Penman No. 345: Sheening, Shimmering, Splendid

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Penman for Monday, March 18, 2019

 

I’VE BEEN writing in this column about the recent resurgence of fountain pens, a phenomenon well documented by mainstream, social, and business media like the BBC, the Chicago Tribune, and the Advertising Specialty Institute, which have noted that a whole new generation is turning on to the vintage vibe, of which pens are a part. That vibe, in turn, comes from the need—especially among the young—for more self-expression in an increasingly homogenized and digitized world.

There are few things more personal and more personalized than writing with a pen—and not just with any pen but a fountain pen. Ballpoints and rollerballs will yield the same F, M, or B line, with the same black or blue inks. But with fountain pens, you have a wide range of nibs—the writing point of pens—to produce different results and experiences, from extra-fine to triple-broad, from stiff and stingy to flexible and flowy. In the end, the pen you choose and use, both in terms of form and function, will be distinctly and distinctively you.

And it doesn’t stop with the pen itself, which is popular enough (on any given day, on eBay, you will find more than 100,000 fountain pens listed). To customize the writing experience further, you can now choose from hundreds of inks on the market, a sub-industry also re-energized by the fountain pen revival.

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We seniors will remember that, when we were growing up and working on our first jobs, we never had much of a choice in inks—it was either Parker Quink or Sheaffer Skrip (both of which are still being produced, by the way), in black or blue-black, and occasionally green, red, or royal blue. Pens and inks were meant for use at work, in school, and at home, not really to be enjoyed or collected, although some esoteric inks, like Sheaffer’s gorgeously vivid Persian Rose from the 1950s, are now regarded like rare fine wines.

With fountain pens becoming more of a lifestyle choice or fashion statement than everyday tools, inks have acquired designer status as well, and more than a dozen companies now manufacture and distribute their inks worldwide to cater to users looking for ever more unique swatches and signatures. Brands like Noodler’s, Diamine, Rohrer & Klingner, Akkerman, Private Reserve, J. Herbin, Iroshizuku, Organics Studio, de Atramentis, and Robert Oster compete with the more familiar in-house inks of major pen companies like Parker, Sheaffer, Montblanc, Pelikan, Waterman, Aurora, Pilot, and Sailor, among others.

Color is, of course, the most important determinant of choice. Fogies like me tend to stick to the old black, blue-black, and brown, but millennials prizing individuality won’t think twice about—and will even seek out—splashy hues and special effects. Where we just wanted our inks to be either washable or indelible, the new inks offer add-on qualities and properties previously unheard of. Two of those most popular features are sheen and shimmer—sheen (as in Robert Oster Fire and Ice) being the presence of more than one color in the same bottle of ink, with one color serving as the base and another as a shiny highlight, and shimmer (as in J. Herbin’s Rouge Hematite) being the addition of glittery metallic particles to the ink. These two can even be combined in some inks. The result will often be more art than penmanship, an enjoyment of colored ink almost for its own sake above anything else. (You’ll also note that ink names have gone far beyond “Permanent Blue” to something as flamboyant as Noodler’s purplish Black Swan in Australian Roses and J. Herbin’s orangey 1798 Cornaline d’Egypte.)

 

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It’s liberating, in a way, because people—especially young students and professionals who have yet to get their first Montblanc—can indulge themselves in ink-play without splurging on high-ticket pens. For a thousand pesos, you could get a fistful of entry-level pens (easily available on Lazada and Shopee, among other sources online, aside from local retailers like Scribe Writing Essentials, Pen Grafik, and NBS) and focus your spending on a menagerie of inks. Do note that milliliter for milliliter, a bottle of specialty ink could cost much more than an equivalent volume of quality wine or scotch.

Color aside, other factors come into play in ink selection. How “wet” or “dry” is the ink? Will it “feather” or “bleed through” on cheap paper? (Paper deserves its own column, being another key factor in the writing experience; happily, inexpensive but fountain-pen-friendly paper can be found in local bookstores). Even bottle design matters—you might buy Iroshizuku and Akkerman inks as much for their iconic bottles as for their contents.

