As I mentioned in my Stationery-Related New Year’s Resolutions post, in 2017 I will be using seasonal shades of ink in my fountain pens to encourage me to use my ink pens more, to make better use of the inks in my collection and to bring through the seasons within my journaling and notetaking. Today I am sharing my winter inks and their fountain pen pairings that will see me through until the end of February.
Blue inks used to remind me of school work; a really watery, wishy-washy, slushy, “I stand for nothing” kind of blue splashed across every exercise book of every lesson. I think I’d tarnished all blue inks with this association, so over the last year or so, I decided to give blue another chance. I’m showing you five of my blues today, and sharing a few similar inks to invest in next.
On my recent trip to Amsterdam I discovered the lovely Ballograf Chrome Epoca pen. I had never heard of Ballograf before and I’ve learned a lot about the brand since buying my first product.
Ballograf is a Swedish producer of ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils and is based in Gothenburg – set up in 1945 by a lone Austrian. Apparently Ballograf employ thirty employees but produce four million writing implements a year. That’s 133333.3 pens per employee! Its main market appears to be Scandinavia and western Europe although I haven’t come across this brand during my usual stationery jaunts, neither online nor in person.
Look and feel
This pen features a simple push button mechanism and is refillable with Ballograf refills. Pushing the button has a nice resistance to it which kicks in about halfway down.
The pen has several simple details which really make the look and feel of this writing implement. The pen clip features the Ballgraf symbol, the silver barrel is lined on each hexagonal face, the join between the barrel and the grip section features, very very finely, the words Ballograf Epoca Sweden. I’ve seen a few websites where you can have your Epoca engraved and sure enough, there is a short section of barrel which is waiting for your name. There’s an overriding historical vintage feeling about this pen – like it’s something that hasn’t changed since the 50s – even though it’s brand new and looks brand new. Its design is timeless, simple and honest.
I love the cornflour, lavender blue of the grip section. It’s untextured and has a softly rounded taper towards the end which suits me just fine, and really complements the surrounding silver. It also adds a touch of brightness and femininity to the pen, which is a good contrast against the straight sides of the barrel. The only downside of an untextured grip section might be that it could get uncomfortable writing for long periods of time particularly if, like me, you don’t hold your pen close to the nib or ballpoint.
The ink in my pen is archival blue. I rarely choose a blue ink, particularly with ballpoints as they tend to be a very obvious blue, if that makes any sense. Luckily the pen is refillable: there are medium and fine refills in blue, black, red and green. I don’t find this blue offensive at all though. Apparently early in the brand’s history, the ink used in their Epocas was certified as archival, meaning that it could be used widely for official purposes in Sweden and this increased its popularity in offices.
Ever since reflecting on what I want from a 0.4mm gel pen in this post, I have thought about what I expect from several different stationery items. The things I expect from a ballpoint are a smooth writing experience without any ink stickiness, an ink that writes dry on the page and also no ink skipping – this is a common expectation among all pens for me. I think a stationery mantra everywhere should be “every touch has to leave a mark” because it’s so true among all writing implements for me. Finally I really dislike ballpoints where the refill “wobbles” inside the pen casing. I think you’d have to experience this one to understand what I mean but I think it’s caused when the refill isn’t supported properly by any mechanism inside the pen casing or barrel leaving it free to move depending on the pressure you apply.
So on those expectations. Every touch of the pen leaves a mark! Even the dot of an i. You don’t need to apply much pressure to achieve this. I’ve used this pen in a Word notebook, Rhodia dotpad, Field Notes notebook and my Tsunami Fools notebook and I haven’t experienced any pressure marks on the reverse of pages I’ve written on. I’m not sure I would ever risk a ballpoint pen with my Hobonichi though or on paper any lighter than found in your business as usual notebooks.
