The good and the bad… but at least they’re not ugly.

19 02 2022

Late in 2021 my family asked – as is traditional at that time of year – what I’d like for Christmas. Christmas fills 50% of the occasions (my birthday being the other) that I’m allowed to ask for pens and not cause a reflex reaction of an eyebrow (or two) being raised in some small degree of apoplexy.

It’s well known that I have “a thing” for pens in matte black – ideally with all black furniture and a black nib too. They’re colloquially called “stealth” style… or as Mrs E. calls them “oh, I see you’ve got another black pen to go with all the others”. But they are all different in their ways, as we shall see if you care to peruse further, dear reader….

So, mid-February, and Cult Pens in the UK finally received the stock to fulfill the orders they’d pre-sold in December and shipped on to the eagerly waiting QE here in Canada. I received a pair of “stealth” pens that are very different from each other indeed.

First up is a Parker IM from their achromatic range… the matte black option of course. I’ve got a soft spot for Parker, even though they are a very different company under Newell Rubbermaid. Gone are the days of elegant understated quality, and in are the money grabbing margin junkies that have bought out (or even relaunched) some of the great marques of the fountain pen world.

The neat box that the pen comes in displays the royal warrant emblems showing that both Queenie and Chaz are users of their wares, but then I recall Rentokill also displays the same, so it’s no big deal in and of itself.

Royal warrants – Parker IM packaging

Turning the box around, and I’m shocked to discover that the IM is manufactured in China, and not, as I’d naïvely assumed, Nantes, France (long gone are the Newhaven days)! I read on the great Parker history resource ParkerPens.net that production largely moved to Shanghai when the Newhaven factory closed in 2010.

Global supply chains

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I have nothing inherently against items manufactured in China: it was merely unexpected. Many western brands have either moved their manufacturing operations to China or have contracted companies already established there to provide manufacturing for them. Either sub-assemblies or entire products. Indeed my own employer, a well known American brand, produces high quality, high complexity technology, supplied to an international market, and makes it in a plant in Shanghai.

There is nothing inherently poor quality in either materials or fabrication merely because an item is manufactured in China. But the opportunity is undeniably there if a company is looking to shave some money out of the cost and increase its margins. But let us continue…

The achromatic IM was a gift suggestion, based on little other than the fact it was all black and made by Parker. I was pretty confident that it would be a middle of the road “office pen”, nothing fancy, but a good solid offering from a favourite vendor. Opening the box, I was neither shocked or amazed. It was totally adequate, secure and fuss-free – so far exactly as anticipated. Having been caught out on previous occasions, I took the precaution of lifting the bed that the pen rested on and found the anticipated proprietary Parker blue cartridge hidden there.

Initial impressions were good. The pen is – as advertised – achromatic, with a matte black finish to the metal cap and barrel and slightly more glossy black furniture. There’s a flat finial on the barrel, and a slightly domed one over the clip, which whilst being unmistakably “Parker” feels a little cheap and is a stamped arrow on a folded metal clip. It seems functional though, and there are no sharp edges to snag your clothes if you do use the clip to secure the pen.

The cap rim is also more glossy metal and is stamped with two rings and the Parker logo and name. In addition there is the manufacture-date stamp; in this case “UII”. This translates to 2021, Q2, I believe.

No longer able to contain my inquisitiveness, I popped off the plastic-lined cap, which is secure and shows no play, and found the section and nib to be a little smaller than anticipated. The nib’s quite wide at the shoulder, and the feed is broader than 5mm, but it’s generally in that #5 size range so common in smaller pens. The section is smooth plastic, but comfortable to hold and not overly slippy. It is bookended by black steel bands at both the barrel join and the nib collar, continuing the rather tasteful muted black on black design. Overall – a handsome, smallish pen. Cult Pens gives its dimensions as 137mm long capped, 117mm uncapped, 152mm posted. 12mm wide, 9.5mm at grip… and I have no reason to doubt their measurements.

