NotAnotherBill Subscription: Review and Giveaway

In November last year I entered a competition at the newly-opened Design Museum in London, to win a NotAnotherBill gift subscription. And I won! Three months of complementary gifts came in the post, and today I’m reviewing what I received. Also, for the first time on The London Parchment I’m hosting a giveaway, to pay my luck forward that I had when I won this gift subscription.

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My Favourite Field Notes: Shenandoah

Field Notes have just released the new Utility edition so our favourite brand are fresh on our minds. In the spirit of Field Notes season, I’m starting a mini-series, which will cover my favourite editions, and my not-so-favourites, as well as some of the ways that I’ve used some of my Field Notes in the past. I’m starting on a high with my favourite Field Notes edition: Shenandoah, the Fall 2015 COLORS edition.

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WritePads: Lenore Review and Kindred Spirit First Impressions

I have been lucky enough to receive both of WritePads limited edition packs of notebooks in my monthly Pocket Notebooks subscription box; the Lenore edition and the newly released Kindred Spirit. Today I’m compiling my thoughts on the Lenore and my initial impressions of the Kindred Spirit.

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Soho Stationery Store

On Friday I popped into a shop I hadn’t visited before, the Soho Stationery Store. Nestled down a little alley just off Oxford Street, this independent business is an office supply and stationery business for commercial clients and individuals alike. Unusually for a commercial supplier, they have a shopfront which I’d strolled past before while it was closed, so I used half an hour before meeting friends for dinner to check it out.

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Nataraj HB Marble Pencil

My favourite continent for stationery products is Asia, particularly because of the wonderful Japanese and South Korean products I regularly use. (Shameless plug: I mentioned this during my question and answer session on the Pocket Notebooks blog). The Nataraj HB Marble pencil also hails from Asia but is one of the first Indian products I’ve tried.

Barrel with printed branding.
Barrel with printed branding. This side of the pencil has more of a vibrant yellow and red marble.
Reverse of the pencil so you can see the differences in the marble effect.
Reverse of the pencil so you can see the differences in the marble effect. There’s more pink and white on the reverse!

I was drawn to this pencil because it was affordable (I picked it up for £1.50 from Choosing Keeping) and a unique, colourful object. I also favour HB wood cased pencils because I mostly use pencils for writing and the occasional drawing.

Close up of the pencil cap and contrast between white cap, black branding and marble lacquer.
Close up of the pencil cap and contrast between white cap, black branding and marble lacquer.

Look and feel

The Nataraj Marble comes pre-sharpened and is about 7 inches long. It’s eraserless and in place of the usual ferrule and eraser there is a long white tip, ever so slightly glossy. The remainder of the pencil is a delightfully colourful marbled lacquer, blending reds, yellows, pinks, greens and blues. It reminds me of a psychedelic art project or the colourful swirls found in a pool of petrol. A bit of research on the Nataraj Marble indicates that each pencil is actually unique. The most noticeable colours in mine are reds, oranges and yellows but I’ve seen images on the internet with dominant blues, whites and pinks. I think this uniqueness is a nice element to buying this pencil and adds a little bit of surprise particularly if ordering it online.

Close up of the pencil cap and contrast between white cap, black branding and marble lacquer.
Close up of the pencil cap and contrast between white cap, black branding and marble lacquer.

 

The Nataraj branding is stamped simply and effectively in black along a single side of the barrel. As I’ve mentioned before I’m not too averse to a printed barcode but those of you among us who are will be pleased to know that there is no barcode and only one barrel side with any printing on. The lovely marble lacquer is the star of the show on the rest of the hexagonal barrel. The Nataraj Marble measures up in width similarly to my trusty Staedtler Mars Lumograph.

I think one of the loveliest things about this pencil though is the colour of the wood casing. It has a natural grain left to see when sharpened and is a great, vibrant pink-red hue. I read on the CW Pencil Enterprise blog that the pencil is made from Indian vetta wood. I can’t find much out there on vetta wood so I’d love to know more if anyone has any information. The Hindustan Pencils website which manufactures the Nataraj brand clearly have a strong sense of corporate social responsibility and only use wood from their own plantations which they replenish to ensure they aren’t deforesting, which is a really admirable statement to make. Anyway – the vetta wood used looks gorgeous in this pencil.

