We catch up with up-and-coming urushi master, Ruth Bolton…
Tell us about Shibui! It’s a tricky term to translate into English, but can mean the way that objects obtain an accidental beauty over time; it’s random, so it’s unique, and improves as it gets older. The ‘north’ bit of the name is because I’m based in sunny Tyneside.
So how did you end up getting into the ancient art of urushi? It wasn’t planned, but I lived in Japan for six years and in an attempt to learn the language I thought I’d give night classes a try. Getting to grips with urushi varnishing techniques looked like a good way to go in at the deep end, and one thing led to another.
Was it about pens right from the start? Not really – that was another benign accident! I inherited a lathe from my grandfather, and although turning wood was hard work I found I got on very well with ebonite. It’s smelly stuff to work with, but the results are worth it. Then, having seen urushi-finished pens in Japan, I put two and two together. It’s been a busy time ever since…
How complex is the process? Very! Turning the pen in ebonite is one of the fastest parts , really – that and adding a Bock nib at the end. But urushi is all about the finish, and that can take up to fifty coats for each piece. The coats have to dry slowly, in a humid atmosphere to avoid cracking; I use an old cigar humidor to regulate that, but it can still take up to three months overall.
What’s next? More textures and finishes. My urushi designs are selling well through Kickstarter, I’m working on a shark-skin texture next, and prototyping a maki-e finish too. It’s a long learning process, but a fascinating one. It’s amazing the things that can make the key difference, too – I’m using a sea sponge to create the coral negoro effect of my latest design.
You can see more of Ruth’s remarkable designs on her own website and her current Kickstarter campaign too. We’re hoping to put one of her pens through the legendary United Inkdom meta-review process later in the year.
This week, our roving eye takes a little way out of the world of quaint market towns with nice pen shops in the corner and all the way to… Arizona. If that seems a bit of a leap, it will soon make sense. We caught up with founder Ron Manwaring, ably assisted by marketing supremo Zach Jolley.
So Ron, how did you end up opening a pen shop in a chalet in Mesa?
Well, I actually moved here at first to work in software! Then I got interested in the potential of online retailing, and while I searched for an underserved niche a lot of my friends started telling me that I should take a look at fountain pens. It’s been quite a learning curve since then – but now I can see what fuss is about.
There isn’t really a chalet, though?
Sorry to disappoint you! It’s more of a warehouse, although a warehouse with some pretty cool stuff in it, it’s got to be said.
You said it was quite a learning curve. What drew you in?
Well, the pen community is very well-connected – everyone knows everyone, and everyone seems to have an opinion. That keeps us honest; you have to treat people with respect and customers really know what they’re doing! It’s great dealing with people who are so enthusiastic, and it’s nice to hear good things in return. We try to go the extra mile when we can and that seems to be appreciated.
So this probably isn’t going to be the first time you’ve talked to pen bloggers.
Oh no, we talk to bloggers all the time! We get to see a lot of the US bloggers at pen shows and the like, and we’ve already worked with a couple of United Inkdom members (Ian and Stuart) so you were never going to escape.
So let us in the secret – what sells?
It’s not such a big secret. Everyone loves big exciting gold nibs, right? But the other thing that really gets people interested is interesting design, and there are a couple of unusual brands which are doing that for us. One is Opus 88, who are doing a great job of reinventing the eye-dropper, and the other brand which leaps to mind is Taccia, who are the only company we can think who get to re-badge Sailor nibs. Actually, we’re going to see if we can United Inkdom to try both of those out.
So, here’s the killer question; what are you both writing with today?
Ron: I love the Pilot Custom 823, which is a serious fountain pen, but a Retro 51 roller can be useful too – I hope the nib fans will forgive me!
Zach: I’ve taken to an Opus88 – that smooth nib takes some beating!
OK, you’ve sold it to us! We’ll have to put those pens through the review mill…
Loyal readers will already be familiar with our slow but committed campaign to profile all the boutique stationery retailers we can find, to which end we have of course interviewed The Writing Desk already. But it seemed a good time for a quick update, for the simple reason that they now have an actual stationery boutique – yes, TWD has gone bricks-and-mortar! The online operation is still going strong too, of course, but we all love a little shop, and one of the team was in Bury St. Edmunds for an afternoon, so the inevitable happened…
Be prepared for temptation. There is so much sought-after kit here, and combining online expertise with a physical presence on the High Street (well, Risbygate) has allowed The Writing Desk to complement their traditional offer (already distinguished by some rare brands such as Private Reserve) with a handful of rescued Conway Stewarts from Bespoke British Pens, a crop of genuine Traveller’s Notebooks, and posh Pilots actually branded as Namiki. It’s a fine mix of ancient and modern, much like the town itself; home to the fourth largest Benedectine monastery in Europe before the Dissolution, the medieval-design cathedral was only finished in 2005.
