Pocket Pen

As mentioned in my previous post on pens I like to carry a writing instrument on me as part of my everyday carry. In school I always had a mechanical pencil, moving into pens I first tried roller-ball then felt-tip pens before landing on fountain pens. Fountain pens have many advantages over other types of pens, but being pocket safe is not one of them. Because they use liquid ink drips or leaks can cause a lot of damage (think of the opening to Shawn of the Dead). Last century wanting safety from leaky pens was such a necessity that people would line their shirt pockets with plastic envelopes bring us the dweebish stigma around the pocket protector. Luckily today the fountain pen enthusiast has better options.

A large point of not spilling your ink is how you are filling your ink. Older fountain pens used latex bladders or lever activated pistons to pull ink directly into the barrel of the pen. Now it is much more common to insert a small ink filled plastic cartridge or a converter which uses a screw piston. These ink distribution methods are much more reliable and will prevent ink from seeping out of the pen. But that’s not good enough for a pen that I want to throw in my pocked with my keys and other things.

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The Liliput is nearly the perfect pocket pen. It adds protection by having a twist off cap that will never come off in your pocket, and will never let ink out. Coming in at a little under four inches capped its a pocket-able aluminium ink fortress. But its only nearly perfect. Being small, slippery, and perfectly round this pen wants to roll of and get lost. To be truly useful this pen needs a clip. There are clips make by Kaweco for this pen, though the selection is very limited. Instead I tried fabricating my own.

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I have a 3D printer, but the nature of a pen clip makes it difficult to print on a 3D printer. Printing a ring to fit around the pen was easy enough, but attaching a clip to it introduces structural weakness that will not stand up to being pocketed over and over again. This has to do with the direction of layers, for the ring having the layers perpendicular to the pen makes printing the shape simple. For the clip the layers should be oriented parallel to the pen otherwise the clip will just snap off at the weak layer joins.

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I printed the ring to fit around the pen and then looked to some model making techniques to finish the clip. I happened to have some very fine brass rods around that would make a durable, but flexible pen clip. Using a very small drill I made inserts for the ends of the brass rod and bent it them glued it into place. A little bit of sanding to smooth out the printed plastic and I have a very functional clip for my favorite pen.

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Now this little pen is perfect for a pant for shirt pocket. With the oblong shape of the plastic ring it also no longer rolls away! With this clip I have been carrying the pen around for a few weeks now. Haven’t lost it and no spills! I’ve also got a rather odd way of filling this mini pen to maximize the amount of ink it will hold, but that’s a story for another time.

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Getting to the Point

This week Apple announced improvements to the Apple Pencil, the precision iPad stylus, at WWDC and a few weeks ago Microsoft announced the new Surface Pro tablet with the all new Surface pen to put their previous Surface pen to shame. I have my own set of styli that I would like to share, but mine are much more analog.

Though I work in tech I often take handwritten notes. I find them very helpful when trying to learn or remember something, or to visualize a problem I’m trying to figure out. My office stocks the standard red, black and blue Bic ballpoint roller-ball pens that you can find literally anywhere. These are perfectly functional, but I would prefer to write with something nicer. From about the start of the year I had been caring with me a fine-tip Prismacolor marker and using this to write notes. Recently this went dry and I needed to find a replacement.

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New Prismacolor (top) and worn down used one (bottom)

 I was directed to give fountain pens a try. Though most of the world has moved on to ballpoint and gel pens there is still a community of fountain pen users and still many producers of classic and new pens. I dove in and got a beginner pen, the popular Lamy Safari and I was hooked.

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Top to bottom: Pilot Metropolitan, Kaweco Liliput, and Lamy Safari

So what makes fountain pens different? Most would point the the nib as the largest difference between other pens but the differentiating factor is really the ink. Fountain pens use water based liquid ink, while most roller-ball pen use ballpoint ink which is oil based and much more viscous, gel pens of course use gel ink which falls somewhere in the middle. This liquid ink is stored inside an internal reservoir inside the pen to flow, like a fountain, out of the tip or nib of the pen. The distinctively shaped nib has no moving mechanical parts like a roller-ball pen, as it relies on gravity and the capillary action of the water to pull ink from the reservoir down to the tip at a consistent rate.

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Roller-ball, Fountain, and fine tipped marker

The Lamy Safari is an amazingly good pen. Solid ABS plastic and a nib that is very easy to use. The pen is a bit big and bulky, and has a very utilitarian style, which I appreciate but sometimes I want a fancy pen to look fancy too. This lead me to the pilot metropolitan. A little more sleek and with an italic nib it allowed me to try writing in a more stylized script. The last requirement I had was a pen I could pocket.

Putting a fountain pen in a pocket can be a risky move. The pocket protector wasn’t created because people thought is stylish, fountain pens hold liquid ink which likes to seep everywhere it can. While this is unlikely, some pens have threaded caps that screw on to for a seal to stop any ink from leaking. For a pocket pen I went with the Liliput. A tiny pill that when posted turns into a usable pen.

When taking notes the writing instrument is only half the equation. There is also the variable of what you are writing on, and with fountain pens paper choice is very important. That watery ink fountain pens need to function does not work well with all types of paper. Some paper can be too absorbent and suck up extra ink, which makes the letter look like they are bleeding into the page. Some paper takes too longer for the ink to dry and the ink will smudge it touched. For most of the writing I do its fine if there is a little bleeding but its nice to write on good paper.

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with water based inks, paper quality matters

Lastly, with a fountain pen comes the chore and choice of ink. These are not single use pens (though single use fountain pens exist) and once the ink runs out the pen can be refilled. While filling some pens can be a hassle, being able to fill your own ink gives you so many options. There are hundreds of different colors and formulations available! No longer is writing with a pen confined to blue, black, and red. Currently I am using purple, turquoise, and black across my pens, but I have the ability to change out the inks at anytime.

So with new pens, new paper, and new inks I am ready to take notes in style and luxury. When writing with one of my fountain pens or with a simple Bic I have found a new level of understanding and appreciation into how much thought and effort has into creating the tools white allow us to write.