To complete our series of articles about The Pen Shop and its wares, we really needed to foray into the world of Montblanc at least briefly. This presented a bit of a challenge as, for various reasons, none of us have their pens and there was no way to borrow one either. But the canny folk at Pen Shop HQ found a Montblanc product that we could put through its paces and is perhaps of wider interest too – the MB ink range. It’s a bigger range than many fountain European pen manufacturers promote, so the big set of cartridges (and one or two bottles) which turned up presented us all with a few challenges – and Ruth gets the prize for being the only one of us who has tested every single colour so far, as you can see on the illustration below.Trying to be all things to all people is a hard trick to pull off, and on balance our collective assessment was that Montblanc only partially succeeded – but with a few modest gems in the mix. Perhaps the biggest achievement is to put out something under the Montblanc brand which is both good-quality and quite reasonably priced. The black, like that famed ‘precious resin’ is consistent (if nothing to write home about), and only the grey seemed to be a real disappointment. The standard blue divided opinion, but more because it reminded some of us of school days than the ink’s own properties – and to be fair, it’s safe in almost any pen you can find.
Three inks seemed to stand out as winning a fair share of approval. Lavender Purple, firstly, isn’t the lightly pinkish-blue that most of us expect from an ink of that name, but is a rather pleasing dark purple which works well in fat nibs. Scribble had a bottle already, which will surprise no-one – speaking of which, the bottle is quite impressively over-engineered and eye-catching, in a look-at-me-in-my-BMW sort of way.
Ian likes a bit of green, and this one went down rather well; not too bright to be usable, and not so dark as to be dingy, it’s a good balance.
While none of the inks have quite caused uproar and outrage of Lamy Dark Lilac proportions, the overall pick of the bunch for us was probably Corn-Poppy Red, which both Rob and Scribble find themselves using in ‘regular rotation’ pens now. So there you are – there is a Montblanc product we can recommend.For more on the range, see:
A little bit ofhistoryThe Pen Shop have been going since 1858 or thereabouts, but it didn’t quite take that long to produce this meta-review. In fact, we’ve already reviewed the younger sibling of the Dex and it passed with flying colours, so to follow-up the Pen Shop profile from last week it was the natural place to go next.
How it looksNicely rounded. It’s a straightforward, simple and pretty classic shape. So it immediately competes with the styling of many popular pens, and that’s a good thing – it looks like a fountain pen ought to. The body is made by Helit, who own the Diplomat brand – so they know their stuff.
How it feelsWarm and nicely textured; it’s light plastic, and not especially squishy but it does indeed feel fairly ‘soft’.
How it fillsThis is one of those designs which takes two small ‘international’ cartridges, and indeed two are provided with each pen – but it will also thandle a converter quite comfortably. NB long Waterman cartridges have a bit of a habit of getting stuck.
Crucially, how it writes…Tucked-away into that plain black section is a Bock nib, and the standard M is a real treat, as you’d expect from the same stable as Diplomat really. It readily competes with any other similarly-priced starter pen, and at least two of our reviewing team have had one ‘borrowed’ by our better halves because it wrote so nicely. F, B italic and left-handed nibs are also available, but at the moment only in person at Pen Shop branches – a bit less convenient, but it does make it easier to make sure you get a nice smooth one again. A prototype purple nib also came our way; there’s no word yet on whether that’s joining the range, but it’s getting lots of attention already. There’s also a left-handed nib (presumably known as the Sin).
Pen! What is it good for? We’re often asked (particularly via the Fountain Pens UK Facebook group) for starter pen recommendations, and usually the same two stand-by solutions come up; the Lamy Safari and the Pilot MR (or Metropolitan, in some markets). But this as Rob pointed out in his comprehensive review (link below), that’s a hotly-contested niche, and to it we now need to add the Dex. The standard Dex M nib is impressively smooth, it looks good and is uncomplicated to use, it’s cheaper by far than the MR, and unlike the Safari uses cartridges which are available everywhere. That’s not to say that the other two are bad pens – far from it – but this is arguably a safer, and more interesting, place to start. The Dex is robust enough to put up with some demanding professional purposes, too – and has been seen marking huge piles of homework, for instance.
