Saturday, March 24, 2007

Caran d’Ache Fixpencil Mechanical Pencil Review

Caran d’Ache Fixpencil Mechanical Pencil Review

Well in the world of Caran d’Ache, the Fixpencil (or Metal Collection) is one of their more basic and less expensive mechanical pencils, available in a range of colours.

The Fixpencil is an all metal construction pencil. The hexagonal aluminium body is powder coat painted, and in black it almost looks and feels like one of those slightly rubberised paints, but its not. The pocket clip is a separate piece, it can actually slide up and down the body, but it’s quite tight and won’t slide accidentally. It’s a very strong clip, but not too strong - there is no way this pencil is going to come unstuck from whatever it was clipped to. For an all metal Caran d’Ache pencil, it is very lightweight. That would be the aluminium body, but to be honest I’m more used to CdA all metal heavyweight pencils. There is no special grip section or grip enhancements, but the matt paint finish actually provides pretty good grip. It’s good to be able to grip the pencil wherever you want – down low or up high. The hexagonal body and lightweight make the writing experience a little reminiscent of using an ordinary wooden pencil. Personally though I would probably prefer the body to be just a fraction wider.

The lead advance mechanism is a push top ratchet, with a very positive loud click when activated. Only a small length of lead is advanced with each click. There is a short little retractable lead sleeve so the pencil is pocket safe, but the sleeve is too short to be considered suitable for draughting. The short lead advance is actually a bit of a pain, you have to click it more than usual when writing. The mechanism does have one other slightly annoying trait - it rattles inside the main body. Basically if you flick the pencil around the top button rattles against the rim of the body. This can sometimes be a bit annoying when you pick the pencil up or jiggle it in your fingers.

There is a small eraser under the top button, it’s about 4.5mm in diameter with 10mm of useable length. There is also a needle for clearing lead jams. Because the lead advance mechanism requires more than normal force to activate it, you can remove the top button, use the eraser and replace the button without accidentally advancing the lead. You refill the lead magazine by removing the eraser.

  • Best Points – The very “solid” lead advance mechanism.
  • Not So Good Points – The rattle.
  • Price Range – Mid.

Dimensions – Length 131mm, width 7mm across the flats of the hexagon. Balance point about 65mm up from the tip.

Even though I only acquired my Fixpencil a couple of years ago, I’m not really sure of its exact current status. Mine is marked “Fixpencil 0.5, Metal Swiss Made, Caran D’Ache” but in the current Caran d’Ache catalogue the ‘Fixpencil Collection’ is 2mm or 3mm lead only, and doesn’t have a chrome tip section like mine. There is also the very similar ‘Metal Collection’ in 0.7mm which also doesn’t have the chrome tip section. So basically I think I’ve got an earlier version of the current Metal Collection pencil. But then I haven’t done exhaustive research into it all, so who really knows?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Dark Side

I suppose it’s inevitable really, at some stage or other it probably had to happen. You can’t go buying lots of pencils made by pen companies and not have some thoughts of the Dark Side flit through your mind. This week, gentle reader, we journey into the realm of the Ink Lords, as I put myself to the test, face the Sirens of Inkish Temptation head on, and see if I can remain true to the graphite. Will I fall like Anakin Skywalker, or emerge like Luke?

So exactly how did I come to possess these instruments of liquid ink? Well, with my “Conway Stewart phase” in full swing, most vintage CS pencils for sale in this part of the world are sold as part of a fountain pen & pencil set. Thus to get my hands on the pencil, I had to buy the pen. Soon the little voices of temptation started whispering in ear. Go on, it couldn’t hurt, just buy a bottle of ink and give one a try. What harm could it do?

Actually it was little bit harder than that. Firstly of course these pens are many decades old, so they need servicing and new ink bladders before being filled with ink. Sometime earlier I had discovered that, much to my surprise, there is actually a guy here in NZ who does fountain pen servicing. Astonishing! Anyway, I sent my pens to him and then everything was ready.

