Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lead Pencil Grades

Ah, lead pencils...such a personal favourite. Ever since I failed my pen license test in primary school, I've found a real partner in lead pencils. They understand me, they accept my hand for its wayward marking and they just work so well.

And they have quite a story behind them too. See, lead pencils (obviously) don't contain any lead...this is good news, as lead is totally poisonous. We have the British to thank for the misnomer. The core of your Palomino Blackwing or Field Notes pencil is made of a mixture of Graphite and Clay and it was in discovering a huge graphite deposit in the 16th century that the Brits mistook it for 'lead ore' and like most of their mistakes, this one has had long-lasting consequences and the name just stuck.

Actual lead does deserve a small footnote in the story of pencils as a lot of pencil barrels were coated with paints that contain lead but fortunately this practice is long dead. Happily, we are left with graphite which is for all intents and purposes totally harmless. I haven't tried it, but you could even eat a little and be completely fine, spare your tastebuds perhaps. But back on point, the 'lead' of lead pencils comes in quite a range of formulae which is why we have the (very loose and informal) grading system of 9b to 9H.

Prepare yourself for a very silly taxonomic system. So, we know that your pencil is predominantly graphite (the black stuff that does the marking) and clay (to hold it all together) but the proportions in which you mix these ingredients determines what grade of pencil you have. B stands for Black and H stands for Hard...so, blackness and softness go hand in hand and greyness and hardness likewise.

If you have a very soft lead pencil (take the extreme, 9B) you can expect a lot of graphite and little clay. It will be very black and the point will positively disappear on you. It you have a very hard pencil (9H), you can expect a very light grey point that basically never diminishes. Sketchers love the Bs for shading and varying the degree of blackness. Designers love the Hs for hard, sharp lines and edges. Most pencils in general use are HB, B or 2B and this keeps most of us happy most of the time.

The full system descends in order from 9B to 2B then stumbles through B - HB - F - H before regaining its feet to some extent and running 2H to 9H for a respectable finish. The core of graphite and clay is fired at 1200 degrees Celsius and then cased in timber to keep our hands clean. The best timber for pencils is incense cedar which is forested fairly intensively in California. Believe it or not, the best age for such timber is 150 to 200 years old, so you're sharpening quite a little story in and of itself every time you refine your pencil point.

It's a pretty bland, straightforward act of chemistry in putting together your lead formula and choosing your proportions of graphite and clay. But a romantic like me will return to the 16th century and claim that some pencil makers go beyond chemistry and cross over into alchemy, taking earthly substances and basic elements and turning them into solid, pure gold! Yes, Palomino...I'm looking at you.

All of this aside, i'll always give an heartfelt recommendation to try some new pencils out. They look cool, most of them have a lovely aroma, they have a wonderful breadth of functionality and best of all, you don't need some stupid 'license' to use one!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Where the hand goes...

Lately I've had the pleasure of putting Blackwing pencil to Rhodia paper and been rewarded with a vivd reminder of just how much fun this combo is! Neither of these two, as a duet or playing solo, is in any way new to me, but they're worth celebrating all the same...indeed, even more so!

As a bit of background, these last couple of weeks I've been using a Clairefontaine Grid Book, Delfonics Rollbahn, Blackwing 602, Blackwing, Koh-I-Noor 5.6mm lead holder and a Kaweco Ice Sport Rollerball. So it's a stellar line up!

But this week a larger format was required for some broader thinking and the Rhodia Pad 38 was enlisted for some help. And boy did it deliver! Give a Blackwing that much space and your brain will start to run places you didn't think it could ever find!

Humans are vulnerable to plenty of crazy phenomena all to do with imitation and metaphor. Seeing someone smile will make you smile, your brain will follow what it sees. V.S. Ramachandran has documented plenty of amazing cases of synesthesia which kind of run along these lines - you experience one stimulus and 'confuse' it with another. The brain receives some input and ends up doing something unexpected as a consequence.

