Tag Archives: fountain pen review

Scribo Write Here Tropea

A little bit of history  If you’re a fountain pen fan, you’ll know about OMAS – and you’re probably also still missing that venerable Italian brand. But by now you might also know that some of its staff stayed on in the home city and set up Scrittura Bolognese, or Scribo for short. They make the curvaceously pulchritudinous Feel, but they are also up for making ‘private label’ pens for other stationery brands – an offer Write Here were the first to take up. Their ‘WH special’ has been available in various hues for half a decade now, so we have been meaning to get around to this meta-review for erm, quite a while. Eventually the Tropea finish looked impossible to resist.

How it looks  The shape of the pen is fairly unremarkable, albeit nicely executed with a sturdy clip. The colouring, though, conjures up a red onion skin very well indeed – which is what the town of Tropea is famous for, after all. We could venture off on a diversion into Italian food here, but you get the gist. It’s tasty. Unfortunately for us bloggers, it’s also nigh-on impossible to do justice to with a camera; you really have to see this in the flesh to get a proper sense of the material.

How it feels  Sturdy, but not overly heavy. Large, but not uncomfortably so. Just right, actually; it’s a pen made for people who really want to write – which might sound obvious, but we do come across a few pens which seem to have been produced more as eye candy than writing implements. This, though, is a serious pen for serious pen people (with, admittedly, serious pen budgets). The Scribo nib makes it a more tactile experience to write with, too; this thing really bounces.

How it fills  This is a proper piston-filler, which works smoothly and holds enough ink to keep going even with a big wet nib – which is just as well…

Crucially, how it writes…  This particular Tropea is fitted with a big 18k ‘standard’ broad italic. It’s standard only inasmuch as it is not the extra-flessibile 14k which Scribo (and OMAS) devotees prize so highly – but there’s certainly nothing ordinary about it. This is not stiff gold, by any stretch of the imagination, so there is plenty of natural line variation and bounce. Astonishingly, the feed can keep up, too! Writing with this is quite the experience, and puts a LOT of ink down on the page. Great if you have a rather extrovert style of writing, although it can be a bit of a handful if small, neat lettering is more your thing.

Pen! What is it good for?  The Scribo WH special is designed as a practical every-day writer’s pen, although this particular italic nib makes such a bold mark on the page that it’s hard to imagine many business uses. This is probably just too much fun for the office, but for funky correspondence, audacious recipes, daring diaries, trenchant critiques of the imminent demise of western civilisation and such-like it’s probably just the ticket.

VFM  Well, it’s not cheap, it must be acknowledged; the configuration we tested retails at £590, which is a fair bit of cash for a writing utensil. But a soft italic nib is a rare thing, and this is such a treat to write with that if you do have such sums to hand, there are certainly far worse ways to spend it. The ‘mainstream’ alternative options at this price point won’t win you as many admiring glances from penthusiasts and hot pangs of jealousy from disappointed ballpoint-wielders, that’s for sure.

The only way is ethics  Hand-made in Italy, by people you can email and get a reply from, this is looking like a pretty sound choice on the ethical front too. The packaging doesn’t include too much disposable content, either; you’ll probably want to put the admirable Scribo pen wrap into use.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  The Scribo Feel is worth a look if you prefer a less cylindrical sort of experience but still want one of these extraordinary nibs – or if you want even more curves, try La Dotta.

Our overall recommendation  Try one in the flesh – and if you like it (which, be warned, you probably will), start saving!

Where to get hold of one  Write Here in Shrewsbury – or via their website.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Write Here for sending the Tropea our way.