It’s well worth a visit if you’re passing through Suffolk; as well as pens that will invite rash abuses of your credit card, there are some well-chosen notebooks (with very good deals on Clairefontaine in particular), the opportunity to try pens which wouldn’t be accessible any other way, and of course Martin’s sage advice on care and repair of naughty nibs.
Having blown a bit of pocket money in the best way possible, your reporter repaired to The Nutshell, which has a justifiable claim to be England’s smallest pub – and where the customers immediately recognised the logo, acknowledged that it was a great shop and enthusiastically inhaled from the scented J.Herbin as it was passed around (it smells even better than Greene King’s finest, apparently). That’s fountain pens, you see; a hit with ink nerds, defrocked monks, beardy beer-men and purple-haired punk poets everywhere. Drop in and see for yourself!
This is going to be a fairly short profile, for the simple reason that Personalised Stationery is such a prolific product creator that we’re highly likely to come back to them again and again. But since we’ve just meta-reviewed a couple of fine A5 notebooks from this stable, it’s time to provide a bit of background.
The stable in question is in fact a smithy, but where hammer and tongs once rung out different equipment now reigns supreme; printing rollers, staplers and guillotines. The owner, Rob, has already carved out a promising niche providing name-plated writing paper (as the company’s title suggests), and in contact with pen fans and journal-writers has started to develop a mightily impressive range of notebooks and other stationery items.
One of the reasons that the Personalised Stationery marque is proving a big hit with fountain pen fans is the quality of the paper. Now, we’re not going to give away every one of Rob’s trade secrets, but it helps to understand how this all works if you know that Lamy, Kaweco and Diamine inks are always visible on his desk – along with a few pens to put them in, of course. Testing every paper sample the hard way seems to be paying off.
A second appeal, not unreasonably, is the visual design ideas which Rob borrows and adapts from all sorts of sources. The Operation Neptune notebook which we reviewed last week proved such a hit that a complementary range of 1940s-themed A6 pocket notebooks has become rather popular too.
An even bigger hit was a homage to the period just after the war, as Amazon television series The Collection needed notebooks for the front row of fashion critics seated at the foot of the catwalk – and Personalised Stationery provided them, of course.
The really ‘killer’ asset is probably the genuinely personalised nature of the product collection – simply put, if no-one else is making what you want, Rob probably will. Bringing back the old double-sided postcard (remember them?) is a good example.
Even more gratifyingly, the increased interest in disc-bound notebooks (which we like to think we’ve played a modest part in paving the way for) has led to Rob experimenting in making his own, with line options as wide, or indeed narrow, as customers require. John was especially impressed by the one which came his way – and it could well lead to a more permanent stock line before too long, it seems. So, overused as this phrase may be, watch this space!
You may already know Rob from online conversations – he answers every query himself – but if you haven’t already seen the company site it’s certainly worth a look.
Selling fountain pens, inks and good paper is a niche business, clearly – but it’s also a fast-growing niche, inhabited by splendid people with refined tastes. So it’s always good to encounter a small firm thriving by doing the right thing, and if you’re a stationery fan then you probably already know Bureau Direct is one of those!
Still run by siblings Jo and Dominic, the team is now around nine in total (it varies at peak demand times), and thanks to Mishka there’s a good chance you’ll already have encountered them via social media. As a big deal in the online world, it’s interesting to discover that they started out with a bricks-and-mortar shop – in Covent Garden, no less. But as the internet shopping boom started, well, booming, the rents for such premises rose and the opportunities in cyber-space grew proportionately. So the team now has a spacious base to the west of London, with racks of exotic stationery aplenty.
