iPenBox Subscription Boxes Surprise With Stationery Delights

I found myself in a stationery rut earlier this year. There are so many products available, with more announced daily, and being faced with an overwhelming number of choices left me paralyzed with indecision about what to try next. I kept looking at the same familiar pens, papers, and inks — great when your needs are specific and routine, but not so great when you’re a blogger. I needed to branch out.

Then I stumbled across the iPenBox subscription box.

iPenstore offers the iPenBox subscription box for $30 a month, including shipping. The subscription is available for international folks, but at a price of $40 per month. As a subscriber, you receive a small box in the mail every month filled with 5-10 stationery items. These could be fountain pens, pencils, paper, stickers, office and desk supplies. If it’s small, inexpensive, and of interest to stationery lovers, it could show up an iPenBox.

In other words, it sounds perfect for me so I had to give it a try. I’ve received the July and August boxes, and here are my first impressions, as well as how I feel about the service as a whole.

I subscribed in June and received my first shipment the second week of July. Boxes typically arrive the first or second week of the month.

It’s hard not to get excited when this shows up in your mailbox:

The packaging was simple, but secure.

Inside was a whole host of goodies! Apparently each month’s box has a theme, and this one was “Color Pop.”

I’m going to highlight a few items now, but I’m also going to skip a few of the pens and notebooks that deserve in-depth reviews. Look for them in the future. There’s a full listing of all the items in each box at the end of this post.

There were a couple of Pilot Varsity pens with medium nibs, and this cute (in size) but retina-searing mini notebook made by MIQUELRIUS.

I was pleasantly surprised by the paper’s performance with fountain pens.

A little bit of bleedthrough but not terrible.

Also in the box was a pair of tiny novelty erasers. These aren’t very practical so I doubt I’ll end up using them.

There was a sample of Monteverde Purple Reign. This is not a color I would have sought out on my own, but the ink performs well. I’ve only tried a few Monteverde inks, but have been impressed with them so far.

The “main” items in the box were a Sheaffer VFM ballpoint pen and a Jinhao 992.

I’m not a fan of ballpoints so while the pen is nice, it’s not really my thing.

The Jinhao 992 is a wonderful pen that’s felled by an Achilles heel of brittle, crack-prone plastic. If you like to play with fire or ticking time bombs, the 992 is the pen for you.

Rounding out the July box was a Pentel RSVP pen in a GO ‘MURICA! colorway, a small pack of flag-style sticky notes, a sample of Monteverde pen flush, and a lolipop treat. There was also a postcard from Michigan (cool) and a coupon for 10% off at iPenstore.

Overall, I was pleased with the July box. There were a couple pens I didn’t care for due to personal preferences, but most of the items are things I can (and will) use. The items fit the theme, and the total cost of the contents of the box came out ahead of the $30 fee. (There’s a full cost breakdown at the end of this post.)

Next up is the August box, which arrived this week.

ooooh, mysterious packaging… What could this month’s theme be?

Yes, this month’s theme is “Eclipse,” which is appropriate given that the US is experiencing Total Solar Eclipse mania leading up to the big event on August 21st. Anyway, there weren’t as many items in this box, but they made up for lack of numbers with some “ooohhh!” factor.

The first thing I examined was the Schneider Voyage fountain pen (the white pen at the top of the photo above.) The Voyage is a simple plastic pen that takes cartridges. I’ve wanted to try a Schneider pen for a long time so I was happy to see one here.

There was also a Rosetta Notes pocket notebook, a sheet of moon phase stickers from Stickerology, another 10% off coupon, and a Starburst treat. Very cool.

The “main” item in the box was a Retro 51 Tornado “Apollo” rollerball pen. These Tornado pens are a constant presence in the stationery blogosphere, so I’m eager to see if they live up to the hype. Maybe it’ll convert me into a rollerball believer.

There was also a sample of Diamine Eclipse ink, which is an interesting purple-black. Again, another color I wouldn’t have picked out on my own but am glad to have in my collection.

I really enjoyed this month’s box. The theme was perfect and the items were an A+ fit.

So. Two boxes in, the biggest question is “Is the iPenBox subscription box worth the price?” Let’s take a look.

I had to estimate prices for certain items so these totals aren’t exact, but they’re close enough to see that the value of the contents in each box has exceeded the $30 subscription price. And that’s not even factoring in the cost of shipping that you’d have to pay if you bought the items on your own.

