviews references:

Thanks to Bureau Direct for kindly donating the samples.

Platinum Classic inks

A little bit of history  For anyone who’s just survived the British summer, it can be hard to believe that wasps do anything useful at all; the big ones ruin picnics and the tiny ones kill bees. But as it happens, some of those very small wasps inadvertently serve a human purpose by making nests on the surface of the sturdy oak tree – because those ‘iron galls’ in turn provide the source material for a permanent ink formula recipe used since Pliny the Elder. Pliny Senior unfortunately failed to describe the formula in sufficient detail before the eruption of Vesuvius did for him, but patient scribes have been perfecting it ever since. When it works well, it can preserve documents for millennia.  When it goes wrong and the ink gets too acidic, it can eat the writing surface – and it has form for eating fountain pens too, so it’s a brave manufacturer who ventures into this market.  But Diamine, KWZ and Rohrer and Klingner have found ways to make the recipe safe, and now Platinum have come along with no less than six shades of iron gall ink to get creative with. The United Inkdom team set out to put it to the test – said team including a chemist, a calligrapher and two historians, so there was no fear of punches being pulled.

How it looks  This changes in the first minute that it spends on the paper – it goes on quite bright, especially the Citrus and Cassis varieties, then quickly darkens as it oxidises.  None of the shades darken all the way to black, so the naming convention (Lavender Black, Forest Black, etc.) is a little misleading, but the transformation from light to dark is impressive – and rather fascinating to watch.

How it smells  Now let’s be honest, not all specialist inks are terribly pleasant to the nose . This one requires a chemical reaction to work, which you can actually see in front of your eyes, as the video below demonstrates – and as this ink is not pigment-based, it’s not technically watching paint dry.  But despite all that exciting stuff going on, there’s nothing malodorous to report.  Phew.

Crucially, how it writes…  Perfectly well! It’s perhaps just a touch drier than some ‘standard’ fountain pen inks, but a decent fountain pen can handle it with ease.  Given that this is still a permanent ink and even the new, gentler, formula has some acidity to it, a fountain pen which doesn’t dry out too easily is a wise choice (one of Platinum’s own #3776 models is a good place to start), and of course it’s worth giving it a good flush out after a few days with iron gall ink in there.  But you can pop it into the barrel of your ‘serious nibbage’ without too much fear of damage.

Ink! What is it good for?  As Nick capably demonstrates, it’s great for calligraphy.  Since it’s an iron gall ink it should be acceptable if you’re signing a marriage register, and as it’s permanent it should do for addressing the wedding invitations too (the ink is partially washable, but even if it gets rained on the text will still be legible).  Lavender Black, which seems to be the consensus pick of the bunch, could be good for one’s secret diary (you have one of those, right?). Or you could just have fun with them, like we did!VFM  These are not cheap inks, it has to be admitted; £22 will buy you a fairly respectable fountain pen these days, after all. But some of Platinum’s ‘Classic’ colours are really easy on the eye – and if you are using this for a special event, it’s not going to be that big a dent in the stationery budget.

The ink is partially washable, but the text remains legible

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  If you just need an iron gall ink and aren’t too concerned by the traditional blue-grey shade, then standard registrar’s ink will inevitably be quite a bit less expensive, and there’s plenty of that about (try Diamine). There are also other coloured iron gall inks available, usually at a lower price, from KWZ and Rohrer & Klingner.  Alternatively, if you’re a Platinum fan and just need something permanent, some of their pigment-based inks aren’t bad and their carbon ink is amongst the blackest of the black.Our overall recommendation  We think these are pretty impressive inks, and conjure up a wider and more interesting palette than iron gall formulae can usually manage. If you have a sensible use for a permanent ink and fancy something a bit different, a 60ml bottle will do the job well.  Given the significant cost our tip is to pick one or two which really take your fancy rather than going straight for the whole set.Where to get hold of some  We got ours direct from Cult Pens, and that’s a good place to start – they are the official Platinum dealers for the UK, and as it happens it’s where many of us have acquired our #3776s from too.

This meta-reviews references:

Thanks to  Cult Pens for donating the review samples.

