Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Big and bold - the Guider Zimbo

I've just received a lovely pen in the mail, a Guider Zimbo eyedropper in bright red which I bought through Fountain Pen Revolution.

What do I love about this pen? It's red. It's bright red. It's red that positively glows in the dark. It's ... very, very red.

The acrylic is wonderfully polished and the colour is both intense, and slightly translucent. If I hold the pen right up to my desk lamp, I can see how much ink there is in it - just. (The disadvantage, of course, is that the cap threads show through on the outside where the cap is thinnest.)

What do I also love about it? It's big. It's not the biggest (Guider also makes a Super Zimbo, which is just silly) but it is a good large chunk of pen, and sits very happily in the hand. Over 15 cm long, with a 15mm barrel diameter, but not too weighty, it's comfortable to use.

I also like the Guider clip and tassie - obviously modelled on Parker's arrow clip and the Vacumatic/51 cap, and non the worse for that.

Zimbo in the middle, with a subfusc Oliver and a lurid Airmail
The bad news, as often with Indian pens, is that the nib and feed are below par. The nib is a tad scratchy and writes very dry, while the feed has allowed this beggar to burp twice, badly, although it's still very close to full. I think some tinkering will be in order, and I'm going to look in my parts box to see if I can replace both. (That said, there is nothing wrong with the nib - I've been taking notes for a day or two with it, and it works, a pretty fine line; but it's not a positive pleasure to use, like my Lamys and Pelkians...)

I'm glad I got this pen. It's a character.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Sheaffer No-Nonsense Old Timer - the past made new

Sheaffer No-Nonsense pens are lovely cheapies, for the most part; but every so often you find one that has a bit more class to it. That's the case with this 'old timer', black plastic that is patterned in a nod to the chased black hard rubber pens of the early 20th century.
No Nonsense, just a lot of style
I found this one in the wild, together with a bunch of rather similar advertising pens that weren't anything to shout out about. This is a lovely pen. A good nib, a wide metal cap ring, and that zig-zaggy pattern that brings it all alive. Quite clearly, the designer looked at the classic Sheaffer flat-tops of the 1920s as his inspiration, and the pen embodies all the best aspects - the gold plated cap band and section ring and clip, the shape, the gently flared section, and the chasing.

Unlike the original BCHR flat tops, it's made of robust plastic instead of fragile ebonite, and it is a cartridge-converter not a lever filler (and this one had the converter in, which almost never happens!). It has a steel nib, with gold plating, rather than the unplated steel nib of the lower-end No-Nonsenses. It feels good quality - one of the benefits of having caught it in the wild is that it was sitting next to very similar, but crappy, pens, and just looking at the clips, the detail of the section, and the crispness of this material set against the rather soft and easily scratched plastic of the other pens, I could understand just what a good job Sheaffer had done.

There are, I think, six patterns in total in the 'Old Timer' range. I have two. The photo below is not a good one, but you can see the pattern here - a sort of spiral of chasing around the pen that Penhero calls 'flamme'.

The No-Nonsense originally came out in 1969, and belongs to a generation of pens from the Big Three that look back to the golden age. There's the new Parker Duofold, like the No-Nonsense looking back to the great flat-tops of the classic period; that came out nearly twenty years later, in 1987. There's Waterman's Lady Elsa, reusing old galalith stock to create colourful petite pens, and Charleston with its references to the Hundred Year Pen in its shape and mid-barrel band, and the 3V's clip attachment with the hexagon on top of the cap.  But these are later pens - Sheaffer, I think, got there first. Even Parker's Big Red - like the No-Nonsense a plastic pen modelled on the flat-tops of the golden age - didn't get there till 1970; Parker might claim they had the idea first, but they took too long getting going. (And they closed the line down after only ten years, while Sheaffer is still producing a version of the No-Nonsense, the Viewpoint, as a calligraphy pen.)

If you're looking for a modern pen to collect that's not too expensive, the No-Nonsense is right up there with the Waterman Kultur in my book. These Old-Timers, and the associated Vintage models (with gold-plasted discs on the barrel and cap ends), tend to sell for a bit more than the others, but there are loads of these pens floating around out there - and the chase, of course, is half the fun.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The smell of sandalwood

I haven't made a lot of progress on my acquisition of handmade pens this year, partly for financial reasons and partly, also, because I haven't been able to get to pen shows this year. (And I'm going to miss ROC in Paris as well, which I had rather been looking forward to, because I have two separate clashes that day.)