This pen gives you a really smooth writing experience even on cheap copy paper and whether you’re writing on a single sheet directly on a hard surface or whether you’re writing in a notebook. This is so important for a ballpoint because I think this is one of the main things that makes them compete with gel and fountain pens. Thankfully there’s no wobble either. There is, very infrequently, a pleasing squeak of ballpoint on paper.
Obviously you can’t post a push button pen. It is comfortable to write with but I personally wouldn’t want to write with a much shorter pen. Overall it comes up at a slightly shorter length than my faithful Uni SXN 150-38 and about a centimetre shorter than my Uni Signo .38. Unless it’s a mini-sized fountain pen, I notice the pen’s length much more with push button ballpoint and gel pens because of the clip – I generally only hold a clipped pen in one position with the clip facing upwards rather than rotating it in my hand if necessary.
I’m really glad I chose the Epoca as my first foray into this brand. Ballograf don’t produce a huge selection of products and are confined to pens and mechanical pencils. I think I’m happy with having this as my Ballograf toolbox addition rather than trying out a range of their other products as I may normally do when discovering a new brand; my impression is their products are likely to perform similarly. In all honesty I think investing in the Epoca and sticking with it without needing to collect the rest of their products is a testament to the brand and pen in this case. It’s timeless in appearance, refillable and writes smoothly and comfortably. It’s also clearly designed to be reliable, apparently each Epoca Chrome will give you 8000m worth of writing. I’d love to know how many Field Notes this equates to!
I am generally shy of ballpoints because I find them to be similar writing experiences whatever the pen is that you’re using. The design, weight and smoothness of the Epoca make for a really enjoyable writing experience. It’s not a standout revelation moment for me with ballpoints, I didn’t expect it to be, but I’ve come away with a product that is unexpectedly high performing, is lovely to look at and use and is a great reflection of a brand I’ve never experienced before. Although four million of them are produced a year I feel it is a unique addition to my toolbox and one that I’m going to keep in my regular collection for the near future.
I can’t find many UK retailers of Ballgraf products but if you’re interested in buying one I suggest you do a bit of googling and find a retailer which suits your requirement best. I bought mine at Like Stationery in Amsterdam where there were a few different colour options including one with a pale pink grip section, and a gold version with a black grip section.
My brush pen collection is growing rapidly. Instagram knows me far too well and often shows me short brush lettering videos, many of which involve the Copic Sketch Marker. I’d never used a Copic product before and decided that this looked like a good one to try out.
The pen and tips
Copic are a well-known Japanese brand and pitch their products towards artistic and creative uses – think designers, illustrators, artists, crafting. The Copic is a double-ended permanent marker; one end is a brush tip and one is a broad chisel marker. Given that I am still continuously practicing and fiddling with brush pens, I always buy a version in black. There is an episode of Frasier where he decides to take a variety of dates to the same restaurant so that the only difference between the evenings would be the company, and he could therefore objectively isolate the date as the cause of his enjoyment or dissatisfaction. The same can be said for brush pen testing. Always getting black means I won’t be sidetracked by loving the colour and not the pen!
The brush end is a flexible tip with no discernible individual brush fibres. You may recall that my difficulty in controlling individual brush fibres was one of my key dislikes about the Muji brush pen. As with many tips like this, I find they soften over time and take on the shape of my pressure. This has happened over time with the Copic and the brush tip is ever so slightly flattened. I find this helpful as it’s adapted to my style of writing and its increased softness means an easier, thicker line.
When Copic say black, they really mean black. Unlike many experiences I’ve had with brush pens there is no loss of saturation towards the outside of your strokes. The line left is completely black. There is also a tremendous amount of bleed through on all the papers I’ve tested and sometimes has left a mark on what’s underneath – this wasn’t great when I used the Copic at work (white desk, oops). Obviously this is to be expected from a permanent marker and such a saturated ink but does rule this pen out for casual usage in notebooks.
One positive I find about this pen is its shape – it is an oval / squashed rectangle shaped which means no rolling on the table and it sits very steadily in your hand when writing with no rotation of the barrel.