VFMThe big Dex is extremely good value for money at £12, and exceeds in quality anything you’re likely to find in a high street stationery shop for that sort of money. It’s not a luxury pen, of course, and you may find the odd bit of extruded plastic which needs smoothing-off or even, very occasionally, a less than perfect nib, but the key strength is that despite being a budget pen it’s backed up by strong customer service; if you’re unlucky and a duffer gets through, The Pen Shop just whizz into action and replace it without further ado. The range of colours has something for all tastes, and to get a good Bock nib at this price is definitely not to be sneezed at.
If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…Well, if the medium-sized proportions of the Dex by Kingsley Plum Smooth Soft Fountain Pen don’t appeal – even if it takes the best part of a week to say the name out loud – you could try the shorter Dex by Kingsley Purple Compact Soft Fountain Pen. The names could perhaps do with some shortening too, but essentially it’s the same proposition in a slightly more compact body. If you like either size of Dex but fancy a different nib, work is under way to make that possible, we’re told; it’s a pity that swaps can only be carried-out at Pen Shop shops at the moment, but on the plus side at least there’s no extra charge for the service.
Our overall recommendationFor this money, you can’t go wrong really. For the person in your life who finds your interest in fountain pens hard to understand, this is a simple way to reel them in.
Where to get hold of oneFrom a branch of The Pen Shop, their website or the new Penwrite project, where there’s an introductory 10% discount offer at the moment.
Thanks to Hannah and Louise at The Pen Shop for getting some Dex samples out to us.
If you’d like to win one then Ian put together a tempting ‘starter kit’ including both sizes of Dex, with double the chance of winning by leaving comments before here and there. That competition has now closed, but Ruth is also giving one away via her Instagram channel!
The Pen Shop is, well, a chain of shops which sell pens. We caught up with Hannah, who handles awkward questions from fountain pen obsessives with great aplomb – as you’ll see:
So what’s the Pen Shop story? How did one or two shops become the ‘chain’ of outlets The Pen Shop has today?
Believe it or not we have been around since the mid nineteenth century! The company started as T & G Allan in 1858 when the first store was set up on Collingwood Street in Newcastle by local brothers Thomas and George Allan. They then started opening stores around the North East’s high streets: the stores had numerous different departments including stationery, books, gifts, pens, toys and greeting cards. People in the North East tend to have very fond memories of the T & G Allan branches and we still actually have a popular T & G Allan store up in Morpeth. Due to the stationery departments doing so well in these shops the company first opened a dedicated Pen Shop in Newcastle in 1946 which was the first specialist writing instrument shop in Britain. Since then we have opened stores all across the UK, our latest addition being at St.Pancras station in London.
There aren’t so many proper fountain pen specialists based in North East England. Is having an HQ within smiting distance of the Angel of the North a help or hindrance?
For the most part I don’t think people always realise we are a North East company. Our directors do some travelling to and from London for meetings but with the power of email, conference calls and the occasional Skype everywhere’s pretty well connected – as we have stores all over the UK for people to visit I don’t think it matters too much if our Head Office is a little out of the way (although Tyneside is the centre of the universe, of course). As we were founded in Newcastle I think it is lovely that over 150 years later we are still based here. We like the human touch though, so we always encourage enthusiasts nearby to arrange a visit.
A lot of competitors have moved online-only, but you’re gradually growing the bricks-and-mortar business. What makes that work for you?
We are very proud of our physical stores as it gives customers the chance to go in, pick up a pen and try it for themselves. There is something special about that which you can’t always experience on-line. In our shops you can try the various pens on offer, test the nibs to see which one is best for your own individual style of writing, and bend the ear of our staff too. Our staff are an enthusiastic bunch, and making sure they can get out to see the pens being made too seems to pay off; the majority of our managers have been here for 10+ years, our Manchester King Street manager has been here 30+ years – the one to beat however is our office manager at HQ who is on 38 years with the company. Once people come into The Pen Shop ‘family’ they don’t tend to leave, and that feel seems to get reflected when customers visit our stores. Running in parallel with our bricks-and-mortar business, though, is our on-line presence, an area of the business that we are investing heavily in – so expect to see more on the way!
