Monday, March 29, 2021

How Do I Choose What to Write With?


I get this question frequently enough that from time to time, I feel like I need to not only answer it but expound on it. There is a myriad of answers to this question, most of them are largely subjective, a few address the question from a more analytic aspect and border on objective answers. When I get the question from a customer in-person or over-the-phone, normally I’ll answer it only after asking a few questions of my own to get a better idea of what the customer is trying to do. I’ll be approaching this question from that mindset, providing some of the answers to my own questions and assuming others to better answer this question.

An aside, for this article I’ll be breaking down answers to four categories: pencils, ballpoint pens/refills, rollerball pens/refills, and fountain pens. With our pens, there is a lot of crossover due to our modularity, but the assumption is that the customer is coming from a place of little or no knowledge in writing instrument specifics and not much knowledge of our brand and the ability to move between ballpoint, rollerball, and even fountain pen in one pen body.

Honestly, I don’t often recommend a pencil, and that’s not because we only recently added one to our list of writing instruments; but more so because there aren’t a ton of applications that call for a pencil. I do enjoy the difference in the writing experience a pencil provides. Combined with the ability to make corrections easily, and the fact it can write on the cheapest or most expensive paper; pencils make a lot of sense. But they’re not permanent, and outside of using them specifically for sketching or in an environment where ink might prove problematic, there isn’t a lot of use for them outside of personal preference. And therein lies the last reason I don’t often recommend them, people that REALLY love pencils are quite picky about aesthetics, lead size, weight distribution, diameter, body material, length, etc. Taking all of those into account there are more variables to pencil preference than there are in the uber-particular fountain pen crowd. So, I tend to only recommend a pencil when the customer specifically mentions a predilection to using pencils over pens, and even then, if they’re open to it, I’ll suggest a pen that “feels” like a pencil.

That leads me to the second least recommended type of writing instrument, the ballpoint. I don’t often recommend ballpoint pens or refills to new pen enthusiasts for one specific reason, they likely have been writing with some type of gel rollerball pen and until recently gel ballpoint refills were not widely available. Because of that, the writing experience is going to be noticeably different, and what some would consider a poor writing experience. That’s not to say I am anti-ballpoint, in fact, I’m the total opposite; I think a ballpoint pen ticks most of the boxes when it comes to a writing instrument performing in almost all environments. Ballpoint pens take a lot of crap, despite the fact that they were likely one of the biggest technological advances in modern writing instrument history. They were revolutionary in a variety of ways from ink chemistry to non-smudge properties to component manufacture; there is a reason many people consider the ballpoint pen a truly groundbreaking product. In general, I like them because they can write on almost any paper, the ink won’t wick away in my pocket should the refill actuate, and they’re a little more forgiving if you’re writing in extreme weather conditions. All that being said, writing with a ballpoint pen for long periods of time can make you hate writing. They can catch on fibrous paper, the ball can stop working as fibers get caught in them, the ink can skip due to the ball not being as precise, and the ink itself is oil-based and thick which can feel weird depending on the paper being used. Taking everything into account, I generally only recommend them for people that do a lot of pocket carry or tend to write in inclement weather.

I’m going to make some of you angry with this answer, but it’s just me being brutally honest. I rarely recommend a fountain pen to people that ask this question. In reality, I might actually recommend a ballpoint more than I recommend a fountain pen, but recently fountain pens have been gaining some market share and many new pen people specifically ask about them. While I love how a fountain pen writes and how personal it can feel; I still don’t think they’re an option for a majority of people. If I were to continue in my honesty, I’d describe fountain pens as somewhat impractical when it comes to 90% of the writing that takes place on a daily basis. Yes, you could argue that writing by hand in a world of cell phones, tablets, and computers is impractical, but there are so many factors to consider when it comes to ensuring a fountain pen will function properly that using one for every writing transaction is going to be difficult. People that shift the lion’s share of their writing to a fountain pen do so with a laundry list of what I call add-ons. Need to ensure the ink won’t disappear if water gets on it? An additional bottle of waterproof ink is a necessity. Want to make sure your signature is legible on all of those documents? Higher quality printer paper will be a must. The same goes for sticky notes, legal pads, journals, note cards, greeting cards, and the list goes on and on. That doesn’t even take into account certain times you won’t be able to use your fountain pen at all. When I do recommend a fountain pen it’s always with the caveat “but carry a ballpoint or rollerball as well, cause you’re going to run into a situation where a fountain pen just won’t work”. That’s the reality of being a fountain pen person, if you don’t want to use someone else’s disposable pen you’re likely going to need to carry more than one type of pen all of the time. Fountain pens, as lovely as they are and as much as I really enjoy using them, have their place which is not always as an EDC item.