You can’t post the lids on this pen. This doesn’t bother me because I find that it has a comfortable weight and length without posting and the lids are quite light anyway so wouldn’t add too much value. Here’s how it measures up against a fairly new (and blunt) Palomino Blackwing 211.
It’s also refillable, the chisel and brush tips are replaceable, and they come in fantastic multicolour sets – there is a huge range of colours and shades available (the internet tells me there are 358!). So if, like me, you dislike disposable-ness and throwawayism, this is a pen you could keep for a very long time if you treat it right.
How I use the Copic Sketch marker
I use the Copic for brush lettering only, so I haven’t tested the chisel tip of the pen. I’m always slightly regretful at the addition of chisel tips because I have no use for them and I feel like it is half the pen’s potential wasted. However I understand the need for this end given the normal use of the Copic in creative pursuits. Chisel tips are obviously useful for shading and colouring and I’m told that the Copics are wonderful to use for blending colour although I haven’t been able to test this out only having it in black. It’s a shame that there’s a potential that this pen isn’t fulfilling for me but I was interested in the pen because of its reviews as a brush pen – I did consider whether I could use the chisel tips for a new and different kind of lettering but it’s extremely chunky and flat and not conducive to the lettering style I’m trying to foster.
As I’ve been testing it out I’ve noticed that I gravitate towards it for lettering that I would like to display. I think this is down to a combination of things – the ink is wonderfully black so it gives a great, professional look to your lettering, and it’s very easy to use consistently so I don’t need to repeatedly draft words.
Obviously I’m not an expert at brush lettering and using this pen does highlight areas that I would like to carry on improving. In particular, my letter joins are still a little shaky and my spacing can be slightly uneven. Onwards and upwards on that though.
I’ve been asked to do some brush lettered place cards for a friend’s wedding later this year (very exciting!) and I think I would use this pen for such a purpose. I’ve tried the Copic out on some place-card paper and there isn’t any bleed through – this is at a paper weight of 175gsm.
This is compared to a parchment style paper with a weight of 100gsm:
Ever since doing my Quill London brush lettering course I’ve been trying out the same pen tests involving practicing down and upstrokes primarily. Also I try and practice my alphabets because I’m developing my own style as I get more familiar with brush lettering.
I would really recommend this pen is used for your special brush lettering projects but I would steer clear of using it in any type of business-as-usual notebook because the ink is so black that the bleedthrough will waste all of your pages! This will not produce rustic looking lettering for you; it’s strong and bold on the page. It’s very comfortable to use and I think it has been designed with the end user in mind – its oval shape keeps it still on a desk which is probably very handy if you’re using a multitude of Copic pens on a project and the flatness of it means it’s very steady in the hand.
For my purpose of brush lettering the Copic provides a fantastic differentiation between thick and thin lines and I think this differentiation has improved with use as the brush tip has softened and adapted to the pressure of my lettering. It’s a shame that I can’t really find a use for its chisel tip but I’m not going to hold this against the Copic because it’s probably a reflection of my lack of diverse applications for markers!
I also really appreciate the ethos of buying tools and reusing or repurposing them and the fact you can refill and replace parts of this marker is a good testament that Copic themselves believe in the quality of the Sketch marker. Despite its potential longevity it generally costs around £6, which is affordable for the purpose of buying a few pens for brush lettering but bear in mind that if you’re after a multipack or out to build up a collection, this price point could make for an initial expensive outlay. I really enjoy using the Copic Sketch marker, particularly for relatively large brush lettering, and I feel it showcases my ever-evolving style well. It’s a brush pen I would always like to have in my toolbox from now on.
I most enjoy writing with pens that produce a fine line. My writing is fairly small and I need a fine line to help make the letters stand out. When I have a choice of fountain pen nibs I always choose fine or extra fine and I generally don’t buy any ballpoint, rollerball, gel pen, hybrid etc with any wider a line than 0.5mm. I find the sweet spot for my handwriting to be around 0.4mm. Equally I have tried 0.2mms and 0.25mm and find that the cons of fine line pens are more noticeable when you go much below 0.4mm, such as ink skipping and resistance or scratchiness on the page. I find fine pens to be such a versatile part of my toolbox. I use them mostly for writing and jotting but I find I often reach for them to sketch and shade, outline and add accents to brush lettering or calligraphy.
