Dip Pens


A while back I wrote about my crow quill dip pen but that is not the only type of dip pen I have. (Dip pen is a bit of a misnomer. While you can dip this sort of pen into ink, I found I have less trouble with blobbing if I use a cheap paintbrush to brush the ink onto the nib.) I have some other pen holders to use with a variety of interchangeable nibs. Different sized and shaped nibs give different lines.

Of the holders, I think my favourite is the Koh-I-Noor No. 127 N Cork Tip Penholder. It’s made in Germany of black plastic with a cork finger grip. This finger grip and its larger size, in comparison to the crow quill pen, make it more comfortable to hold. At the wide end of the penholder is a metal collar with metal grippers for inserting a nib.

I also have an inexpensive oblique pen holder, made in China. Oblique pen holders have a flange that allows you to keep the nib parallel to the writing slant so you are able to exert even pressure on both tines of the nib when doing pointed pen calligraphy. Plastic ones like mine can’t be adjusted but you can get ones with attached brass flanges to allow you to customize it to your grip and the style of calligraphy you are attempting. I’m still trying to master this and am wondering if a better quality oblique pen holder might be worth it.


I have a variety of nibs, some I got at a garage sale in a box of miscellaneous calligraphy supplies and others I acquired through the Edmonton Calligraphic Society. Not all nibs have reservoirs but those that do allow for more ink to be held from each dip so you don’t have to keep dipping quite so often. I tested all of the nibs with a Japanese type of calligraphy ink called “gakusyo” on Greys paper. For some of the nibs, in particular the very pointed ones, I think I would have got better results on smoother paper.

My M. Myers and Son vintage nibs have an interchangeable, removable reservoir that slips on and off the end of the nib. In addition to their number, each nib is inscribed with:


The M. Myers and Son company was founded in 1837 in England but as Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History reports in “1985 the company was sold to an American label company, Avery International, who wanted to expand their European office stationery business. The old Myers directors quickly retired and the business transformed virtually overnight from a typically English family firm to part of an international conglomerate, which sold the factory and its land in Langley Green, and like many other long established British companies, it is now a housing estate.” While it could be argued that housing has more social utility than manufacturing archaic pen nibs, it always seems a bit sad when multi-nationals take over small businesses only to close them.


My Speedball nibs all have reservoirs. If you read my blog about my Speedball crow quill pen, you will remember the Speedball brand began with the Howard Hunt Pen Company. There are still Speedball nibs being made today with the Hunt name on them and these are some of them. The A-5 and B-5 both are inscribed with:


The C-2 seems a bit newer and is inscribed with:


Ross F. George started off as a sign painter and began designing pens for the Hunt Pen Company in 1913. He shared his knowledge about lettering and sign painting through a periodical called the Speedball Text Book. I’m glad his name is still on these nibs.


My Hunt nibs without reservoirs are also made in the U.S.A. by Speedball. This is how the company describes them:

Hunt Pen Nib, School No. 56:  Fine, bronze finish drawing pen for art and writing – stiff action.

Hunt Pen Nib, Extra Fine No. 22:  Bronze finish pen for ornamental writing and fine ruling – medium stiff.

Hunt Pen Nib, Ex-Fine Bowl Pointed No. 512:  fine pen for ruling and lettering.


I have two Joseph Gillott nibs. This is another old British firm, even older than M. Myers and Son, having been established in 1827. However, these nibs are still made in Britain although as of 1967 they joined with another early Birmingham pen company, William Mitchell Ltd. As James Ward in The Perfection of the Paperclip relates, although an American patented a “metallic writing pen”, it was Birmingham, England that became the worldwide capital of steel pen manufacturing. My Gillott nibs are not in great shape so it is difficult to read the inscriptions on them.


I have one Japanese-made nib, the Tachikawa G nib. This is sometimes referred to as a “Comic Pen Nib” because its flexibility makes it good for drawing with, not just writing. Although it doesn’t have a reservoir, the pointed end is somewhat ridged which I assume is designed to hold ink better.


The last nib I have to share is stamped “Chicago Public School“. I wished I knew the history about this nib but it appears to be a topic on which the internet is silent. I can only assume there was a time when Chicago Public Schools ordered specific nibs for use in the classroom.


I am still figuring out how to get the most out of these pens but it has been fun learning more about them.

If dip pens were people, they would be stiff and a bit uptight but with a certain old-fashioned charm and grace about them.


Sheaffer Calligraphy Pens


A long time ago I was given a red Sheaffer calligraphy pen. I can’t remember if I asked my parents for it or if I was surprised but I suppose it started my interest in calligraphy. Later, I found a whole Sheaffer “No-Nonsense” calligraphy kit at a garage sale. The kit contained a pen with three nibs, ink cartridges, a practice pad, and an instructional booklet.