The best news of all is that some pretty fantastic (and fantastically pretty) inks are now being made locally—designed, blended, manufactured, and distributed by Filipinos. Two brands in particular stand out: Troublemaker Inks (troublemakerinks.com), concocted by two young Cebu-based guys and bearing such names as Bantayan Turquoise and Luneta Twilight Pink, and Vinta Inks (inksbyvinta.com), launched just last week by Everything Calligraphy, in such varieties as Sandugo 1565 and Leyte 1944. “We hope to export our proudly Philippine-made inks soon,” says EC’s Jillian Joyce Tan.

And well we should. Pinoys love color, and short of carrying and wielding a brush, we can’t have more fun with color on paper than with these new inks—sheening, shimmering, splendid. (With many thanks to Chiyo-chan Sakamoto, Nicole Angelique Sanchez, Lorraine Marie Nepomuceno, and Troublemaker Inks for the images.)

 

 

 

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 47: Fountain Pen Day Nov. 5-6 at SM Aura

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 IN CELEBRATION of Fountain Pen Day—marked globally every first Friday of November—Manila’s foremost dealers of pens and inks will set up shop on November 5 and 6 at SM Aura Premier in Bonifacio Global City near Toby’s Estate on the 3rd floor.

Scribe Writing Essentials, Pen Grafik, Everything Calligraphy, Faber Castell, National Book Store, and Lamy will be showcasing some of the finest brands of pens and inks from Europe, the United States, and Asia.

Handwriting workshops have also been lined up over the weekend. Kids wanting to discover the joy of handwriting can sign up for demonstrations guided by children who themselves use fountain pens for writing and illustration. Local pen restorers and nibmeisters will be present to tune, repair, and appraise pens. Pen lovers wishing to learn more about both vintage and modern pens can pick the brains of seasoned collectors, and students of the ornamental word can interact with expert calligraphers.  An art exhibit will feature works rendered in pen and ink by some of the country’s best artists. (Some of my best vintage pens will be on display, as will those of other FPN-P members.)

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Fountain Pen Day was started in 2012 by American pen collector Cary Yeager. In the Philippines, the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org) organizes this festival. With over 2,000 members in its Facebook group, FPN-P is a diverse community bound by a shared love for the written word in an increasingly digital age. Its members include writers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists, tech professionals, civil servants, and students.

Fountain Pen Day Philippines 2016 is also made possible by the support of SM Aura Premier, PNB Savings Bank and Asia Brewery. For more updates on Fountain Pen Day, go to Instagram and follow @fountainpenday and @fpnph, or interact using hashtag #fpdph2016.

Penman No. 173: Lines and Letters

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Penman for Monday, November 2, 2015

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about my favorite pastime (aside from my weekly poker binges and my foot-massage-and-movie dates with Beng), so indulge me this break from the headaches of literature and politics and let me talk about those obscure objects of my writerly desire—pens and all things appurtenant thereto, as my lawyer friends would say.

We have, not incidentally, a good many lawyers among our members at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (FPN-P), which isn’t surprising, given how lawyers have traditionally used pens in their work, and at least in taking their bar examinations. Those pen-wielding members of the Philippine bar include Undersecretaries Albert Muyot, Ronnie Geron, and Rey Cruz; SEC Chairperson Tess Herbosa and SEC lawyer Joanne Ranada; pro-gun advocate Ticky Tabujara; former ACCRA lawyer Elsa Divinagracia; and Aboitiz lawyer Anthony Goquingco. While he hasn’t formally signed up with FPN-P, Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen, an avid pen user, has turned up at a meeting or two.

