Tag Archives: profile

Pocket Notebooks profile

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.

 

Izods profile

title-barThis 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.osterpalette2

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.

mb-snake

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.

oster-bottles

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.

tactile-turn-caps

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.

darkstar-3

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.

Profile of John Twiss

Meeting-Mr-Twiss

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.

Twiss-Patriotic-Acrylic-fountain-pen-cap

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.

Workshop

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.

 

Twiss-Marmalade-capped

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.

You can follow John on https://twitter.com/twisspens and browse his  website here.

We will soon be reviewing, and then giving away, a very special handmade Twiss pen, so check back soon for details!

Twiss-Green-Lizard-clip-and-cap

The Writing Desk profile

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.

Anna and Martin at the London Writing Equipment Show 2009

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.

…and inks?

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.

Thankfully only one ‘doctor’s pen’ in the workshop has a history quite as dark as this Parker’s.

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…

Yard-o-Led profile

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

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

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

Alex in the workshop

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

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

 

The Pen Shop profile

The Pen Shop is, well, a chain of shops which sell pens.  We caught up with Hannah, who handles awkward questions from fountain pen obsessives with great aplomb – as you’ll see:

So what’s the Pen Shop story?  How did one or two shops become the ‘chain’ of outlets The Pen Shop has today?

Believe it or not we have been around since the mid nineteenth century! The company started as T & G Allan in 1858 when the first store was set up on Collingwood Street in Newcastle by local brothers Thomas and George Allan. They then started opening stores around the North East’s high streets: the stores had numerous different departments including stationery, books, gifts, pens, toys and greeting cards. People in the North East tend to have very fond memories of the T & G Allan branches and we still actually have a popular T & G Allan store up in Morpeth. Due to the stationery departments doing so well in these shops the company first opened a dedicated Pen Shop in Newcastle in 1946 which was the first specialist writing instrument shop in Britain. Since then we have opened stores all across the UK, our latest addition being at St.Pancras station in London.

A brand new Pen Shop, looking pristine

There aren’t so many proper fountain pen specialists based in North East England.  Is having an HQ within smiting distance of the Angel of the North a help or hindrance?

For the most part I don’t think people always realise we are a North East company. Our directors do some travelling to and from London for meetings but with the power of email, conference calls and the occasional Skype everywhere’s pretty well connected – as we have stores all over the UK for people to visit I don’t think it matters too much if our Head Office is a little out of the way (although Tyneside is the centre of the universe, of course). As we were founded in Newcastle I think it is lovely that over 150 years later we are still based here.  We like the human touch though, so we always encourage enthusiasts nearby to arrange a visit.

…still looking amazingly shiny….

A lot of competitors have moved online-only, but you’re gradually growing the bricks-and-mortar business.  What makes that work for you?

We are very proud of our physical stores as it gives customers the chance to go in, pick up a pen and try it for themselves. There is something special about that which you can’t always experience on-line. In our shops you can try the various pens on offer, test the nibs to see which one is best for your own individual style of writing, and bend the ear of our staff too. Our staff are an enthusiastic bunch, and making sure they can get out to see the pens being made too seems to pay off; the majority of our managers have been here for 10+ years, our Manchester King Street manager has been here 30+ years – the one to beat however is our office manager at HQ who is on 38 years with the company. Once people come into The Pen Shop ‘family’ they don’t tend to leave, and that feel seems to get reflected when customers visit our stores.  Running in parallel with our bricks-and-mortar business, though, is our on-line presence, an area of the business that we are investing heavily in – so expect to see more on the way!

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

Us fountain pen enthusiasts can be a demanding crowd.  What brands sell best to the cognoscenti – and what are they sometimes missing out on at the moment?

Montblanc is actually our best-selling brand, both on-line and in our stores. They seem to appeal to quite a wide cross-section of people.  On the other end of the pricing scale our Dex pens are becoming a big hit with people starting out with fountain pens, which we’re always pleased to see. We do also find there’s a loyal fan-base for Yard-O-Led; they are one of the few British ‘big brands’ still going and with genuinely beautiful products we’re very proud to stock them.

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

Finally the key question – and be honest now – what pen is in your pocket today?

A bright purple Dex with a left-handed nib, which is surprisingly comfortable to use – and I’ve certainly tried my best to break it with my dreadful handwriting! I have even used purple ink and started using my special flowery Ted Baker notebook this week. Our Managing Director reckons the pen and ink you use is an extension of your own personality – so bright purple floral probably sums me up quite well…

Fosfor Bangalore fountain pen review

A little bit of history  Esther and Pablo at FPnibs evidently delight in bringing something usefully unusual to the market, and Fosfor pens are no exception.  We’ve covered the affordable-but-quite-nice end of Indian fountain pen production in our previous Fountain Pen Revolution article, but Fosfor is quite a different proposition; the brand is essentially one man, Manoj, hand-making pens from scratch in Pune.Banga1How it looks  Like a work of art, which is what it is – or, at the very least, the product of expert craftsmanship and painstaking care.  The material (polyester, in this case) supports some wildly contrasting colours, and every one is essentially unique.orange writing sample 3How it feels  Warm, light… and large.  This isn’t one for grabbing in a hurry to jot notes; for one thing, it takes a while to unscrew (somewhat to Ruth’s frustration!), and that big #6 nib lends itself to calm composed writing rather than hasty scribbles.  Despite the generous proportions, it doesn’t feel overbalanced, and those who like their pens on the big side will find it handles very well.

still unscrewing
Still unscrewing!