Most people would call this a preposterous leap but I see an analogy here with using the Double Dynamite Blackwing and Rhodia pad. That much space, that much speed, it's so encouraging! You want to keep using it, to keep thinking, to push into new parts of the paper...you're not bound by a screen or an abstraction like a keyboard...the extension of the self is in full effect

The confusion that happens is entirely serendipitous. After a good couple of hours of sheet after sheet, my first thought was 'Where the Hand goes, the Mind follows'. I think my brain was getting all this info: 'Hey, there's more space, and look, you're going so fast!' and so it imitated the hand and started thinking free...and fast!

Clearly I'm not too sure what was happening...only that it was really, really fun! Open that large notebook and your mind will follow. Indeed, if you really pressed me to sit down and try to nut out what i think tripped those synapses into life, I'll ask for three things: A couple of hours, a blackwing and a rhodia pad!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ballpoint vs Rollerball Pens

We get quite a few enquiries about what a rollerball pen is and what a ballpoint pen is and what's the difference and which is the most appropriate for each person. There are actually a few important differences which affect how the pen performs and in which situations it is most happy. We'll run down a few of them here.

To sum up the way they write, a rollerball writes with a thick, vivid line. The line may smudge if you quickly run your hand over it (as it uses liquid ink) but it is a smoother pen. A Ballpoint pen generally writes a thinner, less vivid line but it does dry instantly on paper.

If you're not sure what kind of pen you write with is, it's probably a ballpoint...most pens are. But you can always do a quick test keeping the above points in mind. Both pens use the same basic mechanism, where a rolling ball at the tip of the pen is 'inked' by a reservoir above it. As you write over a page, the inked ball rolls over the paper, leaving its mark.

The main difference is the ink inside that reservoir. The ballpoint uses a viscous ink, so it's not pure liquid. This is good news in some ways but bad news in others. Because of the ink formula, it dries instantly on paper and there is no smudging. This expedient little feature (like most expedient features) is really the main reason that ballpoints are so popular. And economy of course.

But because of the ink formula, the ball is not very responsive and a lot of people find ballpoints 'scratchy'. The ink can 'skip' too...because it is not a smooth flowing, liquid ink that is running over the ball, you can end up writing with a 'naked' ball, so no ink is left on your paper. We've all had this happen! Also, the ink can dry up in the reservoir. This is why those very cheap ballpoint pens stop working even though they look like they are full of ink.

Rollerballs on the other hand use a liquid ink. Or a gel ink. We'll treat them differently here. A liquid ink rollerball basically puts a greater amount of ink onto the paper than a ballpoint. 3-4 times the amount is an instructive standard and this is why your rollerball line is so vivid and also why some rollerballs can smudge.

But they are much more smooth. This makes writing easier than it is on a ballpoint pen and also just makes your work look a bit more alive! Personally i really like a rollerball line over a ballpoint line. Rollerballs can cause a couple of problems if you are using poor quality paper. As it is a liquid ink, it can 'bleed' or 'feather' if you are using poor paper. Just grab some Rhodia and you'll be fine!

Gel ink rollerballs are the same as above but even more alive still! The nature of gel as a medium allows greater pigmentation of the ink and this just leads to a greater range of possible colours, rendered with a bit more vigor.

There are, of course, exceptions to these guidelines. Fisher Space Pen ballpoint pens, due to their refill, experience none of the heartaches advised above for ballpoint pens generally. Likewise, any rollerball, such as Retro 51 or Diplomat, which uses the Schmidt Easy Flow 9000 refill will dry instantly and doesn't smudge!

Pens aside, writing really is a marriage of paper and ink and so your paper is really important. No matter your pen, if you're using poor quality paper you will run into problems. Likewise, if you have Rhodia or Clairefontaine paper (in particular...there is plenty of great paper out there), your pen will write like a champ!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Back In Stock - Moleskine Pens!

Moleskine fans, fret no more! The hugely popular, entirely enjoyable Moleskine Roller Pens are finally back in stock! The Gel Ink refill inside is designed specifically for a perfect marriage with Moleskine paper and that little cap is much smarter than the av-er-idge cap! It clips perfectly onto any Moleskine notebook, so it's always right where you want it! The metal pen pictured is a personal preference with lovely heavyweight feel. Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lamy Nexx Citron - New Colour!

