Math Sets

Caste your mind back to school supplies. Along with the usual notebooks and pencils, at some point geometry or math sets were added to the list. I still have the metal box my first set came in although some of the contents are missing. The British Helix company that made it is still around today. They were making rulers and other educational equipment for awhile when in 1912 founder Frank Shaw hit upon the idea of combining a number of their products together to make a mathematical set for students. The set included a compass, protractor, set-square, ruler, pencil and eraser; much the same as their current product although now the protractor, set-square, and ruler are plastic, not wood.

I found a newer version of it in a second-hand store. I find it interesting that in the 1970’s when my set was made the image on the box of a moving train was no doubt meant to project a modern look while the current design with a drawing of Oxford sends a traditional vibe. The older box definitely wins in the greater number of fonts competition.

While all of these tools go back a long way, rulers (also called straightedges or line gauges) are probably the first measuring instruments. One found in India dates to around 4,500 years from the present. Earliest examples were made from ivory and bone but wood, metal, and plastic now rule the day. The markings on rulers are called hash marks and generally (at least in Canada) are marked on one side with the metric system and imperial on the other.

Triangular architect aluminum ruler made in El Salvador, wooden ruler with metal straightedge made in Canada by the Acme Ruler and Advertising Co., Ltd. of Toronto, Ontario (circa 1970s), plastic Staedtler ruler made in Germany, mini promotional ruler

Not everything is straight though so for circles or arcs we need a compass. It’s a metal V-shaped tool that has a holder for a pencil on one end and a point on the other with an adjustable hinge in the middle that is held steady with a screw. Similar to a compass but with points on both ends is a divider, used to compare lengths. Both date back to at least ancient Rome. Somewhere along the road of life my divider and I parted ways.

Small compass original to set made by Helix in England, Faber-Castell compass with replaceable leads made in Germany

The two triangles included in these sets (90-45-45 degree angle triangle and 30-60-90 degree triangle) are also called set-squares. They make it easier to draw angles, as well as perpendicular and parallel lines.

According to British comedian James Acaster, Pythagoras’ catchphrase was “every triangle is a love triangle when you love triangles.”

The half circle is a protractor. They are marked from 0 degree to 180 degrees in order to measure angles. Nobody knows who invented it (some speculate ancient Egyptians) but certainly a version was already in use during the 13th century, where it was used with an astronomical device. By the 18th century it was common enough to be mentioned in geometry textbooks.

I used my protractor with varying degrees of success.

Math was never my favourite subject but in a world that can seem so divisive I see the appeal in the certainty and logic of mathematics, not to mention the fun of getting a little set of geometry tools in a tin box.

If geometry sets were people, they would be math nerds with a sense of history (as well as a sense of humour). They all love pie and make sure everyone gets an equal piece.

Crayola Colors of the World Crayons

Even though “back to school” season is just a memory for me, the cooling days of August remind me of school supplies and I think all elementary students have crayons on their list. When it comes to crayons, I have a soft spot for Crayola products because I think they make good quality children’s crafts products using relatively safe ingredients.

The Crayola crayon brand was created by the Binney & Smith Company in 1903. Mr. Binney’s wife, Alice, came up with the name “Crayola” by combining the French word “craie” for chalk and “ola” for oily or oleaginous. This makes sense as crayons are made from paraffin (a petroleum product) and pigment. The first boxes of crayons sold for five cents and contained eight colours; Black, Blue, Brown, Green, Orange, Red, Violet, and Yellow. More colours were soon added including a pinkish white tone known as Flesh Tint, which was shortened to Flesh in 1949, then changed to Pink Beige in 1956. Finally in 1962 it was re-named Peach. Indian Red, another early crayon colour, wasn’t changed to Chestnut until 1999. According to Crayola, “the name originated from a reddish-brown pigment found near India, commonly used in fine artist oil paint” but they must have realized the name could be misconstrued as referring to the skin tone of Indigenous people.

Here are some unusual Crayola colours

Last summer Crayola introduced their Colors of the World crayon packs. I applaud them for recognizing that the children who use their products come in all hues. According to their website, these crayons were created with the intent to let “everyone celebrate diversity and colorfully express themselves!” They hired consultants from the cosmetics industry (another business that has learned to diversify their product lines) to help them. The box of 24 new crayon colours are different intensities of three shades; Almond, Golden, and Rose. Some of these colours are very similar to each other but I like the idea that children have more choices when colouring people.

Thanks to long time reader Neil for providing me with this pack of crayons to experiment with.

If Crayola “Colors of the World” crayons were people, they would be a diverse bunch but somehow manage to get along.

Sakura Micron Pigma Pen

Sakura micron pigma pens are one of the most recommended products I have come across. They are popular with artists and zentanglers for their precise, waterproof lines. In museums they are favoured due to their archival ink. I finally decided to try one myself.

The come in seven nib sizes and a variety of colours, although not all of the colours come in all of the sizes. I have the 01 (0.25 mm) which is the second finest line. Confusingly the numbers on the pens have no relationship to the pen tip size. They are considered a technical pen and get their name from the micro pigment particles in the ink. The particles are small enough to flow through the tiny needle point tips of the pen and then sit on top of the paper as opposed to a dye-based ink that soaks in. This means there is no bleed through on the paper. This pigment-based ink was developed by Japanese pen innovators, Sakura, in the 1980s and works best on smooth paper. The downside of this pen is the unattractive beige colour of the barrel and, while they have a reputation of being long-lasting, they are ultimately disposable.

If micron pigma pens were people, they would be very popular with a variety of friends, not because of what they look like, but because of what they do.

Graphite Pencil Set

In my part of Canada, places like art galleries and museums started opening up at the beginning of the summer. To mark the easing of restrictions, the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) had a special free day in June. I always have mixed feelings when I attend free days as I know how expensive it is to run these institutions. Usually I buy something in the gift shop to assuage my conscience. Most recently I purchased some AGA branded graphite pencils. There are whole businesses built around supplying museum and gallery gift shops. MP BARCELONA, Inc. is one such company. Not only did they likely provide the graphite pencils I purchased, but they probably also supplied the large multi-coloured Koh-I-Noor pencil I purchased on a different occasion. They could even be the supplier of a mini set of low-quality pencil crayons I was once given as a promotional item from the Arts Council of Wood Buffalo as I’ve seen similar products on their website.

Back to the graphite pencils. The set of four came packaged in a clear transparent box with a black cardboard wrap branded with the AGA logo. Each pencil also has art gallery of alberta printed on them and is 15 cm long or just over 6 inches. They are all graphite, no wood, so have a smooth feel to them, both in holding and drawing with them. There is a bit of a metallic sheen to the line, especially where it is darker. Like a regular pencil, they can be erased. Even though they are skinny, I had no trouble sharpening them with a standard pencil sharpener.

I challenged myself to use all of them in sketching the little moka pot we take camping with us.

If these woodless graphite pencils were people, they would be minimalists and favour monochromatic outfits. You’ll find these folks at art gallery openings crowded around the free hors d’oeuvres.


Back in April, the Edmonton Calligraphic Society zoom class was with Sachin Shah. The amazing thing about these classes is that we connect with calligraphers from around the world. Sachin was teaching us from Mumbai, India. It was early morning for him while it was evening for us.

I always enjoy finding out how people become interested in the things they do. Like many calligraphers, even as a child Sachin liked to make fancy letters. Then around 1992 when he was in college, his uncle gave him a calligraphy classic, the Speedball Textbook, and he started to teach himself. Calligraphy wasn’t very popular in India at the time so he didn’t have easy access to tools. Instead, he modified fountain pens by cutting the nibs with hacksaw blades (with mixed results) to get the flat nibs needed for calligraphy. The economy in India has opened up since then so it’s now easier to get the right tools. However, his day job as an engineer required him (in pre-covid days) to travel to the United States frequently so he buys a lot of his supplies there. In an interesting turn of events, he was part of the team to work on most recent edition of the Speedball Textbook. If you are interested in seeing his work, his Instagram handle is @sachinspiration where he calls his followers calligrafreaks.

Sachin does a lot of blackletter calligraphy and he taught us a version called Fraktur. It gets its name from the fractured look of the letters. It is a bit more curvy and less blocky than other blackletter alphabets. For this class, we only worked on the uppercase or majuscule letters. There are many variations of these letters so he encouraged us to go with what is pleasing to the eye. He emphasized that he was just providing guidelines, not rules. Generally, most of these letters (except for M, W, I, and J) fit into a square. The thick lines are made by holding the pen at a 35° angle most of the time so that the horizontal lines are thinner than the vertical ones. Then hairline flourishes are added to complete the strokes as well as other decorations like diamonds and glyphs, paying attention to the negative space, until the letter looks complete.

I used a Speedball C-0 nib (another suggested option was a Brause 5 mm nib) and my straight holder with sumi ink. Fraktur does not work well with a nib less than 4 mm wide. Sachin also makes them with a flat brush and gouache paint. A Pilot Parallel pen would work well too.