Us fountain pen enthusiasts can be a demanding crowd. What brands sell best to the cognoscenti – and what are they sometimes missing out on at the moment?
Montblanc is actually our best-selling brand, both on-line and in our stores. They seem to appeal to quite a wide cross-section of people. On the other end of the pricing scale our Dex pens are becoming a big hit with people starting out with fountain pens, which we’re always pleased to see. We do also find there’s a loyal fan-base for Yard-O-Led; they are one of the few British ‘big brands’ still going and with genuinely beautiful products we’re very proud to stock them.
Finally the key question – and be honest now – what pen is in your pocket today?
A bright purple Dex with a left-handed nib, which is surprisingly comfortable to use – and I’ve certainly tried my best to break it with my dreadful handwriting! I have even used purple ink and started using my special flowery Ted Baker notebook this week. Our Managing Director reckons the pen and ink you use is an extension of your own personality – so bright purple floral probably sums me up quite well…
United Inkdom counts as a media channel these days (about which a modest degree of smugness is hopefully forgiveable), and that hallowed status gets us into trade fairs too, when we ask nicely. So your dutiful correspondent popped up from the subterranean railway at the Angel, and sauntered in for a browse…
Now, this was a general stationery show rather than a nib-fest, as is reflected in the line-up of best-in show winners – none of which were fountain pens, horrifyingly. But there were diamonds in the rough, nevertheless. Stationery in the wider sense does matter to us pen-wielders, after all, and it was good to catch up with the team from Exaclair (i.e. Rhodia and Clairefontaine), who weren’t yet aware of the recent growth in fountain pen owners moving over to the disc-binder system and needing good A5 FP-friendly paper. Well, they are now, and we look forward to seeing what develops.
Within the high-street emphasis were some other nice surprises, too. Zebra, for instance, contributed a surprisingly nice extra-cheap fountain pen, disappointing only in the sense that it is disposable; it turns out to be good enough to want to keep. Caran d’Ache, while not making much of their fountain pen range, sadly, at least had the kindness to give everyone one of their rather nice water-soluble colouring pencils.
Looking at what’s on the high street rather than the focus of specialist fountain pen retailers highlighted some different emphases, as you might expect. Lamy presented rack after rack of endless Safaris, rolling on into the savannah until even the mildest-mannered visitor would reach for the elephant gun. A certain brand who shall remain nameless invested in flying executives out from Japan rather than attending to their dubious UK pricing structure, but the least said about that the better. Then again, a high-quality German pen manufacturer you’ve never heard of was around the next corner – largely unknown in fountain pen circles because they sell mostly through jewellers rather than stationers at present – and of course, we’re going to see if we can help them with that profile in future. Also spotted was a potential new ink source, and a rather interesting fountain pen brand you have heard of who we’d love to review too – but those will have to stay unidentified for a little longer while we parley with them!
Pen people are lovely, as you know, and one of the highlights of the day was talking to some of them in person. Louise from The Pen Shop, aka the ‘Queen of Dex’, handed over some interesting material for a United Inkdom meta-review coming up very soon indeed. Tony from Pocket Notebooks was a mine of information (as you get a flavour of in Ian’s interview with him a few weeks ago) and we’ve passed-on a few ideas in return – plus he donated some Tomoe River paper which we have all sorts of ideas for!
Getting back to the exhibitors for a moment, there was one outstanding triumph, and that of course was the historic yet bang-up-to-date Federhalter-Fabrik Kock, Weber & Co – OK, that’s Kaweco to you and me. While they massively flattered a certain scribbler’s ego by confirming that this was the very first Supra sold, they also had the coolest hands-on exhibit in the whole place: the build-your-own-Sport assembly line! Putting the components together and operating the machinery under the watchful eye of Sebastian Gutberlet himself (son of the CEO, so no pressure there) was far more convincing than any glossy sales brochure can be, and the results aren’t bad either.
