Fountain Pen Nibs: The Basics

Fountain Pen Nibs: The Basics

Fountain pen nibs are made in a bewildering array of sizes and styles. Of course, covering everything about every kind of nib in one article would be bewildering as well—I won’t do that—but there should be enough useful information to help you better decide what nibs might best suit your writing style. In this article, I’ll pretend to be knowledgeable about the following aspects of nibs:

  • Nib tip shapes
  • Nib sizes and types
  • Problems

Nib Tip Shapes

There are three basic nib shapes: Round, stub, and italic. Ballpoint, oblique, and calligraphy nibs are merely slight variations of the round and italic shapes, and I’ll discuss these variations in their appropriate contexts.

Round Nibs: A round nib is ground and polished to have roughly a circular footprint so that its line width is fairly uniform no matter what direction the nib is moving across the paper. I say “roughly” because the shape is rarely a true circle. Nibs are small, and hands are big. Grinding a nib to a geometrically perfect shape by hand just isn’t possible, but this is one area in which “close enough” really is close enough. Here is a magnified silhouette representing the basic shape of a round nib, together with a cross illustrating the uniform stroke width that this nib produces:

ball-point nib is like a standard round nib, but it is also ground and polished so that you can write with it while holding the pen with its nib on the underside instead of in the usual nib-uppermost orientation. This gives a finer line so that you can have, in effect, two different nib sizes on one pen. Parker was famous for the quality of its ball-point nibs. Sheaffer’s Feathertouch nibs are also ball-point nibs, and Sheaffer included a ball-point nib among the choices it offered for the interchangeable-nib Fineline series of pens that it produced to compete with Esterbrook. (But note that Fineline nibs are not interchangeable with Esterbrook’s Renew Point nibs!) Learn more about Fountain pens at http://pentrace.net/anatomy-of-a-fountain-pen-iii-sheaffers-snorkel/

Stub Nibs: A stub nib is elongated sideways, to have a footprint that is somewhat elliptical. This makes it lay down a slightly broader line when moving up and down (in relation to the nib itself) and a narrower one when moving sideways (again, in relation to the nib). The eccentricity of the ellipse isn’t too pronounced, and the nib is still polished to have nice rounded edges. This means that you can write with a stub just about as easily as with a standard nib. Here is a magnified silhouette representing the basic shape of a stub nib, together with a cross illustrating the slight variation in stroke width that this nib produces:

Italic Nibs: An italic nib is much more elongated. This makes the difference between its broad (up-and-down) strokes and its narrow strokes (sideways) much more pronounced than with a stub. There’s a readily perceptible straight edge across the tip of an italic. Here is a magnified silhouette representing the basic shape of an italic nib, together with a cross illustrating the more extreme variation in stroke width that this nib produces:

When you write with an italic, you hold the pen with the nib generally away from your forearm (as with a stub or a round nib). I mention this point here because you hold a pen with an oblique nib differently, and I’ll describe that difference later. When used by a right-handed person, an italic will generally make strokes that are of roughly equal width in both the vertical and horizontal directions; strokes from the upper right to the lower left will be thinner, and strokes from the upper left to the lower right will be thicker, as shown here:

This is the stroke arrangement most commonly seen in Old English and other blackletter styles and in many italic and Chancery styles:

The Old English text shows additional ornamentation that would be applied with a very fine dip-pen nib called a “crow quill.” (The illustrations here were actually produced using typeset fonts, but they are characteristic.)

Left-handed writers use so many different writing styles, overwriting and underwriting, writing uphill, writing horizontally, and writing downhill, that it’s not really possible to illustrate a typical left-handed writer’s results. Depending on the way you position your hand and align your paper, your broad and narrow strokes will be aligned in directions different from those of a right-handed writer, and likely different even from those of other left-handed writers. You’ll have to experiment for yourself.

As you might have guessed by now, italics and calligraphy nibs are the same things in terms of form; but a calligraphy nib might be even wider yet. Italics are finished with relatively less rounding to their edges than round or stub nibs. This square-edged grind and the wider footprint result in a greater tendency to catch on corners and a greater tendency to skip if the nib isn’t held straight-on to the paper (i.e., when one side of the nib lifts away due to the nib’s being rocked sideways). Writing too rapidly with an italic tends to produce scratchiness and skips.

True calligraphy nibs are often even squarer than italics; the intent is to give a very crisp and controllable line width. This is why you can’t just pick up an italic or a calligraphy nib and dash off a note the way you would with your usual nib. You’re forced to write more slowly in order to retain control of your writing. But with practice, some writers become very proficient with italic nibs, producing beautiful text.

Now we come to the oblique. An oblique is exactly like an italic except that it’s cut on a slant. The oblique shown in the following figure is a right oblique; it looks like a right foot when viewed from the top. A left oblique is cut on the opposite slant. In this figure, the italic is on the left and the oblique is on the right:

When you write with an oblique, you must change the orientation of the pen in order to make the nib’s flat surface contact the paper. A right oblique, when used by a right-handed person, will be oriented with the nib generally away from the body rather than the forearm. This will give broader strokes when the pen is drawn toward or away from the body and narrower strokes when the pen is drawn sideways across the body. In general, this is ideal for producing letters shaded in the way roman type is shaded, with thick verticals and thin horizontals, as seen here:

Left-handed writers, both underwriters and overwriters, will generally have better success with a left oblique than with a right oblique; at least, the left oblique will be easier to hold. As with an italic, you’ll need to experiment to find the best oblique for you.