So here they, are my two Conway Stewart No 15 pens, one blue marble / black veins the other green marble / black veins. I believe CS no.15’s were produced from 1952 to 1963 in the UK, and they were a common brand and pen here in NZ. I must at this stage apologise for the state of my photography of these pens. My camera is just a basic Kodak digital, and although I think my photos have got a lot better over the course of this blog, I can’t do justice to these marbled pens. They really are quite beautiful. Deep vibrant lustrous colours that come from way down inside the body of the pen. Good quality gold plated metal trims. Even after 50 years these gold trims show little evidence of wear. I think that Conway Stewart were one of those companies that marketed “top quality, but at an affordable price” - making good quality writing instruments for the market at large. The green pen was auctioned by a local person, and I arranged for my wife to call around to their workplace, and pick up the pen set. It turned out the seller was a young doctor, who had used the pen at school. Very unusual in this day and age, but his school insisted all students used fountain pens to learn the art of good handwriting. No ballpoint pens allowed on school property! He had always admired his grandfathers Conway Stewart, so when he had to have one for school, he saw this set in a car boot sale and bought it, and then used it through his studies. But then time moved on, he hadn’t used it for many years….my wife was half expecting him to back out of the sale, or shed a tear. Anyway she assured him it was going to a good home! Well, at least the pencil was. Moving right along….

So, my pens are serviced and ready to go. Down to the local stationery supplies store for a bottle of ink – I chose Watermans blue/black.

I had read a little on writing with a fountain pen, and a few people had given me some advice, so I knew to only press lightly, to let the nib glide over the paper, not push it into the paper as I can be prone to do with pencil and ballpoint. Every nib has its own “sweet spot”, the angle and position at which it works best, find that spot, and you are away.

I guess at first I was little afraid of the pens, or rather of them leaking and making a mess everywhere. You certainly do need to treat them respect, compared to a ballpoint pen. You can’t wave them around or just throw them down onto your desk like you can a pencil. You also need to answer the question, “To post or not to post?”, as in “Do I stick the cap on the end of the pen when writing, or not?” Personally I found either way alright to write with, but I generally prefer a heavier, and top-heavy feel, so in the long run I would probably be a “poster” and write with the cap stuck onto the end of the pen body. This probably does lead to some wear or damage on the body over the long term.

I quickly noticed that if my paper wasn’t dead flat on the desk then I did get some “drags” between letters. Also things were not so good if the writing surface wasn’t smooth – a thin sheet of paper on a lightly patterned desktop and the inkflow would become irregular. You also have to wait for the ink to dry, which may take more than a few seconds, but to experience the true sensation of a 1950’s businessman, I thought I should speed things up and invest in a couple of vintage ink blotters. Genuine “artistic” blotters from the 1940’s through 60’s are seemingly cheap and plentiful. I got these three - purely for historical research purposes you understand!

There was a huge difference in inkflow between my two pens. Both had Conway Stewart 1A nibs, but they worked best at quite different angles, and the green pen just hosed out ink in comparison to the blue pen.

The coverage of fountain pen inks is no where as solid as ballpoint pen inks, but I guess that’s inevitable as ballpoint ink is so much thicker and viscous. Also when you start writing with the fountain pen the very first part of your first letter can be missed as the inkflow hasn’t started in time. I did have occasional trouble with leakage on both my pens. It was almost as if the ink bladder had become pressurised and was forcing the ink out. A blob would form under the nib. I returned them to the serviceman for another look, but he said they were working fine, although I could try a different ink. I was sort of left a bit stranded, because I don’t think they were working quite properly, and I didn’t want to go buying half a dozen different brands of ink to muck around with.

Well eventually my trial was over, I had walked into the Inkish Abyss, and emerged from the Dark Side, seemingly unscathed - I think I will use these fountain pens every now and then, but I’m a graphite person, through and true.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Pencils of Vice

Ahhh, sad but true, some poor innocent little pencils end up forced into lives of sin and debauchery. Corrupted with “extra features” they are employed to try and lead us astray.

First we have The Demon Drink.

This pencil is an old advertising pencil for the Scotch Whisky, "Bullochlade Gold Label". The lettering is impressed into the plastic body, so you can still read it, but I guess it was originally also colour printed as well and that has worn off. The “wood look” body seems reminiscent of barrels of whisky maturing in the picturesque glens of Scotland. Nowadays Bullochlade is a brand of worldwide drinks mega-corp Diageo.

A little penknife blade folds out of the body, perhaps to help cut the foil around the neck of your bottle of Gold Label? Or to whittle away on a stick whilst you savour your fine malt blend, sliding oh so slowly and gently down the slippery path to damnation.
For a touch of irony, this pencil of fine Scotch Whisky also bears the lettering “Made in England”.
Next we have The Insidious Weed.

This is a penciliter - “It Lights, It Writes” - a pencil at one end, a cigarette lighter at the other. It is Ronson brand. These were apparently made with a variety of body types – rolled gold, rhodium plated, etc. This particular one is a sort of rubberised type paint finish, probably making it one of the cheaper versions. Still it’s quite interesting. Plenty of spark when you operate the mechanism, so I’m sure it would still light up a ciggy or two. You twist the tip to propel or repel (return) the lead. The pencil unit and the lighter unit both just pull out of the body for servicing, etc.