Visconti Homo Sapiens x2

A little bit of history Our species are not the first terrestrial hominids to make art, and therefore conceivably not the first to use a device like a pen for making marks. But we are, in all probability, the first on this planet to invent copperplate, so it’s perhaps not too bold for Visconti to name a pen design after us. Sed – ecce! – inter homi sapientes, de gustibus non est disputandum. We therefore did our best not to argue too much. Quite a mountain of history, actually Back in the 1970s, steady-state Luddites fought against two intellectual movements and lost twice, first to the constant expansion of the universe and then, down here on Earth, to plate tectonics. But our story starts about half a million years ago when the slow-motion collision of the African and Eurasian plates caused the growth and repeated eruptions of a stratovolcano known to successive civilisations as Etna. It’s held a place in myth and legend ever since, including as the prison of the monstrous Typhon, and as the source of much of Sicily’s soil has been ruled over by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, the offspring of King Rollo (no, really) and, for a brief but toothsome interval, a revolutionary squashed-fly biscuit. Etna also chucks out plenty of lava, of course, and Visconti gamely set out to make something of it. How it looks  The classic Homo Sapiens look is a black basaltic tube with a few metal rings and the signature Visconti bowed clip. If it’s under-stated in its usual dress it can be a lot more exotic as a special edition, and we were lucky enough to get our hands on a curious ‘special’ indeed, the Evolution – which looks like a Klingon tool for signing instantly broken peace treaties. How it feels  Sizeable, fairly hefty but not ridiculously heavy, for most of our reviewers. Most is not all, mind; at least one of our panel put the pen on the scales and declared it too weighty to live with. The clever bayonet closure (NB, not present on the Evolution) makes for a comfortable grip, though, and the weight is well-distributed. Visconti makes bold claims about the barrel material being hydroscopic, so that it still has a grip in sweaty hands, and although this is perhaps better tested in the summer it does seem to work quite well in practice. How it fills  This is a vacuum-filler, and it sucks in a voluminous gulp of scribbling juice without much effort on the user’s part. There’s no way to use cartridges, of course, but if you’re in the market for a pen this pricey a bottle of decent ink is unlikely to exceed the budget. Crucially, how it writes…  Now here hangs a tale. Originally, the Homo Sapiens employed palladium nibs which proved notoriously difficult to tune (and harder still to keep in trim). Our duo exemplifies recent alternatives; a usually well-behaved and slightly bouncy gold nib or, for the Evolution, a tubular steel nib which is firm but smooth. A pleasure on either count, although they are very different beasts. The gold nib on our test pen afforded some hard starts to a couple of reviewers, but not to the degree that made writing impossible – and as it flowed adequately for others ink choice may be a critical factor there. Another vital Homo Sapiens tip, which we wish Visconti would tell people directly, is to undo the blind cap a couple of turns before staring to write; this seems to reduce the risk of drying-up considerably.

Pen! What is it good for?  In standard trim it’s probably sober enough for the office – although some of the special editions might frighten the horses! The new gold nibs are lovely to write with, though, so this is also ideal for writing a diary or personal correspondence. It’s for keeps either way, though. VFM  These are very good pens, no doubt, but compared to other premium Italian offerings the value proposition is sometimes perhaps a little dicey. The Evolution tipped over into four figures, and that’s hard to justify for a steel-nibbed pen, however artistically assembled. Choose with care. The only way is ethics  These are made in Italy and (unless someone gets a really harsh cut of the fee) no-one’s being under-remunerated at this price. If you can afford one, enjoy it with a clear conscience!If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  There are new special editions of the Homo Sapiens out most years. Bide your time, save up, and pounce as soon as you see one you like. Or, if you want a posh pen from a different part of Italy, Scribo and Pineider may have a competing claim upon your attention. Our overall recommendation  Try one in the hand, if you can – but if you love it, that’s your pocket money spent for a while!

Where to get hold of one  Your fountain pen emporium of choice; Visconti is widely stocked. This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Manuscript, who as welling making great calligraphy kit themselves are also Visconti’s UK distributor – and sent these pens our way to put to the test.

Aratrum Calamus Fountain Pen

A little bit of history  The Calamus fountain pen is part of a three-piece writing instrument set also featuring a ballpoint pen and a rollerball pen. This very distinctive pen set has been put together by the German distributor Aratrum as a leaving gesture from their outgoing head of operations, Mr Pflug.

Aratrum is apparently one of Germany’s biggest writing product distributors and their list of prestigious companies include: Kaweco, Platinum, Recife and ACME to name but a few. So yes, this was always going to be a proper bit of kit! The look and feel of this range is the result of two decades of handling and selling pens, and it looks like Herr Pflug has tried to incorporate all his favourite details.

The term CALAMVS is a nod to the Roman reed pen, made from a leaf of Acorus calamus; an intriguiing plant also known as beewort in English, which apparently has psychoactive properties and was even supposedly used by Walt Whitman as a metaphor for ‘forbidden love’ between gentlemen. Golly.

How it looks The Calamus comes in a slick matt black cardboard tube with minimal tasteful graphics in white. The pen is made from brass with a black chromium finish and is piston filled from the back end with the twister hidden under a small screw-closure section. The main barrel features two ink windows, one on each side, with three engraved decorative rings. The clipless cap seamlessly pops on and off and features two engraved rings, a shallow engraved logo and a small steel stud to prevent roll on the opposite side. The Schmidt nib unit features a smoky grey medium nib with an iridium point.

How it feels The pen is made of brass and has a nice heft to it. Uncapped, the balance point is in the middle of the ink window – if that’s by design, it’s a nice touch. In the hand when writing the balance is towards the nib, which many of us prefer but maybe a slight issue for left-handed ‘over writers’ who seem to prefer the weight towards the rear, possibly as a counter to the angle they have to rotate their hand when writing. Another possible issue is the two ink window cutaways; one of our reviewers thought they felt a little sharp.

How it fills At the back of the barrel you have a blind cap, which once removed reveals the end of a captive piston filler. To fill, carefully twist anti-clockwise until fully down, put the nib into the ink source and twist clockwise to fill. One of the design features is the two long and prominent ink windows sitting opposite each other. It is very easy to see the ink level through these when filling the pen.

