The joy of macro.

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Staedtler Mars micro 0.7mm mechanical pencil

Who doesn’t love a mechanical pencil? I already have several but could not resist this one when it was less than half price in our local Rymans.

Recently, I have been enjoying a revitalised enthusiasm for photography, prompted by the acquisition of a new Nikon Coolpix A900. New camera day! I was attracted by a host of exciting features, particularly the articulated screen, the ability to shoot macro from 1cm, a massive x35 optical zoom with Vibration Reduction, (Nikon’s anti-shake), 4K video, 20 million pixels, Wi-Fi connectivity and many more. It was some years since I last bought a new camera, if you do not include mobile phones and things have move on a lot in that time.

There are a few things that it doesn’t have, such as the ability to shoot in RAW, or a touch screen, which I decided that I could live without. Exposure compensation settings are readily to hand, as are white balance settings and colour adjustment. It is wonderful to be able to have white paper looking white, even if taken under artificial light in the depths of winter.

It is the ability to take macro shots with such ease, that I have found most exciting. Even hand-held shots seem acceptably sharp but with a small tripod, combined with a two second self-timer delay setting it is better still. Here is my new pencil again.

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Getting up close with the Staedtler mars 0.7mm mechanical pencil.

Here is the production date stamp on the elegant black and chrome guilloche Cross Century II fountain pen:

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Date stamp on the collar of a Cross Century II fountain pen.

Obviously it is tempting to try the other extreme and see how the telephoto performs. I tried a quick shot of the moon, with a manual exposure and a few stops of under exposure. This was the result:

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The moon over London. The farthest subject that I have photographed so far.

Finally, one of the subjects that I wanted to photograph better, was paper. Not ideal with a mobile phone. I wanted to be able to capture the texture that you see, particularly under high magnification and with a low wintry sun slanting in to add contrast to the ups and downs of the paper surface. I shall continue experimenting with this but am always impressed and appreciative of the professional looking close-up photography that I see on fellow bloggers’ sites. Working during the week, there is limited time to enjoy the daylight hours at this time of year but sometimes it all comes together with a bit of sunlight at the weekend. Here was one of my early efforts. I used to think that Paperchase soft flexi notebooks had very smooth paper but under high magnification, the surface looks more like a newly plastered wall. Most of my fountain pens love it.

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Paperchase note book. Conklin Mark Twain Crescent Filler, with Jinhao X450 medium nib and Aurora Blue Black ink.

 

2016: some of my fountain pen highlights

Now that 2016 has ended, it seems a fitting time to look back at where this hobby has taken me, over the past 12 months.

First, to get the figures out of the way, I bought a total of 40 fountain pens for myself. Many of these were inexpensive and bought in twos or threes or in different colours. If we can deduct all the pens costing £6.00 or less, of which there were fourteen, then the total comes down to a slightly less greedy 26.  A very few of the purchases turned out to be regrettable and lessons were learned. On the other hand, some of the inexpensive pens turned out to be surprisingly good, which was marvellous.

However, the pen-buying was only part of a larger picture and I now see that there have been many highlights over the course of the year. Let me list a few here, in no particular order.

1. Trying brands that were new to me. I bought pens from several brands that I had not tried before, including Campo Marzio, Diplomat, Kaweco, Noodlers and Pelikan which all proved very worthy buys.

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2. Visiting the beautiful city of Bruges, Belgium in March. Whilst there, I did a Google search for fountain pen shops which led me to Iris De Corte, a third generation pen shop, in a cobbled street just off the main square at Sint Amandsstraat. When I visited, the shop was closed with the shutters half down. I peered through the metal grille at the attractive window displays which included Kaweco, Cross, Visconti, Parker, Faber Castell and Hugo Boss. I then noticed some people working inside. A charming woman then came out. I asked her if the shop was open. “No, but I can be open.” It transpired that this was Iris and she was busy taking photographs of products for a web site. She kindly let me look around, having my own private shopping experience. I bought two leather pen cases for my Kaweco pens.

3. Buying my first Parker “51”. This was at the London pen show in October, a cedar blue Aerometric dating from 1949 which is now the elder statesman of my pen cup. I am grateful to Graham Jasper, the vintage pen collector who sold it to me. Now that I own one, I have enjoyed reading up on the Parker “51” with added interest. Using this pen feels very special and unlike any other that I own.

4. Making use of the internet. Throughout the year I have been both entertained and informed by the many You Tube reviews, WordPress blogs, Instagram posts and FPN threads by fountain pen enthusiasts all over the world. These eventually led me to start my own blog through which I have become acquainted with some inspiring like-minded people, whose work I much admire.

