Two years ago, I figured out my favorite pen was no longer being produced in its current form. A quick scan of my local office supply stores revealed nothing. This fact, along with the total lack of auctions on eBay featuring my now discontinued pen showed me that a) I was screwed, and b) I’d become fond of an unremarkable pen.
I avoided a total pen breakdown for a few months simply by looking for this pen in my home and work environments, as I was sure I’d find remnants of the six boxes of pens that had mysteriously liberated themselves from my office over the past four years. In a week, I’d built a small stockpile of reclaimed, partially used pens, but it is a fundamental law of office supplies that a pen wants to be free. Despite my best efforts, my stockpile was slowly depleted.
The crisis arrived in the last month when a rush purchase at Office Depot resulted in a jar full of pens that demonstrated some of the worst writing utensil characteristics: cheap feel and erratic ink flow. Each time I picked this pen up I felt, “Everything I’m about to write is going to look like crap.”
It’s time for an educated change.
The Joy Vectors
Each time I pick up and use a pen, I want to feel a bit of joy. These joy vectors are:
- The way the pen sits in my hand. I should feel I have a firm grip.
- The way the pen applies ink to the paper. I like a thick, consistently black line on the paper. This is both a function of the ink and the construction of the tip.
- The fact that I know the pen is readily available. I want to be able to find the pen in a nearby office supply store. I don’t want to end up high, dry, and penless any time in the near future. Yes, I think about this each time I pick up a pen.
I also have existing baggage regarding pens.
First, my assumption is that the more moving parts in a pen, the less precision I have when the pen tip touches the paper. I have not deconstructed a retractable pen, but my gut tells me I lose energy among the pen casing, the retracting mechanism, and the tip. This is one reason that I am biased against pens that click. The other reason is… they click. Over the past few weeks of my pen evaluations, I’ve noticed that when most people pick up a retractable pen, they click it, roughly five times. Not joking.
Second, and related to the moving parts issue, I’m not a fan of the cushioned grip pens. The cushioned grip reminds me of third grade when Ms. Ockerman handed out these humongous, triangular, watermelon-scented grips for our pencils. They made me feel clumsy then and they make my pens feel squishy now. People. I have finger strength. Really.
Lastly, and most important, I only use gel-based pens. I don’t know when I made the transition, but I can tell you when I’m not using one because I immediately throw it away — I despise how non-gel-based ink plays on the paper. But I don’t know why. Turns out it’s the gel. Go figure. According to Wikipedia, “What distinguishes a gel pen from a ballpoint pen is the gel ink which consists of pigment suspended in a water-based gel.” They go on to describe, “… how gel inks resist common laboratory analysis.” I’ll translate both facts: if you’re using gel-based pens, you’re going to get deep, rich lines which can not be traced by covert agencies. Bonus!
Using the joy vectors as a structure, I returned to Office Depot and purchased six pens all in roughly the same price range. With each of these pens, I conducted three tests:
- The Glamour Test. How does it look? How does the pen feel in my hand, and, more importantly, can I spin it around my thumb?
- The Line Test. How does the ink flow? The basic straight line.
- The Writing Test. This test brings it all together. How does my writing look? Is the pen helping or hurting?
The Glamour Test
You can scroll to the bottom if you’d like to see the names of the six pens I ended up selecting, but you’ll have more fun waiting. The results of the Glamor Test were:
|#||Type||Size||Tip||Casing and Grip||Weight||Spin|
|1||Retractable||.7||Plastic||Comfortable — not too big — boring cushioned grip||Very light||Hard to spin|
|2||Retractable||.7||Metal||Cheap plastic casing — large and clumsy||Heavy||Very spinnable|
|3||Capped||.8||Metal||Cheap casing and grip||Weight is right||Spins well|
|4||Retractable||.37||Metal||Solid feel — shortest of the six which leads to odd balance||Weight is right||Shockingly, very spinnable|
|5||Capped||.5||Metal||Perfect feel even with the leathery grip||Weight is perfect||Serious spinnage|
|6||Capped||.5||Plastic||Wide feel, slick casing. Meh.||No issues here||I can spin this pen|
The Line Test
For our next test, I drew a straight line using a ruler. This brings up the sensitive issue of what paper to use. I’m going to avoid this entire debate and just use a Moleskine simply because if you’re going to have an argument about pens with anyone, chances are there’s a Moleskine nearby.
Photos of this size really don’t tell you much, so, for the next two tests, I recommend looking at the larger size. My methodology in this shot was simple: plant the pen on one end of the paper, grab the ruler, and then draw a straight line across the paper. You’ll notice an unexpected piece of data in that during the time I fumbled with ruler placement, you can see how the paper soaked in the ink. You’d think this was a function of the nib, or tip, size, but you can clearly see that #2 with a .7mm nib soaked in much quicker than the larger #3. Wonder what is going on there.
The line test shot doesn’t tell much unless you’re doing the lines yourself, but:
- The small nib size of .4mm (called “micro”) was intensely annoying. Even though this pen had the firmest feel of the retractables, gel ink being used for fine lines feels like heresy. This pen is eliminated.
- As much as possible, I tried to use the same amount of pressure drawing each line, but, as you can see, pens with the same nib size can draw with varying line thickness.
The Writing Test
All of this pen fretting leads to the final test: how does it write? How does it perform when the last thing you want to do is think about the pen rather than what you’re writing? Here’s how they look:
As with the line test, examining a much larger shot may prove more interesting. My observations and eliminations:
- Following the elimination of #4 for thin lines, I’m eliminating #3 for fat lines, which are also a function of the huge casing.
- While the quality of lines among #1, #2, #5, and #6 is comparable, I’m eliminating #2 and #6 because of the girth of the pen. The casing is huge and feels awkward in my hand, which results in strange penmanship.
- Comparing the last two pens, #1 and # 5, it’s clear that #5 is the winner, but here’s the catch, #5 is my loser pen – my previous favorite that’s not available in its current form. This makes #1 the winner by default.
The Wrap Up
The pens in this competition were:
|2||PenTel Energel||Retractable||.7||Eliminated — Unwieldy size and cheap casing|
|3||Pentel Hybrid Gel Roller||Capped||.8||Eliminated — my current replacement and it’s crap|
|4||Uni-ball Signo||Retractable||.37||Eliminated — lines are too thin|
|5||Pentel Hybrid Gel Grip||Capped||.5||Eliminated — no longer readily available. I love this pen|
|6||Pilot V-Ball Grip||Capped||.5||Eliminated — Casing is too big|
Unfortunately, I’m not sold on the winner. After my contest was over, I began to use the G-2 as my go-to pen. While the flow is fine and the feel is good, I’m still not over my precision-loss-to-the-retractable-mechanism paranoia. Fortunately, actively worrying about pens for a few weeks will introduce you to an entire pen sub-culture. After asking friends about their favorite pens, I was sent off to a local Japanese paper store where there was an entire wall of gel pens sporting strange names and being sold in individual plastic wrappers. Visions of a secondary competition starting bouncing around my head.
For now, I’m editing this article in front of the fireplace using a capped G-3. It’s a little wider than I’m used to, but I swear the lack of moving parts is keeping my already messy penmanship in check. Tomorrow, I’m going to give a different Uni-ball Signo a whirl. This badass capped pen is almost an exact replica of my beloved PenTel, including the total absence of a plastic grip.
All of these exotic new pens are a violation of my readily available joy vector, but, you know, I’m prepared to be fond of a remarkable pen.