Crucially, how it writes…  The nib is a ruthenium-plated Schmidt size #5. The pen was tested on Tomoe River paper and in a Rhodia Webby with no issues whatsoever. It feels comfortable in the hand and is very smooth to write with. Interestingly there was a tiny bit of squeaking audible from the iridium point for the first sentence or two.

Pen! What is it good for? This is unquestionably a good quality pen with a unique look; it works for handwriting, and also as a fashion accessory.  

VFM  Remembering this is a limited edition pen, made of brass, and with visual/tactile features that require work, well it may surprise you that at present the pen is just €59. Unfortunately, postage to the UK is another €25, which is a pity, but if you happen to be in Deutschland…

Our overall recommendation  For this money the Calamus is a great-looking pen for both writing and accessorising. If you have contacts in Germany, bag one!

Where to get hold of one  The Calamus was provided by Papier und Stift, where you can also buy the devil-stick or gel alternatives, presumably for the Muggles in your life.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to Anja at Papier und Stift for providing the pen to test.

Kaweco Perkeo new flavours

A little bit of history  We’ve reviewed the Perkeo before, so the basics have already been covered. To recap briefly; this is a Kaweco’s entry-level offering for those who find the budget version of the Sport a little too diminutive. The model has served well enough in the market for 2021 to bring some interesting new colours and a three-nib calligraphy set to the market.

How it looks  Like a Sport cap with a full-sized barrel on the back, essentially. ‘Nout wrong with that! But the new colour-schemes really add something, especially the splendid ‘breezy teal’ and the icily cool demonstrator version with its unusual clear feed.

How it feels  Light and comfortable, with the three-sided grip section gently guiding pen posture.How it fills  There’s space for a brace of small international cartridges in the barrel, or a full-sized converter, which really looks the business in the demonstrator version.

Crucially, how it writes…  These take Kaweco’s rebranded Bock 060, a small #5 nib with plenty of options. The standard M and F nibs write well (and rather better than when the Perkeo was first released, we think), and the range of italic nibs in the calligraphy set impressed our favourite calligrapher, so no complaints there.

Pen! What is it good for?  The Perkeo is essentially aimed at the entry-level market, and fits there very well, but plenty of grown-up, seasoned fountain pen fans seem to rather like it too.

VFM  Generally retailing at £12 to £15 at the time of writing, this isn’t dirt-cheap but certainly isn’t highly-priced either.

The only way is ethics  Kaweco manufactures primarily in Germany so we have no concerns around labour conditions. Some of the packaging is plastic, but it’s not excessive.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  If you like the Kaweco look but want something pocket-sized, of course there’s the trusty Sport – while if you want an entry-level German fountain pen but can’t find a Perkeo, the Pelikano occupies similar territory.

Our overall recommendation  If you’re penabling a member of the family who’ll prefer to pick up something which looks cool, you could do a lot worse than the pulchritudinous Perkeo.

Where to get hold of one  Almost any fountain pen retailer you choose; these aren’t hard to find at all.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Kaweco for providing samples for this meta-review

Suitable Gravitas for the Position

A little bit of history  Ireland doesn’t have much of a tradition of fountain pen making. That has all changed, changed utterly, as Ben Walsh’s Gravitas has brought a clutch of innovative metal-based designs to the market. They are typified by modern design, attention to detail, interesting material and eye-catching (and smelling) packaging.

Gravitas’ production base is in the port town of Drogheda, some 50 kilometres north of Dublin, in a region which is home to the 5,000-year-old Neolithic stone-age Newgrange (a UNESCO world heritage site). There’s also a strong Irish cultural dimension with the use of Ogham symbols on the packaging and heraldic escutcheon similar to the ermine of Breton coats of arms or the fleurs de lys from the family crest being branded on the pens and the packaging (although not on the bronze pen). Walsh, by the way, is a Norman family name from Breathnach, the Gaelic for Breton, foreigner or Welshman. The Normans invaded Ireland in the 12th century and fairly quickly became completely Hibernicised. As it happens, the logo is also rather reminiscent of the benchmarks left around these islands by the Ordnance Survey to ascertain how the ground rises or falls by, well, gravity. Choose the influence you prefer, but either way it looks good.

Ben Walsh had previously made pens in concrete before developing some prototype fountain pens as a Kick-starter project. It did not reach its initial target and he opted to execute the project himself. He asked many people in the pen community for their thoughts and feedback, and the results show him to be a good listener. In late 2020 Gravitas pens hit the market with a series of products in different materials and nib widths. Fountain Pen UK Facebook group members were offered a 10% discount and many took the plunge, including quite a few United Inkdom bloggers; a meta-review was inevitable.

How they look  These Gravitas fountain pens are cigar-shaped and made of metal (aluminium, steel and bronze) and come in a variety of finishes. Four models are considered here; a bronze, a stainless steel, a stunning eye-catching rainbow finished Skittles and a beautiful Celtic knotwork pen.

