Category Archives: 2017

Simple Isn’t So Easy

Philip “As I work on this pen design I am amazed at how complex simple can be.”

David “Heh. That’s why so many people make things funky: no skill required. Plain, simple, and classic—with no distractions—are much more difficult.”

Philip “As I am finding out.”

Howard, at Bexley Pens, has had some good suggestions, and is confident that we can get a limited-edition pen made in time for Scriptus, now just a few months away. Some of his greatest input has been in connection with costs.

It turns out that some things never change: the two major factors in the cost of a pen are the quality of the nib, and the complexity of the filling system. For nibs, gold is, obviously, much costlier than steel. And for filling systems, a robust piston-filler will be priced like a Montblanc or Pelikan.

Don’t think we’ll sell too many $2000 pens, even if it is in Canadian dollars.

But nib and filling system aside, in terms of actual manufacture, Howard needs to have the basic lines of the pen designed, so that he can get making a prototype for us to look at and—more importantly—hold in our hands.

Not everyone agrees on what makes a pen beautiful.

We have all had it happen: you see a lovely pen in a photograph, or lying in a display case. You think “Wow, I love the look of that pen!” But when you pick it up, it’s a total fail. Or, conversly, sometimes you see a pen and instantly react: “what were they thinking?!” Obviously we want to avoid either of these reactions. But how?

Philip and I both are great appreciators of classic vintage pens. The design of pens from the early 1900s reflects an elegance of style, combined with an understanding of what feels good in the hand for hours of writing. They are often simple in appearance, with a slim & straight profile.

But—when it comes to design— simple is not always easy.

What sort of profile should the cap top have? Do we have a cap ring? What style of clip? How do we design the barrel profile: to post, or not to post the cap? What length & diameter should the gripping section be? All of these questions need an answer. And part of the answer is in prototypes. Theory is good, but actually seeing the combinations is another thing entirely.

After a few phone consultations with Howard, we finally have some prototypes on hand. Finally, something real, even if the prototypes are in fire-engine-red plastic.

We have a few options when it comes to the cap, and you have to start somewhere. In this model, the cap is in two pieces, which screw together where the clip is mounted, using a threaded metal insert.

We have a clear concensus regarding the clip. The roller clip is always a winner: easy to use, and not often seen. Howard has fit it very well, and you can hardly see the seam. There is a notch in the cap, so that the clip can’t rotate in place, which could damage the cap.

A cap ring would be nice, but if we choose all of the ‘nice’ options, costs will go through the roof. And so we agree: no cap ring.

And what about the profile of the top? While flat is a very traditional American style, something about the curve gives the pen that European grace and style. Like Philip: grace, and style. (And round on top?)

This is the part that is tricky. How do make a decision about something as subjective as how rounded a cap should be?

David “We could just decide, you know. It’s the show pen, and asking opinions just slows things down.”

Philip “Yes, but we’re not the ones buying it. I’ll ask around, just to test the waters.”

When Philip asks around, he is talking about the Cambridge Pen Breakfast, held once each month just oustside Toronto, and Pens & Pints, held (it seems) every night possible in north Toronto. At a pub. We’ve known these folks for years, and they are the hardest-core of the pen community here. Lots of experience, both in collecting and in selling pens.

Philip “It’s very simple: when I ask for an opinion, I’m happy to listen. But if I haven’t asked, I charge $500 per opinion. It’s a great way to keep the process moving.”

And so, after a week of consultation, the decision is made, just like Goldilocks: not too flat, not too round. The slightly-rounded middle option is just right. With a roller clip, and no cap rings.

One decision made, only a hundred to go…

Red Ripple Is Nice…

A show pen. A show pen. A show pen? We’re doing a show pen! Yikes.

One of the first important things to consider in designing any kind of pen is what material it will be made of. Plastic is cost-effective, but can be soft. Metal is quite robust, but can be both heavy and expensive. And hand-in-hand with material comes appearance: colour & pattern. The choices are complicated before you even begin.

Now, Philip and I have been hanging out doing pen-related things for about eight years now. And after comparing lots of pens, both our own and others, we have a pretty good idea of each others aesthetics.

And so this conversation was much shorter than the last:

Philip “I think it should be a nice red ripple hard rubber.”

David “Yes, it should.”

And so it was decided.

If you wanted excitement from Parker in 1918, it had to be metal overlay.

You may, however, be asking yourself: “who in this day and age would make a pen out of hard rubber?” After all, as a material in pen production, hard rubber’s heyday was almost a hundred years ago. And it’s a good question.

Around the turn of the 20th century, hard rubber—also known as “ebonite”— was the material of choice for almost anything handheld and black: pens, pipes, musical instruments, telephones. It was cheap, easy to work, and tough. Especially after World War I, hard rubber was such a good material that Parker Pens used to throw pens out of airplanes (and tall buildings) as a sales gimmick. (They survived just fine, and even wrote.) Pen companies invested in rubber factories, and produced millions of pens.