But I got one box ticked already, a lovely pen from Manoj at Fosfor Pens. He'd made a Pelikan-alike for himself and I enquired about a similar pen - pretty much an M-1000. I like wooden pens, so sandalwood with black ebonite accents works beautifully for me. (Actually it's sandalwood around an ebonite core, so there is more ebonite than meets the eye.)

A Pel-alike with a flock of friends
The only thing I find slightly disappointing is the clip - and that's only because I've put the pen together with a bunch of Pelikans to photograph and I now think that I want it to have exactly the same clip. It's a lovely pen, stinks of sandalwood even after a good deal of use, and is much lighter in the hand than the size would suggest.

I was also able to pick the section out of a number of suggested types, so I have a section with a gentle concave flare. It fits my hand very nicely indeed. It's little details like that which make ordering a custom pen such a great experience. I even got photographs sent me of the blocks of wood that were being used to make up the order, and an 'exploded' view of the pen before it was assembled. A fantastic service, all in all.

Of course, it's not a completely accurate Pel-alike. Besides the clip, I have to admit it's not a piston filler (it's C/C), and the nib isn't a Pelikan, because the Pel nibs won't work with the Schmidt/jowo converters... But it was a lot, and I mean a lot, less expensive than ordering an M-1000!

The wood is really nicely finished - polished beautifully - and the black ebonite shines gloriously. There's something rather nice about the way the soft gleam of the wood complements the bright sparkle of the ebonite.

I ended up taking a pic today because Vaibhav Mehandiratta started a thread on FPGeeks with amazing photos.... and he's suggesting a group buy. I'm in!

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Pen boxes - first in a series

Hang around fountain pen collectors, users, geeks and fanciers for a while and you'll hear one repeated complaint: not enough storage!

Fountain pens can be tricky to store. Sooner or later, the mug of writing implements on the desk is no longer enough.

There are different answers. Some people keep their pens in leather holders or in pen wraps. Some people have wonderful purpose-designed cabinets. (That costs a bomb, of course.) Other people have cigar boxes or briefcases full of pens.

I've got a number of rather nice boxes.
Glass topped tea box

All my boxes have come from car boot sales or vide-greniers. Most of them cost a quid (or a euro), and a few cost a bit more. I think my most expensive was a limited edition 'cigar and armagnac cellar' for ten euros. Various kinds of boxes I've found include:
  • artists' paint boxes, often covered in old oil paint and with plentry of bangs and knocks, but rather well built, which will hold a single tray of 15 or so pens.
  • tea boxes from Lipton's or (the best) Dammann, good solid wood boxes. They have a frame in for holding the tea bags, but that's quite easy to take out, and a good source of shim for other woodworking projects. They're deep enough to make a second tray to slot into them.
  • little wooden 'briefcases' for sets of crayons and pastels and felt tips. These are lovely, and quite cheap, and include a black plastic insert which can easily be taken out. (Best bargain, 24 good quality crayons, a decent bunch of pastels and the box, all for one euro!) Some of them are deep enough to allow two loads of pens to be stored.
  • Cake boxes! Plenty of German companies make very rich cakes which are sold in big wood boxes. They're quite thin wood, and not painted or varnished, but they are very robust.
  • Cigar humidors. These usually cost a bit more but are worth it for their much better brasswork (fantastic hinges!) and attractive veneer.
  • Cutlery boxes. Unfortunately (for me) most of them that I see at sales still have their regular complement of cutlery in. But some don't, and if they are reasonably priced they can make really lovely pen drawers
  • Rather sweet tourist boxes from Morocco and the Near East, in thuya wood, or with lovely inlay work. Most of these are too small for pens - but sometimes I strike lucky.
I've tried various ways of turning them into fountain pen storage. Partly that depends on the box; the deeper 'briefcase' boxes can accommodate two layers of pens with elastic holding them in; other boxes may want a tray, still other boxes are so flash (a couple of the Dammann tea boxes) that I've trimmed them up as cases to show off my very best pens (all my Merlins, all my Kaweco Sport Arts, and my Edison and Bexley pens, have a box each).
The same box, open, with its tray
I've tried various ways of supporting the pens. For cheaper pens, folding cardboard into accordion pleats works well and is cheap and easy to do. I've tried various ways of making wooden pen supports, and finally come down in favour of using a surform to create rounded hollows in a piece of pine. I sand down to 600 grit and then oil the wood lightly, or paint or stain it. It works, but it's labour intensive and I'm looking for better ways to do it...

