A Few Thoughts on Pendom in Bulgaria

Short post this week as I spent the weekend tasting some lovely Pinot Noir and riding my motorbike to the coast to GET MY CRAB ON.

(Note that I didn’t taste any wine while riding my motorbike. I like to keep those vices separate.)

A few folks have asked about the state of pendom in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, I haven’t found much in the way of obvious fountain pen culture. Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and the idea of paying more than a couple of leva for a pen will get you some side-eye from most folks there. This is a country where pensioners are scraping by on less than $200 USD a month.

Fountain pens are a luxury. We’d all do well to remember that.

That said, there are a few online retailers of fountain pens in Bulgaria. We had an amusing experience ordering from one of these shops. The way it works is you place your order online, then a person from the shop calls you to confirm, then they send a person out to deliver the item to you and you pay them on delivery. The shop also expressed some surprise when I requested an extra-fine nib, as “most people don’t know that’s an option.”

I did encounter several little stationery shops in Sofia that carried the usual assortment of Chinese biro knockoffs and office supplies. And, nestled among the stalls in the wonderful open-air book market in Slaveikov Square, I chanced upon an antiques vendor who had an interesting fountain pen… More on that later, as it deserves its own post.

We don’t often see Soviet or Communist-era pens here in the US, but I know they’re out there, and that’s what I plan to focus my efforts on the next time I visit the country.

These Pens Were Made for Flyin’

I’m going to do something different with this post because the three trans-continental trips I’ve taken while carrying various fountain pens do not make me a subject matter expert in this area. Instead, I was hoping to hear from you, the jet-setting traveler.

Let’s discuss airplane-friendly fountain pens. I’ve had excellent experiences flying with these two:

On the left, a TWSBI Vac Mini and on the right, a Wing Sung 698.

The Wing Sung 698 is a piston-filler with a locking cap that keeps the piston from moving when you don’t want it to. Because it’s a piston-filler, it’s easy to fill extra-super-duper full, which keeps ink from leaking out as the pen travels from the ground to a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet. I’ve noticed a bit of ink creep on the nib during flight, but no ink drops in the cap or anywhere else.

The TWSBI Vac Mini is a vacuum-filler with a valve that can be closed to seal the ink chamber in the barrel. The valve works. The pen performs as well in the air as it does on the ground, and the ink stays put. With a Vac Mini, you don’t have to worry about refilling the pen before a flight. It’s the most convenient pen I’ve found.

I’ve taken cartridge pens on flights, but I ended up with ink in the caps when they weren’t completely clean before takeoff. Even being careful about keeping the pen upright didn’t help when faced with the force of expanding air. I still take cartridge pens with me on trips, but I clean them before I leave and only ink them when I arrive at my destination.

And my precious vintage pens? Just, no.

What are your experiences flying with fountain pens? Any tips to share? Better yet, any stories of disaster?


I’m Leaving Home For 10 Weeks and Bringing These Pens with Me

By the time this post goes live, I’ll be on a plane to Bulgaria, where I’ll spend the next 10 weeks living out of a carry-on bag. I’ll also be 9,771 kilometers away from my stationery stash, and it’s been quite the puzzle figuring out what goodies to bring with me.

I’ve always packed lightly, be it for a backpacking trip, motorbike adventure, or jaunt across the Atlantic. The whole idea of bringing a bunch of notebooks and pens clashes with my minimalist packing tendencies. As I only started bringing paper back into my life within the last couple of years, finding balance here is something I’m still working out.

First, I must apologize for reusing the following photo from last week’s post. It’s been crazy busy at Penster HQ as I’ve scrambled to prepare for my trip, and I didn’t get a chance to gather everything for a nice photo shoot.

For paper, I’m taking the Hobonichi trio I wrote about last week. This is a case where Hobonichi’s dedication to making compact notebooks really shines. Space is at a premium in my carry-on bag, and these three cram a lot of pages into some wee little books.

I was really torn about taking my Traveler’s Notebook, and ultimately decided against it. Spending 10 weeks in Europe sounds like the perfect chance to get my TN on, but due to certain particulars about this trip, I won’t have the time to do much travel journaling. I think I can get by with my Techo alone. But who knows — this might come down to a game-time decision. [Update: I changed my mind because of course I did. My TN is tucked into the last remaining space in my bag.]

When I started thinking about what to pack, I set a limit of six pens. Even six feels like too many, but I have some reviews in progress where I need to give the pens more of a workout before I can pass judgment upon them. Bringing the pens along will kill a few birds with one stone.

Here are the fountain pens I’m taking:

  • Pilot Metropolitan (F nib)
  • Lamy Vista (EF nib)
  • Namiki Vanishing Point (M nib)
  • Wing Sung 698 (F nib)
  • TWSBI Vac Mini (F nib)

The Metro, Vista, and VP are workhorse pens that I use on the regular. They’re traveling empty and un-inked. The Wing Sung 698 and TWSBI are newer acquisitions that hold gallons of ink. They’re on the flight with me fully inked because I like to live dangerously. (I also want to test the TWSBI’s ink shutoff valve.)

Mathematically-inclined readers might have noted that I’ve only written about five pens. That’s because the sixth pen I’m taking is not a fountain pen.

This sleek beauty is my everyday pen at work. It’s a vintage Pilot 2+1 multipen and I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I don’t know much about it — not even what its real name is. I’ve been told that it’s around 40 years old. Despite its age, it takes most D1 refills.