We offered readers the chance to win this hand-made unique creation – plus a selection of purple cartridges, of course – by dropping us a line below telling us what sport you think this Sport is most fitted to accompany. The results make for quite entertaining reading, starting with Quidditch and getting more creative from there on!
A little bit ofhistoryThis special edition harks back half a century, apparently to a school pen originally. It won’t be around for too long, we suspect…
How it looksIt looks distinctly vintage, which is probably the intention. One for those who prefer understated class rather than in-your-face bling, for sure, but it does stand out from modern designs.
How it feelsBased on the M200 (from which it borrows its mechanicals and proportions), this is a very light pen, even when full of ink. It still feels fairly robustly constructed, nevertheless. This is a small pen in terms of length, which also has an unusually narrow section; whether that’s desirable is very much a matter of personal taste.
How it fillsThis is fitted with Pelikan’s rightly famed piston mechanism, which shouldn’t raise any concerns. In an emergency, you can also unscrew the nib and pour in some ink from syringe or pipette, eyedropper-style. The barrel holds enough for everyday purposes, and includes an ink window so there’s adequate warning when you’re running low.
Crucially, how it writes…Well enough, for most. This is a gold-plated steel nib with some rather nice engraved squiggles on it, and it has a bit of ‘bounce’ as well as the usual Pelikan smoothness. The unit we tested doesn’t always work happily with all inks, and even some of Pelikan’s own ink was a bit dry.
Pen! What is it good for?Vintage enthusiasts, we imagine, and especially those who aren’t concerned about getting a gold nib and want something which looks distinctly different from many modern pens.VFM£120 is not too bad for an unusual and well-made pen like this, we think. It’s possible to get a piston-filling fountain pen with a gold nib for the same sort of money, it’s true, but it’s unlikely to have quite these distinctive looks.
If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…Buy it anyway – there’s very little immediate competition, other than vintage Pelikans.Our overall recommendationIf this floats your boat, don’t delay – it looks unlikely to be around for ever. But if you just want a small Pelikan and would rather not pay quite so much, a standard M200 is also worth considering.
Where to get hold of onePelikan specials go to Pelikan specialists. As Pure Pens lent us this test unit, naturally enough we’d suggest that as a first port of call. We know that The Writing Desk, Cult Pens and Andy’s Pens also have M120s in too – although at the time of writing one of these retailers had already run out stock!This meta-reviews references:
Diamine 30ml sample bottles are brilliant; a huge range of good-quality inks, at very reasonable prices, and they’re even British too. There’s just one catch – those bottles. The plastic is fairly robust, but so many pens just can’t get their sections through that tiny neck – and the bottom seems such a long way down. That’s fine if you’re filling an eye-dropper, but there’s more to nibbage than that filling system, after all.
There is another way and that’s to buy one of Diamine’s remarkable box sets; both flowers and composers come in rather nice glass cubes with a sufficiently wide neck to accommodate most pens. But they don’t sell them individually!So we needed another other way and our newest United Inkdom member has found it. Rob has explored the arcane websites of various pharmaceutical and catering suppliers and assembled a fascinating test-pack of alternative glass and plastic bottles along with the pipettes to fill them up. Scribble and Ian have been trying them out too – and you can win one of these experimenting kits as well (see below)!The results are impressive; for just a few pennies you can get all sorts of hardy alternatives. Admittedly one of the ‘biological sample’ bottles acquired a rather suspicious crack in the post, but all the glass bottles survived and Ian tested the full set for leakage without any tell-tale dribbles appearing. Our team consensus is that alternative glassware is probably the way forward. For further details and links to suppliers, see Rob’s extensive blog article.
These alternative bottles make for handy mixing kits too – all you need is a syringe or pipette and you’re ready to roll. There’s even likely to be a new purple on the scene soon as a result…You can win one of these kits too, along with a fine 30ml Diamine sample to decant into the bottle of your choice and a dip pen for testing your inky cocktail creations. Just leave a comment below telling us which colour you’d like to be able to dip a big fat nib into – we’ll pick a winner at random but we’re genuinely curious to know! NB this competition has now closed and the kit is winging its way over the Atlantic, but comments are still welcome!