Another thing I found helpful is that iPenBox lists the contents of every box they’ve shipped on their website. If you’re thinking about subscribing, peruse some of the past boxes to see if the items catch your fancy. Past items are of course no guarantee of what you’ll get in the future, but it gives you an idea of what you’re signing up for.

With these things in mind, is the iPenBox worth it? I say yes.

I plan to continue my subscription. The boxes are a fun surprise every month, with well-curated contents. Plus, they’re a good value for the money. If you’re looking for something to push you out of your stationery comfort zone, give the iPenBox a try.

I purchased this iPenBox subscription with my own funds. My opinions on this blog are always my own. Please see my review ethics statement for more details.

Snap Judgments: Nock Co Lookout Pen Holster

Note cards weren’t the only item in the shipment I received from Nock Co last month — I ordered a Lookout Pen Holster as well. Now that the Lookout and I have had a few weeks to get acquainted, it’s time for a review.

The Nock Co Lookout is a pen case with slots for three pens. It’s made of 1000 denier nylon with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating. That’s a lot of fancy words for thick nylon fabric that’s water resistant, but the Lookout’s first impression is that of durability. The fabric looks and feels tough, and the case feels solid and well made. It reminds me of other high quality backpacking and motorcycling gear I’ve collected over the years.

I did a quick test of the DWR coating by dropping some water onto my Lookout while it was loaded with my precious pens. The things I do for science blogging!

I chose a Lookout with the Raven/Aqua colorway, and it has a black exterior and aqua blue lining. An odd thing I noticed is that the contrasting thread stitched across the exterior is a different shade of blue than the aqua colored interior. This clash of colors bothers my OCD tendencies and I wonder if it was intentional or not.

Such confusion could be avoided if the Nock Co website had better quality pictures of each of the available colorways. As it stands now, the photos on the shop page aren’t detailed enough, and they don’t show all the available color combinations. (Seriously, what colors are “Peacock/Coal”? Is Peacock blue? Coal isn’t black because Raven is black, so is it grey? Curious shoppers want to know.)

The Lookout is a fold-over style pen case that’s secured by folding a flap of fabric over the tops of the pens stored within, then tucking the end of the flap under a strap. The interior lining is lightly padded, with three slots sewn into it to separate individual pens. The slots seem large enough to hold most pens. My largest pen is a Lamy Vista, and it fits in each slot with plenty of room to spare. I don’t own any gargantuan pens like the Montblanc 149 or Sailor King of Pen, so I can’t comment if they’ll fit in a Lookout.

Overall, the Lookout is slightly longer than an A6 Hobonichi Techo and about 1cm more narrow.

I’m a tough customer when it comes to sewn products, a side-effect of my other addiction, motorcycling, where a poorly sewn seam on a jacket or pair of pants can mean the difference between getting road rash scrubbed out at a hospital or walking away from an accident without a scratch. I looked long and hard at the sewing on my Lookout, and I’m mostly satisfied. The stitching is excellent overall, but there’s an edge on the flap where the lining was cut too narrow. This is a cosmetic issue that doesn’t affect the protective properties of the case, but it’s worth noting.

In the short time I’ve had my Lookout, it’s become part of my everyday carry payload. I use an ancient Timbuk2 messenger bag to hold my stuff when I go to work every day, and the Lookout and my Hobonichi Techo are a perfect fit in one of its interior organizer pockets. Every morning, I pick out the pens I want to carry for the day and load them into my Lookout, and I’ve found that three pens is plenty for my purposes.

At $25 plus shipping, the Lookout is on the expensive side for a fabric pen case, but it’s not nearly as much as some leather cases I’ve seen. Fabric versus leather is a matter of personal preference, and the Lookout’s fabric is top notch. In addition, Nock Co has a good reputation in the fountain pen community, and its products are made in the USA. I don’t skimp on protective riding gear for motorcycling and I won’t skimp on protection for my pens. This is one area where quality is worth paying extra.

Despite some minor flaws, my Lookout has become an indispensable part of my EDC kit. My pens ride comfortably within its interior and I can carry them with me knowing that they’ll be safe and protected from the knocks and bumps of my daily commute. If you only need to carry a few pens at a time, take a look at the Lookout pen holster. I’m very happy with mine.

I purchased this Nock Co Lookout with my own funds. My opinions on this blog are always my own. Please see my review ethics statement for more details.

Snap Judgments: Nock Co DotDash Note Cards

Sometimes, I like to dash off a quick note that doesn’t require a full sized greeting card or a sheet of paper. Often, I like to use a fountain pen when dashing said note. Mostly, I just want some fountain pen friendly index cards.