Waterman in particular made use of striking marbled patterns made of different colours of rubber, mixed together. But all of the significant pen manufacturers made pens of rubber: coloured, plain, patterned, overlaid.

However, the material wasn’t perfect. It would oxidize quickly when soaked in water (which is foolish anyways), or left in the sunlight (which is even more foolish). And thin hard rubber could be brittle, although new blackening agents developed after 1914 accidentally improved it’s quality tremendously.

Just nine years later, the lid was blown off the fun box, and a rainbow of colours leapt out!

The end of hard rubber in pens wasn’t due to a stronger, or otherwise technically superior material. It was due to something else entirely: the pretty factor. When early plastics were developed, and introduced by pen makers, they came in beautiful colours, and in striking patterns. For the “roaring” 1920s and early 30s, it was just the sort of thing people wanted. And clinging to the use of hard rubber for too long nearly put Waterman out of business.

But as many vintage pen connoisseurs know, hard rubber was, and is, a great material. Combine that with 21st century chemistry, and it’s even greater. And a few—just a few—modern manufacturers still offer it as an option. In red ripple!

There is something to be said for the classic red and black rippled look. Olive, meh.

Philip “I’m going to contact Howard at Bexley this week.”

David “Huh.” As a rule, I don’t know much about modern pen makers. You have to draw the line somewhere. But I met Howard a couple of years ago, at the Ohio Pen Show. He seemed like a nice guy. And anyone who offers red ripple hard rubber in a new pen has to have some sense.

Philip “I’ll let you know what he thinks.”

And as soon as he does, I’ll let you all know what he had to say.

I Think We Should Do A Pen…

So, Philip and I were sitting in the official Scriptus offices in downtown Toronto, also known as Balzac’s Café at the Toronto Reference Library. We try to meet there every month or so, to compare notes, work out Scriptus strategies, show off nice pens, and enjoy, respectively, double espresso and chai-tea-steeped-in-plain-steamed-milk.

The Scriptus offices, in downtown Toronto.

Now, usually these meetings are pretty predictable. They get longer as we approach the show date, but after four years of Scriptus we know what to expect.

But this time was a bit different. The conversation went a bit like this:

Philip “So, I think we should do a pen…”

David “Huh.” (That’s my usual response to being whacked alongside the head by a giant new idea.) “You mean, do a show pen?”

For the uninitiated, some pen shows (often the American ones) will produce a limited edition fountain pen, to be sold only at the show. Tapping into the enthusiasm of collectors attending, these usually sell quite well, and can be an excellent way of generating revenue for future shows. They are also a good indicator that the show commissioning such a pen is healthy and robust. Having a show pen is for grown-up shows.

Philip “I was talking to Heinz at the pen breakfast, and he said he thinks that we should think about doing a pen, and that got me thinking. After all, it is Canada’s 150th birthday.”

David “Huh. That’s a lot of thinking. You know it’s only three months until the show?” (That’s my usual second response to a big new idea: think of reasons why it might not work.)

Philip “Well, yes. But why not look into it? If we can’t do it this year, we can always shoot for the Scriptus 5 year anniversary. Although that’s not nearly as exciting as Canada 150.”

David “Huh. Sure, why not?”

So, we are thinking about doing a pen, for Scriptus 2017.

Frightening? Yes. There is a reason that only grown-up shows do pens: they are expensive. Amateurs design pens at their own risk, and much like organizing a wedding, it is all too easy to get carried away and end up with something remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Exciting? Yes! We love pens, obviously. Philip has excellent taste in pens. I have done some industrial design work over the years, and have handled thousands of pens for repair, both good and bad.

It also occurred to us that you all might enjoy being in on the fun. So we will be publishing regular blog entries, walking through the process of “doing a pen” with us. So check back here soon, and enjoy our trip.

Scriptus 2017 – Save the Date!

scriptus-2015_16_sm

With the roaring success of Scriptus over the past three years, we are happy to announce Scriptus 2017, our biggest, best show yet! This year’s show will be held on October 29, 2017, again at the Toronto Reference Library. Admission, keeping pace with the foolishness of the organizers, will again be free: Scriptus is for the joy of writing, not for the sake of profit.

We expect our usual crowd of exhibitors, representing all manner of writing equipment and interests. We are expanding to encompass the entire Appel Salon facility, which will result in a substantial increase in both the number of tables and the amount of space for visitors.

Pre-registration (for previous exhibitors) will open on June 1, 2017, and general registration will open on June 15, 2017. We will update pertinent information on the website in advance of those dates.

We look forward to seeing everyone again in October, at what has become one of the largest, and the most enthusiastic, pen & writing shows in the world!