Fountain-pen friendly paper is a big deal for this company, and the array of black and red Rhodia items on the shelves of the warehouse are quite an impressive site. What will grab many fountain pen fans is that there’s enough of a customer base to engage in the occasional spot of innovation too. We ran a meta-review of one of their popular lines last week, the stapled Tomoe River notebook from Taroko Design. That’s proved so popular that Taroko have collaborated with Bureau Direct to make an even more sophisticated sewn-bound notebook, the Breeze, which we suspect is going to be a big hit too.
The team have been doing well bringing some interesting niche inks into the UK market, too, especially as one of the original trail-blazers for the impressive KWZ inks – and the news is that more colours, and possibly a few more iron-gall inks too, are on the way. Bureau Direct is the sole importer of Australia’s Blackstone inks on these shores, too; and hard as it may be to convince readers of this by text, our visiting reporter can vouch for their claim to be some of the most aromatically delightful inks you’re likely to come across.
Bureau Direct sell pencils and other paraphernalia too, of course, and one of the best ways to keep up to date with incoming temptations is to sign up for their email newsletters, which come with some very handy discounts too. But what you might not know unless you happen to be passing the warehouse is that they have gone back to their roots and set up an in-house testing area, so if you want to try out one of their range of fountain pens (Kaweco, TWSBI and Lamy are all on hand) or see how some of that rare ink behaves on some exotic paper, there’s a very tempting desk surrounded by very cool gear, and yes – you can just arrange to drop in! Expect to hear from this lovely bunch; we reckon we’ve clocked them as fellow enthusiasts. In the meantime, in the very unlikely event of you not having seen their website already, take a peek…
So why ‘Applied Pens’, Jake? Well, I trained in applied arts, which is essentially about the overlap between three-dimensional sculpture and actually making beautiful things you can use. I’ve always liked the combination of aesthetic and utilitarian and that set the pattern for my career.
What moved you into making pens? One thing led to another! I was already making sculpted items for display at home – candlesticks, vases, etc. – and one of the dealers who sold them for me was based in Hay-on-Wye, a very literary town as you know. He pointed out that writers and their readers often like a good fountain pen, and that there’s a demand for something a bit out of the ordinary. It took some serious research to find the right mix of materials and equipment, much of which I had to source abroad, but Applied Pens soon took off. That was two years ago and I haven’t looked back.
How does a Lazzari design take shape? Here’s my little secret – I’m really a mechanical pencil fan. I’m told that’s safe enough to admit to in the stationery world, and I enjoy putting my original art skills to use. Looking at the preliminary sketches, you can see how the Streamline pen took shape. I do take commissions from customers too, but I’m always full of ideas anyway.
How are you finding working with us pen fans? It’s fun talking to such a well-informed audience. Fountain pen cognoscenti can spot a ‘kit pen’ at fifty paces and I’ve never been much impressed either, so making something truly original is good news for all of us. Going for a comfortably big pen with a large #6 nib seems to be really popular, and the Etsy site has been going well.
What are the materials you like working with best? I started out working with metals, and actually may return to this for some future pens if all goes according to plan. But for now, my material of choice is often food-grade ebonite; that ‘burnt rubber’ smell takes a bit of getting used to in the workshop, but it works well and makes for a pen which is really nice to hold. I also use acrylic quite a lot for the sections, and I’ve just invested in some remaindered Conway Stewart blanks which look amazing.
Some of your designs look like props from The Eagle – is there a bit of a sci-fi influence? You guessed it – ‘always been one of my big inspirations. Expect to see more…
What’s coming next? I’m working on some promising polygonal bodies right now, which do present a few challenges in getting the caps to line up with the barrels – I might have to make a video demonstrating how to get it right! Plus there could be some more materials on the way, so keep watching.
Coming up next for us a is a meta-review of one of Jake’s Streamline pens – you’ll probably want one – but in the meantime you can see all he’s making right now on his Etsy page.
They say you should never meet your heroes – but they’re talking through their hats. While last year’s London Stationery Show introduced us to Tony, the founder of Pocket Notebooks, this year was an opportunity to meet Stuart, who has just staged a friendly takeover. We’ll be covering some of Pocket Notebooks’ pocket notebooks in more detail next week – but before then, here’s a little bit more about the company itself.