Enter the Nock Co DotDash Note Card.

After reading positive review after positive review on pen blogs far and wide, I summoned a few packs of the “Standard” and “Petite” cards to give them a try. Now I’m going to share my findings with you.

The Standard cards are the typical 3x5in index card size while the Petite cards are 2×3.5in business card size.

I like the size of the Petite cards more than I thought I would. They’re rather cute, and they’re perfect for short TO-DO and shopping lists.

Both varieties of cards are printed on both sides with Nock Co’s unique “DotDash” ruling pattern: an alternating series of dots and lines that form a 4.25mm grid. The Standard cards are available with the ruling printed in different colors (the ones I have are Dusty Blue) while the Petite cards are only available in Purple. Regardless of color, the grid lines are subdued and don’t overwhelm the writing being put on the card.

The paper is bright white 80lb cover stock. It’s smoother and heavier than cheap no-name index cards. That’s a good thing because these Nock Co cards cost quite a few pretty pennies.

According to Nock Co, “[T]hese note cards can handle almost any pen and ink you throw at it. Yes, even fountain pens.”

Let’s put that to the test.

I took a bunch of pens and wrote on a Nock Co card.

writing sample on Nock Co note card (original size)

Then I took the same pens and wrote on a cheap no-name index card.

writing sample on cheap no-name index card (original size)

Look closer.

Nock Co note card (original size)
cheap no-name index card (original size)

Look even closer.

Nock Co note card (original size)
cheap no-name index card (original size)

Writing on a cheap index card with a fountain pen is a tragic experience. You know it. I know it. The ink feathers like crazy. Nibs seem to catch. It’s enough to make the Lamy Vista throw up its tines and say, “Mein Gott!”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t much thrilled when using my fountain pens on the Nock Co cards either. While the nibs wrote smoothly, I saw a lot more feathering than I expected, and I just didn’t like the “feel” of my pens as I wrote on the cards.

Conventional wisdom holds that finer nibs lead to better results on uncooperative paper, but most of my pens are the Japanese kind of fine, and if I’m seeing feathering with those, then I wonder just how much fountain pen handling these Nock Co cards are really up for. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Tomoe River and Traveler’s Notebook paper and my standards are impossibly high.

That being said, there was no show-through or bleed-through after my fountain pen test. And my trusty Pilot G2 and Uni-ball Signo gel pens write beautifully on these note cards. I also really dig the DotDash ruling — the 4.25mm grid is perfect for my writing style.

Here’s how the Nock Co Standard cards price out against some other brands of index cards.

The Nock Co cards cost nearly twice as much per card as the next most expensive brand, Exacompta. For that premium, you’ll get decent paper that’s mostly fountain pen friendly, a really nice set of grid markings, and a product that’s made in the USA. Whether that’s worth it will be up to you to decide.

Obviously, I did not conduct an exhaustive test of every pen/nib/ink/Nock card combination on Earth, but with the fountain pens and inks I use most often, the Nock Co cards fall short of my lofty standards.

These note cards were purchased with my own funds. My opinions on this blog are always my own. Please see my review ethics statement for more details.

Snap Judgments: Custom Nib Grinds from FPNibs.com

I’ve had my eye on custom-ground nibs for a while now, but the high price tag always put me off. (I live in the Pacific Northwest, USA, and there isn’t a pen show large enough nearby to attract any well-renowned nibmeisters. Nor is flying to a show an option due to my always-busy summer schedule.)

Then I heard about FPNibs.com, which is a custom nib grinding service based in Spain. You can send in your pen and have its nib ground and shipped back to you, or you can purchase a separate nib and have it ground to your liking before shipping. I was interested in the latter, and saw that they have a wide variety of TWSBI nibs and section units for sale. Since I was already in the market for a TWSBI pen, it seemed the perfect opportunity to play with different nib grinds as well.

Fortune soon smiled upon me, and I managed to score a practically brand new TWSBI Diamond Mini Classic on FPN at an excellent price.

Once I had a suitable pen, I decided to buy two complete nib/section units: one with a medium nib and cursive italic1 grind, and the other with a fine nib and architect2 grind. The ordering process was straightforward, but if you want an architect grind, be aware that you’ll need to know your writing angle before you order. (To this end, FPNibs.com has helpfully provided an easy-to-follow guide to measure your writing angle.)

