Pens I Have Known – A Review of a Life in Pens

 

Kaweco, Cult, Cross, Visconti, three Conway Stewarts ... heavenly tools!

Kaweco, Cult, Cross, Visconti, three Conway Stewarts … heavenly tools!

I am madly keen on fountain pens. On my desk right now, I have three Conway Stewarts, three Crosses, one Kaweco and one Cult Pens pen. All of them are regularly used. When I am writing, when I am planning, when I am doodling or plotting, the only pens for me are fountain pens. I don’t use a biro more than a couple of times a year – usually because I have to sign a credit card or something similar. For me, it’s really essential to have several nibs in different styles, to have the ability to use various different coloured inks, and to have pens with different hefts for work through the week. I can vary everything about my writing with these!

My Cross pens - even a biro (never used) and pencil (rarely). I'm more likely to grab a Tombow pencil now, fitted into my Graf von Faber Castell Perfect Pencil.

My Cross pens – even a biro (never used) and pencil (rarely). I’m more likely to grab a Tombow pencil now, fitted into my Graf von Faber Castell Perfect Pencil.

The Cross Pens I have now used for almost thirty years. They were the natural tool of choice for salesmen when I was young: real salesmen managed to get the incredibly slim and elegant Cross biros (like the one right at the back in this picture. Personally, I loved the slender design so much, I bought a gold fountain pen, biro and pencil. Then, because I was writing long tenders, I bought a red Cross too. This pen only ever had red ink in it. When I wrote a particularly long response to tender for Kent County Council, that pen was used to the full, and it still is now. I use it every week, with students at the university, and with my own works. Whenever I have to work on something, I’ll grab for it to make sure that I can see where I’ve made corrections or changes in my work. However, with my first good royalties, I celebrated by purchasing a Conway Stewart Churchill in black. I loved (and still do) the design of this classic-looking Edwardian fountain pen, and I adore the chunky feel. It has served me very well, taking notes in meetings of the Crime Writers’ Association while I was deputy chair and chairman, and has travelled with me to America, Colombia, Italy – and many other places. It is a classic. Some years later, I decided to give up air pistol shooting. The air gun I used was a fabulously expensive gun which I had bought with the (pitiful) compensation I was paid when my real pistols were all confiscated after the ban on legal pistol shooting in 1997. This airgun was all I had to remind me of my sport. So when I decided to stop shooting, I had to think of a way of celebrating pistols and my joy of shooting. And I found that celebration in a Conway Stewart Drake fountain pen.

My beautiful Conway Stewart collection

My beautiful Conway Stewart collection: Churchill at the back, solid silver Drake, and then the Michael Jecks at the front. Lovely!

Solid silver, beautifully balanced, this is a pen I love to use still. The weight is too much for many people. Not me. The size I find perfect, and the gorgeous nib will supply ink without effort. It is beautiful and a joy to use. Later, after some involvement with Conway Stewart, I decided to work with the company on a new idea: a pen designed with writers in mind. To this end, I helped create the “Michael Jecks” pen. This wonderful pen had everything I loved about Conway Stewart pens: a good weight, broad dimensions, and a superb, highly polished barrel in Dartmoor resin. This resin has flecks and gleams deep within it. It looks like polished granite, but is imbued with the greens, browns and greys of the moors themselves.   I adore these pens. However, the pen I use every single day just now is the Visconti.

The unscratchable Visconti Homo Sapiens.

The unscratchable Visconti Homo Sapiens.

