Friday, 11 October 2013

In praise of cheap pens

I find a lot of cheap pens at car boot sales. They're "school pens", quite often - a dying breed, maybe, as so many schools now insist on the use of ballpoints, but an attractive breed if you get the right ones; made for duty, so robust and forthright. Some are horrible cheap things (Reynolds, 1970s Platignums), but others are rather good - the Parker Vector, though I think it's ugly, is reliable, and comes with an extensive range of jazzy screenprint decorations, while the Waterman Kultur is one of my favourite pens. (You can still get the Kultur for 10 euros or so in many French supermarkets, in the translucent plastic version, though I prefer the slightly upmarket versions with yellow metal bands and marbled designs, or the glitter pens with their tiny flakes of 'gold' in the translucent plastic. And I'm still looking for the Lara Croft pens.)

Waterman I think has a slight edge here, not just because it often seems to have taken a successful mid-range design and redesigned it for cheapness. The firm seems to have done well in manufacturing cheap pens that didn't feel cheap: the Forum, for instance, whose contrasting plastic rings and tassies give it a good 3D feel. (The Reflex with its hideous sheet metal clip isn't so successful in my view.) The Graduate in metal is another nice pen, a tubular flighter that just seems to have an edge on the Vector metal version - it's just that bit more classy.
Parker Vectors, left - Waterman Forums, right

Oh yes, the Flash. A Waterman pen about which I can find almost no information on the internet, but which turns up with fair regularity, and actually there's nothing wrong with it at all. I keep finding spare caps, too. (I wish I could find a spare Parker 51 cap, but I never can. It's always the little Flash cap, which is quite striking with its vertical fluting.)

I like the Pelikano - I've already blogged about this lovely little pen - and I like cheap Lamys, too, because Lamy doesn't forget its design principles when faced with creating a less expensive pen. For instance, the Lamy Joy calligraphy pen is, as far as I'm concerned, another design classic - the same 'paperclip' clip as the Safari, a wonderful red that contrasts with the glossy black of the pen - and as always with Lamy, the engineering delivers functionality in the form of easily swappable nibs. I see a lot of Rotring Artpens, too, though for some reason I have about five in 1.1mm and never see the other nib varieties at car boots.

Then there are the lookalikes. I got a cheapie Stypen recently which looked to me as if a Frenchman with no understanding of Bauhaus design had got hold of a Lamy Safari and tried to make it into a French retro pen. Not a success. (On the other hand I have a Stypen wood-barrrel, metal cap pen that is just as delightful as the Faber Castell Ambition, and much more comfortable to write with. For me, anyway.) But I'll come back to lookalikes at some later date; there's an interesting thread on FPN about (mainly) Indian lookalikes, and that's before you get on to the Chinese clones, which are a huge subject in themselves.
Stypen pretending (not very well) to be a Safari
 And the Pilot V-pen. I love it when I get a chance to buy a lot of these for almost nothing - I got seven for a euro recently! Lovely cheapie pens that work, and that are fun to doodle with.

So what's so good about cheap pens?
  • They're cheap!
  • That means you can have lots of them. Which is nice when you want a pen you can chuck around, or to give a pen to a child who's just ready for their first FP, or to someone who has never used one.
  • And which is also nice when you manage to find all the different Waterman Kulturs, because a whole range of pens does look pretty, and on my income I couldn't have ten Waterman Man 100s, not unless I was very, very lucky at car boot sales for the next twenty years...
  • That means you can play around with nibs or repair techniques or Frankenpen-making, without the fear of messing up an expensive nib or cracking priceless old celluloid. Want to make a Lamy 2000 BB into a cursive italic? try it on an old Parker Vector first.
  • I remember once at Covent Garden there was quite an impressive bass singing one of the smaller officer parts (Mr Redburn? Mr Flint? I forget) - and then John Tomlinson came on as Claggart and suddenly, you knew the difference between pretty good and bloody-hell-this-man-is-a-force-of-nature good. I think cheap pens can sometimes help us appreciate the really great pens. I don't mean cheap-and-nasty pens, I mean good, functional, nice cheap pens; then when you get your hands on, say, a vintage Parker Vac or Duofold, or a Waterman 92, or a Sailor King of Pen, you can just feel the difference. 
And by the way - someone else's take on cheap pens. Worth a read, particularly if you're heading to eBay to grab some cheap Chinese writers.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Waterman 'torsade'

This is a lovely little pen I picked up at the big braderie (car boot) at Houilles, near Paris. It wasn't a great day for pens; nothing vintage and nothing very classy. It was a better day for notebooks and paper, to be honest, and I did get a nice Harris tweed jacket for 2 euros which when I got it home proved to sport a discreet Harrods label in the lining. But not much in the way of pens.

(Real frustration; seeing a lovely 1970s Pelikan box... and finding out it had nothing inside it.)