5. Getting more organised: Having allowed a growing number of fountain pens and their entourage of boxes, inks and accessories to spread unchecked throughout the house, it became necessary to find a better way of storing inks, tools, empty pen boxes, new notebooks and pen cases. I found a plastic storage tower, consisting of four nice deep drawers which has been an improvement on the previous state of affairs.

6. Being more adventurous with inks. Having gone for many years using a limited palette of mainly blue and black inks, I am now exploring some of the huge range of other coloured inks available and enjoying the pursuit of inks to match particular pens. This has now got to the stage where I might see a car in the street and remark that I know just the ink that would go with that.

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7. Experiencing a fountain pen auction. Whilst visiting an antiques emporium in Hampstead and enquiring whether they had any fountain pens, I was told of a forthcoming silver, jewellery and general antiques auction which would include pens.  I took a catalogue. Flicking through, I found several lots consisting of a selection of fountain and ball pens. One item that caught my eye was listed as a “Parker, a burgundy marbled resin fountain pen, with medium 18 carat gold nib, cartridge converter mechanism, no box or paperwork” with an estimate of £20 to £30. I went to the viewing and handled the pen, which was a very pretty Duofold Centennial. I registered to bid by telephone in the auction which was a few days away. In the ensuing days, I thought about how high I might go, allowing for the commission and vat payable on top of the hammer price. In my head the pen was mine.

When the day of the auction came, (which was by telephone and internet or previously lodged bids only) I was able to log on to a saleroom web site and hear the auction progressing through the various lots. It was not until about four hours in, that the burgundy  Duofold came up. The much anticipated telephone call from the auction room came, a couple of lots before hand. I was told that there had been a lot of interest on the internet, on this item. And then the bidding started and within seconds had gone over £100, to £120 and I chickened out. It sold at £140.00 plus commission. This was an interesting new experience but lessons were learned as to (a) not assuming that a pen is yours until you have bought it and (b) not expecting an item to be sold to you for the estimated price.

8. Trying new pens. Getting a new pen home, it is exciting to examine it and try it out, with various inks and on various paper surfaces and determine its role. Finding the right ink can sometimes happen first time but can be an ongoing process of experimentation, trial and error.

9. Washing out pens. Having bought rather too many pens in the past year and wanting to make use of them all, I am suffering from having too many inked at a time (currently over 20). A few of these will suffer from hard starts if not used regularly and so there is a continuous process of lifting a few out of the pen cup to be flushed and rested for a while. A few of them seem immune to hard starts, such as the Pelikans and the Platinum 3776 Century with its slip and seal inner cap. Whilst not really a highlight,  I do find enjoyment and relaxation from washing the pens from time to time and rotating the selection although I struggle to keep the numbers down and do not like to flush them if it means wasting a lot of ink.

10. Writing with the pens. Not to forget the obvious, it is putting the pens to good use that should be the goal. I have varied my office pen from time to time but currently use a TWSBI Vac 700 clear demonstrator with Graf von Faber-Castell Cobalt Blue, for signing letters and documents. My Every Day Carry pen is currently a Sheaffer Sagaris, which I also used for most of the year as my 2016 daily diary pen. In 2015 it was the Italix Parson’s Essential, that I used almost every day for the year with Waterman Serenity Blue ink.

Aside from work use, I have enjoyed setting aside an hour or more a week, to write up such things as memories of parents or school days, for my own satisfaction before memories fade.

In the final hours of 2016 I took another pen to flush, picking up the Campo Marzio Ambassador in brown marbled resin. I have been using it with one of my favourite inks, Conway Stewart Tavy, by Diamine which is a classic looking blue-black. Having washed the converter and rinsed the nib and feed with running water and then with water squirted through a bulb blower, I then left the section to sit in a basin of water. As the water became still, I watched a ribbon of deep blue ink, slowly issuing out of the feed and fading into the water. It seemed rather symbolic of the final hours of the year, ebbing away.

I have been very fortunate to have a hobby that gives so much pleasure. It is useful to look back over the year to see what lessons can be learned. My main one is that, without a strategy, my occasional and often spontaneous pen purchases resulted in rather a shocking number and I expect to buy a lot less in 2017 and to make more use of the many delightful pens that I now own.

A Happy New Year to all.

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What to consider when trying a new pen

Picture the scene. You are in a shop and are considering a purchase of a new fountain pen. You have circled the pen display a few times and are now at the stage of asking to see the one that has caught your eye.

I am assuming that the pen is not in a sealed blister pack and that you are actually able to handle it. The pen is put on the counter for your inspection. You turn it over in your hands. Assuming that there is nothing that immediately puts you off, the next step is to ask to try the pen.

A bottle of ink and a test pad are produced. You dip the pen and then comes the moment of truth. The pulse quickens. How does it write?

It occurs to me that you then have a tricky task of weighing up multiple factors and reaching a decision within a matter of, perhaps, less than a minute. Clearly you are not able to carry out an exhaustive inspection and writing tests, at your leisure. You have one pen, one paper and one ink. You need to be fully focused and aware of what you are looking for and what you are looking to avoid. And so today,  I thought it may be of assistance to collect together a few thoughts on some of the factors that you might want to have in mind.

Having jotted down a list of random points, these seemed to fall into two groups, namely, How does it Feel? And How does it Perform? Of course, these are only my suggestions and you may wish to create your own list.

How does it Feel?

Smoothness. This is probably the first and for many, perhaps the only, factor considered when test-driving a pen. How the pen feels as the  nib moves across the paper depends on several factors. Are the tines aligned? Misaligned tines is a common issue even with new pens and fortunately one that is usually possible to correct yourself. Also, is the nib well polished? You will soon notice if it is not as the tip feels as if is caked in rust. The effect of maximum smoothness is often described as “buttery.” The opposite extreme is “scratchy”. If your pen-purchasing trip was pre-meditated, bringing a loupe to inspect the nib tines alignment is very useful although you may look a bit like a diamond merchant.

Give. Or Springiness. Or Softness. This is a lovely quality in a nib. Whether you wish to have it, may depend upon what you are used to and how you write. Nibs differ in firmness, from a very rigid and unyielding nib sometimes termed “a nail”, to the very soft, flexible nib, sometimes called “a wet noodle”.  If your experience has always been to write with a firm nib and you do not apply a lot of pressure expecting line width variation  and shading this may not be an issue for you. But a softer nib gives a more cushioned ride and allows for easier application of pressure to generate a wetter and broader line here and there as you write. This in turn lays down more ink in places, creating darker lines and thus adding variety and expression to your writing. It is said that generally, gold nibs are softer than stainless steel. This may be true if both were made exactly the same way. But with good design, it is also possible to have a stainless steel nib that is on the softer side and I have found this with the Parker Sonnet and the Pelikan M205. And not all gold nibs are soft.

Feedback. This refers to the information that the nib sends back to you as you write. The feel of the nib on the paper. Rather like the handling and feel of your car tires on the road. It is rather more difficult to describe and is easier to identify when comparing a few different pens at the same time.  Basically you want a pen that gives a little feedback, letting you know that it is in contact with the paper, but not too much or too little. Too much, means that you are uncomfortably aware of resistance and scraping. Too little and it is like skiing in a white-out, you barely know whether your nib is touching the paper at all.

Tooth. Some of these terms have different meanings for different people. To me it refers to a catchiness, or digging in of the pen to the paper, too much of which is an undesirable feature and a symptom of misaligned tines, where the inner edge of a tine catches on the paper when you move the pen in a certain direction. It could also mean the nib having a slightly rough surface to grip on paper and help the pen to lay down ink. That is, the opposite of being over-polished and struggling to write on smooth paper.

Length. Is the pen long enough for you? A pen that is short when un-capped, can often be lengthened by placing the cap on the back of the barrel (“posting”) which adds length but also adds weight and may upset balance if the cap is heavy and does not post deeply. A pen which is too short feels a little awkward as the back of the barrel does not reach back far enough to rest comfortably on the crook of your hand between thumb and first finger.

Weight. You will want a pen that is a pleasant weight as you write. Pens with a metal body are generally more heavy than those made of resin, other things being equal. Feel the weight as you write. Are you going to use the pen posted or non-posted?  Here, you  may wish to avoid a pen that is unusually heavy if you plan to use it for very long writing sessions.  But a pen that is too light may sometimes feel insubstantial. Then again, people wrote with a quill in the past which was as light as a feather! A good fountain pen should write under its own weight, with little or no extra downward pressure required and so a bit of weight is a good thing. Having said that, I have a few pens that weigh next to nothing and I also enjoy writing with them very much.

Balance. Slightly harder to explain than weight, this usually refers to whether a pen feels back heavy or not. First, think whether you are going to use the pen posted or non posted. Here, you first need to check whether the cap does actually post. Does it fit nicely on the back of the barrel? Is it secure or does it fall off or slide around? If you plan to write with the cap posted, then it is important to see how the weight distribution feels in your hand. A poorly balanced pen may feel a bit like writing with a 12 inch stick with a tennis ball on the back. Once you become aware of discomfort in this respect, it becomes more annoying. (All is not lost however. You may rescue a short and unbalanced pen by finding another light weight cap that fits, to post instead).