The Lamy Nexx is a classmate of the extremely popular Lamy Safari & Lamy Al-Star pen designs, which are all grouped under the Young Writing banner, but i think it's kind of like the mischievous kid in the bunch! I'm reminded of that gifted, brilliant youngster who neglects his potential and would rather sit at the back of the room tying to impress the girls. I mean, the Safari and Al-Star are so smartly dressed, right? I mean stylish, but cultivated and neat. The Nexx is all over the place. A silver barrel, a black grip, a fluoro cap!

Don't make any mistakes here, it's equally as talented as its goodie two shoes buddies. But for some reason, we (Australia) tend to sneer at the Nexx and it is nowhere near as popular. So to my fellow fountain pen users, I say 'get over it!' This isn't the 1960s and the Nexx is not a mop top do, so stop being such prudes!

The Nexx, for all its disobedience, actually looks really cool. I like the three-tone colour you get with a posted cap, especially on the Red cap version, and the Nexx, which is a total hit in Germany's high schools and universities, is the embodiment of something we feel quite strongly about - that fountain pens are as relevant as ever, and a part of that thing we call style.

So I'm happy to concede that such aesthetic considerations are purely subjective but we can still talk about it objectively, particularly in regards to how it writes, that potential talent mentioned earlier. Unsurprisingly, it's awesome! The rubberised grip is so soft and the rubber surface really removes any need to put pressure on at the fingers at all. It's so comfy. And when you post that fluoro cap you get this wonderful balance of weight, resting nicely in your hand but also, because of the rubber grip, there is quite a bit of weight down towards the nib.

Nexx is made for beginners, to teach proper writing technique. The way the grip is moulded and the way the pen is weighted mean that the pen is held at the proper angle to make ink flow smoothly. This creates a relaxed grip which allows you to write for hours without fatigue or discomfort and also gets rid of that very Australian 'ballpoint claw' grip where the writer relies on the wrist to do all the work instead of the fingers. So come exam time, you can write those essays without discomfort...even if the Nexx considers itself too cool for Essay writing!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Diplomat Pens

Diplomat pens are exceptional! That word has a generally positive connotation nowadays, like amazing, or fantastic or brilliant, but its meant here in a more faithful sense of being a departure from the norm, not typical, different. Now it just so happens that in every way that they do depart from the norm they do so with fantastic brilliance, but i still think the distinction is important.

For starters, Diplomat pens are severely under rated. And i don't mean under rated like when somebody tells you that 'their first album is better than their biggest' just to sound hip. Diplomat pens are actually under rated. People who have used a Diplomat know this and anyone who is thinking about buying a pen should pay heed.

Admirably, the company is owned by the grand daughter of the founder so it is still a family company. At this size, at this scope, in this global market and over this period of time, this is exceptional.

I think this is really important. That whole thing about lineage carries through, it creates a sense of accountability. If you're accountable to share holders or venture capital it comes to pass that you're only really accountable to profit year by year and so you have this big old monkey on your back. If the conditions are just right (or, rather, wrong) you may start to cut corners.

But if you're accountable to a few generations of your family, then quality comes first, right? Otherwise it's wilful besmirching and nobody's doing that to their own family. This accountability is obvious, I mean, Diplomat pens still have a brass barrel inside, imparting lovely weight and longevity.

Come to think of longevity, no other pen brand that we stock gets feedback like 'I still use my dad's old one' quite like Diplomat. These pens seem to last in fantastic working order for generations! Which seems apt...they're still made in the Diplomat factory. Not just 'a' factory owned by Diplomat but 'the' factory owned by Diplomat...the one and only since 1921!

A curious little point of geopolitics intrudes on the story here as this factory happens to be located about 30km from the Polish border. In this pocket of East Germany there is really high pressure on wages, as the economically weaker bordering countries are full of people looking for work. And so it happens that without any conscious effort, Diplomat's work force is probably greatly underpaid for its knowledge and this carries on to great value in Diplomat pens. But without cutting any corners in materials or craftsmanship!