I don't pretend to have all the answers. I'm learning as I go along. The more you do, the more you learn, so to any fountain pen collector wanting to turn old boxes into storage, I have one thing to say: get started now. (Actually, two things to say: get started now. Then make another one.)

Now you have some ideas for where to get boxes... I'll be showing how I converted mine, next post.

Pen wraps

My father always carries round two pens: I think one's a Parker Slimfold, the other a Frontier. They go in his jacket pocket. Harris Tweed and Slimfold - a marriage made in heaven.

But if you want to carry round five or six different pens - and a lot of people do - a better option is the pen wrap. I've made a few now using different materials.

Pen wrap in toile de jouy. French Watermans to go with it
It's pretty easy to make your own. (Though I must add that when I look at my first one, and at the last one I made, they have got better; the corners are less bumpy, the compartments are more even, and I've matched the fabrics better. Practice may not make perfect, but it does help.)

  • Sometimes you can get good oddments, left-overs from dressmaking or furnishing projects (sometimes, even better, fabric for projects that never got made!), at sales or in thrift shops. Many fabric shops have an oddments, samples, or clearance section for the last metre or two of fabric from a roll.
  • Old curtains sometimes make good pickings. Make sure they are in cotton.
  • Unsavable tweed jackets can make good outers. I quite often lurk around the bins at the end of car boot sales!
  • I have come across a lot of silk ties going for nearly nothing (dress down Fridays make ties unsaleable, I suppose!) - I might grab some next time and stitch them together to make a couple of wraps. It's a lot of work but could be fun. The same goes for silk scarves if you're lucky enough to pick one up, though the fabric is usually very thin and will need to be well quilted - and that's a whole new ball game.
Basic supplies for the job:
  • a sewing machine (though you can do it by hand, but good Lord, it's time-consuming),
  • an iron,
  • hand-sewing needle,
  • thread, preferably in a colour that won't show (though you could pick a contrast)
  • good scissors or a rotary cutter
  • ribbon or nice cord or leather thong for a tie.
First decide how many pens you want to have in a wrap. Five or six works nicely. Ten is a bit ambitious but works for slim pens like the Parker 45.

Lay your pens out. The big advantage of making your own wrap is you can decide the length of pen it will take (if, say, you're collecting Peter Pans and Eversharp Bantams, 10cm is more than ample, if you have a few of Fountainbel's Giraffe bulk fillers, you'll need  more than 20cm!) and the width of each compartment (Parker 45s don't need as much space as Edison Colliers, for instance). Work out the size you need and then draw your pattern, for (a) the main piece, which includes the length of the pens plus a flap that you can turn down to cover the tops of the pens and the clips, and which stops them falling out when the wrap is closed, and (b) the flap, which needs to come up the barrel of the pen as far as the beginning of the cap. Remember to leave some allowance for the seams at the top, bottom, and edges.

Note: make the compartments wider than the pens, as they will be flat, not rounded.

Now cut out:
  • two of the main piece,
  • two of the flap piece (one can be in a plain fabric if you want to economise on the pretty stuff)
  • if you're making this in thin fabric, a piece of lining fleece for the main piece of the wrap and possibly for the flap.
Thinking about fabrics: you might do this all in one fabric, as I've done here with some rather fetching French toile de jouy. It's a dainty, traditional French design, and I can't think of anything that would go with it except plain white. On the other hand, with a nice big blowsy floral pattern, I used a plain yellow interior (which was also useful because the main fabric was quite thick; doubling it up would have made it difficult to stitch).

You might use a heavy outer fabric like a tweed with a lighter interior fabric, and in that case you probably wouldn't need the lining (or interfacing), except perhaps on the flap.

If you use a fusible lining, iron it to one of the main pieces.