A little bit of history Maintaining morale has always been important for an army in the field, but when the ‘theatre’ is thousands of miles away, proper hand-written letters just weigh too much. The Allied side in the second world war got around this through a system of photographing letters, shrinking the images down to microfiche, flying these out in bombers and then printing back to readable size. Us Brits had a version of this system too, but the Yanks had the best name for it; V-mail. Noodler’s V-mail inks are all named after more-or-less WW2-related themes, and the four featured here (all provided by Pure Pens in the UK) are complemented in the range by memorable names such as Overlord Orange – we’ll see if we can get that one too some day!Mandalay Maroon is a really 1940s shade of dark burgundy purple, and we all love purple, right? Well, Scribble does, and this one of course featured in the never-ending Too Many Purples collection…Midway Blue commemorates the interminable Pacific naval battle and the film of the same name, which is almost as long. This might just be the colour of the ocean in the shallower bits of the Midway Atoll, at a pinch – but it’s certainly a rather nice turquoise-blue.G.I. Green is of course named after the uniforms of the original G.I.s, or general infantry. the difference between light and dark in the shading is just about enough to make for distraction pattern markings if you go really carefully, but we don’t recommend it – it’s rather good for writing with, though. Ian’s even turned it into a full-blown inkling.North African Violet hits a celebratory note at the end of this brief campaign, and was also an earlier candidate in the long competition for ‘Best Purple’. There is such a flower as African Violet, and the ‘North’ bit is presumably a coded reference to all that slogging-away in the desert between Rommel and Montgomery. It’s a bit of a belter.
Where to get hold of them This range of four is available straight from Pure Pens, who kindly provided us with test samples – you can buy their sample pots too, and it’s a great way of trying out some more of the Noodler’s range before diving-in to a full bottle. If you want that Overlord Orange, or the less appealingly-named Burma Road Brown, you’ll have to send out an Atlantic convoy…
A little bit ofhistoryBack in the heyday of the flex nib, one that flexed as readily as a slice of soggy pasta was known as a ‘wet noodle’ (whereas non-flex piston-fillers were, of course, dry fusilli). Then, many years later, a nice chap by the name of Nathan Tardiff started making inks designed to work well in a flex nib, and decided to claim all the enterprise as one for Noodler’s everywhere. Well, fair enough – we’ll feature some of those inks next week. But one thing led to another and sooner or later a few pens to accompany those inks were, surely, inevitable. There’s quite a range of these Noodler’s pens now, but the model we’ve all tried is the Moby-Dick themed Ahab.How it looksA large rounded-end pen with a clip which faintly resembles a whale floating on the sea’s surface, about to dive. The demonstrator versions are translucent rather than transparent, and there are some marbled opaque versions available now too.
How it feelsBig, but not uncomfortably so, and the resin is usually warm to the touch. For flexing purposes the grip is about right, even if the body is perhaps a little light; all the down-force is going have come from your own muscles.How it smells This is admittedly an unusual category for a United Inkdom meta-review to consider, but in this case we’d probably be ignoring the elephant in the room if we didn’t mention the Ahab’s distinctive olfactory appeal. Actually, it’s not so much an elephant in the room as a goose – it honks. There is just no ignoring the distinctive whiff of the vegetal resin used to make the Ahab (and several other of the Noodler’s pens), and it seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it things. Ross at Pure pens has got used to it, but tells us he always knows which part of his stock-room he’s in because the Ahab draw is detectable even with his eyes shut. Ian finds it so objectionable that he’d be embarrassed to turn up with such malodorous matter at meetings. It’s a hard aroma to describe but imagine, if you will, a rubber sack of forest fruits that’s been left out in the sun for a couple of days. It does fade over time, and inexplicably some of us actually rather like it. There is also the odd distinction that, alongside the recycle-ready steel fitments, the rest of the pen is biodegradable – although why you’d want to do that to a pen we can’t imagine. Still, it’s not a plume-perfume for everyone, it’s fair to say.
