Another Boring Pen Entry 
2005.09.28 08:49 - Toys, Pens

Seriously, I think this design is fantastic and that it could, with some changes, be an excellent foundation for a general-purpose fountain pen. The mechanism is simple, the design is both conservative and attractive, and there are no parts to be lost on a day to day basis.

The DaVinci has a retractable nib that operates on a twist mechanism.It takes about three full revolutions of the barrel to fully expose the nib, which is a fairly traditional design, made of 14-karat gold and given a chrome finish. Trim may actually be silver. The pen is hyooooge. Seriously. Luckily, this turns out to be a comfortable size.

When I ordered this pen, I ordered it in black, instead of the 'cracked ice' material pictured at the link, and with an oblique broad nib (I figured that, if I'm going to spend an unjustifiable amount on the one pen, I might as well get it with all of the pluses), which, you might notice, isn't actually available. I think I got gifted a bug in Giardino Italiano's store system, and they seem to have gone to great lengths to get me what I ordered. They didn't, in fact, come up with an OB nib--what I've got is a 0.9mm italic--but I think they tried everything short of grinding it themselves. Bully for them, and the stub's fine, honestly. The nib is smooth as silk, and sets down a nice, slightly wet line. The clip is adjustable, so that it can clip tightly or loosely to heavier or lighter materials without having to be spring-loaded. The pen is statisfyingly heavy. (Did I mention that it's huge?)

Not that I don't have complaints--would I be me if I did not?
  • I'd really like for the twist mechanism to produce more travel per turn, and to have some positive feedback when the nib is fully exposed or withdrawn. I don't see why it should take more than two turns to expose the nib, and a small click into place would be nice.
  • I am, unfortunately, not real impressed by the elliptical clip design, and would probably prefer something spring-loaded instead. The range of adjustment is relatively small, and it's really meant for heavier fabrics. It'd probably work fine on a suit, but it's much too loose for most of my shirts. I do like being able to push it out of the way while I'm writing, though.
  • When writing, the nib moves just a bit from wiggle in the twist mechanism. I think that might be fixable with tighter tolerances on the machining or a slight design revision.
  • The DaVinci is intended to use international cartridges, and it came with exactly two. They're both short ones. Since it looks to me like there's no reason that the pen couldn't make use of a converter, provided one is scrupulously about cleaning it up after filling (not a problem, actually), a converter should probably have been included. (Actually, I am slightly beefed about the inclusion of exactly two, short cartridges. When I bought a Waterman Serenite a little while back, Waterman included a converter and two boxes of cartridges with the pen.)
  • As a practical writing instrument, it's far too expensive, which is a shame. It really is a terrific writing instrument qua writing instrument.
So. What I'd love to see is a stripped-down, mass-produced, low-budget version of this pen. I imagine it would be smaller (this may be a trick, given the size of the mechanism), with stainless steel nib and trim. As long as we're being pie-in-the-sky, it could incorporate the changes I suggested above: fewer turns, spring-loaded clip, tighter tolerances and a converter in the box. It would be a superb pen in all regards, I think. As-is, it's certainly superb, but it's also too expensive to recommend.
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Noodler's Fountain Pen Ink 
2005.09.02 08:41 - Toys, Pens

I am reliably informed that catfish noodling is an approach to catching fish wherein one sticks one's hand down a hole (into a lake I assume) and waits for a catfish to grab on. Noodler's homepage describes it as a southern sport that attempts to equalize the struggle between man and animal in the quest for a sense of fair play...and thus a fair price. (Wikipedia defines it in greater detail.) I'm not sure I see the relationship between catfish noodling and ink pens, but, whatever.

I recently purchased a couple bottles of waterproof Noodler's ink from Swisher Pens: a 4.5 oz eyedropper of Noodler's black, and a 3oz bottle of the Verdun, which is green. If you've followed the link, you're probably choking on the price of ink, so let's back up just a moment. Most fountain pen ink comes in 50 mL bottles; that's about 1.7 oz. A bottle of Parker Quink at Staples (which seems to be the only office supply store in town to still stock such stuff) will run you seven or eight dollars. A bottle of Mont Blanc will run you at least a dollar more (I bought two bottles at $7.50 per through the magic of the Intarweb a few months ago; even with shipping, that wasn't too bad a deal). And I hope you like black, or blue, because there don't seem to be many storefronts here that carry much else. The least expensive bottled fountain pen ink I'm aware of is Sheaffer Skrip. It's $6.50 for a 50mL bottle through Swisher's. Parker Quink is $7 for the same size bottle, and we'll say that the Mont Blanc is $7.50. The Noodler's black was $15, and the Verdun was $17. We'll add the full price of shipping onto each bottle (advice: buy multiple bottles at once to spread that out).

