Tag Archives: profile

The Writing Desk update

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!

 

 

Personalised Stationery profile

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.

 

 

Bureau Direct profile

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

 

Jake Lazzari of Applied Pens

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.

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…