A stick of plastic with a nib on the end

I’ve been struck a few times recently by a kind of pen-related existentialist vertigo. Looking at a turned pen in a fancy resin, I couldn’t shake the thought it’s just a stick of plastic with a nib screwed in the end.

Sure, this is an oversimplification. I know there’s a lot of work involved in making any pen. I know that an apparently simple pen can hide complexity. I understand that the blank was turned, drilled, polished and a dozen other processes.

But the thought kept nagging at me. A lot of the pens I see on Instagram… they’re just sticks of plastic.

What was really bothering me?

There was nothing about the pen that was distinctive to the maker, for a start. Show me the pen in a lineup and I could have told you the maker of the blank, but not of the pen.

These pens were made by two makers. Can you name them? I couldn’t.

That was partly it. I do expect a certain visual identity to leap out from the pen as much from the blank. Take the John Garnham pens I just reviewed, for example: the proportions and length of section make a very simple pen quite distinctive.

But that wasn’t everything. I realised that in this crowded market, and my crowded pen tray, I just don’t think a barrel plus section plus cap cuts it any more, no matter how fancy the resin. I’m excited by turners that step up and do something more.

It might be engineering and functional complexity, like filling mechanisms, ink windows, sprung clips or capping mechanisms, or special thread arrangements. Pierre Miller of Desiderata is a perfect example, or Clavijo. In the old days, it was Romillo making nibs.

It might be aesthetic complexity, like guilloche, facets, cap bands or cap coins, the blending of multiple materials, or unique silhouettes and proportions. I look at what Newton does here for example, or Atelier Lusso, or Kilk from Turkey. Or again in the old days Gimena’s leaf clips. Or Tesori inserting Murano glass in its converters.

Or it might be ergonomics and finishing, like the shaping of a section or cap to fit the hand, or polishing of edges and corners and inner surfaces, or lining up complex patterns across cap, section and barrel. One of the reasons I liked the Rockster I reviewed so much was that attention to detail.

And this to me is the downside of all those wonderful resins by folks like Jonathon Brooks (and no offence meant to folks like Jonathon — you guys are artists). When the resin is gorgeous, and rare, it means you’re buying the pen for the blank, not for the pen. A pen in Primary Manipulation doesn’t even need to be well polished to look good, and it doesn’t need to be sophisticated. Someone will buy it in five minutes anyway. I can’t help but think that this encourages turners to do the bare minimum… making pretty sticks with nibs on the ends.

It’s great fun getting a sparkly pen in the mail to unbox. But I at least find this ultimately unfulfilling, like eating candy for dinner. Once the rush of “PRETTY!” has worn off, what’s left? I don’t want a tray of near-identical colourful plastic sticks with the same nibs and converters inside. This is not a box of crayons. Pens can and should be better than that: they should be engineering marvels, coherent wholes that are comfortable, write amazingly, and show craftsmanship that is more than skin deep. It’s why I keep buying Desideratas, it’s why I’m in the queue for another Kasama, why I own six Schons. None of those guys make their own nibs, but their vision goes way beyond turning a pretty blank into a polished pen.

Every pen turner has to start somewhere. Not every turner has an elaborate workshop or jeweller skills. Equally, it’s easy to be a critic, and I know I couldn’t make a pen to save my life. But as a community I hope we move beyond our fascination with pretty plastic, and admire more those makers that forge their own paths in designs and materials and techniques.

29 thoughts on “A stick of plastic with a nib on the end

  1. Think that’s what drew me to Faber-Castell and Graf von Faber-Castell in the early days. The pens they produce are distinctive, as are the nibs. Just a shame very few of their models do not suffer from ink evaporation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand what you’re talking about. I use to turn a lot of pens but then so many people got into it that didn’t know what they were doing. I did mostly custom closed end fountain pens that cost between $189 to $389, depending on the wood and nib selection. But I got tired of doing shows and there were people selling pens for $19 to $39 and people would see my work and ask why mine were so expensive? I would try to explain that they could buy a one of a kind quality writing instrument that was a work of art or they could buy a Bic pen! That was the difference… Those people were working for less than minimum wage, losing money on top of everything!
      I still do some of my pens but can’t get the great nibs I use to get from West Germany. The ones I have now are good, the pens are excellent, the woods are one of a kind. I have a beautiful old growth curly Koa!