Pelikan Stola III fountain pen meta-review

A little bit of history The first incarnation of Pelikan began in Germany in 1832, so it’s safe to say they’be been around a while. Over the course of time its gone bankrupt and restarted, and its headquarters have moved to Switzerland, but its pens haven’t changed much at all. Many of Pelikan’s designs are almost unchanged from 1929, the year the company released its first fountain pen, and they’re still made in Germany.How it looks Pelikan is a company famous for making lots of very similar (and beautiful) looking pens but the Stola III is a little different. The clip maintains the pelican-beak motif but is a simple wire loop. The cap and barrel are finished in a silver-grey enamel which is modern looking but rather plain. The section is black plastic. It’s unlikely to set any hearts racing, but Pelikan have done a good job for a low price-point.

How it feels The barrel is brass which gives the pen some heft, which went down well with some reviewers but not with others. It’s fairly well-balanced, but rather short. Some of our large-handed reviewers struggled a little with holding it comfortably and, critically, the cap doesn’t post properly (you can kind-of balance it on the end, if you don’t move it too quickly, but it’s tricky). It’s a small pen that insists on staying that way.

How it fills Standard international cartridges and some (e.g. Schmidt) converters. Not every converter will fit but this still gives you a lot of choice.Crucially, how it writes… The stainless steel nib is very good for a pen that costs £20. It’s smooth and has a good flow. It’s great… as long as you want a medium nib. Unfortunately, Pelikan have only released the Stola III with one size of nib, which is silly when so many other pens at similar prices are available with a full range of widths. It’s doubly silly when the nib itself writes so well.Pen! What is it good for? The Stola III is a lovely pen for extended writing, if it isn’t too short for you. You can pick a colour to get your thoughts flowing and journal or plan away to your heart’s content.

VFM This is very much a case of: if your requirements happen to coincide with what the Stola III offers, it’s a good value pen.If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost… then you have a huge number of options. If you want a small, pocketable pen then the Kaweco Classic Sport is a little cheaper and has lots of nib sizes. The Lamy Safari is easily obtainable, a fantastic pen and also a little cheaper. If you’d prefer a more classic looking pen then the Pilot MR (also known as the Metropolitan) is worth a look, as is the Faber-Castell Basic. Then for funky looking pens you could look at the Pilot Kakuno or the Faber-Castell Loom. Finally, if you’d like an enamelled metal-barrelled pen with a cap that’ll post, the excellent but often overlooked Sheaffer VFM is a good choice. We could go on but you get the idea… this is a crowded price point, which can only be a good thing.

Our overall recommendation The Stola III is a pen that writes well, takes a wide range of cartridges, and has a certain aura of quality about it. However, it is very much a one-trick pony. If you like the metallic grey look, enjoy medium nibs, don’t like to post and find short pens comfortable, then it’s definitely worth considering the Stola III. However, with so much choice available, you can almost certainly find a different pen that’s at least as good, for a similar amount of money, that fits your tastes and needs more closely.

Where to get hold of one If you’re in the UK then Niche Pens is always a good place to start for all things Pelikan. Elsewhere, we can recommend Pen Chalet, who were kind enough to send us this sample (for which we are very grateful).This meta-review references reviews by:

Manuscript ML1856 fountain pen meta-review

A little bit of history  Manuscript is a British company which has been around for over 160 years – since 1856, in fact, which is where this pen gets its name. As with our Silvine samples recently we found ourselves reminiscing about Manuscript products of the past. Thankfully, the ML1856 is a big step up from the cheap shrink-wrapped products that we’re used to seeing in high-street shops here in the UK.

How it looks  Hotttttttttttttttttttt. Mateusz’s design is the ‘Molten Lava’., as you can see below – but we think these these pens look hotter than molten lava. Manuscript pulled the boat out when designing these. In John’s review he observes that the designs can be a little bit different every time due to the setting process, which gives every pen its own individual personality.  We have been fortunate enough to review the Purple Mist, Molten Lava, Turquoise Ocean & Northern Lights pens. In addition to this, there are three other colour-ways available: Red Storm, Oyster Mist and Midnight.

However, not every aspect of the aesthetic was loved.  The clip has two circles, echoing the dual crown of the cap’s top (which is a reminder that Manuscript has been going so long that they used to supply the kings of both Spain and Portugal), but the shape of the clip itself seemed a little gimmicky.  As Laura puts it, “don’t dress a model in Primark clothes.”