Look at that gorgeous pink-red woodcasing.
Look at that gorgeous pink-red wood casing. I really like that the natural woodgrain can be seen too.

Performance

Firstly I would say that the Nataraj Marble is more of a B grade, or possibly even 2B, than the HBs I usually use. It smudges fairly easily and produces a smooth black line. I think this would make it a good pencil for drawing and outlining. It’s also good for writing and doesn’t require sharpening too often – rotating the pencil provides the good sharpness required for writing. When I have sharpened it though it sharpens very well – very smooth with no breakages.

Writing sample with the Nataraj Marble on a Rhodia dotpad.
Writing sample with the Nataraj Marble on a Rhodia dotpad. Can you see the smudging in the second paragraph?
Close of up of graphite smudging. You've got to be careful if you're left handed or if you like to brush any residue off the page.
Close of up of graphite smudging. You’ve got to be careful if you’re left handed or if you like to brush any residue off the page.

I really like writing with the Nataraj Marble. It’s smooth without blunting too easily although the smudging issue may be something to note if you’re a leftie. There isn’t any scratchiness or strong resistance on the page when writing (although I have to admit sometimes I find a bit of scratchiness quite pleasing). It erases well with my Milan synthetic eraser – which is rapidly becoming my favourite eraser – and can be layered to produce a really black effect.

Eraser and smudge test.
Eraser and smudge test.
Close up of eraser test with a Milan synthetic eraser.
Close up of eraser test with a Milan synthetic eraser.

In summary

This has been a really easy and simple review for me to write. The Nataraj Marble looks lovely and unique. I love the lacquer, reddish pink hued woodcasing and the fact that it has no eraser. I find pencil erasers generally rubbish to use a technical term and sometimes I wonder why anyone really bothers adding them! I think it really stands out on my desk and in my pencilcase. I’m also really pleased with the blackness and smoothness of the pencil to write with and I think it may be an even better companion for someone who draws more often with pencils. Be warned if you’re a leftie because of the smudging issue, but otherwise for approximately £1.50 in the UK and even cheaper in the US I would definitely recommend that you add this to your toolbox.

Ballograf Chrome Epoca

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.

Can you make out the writing between the barrel and the grip section? It's there!
Can you make out the writing between the barrel and the grip section? It’s there! This section says “Sweden”.
Close up of the lined barrel.
Close up of the lined barrel.

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.

Lovely blue grip section.
Lovely blue grip section.

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.

Performance

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.

Close up of writing and so you can better see the archival blue ink.
Close up of writing and so you can better see the archival blue ink.

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.

Length comparison against some of my other push button pens.
Length comparison against some of my other push button pens. As you can see it’s the shortest of the lot.

In summary

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. 

Mark’s Tokyo Edge Mechanical Pencil Review

Sometimes I feel like a slave to free shipping! Having recently ordered some limited edition Field Notes I found I was close to the free shipping minimum spend and decided that it would be wise spend the money on an extra product rather than postage. I added a Mark’s Tokyo Edge purple mechanical pencil to my basket.

I have seen Mark’s Tokyo Edge products on several of my favourite stationery websites and I think their range of products is pitched at a fairly young demographic; there is lots of block lettering, prints, colours and textures. As a fan of Japanese brands though I thought I would give one of their pencils a go.

Design

Clearly the unique selling point of this mechanical pencil is that it is designed to resemble a wooden pencil! Which, in fairness, it does do well. The ferrule in particular looks very realistic and is the pencil’s push button. The barrel is slightly wider than a traditional wooden pencil and hexagonal in shape.

Realistic ferrule push cap.
Realistic ferrule push cap.

What gives it away is the end cap and lead sleeve! I wonder why they haven’t elongated this part of the pencil, a la Staedtler 777 or Pentel P205 to continue the wood cased pencil disguise. It seems a little strange to design a pencil to look exactly like a wood cased pencil and then not put any thought into the end cap.

