Tag Archives: fountain pen

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.

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.

Shibui.North Kibo metal/urushi fountain pen

A little bit of history  The history of urushi pen-making is probably beyond a quick piece on United Inkdom – but Mick has had a go at covering it in his review below! Our focus is perhaps more on the remarkable person trying to bring that tradition to new life on Tyneside. Ruth has studied in Japan and can read the manuals in the original, but she is determined to make something in her own style – and the results are truly extraordinary.

How it looks  The Kibo resembles… nothing else on earth. It’s a big hunk of hand-turned metal with urushi finishing which looks like it grew there over decades on another planet. Picking it up for a closer inspection is irresistibly tempting.

How it feels  The copper prototype we tested feels darned heavy, no doubt about it. If you like very substantial pens, this is splendid news. If that sounds a little intimidating, opt for aluminium – which looks just as remarkable. The urushi-derived finish also has a pleasantly tactile quality and lends a bit of extra grip, too.

How it fills  There’s room for a long international cartridge or a standard converter there, which should suit most needs.

Crucially, how it writes…  The Kibo takes a Bock #6, so how it writes is up to you! We popped a red lacquered steel unit on for this test, but if you prefer something less garish, the options are extensive. The weight of the pen is actually just right for writing.

Pen! What is it good for?  Signing weighty contracts, writing journals on robust paper (don’t use Tomoe!) – or, in extremis, defending yourself from marauders. In between, you might just find yourself staring at it in wonder.

VFM  The current Kickstarter has this individually-made artisan product for the ludicrously modest price of £120 for bare metal, or £150 for the yaketsuki finish. That’s a bargain, in our books. Everyone who has tested the prototype so far has found themselves putting in an order for a Shibui pen, which probably tells you all you need to know.

The only way is ethics  Ruth’s the real deal and we’ve got no qualms about materials, pricing or packaging here.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  Talk to Ruth and work out a custom design. There are plenty of variations possible on the theme.

Our overall recommendation  If you like the idea of a Japanese pen-maker plying here trade on these shores, now might be the time to back this new brand. The Kibo is a remarkable writing tool at an extraordinarily reasonable price point, and it should be start of great things to come, too.

Where to get hold of one  Right now, Kickstarter is the place to be if you want one of these.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Ruth for letting us take part in the birth of a beauty!

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.

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.

Take Five

Bedoooby-dooby-doooooby-doo, doobedy do do, doobedy-dooo, as Mr. Brubeck so memorably put it. But back in the non-jazz world, we know and love #5 as denoting one of the most popular sizes of nibs. But is it one size or two? No, it’s three. Hmm. Maybe we should give you the long version…

OK, here we go – and be warned, this will get geeky. Firstly, let’s cover what distinguishes a #5 nib from, say, a #6, or even a #8. An obscure mystery, surely? Well not really; the feed is 5 millimetres wide. That’s it.

So how can there be so much confusion between small #5s, large #5s, and sort-of in-between #5s? Possibly because we don’t have clearly established names for them. But it turns out that, actually we do.  In the language of nib-smiths Bock AG, they are the 060, the 180 and the 076, which might not be memorable labels but they could grow on you (you’ve read this far without dozing off, so there’s hope at least). The simple thing would be to just refer you to the handy guide on the Bock website, but that’s hardly the basis of a riveting article either.

Instead of just reeling out some not-terribly-vital statistics, then, we turned to Phil from Beaufort nibs, who has many advantages over Peter Bock, not least still being with us in the land of the living, a convenient base in Devon, and the lack of a dubious toothbrush moustache (top tip: avoid this unless you actually are Charlie Chaplin). Phil kindly supplied a sample of each, which we fitted to appropriate products from another company which started out in Heidelberg, and filled with various shades of Beaufort ink.