How it feels  Across the Inkdom we all agreed that the pen was lightweight but strong. While being made of the Italian resin, we felt confident that the pen would hold up. However, John did comment on the threads when screwing the barrel onto the section, and had concerns about breaking or otherwise damaging the pen – which he said was out of character for the otherwise strong feel. Daniel with his “weird grip” was still able to use the pen, despite his fingers touching the threads; thankfully they’re not sharp and are comfortable (as far as threads go). However, some concerns remained as regards the clip which seems rather stiff, albeit usable. The pen sits in the hand very well; posting is just about possible, but awkward, and doing so will make the pen too long for most tastes. The size of the pen allows Manuscript to appeal to most writers as it isn’t too large, but it isn’t a pocket pen either.

Right from the get-go with the packaging of the pen you get the impression of a ‘premium product’. It’s not a conventional pen box, with the pen standing up as opposed to laying flat, but still wonderfully presented.

How it fills  Cartridge/converter. This makes it easy for the user to change inks if need be, but it’s also not difficult to refill every so often (though does make it a little bit more tedious than, say, a piston for constant ink usage, but easier for maintenance and cleaning). Daniel did question the possibility of it being converted into an eyedropper as he tested the pen with water and it seemed to be sealed, but we’re not advocating this unless Manuscript advise it!

Crucially, how it writes…  There are both flat and round nib options for the Manuscript 1856: two stubs (1.1mm & 1.5mm) and a handwriting nib. All nibs are steel and are from JoWo in Germany.Laura, Daniel & John all thought that their nibs wrote fantastically – Laura put it the best when she said that her 1.1mm nib wrote “wetter than England in autumn.” Mateusz however, felt that his nib was a little dry for his liking, although the flow improved over time. Overall, the writing experience was rated as pleasant by the reviewing team. The only thing that the stub nibs aren’t great for are reverse writing, as Daniel discovered. The nibs write wet and the feeds keep up well, which is what makes it great for the purpose of the pen.Pen! What is it good for?  Manuscript seems to be, as a brand, synonymous with calligraphy, certainly for beginners here in the UK anyway. The 1.1mm and 1.5mm stub nibs means that you can get a little calligraphic with your writing, particularly when considering scripts such as gothic.

Of course, if calligraphy isn’t your thing then you can always opt for the ‘handwriting’ nib which will give you the writing experience of nibs you might be more used to. The handwriting nib won’t be as thick and perhaps a little more conventional for everyday writing.

VFM   While the majority of our findings are quite positive, we do have concerns here; simply put, this is a good a pen, but it isn’t £125 good. As Daniel pointed out, his custom John Twiss pen was only £10 more expensive than this. Laura notes that the Edison Collier and Pearlette are similar in design, similar in price but better as regards value for money. Twiss and Edison alternatives also use JoWo nibs, so there is serious competition.

Bottom-top: Laban Mento, Manuscript ML1856 & John Twiss custom pen

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…   The Edison Pearlette and Collier are similar in both aesthetic and price. Another option might be a Laban pen; these pop up at pen shows (here in the UK at least) with a similar design but run to about £60; less than half the price.  As John points out, for £125 you could also get a Platinum #3776, and while these lack the hand-made aesthetic the gold nib goes a long way to make up for it. Mr Pen’s English Curate, which we reviewed last year, is made in the same workshop (formerly of Sigma fame) but a lot more reasonably priced.Our overall recommendation  While we loved using the pen, the price point just doesn’t justify it for us, unfortunately. There are too many alternatives which are similar to the ML1856 but better quality/feel for the same price or others that might sacrifice ever so slightly on the feel but are much more affordable. We like the direction Manuscript is heading in, but our recommendation would be to wait until the value issue has been rectified before pulling the trigger; to put it politely, it looks to us as if the RRP is rather too ambitious at present.

Where to get hold of one  There are few stockists as yet – La Couronne du Comte was the first we know of – but Cult Pens has just started stocking them too.