Nib Sizes and Types

Nib Sizes: Nibs are made in five basic size designation: Extra fine (XF), fine (F), medium (M), broad (B), and double broad (BB). As you might expect, some manufacturers make additional sizes, such as a triple broad (BBB). There is no international standard that specifies the exact sizes for nibs, so different manufacturers will make nibs that are somewhat different in size. The tips of modern nibs seem to be a little larger, generally, than those of vintage nibs of the same designation. I suspect that this is so because over the years a broader line has become more popular, perhaps because of the influence of the ballpoint pen, so that the nib that produces a line of “usual” size is larger than it used to be. (There are technological limitations on how small a ballpoint can be and still work; a medium ballpoint produces a broader line than the average vintage medium fountain pen nib.)

Japanese nibs tend to be a little finer than their Western equivalents; a Japanese M nib is about the same size as a European F. If you’re an antiquarian account who writes with a tiny spidery hand, a Japanese XF might be just what you need.

Nib Types: When I speak of nib types, I’m referring to flexibility or the lack of it.

Most pens today—as did many in the past, including Duofold’s of the 1920s and the sturdily-built Sheaffer Triumphs of the 1940s—have nibs that run firm to rigid; they have little or no flexibility. These nibs stand up very well to being used with a firm writing pressure; and this is probably a good thing because most modern writers have learned to write using a ballpoint, which requires firm pressure. Among vintage pens, you may find nibs labeled Manifold.

These are very rigid nibs designed to be used under enough pressure to make two or three carbon copies. Some fountain-pen users dismiss nibs this rigid, calling them “nails,” but these nibs do have a purpose. George Parker, in manufacturing the revolutionary Duofold—one still hailed by many collectors as one of the best pens ever—chose to install a nail-like nib in a vast majority of the Duofold’s his company produced. The many people who bought these pens and the thousands who collect them today outnumber the few who disparage firm nibs as “nails.” In fact, for the majority of users, “nails” are actually better than flexible nibs, and this was as true 80 years ago as it is today. That’s why modern nibs are firmer: It makes sense to the majority of people to use this kind of nib. That being said, I reside on the crotchety side of the fence myself, and I carry a pen with a very firm nib only when I expect to be signing credit-card receipts.

Sooner or later, nearly every fountain-pen user will discover flexible nibs. Flex nibs, which were more common in the earlier part of the 20th century but are still available today, produce interesting and attractive stroke variation with only an ordinary round tip. As you press more firmly, the nib’s tines spread, and the stroke grows broader. Flex nibs have been made in semi-flexible, flexible, and super-flexible variants; a super-flex will do under relatively light pressure the same things that a semi-flex does with more pressure.

By choosing the proper degree of flexibility you can fit your nib to your writing style without risking a nib that becomes sprung from the application of too much pressure. The difference between what a flex nib will do and what an italic or oblique will due to lies in the fact that the italic or oblique produces its stroke variation, for the most part, in specific directions, as described earlier in this article. A flex nib, on the other hand, can produce a broad or narrow stroke in any direction; this yields handwriting that its users extol as being much more characterful and personal, citing the uniqueness of every individual’s particular combination of stroke direction and pressure. Mastering a flex nib isn’t easy, but many users find it well worth the effort.

The ultimate flex nib for some writers is a flex italic. With a flex italic, your writing takes on a combination of italic and flex characteristics, thinner than expected in some places and as broad as the Pacific Ocean in others. Writing with a flex italic is difficult to master—even more so than a regular flexible nib. Flex italics have all the bad handling characteristics of both of their parent types. They are not for the faint of heart.

Some makers, notably Moore, attempted to produce nibs that were a delicately-balanced compromise between flexibility and the rigidity needed for making carbon copies; Moore labeled its nibs of this type as Maniflex, and most of them are more nail-like than not.

Problems

A nib can misbehave for several reasons, some of which are simple maintenance problems of dirt, oil, or clogging. (If you use cheap paper, for example, fibers can become lodged in the slit and inhibit the flow of ink.) But beyond these common maintenance problems, nibs can suffer flaws of manufacture or be damaged by improper use. I’ll discuss a few of the more common such problems.

Too Dry or Too Wet: If a nib writes but refuses to lay down enough ink to satisfy you, it’s possible that the slit is too narrow for your writing style. Similarly, if the line is always too wet, the slit might be too wide. The slit width needs to be different for nibs of different sizes; that is, an XF needs a very tight slit if it is not to throw too much ink, while a BB needs a slit more nearly the width of the Grand Canyon to supply the large quantity of ink needed. But there’s a balance here; too narrow a slit produces a dry writer, and a slit that’s too wide dumps more ink than the nib can handle, leading to uneven lines and slow drying.