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  2. They (the homogenous acrylic pens with Jowo/Bock nibs) aren’t really pens, they are consumables. Just more plastic shit to be be bought, shared on social media, and then eventually discarded or superseded by the next shiny colour.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I stopped buying resin pens as 90% of them lack character. Every day a new batch of plastic pens comes out but looks like the pens that came out yesterday. I’ve given up on Conklins, Esterbrooks, and most others produced by big companies, and almost all of the plastic pens made by individuals. There are exceptions, but rare exceptions.

    I’m sticking with handmade ebonites, metals, and carved pens where I find an artistic character rather than just another turned blank that is no different than the last 100,000 turned pens. I would be embarrassed to pull out one of these acrylic clown pens at a meeting with clients that look like a booby prize that came out of a gumball machine at a carnival.

    Place 100 acrylics side-by-side and they are mind-numbingly similar.

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  4. I have to say that I have been feeling exactly that way for the last number of months. So very little interest in 99.9 % of the pens I see. That may be why I have moved heavily in vintage MB’s. A friend of mine collects from the point of view of interesting and rare nibs. It means that they have a unique writing experience every time they ink a pen. Not a bad philosophy I think.

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    • But lets face it – even vintage Montblanc pens are very similar to pieces of plastic with a nib. Mass produced pens even if the quality assurance and the amount of attention given to material and finish is otherworldly. And that is what is the matter with fountain pens. It is mature technology that can be mass produced partly from standard parts. There is not much to improve other than looks.

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      • I think you’ve missed my point. Montblanc pens, say my 149 from the 1970, have a proprietary nib design, not an off the shelf unbranded Bock or JoWo. They have a built in piston mechanism. They have an ink window and metal rings at all the plastic edges, and a functional clip. All of those design features make the pen more complex and more functional. It also has an iconic design including the embedded snowcap, and an excellent polish. The threads are superb.

        But I’m not talking about improving the state of the art — all of these things were there 50 years ago. I’m saying that we’re distracted by pretty pen blanks into going into a feeding frenzy over pens that are much, much less sophisticated than a Montblanc, much less functional, and completely lacking in distinctiveness — the only thing distinctive is the blank.

        Look at makers like Kilk in Turkey or some that Tim references elsewhere in this thread and you’ll see what I’m advocating for — distinctive designs and craft in things like clips and bands (and hopefully filling mechanisms etc too) that make the pen distinctive to the maker and attractive independent of the blank.

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  5. Though certainly not immune to “type-casting”, I realise now that this is likely why I lean more towards metal (and sometimes HEAVY metal – looking at you Brass Sport) pens. Though I hadn’t thought about it until reading your piece, I think it emphasises the engineering aspects more for me. I do have a couple of lovely vintage pens that I adore. Couldn’t tell you if they’re acrylic or what. I was certainly influenced by their look, but also by their fine design and the engineering is more apparent in those 40s/50s pens. Even in your main photo my eye was drawn to the clumsy step and threads rather than the garish resin. Thank goodness there’s room in the market’s offerings for everyone’s diverse tastes and choice enough for us all to find satisfaction!

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  6. I think it is a bit of a fad, pens have all looked so boring for so long, standard cigar shape, maybe some color changes or clips looking a little different. Then they started changing up the shape a lot more. But more people are getting into pen turning, so everyone is going to the easy shapes. Once the turners that are actually going to stick with it get some experience and an idea of their brand, they will start changing it up. While those who don’t will either fall away from turning, or be the new “office gift” pen that wood turned pens were not so long ago.

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  7. Pingback: Fountain Pen Quest Trail Log – November 8, 2020 | Fountain Pen Quest

  8. It’s an interesting point regarding the plethora of resin pens we have available now, I’ve been temped by a few then passed as I know they won’t bring anything new to my collection since they’re still just a Bock or JoWo steel nib which I already have kicking about in various sizes. One of the pens I find really attractive is the Karas Kustoms Fountain K, I went for the Iron Man look with red anodising and a brass section, the combo of the cool metals, simple design but with the knurled cap and bolted on clip I find it really tactile and aesthetically pleasing. As you said in the post, it’s the small details that set a design apart.

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  9. I’ve had a moratorium on buying pens with multicoloured resin for about 18 months for this sort of reason. Not in a snobby way, I’ve just personally found that form and texture are more satisfying for me, especially over the medium / long term, and have fallen in the past for that CANDY reaction and ended up with pens I don’t actually appreciate. A way of disciplining my desire I guess (the asceticism of the hedonist). That said, wouldn’t be surprised if I end up down the Primary Manipulation hole at some point as that material is… compelling.

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  10. 1) all pens are a nib on a stick if you decide to look at it like that.

    2) I have 3 custom pens. 2 of them I designed with the maker. I chose the resin or mix and we designed the pen together. I chose the length, the tapering, the all important “very little step between section and barrel” that I prefer and I like them a lot. I like them because I’m invested in them. There’s a part of me in the design. I’m well aware they’d be worth nothing to someone else. But, you can say that about a lot of art.

    Both makers I worked with said they preferred having this conversation and developing something different, rather than just copying. (I thought I was annoying 🤣.)

    The third one, I didn’t design, but am in love with highly polished gorgeous artwork. And the pen is designed anyway very much like the designs I’ve done myself with the makers.

    Maybe it depends what you’re looking for in a pen. I like pretty things and I like writing with said pretty things.
    It’s the whole experience for me…. choosing the resin, designing the pen, choosing the nib, admiring the finished pen, choosing the ink, placing pen in hand, writing with pen.

    Custom pens mean different things to different people perhaps.

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  11. Interesting perspective. As a maker of resin material for pens I rather enjoy coming up with colorful ways to create unique writing pieces. I’m a user of fountain pens and I possess the skills to turn down a stick of plastic and stick a nib on it… However, I only make for myself or for gifts. What you’ve failed to point out is that these simple designs without metal work, etc are extremely functional at a great price point. Plus, you’re supporting an individual artisan in many cases. I’ll fully agree that skilled metal work elevates a pen and that branding with different models is key to business success. That doesnt take away from the fact it’s great that there are so many options for people to get into a custom pen at an affordable price. Sure beats just buying another Kaweco because they came out with another shade of pink I think. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Tim — thanks for commenting! If you read back through my reviews you’ll see that I’ve profiled loads of individual artisans over the years, and supporting small makers is really important to me. And yes, whether it’s John Garnham or Loft Pens, both of which I’ve reviewed in the past month, both of which sell under £100, it’s great to have affordable options that are not just mass-produced.

      The point of my post is that to me it seems there are a LOT of fairly generic designs out there from more makers than ever before, that nobody would look at twice if they were made from plain black resin. But because they’re turned from a Primary Manipulation blank, or a blank of yours or Bob’s, they look pretty and they sell fast. They may be functional, or they may have stiff threads, clunky proportions, poor polish — they’ll sell anyway. And ultimately the ownership experience lacks a certain something. I’m asking for people to look beyond the pretty resin and challenge makers to up their game, to let their own creativity shine, instead of relying on the creativity of resin artisans.

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      • Completely understood. Amongst pen makers (the kit kind) there is a big swing towards learning to make custom pens. We’re seeing more and more switching from using kits to machining resin from scratch. Naturally that results in a lot of these more simple designs popping up as they learn. Most won’t get too far beyond that, but when they do… Then you’ve got something special. Greg Hardy, Eric Lusso, etc are just a few examples of having that next level design that gets noticed. I saw someone knock the Estie in another comment… A pen design with a great cap, ability to use old nibs, etc… That’s just cool from an engineering and design standpoint. They’re also one of the first really big makers to take chances with artisanal pen material. Them and now Leonardo. I dunno about you but I’d rather have that over just another cheap acrylic.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m a big fan of the Estie, and yes I owned one of the Sparkles for a while. I think the brand is doing good things for the community as a whole. I would love to see more big makers use artisan materials!

        Thanks for your knowledgeable and thoughtful comments on this post! I appreciate it.

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  12. One of the best bargains in metal pens are the Italix Churchman’s Prescriptor, Parson’s Essential, and Captain’s Commission. Heavy, solid, beautifully finished, with the most extensive list of nibs available. I have three with broad italic nibs that are regularly inked for carrying and desk. All sell for less than the latest acrylic look-a-likes.

    My next pen purchase will be a micarta from Eric Lusso. Great material with character.