This leads me to the most recommended option by far, probably 80-85% of the time; the rollerball pen. The reasons for choosing a rollerball as the first step into pen nerd-ery are so numerous I might not be able to cover them all. It’s far easier to point out what I consider to be the two flaws rollerball pens carry with them: wicking ink that can ruin a pair of jeans or a nice shirt and no viable pressurized refill options. But those are negligible complaints about an option that has so much upside. Have a preference for a specific color of ink? There are tons of options available specifically from Pilot in the G2 or Juice refills. Want the option to switch from a fat 1.0mm refill to an ultra-thin 0.38? You can easily do that with a variety of different manufacturers' rollerball pens. Did your pen just run out of ink and you didn’t bring an extra refill? No worries, the convenience store likely sells a plastic rollerball with a refill you can rob and put in your pen. Those are just a few of the reasons I recommend rollerball pens over the other options, but the biggest one is this: if you’re used to writing with a modern rollerball pen from Uni or Pilot or Pentel, our rollerball pens are going to “feel” very similar in size and shape to those manufacturers’ retractable rollerball pens. So, there is an immediate “comfort zone” you can fall into if you choose one of our rollerball pens, and that’s the biggest reason I recommend rollerball pens over all the other options.

Yes, I still love my fountain pens and carry several with me almost all the time. Sure, I’ve added a pencil to that carrying case along with a nice eraser just in case I want to write in pencil. Personally, I’m going to pull out a ballpoint more often than not when I go to write something especially if it’s signing a receipt or taking a quick note. And I’ll almost always have a rollerball with a Pilot Precise V7 RT refill in it because that’s my favorite setup. But I’ve been a pen nerd for over a decade now, and I can’t remember the first time I asked myself this question. I think most people that try a good pen will work their way through several pen options before they find “The One” or the best option. There’s definitely a journey for those of us that really get bit by the writing bug and no matter where you start you’re likely to take a lot of off-ramps before you get to your destination on finding the best pen option or options for you. This is just my process on how I answer that question, don’t get too pissed at me it’s all just my opinion and I am well aware you could have a completely different set of answers. But that’s what makes writing and the pen community fun, we don’t always agree but we have a TON in common. Regardless of what you choose to write with, just keep writing.

Monday, March 15, 2021

On Writing 7: My Preferred Writing Instruments


I’ve probably covered this is multiple posts and topics throughout the 6 or 7 years I’ve been talking about writing instruments. While some things left the list and others were added, most likely you can put this list together from my older posts, but I’m going to go all out on this one and try to include everything: paper, pens, pencils, ink, technology, etc. It’s gonna be a bigger post so we might as well get started.

I’ve never started this type of post with paper, and that’s where this one will begin. I’ve babbled on profusely with praise leveled at Nanami Paper Seven Seas notebooks probably more than any other paper source out there. It should come as no surprise that’s where we’ll start. The Seven Seas products are simply some of the best on the market in terms of page count, paper quality, lie-flat ability, and stylistically. They are simply put perfect for writing. The A5 size is easy to carry, they have lined, dot grip, cross-hair grid, and blank. I prefer the dot (Micro Dot) and cross-hair (Crossfield) for pretty much any writing I do with a pen and paper that isn’t note-taking for work. If I’m journalling, writing poetry, writing a story, or anything personal, that all goes in a Seven Seas. I probably have 10 or 12 of them, two of which are full, another 4 have been started, and the others are brand new.

For work notes I tend to use Nemosyne notebook and Rhodia notebooks. I use a Rhodia planner for most of my meetings. But I have three or four Nemosyne books for planning out product releases, video topics, making lists of anodize shipments, special release names, and all other topics of importance go in my Nemosyne books. On the go I tend to use our Story Supply Company pocket notebooks. I have three, each one for a different topic that way if I have an idea or need to take notes I use the correct pocket notebook and then transfer the notes into my Nemosyne books when I get to work. It’s a system that works for me, but it can be somewhat cumbersome.