As a general rule, the nib tines should not touch each other when the nib is at rest. The firmer or more rigid the nib, the more important it is that the tines not touch; if they do, the nib is likely to suffer an extreme case of the “too dry” syndrome. As with most rules, however, there is an exception. A flexible nib’s tines touch at the tip when the nib is at rest; in fact, they are slightly sprung so that if you move one tine slightly up or down, the two tips will overlap very slightly.

Loss of Line: A nib’s slit must conform to certain restrictions of shape. The slitting process, performed with a very thin abrasive wheel, produces a slit that is perfectly straight; that is, the slit’s sides are the same distance from each other along the slit’s length, as shown here:

The nibs in most inexpensive and moderately-priced pens go to market this way, and for the most part, these nibs perform reasonably well. Occasionally, a nib with a straight slit will have difficulty maintaining capillary action and will stop writing from time to time. This is more common in broad nibs, whose slits are wider. A quick shake will usually restart the nib, but it’s an annoyance, and it creates the risk of splattering your companions. Worse, if your name is Lewis Waterman, you risk destroying an important insurance contract and having to find a new line of work.

Better-quality nibs, which are hand-finished, usually exhibit a slight taper to the slit. You can see, upon close examination, that the tines are slightly closer together at the tip than they are at the breather hole:

A tapered slit is more conducive to the proper capillary action, and nibs with tapered slits are usually more reliable writers than those with straight slits.

A more severe loss-of-line problem can occur if a nib’s slit has an inverse taper; that is, if the slit is wider at the tip than it is at the breather hole:

In this case, capillary action has an uphill battle from the outset, and the pen will probably refuse to write more frequently than it actually writes. This problem can occur when a nib is sprung by the application of too much pressure. When this happens, the loss-of-line problem is aggravated by the fact that the tines, which are now bent slightly upward, are no longer in proper contact with the feed. An inexperienced repair person may diagnose this problem incorrectly as a feed that isn’t set properly, and he or she may simply re-set the feed without solving the real problem.

Hard Starting: This is the condition that occurs when a nib doesn’t start laying down ink immediately upon contact with the paper. The most common nib-related cause of hard starting is slit edges that are improperly ground. Look at the round nib silhouette, repeated below. Note the slight rounding of the edges where the slit is cut through. If these edges are not rounded, the nib is likely to be scratchy. Many inexpensive modern pens, and some not so inexpensive, have nibs that suffer this fault. But if the slit edges are rounded too much, capillary action will hold the ink too far away from the paper instead of drawing it toward the paper as intended, and the nib will have trouble starting. This condition is shown on the right in the figure here:

If your nib starts after a little extra push and then writes well, the fault may well be slit edges that are too round. Nibs with too-round slit edges tend to be very smooth, so there is a delicate balance between too round and just right.

In Conclusion

Different people write in different ways. The important thing is to experiment and have fun; and whatever nib style you like, don’t let anyone disparage the nib—or you—because, in the end, no one’s right or wrong or more elegant or less elegant. The only mistake any fountain-pen user can make is never to try a different style nib.

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Pen Doctor: Side by Side: The Parker

Pen Doctor: Side by Side: The Parker

Side by Side: The Parker “51” and the Hero 100

If you‘re an enthusiastic fan of the Parker “51”, you might wish that this greatest of all pens were still in production. You’ve probably looked at Parker’s new 51 SE and its hefty price tag. You’ve probably also read the reviews and comments, from which you’d have learned that the 51 SE looks like a “51” externally but is so different internally that it’s a “51” in name only. This means you’re right back where you started, wishing Parker still made the “51”.

Well, Parker doesn’t make the “51” anymore, but you can stop wishing. The Shanghai Hero Pen Company, which grew out of the ashes when the Communist government nationalized foreign holdings in China, is making pens in the original Parker factory in Shanghai, and one of the company’s best-selling models is the Hero 100. The Hero 100, which looks much like a Parker “51” Mark III, is as close as you’re going to get to a “51” without seeing PARKER “51” on the barrel.

Externals

When you take a real look at the 100, you see a pen with a very attractive brushed cap that looks like stainless steel. The metal color is less brown than most stainless, though, and it is remarkably attractive. Barrel colors are burgundy, turquoise, and black, and there is also a Flighter version (pictured in this article). Plastics are solid, not at all cheap or cheesy, and the overall fit and finish of the pen is as good as that of the original “51”. Surprised? So was I; I had been expecting to see a cheaper, lightweight, less finished appearance like that of the Hero 329 and 330, steel-nibbed pens that are designed to sell for much less than the 100’s sticker tariff. Here’s the 100 shown posted, with a 330 for comparison:

The clip, instead of the classic Parker ring-mounted version, is a Sheaffer-style spring-loaded clip, and it is very sturdy. Other small differences show up in the metal jewels on the cap and at the end of the barrel; there are 61-style tassies at both ends of this pen, but with turned metal jewels instead of celluloid. But this is not a 61; it has the diameter and heft of a “51”, and it lacks the heat-embedded arrow that Parker added to the 61’s hood as part of its 1950s style makeover.