The Gravitas bronze model came well-packed inside a jiffy bag in a cardboard tube. The pen was wrapped in Gravitas-brand grey-black tissue paper and tightly plugged into the tube’s base, which keeps it safe in transit. The tissue paper comes powerfully perfumed, a touch which delights some and appals others, but attention from those now ubiquitous surface wipes removes the worst if that’s not to your taste. The exterior of the tube sports Ogham alphabetic runes translating to: Gravitas Pens and “May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow and trouble avoid you wherever you go”.

The bronze material is a nickel-free Ampco 18 alloy of aluminium (10.5%), iron (3.5%), and the rest copper, and heat treated to provide a high strength, ductile and unusually tough metal typically used for aircraft parts (gears, bearings, etc). The finials are silicon nitride embedded in cap end and barrel end matching the toughness of the pen body. At 147.5mm long (capped), 15mm width and 97.15g capped (70g uncapped) this is a big, heavy pen, even compared to other metal-bodied fountain pens such as the Kaweco Supra (48g in stainless steel), aluminium-based Diplomat Aero (a substantial 41g), and four and a half times heavier than the ubiquitous Lamy Al-Star yardstick (a lightweight 21.7g).

At 74g capped (49g uncapped) the stainless-steel model is lighter than the bronze version but the design and dimensions are identical. The model we reviewed had a distinctive textured finish which extended to the section and which eliminated any of the typical slipperiness that many experience with metal sections.

If Ben Walsh impresses as the serious mind behind Gravitas, you can see he has a sense of fun in his design of the Gravitas Skittles fountain pen. It is a stand-out ‘wow’ model which is quite hard to describe without sounding like a complete hippy. There is nothing subtle about it, be it the weight, the size, or the rainbow colours. If Jim Morrison were to grab a fountain pen, it would be this one, and he would quite probably stare into it for hours.

This psychedelia is reflected in the packaging, a very attractive tube, which gives you a sense of the colours of the pen even before you open it. Ben’s sense of fun carries through in the packaging because he infused it with a violet scent which persists for months after the pen is opened. The pen is made from 304 stainless steel with a precision machine finish, lightly brushed with a titanium nitride rainbow physical vapor deposition (PVD) coating, also known as thin-film coating. The attention to detail is seen in the continuation of the PVD coating inside the pen cap and body. This hefty pen is 74g capped and 49g uncapped but again feels comfortable in the hand. It is available in matt or polished finishes.

Ben Walsh’s father is a graphic designer and friend of Ireland’s foremost Celtic artist: Jim Fitzpatrick who is renowned for a series of Celtic mythology artworks and this prompted Ben to make a pen sporting Celtic knotwork decoration for his father. From these prototypes Gravitas offered the model to the fountain pen public. Celtic knotwork is famous in designs in Ireland and an echo of the traditions that monks scribed in the 8th century Book of Kells. In Celtic iconography the starting point is the square King Solomon (the reference of ‘Divine Inscrutability’ and wisdom) and foundation knots which are then extended to a plait structure of the Josephine knot. This is perfectly executed on the pen, showing as a silver laser-etched pattern on the anodised black aluminium or on 304 stainless steel precision machine finish and bead-blasted with a black PVD coating. Our reviewer with the steel version partnered the pen with a gold Jowo nib, a near perfect match of a stiff body with a more flexible and versatile nib. 

How they feel  These are wonderfully tactile, beautiful and stylish pens that are a genuine pleasure to hold and use, not least because of the balance. All the models had the same triple-start square threads that meant the cap came off in one turn to reveal a generous some 30mm length section. The threads feel unobtrusive and comfy on the fingers. There is a 60-degree bevelled drop from the 15mm diameter body to 12mm of the section at the top, which then gently tapers down to 11.5mm at the bottom of the section.

Universally the reviewers felt the pens were well-balanced; their heft snug and comfortable, with even the weightier models not too tiring for normal use. The bronze beast at 70.7g uncapped still felt ergonomic and stable in the hand. The bronze body has a very fine micro-texture to it that makes the surface easier to hold, while the stainless-steel model has a textured pattern which extends to the section which allows for a firm grip too. The steel-based Skittles model looks stunning in the hand and feels balanced and firm for writing. The weight is mainly in the barrel and thus is supported in the crook of your hand rather than by your fingers. Consequently, it doesn’t strain your finger joints in the same way that some heavier pens do. There’s no clip to get in the way, and this model doesn’t post either; it has been kept simple.

How they fill   Gravitas’ models are all cartridge/converter types, coming with a packet of small international cartridges in blue or black as well as the robust Schmidt K5 converter.

Crucially, how they write…  There was universal consensus on the comfort of the balance and feel of the different pens in the hand and how the #6 Jowo nibs performed. One reviewer wrote several long letters and others tested their pens at length with notes, letters and EDC tasks. One even attempted to copy some Uncial script and Celtic knot-work. With a variety of different steel nibs tested and one experimental gold nib fitted too, these pens all wrote faultlessly.