Speaking of refills, I’ve packed a few spare D1s. For fountain pen ink, I have a nearly-full bottle of Waterman Inspired Blue, a few Lamy cartridges, a pack of Pilot Blue-Black cartridges, and a small 8ml bottle of Iroshizuku Yu-yake. That should be plenty.

If I run out of anything, I’ll just buy more. I’ll be scoping out the stationery scene regardless. If it’s anything like the bookstore scene in Sofia, I’ll be in great shape. If not, there’s always the Pilot G2 I stash in my laptop bag as a spare. And the other G2 I keep in my carry-on. And the other G2 I clip inside the top of my sock, like a shiv.

Always be prepared, I say. See you on the other side of the pond.

When Your Grail Pen Is F**king Expensive

I’ve had three grail pens on my list since I began using fountain pens. None of them are cheap, but isn’t that the definition of a grail pen, that pen that moves you in inscrutable ways, that pen that turns want into need, that pen that plays hard to get, that requires some sacrifice, or at least a stretch of some sort, be it patience or money?

Grail pens are a conundrum to me in a way that might not be obvious despite my chosen nom de plume. While I’m fortunate to have the means to buy any of the pens on my grail list whenever I please, what stops me from doing so is the guilt, the “How can a sane person possibly spend that much on a pen?”

The first grail pen I bought was the Pilot Long Murex, and I went about it all the wrong ways. At the time, I was relatively new to fountain pens, and I knew next to nothing about buying them, much less buying a vintage one. My soul cried out for a Long Murex, so I hopped on eBay and bought the first one that looked good. The result was a beautiful pen to add to my collection, a pen that still makes me smile every time I look at it, but I always hear a little voice that whispers, “You coulda gotten a better deal.”

I often wonder where that little voice comes from. It’s not like I’m a stranger to expensive hobbies. (Seriously, if you want to burn a great deal of money, start riding motorbikes.) But I have far less guilt when I plunk down $360 for a set of new tires for my motorcycle than when I’ve paid half that for a pen.

Perhaps it’s because a fountain pen is a true luxury item. I won’t die for lacking a Murex, but I damn well might if I put cheap tires on my motorbike and the rubber disintegrates while I’m rounding a corner. A high-quality, armored touring jacket can cost nearly as much as a Montblanc 149, but when I walked away from a crash without a scratch it was worth every penny. My brain knows that there’s a difference, and that if I just wanted to put words on a piece of paper I could do so with a cheap Bic. Then again, it’s not as if I need a motorcycle or three to get around. Perhaps the little voice is trying to rationalize the irrational.

I went about things differently when I bought my second grail pen, a Namiki faceted Vanishing Point. Not a new Vanishing Point, and not a Pilot faceted Vanishing Point, but a mid-to-late 90s era Namiki Vanishing Point. This time, I did a lot of research. I studied classified ads on FPN and watched countless eBay auctions to get a feel for the market value of these very particular pens. And after a few months of waiting, when I saw an excellent specimen for a great price on eBay, I didn’t hesitate to Buy It Now.

Oddly enough, the little voice stays silent whenever I take out that pen.

The last pen on my grail list is the most expensive of all, because of course it is. It’s also the pen that I doubt I’ll be able to find much of a deal on, simply because people don’t seem to sell them very often. Yes, the Conid Bulkfiller is the holiest of grails, and at $450, I’m not sure what it’ll take for me to muster up the courage to buy one. In the meantime, I’ll drool over its gorgeous engineering, play with the ones that my pen friends bring to meetups, start saving my pennies, and hope that the little voice will leave me alone one last time.

You Should Build a Salad Spinner Centrifuge

I didn’t come up with this idea, but it’s so brilliant I wish I had. I learned about it from Ron Zorn’s thread on FPN.

The idea is this: You have a lot of fountain pens. And you’re smart, so you clean your pens regularly. You know how annoying it is to get the water out of your pens after they’ve been cleaned, especially when you’re cleaning a pen because you want to change inks. You want to use that new ink now, now, now instead of standing here, at your sink, shaking the daylights out of your pen to get those last stubborn drops of water out.

Enter the salad spinner centrifuge.

Basically, you take a cheap salad spinner — I found mine for $8 at a big box store — and you rig up a way to hold a pen inside it. In my case, I used an old aluminum tube from a cigar I purchased years ago. (Sorry KonMari, my packrat tendencies come in handy sometimes.)

First, I cut an access window near the bottom end of the tube and a slot at the top end. The access window lets me stuff a small wad of paper towel down into the end of the tube to cushion the nib and catch any water and ink that comes out. The slot at the other end is needed because longer pens won’t fit between the end of the tube and the edge of the basket. With a slot at the end, these pens have enough room to clear the edge and slip inside the tube.

Most salad spinners have a basket that rotates freely inside it. I took some zip ties and used them to attach the tube to the basket. The ties have to be snug so they don’t stick out too far and prevent the basket from spinning.

Then, I put tape over the sharp edges of the access window and used hot glue to secure the zip ties to the tube.

The end result is ugly, but it works.

After I clean a pen, I stuff a bit of paper towel down into the end of the tube via the access window, then slide the uncapped pen inside the tube.

Here’s a photo of a pen ready to go:

Then, I put the lid on and give the spinner pull string a tug or several.

The basket spins, the pen spins with it, and any water inside the pen is violently and thoroughly flung out of the feed and into the paper towel at the end of the tube. It takes seconds to remove all the water from a pen and it’s amazing. No more shaking. No more waiting.

If you have a lot of pens to take care of, you need one of these.