Internals

For all practical purposes, the Hero 100 is a “51”. It has an aerometric filler, and its internals is so much like the guts of a “51” that the feed and the 14K nib are interchangeable with their Parker counterparts. The hood is longer, like that on a Parker 61, but that is to allow Hero’s slightly revised design to fit.

The catch comes when you start comparing parts beyond the nib and feed. Here‘s where it gets really interesting because the 100 is actually finished better than a Mark III “51”! Like most “51” Mark I pens, the 100 has a sac guard that is sturdy brushed stainless, while the Mark III’s sac guard is made of thinner material with a bright finish. That particular “51” feature made its appearance with the advent of the Mark II, and while it is admittedly less costly than its predecessor, it also looks and feels decidedly cheaper. Here are pictures of the two pens’ fillers:

Take a look into the barrel of a 100 Flighter, and you will see a solid plastic barrel, trimmed down and sheathed in the same way as a Sheaffer Snorkel Masterpiece. Look inside a Parker Flighter’s barrel, and you’ll see an empty metal shell. This is a small point, but the Hero’s barrel, with plastic reinforcing its shell and with a solid tassie, is less likely to suffer the dings so common to the barrels of Parker “51” Flighters.

Speaking of metal barrels, both Parker and Hero use metal threads in their Flighters’ barrels. But on the Parker, those metal threads mate with the plastic threads of the connector that holds the filler to the front end; on the Hero, the connector threads are metal. (There’s a plastic connector inside; what you see is a connecting ferrule like that on a Parker 61.) This, like the sheathed plastic barrel, is a small point; but it is one that suggests, overall, a more durable pen. learn more about pens nibs by clicking here

If I wanted to find something to pick at, I could point out that the tassie jewels on my pen aren’t both polished smooth; they both show machining marks, with one being very slightly rougher than the other. Golly gee whiz, what a terrible disappointment…

But How Does It Write?

It’s a “51”, remember? That should tell you all you need to know. When I filled my Flighter for the first time, I found it very slightly toothy, and the flow was dry, as I’d expect from a “51” OOTB (Out of the Box). A few minutes adjusting the nib for a nice wet flow and smoothing it, and this pen writes as well as any of my “51”s. Hero is noted for fine nibs that tend toward extra fine, but the nib on my sample, while still extra-fine, is closer to a true fine than I had expected. The dealer who sold me the pen says that the whole lot he currently has in stock is this way.

In Conclusion

If you know me, you know that I am firmly entrenched in the “vintage” camp. I don’t buy modern pens, and while I admire many of them I really don’t have any desire to own them. That has all changed. The Hero 100 is the modern pen I had been waiting to fall in love with. I’d almost say it’s a vintage “51” in modern dress. And that’s something!

Sources

The Hero 100 is selling in the USA for $55.00, and at that price, it’s one of the best bargains since Pepsi gave you 12 full ounces for only a nickel. You can get it from either of these dealers: Norman Haase, His Nibs.com
Ray Adams, Wood ‘N Dreams

I have no business affiliation with either of these gentlemen, but I am a satisfied customer of both.

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Parker 100 — an Evolution and a Revolution in Design

Parker 100 — an Evolution and a Revolution in Design

When I first saw the new Parker 100 last year I had mixed feelings. The Parker “51” has been one of my favorite writing instruments for many years and this new visitor appeared to have an attitude… ‘move over cousin “51” you’re a has-been and I’m the new kid on the block!’

Well, once in my hands for review I can say the Parker 100 is a modern complement to the “51” yet this pen has qualities and design to make it stand quite separate and apart from anything ever produced by Parker. The design is borrowed from legend and brought to the 21st century with modern materials and technology. Slightly larger than the “51” or “61” I find it is still quite light and just as manageable as its smaller cousin. The 100 weighs in at 1.25 oz, slightly twice the weight of the “51” and only .25 oz more than the smaller Sonnet. So given the slightly larger profile, the lightweight makes this an almost identical feel in the hand. Learn more parker pens at http://pentrace.net/pen-doctor-side-by-side-the-parker/

The Parker 100 is 5 5/8” (142mm) closed and almost 6” (150mm) with a cap posted. The barrel is 0.498” (12.66mm) diameter, noticeably larger than my “51”s yet has a very light and comfortable fit. The satin-brushed caps and striking new style clip gives an appearance fit for the new generation. The clip is tight and gives a firm grip, and notably a smooth and solid fit when it is posted.

The trim is 23K gold or silver-plated gold trim with a high polish finish that contrasts nicely with the matte finish of the brushed caps. The metal end jewels are a bright high polish finish but are recessed so they would do not appear to be exposed to scratching or abrasion. I really like the appearance of the hooded nib and find a very slight flex, maybe not a part of the intentional design, but nevertheless we are very conscious of this performance and are able to coax a slight line variation.

The ballpoint, pencil, and rollerball are almost identical in size and they feel in the hand. Each weigh-in at 1.25 oz. The pencil is a twist-action clutch repeater, the lead is gravity fed and stored under the eraser. The ballpoint also accepts the new gel refills.

