- Buyer's Guide
Step up Your EDC Game with These Boutique Pens and Pencils
It’s easy to miss but if you’ve been paying attention, we are in a maker renaissance right now. Items that were once considered disposable or cheap, are now looked at with a different lens by those who wonder why they couldn’t be generational or heirloom items. As consumers, we are reaping the benefits.
There has been no better time to be an independent manufacturer. Crowdfunding has made fundraising trivial compared to traditional methods. Technology has driven quality up and prices down, so that even a small company could afford a mill or CNC machine. In the past few years, we’ve started to see ordinary items remade into real objects of desire and I can’t think of a better example than in the world of pens and mechanical pencils.
Pens have always been near and dear to me but I admit there’s a sort of (“generational”) gap going on. When you are young, you are used to using (relatively) cheap pens and pencils. A $5 mechanical pencil from Japan might be a splurge. Your favorite Gel pen might cost half that. When you graduate and get your first job, you might find yourself using whatever pen you could find in the supply closet in the office. If you wanted to upgrade, there’s always fountain pens. Those come in all shapes and sizes: some with clear shells (called demonstrators) to see how the ink is stored and flows, different-sized nibs (some even made of 18k gold), and some even adorned with hand-painted animals and scenery. But fountain pens always seemed so stuffy and perhaps reserved for our grandparents or heads of state.
So there we have it, the gap between a cheap pen and a remnant of yesteryear. What should a young professional write with that is more sturdy and focused than a disposable pen or pencil, but isn’t as stuffy as a fountain pen? Enter the world of boutique or artisan pens and pencils. Today, I’d like to present four examples that I think exemplify this small but growing segment.
Inventery reached out to us a few months ago and offered to send their simply named, Mechanical Pen, for us to check out. I had never heard of the independent “refined” goods company based in LA before, so I did not know what to expect. What arrived blew me away, from my first impressions of their packaging and the unboxing experience, to the actual design and performance of the pen. Let’s talk about the user experience first. The pen arrives packed with both flat and shredded tissue paper. Inside the shipping box, you’ll find a fabric bag with a drawstring closure and a metallic monogrammed Inventery “I”. Inside is a tastefully designed cardboard box with full model specifications on the bottom, again in gold ink. Slide the contents out and you’re presented with a cover card, plus a dense foam topper, which can be removed with a satin pull tab. Finally, the pen is exposed, sitting in a carefully cut foam cavity.
The pen itself is milled from a single piece of brass and comes in four finishes – onyx, brass, brushed chrome and chrome. It measures 125mm and weighs 57 grams. It uses a silky smooth Schmidt SKM88 click mechanism and 0f course takes Schmidt P8126 Capless Rollerball refills. The pen is void of any branding save for the tiny Inventery logo and a unique serial number. What really struck me is the pen is designed to be a desk pen. It has no clip but to keep the body from rolling, one side is milled flat so it naturally rests. This makes for a really clean and predictable display on a writer’s or executive’s desk. We are seeing Schmidt refills and mechanisms more and more in custom pens and it’s no surprise considering how smooth they are. This pen is no exception, writing fluidly, with the weight of the brass body nicely balanced and aiding in the writing experience. The Inventery Mechanical Pen is available now for $90.
• -Unboxing user experience top-notch; feels really special
• -Great weight and balance
• -Really fluid mechanism and refill choice
• -You pay a premium price for quality
You might be noticing a trend in this article – many of the pens are revisions of previously released items. To me, this is great and really shows the iterative and continual improvement nature of design and development. The Modern Fuel Mechanical Pencil 2.0 from Austin-based designer Andrew Sanderson is no different, improving on V1 in a number of ways. The new version now sports a click mechanism designed in-house, with no plastic parts. Speaking of mechanism, the whole thing is replaceable, meaning you can swap between three lead sizes (0.5, 0.7, 0.9 mm). The tip is now retractable which means no accidentally bending or breaking it off like in the first version. There are a half a dozen more improvements which you can find on the Kickstarter page. I was sent a test sample to evaluate then return, and my impressions are entirely positive. First, Andrew was able to capture a real nostalgia with the shape of the pencil, down to the classic dark gray rubber eraser on top. I can’t help but see the Bic or Paper Mate pencils of my younger days. I was partial to Japanese mechanical pencils but this silhouette was in nearly every student’s hand in my lectures.