This meta-review references: 

Northern Lights

Thanks to: Manuscript for providing the pens for review purposes. All views expressed here are our own both within the meta-review and in our own individual reviews that we have provided; the pens were sent to us in exchange for an honest review. Manuscript, to their credit, were completely fine with that, and not withstanding our reservations about some elements of the package are still keen for us to give one away; a great attitude, we think.

Give-away!  Would you like to win one of these test pens?  If your name pops out of the hat, you can – and better still, you get to choose which one it is.  To bag one of these, let us know what you think the crowned heads of the Iberian peninsula would have used an ML1856 for, if they’d been available before the revolution – what sort of correspondence would be flying between Lisbon and Madrid with aid of such serious nibbage?  Answers in the comments box please, by 16 July.  We’ll task the reviewers with deciding which ideas they find the most hilarious, mind-bending or imaginatively splendid, so thinking caps on…

 

Paper Republic Grand Voyageur XL

A little bit of history  While the whole “traveller’s notebook” craze was getting very fashionable – and let’s face it, very expensive – some enterprising folks in Austria thought that they could probably do better if they took the concept and started again from scratch. We caught up with their take on the format at the London Stationery Show, and tempted by the rather lovely-looking Grand Voyageur XL version (partly because it looked like it was A5), we immediately volunteered to put a few of them to the test.  Three of us have taken these out and about, pour voyages grands et petits, and here’s how they fared.

How it looks  Like a traveller’s notebook made by professionals for serious writers, which is a good image to start with.  The leather is available in a range of colours all the way from understated to bright and bold, and the availability of contrasting elastic closures (if preferred by the user) can make it look smarter still.  The Paper Republic logo is neatly debossed on the back, and buyers can have their initials on the front for a modest extra charge.  Only the frayed ends of the knotted retaining bands detracts from the professional appearance, but this may be something the makers look into improving in subsequent models.

How it feels  Smooth, supple, flexible and generally luxurious; if you’re a bit of a stationery leather fetishist you’re going to be pretty happy with this material.  Thanks to vegetable-derived tanning processes it even smells good, and it seems to hold up well after vigorous use.

How it fills  With Paper Republic’s Swedish-made refills, available in plain, lined and grid versions.  This is where we encountered the one major fly in the ointment; the paper is OK, but the paper size is not as we had expected.  These are not, in fact, A5 (which is 148mmX210mm), but a proprietary size of around 135mmX200mm, and that greatly limits the usefulness of the design.  If you have pages of notes made in the Grand Voyageur XL which you wish to remove and file with A5 notes, it’s going to be messy. Worse still, if you wish to source your own A5 refills, perhaps because you are actually travelling and can’t arrange a Paper Republic delivery, you can’t; a full A5 refill hangs out of the cover in a thoroughly ungainly fashion.  This is such a serious limitation that it is only really going to work for the sort of writer who is so disciplined that they know exactly how much writing they will do on any given expedition, and that’s a pity; other than this shortfall, we all thought it was a great product.Crucially, how it handles fountain pens…  Quite well, fortunately!  The manufacturer’s claim to use the best paper in the world was a bit of an exaggeration – we have certainly all used better – but that’s not say it’s bad at all.  It was quite pleasant to write on and coped with every nib we threw at it with aplomb.

Pulp! What is it good for?  Well, given the issue with size, it’s hard to think of what these are best used for at present.  But Laura’s adaptation of one into an ink journal looks like a good place to begin.

VFM  These covers retail for €60 direct from Paper Republic, or £54 from Cult Pens in the UK; which is most affordable will depend upon how much of a mess the Pound is in on the day you wish to make a purchase, but it’s always worth checking the exchange rates first. Our view is that the quality justifies that price, but the actual value to you the consumer may depend upon whether the eccentric paper size is a help or a hindrance.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  There is also a not-quite-A5 notebook format from Germany, the X17, but while this has even more colour options, it shares the drawback of falling short in a dimension or two.  The only true A5 notebook cover we have come across is from Devon; the Start Bay is only available in shades of brown but is more competitively priced and definitely does the job well.  Meanwhile Paper Republic do also make a passport-sized notebook, and another which doubles as a mobile ‘phone cover, which may have wider appeal.