Put your main pieces together inside out (so the 'right sides' are touching). If you're using a lining that isn't fusible, it needs to go on top. Now stitch the pieces together, except for a 4-5cm gap on one side. If there's a lot of fabric at the corners, beyond the stitched line, you can snip it off, and cut a little nick into the corner, nearly up to the angle where the two lines of stitching meet. Turn the resulting bag inside-out through the gap, and hand-stitch the gap shut.

Do the same for the flap pieces - lay them out right sides facing, stitch together, and turn inside out.

Now come two really crucial bits. First of all, use a square rule or a pencil to push the corners out so that they are square, not rounded. Make sure all the seam is pushed right up.  Take your time over this as it's something that will make the wrap look better. (I still don't get it right all the time, so don't obsess, but just do the best you can.) Secondly, get an iron nice and hot and press the seams flat. You don't need to bother getting an ironing board out; I do it on two folded tea towels on my workbench top. Keep looking at the seams and check the seam is right in the middle, not one side or ther other of the fold.

Now lay the flap on top of the main piece. Stitch all the way round the main piece, about 4mm in from the edge (to avoid having to stitch through the seam which would mean you were stitching through eight thicknesses of fabric, instead of four). This should give it a nice crisp feeling and also attaches the clap to the main piece at the bottom and sides.

Now all you have to do is stitch the compartments into the flap. I start at the top, stitch down about 10mm, up again using the reverse on the sewing machine, then down again all the way to the bottom, where you again do a 10mm reverse stitch to make sure the stitching 'sticks'.

Finish off with a piece of cord which you can gently stitch to the outside, or a piece of ribbon, or leather thong, or webbing - whatever you choose. This is where it's really easy to add a touch of class by finding good accessories. I particularly like old horn duffel-coat toggles and old 'pearl' buttons.

Another way of making the wrap which I've also used makes the flap first, stitches it to the inside piece of the wrap, and makes the compartments then. Putting the whole wrap together is then the last stage. This has the advantage that the stitching for the compartments doesn't show through on the outside, but it's trickier to make unless you're used to putting fabric patterns together.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Ranga Bamboo Demonstrator: misty marvel

Just received in the post, the pen I wasn't sure about. First, I wasn't going to join the group buy on Fountain Pen Network - I'd maxed out my pen budget for several months to come on the Pink Pelikan; but then I remembered I'd always wanted one of the bamboo pens. (The smaller of the two sizes offered, as I have fairly small hands.) And then, I wasn't sure whether to get the demonstrator, or one of the rippled ebonites; but Vaibhav Mehandiratta, who had arranged the group buy, made my mind up for me, so I ordered the demonstrator and waited...

And here it is.

Most people who got demonstrators ordered a bakul (matte) finish with polished ends. I ordered bakul throughout. Hm. I wasn't so sure about that choice when it arrived. I looked at pictures of people's pens with polished ends and thought they looked so much nicer than what I'd got.

So far, so unconvinced... but then I put the pen in my hand. Oh, it felt good. Comfortable, just the right size, with a long and slightly curved section, the threads a long way up and out of my fingers' way. The curves of the bamboo pattern fitting nicely into the web of my hand. Light, warm, suited. My hands were convinced even if my eyes weren't.

I love the bakul surface. It looks misty and mysterious, particularly when the pen is inked; it's a network of tiny scratches, and has an organic feel to it which seems to go particularly well with the bamboo idea. It's really nice to hold, on the section; not slippery, and not rough, either, just gently keeping my fingertips in place.

The workmanship is good. The curves of the bamboo are nicely regular, the tiny indented rings between the nodes are precise, the gently conical ends have lovely snowflakes of bakul if you look closely, and you can't even see where the barrel and cap fit together once it's properly closed. The threading is precise, and in line with Indian eyedropper usage, fairly deep - several full turns to take the cap off. 

(One small gripe; there's a little swarf around the breather hole in the cap. I might just want to clean that up as I seem to get my fingers right on it every time I cap or uncap the pen.)

Better fill it up, then. It came in a nice little turquoise-lidded box, which inspired me to break out the Diamine Havasu Turquoise. Careful eyedroppering (keeping a watchful eye on the apparently sleeping cat on the chair next to mine... she's already spilled coffee all over the table), feeling confident in the well threaded section and the silicon grease already applied...

And here we go with the Ambitious Flex nib, a new direction for me. It's totally plain - nothing written on it anywhere, just the single slit all the way up the nib - and I like that aesthetic. Applied to paper, it will flex, about twice the width without pressing unduly, but I've found I can also use it to write without any flex at all, just as a medium fine nib. It's nice. Just occasionally it's dried up for a couple of downstrokes (but then I've been using it on rather bad paper, because that's what's at hand and I have my tax return to finish). Generally, the feed seems to keep up with it pretty well.

(Ranga Pens included the 'regular' nib and feed in my package as well as the Ambitious nib in the pen. I appreciate that. I might want to swap - then again, I might have another pen that needs it. In fact, the total package, with an eyedropper, and a little Fellowship pen as a gift, was really nicely put together. Compare certain pen manufacturers that sell you a nearly £100 pen and don't bother to include a converter, and you'll see why I love Indian pens. Not just good value - good service too.)

So, a few pages later on.... I'm really enjoying the pen. And as I use it, I'm beginning to come to like its looks, as well.

It makes me wonder: how much is our attitude to a pen affected by our experience of holding it and writing with it? and how much just by looks? Is it love at first sight, or do most of us come to find our favourite pens by a long period of acquaintance, getting to know their virtues, their oddities, their occasional vices? And it's obvious from the number of very nice, hardly used pens for sale on FPN and FPGeeks that people do fall out of love (or never fall  in love in the first place) with pens that they thought were a match made in heaven.

Anyway, my Ranga Bamboo is staying - and joining my collection of much loved Indian pens.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Now it's got personal

I have had a horrible three weeks - wheelchaired back to my partner's place in France thanks to the good services of Eurostar (I couldn't actually walk on to the train - they got me through all the controls, lifted me to the train, got me off and into a taxi the other end, and were wonderful, throughout), and after one night of misery, stretchered into hospital unable to move.

That's not about fountain pens? Well, it's Rheumatoid Arthritis. Which hits all joints, whenever it feels like it. That gives a lot of people problems using pens, and a desire to find more ergonomic and comfortable pens to use.

I've done a bit of browsing through the available options on the web, and there are a few useful threads on FPN, too. One thing stands out.

You can have a nice pen. Or you can have one you can write with. But not (often) both.

For instance the Rotring Skynn, one of the ugliest pens going, is fantastically ergonomic.But horrid. Some pretty pens like the Sheaffer Fashion and Targa are so slim they are painful to use.

There are some good fountain pen options for arthritic users and collectors. Generally, the following characteristics seem to be important;
  • a reasonable amount of girth at the grip,
  • a non-slip grip, whether that's textured, soft rubber, wood, matte ebony,
  • a taper to the section helping the fingers maintain place,
  • light weight, enabling a relaxed writing style (release the grip of death!)
  • good, nib-end-heavy balance,
  • a nib that's smooth and wet and consequently not requiring much pressure to write.
A slight turn-up to the nib might help (as in fude and Waverley nibs) by enabling the section to be fatter without forcing a higher writing angle.

The Laban Mento and Edison Collier fit the bill for fat-but-light well, and I like Edison's style and production values, so there may be more coming along if my pen budget is up to it. Equally, my fatter Indian ebonite and acrylic pens will remain favourites - light, girthy, and good (and I'm wondering how much a bakul grip helps over a polished one. I may be about to find out, as I've a matte demonstrator coming.) But no one seems to have set out to design a beautiful fountain pen specifically for arthritis and other hand pain sufferers (like those with Carpal Tunnel syndrome); it's just that there are certain 'regular' pens that fit the bill.

So, while I've been confined to hospital, I've been thinking, and doodling, and wondering if this might be the thing that gets me into actually making fountain pens.... because there are a lot of us out there (I'm surprised to have found out, now, just how many of my friends have some form of arthritis or RSI), and a lot of us who want fountain pens that are both comfortable and beautiful. And well made.

So please, FP lovers with hand pain - let me know what works and what doesn't. And I'll be adding more on this subject as I find out which pens in my collection make the cut, and which will be heading to eBay or the classifieds.

Fortunately, I've never collected Slimline Targas.