The whole shebang was started by IT people who needed a bit of a ‘digital detox’, hence the rather wonderful brand motto: “Forget the app – there’s a notebook for that”. It gradually grew an online following, selling analogue wares by digital means, and the usefulness of a nicely-crafted old-fashioned notebook in the pocket evidently still has quite a following – possibly even a growing one, as the mobile ‘phone becomes ubiquitous and writing with a proper pen (or pencil) becomes a way of quietly rebelling. The format includes some real gems, like the retro-styled Clairefontaine below.
Stuart came to Pocket Notebooks in true Victor Kiam fashion; he was a happy customer, and liked the products so much that, when Tony felt it was time to move on to new projects, he bought the company. Moving operations from the North East down to Hampshire has proved an opportunity to set up a proper stripped-back scaffold-rack hipster warehouse, with a vinyl record player and all retro conveniences – and with all those displacement activities now completed, the company is swinging into business.
Pocket Notebooks is now carrying an impressive range of handy A6 (or thereabouts) notebooks, most of them quite friendly to fountain pens, and our adventurous team of reviewers will be putting some of them to the test next week. To manage all the demand, Stuart has also employed a capable warehouse manager to sniff out the goodies…
There is a novel twist, too – as well as every-day customer-led retail, Stuart’s developing a neat line in subscription boxes to keep the discriminating scribbler inspired and, occasionally, surprised. Our very own Laura reviews one of the subscription boxes below, to give you a bit of flavour.
What this brief profile piece can’t really convey is quite what a personal relationship Stuart is building up with customers. In our experience that’s something only a true fan of the products can provide – there’s just no faking it – and that’s part of what grabs us too. There’s more to come next week on how some of the current product selections fare in the hands of our keen scribblers and scrawlers, but until then, here’s the website itself.
This week, we profile a brand new name in the fountain pen retail firmament – the exotically-monikered Izods, of exotic (OK, we’re stretching a point here) Ipswich. Izods has come to many readers’ attention as a result of the growing interest in Robert Oster inks, which we’ll come on to below. But we start by catching up with Roy, the founder of the company.
So, where does that curious name come from? Well, I wanted a name which was short and snappy, and my grandfather had a yard in Birmingham called Izods – somehow it just seemed to fit! I got into selling vintage pens the way many people do in this world; I like fixing things, and after preparing a few fountain pens for my own use found I had rather more on my hands than I’d planned, then one thing led to another.
You’re obviously fond of Montblanc, a brand which not everyone in the fountain pen world has kind words for – so what does it for you? MB is a big conglomerate selling all sorts of things these days, and that’s perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea of course. But many of the vintage pens were made of really good-quality materials which hold their value and usability for a long time, and even people who aren’t fountain pen fans say they have something of an ‘aura’ about them. The trouble is, buying vintage Montblancs on the internet can be a fraught business, with some in variable condition and even counterfeits to trap the unwary. That’s where I come in; I check everything properly, including the provenance, and carry out any cleaning, minor repairs etc. if needed so that I can be sure that anything I put on sale is in top-notch condition. My favourites are the special editions like the Agatha Christie pen (pictured above), but they all seem to have their fans.
How did Australia’s Robert Oster inks come your way? After selling pens for a while, ink seemed the logical next step – but I wanted to offer something a little different. There was already quite a bit of interest in Robert’s range of inks on this side of the planet, and few outlets, so that seemed a niche which needed filling. Robert was great to talk to and we got on immediately – he even found himself buying a couple of pens from me! We’ve just picked nine inks so far – there are plenty more colours where they came from – but they do seem to be selling like hot cakes already.
How did Tactile Turn join the collection? Again, like Robert this was a personal connection as much as anything; Will from Tactile Turn is a real enthusiast who takes such a pride in being hands-on, and the Gist is a lovely pen – it looks and feels different, in a good way! We’re stocking most of the materials Will makes the Gist in at present and may well broaden out to a wider selection of nib options, and perhaps even some of Will’s other models, if demand is as strong as we expect it to be.
United Inkdom will be reviewing the Tactile Turn Gist and a selection of Robert Oster inks soon. Meanwhile, you can see all of Roy’s wares, including the Darkstar notebooks above, at the Izods website.
A couple of years after taking early retirement, in search of something to do, John Twiss splurged out on an ancient lathe and some firewood, spent a week “producing some smaller bits of … round firewood”, came across a video of someone making a pen and decided to give it a go himself. That was five years ago and I think it’s safe to say that John is now the UK’s premier maker of handmade custom pens.