But I did find this one, which seems to be a Waterman 'torsade', though it's something of a mystery as to exactly where in the Waterman range it fits. (The cap top has the rounded W logo which looks very seventies, rather than the later calligraphic W with a loop at the top, or the W-in-hexagon which I find on most modern Watermans.) Oh, and it takes Waterman cartridges.
Torsade? since it's a French pen, lying on a nice piece of toile de jouy
 It's a tiny pen, really petite - 11.5cm capped. The clip (folded metal) is elegantly simple and completely plain, the end of the barrel slightly tapered from about a third of the way in, and the chrome bright. On the cap, just below the clip, is the word 'Waterman' in that rather rounded script that makes me think of bad science fiction TV, and under that, 'made in France' in a more classic typeface.
Rounded and very 60s/70s 'W' logo
But the first thing you notice is that wonderful shimmering effect from the twisting facets that run almost the entire length of the pen before they fade out on the tapered portion of the barrel. As you look at the pen it seems to spin gently. The facets seem soft, not sharp, and the whole pen has a lovely gentleness to its outline. (Chrome can often be a rather severe material making pens look more like the kind of thing I fear in a gynaecologist's hands than the kind of thing I want to write with, but here, it's just pretty and shiny)

Now; further mystery. Searching for 'torsade' on the web shows me chrome and gold plated versions, even gold nibs; but none which, like this one, have hooded nibs. I thought hooded nibs went out of fashion in the 1960s?

So I'm really not sure what I've got here. But whatever it is, (1) it cost a euro, and (2) I like it.

Two and a half wonderful Osmias

I'm a sucker for celluloid. I particularly love the Waterman Ink-Vue with its x-ray wavy pattern.

Now German pens, I always used to think, came in black, black and black. To some extent that's true; it's certainly the commonest colour in German pens of all eras, to a far greater extent than in the UK or France, or particularly Italy. There's something satisfyingly conservative, correct, professional, about a black pen. That's why in the 1950s the most colourful little pens were made in Germany and exported to more frivolous nations, such as the Netherlands - the lovely Merlin 33 and Merlin Merlina for instance.

But that's not really true. Look at the early history of the German pen and you find delightful colours of Soennecken and Mont Blanc, admittedly way out of my price range unless I get very lucky; and some zinging cracked ice Kawecos and Osmias. Of course there are also the Parker-Osmias with typical Parker colouring such as lapis and jade (I have one of the little lapis duofold-style pens).

And then there are these amazing Osmias which I've managed to pick up. Really op-art designs!

This mini-collection began with a Frankenpen I picked up at a vide-greniers for three euros. It's an Esterbrook, Jim, but not as we know it - the cap comes from a different pen. Well, it was fun. The nib was embuggerated, but Esterbrook nibs are not difficult to find.
Left to right: Half-Esterbrook Frankenpen, Osmia 66, Osmia 222

Then I saw a pen that clearly used the same celluloid as the mystery Frankenpen cap. The cap is larger, with a double band instead of the single. The barrel is also rather badly ambered. It's an Osmia 66. The pattern isn't really as sexy as the Waterman X-ray, though; it's more of a stretched fishnet, and it doesn't have the shimmering mother-of-pearl effect that the Ink Vues do. Still, it's nice to have put the two together. (Matching celluloids is something that I love doing - it can be quite fascinating finding out which brands used the same suppliers, in some cases.)

Then I saw a really unusual Osmia on eBay - far more like the Waterman X-ray. Okay, it had issues; there's a bit of the cap lip missing, for a start, and it's going to be a bugger to replace, given the pattern. No clip, either. And though unlike the other two pens it does at least have a genuine Osmia nib, it's only steel. It's an Osmia 222, really quite a tiny pen. But it only cost me 15 euros. And it's a darling.

Here are my three pens together. The start of an Osmia collection. I shall have to keep my eyes peeled for more, though sadly, 90% of them do come in any-colour-as-long-as-it's-black.
Which colour next? I wonder...

Fifty centime cheapie Pelikano

Big boxes full of cheap pens, mainly ballpoints, sometimes (if I'm lucky) Pilot V-pens or (if I'm not) Diddl or My Little Pony, make my heart sink. It's a sort of fountain-pen Hell, or at least Purgatory. And most of the time I'll sort through the wretched things and there won't be anything at all worth buying. But still, I have a rummage, just in case.

Two Pelikanos for a euro. They still have their stickers on but they'd been in the box long enough that you couldn't describe either of them as mint. Still, at the price!

Plastic clips. I usually don't like plastic clips. Still, these are a sort of frosted transparent plastic, in a nice rounded shape, not the usual opaque flat slab clips you find on cheap pens; and they're one piece with the rather nice tassie, with, of course, the eponymous birdie printed on it. It says 'Pelikano' in simple, lower case oblique letters.

Pelikano. Simplicity itself.
Metal cap. Now that attracted me, because most pens in the cheapie box are just plastic. But this is the real thing, it's nice, very simple, and because it's thin, preserves the simple line of the pen, so there's no big step down from the barrel to the section. It's a push-on not a twist cap, nicely secure.