How it fills  This is a straightforward cartridge/converter model, and none the worse for that.

Crucially, how it writes…  Of course that depends upon the nib, but the #6 JoWo steel nib which this test unit was fitted with was impressively smooth.  Pablo will happily fit a gold alternative if you prefer, including one of his hand-finished semi-flex nibs – indeed, the video demonstrating the semi-flex nib was filmed with this very pen.Ruth writing with the Fosfor

Pen! What is it good for?  There’s no clip, and the vivid colour-schemes perhaps don’t naturally lend themselves to the office, so this is perhaps ideal for journalling, note-taking or doodling at home.

VFM  It’s not cheap, but it’s far from exorbitant either; prices compare well with hand-made pens from John Twiss or Edison, for example – and so does the quality, we think.

If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…  Well, Manoj takes on personal commissions, if your budget will stretch to bespoke design.  His triangular pen, for example, is quite something to behold.orange writing sample 1

Our overall recommendation  If large pens in vibrant hues are your thing, Fosfor pens are worth checking out.

Where to get hold of one  Now that’s a little tougher, as rather inconveniently FPnibs have just sold out of Fosfor stock!  But you can contact Esther and Pablo directly via their site if you’d like to ask them to get some more in, or you could head straight to Fosfor’s own site of course.orange writing sample 2

This meta-reviews references:

Fosfor on woodThanks to  Esther and Pablo at FPnibs.com for supplying the Bangalore we reviewed – and letting us give it away!  To enter, we asked readers for their ideas for what Manoj should consider having a crack at next – whether that was new colours, new shapes, or a return of something old but good.  There’s more on that in the comments below…

 

Cult Pens profile

Cult Pens are one of the best-known names in fountain pen retail (and various other goodies) in the UK – and, as it happens, one of the earliest supporters of this site, although we were all customers already.  So when we decided to broaden the format of the United Inkdom to include the occasional company profile piece, they were a natural choice to get us started with that too.  We caught up with one of the company’s founders, Simon Walker, for a very light grilling.

How did it all get started, and how has it changed?

Well that’s been pretty well covered elsewhere, but it was the classic evolution from a small shop to early e-merchandise, and on to today.  Getting the software to work well is a lot easier these days, and it’s grown from a couple to eighteen people – and a dog, of course!

Herbie the Cult Pens despatch hound, hunting the famous Dartmoor tiger.

What brands have been the big hits – whether or not they were expected to be?

Kaweco stand out as fellow stationery fans, and they’ve been great to work with – their success has really come from listening to customers and shaping their offer accordingly, which fits well with works for us too.  The other big brand that stands out is Platinum; they too have really listened to customer feedback and put time and effort into understanding what writers are looking for – when you see the chief executive of international big name like that making it all the way to Devon to meet us, you know they’re serious!

How is the humble fountain pen holding up against its competitors?

The biggest competitor these days isn’t really another writing device, but the smart phone and the tablet.  It sometimes seems like hand-writing implements as a whole are a declining market, so enthusiast markets are the key.  That’s fine by us though – the enthusiasts are really nice people to work with, and it all drives innovation.

So, what should we look out for next?

Oh, now there’s a trade secret!  Actually the big new releases should be starting to crystallise fairly soon; it’s the big trade show coming up soon in Frankfurt where the latest models and designs start to get shared.  We’re hearing rumours about some significant new products from some very well-known names, but ‘watch this space’, as they say.

What do you write with every day?

Honestly, I’m more of a mechanical pencil obsessive!  But the rest of the team are all keen on putting the latest opens through their paces; the Decimo is putting in some miles at the moment, for instance.

How is your Cult Pens ‘own brand’ line developing?

The Deep Dark inks are going very well – Diamine did a really great job there, and the feedback has been very positive too; they sell almost as fast as the Shimmertastic range! The CP mini fountain pen has been a very successful project, designed for us by Kaweco and filling a need we saw for a small, affordable pocket pen.  We’ll be interested to hear United Inkdom’s ideas for a ‘maxi’ pen but you haven’t quite persuaded us yet!  Our own mechanical pencil is doing well too – I gather Ian was suitably impressed…

We had to leave Simon to get back to running the ship at this point, but not before setting up exactly the follow-on you’d expect – so look out next week for a United Inkdom meta-review of the Cult Pens mini fountain pen.