All gold trim Parker 100 fountain pens have 18K gold nibs. All silver trim fountain pens have 18K gold rhodium-plated nibs. Parker 100 caps are finished in a shimmered gold or shimmered graphite effect, and the barrels are lacquered in a choice of five modern colors. The barrel colors are Smoke Bronze, Diamond Blue, Honey White, Opal Silver, and Cobalt Black.

The filling system is either an ink cartridge or ink bottle with the Deluxe piston fill converter. Fountain pen nibs are available in XF F M and B. Parker 100 fountain pens are beautifully gift-boxed, and include a black velvet pen pouch.

So where does this model slot in the Parker family line up? I would say right with the vintage or modern “51” SE and the Sonnet.

Pen in hand image courtesy of Pentracer Joseph Camosy

Parker 100 pens are available from Fountain Pen Hospital www.fountainpenhospital.com.

© 2004 Len Provisor.

Ink review: water-resistance of blue, blue/black and black inks

Ink review: water-resistance of blue, blue/black and black inks

Last weekend I assembled some inks, a dip pen, and a large bowl of water. My goal was to test the water resistance of the blue, black, and blue/black inks I own at this moment. I certainly admit that this experiment has little relevance. After all, I don’t make a habit of soaking my journals in a fishbowl. And I use a multitude of ink colors, so if I did soak it, the result would probably be interesting, but definitely unreadable. But performing the experiment was fun, and if the results are useful to someone, that’s a nice bonus.

With a regular dip pen (Hiro Leonardt No. 41) I wrote a sentence on standard 60 grams office paper, for each ink to be tested. After the ink dried for an hour, I soaked the paper for 10 minutes. I let the paper dry completely and put the results under the scanner (in that order).

Results for blue inks

I tested the following blue inks:

  • Quink royal blue
  • Sheaffer Skrip blue
  • Penman Sapphire
  • Hema blue

Hema blue is a no-name blue ink, from the Hema store (Netherlands), that is only available in cartridges. I don’t know who manufactures this ink, but the color reminds me of Pelikan Blue. My PaperMate fountain pen with a fine nib was filled with this ink, so I used this pen for the “Hema”.  The other inks were applied with the dip pen.

None of the blue inks were very water-resistant acralic color. In fact, all of them washed away almost completely. The Skrip blue totally disappeared from the page. The other three left a very light blue shade. None of them were readable anymore.

Results for blue/black inks

I tested the following blue/black inks:

  • Sheaffer Skrip blue/black
  • Montblanc blue/black
  • Quink blue/black
  • Lamy blue/black

Most of the samples were still readable after a 10 minutes soaking. However, Quink blue/black lost a lot of its color. Only a blueish residue was left on the paper. Surprisingly the Montblanc blue/black performed excellently. I have heard terrible things about Montblanc inks, so I fully expected that it would fail this test. But it was the only ink that kept a really dark color. Skrip black lost its blue, leaving a grey line behind. But the result was still very readable, and the ink did not leave a hue on the paper. The Lamy blue/black was really disappointing. It only left a very light blue line behind, making the writing hardly readable anymore.

Results for black inks

Finally, I put the black inks out:

  • Cross black
  • Penman Ebony
  • Quink black

While the writing samples were still readable, all inks washed away somewhat. What surprised me was that the blue/black inks performed much better than the blacks. Of the blacks, Quink finished as of last. After soaking, only a blue line remained. The Penman and Cross did not give in to each other. Each one remained dark but also spread a bit.

Conclusions

Most blue/black and black inks that I tested had a reasonable water resistance at least. Overall, the blue/black inks performed better than the blacks (I had expected it the other way around). The winner is Montblanc blue/black, followed by Skrip blue/black. The real losers are the blue inks. None of them had any water resistance at all.

Of course, water resistance is only one, relatively unimportant, quality of fountain pen inks. Most important for me are the flow characteristics and the color. Since most of my writing consists of notes taking, ink permanence is not a real issue. Using a spot of ink that tends to fade over the years might even be an advantage for letter writing. After all, I write snails, not my memories.

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A Little more information on Urushi

A Little more information on Urushi

What is urushi?

Urushi (pronounced “oo-roo-shee”) is one of the most durable natural lacquers known to man. Urushi lacquered ornaments including bracelets have been discovered in Japan dating from the Jomon period 9,000 years ago. In the west, these objects are also referred to as “japaned” objects. Hardened urushi is water and acid-proof, and also protects the object from heat, salt, mold and mildews, and all types of weathering. It has been used on wood, pottery, bone, baskets, fabric, and metal. Recently it has been successfully applied to the barrels and caps of fountain pens made of ebonite (black hard rubber).

Urushi is not only a durable varnish but is also one of the strongest adhesives while it is wet, which makes it perfect for decorating with gold powder (maki-e) gold foil (chicken), or mother of pearl inlays (raden). It is so strong an adhesive that in the distant past urushi was used by hunters and warriors to fix arrowheads to their arrow shafts!

This strength combined with the natural beauty of urushi lacquerware is the reason it has been so popular for thousands of years.