The side of the box says Sheaffer Eaton, Division of Textron Canada Limited, Goderich, Ontario so that dates it from some time after 1976 and before 1997. The instruction booklet is copyrighted 1982 which narrows down its age even more. Sheaffer began as an American company founded in 1913 in Iowa by Mr. Walter A. Sheaffer, a jeweler who invented a pen filling system. His initiative paid off and Sheaffer became a well-know name in pens.


Like so many pen companies, the Sheaffer Pen Corporation has been bought and sold a few times. In 1966 it was bought by Textron (at that time they owned a such odd collection of companies the Wall Street Journal in 1967 called Textron “the conglomerate king”). They then merged Sheaffer with Eaton but later Textron sold it to focus on what appears to be mainly military gear. BIC bought Sheaffer in 1997 and then in 2014 it was sold again, this time to the A.T. Cross Company.

I have experimented with these pens over the years but not with enough discipline to become really good. The pens use ink cartridges rather than an ink filling system. Although the ink cartridges are not really fun to use, they are easy and mess-free.


The red pen came with a medium stainless-steel nib but the kit has fine, medium, and broad nibs, marked F, M, and B. Because these are italic nibs for calligraphy, they are wider than standard fountain pen nibs. The nibs puncture the ink cartridge when they are inserted so once you start a cartridge you have to stick with it. This is where having more than one pen comes in handy as the ink cartridges come in a variety of colours but once a cartridge is puncture you have to stick with it. It seems the cartridges have not changed much over the years because I have never had any problem finding replacements.


I wrote “bold” but it is the broad nib. 

If Sheaffer calligraphy pens were people they wouldn’t be particularly sophisticated but they would be helpful and accommodating.

Pilot Gold and Silver Paint Markers


Tis the season for a little extra sparkle so I thought I would try the Japanese-made Pilot Gold and Silver Paint Markers. I bought these locally for just over $8 CDN for the set of two. These really are like paint, not ink. You need to shake them vigorously before using like you would a spray paint can and you even hear the same kind of clatter. The package has very specific instructions to that you must follow. Helpfully, these instructions are also summarized on the back of the pens themselves. They really do need to be shaken and tried out on a bit of scrap paper before you start writing. I had a couple of mis-starts but when I followed the steps they write well with a nice metallic sheen. The paint dries almost immediately; I only had some slight smudging with the silver pen. 

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After trying them on my regular notepaper, I wondered how they would work on something different so I pulled out my Canson sample book and tried the Ingres black paper. Ingres paper is a type of  fairly heavy drawing paper with a slight woven texture (this texture is officially called a laid mesh). The sample book only has black, but it says that it comes in seven other colours. The metallic sheen of the pens pops even better on the black paper.


These pens are called “extra fine” but that description is not particularly helpful as compared to a regular pen the line is fairly thick. The package also says that they mark permanently on a variety of surfaces but so far I have only tried them out on paper.

Overall, I like these markers. They are definitely a novelty pen but they do add some nice shine to the page.

If these pens were people they be fun-timers and love a noisy, festive party. 

What is your favourite ink colour?

Last month I received two questions from actual readers of this blog (no, I am not so desperate for topics that I am making up questions). I am away on holidays so I prepared answers ahead of time.

The first question was, which do I prefer, blue or black ink? My answer is why limit yourself to just blue or black. Thanks to modern chemistry there is a whole spectrum of ink colours to choose from. While not all of them may be practical or appropriate for an office setting, there is something to be said for going for a distinctive shade. Here are some options:



Black is a very traditional colour for ink and is sometimes required for use on forms. It is a very common colour for pens so I was able to round up a lot of them for my comparison. I was a bit surprised how much black inks vary in tone, some are much darker than others. I couple of these pens I have discussed before (Sharpie and Pilot FriXion). The Pelican Techno-Liner and Staedtler pigment liner I use more as drawing pens even though they write very well. The big surprise for me was the Papermate Inkjoy gel pen. I have tried the Inkjoy ballpoint pens and while they are fine for cheap pens, really nothing special. The gel pen version of this line is great. The barrel is a bit on the fat side but the writing is smooth and the ink very dark.



I was surprised at how few blue pens I had in my stash as generally I think of them as very common. I have given my opinion on the Sharpie and Inkjoy before and really there is not much to say about the Pentel RSVP. It is a very basic ballpoint stick pen with a nice rubber grip but not much to write a blog about. This one is a medium (1.0 mm point size) and writes fairly smoothly but like most ballpoints there is some unevenness in the line.