How it fillsThe Ahab comes fitted with a proprietary syringe-style piston. This is simple to use and has an impressive capacity, so it’s a good way to get started. Once you find an ink you want to write with all the time, it’s a fairly straightforward job to convert the barrel to an ‘eye-dropper’; Pure Pens also sell the o-rings recommended to make the seal watertight, and the ink capacity which results is huge, even if – like all eye-droppers – the price to pay is the occasional ink-burp on the page.
Crucially, how it writes…The best reason – and honestly, probably the only reason – to reach for an Ahab is in order to try your hand at flex writing without the experiment costing you a fortune. This it achieves quite comfortably. The nib is semi-flex really, but it’s a good introduction to the process of generating line variation with differential pressure, and unlike exotic gold flex nibs it’s cheap enough that you can afford to give it some abuse while you’re putting it through its paces. The results can be rather impressive, once you get used to it! These days a lot of Ahabs are despatched with a non-flex nib included too, which is a considerate touch even if it’s a bit pointless really; if you want a non-flex nib, there are plenty of other choices out there in this price range.
Pen! What is it good for?It’s great for trying a flex nib for the first time. Once you’ve got the bug and started moving on to posher flex nibs, as is quite likely (be warned!), it’s good for jotting shopping lists and the like.VFMEven if it should really come with a free nose-peg, this is impressively inexpensive for what it does. Only FPR flex options really compete.
If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…Then have a look at the many flex-nibbed models available from FountainPenRevolution. Some of those are a little ‘aromatic’ too, but starting flex the affordable way makes good sense.Our overall recommendationIf you’ve always wondered what the flex fuss is all about, don’t want to spend a fortune, and aren’t too particular about your choice of cologne, go for it.
Where to get hold of oneNaturally we’d recommend heading to Pure Pens, the sole ‘proper’ UK stockist – if for some reason they don’t have the colour you’re after, they’re happy to order in more stock too. Ebay is also a useful import source at times, but the waiting times can drag rather.
A little bit of history Around in 1136, or thereabouts, Geoffrey of Monmouth – who couldn’t use a fountain pen due to the woeful misfortune of being born eight centuries too early – picked up a quill and wrote a wildly imaginative ‘history’ of the kings of Britain. This slightly rambling narrative included much detail about the headquarters of King Arthur “located in a delightful spot in Glamorgan, on the River Usk, not far from the Severn Sea. Abounding in wealth more than other cities, it was suited for such a ceremony. For the noble river I have named flows along it on one side, upon which the kings and princes who would be coming from overseas could be carried by ship. But on the other side, protected by meadow and woods, it was remarkable for royal palaces, so that it imitated Rome in the golden roofs of its buildings…” So from golden roofs to golden nibs now, for a couple of miles down the river stands the new headquarters not of Arthur and his court, but Ross and his colleagues at Pure Pens (incorporating the fiefdoms of Niche Pens and Pelikan Pens UK). We caught up with Ross by telephone before he escaped for some ski therapy…
So how did you get started in the fountain pen retail world? Well, that’s a bit of a tale, it’s true! When I was still at school I saw a well-known fountain pen shown-off in an episode of an American sit-com and liked the look of it, so I was given one for doing well in my exams, but it really wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. So I and my family did some research on-line and found that another German fountain pen brand, Pelikan, came far more highly recommended by the experts. But it was so hard to get hold of Pelikans in those days that when we got in touch with the company and suggested we become their UK retailer, they were up for it – we’ve owned the pelikanpens.co.uk URL ever since. This was before ready-to-roll retail sites were available, so we were using email and cheques at first, but we soon evolved.
What really grabs you about Pelikans? Well the Pelikan quality control is much better than average, for a start, and the adaptability of the screw-in nib units is great. We offer nib exchanges on all the higher-spec Pelikan fountain pens we sell and, because we can keep all the spare nibs in stock, customers do make use of the option too. It’s one of the things which makes the brand so popular; using our advice writers can be sure of getting a fountain pen which they can really live with. The other really nice thing is that Pelikan do listen to the customer feedback we’re able to take to them; for instance, so many people wanted a silver version of their Toledo special edition that they starting making them!