Pens! What are they good for?   These pens are a pleasure to use and the overall look and feel incite you to pick them up. For one reviewer, simply picking up the psychedelic Skittles model and turning it in the light was pleasure enough. They are versatile, easy to use, and the aesthetics of the different models makes this a ‘go to’ pen for many owners.

VFM   The Gravitas fountain pens are good value for money and compare favourably against other metal-bodied fountain pens. Depending on the finish and patterning the standard Gravitas pen ranges from €70 to €105 (£60-£90, or $85-$125). Postage to the UK is about €10-€15.

The only way is ethics  The pens are designed, prototyped, finished and packaged in Ireland by a micro-business (less than 10 employees). You can talk directly and easily with the owner Ben Walsh, which as many remarked makes the experience it all the more attractive. 

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  Metal pens often divide opinion, especially where they include metal sections whose lack of easy tactile connection can let the whole package slip. However, all reviewers noted how easy to use these pens felt. If the main Gravitas design is nevertheless a bit too big for your hands, the more recent ‘entry-level’ design may be more to your taste.

Our overall recommendation  Even reviewers with long-standing aversions to metal found Ben Walsh’s fountain pens striking a welcome chord. For a pen with such precise and determined design they represent great value for money. Buy one and watch the brand grow!

Where to get hold of one  Gravitas is purely an on-line operation, but our view is that you can buy with confidence. Bag yours at: www.gravitaspens.com

This meta-review references:

Pineider Arco Blue Bee

A little bit of history  Florence is not as well-known as Bologna for pen production, at least on these shores, but Pineider have been in the game for a century or two. The venerable Florentine brand has, since 1774, supplied popes, princes and heads of state with paper and envelopes for correspondence, as well as the luxury leather cases to carry such materials. Earlier this century the brand went through some torrid times under a new owner, which did not really understand the stationery and related products market, and it nearly closed completely. However, in 2017 new investment and leadership from the Rovagnati family saved the business and sparked new life into Pineider. They have other, perhaps slightly more modestly-styled fountain pens too, but their UK distributor was keen to go straight for the dandy of the bunch – and as you can see, they delivered in full.

How it looks  OK, you’d have to squint pretty hard to mistake it for an actual bee, but you can see what they mean. The layers of gold and blue resin look organic in origin, and they’re polished to perfection. You may, quite reasonably, spend a day or two staring at the Arco Bee while it does its big glinting iridescence shtick before even attempting to write with it!  The 10mm cap also bears the company logo and the legend: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.

How it feels  You will want to try writing with it, though, as soon as you see that nib. More on that in a moment. Out of the box, the pen looks and feels good in the hand; comfortable and ergonomic with no threads to irritate or distract the fingers. Measurement and comparison-wise the “Arco” Blue Bee has the classic medium-sized fountain pen dimensions: its length of 142mm and width of 12.7 mm and mm in the hand, so it measures up to pen reviewers’ typical Lamy Safari or Al-Star yardstick. It is quite a light pen: 32g in total, 16g uncapped. So in the hand this is a surprisingly light pen: robust, but not too hefty to wield lightly. ‘Just as well…

How it fills  There’s a proper, fully-fledged piston here – no cut-price captured converter nonsense. Pineider do it properly, and even throw a usable travelling inkwell into the package. The zoetrope ink window works, too. This really is intended for use, not just ornament. One of our reviewers wrote an eight-page letter (on A5 90 gsm vellum) without making much, if any, impression on the ink capacity and found it a pleasure to write with the pen for sustained periods.

Crucially, how it writes…  Like nothing else, honestly. This is the softest nib many of us can remember encountering! Perhaps because the tip on our test pen started at M, the line variation was actually quite modest, so this might not be a flex nib in the standard sense, but it’s certainly the very opposite of stiff. It’s for writing steadily with, while enjoying your evening off with some Slow Food, perhaps even in a Slow City. You get the picture; Italians know how to live, and it extends to stationery.

Some of our reviewers found that the nib appeared to perform better with less wet inks, and one detected some elements of ‘baby’s bottom’ and a sweet spot in the nib. With wetter inks the nib gushed. The pen’s documentation advises a lighter touch with the nib and its medium nib certainly did not need much pressure to leave a luxuriously wet line on standard Rhodia and Clairefontaine papers. Most loved the nib. A number of us used a drier indigo ink (Taccia Hokusai Koiai Blue) and it delivered a consistently wet flow. Those that played to the nib’s strengths found it wrote wet and smooth, and that it merited investing time to get familiar with.

