Monday, June 21, 2021

An Update on YouTube and other video content


It’s been a real struggle for us to keep current on video content largely due to outside influences. We went through a period without a viable studio to record in. Then when we had the studio, we had equipment stolen. Then we lost our videographer. This has impacted our YouTube content which we really enjoy using as a way to show off our products and explain different processes that are difficult to do in written form.

We believe we’re on the cusp of being able to relaunch our YouTube video content. We plan on starting with a few videos tackling the Retraktable mechanical pencils, an in-depth look and a shorter spot that focuses on functionality. We’ll move from that to updating all of our old content specifically pen overview videos, refill videos, and compare & contrast videos. The plan is to get a fresh look on a lot of the older content in our new studio with current versions.

Hopefully, we can keep up on YouTube content going forward. We really want to have fresh ideas while resurrecting old content. Shop Shorts is a series we want to revive, plus we’d like to flesh out another series of shorter videos that accompany some of the “What’s In My” newsletter segments. It would be nice to offer some short content that corresponded with many of our newsletter segments. Maybe even move some to completely video related rather than written content.

Staying in the video content, we’re looking at doing a series of Facebook Live events. Initially, these would be done via the Karas Pen Club Facebook group so we could test the process with a smaller number of viewers. We’d likely do 2-4 via the club, and if those ran smoothly, we’d plan and execute the first Facebook Live event on our Facebook business page.

We know a lot of people don’t use Facebook, but it’s an easy way for us to do live content geared toward a group of individuals that already interact with our company on a more frequent basis. The plan is to cover a one or two topics, then we’d open the event to a short question and answer portion. Then down the road, our Facebook Live events would be something we did on a monthly basis, and revolve around a scripted portion that we’d plan followed by a brief open forum style that could be question and answer or a live video shop tour or even a “meet a Karas Team Member” event.

Lastly, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback on our audio quality of the last videos we posted. We’ve addressed this with some better technology and hopefully when we come back the audio quality won’t be an issue. The Facebook Live events will be a work in progress, at least initially, so we may tweak the audio process as we go so we can dial that in as well. We haven’t done a live video event in over four years, so you’ll have to bear with us. We’re working on getting all of this up and running, and we appreciate your patience. If you don’t already subscribe to our YouTube channel, please consider subscribing now. That will keep you up-to-date when we publish a new video or eventually do a YouTube live event. You can find our Facebook page HERE. If you’re interested in more information on the Karas Pen Club, you can find that HERE.

Monday, June 7, 2021

You’re Thinking About Your First Pen Show…


Things are starting to open back up, and around the United States many of the pen show organizers are sending out notices that they’re planning on hosting shows this year. Maybe you’ve thought about attending one in the past, and you’ve made the decision that this might be a good year to do so. Travel is still a bit cheap, you’ve got some extra money, you’re able to easily work remotely, and you need a break from the same four walls. While Karas Pen Co won’t be attending shows this year, we’ve got some tips and tricks we’d like to pass along to aid your pen-venture.

First off, make a budget because if you don’t you may end up spending WAY more than you’d planned on. Pen shows are one of those places where there’s bound to be something that catches your eye on EVERY SINGLE TABLE. There will be a lot of the same thing on multiple tables, but there are also a lot of unique items especially if you’re considering vintage fountain pens. In line with this budget thing, unless you’re looking for something VERY specific, don’t buy the first time you see something. Most vendors get set up early, peruse the other tables, then kind of price stuff close to each other. But there are numerous stories of someone buying a pen the first time they saw it, only to find a similar or better example of the pen for considerably cheaper at another table.

To go along with this, pen shows are meant for bargaining. This isn’t a true blanket statement. Some sellers simply won’t shift from their prices. Most of those are the larger stores, manufacturers, and some hardnosed sellers. But many, if not most, of the other tables will be set up by someone who understands there is going to be a lot of “wheeling and dealing” going on. So don’t be afraid to try to talk the price down a bit, it works in a LOT of cases.