So, let’s start with the version of #5 which you’re probably most familiar with, the humble but sturdy ‘short’ #5 which Bock calls the 060. The reason you’ll know it is, in all likelihood, because you’ve encountered one of two Kawecos; a Sport or a Lilliput. In both cases, the diminutive nib looks the part on a small pen, and with little space to spare in the cap it’s really the only practical choice. Nibs aren’t always perfectly tuned when straight from the factory, so a hands-on supplier like Phil can be good to know if you have one of these pens and fancy changing the business end. We fitted one to a ‘stonewashed’ Sport to put it through its paces. With a short slit measuring 0.85mm from tip to centre of the breather hole, there’s not much wiggle room here so line variation is rare in the steel version, although gold can have a bit of bounce if you ask nicely.

The middle option, sometimes referred to as a ‘standard’ #5 in the trade, is the 180, which is just as narrow as the 060 and with a slit only a millimetre longer, but a more generous tail on the back. You may have seen these on pens like the late lamented Dex, the affordably splendid Super 5 (the name’s a clue), and of course the TWSBI Eco. It can be fitted to Kaweco pens which are narrow but have longer caps, like the Special – so that’s what we did. ‘Worked a treat.

Last but literally not least, there’s the big bold 076, which despite boasting a smaller number than the 180 has considerably wider shoulders. More importantly, it has the longest slit of all three (10.5mm), and thus naturally more flexible tines, whatever the material. You’ll be used to this size of nib in pens like the TWSBI 580, and it also fits many of the larger Kawecos, including the sadly missed All-rounder, the Student and the Dia. On these fairly big pens it looks correctly proportioned, and works better too. Maybe Kaweco should fit them in the first place – although with a minimum order of 5,000 pieces, it’s perhaps understandable that they haven’t yet rushed. In the meantime, have fun experimenting yourself!

In the spirit of fairness we should also mention that lots of other manufacturers offer #5 nibs too, sometimes even in new shapes like JoWo’s ‘arrow’ unit – but by golly life would be simpler if they’d adopt a straightforward numbering system…

Kaweco Ice Sport Glow highlighter fountain pen review

A little bit of history  On the other side of the Atlantic, different religious sects still have their own universities; you can, if you so wish, attend seats of learning gathered under the sway of belief systems not even recognised by the rest of the world, but we shall name no names. A Jesuit university is a relatively mainstream concept compared with some of the more outré outliers, albeit perhaps a surprising place to train as an industrial chemist – but Frank Honn graduated from one such, and went on to discover a novel use for the fluorescent dye pyranine as the first highlighting ink. It was a success, by any standards, and generations of pupils have grown up with felt-tip pens full of the stuff ever since. But felt-tips are horrible, and fountain pens are not, so Kaweco set out to make a highlighter that persons of taste might actually be able to contemplate using.How it looks  Did we say this was tasteful? Well, maybe it depends upon your own taste! It’s certainly rather loud – but there’s no mistaking what it’s for.

How it feels  Light and comfortable, like one of the more affordable plastic variants of the extensive Sport range – which is what it is, really.How it fills  Via  cartridges specially filled with unworldly glowing fluids.

Crucially, how it writes…  It writes like a fountain pen with a 1.9mm italic nib. For anyone who already has a calligraphy Sport this will be familiar enough, but if you’re used to the old felt-tip highlighters then switching to a steel tip can take a little getting used to.Pen! What is it good for?  It’s good for making up documents for editing or review, of course. It would probably also be good for baffling pen thieves in the work place; this is one pen which the ballpoint brigade won’t know where to even start with!VFM  Shop around a bit and you can get this set, complete with a box of cartridges, for less than £30.  Admittedly that would buy a lot of nasty cheap disposable highlighters, but you’d hate them – and this will probably last for decades. Fair value, then.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  Pelikan make a special M205 which does a similar job, albeit at about five times the price. Alternatively, if you like the concept but would just like a more conservatively-hued Kaweco, any wide-nibbed Sport Calligraphy will suffice; the highlighter ink cartridges are available separately.Our overall recommendation  Think about whether you really do all that much highlighting, and perhaps invest in a pack of the highlighter ink cartridges first to see if you take to using an italic fountain pen for this purpose – but if the answer to both is yes then this is, like pyranine, a ready solution.

Where to get hold of one  Most of your usual favourite retailers have this one in stock, and you won’t find it difficult to locate. The best price we’ve seen in the UK is at The Writing Desk.This meta-review references:

Thanks to Kaweco for the review sample.