The pen is machined from brass and measures 145 mm, with the stainless version I was sent weighing 42 grams. This heft really plays tricks on you with every person uttering a dramatic “whoa” when I hand them it. Take everything you thought about mechanical pencils and toss it out the window. What’s amazing is how perfectly balanced the pencil is, making it a joy to write with. The pencil comes with a full set of accessories including: extra erasers, Allen keys to remove the mechanism, a case of leads, a removable clip, stylus tips, a scrubbing pad to maintain the brushed look, and a really classy cork case.
Like I said the writing experience is phenomenal. The lead advances with each click and, if needed, the tip will deploy on the first click. When you are done, simply press the tip down slightly to withdraw the lead and tip into the grip, leaving it protected. Finally, the pencil sports one of my favorite features and one that I almost consider a requirement nowadays – seamless closure between the grip and body.
You can back the Modern Fuel Mechanical Pencil 2.0 now on Kickstarter, with an expected February 2018 delivery date. This was an originally a Kickstarter project but now you can find the production version of the Mechanical Pencil in Modern Fuel’s webstore.
• -Classic design; reminiscent of school days
• -Impressive heft but perfectly balanced
• -Really satisfying lead extension
• -Retractable tip protects against damage
• -Cumbersome to take apart; not difficult to change mechanism but not quick either. Luckily, you rarely need to disassemble it
• -Lots of accessories are great but many things to keep track of and lose
It’s difficult not to like Will Hodges. He has such a positive attitude and he always over-delivers. I backed his last Kickstarter project, for the Slider and Glider pens last year, and while it was late, it arrived approximately two months after my pledge. Ladies and gentlemen, in the world of Kickstarters, that is lightning fast. How does Will do it? Well he owns his own machine shop, which lets him get a head start on things. He just acquired a new “Swiss” lathe CNC machine to make the detailed parts needed for this latest project, the Mover and Shaker (Gen 2). In fact, production started in early September, and I was sent a finalized sample of the Stainless Steel Shaker. It’s the shorter of the two, measuring 127 mm long and comes with a Schmidt Easy Flow 9000 medium point refill. It’s compatible with “Parker style” refills.
The attention to detail on the pen is amazing and many of the features are from direct feedback of the Gen 1 Mover and Shaker pens. First, Will extended the fine ridged texture along the whole pen instead of keeping it near the tip. This accommodates any grip style or position a writer may prefer. Next, hidden under the pocket clip is a Kickstarter “K” to indicate the pen came from the campaign, as well as the Tactile Turn name. The most significant change, however, was an entirely new click mechanism. The previous version was made of brass and the soft and malleable nature of the metal made it susceptible to damage, eventually resulting in poor or broken performance. Additionally, the old mechanism would hold the tip barely inside the body, which could lead to unwelcome ink leakage onto shirt or pants pockets. The new mechanism is now made of super strong titanium, with a longer travel. I can confirm the refill now seats well within the tip and the throw is both buttery smooth and short (it’s longer than V1 but in my opinion, still functionally really short and quick). Lastly, this isn’t a new feature, but one of my favorite things about the pens is the invisible seam between the body and the end of the pen. The Tactile Turn Mover and Shaker Gen 2 are available now on Kickstarter in your choice of five materials.
• -Butter smooth mechanism
• -Schmidt refills are top in class
• -Machining is perfect, seamless between grip and body
• -Shaker may be too small for medium to large hand sizes. Make sure to check if you need the Mover instead.