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  13. I think the author needs to buy a lathe, along with the copious amounts of hardware required to make a ‘stick of plastic with a nib on the end’ . In my mind, to be a critic you need to be a master of the art first and foremost. Some of us do line up our grains, we sand to 12000 grit and finish wood pens with 12 coats of CA glue. There are 1000’s of amateur pen makers in the UK alone. I suggest you take the time to look at them closely. But don’t look at my pens, they’re shit. I wait with baited breath to see if the author can do better.

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    • I think if you read the post you’d see that I acknowledge the work involved in creating a pen. If you read my reviews, you’d find that I have owned and reviewed pens from many turners in the UK and elsewhere, and I have a good appreciation for the kind of designs and quality available. One of the qualities I’m most struck by in the turners I’ve dealt with is that they are friendly and always open to feedback that makes their pens and community better. From your comment, it doesn’t sound like you fit that description.

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  14. that’s why most of my Franklin-Christoph pens are equipped with Masuyama nibs. 😀 i am also into vintage Montblancs/Pelikan/Wahl/Waterman for their wonderful nibs.
    however,
    there’s all sorts of reasons to love fountain pens, “pretty plastic” is one of them. If someone keep buying pens just for the pretty plastic, that’s ok to me. If someone paid huge money for a super-flexy nib, that’s also ok to me. Sailor/Lamy and many other pen makers are now basically produce the same pen with different plastics over and over again. as long as they could run their business, that’s ok to me.
    and let’s not forget Montblanc now position themselves “Luxury Goods” company.

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    • Of course, everyone is free to buy the pens they like! A couple of years back I wrote a humourous post about ’15 types of fountain pen people’ — I’m aware that not everyone reading sees things the way I do, and I make my biases and preferences pretty clear in every post I write. I agree about Sailor/Lamy — I’ve called that limited edition trend out many times!

      Liked by 1 person

      • i actually agree with you! (pardon my broken English 😀 )
        and i would like to point out : pen-makers producing expensive “pretty plastic pens” are at stake with the threat from Chinese like Moonman and PenBBS—-their crazy colorful acrylic resin are much much cheaper.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Interesting points made on all sides. What I see as primary is the issue of quality. Now a pen doesn’t have to be incredibly elaborate or expensive to be a work of quality. Frankly, some expensive, elaborate pens on the market need to beef up their quality control and make sure they write well, and are constructed well, not just look good (you know who you are, Visconti and Montegrappa). Graf von Faber-Castell is a good example of quality pens that are expensive (“expensive” is a relative term), well-made, have a distinct identity and write well, and I am happy to own some of them.

    I have a number of acrylic pens, some of which were made with blanks created by Tim McKenzie. I like Tim’s creativity and the effects he can achieve. However, they’re still the raw material from which a pen maker has to fashion and construct a good pen. I’m glad to say the ones I own were expertly crafted by a independent maker who made sure shape, design, finishing and attention to nib quality equaled that of Tim’s blanks. I call that a quality pen, even though they each cost around $200. They feel good in the hand, look good, and write well right out of the box. I like pens that write well, not pens devoid of their primary function that are only good to look at. A good pen is something you return to and re-discover what you like about it.

    I also see a rising number of independent pen makers who are interesting, creative and experimental, making pens of custom designed Japanese ebonite that does not look like a million other pens, or of metal and acrylic or even just metals or other materials. Some of them are producing interesting, subtle finishing and texturing as well. Tim McKenzie is right: many of the mediocre small independents will disappear, and the really good ones will survive and please us with what they create. They will also be much more open to collaboration with the individual client, which the big makers cannot be. My point is we are going to see more quality options at a variety of price points, not just stuck with whatever the flavor of the month happens to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I agree with the overall point that at a certain point there is saturation in a given segment of the market. While many pens are visually attractive they are not necessarily special in other ways. The same is true of other tools like watches, pocket knives, flashlights, etc. It’s good to have lots of choices but sometimes the wheat and the chaff look very much alike.

    I bought pens from Franklin-Christoph, Edison and Leonardo because there was something unique about certain designs that appealed to me. There was also a consideration of crossover utility in being able to get varying nib units that could easily be swapped among multiple pens.

    I look at Esterbrooks and Montegrappas that are very pretty but I can’t see where they would offer me anything I don’t already have in other pens as far as writing experience. At $150+ they’re beyond the point where I’ll get one just because it’s good looking. At that price they have to have more going for them. I’d rather seek out a nice old Parker or Sheaffer to scratch the itch.

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