Parker IM – the business end

I then unscrewed the section from the barrel. And here things began to descend a little…

This is far from a premium pen – I believe the selling price was ~CA$80 – but not cheap either. It’s only a few dollars less than the ubiquitous TWSBI Diamond 580ALR can be had for, and that’s a well regarded piston filler. However, I was utterly horrified to discover that Parker don’t supply a converter with the IM. Given that they have a proprietary size which forces you to buy their own converter at an additional cost, this felt like a simple money grab. Why not just add a few dollars to the asking price and include it? Needless to say, I’ll be syringe-filling old cartridges until I inevitably finally cave and shell out for a Parker converter at some future point.

The plastic of the section continues up to form the threaded collar for the cartridge/unsupplied converter and though there’s no external sign on the smooth section, there are clear seams on the threads and collar. I’m not sure if I’m annoyed at the lack of quality to the finish, or impressed that they seem to have completely avoided them on the visible external parts of the section.

Oddly – I’m reminded of the last house I owned in the UK. It was built in the 1930s, and when we had some rewiring done, it involved lifting up the kitchen floorboards. Underneath, where nobody would reasonably ever be expected to see, was some beautiful lattice brickwork to support the tiled area above that would originally have supported a heavy Aga-style stove. This oozed quality to me because it showed just as much attention to detail in the hidden areas where nobody would ever check, as it did in the visible areas.

Here I got the opposite vibe – this smacked of cut corners and penny pinching. The smooth section showed the technical capability to remove all manufacturing blemishes, the seamed threads demonstrated a lack of willingness to do so. Much worse though – these plastic threads screw into the metal threads of the barrel, and already there is an accumulation of white swarf from the wear on the soft plastic from the unscrewing/re-screwing of the barrel. So far, the joint remains firm and slop-free. I hope it remains so.

At the end of the day, this is not a bad pen, and it writes perfectly adequately. But it’s just not that good either! For an order of magnitude less money I have acquired the similarly styled Jinhao 95 – with frankly better build quality.

Jinhao 95: image from Amazon.ca

And also (I did tell you I had more than a few “stealth” pens!) the Jinhao 85, with a suspiciously similar Parker-esque clip.

Jinhao 85: Image source AliExpress

Then there’s the Hong Dian 517D. These are all in the ~$10 range if you buy directly from Chinese vendors such as on AliExpress and I would argue demonstrate at least as good build quality. They’re all-metal construction, come with international standard converters and nibs that are definitely on par with that offered by Parker in its IM.

Hong Dian 517D: image source AliExpress

To be clear – these are all Chinese manufactured pens (I didn’t include my Lamy Studio LX which is more expensive)… and they’re better than the Parker. So it has nothing to do with manufacturing location or manufacturing capability. In my view, at the price point Parker is commanding for the IM, it should be able to offer a much higher level of experience, whether that is as simple as including a converter or using better nibs. I am sad to say that in my view, the achromatic IM simply is just an “also ran”.

So let’s move on to something good…

A while back I treated myself to a Narwhal Schuylkill Fountain Pen in Porpita Navy. Supposedly a limited edition, but they still seem to be available. It was my first piston filler and I fell in love. I now own a few, and I love the sheer volume of ink those pens can hold. When I saw Narwhal were introducing a range of ebonite pens of a somewhat chonky girth – the Nautilus – I asked for one for Christmas. There are now several options, but initially there were two all-black models with matte black or antique brass finish. I selected the black-on-black option – the Cephalopod. (All their pen models reference sea creatures). Though I’ve enjoyed my Schuylkill, I found its F nib a little too fine for my taste and selected a medium this time around. And I love everything about it.

It’s a sizeable pen, for sure, but the ebonite is surprisingly light, without feeling flimsy or cheap. It really evokes those vintage pens from the early days of fountain pen design. The whole pen is polished to a high gloss, and it’s difficult to imagine this early plastic is essentially the same material as a car tyre!

Narwhal Cephalopod (colour photo!)

The general design attempts to evoke a somewhat victorian vibe for the Nautilus, as the name would imply. The ink view is provided by 3 port-holes, trimmed with black metal. This is matched by a similar plain black metal cap clip, a simple metal curved finial on the cap to echo the curved ebonite blind cap on the barrel and finally the metal band separating the barrel from the blind cap.

See that ink slosh around…

The rim of the cap, on the other hand, is highly decorated with wave motifs and the name NARWHAL stamped twice on it.