Ink Ounces per bottle Price Cost per ounce Cost per ounce (w/shipping)
Sheaffer Skrip 1.7 $6.50 $3.82 $7.35
Parker Quink 1.7 $7.00 $4.12 $7.65
Mont Blanc 1.7 $7.50 $4.41 $7.94
Noodler's waterproof black
(eyedropper bottle)
4.5 $15 $3.33 $4.67
Noodler's Verdun 3.0 $17 $5.67 $7.67
I'm using a blanket value of $6 for shipping costs. This is about what shipping runs through the pen shops I've dealt with online, on a per-order basis.

Now, granted, the Verdun doesn't look like such a hot deal. On the other hand, I'm not sure I could buy a bottle of green ink around here without resorting to the Internet. My $7.50 bottle of Mont Blanc green, then ran me an additional $6.00 shipping (in my defense, I think the going price here is $9.50, not the $8.50 used above, and I purchased a bottle of red at the same time). Using the same sorts of metrics, that bottle comes to $13.50, and that works out to $7.94 an ounce.

Another comparison: Aurora's black will run you $10.50. If the word is to be believed, this is the black ink. It comes in a 45mL bottle--$6.86 an ounce. Before shipping.

Anything purchased as cartridges will be even worse. A package of Parker carts will run you somewhere between three and five dollars (I don't remember exactly). That'll buy you five or six cartridges. I can write through one of those in the space of a week (a busy week, granted). I have been abusing the same bottle of black Quink (same ink!) for two years. It's about half-empty now. I do keep a few cartridges around; they're handy in a pinch, after all. I only ever seem to use them on a couple of pens, though.

So that's the economic argument. After all that, is it worth using? Yes.

Noodler's black ink is pretty serious stuff. It's probably not the darkest black to be found, but it's darker than the Quink I've been using. The Verdun is, actually, a mild disappointment, color-wise. The result is more at, say, verdigris than the grass green I was after. (On the other hand, the Mont Blanc green is very blue.) It's not as vibrant as I would like, but it serves well enough. The cool part, though, is that these are both waterproof inks. Once they've dried on paper, they don't come out. The black is billed as fraud-proof--Noodler's claims that it will stand up to pretty much anything you can throw at it. So I had to try that out.

I wrote some standard text down on a sheet of paper with each of the inks I had at the time (Noodler's Black, Noodler's Verdun, Quink Black, Quink Red, and Month Blanc red and green), gave it a reasonable period of time to dry, and ran it under the tap for, say, five minutes or so, moving the sheet of paper back and forth.

The Mont Blanc ink was gone. The red Quink was nearly as washed out as the Mont Blanc. The black Quink faded, ran, and bled. It was still there and still readable, but much the worse for wear. The Noodler's inks did not budge, though the Verdun may have faded slightly--very slightly.

I'm sold.

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Review: Cross Ion 
2005.07.25 00:39 - Toys, Pens
The short version: I don't like it.

That's going to draw some fire, I think, because I know there are folks who do really like this pen. I'm not sure any of them read this site, but I know that they're out there.

The long version: I like gimmicks, and I like things that are aesthetically interesting, or different. The Ion is gimmicky, and visually interesting (visually pleasing I am not so sure of, but it is interesting), and I have been eyeing it since it hit the market a few years ago. I'm not entirely sure about the aesthetic side, but it is interesting, it certainly looks like a good design, and it's small enough to hang off one's keyring. Seems like a good design, right?

In the hand, the Ion is a big pen. The effect is rather like wielding one of those giant novelty pencils. I feel as though I should grip in my fist, actually, and use it that way. The form factor does not lend itself to the smallish writing I am used to using. (Also, it's a bit short, even open.)

The other problem is in the Cross refill. It's quite smooth, but a certain amount of pressure has to be applied to make it write, like a ballpoint. This is a feature of ballpoints that I have always been only too happy to leave behind, but I know some people much prefer it.

So, that's the bad. The good? Actually, it's not a bad form factor, and the sliding action that exposes the tip of the pen is satisfying. It's a great geek pen, I think. I do really like having a pen on my keyring.

I'm going to give it a week or two. I'll probably give it away at the end of that time frame--I'll post something if I decide to give it away over the Intarweb. But here's something I would really like to have: a laser pointer that fit in the space of the Ion refill, and activated when the pen was opened. I think it would be quite doable, but it doesn't look like it's been done.
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Review: Parker Reflex 
2005.07.14 11:04 - Toys, Pens
The Reflex line of pens is the one Parker is currently pushing as their school pen. The Reflex features a medium nib, a rubber grip, and an all-around larger profile than the Vector. It feels altogether more solid than the Vector does, is lighter, comes in at a lower price point, and is without the design flaw that caused me to destroy my first two Vectors. So why am I unable to get comfortable with this pen?