Our overall recommendation  This is a really well-made, impressive product which we would like to recommend without reservations.  Unfortunately we do have one serious reservation, but we have already shared this with Paper Republic and they’ve told us they’re considering how to proceed.  If they go ahead and produce a true A5 version – perhaps the Plus Grand Voyageur XXL – we’ll be first in the queue to buy a few.

Where to get hold of one If you like the format it makes a lot of sense to support the manufacturer by buying direct. However, if the consequences of foreign policy eccentricities have knocked your own currency out of kilter, Cult Pens also sell them.

This meta-reviews references:

Thanks to  Paper Republic  for donating no less then three notebooks in return for honest reviews.

Streamline fountain pen review

A little bit of history   As the twentieth century grew more confident in its own artistic milieu and Art Deco architecture collided with aeronautical design, the blended lines of ‘Streamline Moderne’ emerged. It bore all sorts of results, from Morecambe’s Midland Hotel (where everyday is like Sunday, according to Mr. Morrissey), to the passenger accommodation of The Hindenburg (itself inspiration for the Diplomat Aero), and, of course, the Airstream caravan (as slow as all other caravans but at least nicer to look at). Several decades later, Jake Lazzari of Applied Pens spotted the missing category; fountain pens.

How it looks  Like a pocket version of the Schienenzeppelin with a nib inside the engine bay, or a rapidly-extruded Airsteam, or, inevitably an alien mind-probe.  It rather defies easy description, frankly, and it’s probably better to let the pictures do the talking on this occasion; suffice it to say that there is nothing else out there quite like it.

How it feels  It’s big – really extraordinarily big. So much so that you might wonder if your hands are big enough.  Three-quarters of our reviewing panel were, however, pleasantly surprised to find that it nevertheless felt about right in the hand, and the lightness of the materials ensures that it’s not as heavy as it looks either.  The ebonite makes it warm to the touch immediately, which is also rather pleasant.  But it will be just a bit too big for some.

How it fills  With a simple Schmidt converter, and that’s perfectly reasonable.  The lack of metal inside then barrel and the close threads probably means that eye-dropper conversion is also possible, if you don’t mind a few ink-burps as a result.

Crucially, how it writes…  As ever with hand-made pens, that depends upon the nib you choose to add.  Jake uses the Bock #6 steel nib as standard, and although the review unit we sampled had been bashed about a bit, to the detriment of writing performance in this case, Jake does test all nibs before dispatch to customers and will rectify any issues which arise after delivery. The writing position is comfortable and, with a #6 nib of your choice, this should be a very nice long-term scribbler.

Pen! What is it good for?  Let’s keep it clean, folks. It’s for writing – really, it is. Most of us would probably keep a pen this extravagantly outré for use at home, but it would certainly look the part signing big contracts… or peace treaties with extraterrestrial civilisations.

VFM  Most versions of the Streamline are available at around the £150 mark, which we think is fair for a hand-made pen with unique design and plenty of customisation options. Installing a nib which is more exotic than the steel standard will naturally add to that, but it’s still a tempting proposition for most of us who reviewed it.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  The acrylic used in the section of this review sample wasn’t quite as popular as the ebonite of the main body, but that’s no real problem as there are copious alternative options – have a look at Jake’s Etsy page (link below) for a few ideas if you need them.  If you like the unique design but just can’t handle something quite this huge, Jake does make some smaller pens too.  We can’t think of any other pen maker turning out anything remotely comparable, though.

Our overall recommendation  If you like big pens and you cannot lie, then make like Sir Inkalot to the website and order one; we were mightily impressed and several of us have started to muse about our own choice of materials one day.  We’d like to see a version with a bigger #8 nib in the future too, but this is a pretty special pen which looks out of this world but is also very nice to wield.

Where to get hold of one  From Jake’s Etsy page, or the outer rings of Saturn, whichever is closer to you.

This meta-reviews references:

Thanks to  Jake for supplying this extraordinary test sample, and offering one lucky reader the chance to take it home!  The competition entailed ideas for favourite Welsh designers, with a very broad brief as to what ‘designer’ means. There were some wonderfully creative responses but the most surprising had to be the humble equals= sign.  The prize is winging its way by flying saucer…

Jake Lazzari of Applied Pens

So why ‘Applied Pens’, Jake?  Well, I trained in applied arts, which is essentially about the overlap between three-dimensional sculpture and actually making beautiful things you can use. I’ve always liked the combination of aesthetic and utilitarian and that set the pattern for my career.