Red translucent barrel. I can't tell you how nice this is and the photo won't do it justice. It's like looking through an ice-frosted glass at a strawberry daiquiri, only deeper. It has a gently frosted texture, except for one stripe down the side which is clear, and which reflects exactly the width of the clip. This is a detail I didn't notice for weeks. Because of the texturing, the pen is easy to hold, not slippery, and this is accentuated by small ridges on the grip section. (However, deduct points for the fact that the stripe on the barrel and the accompanying design on the section don't quite line up. Perhaps I over-tightened.)
Strange fingerprints or a strobe? Odd, but convenient for the fingers
 A very simple triangular steel nib, a bit like the Lamy Safari, with a quite plain feed. No fiddle faddle, but this doesn't feel cheap; it's functional. And when I started writing, I found this a surprisingly lovely nib to use; a medium, perhaps a little on the fine side of medium, that was utterly boring for a cheap nib - no scratchiness, no dryness, no skipping, nothing to complain about at all. A pure delight. I hadn't expected that!

Apparently Pelikan isn't making this design of Pelikano any more. What a pity; it's a real classic. And for fifty centimes, I cannot imagine a better buy out of the bargain box!

(Well, I can... or at least, I got a better one euro's worth a few days later... but that's another story.)

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Kaweco Sport Art

Kaweco Sport is one of those pens you don't hear a lot about, but it's as distinctive and well designed as, say, the Lamy 2000. The unique design has a massive octagonal cap which hides a slim and tiny barrel; post the pen, and you nearly double its size. I particularly love the Sport as it's clipless, though you can, if you want, buy a clip for it; the faceted shape of the cap prevents the pen rolling on your desk.

However when I tried the base range of Sports, I found they seemed very light and insubstantial. I preferred the Al Sport; the metal made it a comfier weight in my hand. But I don't really like metal pens.

Then I found the Sport Art. This is the luxury end of the range; rather lovely acrylic in a range of jewel-like colours. I managed to find the Lapis pen used on eBay at about half its retail price; then I fell for the Amethyst at the London Pen Show. I think probably it's amber next. (Want to see that? It's here. I think Mr Brown likes it almost as much as I do.) These pens feel wonderful in the hand; warm, rounded, dense. And they write beautifully. Easy to start, fairly wet, and ready to go.
Lapis and Amethyst. Marvellous translucence.
 Also: swappable nibs. Although you can't just stick a Kaweco Ice Sport nib unit in, I'm told you can swap the nibs and feeds (not the unit) between different pens. So if I want to get a big fat italic nib in there instead of the medium I have at the moment, I can do so. I haven't tried yet, so don't take my word for it.

The best thing about these pens? The material has the translucency and depth I associate with some of the best Italian celluloids. But there's no bling. No cap ring, no clip, nothing except the recessed 'Kaweco' medallion at the end. The simplicity of the form allows you to fully appreciate the beauty of the material.

It's love. It really is. Perfect.

And I've just managed to get the wonderful Amber version on ebay!

Monday, 7 October 2013

About time....

I've been collecting fountain pens for a couple of years now, learning from (and occasionally contributing to) Fountain Pen Network, following Grandmia's and SBRE Brown's marvellous Youtube videos, and reading the numerous excellent blogs, of varying frequencies, that are available on this subject. So it's about time I added a pen blog to my others... and this one might get updated fairly often.

When did it all start? I dimly remember Platignums and a Parker 25 from school. But my first serious, grown up pen came from City Organiser in Bow Lane. It was a Waterman Laureat, and other Laureats followed over the years till I fell out of love with Waterman after they discontinued their lifetime guarantee... and I started buying Cross ATXs instead.

If I had a naughty habit, it was ink. Waterman ink, mainly, in purple, turquoise, green, brown, Florida blue. Any colour except blue black, which I've always thought is a cheat's way out of having to make a decision on what ink to use. A colour that isn't a colour.

Then I started noticing pens like the Lamy 2000. Delta Dolce Vitas sparkled and tantalised from the case in Jarrold's (and what buttery nibs they had, when I tried them out). Nakayas in urushi gleamed at me from the interwebs. I had a short fascination with demonstrators. I started a collection of Waterman Kulturs (now ten strong, and still collecting; a robust and enjoyable cheap pen with a style of its own, very different in its rotund appeal from the tubular, thin Watermans I started with).

I trotted off to a pen show and had the great good fortune to meet John Sorowka (Oxonian), who did two great (and ultimately expensive) things for me;
  1. He told me off for my dislike of Parkers (which probably stemmed from that horrible Parker 25) and showed me what a really great golden-age Parker nib ought to be like,
  2. He showed me some German celluloids which weren't just "oh pretty" but also finely engineered piston-fillers. My first encounter with something more sophisticated than a cartridge filler.
I also found out one thing that saved me a lot of money. Despite my love of Italian celluloid, I don't really like modern Italian pens. They're too much bella figura, with too much bling-laden furniture. So the dolce vita never made it into my collection; but a few vintage Osmias did.

Anyway, 500 pens later (though I'm counting the one euro cheapies from car boots) I've just started making sense of this habit, started a proper calligraphy course, and started repairing my own pens... so it really is about time I started blogging.