Decoration on the Cephalopod cap rim

The cap comes off with two full turns, for those of you who care for such details. This reveals a gorgeously decorated #6 nib, complete with the Narwhal logo. On the Cephalopod model, the nib is black, and in my case was a lovely wet writer – a joy to use.

His nibs…

Now this is not a cheap pen in absolute terms (~CA$140)… but I believe it is great value, and punches well over its weight. It arrives in a simple but elegant presentation box with a magnetic closure to the lid. It is made entirely of ebonite, which we know from experience can last 100+ years in a pen, if not overly abused. It is handsome and well-made. The nib unit can be removed for easy cleaning of the innards as well as a thorough cleaning of the nib itself. Should disaster befall the nib, it is easily replaced with any number of alternatives from Narwhal and others.

Now – this pen does not fit the same place in the usage curve as the Parker IM, but of the two, I would most heartily recommend the Narwhal. As my North American friends are wont to say “your mileage may vary”…





51 Clones

4 11 2020

Not unlike many fountain pen users I have acquired a couple of examples of the classic Parker 51 along the way. One I paid for, one I inherited. I love both, but not in any particularly sentimental way – they just write really well.

I’m not a complete philistine though – I acknowledge their age and look after them as well as I am able. That means no fancy inks that might damage their innards, and being careful they get no more scratches than their lives thus far have bestowed.

My “Made in USA” teal P51 has a barrel stamp declaring “51” which though coincidental actually indicates it was manufactured in 1951, according to the awesome Parker dating references at ParkerPens.net. It has a fine nib and is a lovely smooth writer.

1951 Parker 51 – Made in U.S.A.

My other – black – P51 is Made in England and dates from the second quarter of 1942, as indicated by the older dating system of “2.”. The nib on this is more medium and is really smooth on most writing surfaces. It was originally owned by a lady before it came to my father, and it’s in better condition than the one made almost a decade later.

Q2 1942 Parker 51 – Made in England

I do enjoy using these venerable old stylos, but feel restricted by the need to treat them with a modicum of reverence. They are, after all, 70+ years old!

Two old dears waiting for a hand

I read somewhere of Parker’s brief flirt with potentially manufacturing Parker 45s in China with the HERO company. Indeed, there was totally legitimate transfer of intellectual property from Parker – these were no mere “cheap knock-offs”. It ultimately stalled, but I was left to ponder whether a HERO clone of the Parker 51 might give me a route to using a pen with a similar feel to my two lovable old dears but with modern materials and a price I could afford to replace if things went horribly wrong with some dodgy ink or other (I’m looking at you, Noodler’s!).

A few minutes with Aunty Google and I discovered the HERO 616, for the princely sum of $1.42. Canadian! What could possibly go wrong?!

OK – so (very) superficial evidence to the contrary… this is no Parker 51. The pen feels very light – 12g versus the genuine 20g, and looks very much like the $1.42 it cost was mostly spent on sandwiches rather than manufacturing.

There is a sharp, catchy burr on the “jewel” – which looks more like a piece of pressed or even poured aluminium. Unusual for these days, it has an aeromatic filler rather than a converter/cartridge. On arrival however, the outer squeeze tube wasn’t even properly in place. An easy fix, but what turned out to be an indication of the general build quality. I’m trying to be objective, and please remember this only cost $1.42. The fit of the cap seems secure enough, but as you may be able to see in the photo below, there is a lot of space around the opening with the pen inserted, and the cap lip itself is quite thin, if not actually sharp. The cap is firmly held though – the clutch is deep inside and holds the section firmly in place.

The clip is a poor copy of the Parker arrow and is cheaply pressed steel. The sharp “jewel” turns out to be a simple bolt and the clip can be easily removed and replaced if you’d like to greatly increase the value of the pen with something more aesthetic from say Beaufort Ink.

Metal shroud wasn’t properly pressed over the sac on arrival
Catchy molding on “jewel” – the bolt holding the clip on, and poor clip alignment
A poorly stamped, fake arrow
Poor fit of cap showing square-cut opening and uneven loose fit

OK – enough grumbling. At the end of the day, a pen is a way of delivering ink to a page. What kind of a job does the HERO 616 do for it’s sub-Biro price?