Pen! What is it good for?  It would just be cruel to inflict an office environment on this fontoplumistic starlet. Take it your boudoir, your scriptorium in a secluded castle, to the best al fresco ristorante table you can find – but not, purlease, to work. *Shudders*

VFM  Oh golly, this isn’t cheap. Retailing at £680, few of us felt we could justify the price easily. But then again, two of the reviewers now own one, so…

The only way is ethics  This is made by proper artisans, and it shows. We have no qualms.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  The Full Metal Jacket, one of Pineider’s slightly more affordable pens, is based upon essentially the same design – albeit with less gaudy materials.

Our overall recommendation  If it floats your boat and you can afford it, go for it. Unlike some bling, this also serves a genuine functional purpose; it’s lovely to write with.

Where to get hold of one  Bespoke fountain pen emporia of your acquaintance. It’s a limited edition, so Boolean logic is your friend!

This meta-review references:

Thanks to Pineider’s wholesaler in the UK for lending us this remarkable pen.

John Sanderson pens

 

 

 

 

 

A little bit of history  John Sanderson might not yet be a name widely known in pen circles, but he has been turning pens for more than forty  years, combining extensive knowledge of engineering (as a former metal and print press engineer) and a life long passion for working with wood, with impressive results.

For this meta-review, he supplied seven pens in total:  three ‘oversize’, and four more traditional sizes, in a wide breadth of materials, nibs, trims and designs.

A custom pen maker, John can pretty much design whatever you want: from a tiny clipless pocket midget to a huge heavily adorned behemoth, and anything in between. Reviewing such a broad range could be risky, but John was up for putting his designs to the test!

How they look These are beautiful to gaze at, with clean lines, interesting combinations of materials and colours and high quality, handmade argentium silver trim.  Designs we sampled included a huge diamondcast oversize pen with a mid-century modern “sci-fi” theme clip, through to slender combinations of wood burls (including one made of pine cone hearts suspended in resin) with complementary acrylic resin sections.

 

How it feels  John’s pens were all well balanced, light (often in spite of their size), and comfortable to hold for long writing periods.  There was a broad range of barrel diameters, from slender 10mm right up to jumbo 14-15mm sections, but most were felt to be comfortable and sections were ergonomically designed.

The threads were, for the most part, smooth and unobtrusive, and the one grip section which a reviewer found a touch uncomfortable could doubtless have been returned for a bit of smoothing-out if needed.

How it fills  All the pens were supplied with standard international Schmidt K2 style cartridge converters.  These are easy and convenient – and of course there are also cartridges available, for barbarians.

Crucially, how it writes…  These pens were supplied with either Bock or Jowo steel nibs for demonstration purposes, but being customisable, gold, titanium, platinum etc. would all be options (at a price) and John can also accommodate Pelikan nibs and the like into his section designs.

This means all the pens we tried were smooth, comfortable writers with ink flow that is typical of standard Bock and Jowo nibs.  As we expect to use pens, not just look at then, this is all good news.

VFM  Prices for a custom pen by John start at around £100 and go up from there towards £220 – depending on design, choice of material, trim features and nib choice.  This means these are an ‘investment’, but with such an experienced maker, if the end product isn’t quite what you wanted, it can be adjusted and rebuilt until it is.

Value on a custom pen is hard to judge, but these ooze quality and the reviewers all like the very bright, shiny, tarnish-resistant argentium silver which really sets the trim levels apart from others.

The only way is ethics  John is open and transparent to deal with.  There are no upfront costs and pens are only paid for once received and tested by the customer; this is fair and straightforward and makes procuring a custom pen through John an enjoyable and guilt-free process.

 

Our overall recommendation  All our reviewers felt these pens oozed quality, showed a huge breadth of skill with materials, metalwork and design and were very tempting – at least one of us has independently purchased a Silver Burl since reviewing.

Where to get hold of one : Direct from the maker at https://silverburlpens.com/

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  John himself for lending us such a special set of his creations.

Dodecagon and on and on

A little bit of history  One of the most frequent questions we get asked here at the Inkdom’s secret bunker is what can be sensibly procured for careless beginners with small-ish hands. We don’t want to put them off with a lousy writing experience, but then again we’d rather it didn’t cost a fortune when the pen is sat on, melted over a Bunsen burner or lost on the school bus. Venerable British firm Manuscript, which has been supplying study desks since the days when that ink-well hole was in every-day use, turns out to be still in the business of providing a solution. Of course we had to give it a try!

How it looks  The Dodec has a slim barrel with, as the name suggests, twelve sides. The plastics in use range over sky blue turquoise, magenta, black and transparent finishes. With knurled grip sections the overall look is economical and functional, which is pretty much the Dodec proposition in a nutshell. There’s no mistaking it for a boring old ballpoint, though.

How it feels  Light and easy to handle – as long as you don’t grip that non-slip section too tightly. The nibs feel positively laser-guided on the page, though; there’s no tactile clue as to how astonishingly inexpensive the Dodec is.

How it fills  This is a straightforward cartridge filler, for most purposes. The dimensions are built to a budget and the barrel is actually too tight a fit for a standard Schmidt converter. However, the long ‘international’ cartridges sold by Waterman and Pelikan fit perfectly and allow for a useful squeeze when the nib has run dry – which can happen occasionally.