So in the spirit of not having done a pen review for a little while I thought I would review three 0.4mms in my arsenal. These are the Pilot G-Tec-C4, Muji Erasable Pen 0.4 and the Uni Jetstream SXN-150-38 (which is actually a 0.38mm). The title of the post says <0.4mms and I have it on good authority that this means less than 0.4mm. My year 3 maths is a little rusty.
What, you ask, makes a successful 0.4mm pen for me?
No skipping. Fountain pens or felt tips may have a fine nib but are able to compensate for this through ink flow. 0.4mms need to produce a consistent line without any wetness of ink flow (which is why many use polymer inks I imagine). I hate it when 0.4mms skip and I need to go back and refill sections of words; it’s really obvious where you’ve retraced letters.
Saturated ink. Again, other pens with a fine nib benefit from interchangeable choices of ink brands, the saturation of which are down to your preference. Often 0.4mms don’t have the flexibility to allow changing ink brands as refills are standardised. So I think it’s really important that whatever colour you’ve chosen produces that colour effectively on the page.
Every touch of the pen on the page has to leave a mark. Dotted i’s and full stops for example need to be made clear on the first touch of the pen. The alternative to this is having to draw a little scribble every time you need to make a dot. NOT acceptable as I’m sure you’ll agree.
I’ve tested all of these pens out in my Field Notes Shenandoah edition. Normally I would use a Rhodia pad or one of my notebooks with better quality paper inside, but Field Notes work great with fine line rollerballs, gel pens and ballpoints and I’d normally reach for a pocket notebook when I’m using one of these pens; they’re being tested in their natural environment.
Pilot G-Tec-C4: Black
This is a readily available rollerball pen with a needlepoint that you can pick up online or in stationery shops including Paperchase for about £2.50. There is a much wider range of colours available than when I first started using these pens and I’ve tried the purple version too. I really like the simplicity and solidness of the pen’s build and design, although I would say that when writing with it for a long time that the inside of my middle finger can get a bit sore because of the grip pattern. There aren’t any obvious design accents on the pen apart from a Pilot stamp on the barrel (I find this can collect dirt around it! Does anyone else find this?). The pen is really lightweight and this makes it very easy to use posted, which I almost always do. I find the length of the pen unposted slightly short.
This pen sticks in my pencil case pretty much all the time and I find it writes well on the variety of paper that I come across. It meets my key criteria of consistency, blackness and laying down ink even with the slightest touch. I find I don’t need to apply much pressure at all to achieve the line I want. If anything lightening the pressure I usually use has achieved the smoothest line.
Muji Erasable Pen 0.4
I picked this up on a whim while I was waiting to meet some friends near Tottenham Court Road. There’s a Muji shop not too far away and I had a nose around while I had some time to kill. I like using Muji’s hexagonal twin pens at work and needed to replenish so I thought I would give this pen a go at a cost of £2.50.
Sadly I feel it is £2.50 wasted. When you can spend the same amount of money on the Pilot G-Tec-C4, the Uni or even spend a little bit more to get a fineliner drawing pen such as the edding 1800 profipen, there really isn’t any need to have this in your toolbox.
The pros of this pen are that it looks fairly smart, has a needlepoint like the Pilot and has the trademark Muji label which covers most of the barrel. The eraser is well-integrated into the pen lid and the pen posts well. The ink is more of a grey (and not even a very dark one at that) which I find off-putting and I find to achieve a definite line I need to slow down my writing pace and apply more pressure than I usually would when writing. Dotting I’s for example just doesn’t happen with this pen. It won’t produce ink for such a tiny dot. There’s just not a clear smoothness to the ink on the paper. Also compared to the Uni and Pilot it feels broader than a 0.4mm. Perhaps the ink spreads slightly more on the page.