John’s based at Sherwood Forest Art and Craft Centre on the edge of that famous and ancient woodland. His studio is full of beautiful pens in every stage of completeness, from blocks of resin, wood or casein to the finished article. He can make pens from almost anything… although he did once turn down a request to create a pen from someone’s brother’s ashes.
John doesn’t use any computer-aided machinery, making all his pens by hand on manual lathes. An individual pen can take up to a few days to make. If you’re interested, and in the Nottinghamshire area, you can stop by to see how it’s done.
Although many pre-made pens are available through the website you really need to take advantage of John’s ability to make a pen to your exact requirements, using (almost, see above) any material you like, including Irish Bog Oak or custom-cast resin, in any shape, with or with a clip, using a range of nibs . . . well, you can see how this can get addictive.
None of this would matter if the finished product wasn’t good but the quality is in fact outstanding. Between us, your United Inkdom correspondents have bought or reviewed upwards of ten Twiss pens and they have all been exceptional.
So, rumour has it that the search for the perfect purple ink was behind the birth of The Writing Desk (which got Scribble rather excited) – is that true?
Well, almost! For a while it was difficult to get hold of Waterman purple, for reasons which were never explained, then we were on holiday in France and came across some lovely alternatives by J.Herbin. They had no UK retailers at that point, so we stepped into the breach. We already had some experience of trading a few vintage pens online, and when Anna decided not to return to work as a solicitor after we had a daughter, one thing led to another. Soon we were selling Pelikan too, then Conway Stewart. The rest, as they say, is history. We soon took on Private Reserve as the sole UK suppliers too, then Martin stepped back from his old job as an audio engineer and The Writing Desk became a full-time occupation. We do sell quite a lot of purple ink, as it happens, but one or two other shades too…
How has life as a pen ‘etailer’ developed?
Pretty fast. When we launched our first website in 2001 there were few competitors, but also not so much in the way of ready-made platforms – we had to do our own technology development as well as sourcing the merchandise. The web element has become a little more straightforward since, and we now find we have a healthy combination of appearances at pen shows and links with customers all over the world, from Keynsham to Kazakhstan. Many of our customers, and suppliers, are in the EU so there could be further developments around the corner.
What works best for you in staying in touch with customers, new and old?
We do contribute to some ‘hard copy’ publications, like the WES journal, but of course a lot of our contacts are formed and developed online too. Answering questions on forums like FPN has been mutually helpful in the past.
So, tell us about TWD’s favourite pen brands…
Yard-o-Led, to follow on from United Inkdom’s recent articles, has been a big success; we were the first online retailers, and people really love the pens. Edison remains unique to The Writing Desk in the UK, after John Serowka recommended us to Brian Gray; they’re a lovely company to work with and they’ve benefitted from working directly with customers via social media too. We loved selling Conway Stewart and were sorry to see the brand go, but Sailor is still going splendidly; their pens may look fancy, but those nibs are excellent – the ‘King Eagle’, in particular, is really something special. As one of the few TWSBI dealers in the UK we find their special editions fly off the shelves rather rapidly, too. Finally, we have to mention Kaweco; we’re big fans of the Sport and the new Supra is so well put-together, too.
Of course! Private Reserve, and Rohrer and Klingner, remain exclusive to us in the UK, and they both have sterling reputations. Naturally we’re Diamine fans too, and our big 100ml refills have been popular ever since we started selling them – indeed, we’re thinking of refreshing the range soon, so ideas for inks which you writers need in high volumes are welcome!
How’s the workshop coming on?
That side of the operation is something we’ve always done but not really advertised previously, but we do quite a bit of pen servicing and repairs now, and are getting into nib tuning. Italic regrinds and even nib width reductions are quite popular, along with the occasional TWSBI repair – those are user-serviceable but not everyone finds it a walk in the park. It’s a part of the business we quite enjoy and, while it’s maybe not a big money-spinner, a lot of customers find it makes a big difference to their enjoyment too.
So, the big question – what are you both writing with today?
Martin is using a vintage Pelikan M730/D730 set and a venerable Lamy 2000, while Anna is sporting a black Kaweco Sport and a TWSBI 530 – the first TWSBI the company acquired, and it’s still going strong.
Keep watching for meta-reviews of a pen, and an ink range, that only The Writing Desk stock in the UK…