In terms of digital “paper” I use a Macbook Air 13” with LibreOffice for word processing at home. At work I have a Dell desktop and monitor and tend to use Word though I also use Google Docs from time to time though I’m not a fan of Google Docs as much as I am with Google Sheets and Forms. I have also started to use my Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for note-taking as it can use the S-Pen technology. But this experimentation is still early days and I’m not sure I’ll use it very often. It just isn’t as user friendly and easy as I would like it to be.

While I use a ton of different pens, my preferred writing instruments are the Lamy 2000, Montblanc 146, and a late 40s/early 50s Sheaffer Snorkel. But I do have preferred Karas Pen Co pens as well. My two go-to pens are the Delrin Vertex fountain pen or rollerball and our older ringed Retrakts. The Vertex is a no-brainer in my opinion, it’s the most comfortable pen I’ve ever written with. The section shape, length, width, and weight are all just perfect for my grip. I can write forever with the Vertex, and my hand never tires. I used to hate the Retrakt because it felt too skinny, but the ringed version for some reason feels great. Just enough extra grip to keep my hands on the pen, and with a little tweaking it takes the Pilot Precise refills which are my favorite rollerball refills of all time.

I use our Retraktable Slim mechanical pencils for any pencil work I need to do. Previously I preferred Uni Kura Toga mechanical pencils, but I actually find them too light and my hand starts to hurt after a short while when I’m writing with one. The weight and width of the Retraktable Slim is where it’s at for me, plus I use large hi polymer erasers and the Kura Toga eraser is pretty much garbage if you need to erase anything. I also use Blackwing pencils from time to time when I’m feeling posh or I have one in front of me. I don’t go out of my way to buy hardcase pencils, but I have a few in my drawer at work.

I’ve already covered my favorite rollerball refill, the Pilot Precise, and generally I prefer the 0.7mm refill to the 0.5mm but it depends on the task. I use a variety of fountain pen inks, from Namiki Blue to Montblanc Shakespeare Red to Karas Pen Co Desert Varnish to Sailor Yama Dori and a bunch in between all of those I can’t count how many bottles of ink I have. Namiki Blue and Waterman Serenity Blue are probably the two standbys that I always keep on hand. They work in just about any pen; modern or vintage and both look great on paper. I also like Akkerman Shocking Blue but because it sheens a lot, I tend to only use it in cheaper pens or converter pens like the INK V2.

Lastly my cases are almost solely Rickshaw Bagworks cases. I have a coozie holder, several Waldos, one of the breifcase bags, multiple single pen sleeves, and none of them have failed me yet. They are stylish and keep my pens safe plus they are do what they are supposed to do and are great quality. I also have a bunch of Rickshaw masks that I have been wearing in the pandemic and plan on adding a few larger pen holders to the list of Rickshaw items I carry on a regular basis.

That about wraps up the list of writing instruments that get the most amount of mileage put on them. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something and it will dawn on me in a few hours after I’ve posted this. But this is the best I can do on 4 hours of sleep. I think I’ve covered all the most popular items outside of colored pencils and crayons. I’ll save those for April Fools.

Whatever your preferred instrument is, keep writing!

Monday, March 8, 2021

Some Recent Questions Among Fountain Pen Users

I’m not super active on fountain pen social media platforms, though I am around and reading posts and responses. I tend to ignore a lot of the stuff that doesn’t specifically deal with Karas Pen Co, but recently I’ve been intrigued by a lot of the posts with interesting questions and many of the assumptions posing as answers to those questions. I’ve pulled a few from the last week that really grabbed my attention, and I’ll discuss them here for a variety of reasons.

A recent post on a major fountain pen Facebook group warned users of removing their converters to clean and refill their pens. This post was put up by Richard Binder, who many consider THE gatekeeper of fountain pen knowledge. Binder has a TON of knowledge in almost every facet of fountain pens so I’m not going after him in terms of his reasoning behind this post, I’m merely citing my personal preference AND the reasons behind the way I clean and fill by converter pens. Here’s a breakdown of the argument and recommendation stated by Mr. Binder: some people remove their converter to clean it before replacing it and filling it with ink. He doesn’t do that and he doesn’t recommend doing that due to the damage that can be caused to the plastic adapter on the converter, nib unit piercing tube, and feed capillary tongue. He did show a badly damaged converter and nib unit receptacle.

This isn’t really my response to him, rather it’s an explanation of how I fill, clean, and assemble my pens with converters and why I do these things. Firstly, I don’t fill my pens through the nib unit, rather I fill directly into the converter. I prefer this method specifically because it allows a more complete fill and minimizes the air inside the converter. I realize this requires manually saturating the feed once the converter is attached, but I don’t mind this process. I also clean my pens this way, removing the converter to clean it separately and using a bulb syringe to squirt water through the nib unit.