The Homo Sapiens is a marvellous shape. The barrel is slightly bulbous at the middle, tapering to the nib and the end. At the end itself, there is a slightly rounded design. No harsh edges here. The cap is set off by two circlets of bronze, has a strong clip, also of bronze, and has an end-piece that uses Visconti’s own personalisation. You can, if you want, keep to the Visconti badge. However, if preferred, a magnet will allow you remove this badge and replace it with a birth-sign, or a semi-precious stone, or even (as in my case) initials. I mentioned the use of bronze. There is another large band of bronze on the barrel, too. Bronze is a curious metal. It harkens back to an age before steel and iron, when mankind was learning about culture, about writing and reading. But the great thing about bronze is, it feels more natural in the hand than steel or iron. The way that it gains a patina all of its own is wonderful. It also offsets the main material of the pen. I love my Cross pens. The gold one stays in a leather case all the time now, but I like the slimness and the light weight. The Conway Stewart resin pens are just lovely, while the silver is superb. I adore that. However, I wouldn’t use them every day at, say, university. For one thing they are valuable, and while I trust my colleagues, I don’t trust my own ability to keep them. I have lost too many pens in the past. However, worse than that is the fact that all resin pens will eventually scratch and be damaged. I noticed that particularly with my Churchill. Over time, the barrel has been etched with a multitude of infinitesimal scratches. None of them dramatic, but as with spectacle lenses, even tiny one mark will affect its appearance. My Visconti will not mark. The first time I wore it in a shirt pocket, a zip rubbed against it. When I glanced at my new pen and saw the whitish erosion, I was inordinately depressed. Typical, I thought, that a pen should be wrecked in fifteen minute’s carelessness. I rubbed at the mark, and as I did so, it miraculously disappeared. The pen hadn’t been affected by the zip, it had worn away the metal of the zip.

The superb Visconti with barrel formed from Etna's lava

The superb Visconti with barrel formed from Etna’s lava

Homo Sapiens pens are made from an amazing material that is in part volcanic lava from Etna. It is pounded into dust and mixed with a (secret) compound including, I assume, rubber. When left, it forms a firm substance with a moderate weight. For me, it is ideal for a daily-used pen. It will never look damaged because the material is more or less bullet-proof. In my daily use over the last year, there has been not the slightest deterioration. Apart from the patination of the bronze, it looks exactly the same as the day I took it from its box. Some people have noticed that the material is slightly porous. It absorbs moisture. This can mean that the section above the nib can soak up a little ink if the user isn’t careful, although I haven’t found that a problem – perhaps because I use a Traveller’s Inkwell. The other aspect I do like, however, is that no matter how warm the weather, this pen always feels cool and comfortable. Perhaps it absorbs sweat from the hands, but for whatever the reason, it is a delight to use in midsummer as much as in the winter. One final comment on the material: it looks a plain, dull greyish black at first glance. However, the closer one peers at it, one can see flakes and specks of mica glittering. It is almost impossible to show this under ordinary daylight – I am not a good enough photographer – but the material shows a glorious depth. I like a pen I can use quickly, and here I have to mention a rather lovely aspect of this pen, the way that the cap is held on. Most pens will have either a push on, pull off cap or a screw fit cap. I won’t labour this point, but in my experience, a push fit can have problems. Such as the time that one Cross cap wasn’t properly fitted, and the pen came adrift in my jacket pocket, creating an unpleasant stain that was not cheap. On the other hand, I don’t want to sit unscrewing a cap for ages. The Visconti has a (to me) unique design. There is a simple push and twist fit which is more akin to a bayonet fitting for a light bulb than anything else I have seen or used. It is quick, effective and pretty much fool proof.You can see in the picture above that the barrel has some odd, deep slots cut into it. The cap has some lugs inside and a spring-loaded inner sleeve. The lugs engage with the slots, and the spring keeps the pen held in place. Simple, but very effective. Under the cap, the Visconti has a magnificent (there is no other word for it) nib of palladium. Now many people won’t have heard of this metal, but for my money, it is the best nib I own. It is soft, smooth, flexible and plain gorgeous, both to use and to look at. I can use it for hours at a time, and never get tired. That brings me on to the other thing I really, really like about my Visconti. I adore my Michael Jecks Conway Stewart pen. It is beautiful to look at and to use. I love my Drake because of the weight and the balance and the appearance of that lovely silver. However, the one aspect of both that limits their use is their ink capacity. I am a novelist. If I sit down to write, I will often take ten, twelve or more pages to note researches or to write a short story, or develop a character. It is the nature of my work. However, with most pens the capacity of the ink reservoir is frankly pathetic. I happen to like large writing. It is how I work. I like large nibs because that is how I work. But with most pens, large writing means having to refill the pen at regular intervals. Not so with the Homo Sapiens. It uses an ink reservoir that is massive. It is filled by pulling out the plunger. Once this is fully extended from the body, one inserts the nib into an ink well, and while it is fully submerged, the plunger is pushed down firmly. As the plunger is pushed down,  a piston is forced down an internal cylinder. This creates a vacuum behind the seal. However, at the bottom of the cylinder is a section that is flared. Here the seal is broken and the vacuum sucks up the ink. A brilliant, simple, yet very effective way to fill a pen. I find that the pen works ideally for me. It is a good weight, has a sizeable heft in the hand, and writes like a dream. I love the massive reservoir, and I particularly adore the material from which it is made and the fact that it does not scratch. My Homo Sapiens has been with me now for over a year, and I can happily state that I have used it almost every day without mishap. If there was one potential aspect that could be altered, it would be to inset a viewing window so that the actual level of ink in the reservoir could be seen. However, since I always carry a Visconti Travelling Inkwell with me, that is less important. More key to me is the fact that this lovely pen works, works daily, and never fails. However, it is not quite perfect in every way. For the last eighteen months I have taken to carrying a small pen with me daily. The reason is simple: I always have a notepad with me and ideas for a story or character will occur to me at the oddest occasions. I love my Conway Stewart pens and my Visconti. In fact I love them so much that I won’t take them with me at all hours of the day and night. When I am walking the dog, for example, I don’t want to carry a £500 fountain pen. So, for occasional notes while dog walking, I bought my self a lightweight Kaweco Al-Sport. The Kaweco pens were originally designed, I believe, between the two World Wars. They had an octagonal section on an oversized cap, with a main barrel that was cylindrical. The reason for the oversized cap is simple to see when you first pick up a Kaweco. When closed the pen is a tiny size, only about four inches long. However, when posted, the length is nearer five and a half inches, which is big enough for even my hand when writing. I love this little pen. Even more so now that there is an effective convertor – I never have liked using ink cartridges. Cult Pens have been working for some time with Kaweco to produce their own little pen, and now they have it: the Cult Pens pen.