We also have a sizeable representation of doctors—among others, Novartis executive Aileeen Dualan, surgeons Jojo Hosaka, Joy Grace Jerusalem, and Leo Ona III, Healthway Medical head Eleanor Bengco-Tan, barrio doctors Edrie Alcanzare and Jim Lopez, Dagupan-based rehab specialist Hazel Gazmen, company physician Kristine Arabaca, and new Med graduate Mark del Rosario. Predictably, there’s a special thread in our forum devoted to providing specimens of our doctors’ handwriting—the more unreadable, the more impressive.

Alongside these professionals come teachers, writers, artists, businessmen, bankers, students, and all manner of writing enthusiast, drawn to the group if not by pens then by inks, papers, calligraphy, or drawing. What started out in my front yard in Diliman seven years ago with less than 20 people has grown to over 500 members on our dedicated website at http://www.fpn-p.org/, and more than 2,000 on our Facebook page (being FB-averse, I stay out of that group, but you’re welcome to sign up there if FB’s your thing).

Once or twice a month, we get together—typically for a long Saturday lunch in a Makati or Ortigas restaurant—to play with our pens and to doodle away in wild abandon. While we may talk politics in the corners of the meeting and devote some attention to tangential interests like watches and knives (you’d be surprised how many pen people have one or the other or even both as secondary hobbies), the focus is clearly on fountain pens, inks, and papers.

Whatever for? There’s no better way I can explain it than group therapy. As I’ve said in this column many times, it’s the sheer tactile pleasure of laying down lines and letters on a page, of watching the ink spread through the paper’s fibers, creating networks of meaning, or otherwise an impression of beauty, an entirely handmade beauty at that. This is what you can’t get from a ballpoint or a rollerball—a soft or shaped nib that can create breathtaking line variations from from extra-fine to triple-broad, that can be so sensitive to the touch that the merest tremor can betray some deep-seated emotion. With every stroke of the pen, another worldly care is banished, another rampant anxiety quelled. There’s nothing more intimate yet more revealing than that stroke, the physical commitment of thought to paper.

Fountain pen collectors (among other creatures infected by the same virus of compulsive acquisition) often speak of their “grail” pen, that one elusive, near-unattainable pen that calls to them in their dreams and shimmers like a mirage on the horizon of their consciousness. That pen could be as simple as a Parker 51 that they recall their father used, or as weighty as the Montblanc 149 favored by Supreme Court Justices, or as uncommon as a custom-made Nakaya or Hakase epitomizing the finest of Japanese craftsmanship.

Over the past 30 years of immersing myself in the hobby, I’ve had many such “grail” pens cross my fevered brain, and have actually had the good fortune of realizing most of them—a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy, a Parker “Big Red” Duofold from 1926, a Montblanc Agatha Christie from 1993, and, most recently, a Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992. Almost as interesting as the pens themselves, each of these pens has a story behind it, a near-mythical chase across decades and continents.

Unlike many collectors, I don’t keep my best pens in a case, under lock and key. I rotate them for daily use, praying that I’ll never lose one, although that’s almost a statistical certainty. It isn’t ostentation that impels me to do this, but rather an acute and growing awareness of time passing—of the sense that, at my age, I probably have another ten good years left, and what a waste they would be if I let my happiest acquisitions moulder away in some dark drawer, never having kissed paper.

If all this talk of pens makes you want to reach for one—whether in memory of a long-forgotten practice or in anticipation of a novel experience—then join us this Saturday, November 7, at the Cinema VIP Lounge of Century City Mall on Kalayaan Avenue in Makati as we celebrate International Fountain Pen Day (yes, such a day exists) around the theme of “Celebrating Analog Writing in a Digital Age.”

Open to the general public, the day’s events will include a pen-and-ink art exhibit, a calligraphy workshop, a sketching session, as well as an introduction to fountain pens for children. Guests may also avail themselves of services such as vintage pen restoration, appraisals, and nib tuning.