What led you to start grinding your own Pelikan italic nibs? People asked for them. Pelikan didn’t want to start providing them directly, so we started experimenting with grinding them ourselves. My father was a toolmaker and metal-turner, which helped a lot, and we learnt by trial and error at first – although we took a bit of time to get really fluent at it with steel nibs before letting loose on the gold! Our customers seem to love them.
Having started out with Pelikan, what got you into being the main UK distributor for Noodler’s? Again it was initially in response to customer requests; people kept asking us if we could get hold of the ink, so we put put out some feelers and Nathan [Tardiff] responded personally. As he’s a one-man-band, what we can get our hands on varies quite a bit – but it all seems to sell like hot cakes! That even goes for the controversial Bay State Blue – maybe because it’s controversial; who knows? We’ve visited Nathan and seen his workshop in action, which is fascinating. This seems to work so well because we’re enthusiasts buying from enthusiasts (like Nathan) and selling to enthusiasts – and that goes for the Noodler’s pens too, which sell well as a good way into trying flex nibs for many first-timers. I prefer the ‘Nib Creaper’ as it’s a piston-filler.
What are the other ‘brand successes’ for you? Diamine has a really great British brand story and is always popular. We enjoyed visiting the factory in Merseyside, and timed it just right to see the Shimmertastic range in development – and it has to be said those inks have been flying off the shelves ever since.
So what are you writing with at the moment, Ross? My guilty pleasure is an M800 Grand Place – which Pelikan actually declined to sell in the UK, but I just couldn’t resist. My TWSBIs are looking great with Blue Lightning in the barrel, and the Pelikan-made Porsche fountain pen is still doing heavy duty too. I love my Visconti Homo Sapiens as well, and if it isn’t getting so much use just yet that’s probably because it’s got a bit more flex than I’m used to…
There we had to leave it, as Ross needed to escape to the slopes – but we’ll be reviewing some of the more intriguing products that Pure Pens stock over the next few weeks!
What’s all this about, then? Well, when you have notes strewn hickledy-pickledy all over different parts of a notebook and you want to re-arrange them, generally speaking you can’t – unless, that is, you have a flexible binding system which allows you to pop pages in and out as you jolly well please. The trouble is, most of the binding systems commonly available destroy the paper quite quickly and make a fearful mess, and that wretched two-hole system which is almost ubiquitous on the high street is the worst offender of the lot. Surely previous, pre-computer generations must have wrestled with this problem too? Well of course they did, and they came up with an ingenious solution too, using a row of little holes shaped like mushrooms and simple discs to hold them all together.
Hang about, when did all this happen? About a century ago, or thereabouts. The exact moment of inspiration is hard to pin down, but the main claimants to fame are André Thomas and Andre Martin, who devised the concept for Papeteries Georges Mottart some time between when the company formed in 1923, and when the patent changed hands in 1948. The names of the inventors supposedly formed the handy brand Atoma, and the company of the same name still sells about a million notebooks a year in its native Belgium – with the rest of the world getting a modest 20% of its output.
So, that patent must have expired by now? It certainly has, whatever date you start counting from. That hasn’t prevented a little flurry of claims, counter-claims and litigation in the US (check out Levenger vs. Feldman if you want the grisly details), but these days it’s open season. Atoma itself is still going strong, and also produces the Adoc presentation-binding system; Atoma notebooks are available in the UK via Cult Pens and the occasional Adoc product reaches Amazon. Clairefontaine in neighbouring France (known to us all for Rhodia paper) makes the Clairing notebooks, which are also sporadically available in Britain. A kibbutz in Israel made Flic notebooks using the system until the mid-1990s but threw in the towel, citing far eastern competition and the reluctance of German customers to accept non-biodegradable plastics – but not before significantly muddying the waters for US disc-binding suppliers Rollabind and Levenger (see court case above), who both still seem to do thriving business selling the system to the north American market. Staples have exploited the patent expiry to produce a budget disc-binding system in China, and Filofax has recently started marketing a similar system employing less robust wire loops rather than solid discs (as also produced by Miraclebind, who rather unnecessarily miss one of the holes in the row). Finally, this open season has sparked some serious custom loveliness right here in Blighty, but we’ll save the best for last.
