Monthly Archives: May 2016

Yard-o-Led profile

Once upon a time, Birmingham was the engineering design capital of the world.  Products imagined by nineteenth-century draughtsmen in Brum can still be seen all over the planet, from tea-packing machines in the Azores to boats on Lake Titicaca.  With the gradual demise of heavy engineering, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all in the past, but a part of that heritage lives on in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, which has been making pens and pencils since the days when they kept the bureaucracy of the British Empire running. There dip-pen enthusiasts can visit the pen museum and try for themselves the hand-pulled stamps that made steel nibs by the thousands to ship all over the world – and just up the road, there’s something even more fascinating going on…

Victorian and Edwardian machine-tooling was evidently built to last, and Yard-o-Led are still using it to impressive effect.  The name comes, of course from the pre-metric measuring system that all the machinery and designs still employ; each of their original propelling pencils still comes with twelve three-inch leads, which when lined up constitute a while imperial yard of lead.  It’s for that reason that the company responsible is now called Imperial Yard, reasonably enough!

There have been a few experiments with different alloys over the years, but these days each pen or pencil is made from scratch of silver.  ‘Scratch’ in this case means silver tubes, which head over to the Assay Office for those mystical hallmarks, and then return for a range of fascinating time-honoured processes.  Stretched and squeezed to form points, the resulting blanks are than patterned either by hand, or by hand-powered machinery.  The hand-powered machinery  is the number-controlled mill which you can see two examples of in the background of the photograph below – they are not CNC because, of course, in the days these were built a computer was a human being with a slide-rule (and, quite probably, a pencil).

Alex in the workshop

The number-control mill makes the lovely barley-corn patterns, whereas the distinctive comma-and-apostrophe patterns are hammered-out by hand.  One of two current experts, Alex, is doing just that in the picture above.  The red cable serves as a clamp, to hold the blank in place without marking the surface.  Other than that, and a soft cloth, the equipment consists of a range of vintage specialist chisels, a light hammer, and one very patient operator; each pen takes hours to complete.  The harmonious result of these ministrations is a remarkably organic-looking surface (in some lights, more vegetable than mineral), and each pen or pencil produced this way is inherently unique. Naturally, we’ll be reviewing examples of both processes in the next couple of articles.

Yard-o-Led as a brand, and as a team, has inevitably been through some ups and downs. The brand has recently been released from ownership by Filofax – another great British name, of course, but in retrospect perhaps not the most obvious combination (a Filofax you take to work and bash around, but you probably wouldn’t want to do that to an all-silver YoL). The workshop, too, has moved, but given the irreplaceable nature of many of the vintage tools and machines in use, that’s unlikely to happen again in a hurry.  These days, it’s a hive of activity which is a real treat to visit if you get the chance – a place where proper craftsmen still produce labours of love which also happen to work as tools themselves. When you see the fountain pen and propelling pencil the company has lent us to review over the next few weeks, we’re pretty sure you’ll fall in love too.

 

Montblanc inks

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.MB swabsTrying 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.Royal Blue

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.Lavender Purple

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.Irish Green

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.Corn Poppy RedFor more on the range, see:

Thanks to Hannah and the team at The Pen Shop!

Dex big ‘soft’ pens

A little bit of history  The 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 looks  Nicely 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.

Dex acid green

How it feels  Warm and nicely textured; it’s light plastic, and not especially squishy but it does indeed feel fairly ‘soft’.Ruth's pink Dex

How it fills  This 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).

F and M nibs side-by-side

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.

VFM  The 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.

A prototype Uber-Dex with metal section (borrowed from the Manuscript Master) and experimental purple nib

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 recommendation  For 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 one  From a branch of The Pen Shop, their website or the new Penwrite project, where there’s an introductory 10% discount offer at the moment.

This meta-reviews references:

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 profile

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.

A brand new Pen Shop, looking pristine

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.

…still looking amazingly shiny….

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!

Before opening 1 (2)
…and now with added customers!

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.

The pen is mightier than the… ah, no, too late.

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…

London Stationery Show report

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.

Scribble Sport

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!