Category Archives: The 2017 Show Pen

The Last Chapter

We are happy to announce that pre-ordering is now open for the Scriptus Canada 150 pen, commissioned for Scriptus 2017.

The lovely Scriptus Canada 150 show pen, styled after the classic designs of the 1930s. Honouring the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, this pen has been produced in a limited edition of 150, custom-made for us by the Bexley Pen Company, of Columbus, Ohio.

Made of Japanese-manufactured red ebonite, with a subtle flecked gradation. The classic gold-pated roller clip is attractive, and easy on clothing.

We have opted for an elegant section, longer than usual in modern pens. This ensures that this pen is a joy to hold, for all ages and hands. The section is made of black plastic, to avoid ink staining.

A steel Jowo #6-sized nib is provided with the pen, in either fine, medium, or broad width. This gives each pen owner the future option of swapping in a gold Jowo nib of any available style, if they wish to do so. (Please note: Scriptus does not supply gold nibs, but they are available from a number of pen shops & online vendors.)

We cannot guarantee that any particular serial number is still available, but if you have a preference, please let us know and we will do our best to accommodate your choice.

Can be filled using cartridges, or a converter and bottled ink. Safe for use with super-saturated, or boutique inks!

The price of $275 includes taxes and is in Canadian dollars, of course.

Click here to go to the pre-order page.

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Here, There, and Everywhere

So it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Obviously, with Scriptus being only just over a week away. Following a bit on the last post’s trend, it started with this photo:

Show Pen Caps

David “Caps are good. They look nice, and they are done.”

Philip “They are done. And they do look nice.”

David “What would be great, is if the rest of the pens were done, too.”

Philip “Funny you should say that. Howard says they are finishing up the barrels today, and the barrel engraving tomorrow. He hopes to have them in the mail by the end of the week.”

One good thing is that the USPS is excellent; two days gets pretty much anything anywhere. And in this case, Heinz Dschankilic (penchant.ca), one of the stalwarts of the Cambridge Pen Breakfast, has graciously volunteered the use of his Niagara Falls, NY, shipping address. Being able to negotiate customs ourselves will be a huge time-saver.

And the next day:

Philip “Incoming.” [Our code for ‘check your email, I just sent you something.’] “And pens have shipped.”

Finally, the show pen!

And here is what came in:

Finally, the finished goods!

And sure enough, after the Pen Breakfast on saturday, Philip and Heinz took a trip over the border, and picked up the pens. All 150 of them.

Which is when the worrying stopped, and the work began. Photos? We need better photos! Can we get one out for review? How about measurements? And a web page? We need the pre-sales web page up and running! Do we add a shipping option? No, right, they are just for pick-up at the show. Unless we don’t sell all of them. We’ll sell all of them.

Why are we doing this again? Right. Because it’s for Scriptus, and Scriptus is fun. It really is.

Red Alert

Philip “So, it looks like our pen is red.”

You know how some TV shows drop a bomb at the beginning, and then flash back to show you how it all happened? I hate that too. But that is what we are doing for this chapter of The Scriptus Show Pen Saga.

It began, simply enough, with a photo. One of Howard’s update photos. This photo:

It was sent attached to an email, the likes of which was music to our ears:

Dear Philip,

Attached picture shows the top screws being assembled with the brass joiner screw and an assembled cap ready for sanding and polishing.

The caps are in second machining operation now and should be completed by the end of the day.

Still have the barrels to make through two operations and the sections through the second operation. All seems to be running smoothly.

Best Regards,
Howard

That is to say, the email was great. The photo rang some alarm bells.

David “You know, those caps look awfully red to me.”

Philip “I’m sure the ripple will come out when they buff them.”

[Pause.]

David “So, do you think it might be a good idea to drop him a line, just to make sure there was no confusion, and they used the right rod stock?”

Philip “I’m sure everything will be fine.”

[Pause.]

Philip “I’ll call him tomorrow.”

[An hour passes.]

Philip “So, it looks like our pen is red.”

There was some other conversation, covering such diverse and surprising topics as ‘What the heck happened!?’, and ‘Is there time…?’, and ‘What do we do now?’ The details are trifling and, occasionally, frustration seeps through. The argument that trumped it all was Philip’s:

Philip “I can send you the entire email chain if you like, so you can see in hindsight where things went off the rails. This is not tact, but ownership.”

Remember last chapter where, in a stroke of unintentional foreshadowing, we mentioned that careful design can fall apart when faced with the reality of production? And that sometimes designers get surprised with results when it is all too late to change anything?

Well, there comes a point where you just sigh and take ownership of the situation, which is yours, and do what you can to see the best in it. There are only a few weeks left until the show, which is far too little time to make any changes to the show pen.

As the executive partner (in my marriage) put it:

Michele “Red isn’t so bad. Philip wants it to be a Canada 150 pen, right? Well, the mounties wear red serge. And the flag has a red maple leaf, right in the middle. You can’t get more Canadian than red!”

And it’s still hard rubber, which, as we mentioned way back in chapter two, is an excellent material.

We instantly sent out an email to everyone who has committed to buy a show pen (mostly people who regularly attend the pen meet-ups where Philip held his focus groups). And, perhaps surprisingly, of the 18 committments, only four changed their minds. And someone jumped in, because they like red.

Let that be a lesson to all us pessimists out there.

Reading and Writing

Philip “It’s Canada 150! Who doesn’t want to celebrate Canada 150?”

David “Me?”

Philip “Well, the show pen is going to be a Canada 150 celebration: restrained, elegant, red ripple. And it needs to be on the imprint, too.”

The imprint on a pen is a funny thing. Some people like it, some people don’t. And some people only like it when it is very, very minimal. But imprints on pens are as old as fountain pens themselves.

Early advertising pen: Birk’s Jewellers.

In the early days, pens (or “pen holders”, as they were called) were often used as advertising, much as they are today. In those days, a stamp was made with the manufacturer’s (or the sponsoring business’) name on it. The stamp was heated, and the design was pressed into the hard rubber body of the pen.

As the idea of branding took hold, pen imprints became more complicated. There are dozens of Parker imprints for the Duofold alone, and they changed so often that they are often used to identify the date of a pen’s manufacture.

But, when it comes to printing, and branding, typography can be a slippery slope. The way people take in information changes over time, and that includes what, and the way, they read.

An example of “American Artistic” printing, from the late 1800s.

Victorian printing was a busy, busy place. People read long, flowery prose, and they expected their advertising copy to be similar.

A sample from the American Type Founders 1923 catalog.

As time went on, tastes changed. With the “Arts & Crafts” movement of the early 1900s, simplicity became popular. Printing, tied up as it is in advertising, tends to move slowly. But printing was also a big part of the new artistic movement. So thanks to such influencers as William Morris and Elbert Hubbard, printing was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and propelled into simple elegance. And it never really recovered. Today, people are used to logos, and tend to read quick snippets of text.

What does this printing history have to do with our pen?

Just like decisions about typography in the past, there are quite a few considerations when it comes to what we put on the Scriptus pen:

  • Is the imprint simply informational, or should it have an artistic purpose?
  • Is it advertising? If so, what brand do we want to identify when people look at it? Do we have an exact logo to reproduce?
  • How much space is there on the ‘canvas’?
  • What do people expect to see on a pen?
  • What typographic rules, if any, do we follow?

Another issue is one of trademark law. When it comes to font design, the work is covered by trademark, not copyright. So if we want to use a particular font, we have to be careful to use one we have permission to use: either overt permission from the designer, or a purchased copy with such rights attached to the license.

So, we have a few design choices. (And by “few, I mean: a ton.)

Fortunately, modern reading habits work well on a pen, and the Scriptus logo is more the italic-set name than a graphic.

Philip wants something with a swashy feel to it. “A nice script” is how he put it. And it needs to include “Scriptus”, “Canada 150”, and the edition number “xx/150”.

When designing print for something small, there is no point making it computer-screen-big; it will look completely different when pen-barrel-small. So, here is what he had to browse:

The font style of the last one was chosen (Zapfino, a font by one of the most talented designers of the 20th century, Hermann Zapf. I approve.)

But the imprint will best if it matches the long, slim profile of the pen itself. Oh, and Howard doesn’t have Zapfino, so he will just substitute something else similar.

It’s the curse of the designer: you plan, and design, according to someone else’s aesthetics. The manufacturer receives the design. It falls apart when it hits the reality of the factory floor. You wait, and wait, and wait. And then you get to see the finished product on the same day as everyone else, when it’s too late to change anything.

Just think, there are some people who do this for a living.

All That Glitters…

“Say, how do like your new pen?”

It seems like a strightforward question, doesn’t it? But the answer you might get depends entirely on when you ask. Or, rather, in what era you asked.

Today, the answer might include details about the model, the colour, or the materials of which said pen is made. The proud owner might wax on about it’s rarity, heft, or it’s writing qualities.

But if you had asked that question 125 years ago, the answer would have been much, much different.

Gold pens=nibs, circa 1925.

Back in the early days of writing equipment, your “pen” meant only one thing: the nib. All else was just details; a means of holding the “pen”. In fact, early fountain pens were actually called “pen holders”, because that is all they were considered to be. And in many ways, that nib-centric way of viewing the world isn’t a bad one at all.

The nib is the most vital part of a pen. It is the interface between the user and the paper that will receive the message. A scratchy nib is a recipe for distraction. A nib which is damaged renders a pen useless, in a way that other repair issues may not. And opinions about nib sizes and qualities are the cause of many a heated debate in the fountain pen community.

So when it comes to our show pen, the nib is a big, big decision.

Philip “We can’t.”

David “What do you mean ‘we can’t’?”

Philip “It’s just too expensive. We can sell a pen for $275, but I just can’t see $600 going over too well. And that’s where we would have to be.”

David “But…it’s not a real pen if it’s not gold!”

Philip “I know. but there are some good steel nibs available. And Cyn suggested that, if we go with Jowo, people could just upgrade on their own.”

Nibs have always been important in pen manufacture; making one’s own nibs was often considered to be a graduation into serious business. The best pen makers were referred to as “first tier”, and they all made their own nibs, in-house.

So-called ‘nib meisters’ today are viewed as modern-day magicians, with mystique and arcane lore unknown by others. Similarly, the nib departments in the past were often viewed as being the most skilled of the entire work force. And for good reason.

Nib making combined the skill of jewellers with the knowledge of engineers and the tools of watch-makers. The materials were (and are) worth thousands of dollars for even small quantities. and even the smallest of mistakes could render a day’s work useless. Rolling out gold sheets; welding on tipping material; stamping, polishing and shaping the finished product: it was all done by hand. Expert hands.

History of Foleys Gold Pens: illustrated details of mid-1800s nib manufacture.

(“History of Foleys Gold Pens” is a lovely (and public domain) combination of catalogue and simple textbook, with fabulous illustrations of 19th century nib-making techniques and technology. Click on the blue book at left for a free pdf copy. It’s a lovely read.)

Today, almost all of the nibs in the world are made by just a handful of specialist companies. The best, by just two venerable German companies: Bock, and Jowo. And, much as it would be best to have a gold nib, if you have to settle for a steel one, you may as well get one from a firm which has been making them since the 1850s.

And, as Cyn (a long-standing and enthusiastic member of the Toronto pen community) suggested, you can easily swap out a steel Jowo nib for a gold one. You just pull out the old one, and stick in the new one. The repairman in me both cringes, and cheers.

And, a good steel nib writes very well. Especially if it has proper tipping material welded on the end.

So, steel it is. It kind of glitters, when the light hits at just the right angle.

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.