The Viarco Vintage Collection

Whoa — it’s an actual pencil review! I haven’t reviewed an actual pencil since October, with the Baron Fig Archer. Of course, with the new renaissance of pencil blogs, you don’t need me anymore — I’m talking about impassioned publications like Lead Fast and, of course, the re-launch of Pencil Talk, which I’m very excited about..

However, there are some fantastic pencils out there that I want to explore.

Sometime last year, one of my favorite places on earth, CW Pencils, started selling a series of pencils from Viarco. They’re a manufacturer in Portugal that often flies under the radar here in the US (though among our pencil community, people are getting hip to them).

Making pencils since 1907, Viarco is a small but quality pencil brand that makes good quality HBs like the Premium 2001, or the Desenho 250 H (a dark, smooth pencils that CWP recommended for left-handers).

This series, the Viarco Vintage Collection, has six varieties of boxed dozens:

  • 1951: multicolored HB hex pencils with white stripes on the edges
  • 2000: Pearlized multicolored HB hex pencils with a bright stripe and cap on the end
  • 3000: Similar to the 2000s, but round instead of Hex
  • 3500: Red HB hex pencils with white stripes on the edges
  • 272D: Blue copying pencils with violet ink (originally used to transfer ink to other paper decades ago

What’s really remarkable about this collection is not how exceptional the pencils are in themselves — it’s the level of detail to which they recreated the originals. From the packaging to the paint on the barrel, they look incredibly similar.

As a fan of vintage aesthetics (I know, I’m a dirty hipster), I knew I wanted to try them. But, at $15 a dozen, I knew I didn’t want to pick them all up. I went for the multicolored packs; the 3000 and the 1951 sets.

Performance

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about how well they write — I honestly don’t think that matters as much. They’re not particularly remarkable. But they’re not terrible either. I would say they write dark and maybe a little on the scratchy side, like a General’s Cedar Point #2 or a Baron Fig Archer. The 1951 seemed to be the scratchiest of the two, though they were really similar. It really felt like what I usually expect a vintage pencil to feel like, if that makes any sense.

Construction and Aesthetics

It really seems like they went all out to replicate the vintage feel. The paint looks like it was really painted on, and the foil stamp on the barrel feels like it was really stamped — the 3000, for instance, had a deeper imprint in the center of the stamp than the edges, like like a round pencil barrel would dictate. The end-dip is just a little uneven, like maybe it was dipped by hand.

I actually have no idea if that’s the case — if Viarco actually dipped and stamped their pencils by hand. But if they don’t, they replicated it perfectly.

The cores are perfectly centered in the barrel — a look through both sets of 12 pencils shows that that’s the case for all of them. And the wood looks like it’s real cedar — it’s a bit darker and more fragrant than many modern pencils.

I’d love to get hold of an actual vintage Viarco so I can compare the two. If I can do that, I’ll report back here.

Meanwhile, check these out for yourself! CW Pencils sells all six varieties for $15 a boxed dozen, or if you can’t make up your mind, you can just buy the full set for $75.

A view Askew: a review of the Baron Fig Askew Confidant

A year or two ago, I noticed a coworker of mine taking notes from a meeting in a “Grids and Guides” notebook. You may have seen these before — a simple, cloth-bound A5-ish sized notebook sold in a lot of hipster gift stores. They come with several pages each of unusual lines or grids. She was writing on a page that had a big Fibonacci spiral gridded on the inside.

Throughout the meeting, I saw her follow the spiral until it got too tight to write in, and then she just started writing below it.

After the meeting, I brought it up. She says she likes using that notebook because it gets her mind working. Like with doodling, keeping your mind engaged can sometimes help one activate their brain and concentrate on the meeting around them.

I don’t think I’ve thought about that again, until my Baron Fig Askew showed up.

The Askew has been pretty divisive around the stationery community. Between the Field Nuts group and the Erasable group, people gave their opinion instantly, and at least half of them gave an immediate “nope.” Much of the other half was all, “Ooh, this is really pretty, but unusable. It’s more of a collector’s piece.”

I think there are a few of us in a third camp — people who think, “hmm. This is interesting. I wonder what it’s like to use it.”

I’ll try to walk you all through this thought process.