Speedball C-0 nib

I found this a very challenging hand to attempt as this nib was new to me and I don’t have a natural affinity for blackletter alphabets. Below is my attempt to replicate the alphabet Sachin taught us.

If Fraktur was a person, they would be heavy metal enthusiasts, all dressed in black and a bit difficult to get along with.

Dixon Pencils

With this blog post falling on July 4, I wanted to pick an American topic so I decided to focus on an old American pencil company, Dixon.

Joseph Dixon was born in 1799 in Massachusetts. He was an entrepreneur and inventor but not initially interested in the pencil trade. The American Civil War changed that. At a time when most people wrote with dip pens and ink, pencils weren’t particularly popular but troops in the field needed a convenient way to make notes and send messages. So Mr. Dixon, with his background in manufacturing with graphite, stepped in to fill a need by making pencils and continued to do so after the war. The pencil business continued to grow even after the original Mr. Dixon’s death in 1869. In 1873, the Dixon company expanded by buying the American Graphite Company in Ticonderoga, New York. However, it wasn’t until 1913 that the school supply staple, the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, was launched. They copied the popularity of yellow pencils started by the introduction of the Koh-I-Noor pencil at the 1889 World’s Fair. Despite their heritage as an American company, Dixon pencils are no longer made there but rather in Mexico and China. They do have offices and a distribution center in the USA.

I have one classic Dixon Ticonderoga pencil but I also have two of the lower quality Dixon Classmate and one Dixon Metrico 1910. I don’t know where I got the Metrico as it seems to be sold in Spanish speaking countries. As well, I have a Ticonderoga Erasable in Tuscan Red that is marketed as being used “for checking, map coloring, marking on blueprints and proposals, and editing papers”.

So how do these pencils measure up? Since all these pencils are old, it didn’t seem fair to judge them by their erasers but surprisingly all of the erasers worked to some extent, however a white Staedtler Mars did a better job.

Dixon Ticonderoga: I like the look of this pencil with its green metallic stamped typography matching its distinctive green and yellow metal ferrule holding a pink eraser. It writes smoothly and, like all of these pencils, doesn’t smudge. However, it was difficult to erase completely.

Dixon Classmate: Although they are both called Classmate, one appears to be older than the other. The “Leadfast” Classmate writes darker than any of the other Dixon pencils and features a variety of typography and a gold ferrule. I think this one is the worst of the bunch as it is cracked and difficult to sharpen without breaking the lead. However, the eraser on this one does a better job than the newer pencil which smudges. With the Staedtler eraser both erase almost completely.

Dixon Metrico 1910: This pencil is closest to the newer Classmate in paint colour and lead darkness. It completely erases with the Staedtler, but not quite as well with its own eraser.

Ticonderoga Erasable: This pencil doesn’t have a graphite core but is more like a reddish-brown pencil crayon (or coloured pencil). It’s very smooth to write with and I imagine it would quite nice to use for sketching. It has the same ferrule as classic Dixon Ticonderoga. Despite its name, it doesn’t really erase well.

If Dixon pencils were people they would be from an old, established family but be a bit downwardly mobile.

Galaxy Lettering

Today, as well as being Father’s Day, is the summer solstice, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It’s a time where we contemplate where we are in our journey around the sun so I thought I’d show some fun galaxy lettering I recently tried. I’ve found YouTube to be a great place to get calligraphy ideas and liked this style on Leslie Writes It All ( The first time I did it, I followed her instructions pretty closely, even writing the same “Be the Light” phrase.

After that, I tried it with a name and made a few adjustments. Instead of a gold gel pen for the highlights, I used a Hunt Extra Fine No. 22 Pen Nib  with Winsor & Newton silver-metallic aluminum ink. For both attempts I used Hahnemuhle watercolor postcards

The silver highlights show up in this photo

The steps are quite straightforward. First you lightly draw the word in pencil, making the downstroke parts of the letter thicker than the upstrokes. Sometimes this is called faux calligraphy because you are imitating the thick and thin lines of calligraphy usually done with a pen or brush.

Using a palette of pink, blue, and purple, paint some simple stars on a thick part of the letter. The rest of the letter is painted in the same shades adding some gray for depth. Let the colours blend into each other in an ombre effect.

Once it’s dry, use a metallic pen to add a shadow to one side of the letters. A white or metallic pen to can be used to add tiny stars too. I think this style could be adapted by using flowers instead of stars and making the letters shades of green.  