The erasable ink is interesting. I’d never used it before – it’s novel and I admit it can be useful to avoid blemishing pieces of writing. However I’ve realised I don’t really use fine line pens to produce pieces of writing to share or to display in any way, I’ll generally reach for a fountain pen in that situation or make sure I’m using a pencil to draft. I use them for note taking, brainstorming, making lists, drawing map sketches; generally all uses that relate to my work or to everyday usage, and I don’t feel that erasable ink is necessary for these purposes. A little bit of scribbling out all adds to the authenticity of writing things on the go and trying to keep up with your thoughts. I’ve never felt like not being able to erase ink is a shortcoming of any pen I’ve used. If this is important to you though, admittedly it does erase well, although it does leave an imprint on the paper if you use heavy pressure to write. Apparently the ink can be erased because of the heat and friction caused by the built-in eraser, and if you put it in the freezer the ink will reappear! I haven’t tried this but I’d love for you to let me know if you have!
Uni Jetstream SXN-150-38
Unlike the other two pens we’ve discussed this pen is a retractable which is handy for the situations in which I use fineliners. This pen probably feels the least solid, which is often the case with retractable because you’ve got internal parts which are looser than a lidded pen. Also the overall build quality just looks slightly less professional than the Pilot and the Muji (could be partly down to my choice of the baby pink body… although to be fair all the shades in JP Books on the day were pastel shades!).
For those very inconsiderable shortcomings though I think this is my favourite of the lot, but it is a very close one when pipped against the Pilot. It’s smooth, lightweight, compact, simple, the ink is nicely black, dries basically on contact and I don’t think the line has ever skipped when I’m writing with it. I picked this pen up for £2 and I use it all the time. Performance wise it is quite similar to the Pilot, and I think the two key differences between the Pilot and the Uni Jetstream are that the Uni has a slightly wider barrel with its rubber grip which feels more comfortable to write with for a longer amount of time, and the Uni feels more balanced between a ballpoint and a gel pen than the Pilot.
I always have the Pilot G-Tec-C4 and the Uni in my daily toolbox. They’re both high-performing, easy to use, affordable and fulfil my essential criteria of super-blackness and line consistency. Unless you’re really feeling the lack of being able to erase your writing (in which case I would recommend you buy a pencil…) what more could you ask for?
I’ve been coveting the Kaweco Sport fountain pen for some time. It seems to be a bit of a cult classic and given that this is a sub-£20 pen, I thought I would finally give it a try.
I chose a fine nib as I have italicised handwriting which is best suited to fine lines, and chose a mint green finish. There are a number of other, darker colours, but something about this pen made me choose something less solemn. The Kaweco Sport arrived in an unremarkable, simply branded black box. My first impression was: small! Altogether the pen comes in at just over 10cm long when capped and about 13cm with the cap on the end.
There’s no doubt about it that this pen is fun to use. It is eye-catching and unusual, the octagonal chubby lid is nostalgic and has an almost 70s era quality about it which is further emphasised by the plastic finish on the pen. This whole air of playfulness is topped off by its short stature. I couldn’t wait to get writing. I’ve given it a couple of days of break-in time, as the first times I used it I had quite a few gaps in the ink flow, which does seem to be improving with use.
The pen has two cute silver accents. Firstly, the logo which is very clean and elegant and secondly at the top of the cap.
Here’s a sample of writing for you to check out for yourself. I’d like to keep this pen in my arsenal for using informally, in my notebooks. Although the nib is fine (they also do an extra-fine), the pen would need to write slightly more smoothly to bring it into more formal territory for me. If you’re looking for a lifetime companion kind of fountain pen, I’m not sure this is it, but I would certainly recommend it as an investment if you’re looking for a fountain pen which is adaptable, reliable and something different from the norm.