Enough already! How do I try this out? Essentially there are two choices; go DIY or buy a ready-made disc-bound notebook. In practice, you’ll probably find yourself buying a ready-bound notebook and then tinkering with it, like all of us have – but then again, that’s part of the fun. By ‘fun’, we mean rigorously efficient and productive use of the stationery budget, obviously. We’ll tell you a little about each of the main options available in the UK as we go…
Atoma notebooks are available in the popular A5 and A4 sizes as well as a fairly handy pocket A6 version (NB for quite large pockets!). Although their basic offering uses plastic discs in a pleasing range of colours, it doesn’t cost much to trade up to tough and shiny aluminium alternatives, available in three rising sizes to accommodate the ever-bulging fruits of one’s feverish scribblings. As Ian discovered, there is nothing to prevent the cheeky insertion of Atoma’s nice metal discs into disc-punched paper provided by competitors, so there is ample room for customisation. We find the standard cream paper (which is a bit wider than standard A5/A4 sizes) to be fairly good, albeit with a bit more texture than is perhaps ideal; not the most hostile to fountain pens, but not actually the most FP-friendly either.
Clairefontaine’s Clairing notebooks do much the same thing as Atoma’s cheaper plastic-disc notebooks, albeit with Clairefontaine paper, which by popular consensus is for most purposes is about the best there is. They come with handy subject dividers as standard, too. There are a few flies in the ointment, however; the plastic rings could do with a polish so that they turn easily, the enormous margins rather get in the way, and the peculiar decision to go much wider than standard A5 size means that the paper would have to be trimmed-down to fit other disc-bound notebooks. Bizarrely, the rear of the package proclaims a Patent Pending number (not a chance, sorry) – but hopefully Clairefontaine will read the material above and let that go. Thanks to the quality of the paper and the nice subject dividers, it has potential.
Staples’ Arc notebooks are made in China, but on this occasion that shouldn’t necessarily put you off as a customer. The rings are cheap plastic, but available in enormous radii which make for affordable archiving at least – and the big surprise is the Arc paper, which is remarkably good quality; inexpensive, a good weight and non-feathering when attacked with a big wet nib.
William Hannah notebooks are made right here in Britain – well we did say we’d save the best for last! Their guiding genius felt the same frustration with notebooks which don’t come apart and go back together and, after a few kitchen experiments, realised the disc-binding system was the answer. Then he rebuilt the concept from scratch to make a notebook that justifiably claims to be ‘luxury’.
Italian leathers sewn in Leicestershire, stainless steel discs engineered in Nottinghamshire (with a retaining pin to keep the whole thing together even without paper in it), and marketing from the centre of the country by a fountain pen enthusiast who has found a secret stash of good paper and will even print lines, dots or grids in a colour of your choice. Now, this sort of combination is never going to be cheap – it’s the other end of the price scale from a cheap basic Arc, obviously – but it looks and feels the part, and if you want to turn up to a meeting with a notebook which makes a fitting accompaniment to your posh new fountain pen, why not have one that’s properly British?
Hang on, you missed the DIY option! Big, cripplingly expensive and seemingly impregnable, it was never going to be any match for a moment’s onslaught from precision German engineering. But enough about the Maginot Line. Atoma also make a big Belgian punch for home use, which enables one to make up A4/5/6 binders with any paper that suits; Clairefontaine writing pads work very well, for instance. The twin catches of this arrangement are that it can only handle a few sheets at once (even thick card will flummox it), and it costs an eye-watering £139 at UK retail prices. On balance, the compatible Arc punch at £34 is probably a safer bet for now, although we think there is room for some competition at a better price than Atoma and greater sturdiness than Arc.
It works for A4 too, with Optik paper in the bottom example here, and Clairefontaine on top.
So your recommendation is? Check your piggy bank, see which of the above options fits, and go for it. It’s a great system and will put you satisfyingly in control of something, however daft the rest of the day may be.