Brad Sunderland is a mechanical engineer with a passion for machining since a young age. He acquired a few lathes through the years but finally landed on a CNC about 10 years ago and it convinced him to make the jump to offering his own products. The mk1 was launched on Kickstarter in 2015 and raised nearly $20k. You have the option of nickel or anodized aluminum with the latter coming in a variety of colorways.
At first glance, it looks like your run-of-the-mill executive pen, but upon closer inspection you’ll notice some really unique features. First, the pen clip is machined out of stainless steel instead of stamped. This allows it to be both flexible for functionality but strong so it does not bend or snap after repeated use. The cap is screwed on, but the threads are hidden to avoid any unsightly lines when posted. It measures 148.5 mm when posted and weighs 23 grams. It is primarily designed for Montblanc Rollerball and Fineliner cartridges but can also work with the popular Pilot G2 line of refills.
I’ve been using the nickel finish for a few weeks now, at work, and I can tell you that this is probably the best pen I’ve ever used. It is truly a marvel of machining, in ways that you never knew you needed or wanted, until you try it. Like I previously mentioned, the threads are advertised as hidden, but I didn’t know what that meant until I received the pen. It took me a minute to figure out how Brad pulled this off; trust me, it’s really elegant.
What the specs don’t tell you is the user experience of really tight tolerances in the machining. The cap screws off, but posts using friction. The machining is so fine that the cap and body slides together smoothly and slows down as the body gets wider and the fit tightens. Removing it is just as simple.
Similarly, when you unscrew the cap and the threads run out, it pulls away from the body so smoothly, it feels like it’s being pulled by magnets. The pen feels very solid without being cumbersome in its weight. The balance is just right and the grip texturing is enough to be effective but not painful. Finally, the balance is just right.
The mk1 is available now for $80 from Sunderland Machine Works.
• -Hidden threads very elegantly done
• -Extremely clever machining with tight tolerances that translate to a sublime user experience
• -Great clip, sturdy build, but lightweight and balanced in the hand
Chadwick and Joe are no strangers to Kickstarter, having launched 21 projects on the crowdfunding platform. I backed my first BigiDesign in 2013 and I received the latest, the Ti Arto pen, in December 2016. It claims to be the world’s most refillable pen and I don’t doubt it considering over 200 refills are compatible. This means if you wanted a long-lasting pen but don’t want to give up the buttery smoothness of your favorite refill, you could have the best of both worlds. It measures just over 136 mm when posted and is made of raw machined titanium so it’s super durable and strong but really lightweight. Refilling the pen is a simple affair that involves unscrewing the business end of the pen, putting in the new one with a light tighten of the end, and adjusting how much you want the tip to peek out, then finally tightening everything. The magic sauce is the collet that the Ti Arto uses, which lets it adapt to nearly any refill regardless of length or thickness. Using the pen is a joy, especially when you can use any refill you want. It’s like getting a deluxe version of your favorite pen; keeping the best parts (nib and ink), but replacing the ugly body and mechanism. If I had a small niggle, it would be the finish. BigiDesign are really fans of uncoated titanium which has a unique feel to it. I am undecided how I feel about it but unlike other aesthetics, you feel this between your fingers every time you write.
They also launched a new Kickstarter for the Ti Arto EDC which has some differences compared to the Ti Arto. The length is now adjustable which is great for those with particularly small or large paws. They also made small tweaks to the thickness of the pen and improved the o-rings and machining. Finally, they got rid of one of my major pet peeves – the gap between the grip and the body. The Ti Arto EDC is due for a May 2018 delivery so if those changes aren’t that important to you, you can get the Ti Arto today.
• -Support for hundreds of refills means you can get the exact writing experience you love
• -Titanium is strong and light
• -Great fit and finish; finely tuned tolerances
• -Sometimes finely adjusting a new refill can take some time and patience
• -Not a fan of the o-ring between the body and the cap. Can get really tight