To be fair, I have not cleaned nearly as many pens as Mr. Binder, but I’ve cleaned a LOT of them in my time working for Karas. I’ve also assembled a ton of pens. I have only twice seen a converter with a damaged plastic converter adapter (the area that connects to the nib unit). Once was on my own pen and was due to being left on the pen too long resulting in the plastic “learning” the larger diameter of the nib unit piercing tube and no longer fitting snugly, in fact, the converter simply fell off and couldn’t be used on any pen. The second was a customer’s pen and his was due to improper cleaning which allowed the ink to collect to a point where the plastic became brittle and snapped off.  

I have seen many more damaged nib unit piercing tube and feed capillary tongue. I can’t speculate to all of the reasons why they were damaged; however, the feed capillary tongue is easily snapped off when improperly removing the nib and feed from the collar or improperly reinstalling the nib and feed into the collar. Most of the damaged nib unit piercing tubes I’ve seen have been due to lack of cleaning and the buildup of ink on these parts. It is my supposition that ink buildup can cause this type of plastic to become brittle over time. Then at some point when installing a converter or more likely a cartridge, too much force is used and the nib unit piercing tube is deformed or in some cases completely snapped off. Some nib manufacturers have better designs on their nib units than others, but all nib units are susceptible to this.

My final remarks are as follows. First, clean your pens often. Don’t allow ink buildup on any of the plastic parts, and use warm water and mild detergent to clean these parts (this is specific to modern pens, consult an expert on vintage pen cleaning techniques). Second, do some research on inks and the pH balance of the inks you are using and find inks that lean more pH neutral. If you’re using a pen that doesn’t completely disassemble like ours do, then take extra care when removing, cleaning, and reinstalling parts. BUT a converter is a $5 dollar part if you need to replace it, and in our case, if you send us a pen to repair, we’ll normally replace damaged plastic parts like the nib unit for free. Damage to nibs can be costly, but in 99% of the pens sent to us we’ll repair or replace parts for no fee (unless negligence or misuse are evident). In principle, if you clean your pens often, I tend to agree with Mr. Binder in that you probably don’t need to disassemble everything, but I also know that if you disassemble all the pieces the cleaning time is dramatically decreased. Exercise care when disassembling and assembling your pens, but I’m still going to continue to fill to my converter directly and trust that I have yet to see enough examples of this type of damage to warn me off of this method of filling and cleaning my pens.

Another question that comes up a lot is in regards to nib manufacture and pricing. Before I worked for Karas I probably voiced a similar question about why companies didn’t make their own nibs and why flex nibs weren’t more readily available. Now that I’ve been involved in the process of sourcing nibs for a number of years, I understand a lot more of the peculiarities that exist where these questions are concerned. First and foremost, nib manufacturing on a large enough scale to be considered anything other than boutique, if not bespoke, would require a rather large investment of money. On its surface, nib manufacturing seems rather straightforward. You need some stamping machines, a rudimentary design that can be placed on the nib, some slitting machines, and a way to attach the tipping to the nib. In reality, there are quite a few hurdles to accomplishing this endeavor. Stamping nibs out of raw material is easy enough, and a design that can be then stamped into the pens is just as easy. However, special tools are required for nib slitting and especially for nib tipping. Not only that, but those machines and tools are no longer in production.

In 2017 and 2018, we invested in the initial phases of research and development towards a goal of manufacturing our own nibs. We spent time designing and stamping out some prototype nibs. Contacted companies that used to manufacture nib tipping machines, sourced tipping material. Researched alternative methods of tipping a nib, sent numerous samples out to companies that made devices that would replicate the tipping machines. And ultimately, we abandoned the project in late 2018. Our conclusion was that we’d never be able to manufacture steel nibs cheaper than what current third-party (Bock, JOWO, Schmidt, etc) sell their bulk nibs for. Setting aside the initial investment in machine, design, and development costs; the raw cost of materials would be nearly as expensive per nib as we are paying to have them made by another company.