What moved you into making pens?  One thing led to another!  I was already making sculpted items for display at home – candlesticks, vases, etc. – and one of the dealers who sold them for me was based in Hay-on-Wye, a very literary town as you know. He pointed out that writers and their readers often like a good fountain pen, and that there’s a demand for something a bit out of the ordinary.  It took some serious research to find the right mix of materials and equipment, much of which I had to source abroad, but Applied Pens soon took off.  That was two years ago and I haven’t looked back.

How does a Lazzari design take shape?  Here’s my little secret – I’m really a mechanical pencil fan.  I’m told that’s safe enough to admit to in the stationery world, and I enjoy putting my original art skills to use.  Looking at the preliminary sketches, you can see how the Streamline pen took shape.  I do take commissions from customers too, but I’m always full of ideas anyway.

How are you finding working with us pen fans? It’s fun talking to such a well-informed audience.  Fountain pen cognoscenti can spot a ‘kit pen’ at fifty paces and I’ve never been much impressed either, so making something truly original is good news for all of us. Going for a comfortably big pen with a large #6 nib seems to be really popular, and the Etsy site has been going well.

What are the materials you like working with best?  I started out working with metals, and actually may return to this for some future pens if all goes according to plan.  But for now, my material of choice is often food-grade ebonite; that ‘burnt rubber’ smell takes a bit of getting used to in the workshop, but it works well and makes for a pen which is really nice to hold. I also use acrylic quite a lot for the sections, and I’ve just invested in some remaindered Conway Stewart blanks which look amazing.

Some of your designs look like props from The Eagle – is there a bit of a sci-fi influence? You guessed it – ‘always been one of my big inspirations. Expect to see more…

What’s coming next? I’m working on some promising polygonal bodies right now, which do present a few challenges in getting the caps to line up with the barrels – I might have to make a video demonstrating how to get it right!  Plus there could be some more materials on the way, so keep watching.

Coming up next for us a is a meta-review of one of Jake’s Streamline pens – you’ll probably want one – but in the meantime you can see all he’s making right now on his Etsy page.

Silvine Originals

A little bit of history  Silvine Originals: A British icon, reinvented. Silvine has been a staple (pardon the pun) within British homes for generations. We all felt a sense of nostalgia as we opened the packages that Silvine sent to us.  But Silvine’s heritage runs longer than a generation or two; their notebooks are being made by the same machines that have been in use for decades. So, how do they shape up for writing in?

How it looks  The Silvine notebooks have been dye-matched to the 1960s bold red cover that we’ve all grown to love. With 300gsm front and back covers, the notebooks feel strong and durable; far more than many other softcover notebooks out there. There are several different sizes of notebooks, each with their own particular little niche. However, the one that stood out immediately to many of us is the Exercise as it is very similar to the wririting books familiar from school. However, not every aspect of the notebooks was loved across the Inkdom. In particular, Gillian felt the blue lines within the Exercise notebook as being a little over the top. While the red margin in the Exercise book was able to calm it down a little and provide a little bit of contrast, unfortunately the Memo notebook didn’t have that cover and wasn’t so easy on the eyes.

How it feels  Everyone within the Inkdom commented on how textured the paper is. The paper is 90gsm Natural White Wave paper and you can definitely feel it on your pen. We actually rather liked this; it’s certainly not as smooth as Clairefontaine, but you can feel what you;’re doing as you move the nib across the paper. What’s more, this paper handles anything thrown at it. Gillian even mentioned that the paper might be able to hold up to watercolours! Dabiel and Scribble found that it was able to handle all the nibs that they threw at it and The Clumsy Penman also commented on how well the paper copes with inks.

Crucially, how it handles…  Pages in the Silvine notebooks are hand-stitched, which gives the notebooks a very personal feel and also means that they lay flat which makes the writing experience even more pleasurable. Some of us weren’t too keen on how the stitching looked, however, as it wasn’t always clean and could look a tad messy. The exception to this is the Project notebook, which has a little bit of extra protection because of how big and heavy it is (speaking in relative terms to the other sizes, such as the itty-bitty Pocket). All the notebooks have perforated pages and they work very well as you can easily tear out the pages if you need to, but you needn’t worry about the perforations becoming weak when flipping pages in the notebook – the pages will only come out if you want them to come out.