My particular HERO 616 was a horribly scratchy writer

Well – I tried to be as kind as possible and filled it with blue Quink – a very reliable and forgiving ink. The nib is nominally EF with a stated width of 0.38mm. I may have got unlucky, but my pen was unusable! It was so scratchy it gouged up the Fabriano paper I was using and got paper fibres stuck between the tines. I pulled out the tubular nib and did some judicious flossing and tweaking, but to no avail. Later I might try swapping in a Jinhao nib – I’ve had a lot of success with them in the past. For now though – this pen is barely worth the $1.42 for a spare sac!

Next, I’ll move up to a pen worth twice as much! Yup… a whole $2.80 Canadian.

I have many vices, but if we focus for a moment on those related to fountain pens I have 3 primary ones. Well 2½. I love utilitarian “tool-like” pens, typically all in metal. Steel, aluminium, brass, etc. Related to that, I have a soft spot for Parker’s so-called “Flighter” offerings which are all-steel (or more properly “Lustraloy”) and began with the Parker 45 in the 60s I believe. Finally, I have a thing for “stealth” pens – all matte black, preferably including the nib.

So while I was checking out the HERO 616, I came across the Jinhao 911. At 19g it’s slightly lighter than a real Parker 51, despite its metal barrel. Now Jinhao occupy a slightly higher perch in Chinese pen making, and I’ve had great success with several of their offerings in the past, as well as using their easily obtainable nibs to resurrect some otherwise defunct old pens.

Jinhao 911 with grandad Parker 51

Despite their Jinhao 75 model sporting a decidedly Parker-esque arrow clip, and more than a passing resemblance to a Sonnet, they are confident enough in their own identity to proudly brand their pens with their name.

The Jinhao 911 is a slimmer pen than the Parker 51 and does not sport a Parker-like clip. It seems well-finished and has nicely machined “jewels” in steel at both cap and barrel end.

Nicely finished steel “jewels”

The cap fits snuggly and as mentioned, proudly declares both the Jinhao brand and the 911 model.

Proudly branded Jinhao

The section is slightly longer and slimmer than a Parker 51, but the styling is obviously heavily influenced. There are steel threads on the section making for a pleasingly solid connection with the barrel, unlike the vaguely uncommitted plastic threads of the HERO 616. The 911 comes with a standard international converter of Jinhao’s own making and unfussily gets the job done. Actually – there are TWO “standard” converter widths. This is the wider 3.4mm opening. There’s a 2.6mm one as well. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. Occasionally it does!

Seems well made with good fit and finish

Not a lot more to say really. It looks handsome, well-made and could easily have come from Parker’s own stable. As I’ve come to expect from Jinhao EF/0.38mm nibs, it wrote perfectly straight out of the bubble-wrap (AliExpress vendors aren’t big on packaging!) If you’re not a pen-snob, this is a very capable solidly built pen with a few design nods thrown towards Parker’s 51, but plenty of its own style.

No messing – writes smoothly, straight out of the envelope

One final pen that caught my eye on AliExpress was another Jinhao. Another hike in price and a bit more blatant of a clone. The Jinhao 51A (Yup – they went there) comes in at $4.32 Canadian – still less than a latte at several well-known coffee chains I refuse to mention. Remove the cap, and this could almost be a Parker 51… with a wooden barrel! The attraction for me was the rosewood barrel, so I paid the extra few dollars to see if it looked as good in the flesh. It does. It’s also available in maple, ebony, peach and tiger wood. Possibly others too.

Again, I wasn’t expecting much for less than $5, but this is as well made as the 911. The wooden barrel has a brass insert to provide a good solid screw connection to the section. The section itself is almost identical to that of the Parker 51, save that the hood is slightly more rounded than the original.

Parker 51 (left) with newcomer Jinhao 51A

Despite the wooden barrel, it actually comes in slightly heavier than the original at 21g.

Hard to see in the photo above, but the Jinhao 51A cap is much more like the Parker 51’s except for a distinctly different clip. Again proudly stamped with Jinhao and 51A, but also with the Parker 51’s band etched a couple of millimetres from the cap opening. The steel jewel much more closely echoes the Parker 51 than did the 911 because the cap and entire pen is slightly fatter to match the original.