The Vector's fine nib runs on the broad side to begin with. The Reflex's nib is a bit larger. Coming from the Vector to the Reflex, the Reflex felt large and unwieldy, and, being lighter, insubstantial. I don't seem to get along real well with most medium nibs, which means that they have tended to skip a lot in my hands. I sometimes found it leaving ink on my hand (there is a spot at the end of the section where you should not put your fingers, unless you like ink stains). Plus, it just wasn't what I'd been after (which was another Vector).

That said, it's not a bad pen, and many people do get on fine with it. The feed and nib are basically the same as the Vector's, for whatever that's worth. Despite the lack of heft, it's a solid pen, and inexpensive (retail's about $8).

(It used to be the case that Parker had a lifetime warranty and would do a nib exchange for the cost of shipping. I think this has changed, though you could try contacting their Janesville, WI service center about it. I've gotten very good service the couple of times I've contacted them.)
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Review: Parker Vector fountain pen 
2005.07.11 10:38 - Toys, Pens
I am greatly suspicious that Parker may be in the process of discontinuing most of the Vector line in the US in favor of relaunching it with new designs with a similar aesthetic, possibly at a higher price point. Time will tell.

In the meantime, it seems to still be possible to purchase the Vector fountain pen, roller ball, and ballpoint (the ballpoint if you move fast: they no longer seem to acknowledge its existence on their website), if you're interested when I get done picking it apart here.

Let me first say that I have a soft spot for this pen. It is emphatically not a great pen. But it was the first fountain pen I bought myself, and which lasted any significant period in my possession (this distinguishes it from two or three A&W foutain pens I had in, I think, grade school and middle school).

The Vector is a 'school pen', which is to say that it is primarily aimed at students, and that it is cheap. The nib, section, clip, and end of the barrel are stainless steel, the barrel and cap are matching plastic. The whole affair is about the same size as your average disposable rollerball. It's a mediocre writer.

I like the feel of the Vector better than the feel of the afore-mentioned rollerball (an old Pilot Precise V5--it's gray, current ones are black, though I doubt the difference is any more significant than that). I've a Parker ballpoint with their gel refill going at the moment, though, and I find it at least equal to the Vector in feel, if less expressive. I'll take about it next.

When I purchased this pen in late 1998/early 1999, it was to replace the immediate previous Vector I had purchased late summer of 1998. After much abuse being carried about in my pocket, the first Vector had come apart: I had been screwing the section into the barrel much too tightly, and cracked it, eventually destroying the pen. The second suffered much the same fate, but I couldn't get comfortable with its replacement, so I patched it up with duct tape and continued to abuse it for a further three years, when I procured a replacement Vector in stainless steel, and sent Vector #2 off for repair under a lifetime warranty I had not been aware of (I think this warranty may have been discontinued). Despite further abuse, I haven't had any problems with it since it was repaired, so they may have fixed the design problems involved (the school pen they are pushing right now does not suffer this ailment), or I may have just become more careful about it.

General recommendation: if you're operating on the cheap and would like to try out a fountain pen, I think this is a good place to start. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get hold of one in a bricks-and-mortar retailer. In fact, about the only place I've been able to find that sells them in the US is Kingpen, which operates as an outlet of sorts for Sanford products (Parker is one of several brands owned by Sanfor Corp.). They're inexpensive (as fountain pens go, that is) at six or eight dollars or so, but you'll still need ink cartridges (one is packaged with the pen) or bottled ink and a converter. The Vector is available with a Fine nib.

If you're not interested in ordering online, you may be able to find the Parker Reflex in an actual store near you (I've seen them at Staples and Target here). (Many find the Reflex superior to the Vector, but I do not share this opinion. I will note that the Reflex is slightly less expensive, and more easily obtained, though.) The Reflex comes with a medium nib.

An alternate avenue for getting your feet wet with a fountain pen is the Pilot Varsity, a disposable fountain pen. They can be had in packs of two or three for about $5 or $8, IIRC, and are quite solid pens for the money--superior writers to either of the above-mentioned Parkers. They're not refillable, though. AFAIK, the Varsity is only available in a medium-width nib (this is an Asian medium, though, which corresponds closely to a Western fine).

If you've got a bit more money to spare, I have a handful of other pens to recommend instead, later.

[Addenda: Added some information about the Pilot Varsity, and nib sizes.
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