End cap length of the Mark's Tokyo Edge mechanical pencil is very stubby and I'm not sure why this couldn't have been longer to keep up the wood cased pencil disguise.
End cap length of the Mark’s Tokyo Edge mechanical pencil is very stubby and I’m not sure why this couldn’t have been longer to keep up the wood cased pencil disguise.
Width of the Mark's Tokyo Edge mechanical pencil compared to a Staedtler Mars Lumograph B grade. As you can see it's slightly wider all round.
Width of the Mark’s Tokyo Edge mechanical pencil compared to a Staedtler Mars Lumograph B grade. As you can see it’s slightly wider all round.

The deep purple colour of the barrel is attractive and the pale green is a nice contrast. On each of the hexagon’s sides there is a day of the week and combined Saturday/Sunday with an idea of what to do on that day. Monday: watch a film, Thursday: write a poem, Saturday and Sunday: go on a little trip. This makes me feel like Mark’s Tokyo Edge is pitching itself closer lifestyle brand than a quality stationery brand and makes the barrel look quite busy. I don’t have a deep aversion to printed barcodes; this pencil doesn’t have one on the barrel but it does have a sticker with a barcode on which I found ridiculously difficult to remove and managed to indent the barrel doing so (very annoying).

Indentation left on the barrel where I removed the label.
Indentation left on the barrel where I removed the label.

The Pros

  • It’s lightweight. Compared to some mechanical pencils I think this is a lightweight choice and feels similar or even possibly lighter than a wood cased pencil.
  • It’s refillable. If the lead performance is something of a consideration to you then you can replace these easily and cheaply.
  • The hexagonal barrel is comfortable and similar in feel to a wood cased pencil. I like the purple and green colour contrast.
  • The design is quite funky and I do think it’s a fun touch to disguise it as a wooden pencil. *see continuation of this point in the cons section below.

The Cons

  • *The fact that it’s a novelty that it’s a mechanical pencil that looks like a wood cased pencil is something of a non-consideration for me though, similar to my feelings about the Muji erasable 0.4mm pen I talked about in an earlier post. If you want something erasable, why use a pen? Why not use a pencil? I think it’s the same with this product – if you want something that looks like a wood cased pencil, go for a wood cased pencil!
  • The eraser is pitiful. To be fair I have never yet tried an eraser-tipped pencil though and marvelled at the effectiveness of it.

  • You’ll only be able to use 0.5mm leads in this pencil. This is fine if that’s your preference but I prefer a sharper point which is why I enjoy mechanical pencils with 2mm leads that you can actually sharpen to a point. I found that I had to apply a strong pressure to achieve the line darkness I wanted from the leads that come with the pencil. This is one of the reasons I see this product as a “lifestyle” addition rather than a specialised stationery product; the leads included are quite generic compared to a better performing lead.
Close up of some companions with sharpened wood cased pencils.
Close up of some companions with sharpened wood cased pencils. Note again the poor eraser performance next to my blog title – I originally thought I’d put my Instagram username down but replaced it with the blog!
  • The label it originally came with was so tough to remove and my efforts to get it off left an indent on the barrel. I could have left the label on but I think this made it look a bit plasticky.
  • The Rattle. I’ve put Rattle with a capital R because it’s the overriding impression I’m left with from this pencil. The ferrule / push cap rattles noisily and continuously while writing. It’s tremendously annoying and unfortunately is the reason that I wouldn’t reach for this pencil often.

In summary

My impression is that the Mark’s Tokyo Edge mechanical pencil is a little of the old style over substance. It’s a bit of fun and novelty on the desk but at the end of the day it performs the same as any generic mechanical pencil would. It costs around £5-6 which I feel is pricey for what you get and for the same price you can get some great quality mechanical pencils such as the rotring 300 or the OHTO Promecha. Also – that Rattle; I can’t get over such an oversight in the testing of this product before it went on sale. You may have noticed the pros I’ve noted of this pencil are similar to any widely available mechanical pencil and I think this says something – there’s no one great quality about the pencil that makes it stand out in a busy market. Overall I’ve been left a bit indifferent and I wouldn’t recommend you buy it before other, better quality mechanical or wood cased pencils for the same or much cheaper cost.

Review: Pilot, Muji and Uni <0.4mms

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Erased ink up close.

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.

Overall

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?