And the prices? Amazing. The architect nib was $30-ish and the cursive italic nib was $29-ish. (I say “-ish” because the prices fluctuate slightly every day due to the vagaries of the currency exchange market.) Keep in mind these prices are for the nib, the section unit, and the custom grind itself! The shipping cost was a very reasonable $7.50 to the US, without tracking.

I placed my order on May 30th, received notice that the nibs had shipped on May 31st, and received them on June 12th.

The TWSBI nib/section units are protected by some clever packaging. The red knobs are threaded for the nib units to screw into, and if flipped over, the knobs can be used to cap the barrel of the pen. (For example, if you weren’t planning to use the pen for a while and wanted to preserve the ink in the barrel.)

Here’s a closer look at the nib unit with the 45° architect grind.

Nicely done! And here’s a writing sample:

Architect nib grinds are the hot flavor of the moment, but I can certainly see what all the fuss is about. FPNibs.com did a great job on this grind, and the nib is smooth and easier to write with than I expected. A 45° angle ended up being correct for my grip (whew, glad I didn’t screw that measurement up!), and I love the bit of flair it adds to my otherwise unremarkable handwriting.

Here’s the cursive italic nib unit.

Again, nicely done.

The late Susan Wirth was right — the cursive italic is a damn good grind, and the one put on this nib by FPNibs.com is a pleasure to write with. It’s forgiving, but still has that classic italic line variation.

I’ve only had these nibs a day, but I’m thrilled with them so far. It’s going to be tough to pick between the two! Thankfully, the TWSBI Diamond Mini Classic is the perfect pen for playing with different nibs, as the section units are super simple to change, and can be done without dumping any ink out of the pen.

If you’d like to try some grinds that aren’t the usual generic round, take a look at FPNibs.com. With a next-day turnaround time, grinds that write wonderfully, and prices that can’t be beat, they’ve earned my highest recommendation.

These nibs were purchased with my own funds. My opinions on this blog are always my own. Please see my review ethics statement for more details.

1 Italic nib grinds, explained.

2 The architect nib grind, explained.

Swabbing Inks With the Col-o-ring Ink Testing Book

Now that my ink samples have started multiplying like bunnies, I needed a better way to record them than writing them down in a notebook. The Col-o-ring Ink Testing Book‘s been all over the pen blogosphere for the past few months, so I decided to buy one and see if it lives up to the hype.

I won’t rehash all the details because I’m pretty sure every pen blogger on earth has already posted about these things. But in a nutshell, the Col-o-ring Ink Testing Book is a set of 100 small sheets of 160gsm, ink-friendly paper held together by a binder ring.

When it comes to making ink swabs, there are no rules. Everyone has their own method, and it takes some experimentation to figure out what works. After some false starts, here’s what I came up with.

I used a syringe and an X-ACTO knife blade to make the swabs, and a Q-tip to color the bottom edge. Then I used whatever pen I happened to have filled with that color to write in the brand and name of the ink.

To make a swab, I drew a few drops of ink into the syringe, then dropped three drops on the left side of the Col-o-ring sheet. Then I took the X-ACTO blade and scraped it across the sheet, through the puddle of ink. (Similar to using a palette knife to apply paint.)

Next, I dropped one drop of ink below the first and scraped that across with the blade.

The syringe/X-ACTO method really shows off any shading and sheening properties of the inks.

For my first attempts, I used a Q-tip to make the swabs and the results were flat and uninteresting.

Q-tip swab (left) vs X-ACTO blade method (right)
X-ACTO blade method (left) vs Q-tip swab (right)

Then I tried using a paintbrush, but it also produced flat looking swabs. Even worse, it took forever to clean the brush well enough between swabs to prevent ink cross-contamination. The syringe and X-ACTO blade take seconds to clean up in comparison, and the results speak for themselves.

I still need to settle on one pen to use for ink testing. It might end up being a dip pen, or maybe just an easy to clean fountain pen with a broad nib. I left some room on each sheet to draw some figures when I decide what I’m going to use.

Overall, I’m pleased with the Col-o-ring Ink Testing Book. The paper is high-quality, the chipboard covers are letterpressed and look fantastic, and the name is so clever it makes me smile. The binder ring means you can easily organize, and re-organize, your ink swabs to your heart’s content. I wish the paper were smoother (what can I say, I’m a Tomoe River fan) and the $10+shipping price tag feels expensive (but I doubt I could make one of these on my own any cheaper).

If you’re looking for a way to keep track of the inks you’ve tested, the Col-o-ring Ink Testing Book is well worth your consideration.

Three Good Reviews of the Col-o-ring Ink Testing Book: