Surprising Sheaffer rediscovers its core values

September 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

At PenFountain.com have never been over-enamoured with the trend of producing mini-me’s of popular pen types.  With the exception of the Caran d’Ache Ecridor XS and Parker Duofold Demi series, the mini-me’s look more like poor cousins of the full-sized model rather than a chic pen for use on a day out, failing to have the required presence to offset their smaller stature.

Following a customer order, we have taken delivery of the new Sheaffer Prelude Mini Ballpoint range and, in our opinion, with the gloss lacquered finishes and traditional plated trim options, it restores the Prelude to its former position of being a premium quality pen, albeit on a smaller scale. 

Sheaffer Prelude mini ballpoint pens

Sheaffer Prelude mini ballpoint pens

The recent fashion for matt finishes has done little for the classic lines of the Prelude.  So, the return to traditional gloss lacquers, plated ‘caps’ and corresponding plated trim is a welcome development from Sheaffer returning the brand to what it does best. The Mini Prelude ballpoint comes with both presentation case and small fabric pouch to protect the pen on its days out and, despite its compact size, takes the standard Sheaffer ballpoint refill.  A surprising and attractive pen making it worth thinking about as a present for the lady in your life.

Service, Sainsburys and the Independents

September 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

As an independent business, at PenFountain.com, it never ceases to amaze how larger companies can get away with poor customer service bordering on arrogance.  In the Cranleigh Sainsburys they have installed a bank of self-service tills.  This is not a superstore but it is the largest food store in the village and surrounding countryside.  Last night we went to buy a weekly shop only to find that out of about 10 checkouts only 2 were manned with a floating supervisor to over-see the regular problems on self-service.   The queues were building and there were no staff available to ease the pressure.  One member of staff was most apologetic but identified that having the self-service tills, the company were reducing the employees’ hours and therefore, at peak times, the queues were likely to become more common.

We wish we had the opportunity to run our business this way.  It’s not that we would, but it would be nice to have that amount of business.  We enjoy offering our customers a special experience when buying their fountain pens.

What was also interesting was that this experience came on a day that the new Daybreak TV programme had featured the dominance of the store chains and homogeneity creeping into the high street.  The town featured was Richmond upon Thames and they showed images of shoppers laden with bags from many of the majors.  Great shame they couldn’t have followed it up with images of the independents and shown how their personal service and specialisation was so different, giving them their 5 minutes of fame.

Fountain pen inks aren’t all the same

September 11, 2010 § 2 Comments

Fountain pen ink is literally the lifeblood of the pen.  For schoolboys it’s the colour of their fingers from dismantling their pens to find how they work.  For the more mature users, it’s what they spend their time doing, trying to find the colour and quality which most clearly reflects their personality or whim and suits their favoured pen of the week. 

With 2 key components, water and dye, fountain pen inks have changed little since the late 19th Century.  The dye, being water soluble, offers a guaranteed equal dispersion of colour throughout the ink without the risk of the colour component settling back out of the water during periods of inactivity. Historically, in the absence of any other form of written communication, the issue of ink flow versus drying times was of major concern.  However, the modern market is somewhat different with a host of alternative methods of recording the written word, drying times of are of less consequence and focus is more towards colour density and pen reliability, particularly with more limited use for most fountain pens.

Lamy Accent with Diamine Inks

The issue of balancing reliable ink-flow with optimal drying time was addressed in 1928 by George Parker. He introduced a solvent into the formulation of his Quink Ink (quick drying ink) with a view to offering reliable ink flow with quicker drying times without the risk of clogging in the pen.  In older formulations, Quink also offered some degree of water resistance. Although the principles of the formulation remain in today’s Parker Quink, in our opinion, the quality of the ink in terms of its flow and opacity, is not ‘best in class’ and is not compatible with many pen types. Quink remains one of the largest volume selling inks worldwide.

 For ink formulating chemists, an alternative to dyes would be a pigment-based ink. Pigmented inks generally offer stronger, denser colours than the dye based equivalent, particularly with paler colours. However, by its nature, a pigment is a solid in suspension in a liquid.  Fountain pens, working principally by capillary action, are dependent on the free flow of liquids through fine conduits and pigments would offer the probability of obstructing the feed routes by liquid evaporation and deposition of solids.  The inks may also be prone to the settlement of the pigment out of the liquid during periods of inactivity. Pigment inks are generally available for dipping pens used primarily for calligraphy, while Indian Inks use shellac in their formulation for similar applications away from fountain pens

Modern dye-based inks are increasingly influenced by developments from the chemical industry producing reliable, hybrid dye based inks, with some microscopic solids to improve overall colour and drying performance. 

