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.