Crucially, how it writes…  Now here is where it gets more complicated than might have been expected from the tiny price tag. For Dodecs sport two completely different types of nib! The ‘handwriting’ nib is essentially a folded or butterfly design, which writes amazingly smoothly without employing a harder metal on the tip. It’s a great introduction to what a proper fountain pen feels like, and in the unlikely event of wearing it out a replacement is very, very affordable. The italics, meanwhile, are of the classic ‘crisp’ variety and come in a dizzying range of sizes which encourages experimentation – they’re fun to use but can also produce seriously impressive results too.

Pen! What is it good for?  The handwriting pen is obviously great for beginners but often impresses even grizzled gold nib fanatics, so it serves as everything from first fountain to everyday shopping-list-compiler. The italic nibs are made for having fun with, but even proper calligraphers approve. The Dodec is built down to a budget and this occasionally shows up as inconsistent ink flow, but reseating the friction-fit nib and feed when required is a very simple job. In return, you can afford to abuse them a bit and innovate. 

VFM  Shop around and you can often pick these up about £1.50 a go. You’d be hard-pressed to find a decent ballpoint at that sort of price – if such a thing even existed, of course. That’s hard to argue with, really.

The only way is ethics  Made right here in Blighty and using fairly minimal packaging, there’s not much to worry over and a fair bit to feel good about.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  The rest of the Manuscript range is probably worth a look instead. Some people do prefer the rounder, less nobbly ‘Classic’ from the same stable, which is similarly stonking value.

Our overall recommendation  A Dodec costs less than a something a barista could make for you once upon a time, and you’ve had a year off from that so, seriously, what are you waiting for?

Where to get hold of one  The handwriting and italic versions of the Dodec can often be found in ‘thrift’ outlets like Boyes and The Range, as well as from educational stationers in bulk. If that doesn’t appeal, plenty of online retailers and art supply shops stock a full range and you can even buy them from Manuscript direct. Try an online search for ‘Manuscript Dodec’ and you may be pleasantly surprised.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Manuscript for kindly furnishing us with samples to show what the Dodec can do.

Schon DSGN insert-laboured-pun-here Brass in Pocket 6

A little bit of history  The pocket pen used to be a veritable institution, albeit a sexist one. The assumption was that a big ‘manly’ pen would not fit into the small, unaccommodating sort of pocket with which ladies’ attire was furnished, and so in the early twentieth century many a manufacturer competed to fulfil this niche demand, in a manner which was, infuriatingly, both aesthetically pleasing and massively patronising. Nowadays such nonsense no long prevails and a pocket pen is a handy thing for anyone who likes pens and has, err, pockets. But slung into the side pocket of a pair of jeans, for instance, it’s going to take some punishment  – so Ian Schon, an enterprising Philadelphian, set out to engineer a durable solution.How it looks  It’s a short featureless tube, basically. If you’re still stuck in gender discrimination mode, it could conceivably be mistaken for a portable mascara applicator, or an emergency Spitfire cockpit canopy removal tool. Obviously these are both foolish misperceptions, but such is the fate of the common-or-garden dinosaur. The rest of us can either polish the brass or let it elegantly corrode (‘patina’ is a lovely euphemism for brass rust, isn’t it?), while wondering what lurks within.

How it feels  Heavy, obviously – it’s made of brass. No messing (k-bmm, tssk!). But when the Pocket 6 is fully assembled, which is easy enough with the screw-in cap posting arrangement, it both looks and feels like a fairly full-sized pen. If the weight is a bother, which it seemed to be for some of our reviewers, then lighter aluminium versions are also available – with some eye-popping paint jobs.

How it fills  This is a straightforward ‘short international cartridge’ affair – although there is always the trusty syringe for added variety.

Crucially, how it writes…  Pretty well, for this has a nice big #6 steel JoWo nib. Very few pocket pens house a full #6, and indeed only the Kaweco Supra comes close, so this is the essential MacGuffin which makes the Pocket 6 so unusual – and, obviously, which provides its name.Pen! What is it good for?  Errm, putting in your pocket, maybe? It will take some bashing-about and still write well when you need it to – although the time involved in reassembling the pen before writing might not make this the ideal jotter for very quick notes.

VFM  Reasonably competitive. in our view. With price tags usually well into triple figures this is certainly not cheap, but for a well-engineered and meticulously produced pen which is likely to outlast most purchasers, it’s certainly no rip-off either.

The only way is ethics  These are made by Ian Schon himself, without masses of added packaging  and with no obvious risk of poor labour conditions.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  The Kaweco Supra, without the extension tube, does a similar job – albeit with a Bock nib instead.

Our overall recommendation  If you want a pocket pen which last for a century and has a ‘proper’ nib on the front, this does the job in style. Just beware that the brass version is hefty, and the aluminium version seems to be very popular too, quite possibly for that reason.