For supporting this project, FPN-P would like to thank Manila’s leading purveyors of quality writing instruments such as Everything Calligraphy, Faber‐Castell, Lamy, Parker, Scribe Writing Essentials, Sheaffer and Wahl‐Eversharp/PenGrafik. Our special thanks go as well to Asia Brewery for their assistance.

Entrance is free, so take those leaky old pens out of your grandfather’s desk drawer and bring them to us for a cleaning and a good chat. But I warn you: fountain pen use can be highly addictive, and leave your fingers stained in the most wonderful colors.

Penman No. 44: Pen Boys’ Weekend

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AS IF two trips up to Baguio in early April weren’t enough, I went up a third time later this month. But while my previous sorties had to do with literature—high-minded work, you might say—this third one was purely for fun… and, well, okay, some education of the esoteric kind. That education, I hope, properly qualifies this piece for the Arts & Culture section, particularly as it has to do with my favorite subject of discussion, fountain pens—that’s right, those inky instruments of insistent individuality.

The members of our five-year-old pen club, the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines or FPN-P, had long planned to hold a vintage-pen-repair workshop in Baguio, and this month it finally happened. Why Baguio? Because that’s where our host—the Bali-based Fil-Am pest exterminator (seriously, that’s what he does for a living) Butch Palma—keeps house when he’s in the Philippines, with a veritable pen repair shop and laboratory in the basement. After some hemming and hawing, seven diehards signed up for the workshop: the onetime mechanic, nurse, and now banker JP Reinoso, our local “nibmeister” or master of nib repair and modification; the retired pharmaceuticals executive Chito Limson; the lawyer and DepEd Undersecretary Albert Muyot; the UP engineering major Jonathan Isip, our resident geek and IT specialist; the UP Special Ed grad student Cesar Salazar, who’s had as rich and varied a business background as any; and the two Butches, Dalisay and Palma.

In FPN-P, my tocayo and I are known as the vintage-pen guys, since our collections (about 200 pens for me, and double that for The Other Butch, or TOB as he’s affectionately called in the group) lean heavily toward prewar pens. I have about 60 Parker Vacumatics—fabulous pens and eye candy, with colorful shimmering stripes—and have learned to repair them myself; TOB also likes Vacs, Sheaffers, and gold pens, and is far more advanced and experienced at repair than the rest of us. But what’s even more impressive about TOB is his armory of pen-repair tools, including a mean-looking heat gun and Dremel drill, maintained and arranged as carefully as a conscientious dentist might treat his picks and forceps. (The comparison isn’t as fanciful as it may seem; the dental pick is one of a pen repairman’s most constant friends.)

Fountain-pen repair is a lot like vintage-car restoration. You want the final product to come out all spiffy and shiny, but there’s a lot of work to do—often insanely complicated work—under the hood. You don’t need just the skills, which no one really teaches; you also need the parts, supplies, and tools, which can be as arcane as they come, such as an inner-cap puller for Parker pens, sac protectors for Sheaffer Touchdowns, lever boxes for hard-rubber Watermans, and rubber sacs and diaphragms of many sizes. These aren’t things you can pick up at True Value; they have to be sourced online, and then painstakingly practiced with, inevitably at the cost of a priceless pen or two.

And when a repair newbie’s eagerness outstrips his skills or his patience, disaster happens. Thirty years ago, as I was just getting hooked on pens, I found a rare, mustard-colored Parker 51 Vacumatic in a thrift shop in Michigan for 25 cents—not bad for a pen worth at least 1,000 times more—and promptly cracked the barrel with a twist of the pliers. (Memo to self: heat the barrel with a hair dryer before attempting disassembly, to let the plastic expand.)