One piece of advice you’ll hear tossed around is the “ask before you touch” statement. This is good advice for the most part, but I think it is becoming less of something vendors are really vehement about. There are some hardline vendors that will get bent out of shape if you touch their wares, but a lot of vendors are really trying hard to sell things. They understand people are there to touch the pens. Be respectful and careful with their product, and if you feel like asking first that’s nice but I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as it used to be.

Spend as much time in the hotel common areas with the pen nerds as possible. There are often classes and meet ups at scheduled times during the shows, but after the show closes there are also planned and spontaneous gatherings. Pen nerds are an amazingly kind group of people for the most part. They’re all in one place to geek out about pens, paper, and ink. They’re pretty much a jolly bunch and tend to take over the bar, restaurant, and patio area for long sessions of eating, drinking, talking, and sharing pens with other people. This is your chance to write with almost any pen imaginable. You’ll likely see every pen you’ve ever considered as a “grail” pen, and you’ll be gladly given the opportunity to write with them. That’s how much pen nerds want to show off their stuff. If you’re staying for the entire show, this evening gathering will likely evolve into a dinner somewhere, drinks and cigars, and all kinds of other cool stuff. It’s just a really fun time.

But if you’ve travelled far to a show, then also consider taking some time to see the sights. There isn’t anything wrong with taking a detour to spend a little time doing non-pen related things. There are always other opportunities in almost every city that hosts a pen show. Taking a break to head to a museum, see a baseball game, or walk through some of the tourist attractions, makes the entire trip that much more memorable.

Hopefully, this list is helpful. We can’t wait to spend some time with those of you that do attend shows in the future. We’ve paused shows for the time being, but we do intend to go to several as soon as we wrap up some major production, prototyping, and new designs. Due to our shift in plans to manufacturing and our need to plan that out through 2021, we didn’t think we could pull off a good show presence this year, but we’ll be back soon enough.

Monday, May 24, 2021

It Doesn’t Always Work the First Time…

In preparation for the upcoming production release of our first mechanical pencil, I thought it would be a good idea to share our experiences, good and bad when it came to adapting a pen into a pencil. Like the title says, not everything’s going to work out the first time you try it. The journey with the Retraktable is one such example. Initially, this blog post was going to be “3 Things That Went Right, 1 That Didn’t”, but then I realized there might be a lot more that didn’t go “right” than just one thing. In any case, let it be known that a lot more can go wrong when you attempt to take a product from “idea” to an actual physical specimen.

The best place to start is probably all the way back at the beginning. It’s hard to say when the first request for a pencil was sent to us, probably shortly after the Bolt Kickstarter. Needless to say, a pencil has been in the Top 5 Most Requested list for a LONG time. Our biggest concern was making sure we had a product that met our standards but also fulfilled a lot of the peculiarities of the pencil crowd. It’s also a bit daunting when the bar has been set in terms of a metal mechanical pencil, and Rotring has been doing that for decades. Suffice to say, we sat down to prototype something that resembled a pencil in early 2018, and it’s taken us nearly three years to see those prototypes be realized into a working pencil that meets our standards.

Our initial planning stages really looked internally at our current retractable products for inspiration because we knew there’d be a contingent of people who would seek out pen and pencil sets or at least something resembling that type of product. We didn’t want to design a pencil, just to turn around and need to design a pen based on that pencil a year down the road. We also didn’t have the capacity to tackle a pen and pencil design at the same time. Adapting a current product into a pencil using an “off-the-shelf” pencil mechanism quickly became the driving thought process at this stage.

The Bolt was eliminated pretty early on for a few reasons, but mainly due to its actuation method. Potential customers either love it or hate it, there really isn’t any middle ground. We didn’t think it would be as popular as a traditional-style mechanical pencil. Based on the available pencil mechanisms we could easily source in bulk quantities; we were left with the EDK and Retrakt. Ultimately the EDK was removed from consideration due to its size because it would require some pretty major modification to get that pen to work with the pencil mechanisms we had identified. That left the Retrakt as the only candidate for adaptation.