Pulp! What is it good for?  As mentioned above, each notebook fills its own little niche. You can read our individual reviews to get a better sense for what you could use them for. Daniel was was able to use the Project notebook for drawing graphs for biology illustrations, but Gillian pointed out that it doesn’t have to just be for applications like drawing out scientific apparatus. You’re bound to find the right notebook for you amongst this selection; John has even made the Pocket part of his every day carry. Some of us did identify other limitations; there is no grid option and the notebooks are all a non-standard size.

VFM  Typically, the cheapest of these notebooks is the Memo, at around £4.50, with the most expensive around £14.00. However, if you consider the Pocket notebooks, which come in packs of three, the cost of each individual notebook is £2.17. John says that the notebooks are “expensive but worth it,” and that sums up the consensus view – you do pay a of a premium, but it’s worth it.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  This is a tricky one. As stated above, these notebooks aren’t really a standard size. For the smaller sizes (Pocket, Memo & Note) you could look at pocket-sized notebooks such as those from Field Notes, Word and Calepino. The Exercise notebook is a little easier to recommend an alternative to, as some of us have used Rhino notebooks previously – the lines might be a little easier on the eyes if you’re not a fan of bright blue. As for the Project, you could look at the Field Notes Arts & Sciences edition (specifically the Sciences). There are two disadvantages to this, however, the first and perhaps most annoying is that they’re no longer in production so you’ll have to be lucky enough to find one second-hand (they pop up on eBay every so often, but far pricier than the Project). The other is that the notebooks are smaller so if it’s page count and size that makes the project great for you, sadly the Arts & Sciences won’t cut it.

Our overall recommendation  We love writing in these notebooks and, as long as the non-standard size isn’t a problem for you, would recommend giving them a try.

Where to get hold of one  From Silvine’s own distributors, Stone, from good old Cult Pens or, for the smaller sizes, Pocket Notebooks.

This meta-reviews references:

Thanks to Silvine for providing these notebooks in exchange for an honest and fair review.

Kaweco Lilliput fountain pen meta-review

A little bit of history  Are you sitting comfortably? The history here is a quite a long one. When Padraig was kidnapped by pirates and taken to slavery in Ireland – prior to his subsequent visit which, in the long run, elevated him as Saint Patrick – some accounts record that his sister Lupita was carried away with him.  Her life story is obscure indeed, but somehow legends ascribed to or connected with her found their home at the edge of Lough Ennell.  What may have been an isolated area of the now-drained bog at the edge could conceivably been named in shaky Norman French as L’Isle de Lupita, but this too is conjecture; somehow, nevertheless, the name was corrupted to Lilliput.  Many centuries later the Dean of a cathedral – St.Patrick’s Cathedral, as it happens, for in our world all things are connected – was staying by the lake when he looked across and saw tiny figures, diminished by perspective, on the far side of the shore.  According to literary legend, there an idea was born; for that Dean was none other than Jonathan Swift.A little bit more history Jonathan Swift was a rapier-sharp satirist in his time (see ‘A Modest Proposal‘ for his critique of the way some governments behave towards the poor), but his best-known work these days is a rather subtler satire on tribal folly, Gulliver’s Travels.  Lemuel Gulliver’s first port of call, of course, is Lilliput, where the people are astonishingly diminutive – around six inches in height, typically.  If the fountain pen had been available at this point, a good century and a half before its invention, the proportionate writing implement for a true Lilliputian would have been about 1cm in length.  In setting out to make an exceptionally minuscule fountain pen it is greatly to the relief of all diligent scribes that Messrs Koch, Weber and Company of Nuremberg, late of Heidelberg, aspired to virtues beyond mere portability…How it looks  Oh alright, it’s still tiny – just not quite as tiny as that! This simple metal tube (well, simple in most versions, at least) is the smallest serious fountain pen currently in production.  It looks small and, at least in basic black, inconspicuous.  Unscrew the cap, screw it onto the back to extend to the pen’s full length, and it looks a bit more like the pen concept we’re all familiar with.  Then different finishes separate the subtle from the unsubtle; the plain black aluminium gives way to flashy pink and purple versions, encounters with flame-throwers turn the stainless steel version into ‘fireblue’, and the rippled finish of the ‘brass wave’ turns a basic pipe into something which looks like it just fell out of a grandfather clock.  There’s a lot of visual variety for such a small pen.  Oddly, a typographical error misses the third ‘L’ in Lilliput from the barrel imprint, but Swift’s own spelling was so haphazard that he probably wouldn’t mind too much.