 

Montegrappa Fortuna Rainbow fountain pen review

A little bit of history  The ancient Italian art of distilling pomace brandy is so deeply ingrained in the culture of the Veneto that there is even a town named after it, Bassano del Grappa, and here in 1912 a pen firm was founded. Montegrappa has been through interesting times since, including a period under dubious corporate parentage (which they now seem to have escaped from) and an unintentionally hilarious collaboration with Sylvester Stallone, but is now one of a number of European ‘luxury’ manufacturers. We’ve been meaning to get around to reviewing one of their fountain pens for a while, but they didn’t want to help so we had to wait until someone bought one. Then this happened:

How it looks  Yes, that is rather colourful, isn’t it? ‘Terrifically well-packaged, too.

How it feels  Large-ish, but still comfortable enough.

How it fills  With a cartridge, or a converter, one of which was provided with this pen – but it was broken. Lose a mark, Monty.

Crucially, how it writes…  Here we had rather different views, ranging from ‘OK’ to outright damnation. It just goes to show how individual our writing experience can be.

Pen! What is it good for?  Staring at lovingly, brandishing on a Pride march, or pointing admiringly at rainbows. It’s not, honestly, the absolute tops for writing though – at least not in its standard form.

VFM Even if you really love the material, £230 for a mass-produced pen with a steel nib is pretty much indefensible. If you can find it on special offer, as the owner of this very pen did at TK Maxx, then you might be more tempted at around £130 – still a lot for a pen without even a trace of gold dust, but moderately less absurd.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  Get one as cheaply as you can and fit a better nib – it’s a #6, so there are plenty of options. Alternatively, ask a custom pen maker to find you some similarly full-spectrum material.

Our overall recommendation  If you love the look, and can find it on special offer, go for it – then switch to a JoWo or Bock business end.

Where to get hold of one  If you want to spend £230 on this steel-nibbed pen – and, admittedly, get a pashmina thrown-in to the deal – then try Andy’s Pens.

This meta-review references:

 

 

Kaweco Deep Red AL Sport fountain pen review

A little bit of history  If you’re a regular reader, you probably already know that we’re quite keen on the Kaweco Sport. It’s a classic design, and works well in a bewilderingly wide range of different materials. Between the mighty heft of the steel and brass versions, and the featherweight lightness of the plastic entry-level models, the pen is also available in sturdy, solid yet far from unwieldy aluminium – and when this Deep Red version hit the shops, we had to give it a go. Kaweco very kindly let us play with the fountain pen along with its mechanical pencil cousin.

How it looks  Very deep red, matt, lustrous and slightly shiny. Paired with the pencil and popped into a ‘chilli red’ sleeve, it looks irresistibly good.

How it feels  Light but tactile. Unless you specifically prefer heavier pens like the brass Sport (as some of us do!), this is a good mid-point on the mass spectrum.

How it fills  As with all Sports this is a straightforward short international cartridge number. There is a converter, and it does work, but the fluid capacity is so limited that investing in a syringe is often the best tactic for long-term cohabitation with this petite performer. The pencil takes 0.7mm lead, and there’s plenty of that around.Crucially, how it writes…  We rather decadently dropped a gold nib into the test pen, and it wrote very nicely; not much springiness, but just a touch of softness. The standard nibs are getting better these days, too!

Pen! What is it good for?  This is one for showing off with, and why not? It gets a lot of envious looks …

VFM  Middling, honestly.  At around £60 this is not a cheap pen, and it will probably cost you more than that on top to get the gold nib. Having said that, this is not a crazily overpriced pen either.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  One of the hundred or so other Sport finishes might well be. Have a browse…

Our overall recommendation  If you’re taken with this finish, get one while you can; although we think it’s excellent, it was a special edition so it may not be available forever.

Where to get hold of one  Kaweco has a good dealership network and the pen and pencil aren’t too difficult to find from your retailer of choice. To get the whole set, with pouch and gold nib, may take a more specialist seller, and for that our tip is to try Most Wanted.

This meta-review references:

Thanks to  Kaweco for the rather tempting review sample pack; our calligrapher couldn’t bear to let it go!