As an example of craftsmanship, all lacquered Diplomat pens have 14 layers of lacquer. That's really astonishing...this makes them great for engraving, impervious to wear and tear, and beautiful to look at, a kind of iridescence when the light is just right. Now i'm pretty sure if you put a pen with 14 layers of lacquer in my left hand and one with 4 layers in my right I wouldn't be able to tell the difference but give it 5 or 10 years and it would be pretty obvious! This is again that exceptional trait, that accountability to principles and standards laid down by the family.

Most Diplomat nibs are steel. Some are Gold. Either way, they're all really great. Everything aside, the lacquering, the brass, the beautiful design, it's the nib which is where the action happens and all the great praise that Diplomat pens get is essentially coming down to the nibs. They're rather large, invariably beautiful and consistent. So consistent. But so beautiful too. I love a good fountain pen nib and I think Diplomat engrave theirs with just the right amount of ornamentation.

But i suppose the most important way in which they are exceptional is value for Money. Grab any pen around 100-300 dollars and a Diplomat at the same price will probably beat it. Even if it's a tortoise and the hare kind of victory, Diplomat will still come out on top. Fountain pens are really great investments, they can really take on a life and story of their own after a few years of companionship and in this light Diplomat pens are a fantastic, amazing, brilliant exception.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fountain Pens Care, Use & Tips

Happy Labour Day! At least to all of our fellow Victorians and our little cousins down there in Tasmania. Well, in Tasmania i think they call it the 8 Hour Day. In Queensland they call it May Day! which cracks me up...the ruling gentry perhaps a little panicked at the idea of fair working rights...well, not really. Labour Day goes right back to the middle of the 19th century and we should all be thankful we don't have to work in 19th century conditions.

Something else that goes way back is fountain pens! Dubious little segue-ways aside, a fountain pen also works really hard, for really long and really reliably. So you should show it the most simple, token acts of kindness. Flushing the pen with water when you refill takes less than a minute and ensures a fit, healthy, happy worker. Writing a little something with your fountain pen each day keeps it running smooth and storing it the right way (nib pointing up...don't lie your fountain pen down) will add years to your productive partnership.

We have plenty more fountain pens care and tips you can read and plenty of fountain pens in need of a little TLC. Lamy lovers will note the permanent price drop on the pretty, pretty Lamy Al-Star fountain pen (pictured in Shiraz). $10 less than previous! Happy Labour Day indeed!

Friday, March 9, 2012

J Herbin Ink Tests!

We've had a very busy couple of days since falling for Kaweco pens as the infatuation seems to be pretty contagious. Kaweco rollerballs and fountain pens have been really well received and already we've had feedback about how enjoyable they are.

This is great news! We wrote that Kaweco is here to bring fine writing to the masses and the cockles of my little heart are nice and toasty to see this actually happening! Just as heartwarming to a sentimental fool like me is to see J Herbin Ink coupled with just about every Kaweco pen. The French & Germans may have had some troubles getting along in the past, but it's all sunshine and Queen from here!

Anyway, I love J Herbin Ink. I love the light, smooth flow. It's all water based and so it is not permanent or waterproof. I mean, it lasts long enough for any sensible period of archiving but if for some reason you wish to re-read your journal from beyond the grave, it might not work.

But the best thing (about fountain pen ink in general actually) is the shading. Ah, shading...i just love it! It's like a finger print, you can see how somebody writes and i have this theory that its like a window into the subconscious...every time i write 'check stock' the last two letters are really dark, like i'm trying to push the pen through the paper...it must be either really important to me or really frustrating!

And it just looks way better than ballpoint pen writing, even if you have a clumsy hand...the analogy is like an original oil painting (fountain pen) and a print of the same (ballpoint).

Check out some more colours below and then a truly wonderful example of what somebody with lovely handwriting can do using a fountain pen. This is a poem written by Nicholas Gold as part of our Rhodia Think Offline comp in 2011. Fitting as Rhodia paper is money in the bank where fountain pens are concerned.