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You would’ve thought that—dozens of fixed Vacumatics later—I would be a master at this, and maybe I thought so, too. But at TOB’s workshop, I made another dumb newbie mistake: using a tool I didn’t know without reading or following instructions. The tool in point was TOB’s heat gun, which sends out a blast of hot air like some kind of light saber. I was kidding my tocayo about his having a heat gun instead of a hair dryer because—well, if you see his shiny, saintly pate, you’ll understand why—and then I turned the heat gun on a 1940 Vacumatic that I was going to use to demonstrate my graduate-level skills to the nervous newbies. But, alas, before I could say “This is how…”, the heat gun vaporized a chunk of the pen’s barrel, and there in a smoky wisp went another of George S. Parker’s creations, having survived for over 70 years before some dumb monkey with a PhD zapped it to pen heaven.

Happily the rest of our weekend’s forays into the art of reviving dead writing instruments went much less dramatically, with positive results. Taking a break from headaches in primary education, Usec Albert (one of three Usecs in FPN-P, big fountain pens being a lawyer’s weapons of choice) learned how to replace a “jewel” or an ornament in the butt of a ca. 1960s Parker 61, Chito repaired the 1940s Vac of San Beda Prof. Pidoy Velez (threatening to bill him P8,000 per hour for the three-hour service), JP showed me how to breathe life back into a 1930s Touchdown, and TOB put together a pretty 1938-ish blue Esterbrook using a cap and barrel rummaged from my parts bin (and I found a black Vac barrel from his, to replace the one I ruined), so in the end, everything worked out just fine for the pen boys. (And just to get this straight, at least a third of FPN-P’s more than 300 registered members are female, some of them—the amazingly talented Ms. Leigh Reyes instantly comes to mind—blessed not only with formidable pen collections but with divine calligraphic skills as well.)

We didn’t do too badly as amateur pen repairmen go, but we were glad to be reminded that for truly difficult jobs and truly valuable pens, there are pros we can always tap around the world for their unique expertise. For the longest time, the bible of pen repairmen was the late Frank Dubiel’s “Da Book,” but a new generation of more scientifically savvy restorers has taken over. The legendary Richard Binder (who lent his name to the word “binderized,” to mean exquisitely finetuned and smoothened nibs) has himself retired, but nibmeisters John Mottishaw and Greg Minuskin can still refashion a perfect nib from a sorry scrap of gold, and out in Nebraska, Danny Fudge still services my Vacs and Duofolds when I can’t bear to break them myself. Ron Zorn in upstate New York has a backlog of at least six months, but he’s almost the only one who can properly put back a broken pen together—not with superglue or epoxy, but with a solvent weld that takes months to cure. (Can anyone here in Manila do these things? Beyond the simple repairs we did, the short and plain answer is no; Montblanc does do basic repairs in its service center in Rustan’s Makati, and sends on the tougher jobs to Hong Kong and Gemany.)

Is it worth it? That depends on how much you value your pens. If it’s a P500 Schneider or Inoxcrom, replacing it might be cheaper than attempting a fix; if it’s your grandfather’s Wahl Doric or Waterman Patrician, a $30 solution from Danny Fudge (plus postage, of course) will be a bargain. As far as I’m concerned, and as far as I can help it, every old pen deserves a second chance, if only because they’ll never be made again the way they were back in the 1920s. (That’s not entirely true: companies like Conway Stewart have come out with splendid revisions of the old classics, but these pens could cost you more than an iPhone.)

Boys being boys, and with our precious cargo back in their leather cases, we gathered around the table over scotch and coffee, and babbled into the wee hours about a host of manly subjects: cars and carburetors, terabytes and audio formats, Paul Simon and the Beatles, swords and light sabers, Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond. Now and then some new words and brilliant ideas slipped into the conversation: hadoken, innumeracy, dyscalculia; now and then wives and women were mentioned, but not too often. And every five minutes or so, the talk drifted back to pens, about how gorgeous but oh how expensive the prewar Omas Extra Lucens was, about how Sheaffer Vac-Fills use a bewildering range of rod sizes, and, yes, how quickly vintage celluloid can melt in the wrong hands.

Such was our pen boys’ weekend, and—as I’m sure our wives appreciated—there are worse things men can spend their weekends on and weekends with than leaky Vacumatics.