Aesthetics

As the box and inside pages indicate, this is ballpoint-pen blue. It looks like someone took a Bic Cristal and scribbled it in. The fabric cover is a rich, bright blue. The bookmark is deep red as well, and together, the notebook has a superhero vibe to it. I love it.

It gets weird immediately when you open to a blank page. You see the layout, and although it emulates a piece of loose leaf paper, with blue horizontal lines and a pink vertical line to the right indicating the margin, you notice that it’s hand-drawn.

There have been a lot of questions by people who haven’t seen one in person yet. I’ll try to answer as directly as I can.

Are ALL the pages hand-drawn?
Yes. Some are more straight and consistent than others, but no page is truly even.

I see photos of pages that are just scribbled. What’s up with that?
Baron Fig says about 10% of the pages are “unruly”, meaning that they’re a lot wackier than the 90% of “ruly” pages. Sometimes the unruliness manifests in the form of a scribble, or else all the lines are stacked on top of each other, or something else entirely.

Like this one:

Or this one:

Or this one:

I won’t spoil all the views; there are 192 pages after all, but there should be 15-20 “unruly” pages in there.

“Unruly.” I just got that pun.

Is each, individual notebook hand-drawn and unique?
I don’t think so. Debbie Millman, the artist, hand-drew a notebook’s ruling, and then Baron Fig duplicated that same spread in all their Askew notebooks. I did an Instagram live unboxing video, and Michael Hagan from Lead Fast confirmed it — his copy had identical spreads.

How am I supposed to use those “unruly” pages?
That’s up to you! Me, part of the usefulness of those pages is to think outside the box and figure out how you’re going to use it. Also: you could just leave it blank and ponder it.

Performance

Using this notebook is an interesting experience. Generally, the slightly crooked lines don’t bother me — without lines, my writing is slightly crooked anyway.

I do actually appreciate that, in most spreads, the lines are wider than those in a typical Confidant. I have a bit more room to write bigger.

The left margin is also an interesting addition. Typically, Confidants and other similar notebooks don’t have a margin divider like this. And I never really paid much attention to it before, but I didn’t consistently keep my own margin. This prompts me to keep a comfortable distance between my writing and the edge of the notebook, which can be a visual relief.

Quality

I’m not sure how the artist originally drew the lines, and how Baron Fig reproduced them for their notebook. But man, they did a good job. I was expecting slightly pixelated digital art, but the lines, for as crooked and hand-drawn as they are, were crisp and clear.

I recognize that this notebook is not for everyone. Some people need a consistent, straight line to plot their output. And I can respect that.

Joey and Adam took a big chance with this book. It’s not just the same old Confidant, but with a different colored cover and bookmark. They truly reinvented it. For me, it was effective — like with doodling, following the slightly askew grids helped me open my mind up to what I was listening to or thinking about.

Joey and Adam: if you’re reading this, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say, GUYS. I want a Confidant with this exact exterior look; this rich, Bic Cristal-blue fabric cover and scarlet-red bookmark, but with regular lining. That would be such a beautiful addition to my (ever-growing) Confidant stash.

In the meantime, though, this is perhaps not my every day notebook. I know I’ll pull it out when I need to take notes but don’t mind being a bit playful. The unique whimsy of the crooked lines and the surprise of the “unruly” pages put me in a mindset that I definitely don’t dislike.

(This notebook was given to me at no charge by Baron Fig for review purposes.)

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: a review of the Baron Fig Archer pencil

This has been a long time coming, folks.

Ever since I first met Baron Fig founders Joey and Adam in person, last year in April, they’ve been intensely interested in wooden pencils. We had a great chat, sitting on a park bench in Washington Square Park in NYC. I told them what I thought made a good pencil, and they told me a bit about their design philosophy.

And while I had nothing to do with the creation of this pencil, I do feel a bit of pride in it — I don’t know if I’ve ever followed someone’s process from ideation to creation before.

The Baron Fig Archer pencils with the Three Legged Juggler Confidant notebook

It’s unclear how the idea started — perhaps it was a whole bevy of Baron Fig users telling the guys how pencil-friendly their paper was: toothy but not rough; thick but not plush. Perhaps it was that pencils can express their design philosophy to a level that pens never can — ultimate simplicity expressed. No refills, no moving parts. Just wood, graphite and paint.