When we hear of urushi lacquerware, we think of shiny objects such as boxes and bowls covered with gold or colored maki-e decorations. However, the idea of decorating on top of urushi is a relatively new idea. Until the 18th century, urushi lacquerware was quite plain with no decoration. Red or black urushi was used on a wide variety of objects from household necessities such as rice bowls, sake cups and combs to hunting tools. Swords, shields, and entire body armor had coatings of urushi!

Beautiful maki-e “yatate” brush and ink holders produced by Mr. Wakashima of Wakashima Taigado

Where does urushi come from?

Urushi lacquer is made from the sap of the urushi tree (Rhus vernicifera). The urushi tree has been considered such a valuable commodity that it was planted all over Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). However, the areas today where urushi sap is actually produced are very limited.

From June through November the urushi is tapped by slashing the bark of the tree with horizontal cuts to let the thick white sap (arami) ooze from the trunk. This sap begins to solidify as soon as it comes in contact with the air. It is then collected and filtered through absorbent cotton with a centrifugal separator to remove bark and other impurities. The result is raw urushi (nama-urushi) which can be further refined, or used as-is for the base coats in lacquerware. The amount of sap collected from each tree is only around 250 milliliters per year, which makes it a rather precious substance.

The raw urushi is heated at a low temperature and stirred to disperse its ingredients and break down its particles. It gradually turns dark brown in color, and reaches a smooth consistency. It is now ready to be used for the middle and final coats.

What makes urushi so strong?

While most paints dry by the evaporation of some solvent, urushi dries or hardens by absorbing moisture from the air.

The urushi sap contains an oily substance called urushiol. When exposed to warmth and humidity, an enzyme is activated and extracts oxygen from the water and supplies it to the urushiol. The urushiol solidifies, forming a hard film. Even after it has hardened, the urushi retains some water content, making it look perpetually wet and shiny.

Urushiol is the exact same substance found in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac which causes rash and itchiness, so it is not advisable to handle liquid urushi with your bare hands unless you are one of the lucky few who are immune to it. Apparently, Asians and Native Americans are less likely to be sensitive to urushiol.

Urushi lacquerware is often black or red. The black color is produced by adding iron powder, which produces a chemical reaction with the urushiol, turning the urushi to a deep black color. Other colors are produced by adding pigments. Mercuric sulfide produces vermillion, and ferric oxide is used to make red.

How is urushi lacquerware produced?

Raw urushi is used for base coats, and refined urushi is used for top coats and decoration. The process of producing typical wooden urushi lacquerware has over 20 steps, and more than a hundred individual processes, still done by hand. Even a small object like a bowl can take over 6 months to make.

These steps include:

  • seasoning the wood
  • carving and sanding it to form the object
  • reinforcing fragile parts with linen cloth (for Wajima nuri)
  • applying several base coats of raw lacquer
    with drying and polishing between each coat
  • applying several coats of refeined black or red lacquer
    with more drying and polishing between each coat.

Finally, decoration such as maki-e can be applied to the still-wet adhesive urushi, or it can remain in its subtly beautiful undecorated state.

Wajima Nuri

Lacquerware produced in the small port city of Wajima in Ishikawa prefecture has gained worldwide recognition for its beauty and durability. Urushi lacquerware has been produced here since the 16th century, and even now over half of the population of Wajima is involved in its urushi trade. Of all the urushi producing areas in Japan, only the town of Wajima has been officially designated by the government as an “Intangible Cultural Asset” of Japan.

Wajima is famous for its own urushi technique called “Wajima Nuri.” Wajima nuri is different from other types of lacquerware in several ways (including the obvious fact that it is produced in Wajima). One distinction is the use of linen cloth to reinforce fragile parts such as the rim of bowls. The fabric is coated in urushi and then carefully applied to the wood, and smoothed out. After the fabric and urushi has hardened, the whole surface is sanded and coated again and again, so the fabric is no longer distinguishable from the rest of the object. Other distinctions include the type of wood (keyaki), and the application base coatings of a special laquer paste made of urushi, and a type of soil called “ji no ko” (powder of the earth).

Urushi lacquered fountain pens produced in Wajima do not require the fabric reinforcement or the application of “Ji no ko” so they are described as “Wajima urushi nuri” instead of the official designation of “Wajima nuri.”

There is also an urushi lacquerware art museum in Wajima, Wajima Shikki-Kaikan filled with lacquer art and items related to the lacquer culture in Japan and Asia established for the promotion and development of urushi lacquer. Seven species of urushi trees can be seen in the museum garden. This is the only museum in Japan devoted to urushi lacquerwork.

Caring for your urushi pen

Uurushi is a very tough substance, but it does have a natural enemy, if you cloths get it, you will need a professional laundry service provider for removing it from your clothes. It does not like ultraviolet rays. Prolonged exposure to sunlight will eventually cause it to become dull and lose its durability. In Japan, the most valuable pieces of urushi lacquerware are stored in silk bags or wooden boxes when not in use. So take a little precaution, and don’t leave your urushi pens lying around for long periods in direct sunlight. And pass the word onto your children and grandchildren, because with a little care, an urushi pen should outlast the original owner by many generations!