Kaweco and Cult

Kaweco and Cult

It is a light, but not too light, pen of a lightweight metal. I particularly like the brushed metal of the cap and barrel. This is a pen that could sit in a pocket and not show the marks of keys or penknives. The top and end cap of the pen are both ground flat. The cap itself has a very strong spring clip. I like that. I’ve had too many pencils and pens slip from their moorings to trust light spring clips. Externally, the Cult Pens pen has about the same length as the Kaweco, at just over four inches. However, when posted there is a significant difference. The Cult Pens pen is just about five inches, so a half inch shorter. This may not sound much, but in terms of the balance and feel, it makes a huge difference. The difference extends to the width, too. The Kaweco cap is a half inch wide, the section a little thinner at about thirteen thirty-seconds of an inch. The Cult cap is the same as the Kaweco section, while the section itself is from five eighths of an inch to nine thirty-seconds. This is very small, but for a small, pocket pen, it’s still very usable.

The Kaweco has it in terms of general size

The Kaweco has it in terms of general size

The cap unscrews with about four turns of my fingers. This to me is a bit excessive. My Kaweco, for example, needs only two turns to uncap, and while I know that this is a minor detail to many, if I’m on the phone and need to hurry to make a note, I want to do so without fiddling. Still, it does mean that the likelihood of the cap coming adrift is remote. When posting the cap (which really is essential, the pen is so short), there’s a soft rubber or plastic insert inside the cap itself. It grips the pen really well and gives it more of a substantial feel when writing. Beneath the cap is a steel nib from Kaweco. In this case I chose a BB nib. It has the broadness of line that I look for in a pen, but it also has the advantage that the nib gives great flexibility. Use a little more force and you can get good line variation – use less and you can create almost a stub-like, italic effect. Kaweco steel nibs are renowned for their smoothness in writing, and this one is a perfect example of lovely softness. I did find that initially the ink didn’t flow very well, and was prone to skipping and drying. I confess I first blamed the cartridge. Cheaper pens using cartridges, I always used to find, would dry out and give a terrible writing experience. In the end, I admit, I gave up and contacted the pen supplier to ask whether the nib could be checked. The pen expert advised me to disassemble the pen first and wash the nib and section through with soapy water. I did this a few times, rinsed it well, and all was suddenly, miraculously better. Now the nib works like a dream. Very smooth, utterly responsive to a little pressure, and with a superb and reliable ink flow. However, I confess, I didn’t get on with it quite as well as I would like. Instead, I bought a Kaweco 1.1 italic nib. Suddenly the pen has a whole new feel and lease of life. It’s a beautiful nib, really smooth and delightful. Plus, I still believe very firmly that the best nibs are stubs or italics. Yes, I am a sad old sack and I promise to get out more, but I just find the look of writing when using  an italic is so much better. Even the worst writer can look good with this style of pen.