Comfort. This, like many of these points, is a personal thing and depends on several factors, such as section width, material and finish, position and sharpness of screw threads if any, the presence of a “step” down in diameter from barrel to section,  and balance as mentioned earlier. As to section width, try to decide whether this is too wide for you or too narrow. I was initially put off buying the Sheaffer Sagaris which has a fairly skinny section but overcame my prejudices and love it now. Also, I was aware on buying a Cross Century II in black lacquer and chrome, that it was a very slender pen but the appeal of its sheer attractiveness outweighed this for me.

How does it Perform?

Write a few lines with the pen in your usual handwriting. How does it look?

Nib width. The width of the tip is mostly what determines the width of the line and the basic choice, if any, is usually between Fine, Medium or Broad. Rarely, there are extra fine and extra broad (or double broad) options. Then there are stubs and italics. Most pens seem to be sold with Medium nibs.  If your writing is small, a Fine may give a line that is more in proportion to the height of your letters and help to keep some white space in the loops of your letters and so improve neatness and legibility.  Conversely a Broad nib gives a thicker bolder line, suited to larger writing.

Shading. The attractive effect of ink being put down in your letters in varying densities, giving light and dark shades. Applying a little pressure perhaps on your downstrokes or the tails of your g’s and y’s for example, spreads the tines, lays down more ink, which pools in the indentation created in the paper thus giving the effect of two coats of ink instead of one. Not all inks do this. A nib that has some flex to it is a help. My Platinum 3776 Century with a 14k gold Broad nib, paired with Waterman Harmonious Green Ink seems to produce effortless shading.

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Line width variation. Pressing down on the nib a little spreads the tines and widens the line of ink. If you go too wide, you may produce two separate parallel lines (“railroading”) or if you go really too far, you may bend (“spring”) and ruin the nib, such that it will not resume its normal shape. Also, variation in line width is a product of the nib producing a narrow  line if moved in one direction (say, from side to side) or thicker if moved in another direction (up and down) and so if you hold the pen at a consistent angle to the page as you write, this will occur naturally. A calligraphy nib or a stub nib does this.

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Flow. The degree of ink flow to your nib, is crucial. Too little, and the pen does not write. If there is not enough ink getting to the tip of the nib, there is also insufficient “lubrication” of the nib on the paper, to provide a pleasant writing experience. It is not just a smooth nib that gives a smooth writing experience, but having a cushion or layer of ink, on which to glide across the page. Without this, you would then be aware of resistance and drag as you move the pen, which makes for a tiring and unpleasant writing experience. Too much flow on the other hand, and you have a “gusher”, a pen that lays down very wet ink, which stays wet even after you have written another three or so lines. This is more likely to “bleed” through or least show through, to the other side of the paper and to “feather” (spread out) on the side that you are writing on.

Unfortunately it is difficult to gauge how good the ink flow will be, when you have just dipped a pen, as the nib and feed will be wet and this is not representative of how the pens will write when inked normally. A pen that may look very wet and off-putting, may in fact have a good flow when filled properly and once the feed is working in normal conditions and not saturated.

Skipping. Also difficult to gauge in shop counter conditions with the pen only dipped and not yet run in to your writing angle. This is the annoying tendency of a nib to miss out part of a letter or word as you write, so that you have to go back and write it again. This may be due to a combination of an overly polished nib plus very smooth paper, or the nib being too rounded and not yet having any flat surface with which to make contact with the paper. Happily this sometimes resolves itself once you have had a pen a few weeks and written it in, gradually forming a flat surface at the angle at which you hold you nib to the paper.

Hard starts. Again, dipping a pen and then trying it straightaway, is not going to tell you whether the pen will suffer from hard starts. This refers to the pen not being ready to write when you want it to. If a pen has been standing, nib-upwards, for a few days or longer, or been carried upright in a pocket ink drains down away from the nib and so takes time to reach the tip of the pen again, when you try to write with it. Also, pens which have a good seal when capped, usually by means of an “inner cap”, are better at staying ready to write and avoiding drying out. Pens with large nibs may fare worse at this. I don’t like to think of it as a fault, as it is just gravity really and I don’t know how it is that some pens (my Pelikan M205 for example) always seem primed and ready to go even after weeks of inactivity.

Conclusion.

This is a long list of factors. Each of these topics can be a dissertation on its own. So, who considers all these things in the heat of the moment when buying a pen? Probably nobody. Even as a keen pen enthusiast myself, I am usually too blinkered and excited to make a considered judgment when faced with a  shiny new pen. For larger purchases, it is good to do your homework beforehand, perhaps weighing up reviews and a few of the many useful resources now available from the internet, except for those spur of the moment purchases. But from my experience, it is good at least to be aware of a few of the main factors which are of particular importance to you and your writing needs and preferences. Do also check whether there is a guarantee and keep your receipt. Happy Shopping!