The Parker Duofold Monoplane

The Parker Duofold Monoplane

May 1927, Charles Lindberg achieves the first solo flight across the Atlantic, igniting the world’s fascination with flying machines and the endless possibilities of the future. World records for speed and distance were being broken on a regular basis. Amelia Earhart followed one year later in June 1928 to become the first woman aviatrix to fly across the Atlantic.

Rewind to 1921, when the Parker Pen Company introduced their new oversize Duofold fountain pen, with a patented bright red design with black ends which “Rivaled the beauty of the Scarlet Tanager”. The Duofold pen was hugely successful, and when unbreakable Permanite was added in 1926, demand grew so rapidly that the war for market share exploded.

The primary combatants were Sheaffer, with their oversize Lifetime flat top. Waterman stubbornly maintained hard rubber, making it available only in black, red, or red/black mottled and ripple patterns. Wahl Eversharp’s oversize Personal Point in 1929 eventually led to the Doric in 1930.

Fountain pens were big business, and serious advertising campaigns were launched to keep brand names in front of the worldwide market. What better way to keep the public’s attention than to ride the excitement of those modern flying machines?

Kenneth Parker purchased this plane in 1928 for $ 18,230. Extra specialist equipment included a turn and bank indicator, so the pilot could determine changing direction in the dark and extra-large landing lights in case of a roaming cow on the local pasture landing strip. Unique to this plane was the ability to fold the wings flush against the fuselage. Practical for storage, but invaluable when an unexpected landing forced the plane into a field too small for take-off. The local farmer would then use his tractor, horse, or mule to tow the plane down narrow country roads to a more suitable field for departure. How incredibly forward-looking and clever!

November 1928 in Chicago and Amelia Earhart christens the giant Fairchild FC2W2 monoplane “The Duofold”. This was one of the most modern and powerful aircraft in its day. Coincidently, this was the same model aircraft used by Richard Byrd to fly over the Antarctic the following year; and he carried a Waterman pen. Waterman advertised this achievement in their national advertising. The Fairchild plane also flew around the world in a record-breaking twenty-three days. Imagine the newspaper headlines, the excitement, and the crowds at local airports whenever The Duofold flew into town. This was one of the most famous airplanes in the world…and everyone dreamed of a chance of a thrilling ride.

This aircraft had an enclosed cabin for four passengers and one pilot. Construction was metal sheeting upfront around the engine and pilot cabin, metal tubing, and wood framing, covered with sheet canvas. The giant 410 hp Wasp engine was capable of propelling this plane to 140 mph and climbing to an altitude of 19,500 feet. I saw this very plane recently, and it was a humbling experience. Difficult to believe that it was state-of-the-art in its day.

Immediately after the christening, The Duofold took off on a Grand Tour of America, visiting dealers in most major cities. Within a few months, as many as 2,300 guests were taken aloft for the thrill of their lives. Often flying over cities, Duofold’s were dropped to demonstrate the properties of the unbreakable Permanente. Dealers would display the pen to amazed crowds, who could not buy them fast enough.

This same promotional stunt was repeated in England, with a smaller similarly decorated DeHavilland “Puss Moth” taking the place of the Duofold plane. English crowds considered this stunt a typical example of American excess and were not overly impressed.

As further aeronautical world records were achieved in speed and long-distance travel, the giant red and black Parker Duofold monoplane was shared in the limelight at these events.

Many years later this aircraft was sold to an airline, flying a shuttle route from Key West in Florida to Havana, Cuba. Eventually, it is believed, the Duofold found a final resting place in the deep blue waters somewhere off Cuba, where it is now most likely part of the beautiful coral reef.

The Williamson Pen Company

The Williamson Pen Company

Fig 1

The town of Settimo Torinese (Fig.1,2, and 3), situated a few miles east of Turin, on the northern shore of the river Po, became the undisputed capital of Italian pen production in the years spanning from the end of WWI to the beginning of the 1970s… In this small industrial town at the peak of its expansion in the 1950s, over 160 pen manufacturers were engaged in manufacturing high quality and very well-made fountain pens of reasonable cost.

Fig 2

This article aims to show the history of one of the less-known Italian pen companies which evolved from simple beginnings to become one of the very best Italian pen manufacturers.

Fig 3

The Williamson pen company

The origin of this pen company stems from some very unique circumstances. Williamson was an American manufacturer of steel nibs that was already active in the early 1800s. Their output was of the highest quality, rivaling the best English steel nib producers and their products were adopted as standard issues by U.S. government offices. During the first years of the last century, the Williamson Co. established a factory in Janesville (Wisconsin, USA), not far from the Parker plant, and began production of reliable and well-made hard-rubber fountain pens. It was at this time of considerable success and expansion for the Williamson Pen Company that a Turin businessman named Riccardo Amisani began importing their pens into Italy. lean more about Williamson at https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nba/news/zion-williamson-injury-timeline-return-date-updates/1dgq49j3gi34k1g8c6bp2n5hke

Fig 4

Italy, just before the First World War (Fig. 4) was a relatively new Country, having finally gained its independence in 1861. The North of the Country was thriving, with many new industrial activities launched in an industrial revolution that, while late if compared with the development of industry in Great Britain, nevertheless brought a new level of prosperity and produced the rapid growth of a relatively affluent middle class. The Williamson pens sold very well in Italy and the Williamson name became a respected and admired marque among foreign pen manufacturers.