Another smooth writing experience. This time from the Jinhao 51A… likely with the same nib as the 911

So – conclusions? Well there’s no denying the Parker 51 spawned many lookalikes and even bare-faced clones over its illustrious career. Parker themselves are even re-releasing a lookalike at a laughably high price point.

Family resemblance? Jinhao 51A, Jinhao 911, HERO 616, a brace of Parker 51s

The HERO 616 unashamedly attempts to copy a Parker 51. It’s an aeromatic-like filler and even has an arrow clip. But it uses cheap components and is poorly finished. I could even forgive all that if it had a half decent nib and at least put ink on paper. It does not, and though I have had similarly poor performance from pens costing very much more, this is unforgivable in a pen. Its sole job is to write, and if it can not perform that task, it is of no use no matter its price or prettiness. The HERO 616 is not pretty, despite its pretensions, and though this particular specimen may be saved at some future date if I ever bother swapping the nib, it is not high on my priorities!

I hesitate before commenting on the Jinhao 911. I think I might argue that it is not so much a copy of the Parker 51 than it is heavily influenced by it. It is slimmer, echoes some of the later model Parkers, has a bit of the “Flighter” vibe about it, but is undeniably a Jinhao. It doesn’t pull the old arrow clip trick (though they’re not above it on other models), but it does use higher quality materials, and the attention to fit and finish is noticeably higher than the HERO 616. And for a mere $2.80 Canadian, I think you’d be hard pushed to find a similarly smooth writer with a metal body and decent build quality. I bought disposable plastic Pilot V-pens on clearance at Walmart for more! (Though I re-use them as eye-droppers rather than dispose of them).

The Jinhao 51A is different again. This treads an interesting path between copy and homage. Remove the cap and it could easily be a Parker 51 “lunchtime project”. The dimensions of barrel and section are identical and it’s as if the Parker marketing team had said “make them out of other materials and see what you can do”.

Of course, it’s a steel nib rather than gold… but it cost less than $5 Canadian, and it still writes remarkably well. It’s a handsome pen and I look forward to seeing how the wood changes over time with oil from my fingers.

But I said homage as much as copy. Plainly Jinhao have the capability to copy as close to the original as they choose, and with the 51A they choose to go pretty close. But they do draw a line. They use their own branding prominently and use a drastically different clip stamped with their chariot logo. Just for shits and giggles, I tried one of the genuine caps and it fitted perfectly, so obviously they could have gone the whole hog if they’d chosen to. The 51A barrel won’t fit your old Parker 51 though, so this isn’t a way to give your old pen new wood. As it were.

I’d like to think they drew the line as a professional courtesy. Almost as if to demonstrate how the venerable old Parker 51 still had some steam in it and could have moved into other materials to keep itself fresh and interesting even to today’s new pen buyers. The Jinhao steel 0.38mm nib is used in several of their offerings (599, 992, 911 to name three). It’s nothing special, but I have now used 4 without incident and much pleasure.

Bottom line? Ignore the HERO 616, primarily because the nib was diabolical, but even if you were lucky enough to get a good one… the build quality is terrible. This proves “you get what you pay for”.

Consider the Jinhao 911 on its own merits as a sturdy capable inexpensive pen, and a counterexample that sometimes “you get a lot more than what you pay for”.

The Jinhao 51A is a modern copy, without the Parker gold nib. It’s own is a capable enough nib though and if you’ve got a thing for hooded nibs and wood – for $5 Canadian you’d be greedy to expect much more than this.





It seems one can’t have too many fountain pens after all!

17 06 2020

My very first fountain pen was a plastic bodied Parker 45.

11 year old me thought it was soooo fancy because it had a gold, medium width nib and a stainless steel cap (more properly “Lustraloy”). To this day, it writes with a sublime smoothness, though it has suffered from the slight collapse in the section that stalks the Parker 45 due to the cap’s clutch being a little too aggressive for the plastic section’s softness. Unfortunately my handwriting could never do it justice, but I still love that pen.