More recently, the fountain pen ink market has seen the proliferation of colour with the likes of Diamine and Pelikan offering over 70 different colours and offering a constantly changing palette.  However, it is not recommended that different colours are mixed to create a ‘personal colour’ because each colour may have a different pH value which may result in fading over time.  For this reason, it is also recommended that pens are flushed between colour changes.  There is also a number of manufacturers’ such as French producer , J.Herbin, offering scented inks.  This technology, whilst fun, does not generally offer a sustainable scent beyond the room in which the romantic correspondence has been composed, probably because of the high cost of the chemical components required to increase the scents’ durability.

 Dye based fountain inks are inherently water-soluble and therefore, can easily be erased, either by accident or in malice. For certain types of legal documents such as marriage certificates, the demand is for a permanent record.  For this application the lead is taken from the earliest times where iron gall ink was used.  Such is iron gall’s tenacity that, through modern analysis, it has been identified that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in a form of iron gall!  Iron gall ink works by a combination of evaporation of the water carrier and oxidisation of the iron component on contact with air. Initially it forms a steely blue-grey line which becomes waterproof on drying and darkens as the oxidisation occurs.  However, iron gall is not bleach resistant or fully UV resistant.  Iron gall inks such as, Diamine Registrars’ Ink are available for use in fountain pens but it is strongly recommended that the pen is flushed after each use to prevent clogging and acid damage. 

Since the mid-1960s many manufacturers have offered the convenience of cartridges.  Generally offering a similar formulation of ink to bottles, many manufacturers including, Pelikan, Caran d’AcheWaterman, and J.Herbin use a ‘Euro Standard’ cartridge fitting.  However, it should not be taken for granted that all cartridges will fit every pen.  In our experience at PenFountain, there is some variation in design that can be significant enough to result in leakage.  Equally, some manufacturers including Parker, Cross, Lamy and Sheaffer, require their own proprietary cartridges and convertors.

Extremes of Fountain Pen Retailing

September 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

A family, researching fountain pens on-line, found PenFountain.com as a retail business in Cranleigh, Surrey.  Despite only living about 12 miles away, they had never been to the village and came over to look for a pen for a special birthday present.  As I have said previously, we both enjoy the selling experience.  PenFountain.com - Real Shop, Real People, Real SavingsUs asking the questions and helping customers to make decisions about which pen to buy, and customers enjoying the chance to experience different pen and nib combinations.  It is not a speedy process and part of the enjoyment is establishing a rapport with the customers and their entourage.  The family in question settled for a couple of Parker Pens and then asked advice as to where they could find other significant gifts and a good cup of coffee in the Village. 

 The net result is a plus for the retailers of Cranleigh as a whole.

 The flip-side is that, during our customer’s deliberations, one of our regulars, working with the Rotary Club of Cranleigh,  came in and in the course of our conversation I asked about progress on a proposed shoppers guide sign for the Village.  The response was predictable.  The chains stores, which are currently threatening the existence of the village by pushing the independents out of business, could not be bothered with supporting the shoppers guide initiative, while the independents have supported it almost universally.  In my opinion, the majors should be putting up the lions share of the cost, bearing in mind that, to a man, they all fanfared their arrival with assurances of how they wanted to support the local community.  WH Smith even cynically ‘sponsored’ the re-planting of some decorative flower beds – providing the flowers were in their corporate colours!

 The net result is a minus for Cranleigh – no support for visitors, and the threat of yet another homogenous High Street.

 If you want to see a thriving and varied high street in a pretty location, we’re still worth a visit and there are plenty of alternatives to the usual high street rogues.

Gold or Steel for fountain pen nibs?

September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Perceived wisdom is that the best nibs are produced from gold.  The theory is that gold, being a relatively soft metal, ‘moulds’ the profile of its tip to the writer’s style and becomes an intrinsic part of the writing experience.  The style of the nib unit also contributes to the flexibility of the nib while the pen’s overall design and materials will deliver balance and weight. 

However, increasingly, I believe that with modern manufacturing techniques, the arguments in favour of gold as the choice of material for nibs is diminishing.  Steel nibs are increasingly precise in their manufacturing tolerances with finer tynes and, even with limited finishing, an can perform in a similar manner to a brand new gold counterpart.  The wear characteristics will differ between the two materials, assuming that the nibs are used extensively in a set position.  However, for many owners, their pens are only used for an occasional flourished signature or brief note of affection. 

Caran d'Ache Maya gilt fountain with gold plated steel nib

Caran d'Ache Maya gilt fountain with gold plated steel nib

My advice is do use a gold nibbed fountain pen to make your statement but don’t feel you have short-changed yourself if you select a good quality steel nib such as, a Caran d’Ache Ecridor, Cross ATX or Waterman Expert.  Once again, the message must be: Try before you buy.

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