I wondered about including the Staedtler fineliner as I use it as an extremely fine marker more than as a pen but it does write well and the slightly triangular shape of the barrel stops it from rolling around. The Zebra Z-grip and the Inkjoy I have discussed before but the real find here is the Pilot Vpen. It deserves a blog of its own in the future. It is a disposable fountain pen which would be great for anyone who wants to try out a fountain pen without shelling out a lot of money. The colour of the ink is dark enough that I would consider this the only one of this group that could be taken seriously as a pen.

Brown and orange


The paleness and lack of gravitas of the orange pen make it pretty obvious why there are not a lot of orange pens out there but I was a bit surprised at how few brown pens there are. Brown was a traditional ink colour (think of ancient manuscripts) and can be quite readable but just doesn’t seem that popular.



I had so many green pens to include I could hardly fit them all on the page. I have no explanation for this as I wouldn’t have thought it would be that common a pen colour. In its darker forms, green is a very attractive and readable ink. I liked the smoothness of the Pentel Slicci but the thinness of the barrel makes it less comfortable to write with. The Pentel Energel was more comfortable but slightly less smooth to write with. The metallic sheen of the gel pen puts it into the novelty pen category but it is still very readable.



Purple is another colour I think can be taken seriously as an ink providing it is dark enough. After all, it was good enough for Byzantine royalty to sign their edicts with. I actually use the purple Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint all the time at work and have had no indication that people are laughing behind my back because of it.



I rarely use red because it reminds me of teacher’s pointing out mistakes so I was surprised at how many red pens I was able to round up. Of these pens, the Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint provides the deepest colour and smoothest line.



Pink is a nice cheery colour but it just seems too childish to be taken seriously as an ink. The Bic pen is a novelty pen that originally had four colours, turquoise, purple, light green, and pink. Of course, the turquoise and purple got used up first because what do you want to write in light green and pink?

If these pens were people they would be a mass of humanity. Different colours, strengths and weakness but really as they are all pens they have more in common than differences.

A shout out to Neil for lending me a number of his pens (including the wonderful Vpen) to include in my tests and to Deirdre and Jasmine for the question.

Speedball Crow Quill Pen

For those who consider fountain pens new-fangled, there are dip pens. Dip pens have a nib with a small reservoir that must be dipped into ink before writing. They started pushing quill pens out of favor sometime in the early 1800s and they were continued to be used in schools right up into the 1950s and 60s. These days they are mainly used by calligraphers and comic book artists.

I have a few dip pens and the smallest one I have is the Speedball Crow Quill. I got this pen and ink set at a bookbinding workshop I took at the Provincial Archives of Alberta a couple of years ago. The name “crow quill” reflects the history of dip pens when they really were made of feathers. Only the five feathers on the wing tips could be used for pen making. Right-handers used feathers from the left wing and lefties used feathers from the right wing. Swan and goose feathers were usually used but for really fine lines, like the ones needed for mapping, crow feathers were best. Alas, feathers are not very durable so when metal manufacturing improved in the 19th century, pen nibs began to be made of steel. I like how crow quill pens have kept their name though.

The name Speedball, not to be confused with the illicit drug, also reflects some history. In the early part of the 19th century, speedball meant someone who was really fast (other slang originating from that time included dingbat and goof for a silly person and hoosegow for jail). The C. Howard Hunt Pen Company joined forces with an expert letterer, Ross George, to improve their dip pens and the result was nicknamed “Speedball” because it was said to cut working time in half. Alas, the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company is no more but the Speedball brand lives on.


You get a very fine line with these pens but as the nib is split, when you press a bit harder you do get a slightly thicker line. Down strokes are definitely easily to write than up strokes. Writing with a crow quill pen has a scratchy feel and works better on smoother paper. I like the very black ink that came with it. As is suitable for something I got at the archives, it is acid-free and archival quality.


 If crow quill pens were people they would come off being a bit abrasive and old-fashioned but once you got to know them you would see that they have an artistic side to them too.

Zebra Z-Grip Ballpoint Retractable Pen


I got an unusual request via my daughter. A woman she only referred to as a “friend” asked if I take requests of pens to review on the blog. Never having had a request before, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. Plus, as the Zebra Z-Grip only cost $.75 CDN, it was well within the MPP2P budget. I went ahead and purchased what the manufacturer calls the teal and violet colours.

The anonymous requester is left-handed and loves the Z-Grip because it doesn’t smudge. Lefties have many challenges in a right-handed world including, as the Handedness Research Institute has studied, handwriting. The Zebra Pen Corporation itself promotes its rapid dry ink as being a boon to lefties and claim on their website “this is something left-handed people have been dreaming of since 3000 BC when writing on papyrus scrolls and reed pens was fashionable. Progress takes time, but it’s worth it, thanks to the innovators at Zebra pen.” Their corporate blog even includes posts like “5 Fun Facts About Lefties”. I’m not left-handed myself but I like it when companies consider the needs of minority groups.