My contemporaries at school often had the more modern-looking (late 70’s – all things are relative) Parker 25 with it’s all metal Flighter design.

img_1608

Parker 25 Flighters (i.e. steel bodies) – unfortunately not a mating pair

Over the years I’ve come to realise that there were in fact many variations on my basic black Parker 45, and amongst them was indeed an all-metal Flighter. There’s also a Flighter with a black plastic end, but my preference had always been for “the full metal jacket”. Today, The Pen Workshop near Aylesbury, UK delivered my dream pen. Paul Baker there kindly listened to my preferences and found the perfect match. He even located a pen with a section that shows minimal caving, and managed to find me one with a fine nib. The cap has the all important “Made in England” imprint and a lack of letter stamps puts it as likely pre-1980. I think I’ll just gaze a bit longer before inking it up.

parker45

New Old Parker 25 Flighter, c1980

Pen number two started out as simply an “oh, that looks nice” moment whilst perusing for the Parker. It has a gorgeous green marbling which I ultimately found irresistible. Never having heard of the Wyvern brand previously, I did a bit of research and discovered that my parents actually used these Wyvern Perfect Pen Nº 81’s back at high school in the early ’50s, and so with little more than that connection and a desire to own a small bit of British pen history, I added it to my shopping cart at www.penworkshop.co.uk.

Wyvern is long gone now, closing its factory in 1955. Founded in Leicester, the Wyvern Pen Company was named after the mythical creature that appeared in the crest of the borough. According to Wikipedia:

A white (Argent) wyvern formed the crest of the Borough of Leicester as recorded at the heraldic visitation of Leicestershire in 1619: “A wyvern sans legs argent strewed with wounds gules, wings expanded ermine.”

Production of pens began back in the 1890s and Wyvern made several models as well as manufacturing nibs for other pen companies and promotional pens for a variety of campaigns.

The barrel still has the faint imprint of “WYVERN Perfect Pen Nº 81” despite its ~70 year age. I hope I look this good when I’m that old!

wyvern

WYVERN Perfect Pen Nº 81 in green marble finish





BBC News – Why are fountain pen sales rising?

4 09 2012

So I am of an age such that I was required to use a fountain pen at school. Not one I had to constantly dip into an ink well – though the desks were actually of that vintage and still had the hole where the ink well would have sat. (Some of the etched graffiti was actually in Latin, though that was more to do with it being a grammar school than being THAT old).

Anyway, I was bought a lovely Parker fountain pen by my proud parents. I was mortified when it became a little warped after meeting a Bunsen burner flame one particular Chemistry lesson, and I have no idea of its whereabouts as I type. I do recall it had a lovely gold nib though.

Most of my school peers were kitted out with the workhorse “Parker 25” fountain pen, but it wasn’t until many years later that I myself acquired one of these stainless steel stalwarts. While still living in the UK my neighbour presented me with one, having found it lying in a gutter. He thought I might like it, as I plainly knew how to use such a mystical tool, and he himself (being a pigeon fancier and lurcher owner) was a little sketchy on the whole literacy thing.

As documented elsewhere – I’m a bit of a “fiddler”. Unfortunately, my incessant screwing/unscrewing of the steel body from the plastic barrel in moments of stress and boredom resulted in a fatal injury to the plastic threads, and they gave way with a pitiful crack.

Being sure of Parker’s stability as a company, I enquired about spare parts for this ancient implement. Surely a replacement for this piece of plastic would be no more than a couple of dollars. That’s when I discovered they had been out of service for decades, and to merely “assess” the repair would be $40. And it’d be sent to France for that honour. Also that in Canada, Parker’s service department is represented by Rubbermaid. I shit you not!

“But I know exactly what’s wrong! I just need a replacement part!” Nope. No good. I was not trained to make such assessments. I would need to send the entire pen for analysis. Bugger that! I’m not letting some Frenchie mess with my pen! Then the solution struck me… eBay! Surely people would be divesting themselves of Parker 25s for mere pennies. After all, nobody uses fountain pens any more. Boy, was I wrong! The average price for a Parker 25 in North America was well north of $100! For an out of manufacture “run of the mill” fountain pen. Cheaper in Sweden though, for some reason… until you add postage.

And then I read this in the BBC… seems there’s a resurgence in “proper pens”.

BBC News – Why are fountain pen sales rising?.

Of course – there’s still no solution for the left-hander’s curse of smeared writing and a blue little finger. (Unless you learn Arabic, I suppose…)

O me miserum.