After the amount of time it took to make it, I was worried the postcard would get damaged in the mail so I put it in an envelope to send. I love the stamps issued by Canada Post this spring celebrating crabapple blossoms. I buy the souvenir sheets so I can use part of it to collage onto an envelope. I paired it with Amy-style calligraphy from The Postman’s Knock.

If galaxy lettering were a person, they would be a slow talker and a bit spacy, but fun to be with.

Cross Classic Century Pen

Another holiday hardly anyone observes is Ballpoint Pen Day, celebrated on the anniversary of the patent filing for ballpoint pens on June 10, 1943 by László and György Bíró. The Bíró brothers weren’t actually the first to come up with the idea of using a ball in the end of a pen but they were the first to come up with a design that worked well, in large part by developing an ink that dried quickly. They were Hungarian but the rise of anti-Semitism in their country (not to mention many other places in Europe) and the encouragement of an Argentine businessman convinced them to immigrate to that country. They are now better known in their adopted country than Hungary but their fame is not limited to Argentina. To this day, ballpoint pens are commonly called biros in the United Kingdom.

I have to admit, I usually associate ballpoint pens with the cheap, disposable variety you get as promotional items or use as school and office supplies. Some of the many ballpoint pens I have covered in the past include several in my post on my favourite ink colour as well as Papermate InkJoy pens, the Zebra Z-Grip, and my novelty frog pen. However, back when the Bíró brothers were introducing them to the world, ballpoint pens were considered a luxury item.

I do have a couple of really nice ballpoint pens, one them being the Cross Classic Century pen in chrome. This design has been around since 1946. It’s a slim, lightweight, refillable pen that retracts the tip with a twist. No annoying clicking noise here. It writes smoothly in black ink. The name CROSS is engraved both on the clip as well as around the top of the pen.

I believe I may have got this pen through some promotion from my local grocery store. All I know is I’ve had it a long time but for some reason never use it. It came completely overpackaged in a box within a box. I’ve got no complaints about this pen but I hardly think it’s worth the $55 CAD it’s listed for on the Cross website.

If the Cross Classic Century ballpoint pen were a person, they would be a quiet, slim, older person with silver hair that doesn’t get out much.

Double-sided Tape

May 27 is apparently National Cellophane Tape Day. Tape is one of those remarkably useful things we take for granted. Not only is it good for wrapping presents but when I had surgery after breaking my wrist a few years ago, the incision was taped together rather than stitched. Surgical tape (1845) was the first type of tape to be invented with masking tape next, closely followed by cellophane tape (1930). It seems people are always looking for new ways to improve tape which brings me to today’s topic, double-sided tape. As the name implies, it has adhesive on both sides of the tape and is basically for people who don’t like the messiness of glue. There are different types of double-sided tape, including some where you peel off a backing from one side or with a dispenser that uses the same sort of mechanism as correction tape.

I’ve tried two different brands. I first bought an American Crafts product called This to That strip glue at a crafting garage sale to try it out. American Crafts is a company whose name perfectly describes them. They are indeed based in the US (Utah) and sell craft supplies. Some of their employee benefits include free soda and snacks as well as “appreciation events and team building activities” (sounds like fun). Despite the US-based headquarters, This to That strip glue is manufactured in China. I like the subtle grips on sides of the dispenser as well as the turquoise colour. However, I’m not sure if it was because the one I bought was old, but I found it often skipped when I was trying to apply it so I wasn’t really very impressed.

I’ve also tried the Creative Memories version of double-side tape, what they call a tape runner. I assumed it might be Japanese because of the Japanese script on the box but surprisingly it is manufactured in Denmark. Creative Memories is a multi-level marketing company, or pyramid scheme, where there are potentially two ways to make money, both by selling directly to consumers (often friends and family) and also by recruiting other salespeople and getting a cut of their sales. Studies have shown that most people don’t make any money at all doing this. Business model aside, I think the Creative Memories tape works better. It neatly comes out of the dispenser and forms a strong bond.

Both, while refillable, use much more plastic than just glue which serves the same purpose.

If double-sided tapes were people they’d be a bit tacky but more or less have it together.

Scrap Card

Regular readers of this blog know, whether it is folding an envelope out of an old calendar page or making a notebook out of old paper and product packaging, I love to re-purpose material. I recently made a cute card out of a soap box, some scraps of cardstock, and a Stampin’ Up stamp. Although I know it won’t make a significant difference in reducing the amount of garbage our society produces, I love the creativity in looking at things I would otherwise discard and making something fun out of them.

The envelope is made out of a used children’s activity book using an old envelope as a template.

If this card were a person, they would be all into reduce, reuse, and mend.