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.

2017 Northwest Pen Round-Up Recap

I spent a lovely Saturday at the Northwest Pen Round-Up in Portland, Oregon, immersed in all things pens and ink. This was my first pen show ever, and though it was small in size, it was big in camaraderie and kindness.

Saturday’s weather was perfect — the kind of day that makes you forget about all the rain we get in Oregon — and I decided to ride my motorbike to the show. It usually takes close to two hours for me to travel to Portland from my home, but I arrived earlier than expected. Perhaps excitement guided my hand on the throttle.

The show was held in a back room at the Lucky Lab Brewing Company on Quimby Street. It’s an excellent space for a gathering like this. I managed to snap a photo before the vendors had finished setting up their displays.

I’ve read Richard Binder’s guide to attending your first pen show, so I arrived with a plan and a cash budget.

After saying hello to some folks I met at the Portland gathering in May, I picked one end of the room and started perusing each vendor’s wares. The first table happened to be Sam and Frank from Pendemonium, who had driven all the way to Portland from Arizona.

As I browsed the tables, I noted the pens I was interested in by asking the vendor for their business card and writing down the pen and price on the reverse side. I ended up with a neat stack of cards after visiting every table, but with a strict budget, I’d have to make some decisions about which pens I really wanted.

So I grabbed a slice of pizza and a salad and a beer and thought about it for a while.

Then I went back into the show room and started buying.

I didn’t take very many photos of the show because it was crowded, and I try to avoid posting photos of people without their permission. But I did take a photo of these cool pen blanks made of Alumilite resin embedded with pine cones.

The finished pens look pretty darn unique, though far out of my price range.

I also met the CEO of Regal Pens, a Portland-based company that sells Taiwanese-made entry level fountain pens. I picked up one of their pens and have a lot more to say about it, so look for that post in the future.

With so many interesting goodies for sale, it was incredibly difficult to stick to my budget, but I did. Here’s a photo of the haul, which totaled up to $219.

  • 6 vintage Sheaffer pens in need of restoration
  • a Sailor Fude DE Mannen
  • a Regal pen and converter
  • a 28-pen folio case, designed by two gentlemen here in Portland but unfortunately no longer for sale
  • a bottle of Delta Capri Blue Grotto ink
  • half a bottle of Private Reserve Orange Crush ink
  • 2 Montblanc ink cartridges, unknown brown
  • a Visconti ink cartridge holder
  • 10 replacement ink sacs for lever-filler pens

With all these Sheaffers in my restoration project queue, I’m going to be busy for a while!

Nevertheless, the three items I’m most fond of were given to me as gifts: a beautiful brown Sheaffer Balance with a military clip, a bore light (used to illuminate the inside of pen barrels), and an enormous bottle of vintage Sheaffer Skrip Blue-Black ink. The 32oz bottle is nearly full, and I love, love, love the ink. Huge thank yous to Jeff, Jim, and David for being so generous to this pen newbie.

I don’t think I’ve encountered a community of people as kind and welcoming as the ones I’ve met through fountain pens. While it was nice to see and buy stuff at the show, the most fun I had was talking to people. (And I’m a major-league introvert so that’s saying a lot!) The hours flew by, and suddenly it was time for the show to end. I said my farewells, loaded up my bike with all my goodies, and took the long way home.

If you ever get an opportunity to go to a pen show, you should. Maybe someday I’ll be able to attend one of the big shows, but it’s awesome having this one in my backyard.

Maybe the Jinhao 992 Ain’t All It’s Cracked up to Be

I was ready to sing the praises of my latest ridiculously-cheap pen acquisition, the Jinhao 992 (aka the 922, aka the Spiral, aka the drunken sailor), when I glanced at my pen and spotted a curious glint at the end of the barrel…

Those would be cracks. I’ve kept this pen on my desk for the week I’ve had it, and it’s never been dropped or mishandled while in my possession. Though I can’t say for certain the cracks were there when the pen arrived, I can count three cracks today when there were only two yesterday. That’s not good.

According to this thread on FPN, I’m not the only one seeing cracking issues with their 992s, including some reports of catastrophic failures that involved caps and barrels snapping in half. This is some early-TWSBI-level crackery.

So I feel confident in saying that the Jinhao 992 is a pen you should avoid.

It’s a damn shame, since the pen is an otherwise wonderful writer with a nice, smooth nib. I guess paying $1.50 for a fountain pen (including shipping! including a converter!) really is too good to be true.

Sheaffer Balance Petite

I acquired this Sheaffer Balance Petite several weeks ago. The combination of the humpbacked ball clip and the marine green celluloid dates this pen to 1930.

This pen was the result of a happy accident of bad eBay auction photos and poor reading comprehension on my part. Somehow I neglected the part of the listing where it said that the pen measured 4 1/16″ long. Or maybe I did see that part, but the fact that a 4-inch-long pen is really, really tiny escaped my comprehension. Anyway, the auction didn’t have many nibbles so I threw some dollars at it and won it for $28.

But imagine my surprise when I opened the package and found this little cutie!

I mean, just look at it.

Adorable! (From L to R: Lamy Vista, Sheaffer Balance Sovereign, Sheaffer Balance Petite, Pilot Elite, Pilot Metropolitan)

It makes my Pilot Elite pocket pen look big and that’s saying something.

The Lifetime nib is almost comically oversized compared to the rest of the pen. The visible part of it measures 3/4″ long.

The feed is of a style I’ve never seen before. It’s completely smooth and gives the pen an Art Deco look that’s pretty cool.

Overall, the pen is in good shape. It has very little wear, the trim is perfect, and the sac has been replaced recently. There’s some discoloration of the celluloid, but that’s very common in pens of this era. Thankfully, the discoloration doesn’t look as bad in the marine green pattern as it does in the lighter shaded jade celluloid. The imprint is clear and has an old-school patent number, another point for dating this pen to 1930.

For the curious, the patent covers the design of the rounded-end Sheaffer Balance.

The nib on this pen puts down the finest line of any pen I own. I’d call it an extra fine. It’s even finer than my Pilot Metro F.

In practical use, this elderly pen is quite cantankerous. It’s quick to leak ink if it’s not capped with the nib pointed up, or if it’s flicked or jostled too much. The extra fine point of the nib doesn’t lend itself to smooth writing, and the pen itself is so small that it’s not suitable for lengthy writing sessions even in my hands. Still, it’s an interesting pen with unique features that I’m happy to have in my collection.