My daily set.

My daily set.

I still love my Kaweco. It has a slightly larger size in the hand, and I do like the smoothly rounded octagonal shape. However, the Cult Pens pen is taking over. I prefer the broad nib for daily use (my Kaweco has a fine), and I like the fact that the clip will hold it firmly wherever I put it. The feel in the hand is a little light and skinny, but for a general pen for use as a note-taker, in other words a pen to keep in a shirt or trouser pocket over the weekend, or in a handbag full time, the Cult is absolutely perfect. Added to that the very low cost, and I think Cult have got a winner here!   So, there you go. The pens I’ve collected over the years, and which I still use. In the far-distant past I used to write with an old Parker pen at school. I still have it (although my son has commandeered it). But generally, although I have owned various biros, roller balls and other pens, I have never lost my love for fountain pens. The biros and others have all been discarded with the exception of a few special ones. Yet the fountain pens carry on, and all keep being used. My three go-to pens daily are the Kaweco, the Cult and the Visconti, while the Michael Jecks and the Drake are used here at my desk where they can’t be scratched or lost. All have their own delights. I love the Cult for its low cost and simplicity. I like the Kaweco because there is something glorious in the feel. My Drake is just heavenly, the Churchill is lovely to look at (although a little too light, really – it was one of the early models: more recent versions have more heft to them) and I do adore the Michael Jecks pen. The looks are wonderful, the nib a joy to use, and the feel is gorgeous. However, my favourite still is probably the Visconti. You cannot appreciate what a pleasure writing can be, until you experience a pen of this quality. And now, as I cast a glance over at the tray of inks, I can see that I have a total of 22 inks of different colours. Perhaps it’s time to fill all the pens with different colours and pretend I’m working again …! Meanwhile, for those who are interested, I’m recording a series of videos on YouTube which will go through my books, the moors, the stories and legends that inspired me to write – everything, in short, that led to me writing my books. If you have any specific questions about my stories, please let me know. The first, brief introductory video will soon go up – just as soon as I have sorted out permission to use some music – so I hope you’ll want to go there and see what inspired me to write.   DSC_0028

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Comments
11 Responses to “Pens I Have Known – A Review of a Life in Pens”
  1. annswinfen says:

    How wonderful to find someone else who loves REAL pens! I fear we’re a dying breed. You’ve introduced me to some new ones here.

    Like

  2. jenniesisler says:

    I just got a Visconti Van Gogh Vanilla Midi a few months ago and it writes like a dream. Makes me want other, more expensive Viscontis (like the Wall Street) I have close to 20 pens of different makes and price ranges, but they’re all incredible in their own way. Glad to see other fountain pen lovers keeping the joy of fine pens alive:)

    Like

  3. Harrison says:

    Does the Kaweco Al Sport work with the Visconti Traveling Inkwell?

    Like

    • I’ve just tried to fit it, and yes, the AL does fit inside the travelling inkwell perfectly. However I don’t have a cartridge convertor to try it out properly (I tend to use cartridges only in my Kawecos, because the older style convertors never got a good fill and didn’t last long enough – the newer style convertors may well be much more efficient).

      Like

      • Harrison says:

        Thanks! I just wanted to make sure that it would properly seal around the Kaweco when it’s inverted.

        Like

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