Although these pens are made in China, the company was founded in Japan in 1914 by a Mr. Ishikawa. He had big plans for his company and wanted a name that would work in the export market so he picked up a an English/Japanese dictionary and opened it from the back, Japanese style, and didn’t get too far before he stopped at Zebra. Their website says it appealed to him as a name because zebras are gentle animals with a strong family herding instinct, just like the type of business culture he wanted to nurture. He also found zebras visually appealing because it “looks like it is decorated with large calligraphic pen strokes”.

Now about these pens in particular – they are ballpoint pens but are a step up from stick pens in that these are retractable. This is nice if you have a habit of losing pen caps or find it relaxing to repetitively click on the end. They have a comfortable rubbery ridged grip and a clear barrel so you can see if the ink supply is getting low. Unfortunately there is no way to refill them so into the landfill they go unless you have access to a pen recycling program, but they do get points for coming without packaging. The tip of the pen has a diameter of 1.0 mm which is on the larger size (you can get pens that are half that). The larger the diameter of the tip, the more ink flows out so smaller tips give a finer line and larger tips a bolder line. The more ink flowing out also means larger tip pens get used up faster (I could already see a noticeable reduction in the ink level just from testing the pens) so an argument could be made it is more economical and eco-friendly to go with fine line pens. The ink is oil based which is why it resists smudging.


Personally, I quite like the feel of these pens but I don’t consider them exceptional. The purple (violet) is a very nice colour but the turquoise (teal) is a bit dull and doesn’t write as smoothly. I was wondering if it was just me who was underwhelmed by the performance of these pens, so I asked a few other people (including two lefties) to try them out and give their impressions. Alas, no one was particularly impressed but I do think these pens are good value for the price.

If a Zebra pen was a person it would be a bold and colourful individual, accepting of all types. This person has nothing to hide and is easy to get hold of but keep in mind they are budget conscious so don’t plan an expensive outing.

Promotional stationery items


Even though I love special pens and paper, I have to admit a lot of the stationery supplies in my home are actually promotional items. One of my daughters gets so many she told me she’d feel like a chump if she actually paid for these items (James Ward in The Perfection of the Paperclip calls this type of behaviour the “stationery equivalent of freeganism”). Even though she works in the tech sector, she is still given lots of pens and paper. So why are pens and paper still considered a great promotional giveaway item in the digital age? In short, because companies find it works. According to a survey carried out in 2016 by the Promotional Products Association International (alright so it doesn’t appear to be an unbiased source) companies consider promotional items more effective than social media and nearly as effective as all other media. Companies like to supply a useful product and consumers like to get them and use them.  In fact, 81 percent of consumers keep promotional products for more than a year.

So starting with pens, as they seem to be the most popular item to use as a giveaway, here are some of the promotional desk items around our house.

Pens – Only hotels that don’t want you to walk away with their pens and non-profit organizations hand out stick pens. Most of the time, I don’t even pick them up which is why I don’t have a reminder of my fabulous stay at the Ramada in Grand Forks, British Columbia.


Not only do most companies do better than stick pens, it seems just offering a pen is not enough. Many of the pens have a highlighter at one end, and one highlighter I have, has sticky flags on the end.


I even have a pen with hand sanitizer on the end which seems a bit odd but I guess it falls into the category of handy things to have in your bag.


Occasionally you can find something really different like the APEGA pen where when you click on the end, it lights up in a rainbow display of colours like a rave glow stick (the photos don’t do it justice, it really flickers and glows). This pen is from a few years ago when oil and gas prices were higher so the party is pretty much over for them now but still, what were you thinking Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta?  




Pencils – It seems pencil giveaways are mainly aimed at kids but I do have a nifty little set that comes with two recycled pencils, a recycled pen, and a little wooden sharpener. One of the pencils is a bit shorter in order for it all to fit into the cylindrical cardboard container (all made in China). It gives off an eco-friendly vibe that is a bit jarring for a mining company.


Paper – Paper is also a frequent giveaway mainly as shopping lists or pads of post-it notes but I do have a couple of nice promotional journals.  The paper in the domain.com one is creamy and surprisingly good quality. I also like the built-in ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and the pocket on the inside back cover. Domain.com you have impressed me as a classy company, too bad your website doesn’t give the same impression.


The Resolver journal is not quite as good quality but not bad and both of them get bonus points for keeping the branding somewhat subtle. Both journals have nicely rounded corners but I prefer a binding that allows the journal to lie flatter when opened than either of these journals.


It seems promotional pens and paper are going to be given away for years to come.

If a promotional item was a person they would be a bit brash with a “remember me, remember me” kind of attitude. Not really a close friend but you still hang around with them because they are useful.