This ties directly into nib pricing. There are often a lot of questions as to why modified nibs, custom ground or altered-for-flex, are so expensive. The assumption by many is that a nib that has been modified should have only a moderate increase in price. Custom nib grinds can run anywhere from $30 to $75 dollars depending on the nib grinder, type of grind, type of nib, etc. Altered-for-flex nibs cost in the range of $150 dollars for a steel nib. These price increases to a $20 dollar nib are seen by some to be vastly more than they should. They fail to take into account the fact that ALL of this work is done by hand, requires specific skills that are not easily attainable, require specific tools, and currently, the demand is far higher than the supply. It can take hours to create an altered-for-flex nib and get it tuned and writing correctly. Even a skilled nib grinder takes quite some time to grind a nib bit by bit, testing as they go, until the nib is to the correct width and writing well. The price reflects the time, effort, and skill of the artisan working on the nib. Lastly, the market can bear the price, which can seem frustrating but as long as there are abundant consumers willing to pay the price, it won’t come down.

I have several more questions, but we’ll end this post here and hopefully, I haven’t caused all kinds of issues with these statements. I just felt like putting a bit more effort into answering and addressing some questions I found interesting that could be applied to Karas Pen Co and our pens. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Why We Use Reviewers

We get asked why we provide pen samples to reviewers quite a bit. It’s one of the top questions we get right behind “Are you going to use titanium any time soon?” and “How can I become a reviewer?”. To my knowledge, it’s not a question we’ve answered before. I figured I could take a quick break from the “On Writing” series, and I’d address this question.

The simplest answer to this question is that when we went out on a limb with the design and release of the Render K pen, we had no “clout” in the pen community. Karas Kustoms was a nobody in the realm of writing instruments, but we had started building relationships in the Everyday Carry community on several forums that catered to the watch/knife/backpack/etc. collector crowd. Several people that were active in these communities had started or would go on to start “pen blogs”, so our relationships with these people were made relatively early on in both our journey and in their journeys. It was mutually beneficial for us to send samples to these bloggers and reviewers because it helped grow our brand and helped them establish themselves in an industry that was in its infancy.

People can and do have all kinds of feelings about “professional product reviewers”. Distrust and even animosity are commonplace when it comes to how people view pen reviewers. As time has gone on the line between unbiased-person-reviewing-a-pen and reviewer-that-receives-paid-sponsorships-from-pen-companies has been blurred quite a bit. We take all of that into account when we are approached by a reviewer asking us to provide sample pens, or when we’re approached by a reviewer asking us to advertise on their platform.

The fact is our product reaches a limited number of eyeballs organically or via our marketing platforms. Providing sample pens to reviewers that have small, medium, or large audiences expands our reach but also continues to lend our brand credence in a niche but growing market. It’s a strategic decision on our part to engage, not only with the community at large but with a select group of people that have been appointed gatekeepers of the pen community.

I can’t comment on how other companies interact with these reviewers and what they ask or demand the reviewers write or don’t write about their product. I can honestly say we are extremely upfront about our desire that the review is completely free of pressure and bias from our company. We’ll provide product and company background information along with the item, but we like to stay as hands-off as we can during the process. If the reviewer has specific information they want or need, we’ll provide them the information if we’re able to, but we don’t ever want to be accused of influencing a review. I’m very careful to stress that there are no requirements being placed on the reviewer in their receipt of product from us. We don’t expect a review, but we’re hopeful of one, and we rely on the quality of our product to influence the final outcome of the review itself.

This has led us to a point where we feel we have really good relationships with a large majority of the reviewers that are active both as bloggers and vloggers. We value these relationships and just as much as we love the chance to have our product be featured to their audiences, we enjoy supporting these people that helped us on our journey as a pen manufacturer. To say it’s a symbiotic relationship removes the friendship and emotions aspect from the equation. It’s similar to our dedication to working with other small manufacturers like Rickshaw Bagworks, Jonathon Brooks, Turner’s Workshop, and many others. As big as the pen community has grown, it’s still pretty small and tight-knit. It’s still a lot more like a family than a fandom in some aspects, and this is one of those aspects.

A decade after we made our first pen, we're at a completely different spot as a pen manufacturer and retail brand. It's not as vital that we have interaction with pen people everywhere they gather. We'd love to be able to get featured on every blog, vlog, magazine, podcast, and other outlets that talk about pens. We also understand that just isn't a reality. We're REALLY busy and while we make time to hit up virtual pen meet-ups, podcasts, and blogs we can't be everywhere. But we value the friendships and relationships we have with a handful of pen reviewers, and we'll offer them products when they ask or when we release something we feel they'd enjoy featuring. We feel that these relationships mean too much to us as people to simply abandon them, and that's why we continue to send products to pen reviewers.