How it feels  Did we mention this thing is small?  It really feels it!  For most of our reviewers, the Lilliput is ideal for a light, unobtrusive pocket pen which does a good job of taking quick notes. One of our reviewers found it too small to do anything much with, while another actually wrote an entire examination paper with one.  This is certainly a size and shape which divides opinion quite sharply.

How it fills  There is room for a small international cartridge in the barrel, and that’s all. Kaweco’s new small converter does fit into the section, but with little free space in the barrel the piston cannot be safely pulled far enough to get more than about 0.1ml drawn up, so that’s unlikely to be helpful. Thankfully, a wide range of decent tints are available in cartridge form these days, including all ten of Kaweco’s own inks, and refilling an empty cartridge from a bottle with a syringe is fairly straightforward.

Crucially, how it writes…   As ever, that depends upon the nib you choose.  The Lilliput uses the same nib as most other small-ish Kaweco fountain pens including the Sport, Student, Special and Dia, and the whole nib, feed and collar assembly is a simple screw-fit so you can swap and change to your heart’s content.  The standard steel units are usually pretty good, and if the quality consistency is perhaps not quite as stellar as that achieved by Diplomat and Faber-Castell, the enthusiastic and friendly customer service more than makes up for it; no Kaweco pen owner is left for long without a pen they can use, in our experience. The gold-coloured nibs work similarly well, while the black-painted nibs tend to run a little drier but can be coaxed back into life by refilling with a very wet ink, such as KWZ.  If you really want to go crazy and spend more on a nib than you did on the pen, you can even fit one of the excellent gold nibs – and those are indeed not cheap, but Bock gold is very reliable.

Pen! What is it good for?  For most people, this is a trusty little  stand-by pen to write quick notes with. True eccentrics (sorry, Jam) will write reams with the thing, but it’s a free world and we love the variety!

VFM  This depends upon the finish you go for, and how far it fits your writing style.  The brass wave and ‘fireblue’ versions do take considerable expertise and time to make, and are priced quite reasonably for what they are – but perhaps only represent good value if you are actually going to use them.  The more basic aluminium  versions are incontestably good value as robust but real pocket fountain pens.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…   Buy a bigger pen.  Seriously, there is very little of comparable size and quality in the current market. There are some tiny vintage pens, which you may find if you’re lucky, and some other cheap and rather less durable pocket pens from a few other manufacturers are still around, but if you want an ultra-small pocket fountain pen which will last the distance this is probably the best option.  If you like the minimalist shape of the Lilliput and just want it scaled-up for comfort in the hand, however, you might consider its larger sibling, the Brobdingnag*.

Our overall recommendation  If you have a need for a pocket pen and are determined to avoid the wretched Ballpoints of Blefuscu, Lilliput is the destination for you.  One contributor to this meta-review’s team is returning their sample as too small for their needs, but probably a good half of our bloggers have a Lilliput tucked into a pocket somewhere.  Pick up a friend’s before you buy, test-drive one at a shop, or purchase one from a dealer you can trust to take it back if it’s just too, errm, Lilliputian for you.

Where to get hold of one  Any number of fountain pen specialist sellers – in fact, nearly all of them – carry the Lilliput. However, the purple, pink and champagne versions are only available from Mostwanted Pens.

This meta-reviews references:

Thanks to  Kaweco for helping with access to several of the Lilliputs we reviewed – some of which we couldn’t let go of.

*The Brobdingnag is now marketed as the Supra, the original Swiftian soubriquet having proved a little long even for this barrel. ‘Cracking pen, though.