Once we had decided on the Retrakt as the pen we’d be adapting, we began to look at the specifics of how that adaptation would go. Ideally, we wanted to make as few changes to the pen as possible, but we needed a functional pencil as the outcome. The standard Schmidt SKM 88 click mechanism would need to be adapted by removing the miniature ball bearing that locks the mechanism into place. We’d also need to machine an internal locating collar out of Delrin because the fit of the mechanism we intended on using wasn’t as precise as we wanted.

Our first iteration of a physical prototype was an interesting mess of parts that we had cobbled together, and we got a somewhat working pencil out of it. The first problem soon reared its head, while we had identified the minimum number of parts needed to adapt the Retrakt to a pencil, we couldn’t productionize those parts. The pencil mechanisms from Schmidt have massive allowable tolerances in terms of length of throw which completely eliminates our ability to use precision-built adaptation kits. We put our “working” prototype kit into ten different Retrakts and only two would work immediately with another three functioning if we fiddled around enough but the other five would never function. It was a massive headache. So, we went back to square one and began dissecting each part to see what we would need to manufacture or source to get a functioning adaptation kit. Here’s the list of adaptations we ended up with by the time we finished the first prototype run.

  • Disassembly of SKM 88, removal of ball bearing, reassembly of SKM 88.
  • Sourcing a 3-inch steel tensioner spring.
  • Replace rear pencil mechanism plunger with machined aluminum plunger.
  • Machined Delrin locating collar.
  • Machined Delrin tensioner spring spacer.

Used in conjunction, these adaptations would allow the Schmidt DSM 2006 pencil mechanism to work MOST of the time with a MAJORITY of existing Retrakt pen bodies. We adapted around 300 pens into pencils and sold a prototype batch that we’d tested to ensure proper function, then we sat down to discuss the project.

Before we move on to the next phase of our process, I’ll address the Eraser Issue, as it came to be known. There was a long internal debate over the inclusion of a built-in eraser. We went round and round on this topic in every meeting we had during the initial prototype phase. Ultimately, there were two reasons we settled on not using a built-in eraser. The first reason was the lack of availability of a high-quality eraser we could source in bulk quantities. The second reason was external feedback we received from pencil users who said they’d much prefer we eliminate the built-in eraser especially if we supplied a high-quality eraser like a hi-polymer eraser. You’d think this would have taken a few weeks to come to this decision, if memory serves this decision didn’t get made until early November 2018, months after we started the prototyping process.

The first batch of 300 Retraktable mechanical pencils sold over the 2018 holidays as quickly as we could list them on the website. We were apprehensive about the customer feedback, and worried customers would end up having issues with function if they tried to make tweaks to the operation of the pencil. We had far fewer customers lodge complaints than we expected, but it was still enough complaints about the future of the Retraktable to be one of the main topics in our 2019 planning meeting. We decided to put the entire project on pause, largely due to the amount of work each adaptation kit required combined with the fact that the kits weren’t always successful which led to a sub-par product. But we knew it wouldn’t be long before we revived the product and decided to move forward with it.

In our 2020 planning meeting, the Retraktable was moved from the back burner to a new prototype phase. We threw out everything we’d done in the past, including the Schmidt DSM 2006 mechanism. Throughout this latest prototype phase, we chose to look at things a little differently. We still wanted to adapt the Retrakt because we’d received so much positive feedback on that pen being the basis for the design. However, we knew we’d need to make some major changes that wouldn’t be a true adaptation rather the Retraktable would be a mechanical pencil that looked like the Retrakt and ultimately only share one main component: the upper barrel.

What did we end up doing when we pushed into the final stages of prototyping the new Retraktable? We did a lot.

First, we decided to use the mostly metal Schmidt DSM 2007 in lieu of the mostly plastic DSM 2006. The DSM 2007 has a threaded body that would hold the mechanism in place removing the need for a locating collar or tensioner spring. But in using these threads, we’d need to machine a lower barrel that was threaded for the mechanism and couldn’t be used as a pen. But we could still use the upper barrel along with our standard clip and screws.

Second, we decided that it would make more sense for us to make our own click mechanism based on the Schmidt SKM 88. It would be nearly identical, but we could make it out of aluminum and therefore anodize every piece of it. We’d machine both the button and housing in-house, use a small spring between the button and housing, and keep everything in place with a C-clip capture system. This allowed free movement of the mechanism and gives it the “feel” of a standard mechanical pencil “button”.