Where to get hold of one  Ours came from Nero’s Notes, but in the UK Izods also stocks them.  Alternatively, you could go straight to the source.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Nero’s Notes for furnishing us with this remarkable pocket pen.

One’s Estie-mable Friend

A little bit of history  Cornwall has exported many a mining engineer to the world beyond, and many a Davy lamp too, but Richard Esterbrook left the peninsula with a rather smaller and more refined form of engineering in mind. Relocating to the US in 1856, he founded a long-running pen brand, supposedly even making a pen for Abraham Lincoln himself. The marque went from strength to strength for much of the following century, and is still well-respected in vintage pen circles for its dizzying range of specialist nibs. As was the case for most US-made pens, though, by the end of the twentieth century cheaper manufacturing elsewhere marked the end of the line. The reborn Esterbrook brand is just that – a brand, owned by firm called Kenro. But the products, largely unrelated to the old Esterbrook as they may be, look good enough to eat… or at least to write with. We thought we ought to give the flagship Estie a try.

How it looks  The Estie, in any size, is a classic ogive-ended cylinder, with a plain clip and subtle branding on the cap. What really distinguishes one from another is the colouring of the material; the plain black is plain indeed, but the lilac is spectacular in either chrome or gold trim, and occasional special editions like the ‘evergreen’ really look the business.

 

How it feels  About the right size in the hand, as long as you go for the shape best for you. Most of us eschewed the ‘slim’ version (with its humble #5 nib) for the standard edition, which is a happy medium. If you like a pen which is just a bit fatter without being unwieldy, though, the ‘oversize’ version delivers without looking disproportionate, at least by modern standards. As Mick found, however, the new Estie looks quite formidable compared to the more modest dimensions of many a vintage Esterbrook, so brand afficionados might be in for a bit of a surprise.

How it fills  The Estie is a straightforward cartridge/converter number, and as customary there’s a basic cartridge in the excellent packaging (along with a rather terrific red cleaning cloth) – but you’ll probably prefer to fit the included adapter and employ whatever ink you please.

 

Crucially, how it writes…  Esties are fitted with a JoWo #6 nib, which makes for ample adaptability. The Esterbrook-branded steel nibs work well in all the usual point sizes, as well as a good 1.1mm italic option. If spoiling your Estie rotten is on the agenda, you could even screw-in a gold nib unit instead. But the really clever party piece is the retro-compatible alternative section, sold as a ‘nib connector’, into which you can fit a vintage Esterbrook nib which was actually, ya know, made by Esterbrook. It’s only available in black, but it works, and that nod to the brand’s roots is to be applauded.

Pen! What is it good for?  The black version could certainly be carried to an office, if any of us ever set foot in one again, while the very colourful cracked-ice variants would look good at home or, as Ania rightly points out, on the Orient Express. Thanks to the internal sprung cap this won’t dry out in a hurry, so it’s a good choice for infrequent or occasional use too.

VFM  Here’s where the Estie struggles a bit at the moment, in our view. It’s a good pen which looks the part and feels well put together too, but a custom instrument hand-made by an artisan this ain’t. At the moment Esties are promoted at £150 for the standard size and £185 for the ‘oversize’ version, which is quite a big ask; at those prices, a gold nib really wouldn’t be too much to expect in return. With a steel nib, we think that around £85 and £95 respectively would have been reasonable price tags.

The only way is ethics  The packaging delights in trumpeting Esterbrook as ‘America’s original’, but as far as we can discern the nib is made in Germany and the rest of the pen in China. That doesn’t necessarily indicate a major problem, and we have no immediate evidence of poor labour conditions in the factory, but then again neither do we have much in the way of reassurance. This is perhaps an area in which the brand owner would be wise to be a little more proactive.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  We really like the Estie a lot, but if for some reason you can’t find one in exactly the colour you want it shouldn’t be difficult to find alternatives; this is not a complicated or unusual shape, and #6-nibbed pens are available from almost every manufacturer. Most custom pen-turners will be delighted to run a similar-shaped pen off the lathe, while The Writing Desk’s range of Edison Colliers are US-made pens taking a #6 at a very similar price to what the born again Esterbrook are asking for. It’s fair to say that the pen fan has plenty of options here.

Our overall recommendation  If there’s a material you really love the look of, and you can justify paying a little over the odds for it, you’re not going to be disappointed. If you have an old Esterbrook nib fitted to a pen which has seen better days, the ‘nib connector’ is a clever way to give it new life. Should the shape alone appeal, it’s not unreasonable to shop around or, possibly, wait for the price to regulate downwards somewhat.

Where to get hold of one  Most of your favourite online sellers have the Estie in stock – and in the far distant future, we may even dream of visiting shops which display them, in the flesh, there in front of our eyes.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Studio Pens, Esterbrook’s distributor, for easing access to test pens for four of our penthusiasts.