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.