Lastly, we decided to source stamped 6061 aluminum clips for the pencils. This was a bit of an afterthought, but because we were adding a mechanism that could be anodized, we figured it would be apropos if we had a clip that could be anodized giving us the option of doing a single color Retraktable. The sample clips came back with a lovely spring to them, and we knew they’d be perfect for the pencil.

We’d also received a lot of requests for a slim version of whatever pencil we decided to release. With some CAD magic, Bill and Josh were able to get a slimmer version of the Retraktable (now called the Retraktable Slim) that used all of the same parts. We’ll see about adapting the Retrakt V2 to a slim version in the future, anything’s possible.

Two years after the first Retraktable prototypes were sold, we released the latest Retraktable prototypes. I guess technically they’re the Retraktable V2 prototypes. We sold about 200 Retraktable Slim and 250 Retrktable Standards over the 2020 holidays. We added multiple grip profiles, and anodized them in a variety of options. We plan to launch the full production versions of the Retraktable and Retraktable Slim in June 2020 with several different color combinations. The rest of 2020 will see the release of multiple special release versions of the Retraktable and Retraktable Slim; they’ll be something for everyone.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t always work the first time, but I’ve also learned that we’re pretty resilient and if the idea and design have merit, we’ll pursue it. We’re doing that right now on multiple projects and potential additions to current pens. The first few go-rounds might not be successes, but we’re not going to stop trying new things. We’re stubborn like that. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Pens in the News


Writing the title of this blog is enough to make me chuckle to myself. Not for any anti-journalism reasons, but because it’s somewhat laughable that anyone would potentially find pens in the news in 2021 unless of course they were being used to commit a crime. It’s surreal that in an era where we carry around thousand-dollar supercomputer/camera/telephone/secretary objects in our pockets there is this astronomic rise in popularity of an analog tool. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that desire for simplicity, the need to unplug, how the physical act of writing is different than typing, and all of that; but it’s still weird that I can do a Google search for “fountain pen”, click on the news section of results, and there are five or six recent articles on the topic from pretty reputable sources. To be fair, this isn’t something I look up frequently, but here are some of the results I got back recently when I was searching for a specific Forbes article from a few years back.

The BBC is a pretty legit source for news. Yes, I know they publish articles on a variety of different topics, but they’re known as a news source. While this article isn’t as recent as many of the rest, it’s an article I wanted to highlight because it covers the history and importance of the ballpoint pen. There have been similar articles posted in the past, and hopefully there will be more in the future; but the importance of the ballpoint pen is something I’ll always try to highlight. I’m always amazed at the bad rap ballpoints get from all sides in the writing community; so, there is something of “defending the underdog” when I get to link to an article talking about the greatness of the simple tool that is the ballpoint pen.

New York is a biweekly periodical that isn’t a traditional “news” source but definitely a big name in the world of magazines. A recent article touts the ability of a fountain pen to transform the authors’ terrible handwriting into lovely script. This is another popular topic, though normally it’s phrased as a question asking if a fountain pen can improve handwriting. I bought into this assumption myself, and I’m sure a fountain pen could improve my handwriting but that would center more around practicing with said fountain pen rather than simply using one all the time. The fountain pen is doing much less of the heavy lifting whereas the time spent practicing good penmanship is the real hero of this story.

There’s an article about a popular manga series, Chainsaw Man, getting its own line of fountain pens. This is less surprising to me due to the popularity of fountain pens amongst my manga loving friends, but still a pretty interesting occurrence considering the growing popularity of manga and anime in the United States among Millennials and Gen Z.

Did you read the one about the chemistry professor who uses modern and vintage fountain pens for both chemistry and art? Yeah, not only do we have the collision of chemistry and art, we have it via the medium of the fountain pen. Sure, there’s nothing new about science and art being wonderfully entwined, but it’s far less commonplace. Then you pile in the use of analog technology in two fields that are moving in the opposite direction, and you have an amazing oddity to say the least.

There are dozens of other articles about pens and writing instruments that come up in a Google search, and hundreds if I allow for articles published last year. I frequently overlook the popularity of the written word and writing utensils because I’m constantly surrounded by them. But when I look for the evidence of writing tool popularity, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how important pens, pencils, and paper are even in the 21st century. That’s comforting to someone like me, someone with and old soul and a love for analog writing.

Monday, April 26, 2021

2nd Quarter Q & A


Q – “Can I purchase clips and screws separately?” or some form of this question – NEARLY EVERYONE

A – This has become one of the most frequently asked questions and requests we receive, and it’s not something that’s easily answered. For the time being, we do not have plans to sell clips and screws separately due to some concerns that remain from when we did sell those items (2014-2017). The problem we ran into was that customers would purchase replacement clip and screws and during the installation of the new clip, they’d over-torque the screws and end up stripping out the pen threads. This is easy to do if you’re not careful because the screws are stainless steel and the pen is aluminum. It became such a common problem, we stopped selling clips and screws on the website and began offering the service request form to people that had somehow damaged their clip, stripped their threads during cleaning, or something along those lines. This is still our biggest concern and the reason we don’t offer clips and screws as an option on our website. We are trying to come up with a way for customers to purchase the items and send their pen to us and have it retrofitted with black screws and clip, but we are also dealing with VERY long lead times from our clip manufacturer, so we’ve put this option on hold until we see a considerable decrease in the time it takes to order new clips and when we receive them.

Q – “Is it possible to retrofit caps with o-rings?” – P

A – Unfortunately, this is not something we can do with our capped pens. During the re-engineering phase, we looked at ways to retrofit older pens with o-rings and came to the conclusion that the only way we would be able to do that would be to use an external o-ring. That was not something we wanted to do as it would change the overall aesthetic of each pen. Using an internal o-ring in the cap required changes to the physical design of the cap and barrel (and in the case of the INK the grip as well). We literally have to machine the threaded areas of the cap and body differently which can’t be accomplished on our older models. Though parts can be swapped from older pens into/onto newer pens without damaging anything, i.e. using a new cap with an o-ring on an old body is possible, it just won’t thread all the way down and the o-ring will not engage on anything.

Q – Would you ever consider making a bullet pencil?” – JC

A – Not at this time. We’ve done a LOT of market research on this in the last two or three years for a variety of reasons. Our decision to not pursue a bullet pencil was two-fold. First, we thought it would be a good idea to establish a Karas pencil product that would reach the most amount of pencil users, and figured that would be easier to accomplish with a mechanical pencil. Second, the bullet pencil is a niche item in a relatively small section of the writing instrument community (pencil users). From what research we did, pencil users are more particular in the pencils they use than both rollerball/ballpoint users and fountain pen users.

Q – Are there plans to do a zombie/neon green pen?” – Z

A – Yes, we’re looking at multiple finishes that would accomplish a brighter green or zombie-ish green color. As soon as we find a viable option, we’ll send out pens for this color.

Q – Will you ever think about launching or releasing a limited-edition model product with a lifetime guarantee? - AT

A – All of our pens have a lifetime guarantee on parts we manufacture against defects. We have a service plan that customers can use to send pens to us if there are problems with their pens. Normally, we can repair or replace parts at no cost to the customer. If the pen has been damaged to do obvious negligence or misuse it voids the warranty. Parts from other manufacturers (click mechanisms, refills, nibs, converters, etc) do not have this warranty, though we often will service those parts (especially nibs) if the pen is sent to us. You can access our service request form HERE.

Q – “Have you considered making a fountain pen with a different filling mechanism (vacuum, piston, etc)? – A bunch of people

A – We continue to look at alternative options where fountain pen filling mechanisms are concerned. When we sit down to look at potential additions to our catalog, we always considered new ideas first. Not just a new look, but different or new functionality. With fountain pens, this usually takes the form of filling mechanism, overall pen size, external shape, or capping mechanism. We are open to this idea in future additions, but we don’t currently have a new fountain pen on our projected schedule.

If you have a question you'd like answered, CLICK HERE to be taken to our Q & A form and ask away!