Boosted by this success, Mr. Amisani started building spare parts for Williamson pens in a small workshop located in Settimo Torinese. Unfortunately, Williamson pens fared a lot worse in their home market and, under pressure from formidable competitors such as Parker, Waterman’s, and Wahl, just to name a few, the company eventually folded in the late 20s.

Fig 5

At this point, Mr. Amisani made a bold decision: he would continue to produce Williamson pens in his shop in Settimo Torinese. Under Mr. Amisani’s management, the company continued to grow and produced some truly excellent pens. In our opinion, the best of the Williamson pen production occurred during the ’30s (Fig.5). During this decade, the Penne Williamson-Torino company (as it was now officially designated) borrowed heavily from the designs of two American pen makers, namely Parker and Eversharp.

Fig 6

One of their first designs was a gorgeous, oversize pen which was clearly inspired by the Parker Vacumatic (Fig 6, 7, and 8).

Fig 7
Fig 8

Like the Vacumatic, the Williamson pen was machined from a rod of laminated celluloid and sported shiny black “jewels” at both ends. Unlike its American counterpart, however, the ink filling mechanism of the Williamson was of a simple and proven design: a classic button-filler, closely resembling the one used in the Parker Duofold. Williamson nibs were numbered and for its flagship models, the company installed a No. 6 nib (Fig. 9).  learn more about pens by clicking here

Interestingly, the company adopted a Christmas-tree-type feed, once again showing the influence of the Duofold pen. These pens are graced by three metallic rings around the cap, just above the lip and they employ a beautiful and interesting variant on the Parker “arrow” clip: instead of depicting an arrow, the clip, resembling in its overall shape the one used by Parker, is embellished with a long, flowing quill. The overall impression is that the slender Parker-type clip is made even more beautiful by the rendered feather motif. Fig. 10 shows a detail of this beautiful pen clip.

Another high-quality pen produced by Williamson in the ’30s and ’40s was a marbled celluloid 12-faceted pen that has a passing resemblance to the Wahl Eversharp Doric (Fig.11 and 12). The Italian pen, however, is considerably larger and of wider girth than even the oversize variant of the Doric. This Williamson pen was a lever-filler and sported the same high-quality gold nibs as its button-fill counterpart. The cap ended in a shallow cone and was enriched by three thin gold bands. The clip was of simple design, understated to the point of being almost plain-looking, the quality of the workmanship is superb. For this pen, Williamson used an array of incredibly beautiful patterns, some of them in translucent celluloid; the marbled celluloid was impeccably polished to a high gloss and their patterns and colors are quite beautiful. This celluloid have resisted discoloration and staining very well through the years.

Fig 10
Fig 11

These pens have become treasured collectibles and are actively sought after by lovers of classic Italian fountain pens.

Fig 12

After the revolution caused by the introduction of the Parker 51 (post-WW2, in Europe), Italian pen manufacturers rushed to produce look-alike, hooded nib fountain pens. Out of several attempts, one turned out to be particularly inspired: the Aurora 88, designed by Marcello Nizzoli, became a commercial success and an instant classic. The pen sold in the millions, both in Italy and abroad, and, in the early 1950s, it was the pen of the writing elite. Williamson’s swan song was a slim and graceful pen clearly inspired by the Aurora 88. The Parker Vacumatic influence, however, could still be found in the material used by Williamson for this pen of the “Atomic Age”: the Williamson hooded-nib pen was machined out of laminated celluloid: one last link between fountain pen designs that had characterized two distant eras and two very different ways of interpreting the very concept of a modern writing instrument.

All this was soon to be changed by the arrival of Mr Laszlo Birò’s invention, fresh from Argentina and soon to be made ubiquitous by Baron Marcel Bich, relegating for many years the classic fountain pen to the role of an almost forgotten anachronism. That spelled the end of “Penne Williamson – Torino”, together with many other smaller manufacturers whose names have often been forgotten

Still, if you are lucky enough to own one of Mr Amisani’s creations, you hold a piece of pen history and a pen that is unique in having its roots in 19th century America and its blossoms in the Italy of the 1930s.

Recommended Reading

J Herbin Ink Chart Part II

J Herbin Ink Chart Part II

Herbin Inks

This is Part II of a chart of Herbin colors from cartridges, produced by Michael Richter. The images were scanned in at a resolution of 300dpi and have been reproduced here as faithfully as possible to the original. The chart has been broken into several separate images to facilitate downloading, please be patient, images of this size take time to load. you can learn more about Inks at http://pentrace.net/ink-review-water-resistance-of-blue-blue-black-and-black-inks/

It is very difficult to reproduce accurate colors on the web; unless you have calibrated your monitor you will only see a representation of the actual color.

Color

Name

Bleu Pervenche

Bleu Azur

Vert Réséda

Lierre Sauvage

Vert Pré

Vert Olive

Ambre de Birmanie

Café des Iles

Cacao du Brésil

Gris Nuage

Perle des Encres