Then of course The Indolent Lady Luck.

Another advertising pencil, but this otherwise seemingly innocent little pencil is rotten to the core. Twist off the top and out fall 5 little poker dice.
Come on, no one is looking, bring on the games of chance - give in to the vicissitudes of the dice and gamble your life away!

Finally of course, we have The Temptations of the Flesh.

Sex sells. Back in the1950’s it was “If hot babes like this airline stewardess can see your upmarket writing instrument then you’ll score for sure.” (National Geographic Magazine, back cover, May 1957).
Taking things to the extreme though, was of course, “The Nudie Pencils”, as per my previous posting.
PS – Just for the record, I’m not really a moralising hardcore fundamentalist prohibitionist type, I do occasionally enjoy one or two of these vices myself.

Lamy Vivo Mechanical Pencil Review

Lamy Vivo (Model 150/7) Mechanical Pencil Review

I don’t think you could ever accuse Lamy of being a staid and conventional company, afraid to try something different. From the display case to the lead advance activator, the Vivo is “different”.

So first off I opened up the FedEx parcel and there was a rectangular block of black foam and card with a little blob of orange embedded in it. Turns out this is the standard packaging of the Vivo - the foam is split lengthwise and you just pull your pencil out of it. The instructions for use of ballpoint pen and pencil are printed on one face of the card wrapper. As usual, the Lamy name is very understated, just lightly embossed into the card wrapper.

The Vivo consists of a plain stainless steel tube with a conical plastic front section and a plastic top cap and small pocket clip.
One of the unusual features of the Vivo is its lead advance. Actually its just an ordinary push ratchet mechanism, but instead of having a side button or push top, you slide down the pocket clip to activate the “side slide” ratchet lead mechanism. The lead sleeve is a fully retractable 2mm steel tube, so the pocket clip slider also allows you to retract the sleeve for pocket safety. The upper face of the pocket clip has deep grooves moulded into it to give excellent grip when activating the mechanism. As a pocket clip, the clip itself is surprisingly strong though a little difficult to use. It’s not spring loaded and rather short so it’s not really good on any thicker fabric, best just on a thin business shirt.

This whole “side slide” lead mechanism took a little getting used to, but I quite like it, its something a bit different, and that’s one of Lamy’s trademarks.

To refill the lead magazine you unscrew the front plastic section and the whole pencil mechanism comes out of the tubular body. The lead magazine has an end cap in it which you pull out and can then refill the lead magazine. It’s a fairly thin magazine so you can only get 1 or 2 spare sticks of lead in there. The end cap also has a needle wire attached to it to help clear any lead jams.
There is no eraser with the Vivo. I can’t help but feel there is some sort of lost opportunity here. There is a lot of empty space inside the steel body and I’m sure they could have got an eraser in there. I suppose you could possibly also store a few extra leads inside there too, just like on many vintage pencils. Actually the whole process of having to unscrew the front section to replace the lead is reminiscent of vintage pencils. I quite like that. Back to the Future.

The Vivo is available in 0.7mm lead only. The barrel is a smooth steel tube with no specific grip zone or grip enhancements. Not surprisingly the grip wasn’t the best after prolonged use on a hot summer day. At 10mm diameter this grip is a little bigger than average. I would have preferred something just a little narrower. I think I might be going through a “phase”. I guess that’s part of being a subjective reviewer, no matter how much I try to be objective, preferences change over time and its difficult to quantify the reasons for many likes or dislikes.
The plastic componentry on the Vivo comes in a choice of four colours - orange, green, blue (azure), and black. I am very pleased with my choice of orange. It is a very strong bright almost fluorescent orange and it looks great against the steel body. Trust me, my photos don’t really do it justice. The only markings on the pencil are a “7” moulded into the top cap, and “LAMY” is printed in small letters at the top of the steel body.

Overall, somewhat to my surprise, this is another winner from Lamy.
  • Best Points – Definitely something different.
  • Not So Good Points – Not much, but if I have to choose something then the grip isn’t the best, and some might feel they should have got an eraser in there on way or another.
  • Price Range – Low.

Dimensions – Length 140mm, diameter 10mm. Balance point about 75mm up from the tip.

Footnote – The Lamy agent for my country has recently decided to stop importing their mechanical pencils. Apparently it's pens only from now on. Hopefully this is not a sign of Lamy’s future exit from the mechanical pencil market, and that worldwide their mechanical pencil sales remain strong.