But honestly, does it matter? I’m happy they decided to go for it. There’s a lot of (valid) criticism of the Baron Fig aesthetic out there: extreme minimalism, cold, clean lines, inexplicably feudal naming conventions. But for me, personally, I like it. I find warmth in their Confidant journals from the fabric covers, and though many of the designers I work with love the grey, I vastly prefer some color in my notebooks (I love, love my orange Three-Legged Juggler that I stashed away for a year or two before breaking open).

Their product lines has explored notebooks just about as far as they could go. They have the Confidant, the Apprentice (their soft-covered pocket notebook) and the Vanguard (the larger, multi-sized soft-covered notebooks). They released a Confidant cover, the Guardian, and even a planner variant of the Confidant.

Last year, they released the Squire, a pen that I wrote about here. It seemed only logical that a pencil would follow. I was worried it might be a mechanical pencil version of the Squire, but I was happy to see they went with a woodcase pencil.

Let me walk through a few different aspects of this pencil that really stood out to me.

Aesthetics

Joey texted me back in August with this amazing photo:

From the moment I saw it, I knew it would be a perfect fit in their lineup. The grey barrel is finished with a really soft matte lacquer, that makes it fairly non-stick. Even with clammy hands, this shouldn’t slip from your fingers.

Like the Squire before it, the insignia (icon?) on the barrel indicating the name is a simple line illustration. Instead of a sword, of course, there’s an arrow. Opposite it, “BARON FIG” is written. Both markings are, I believe, screenprinted on — there’s no sign it was debossed or stamped.

Closeup of the barrel of the Baron Fig Archer pencilPersonally, I would have loved a little bit of color — maybe the yellow accent color they use for bookmarks in their Confidante, or the Baron Fig wine color on their boxes and branding. But I’m not too bent out of shape about it — I expected a monochromatic pencil, and I think the majority of their audience will prefer it.

Closeup of the Baron Fig Archer barrel on the Confidant notebook

It’s definitely not going to turn any heads or start conversations, like a Blackwing or, say, a flashy Hi-Uni Penmanship. But that’s not what it’s for — this is designed to be a distraction-free workhorse. And while it’s fun to explain the story behind the Blackwing to strangers, it’s definitely a distraction. This is for focused sketching of wireframes, or writing important to-do lists, or just musing in your notebooks at breakfast to finish your Morning Pages.

Performance

Johnny, Tim and I were lucky enough to get an advance dozen of the pencils a couple weeks before the launch so we could try them out and talk to them about it on the latest episode (check it out!). I used it almost exclusively for a week, and wrote all over — in my Confidante, my Field Notes, on cheap Post-it notes — you name it.

Shavings from the Baron Fig Archer pencil, sharpened by a KUM Masterpiece

When I sharpened it with my Kum Masterpiece, the wood looks blemish-free but still pretty woodgrainey. It doesn’t seem like they’re using a composite wood. I’m not sure what it is made of — I doubt it’s incense cedar because of how lightweight it is. Still, I’m a big fan. It smells like a wooden pencil. And it sharpens like a champ.

The first thing I noticed was how incredibly lightweight it is. I don’t have a postage scale with me, but even considering there is no ferrule, it feels exceptionally light. So, at first, I thought it was going to feel cheap and scratchy.

writing-with-the-baron-fig-archer_full.png

I was so pleased to be wrong. On every paper I used it on, the graphite was exceptionally well-balanced. It wasn’t buttery-smooth like a Blackwing (even the 602 is way smoother than others of its hardness), nor was it scratchy like its featherweight sibling, the extremely light and scratchy Faber-Castell Grip 2001.

Baron Fig paper is widely considered to be pretty great for pencil, and this pencil is pretty great with this paper. I spent some considerable time writing with it in my Three-Legged Juggler Confidante, and it didn’t lay down the darkest mark in the world, but it barely smudged when I smeared it with my finger. And it erased very cleanly.

close-up-writing-baron-fig-archer_full.png

The Packaging

I think that the packaging deserves its own category here. Baron Fig has always been obsessed with amazing packaging — Their Confidantes come in a perfectly engineered box. Unboxing it is an experience, much like an Apple product or other fine electronics. The Archers are no different.

unopened-tube-baron-fig-archer_full.png

When I got the tube in the mail, I thought it was impossibly thin to fit. There was no way a dozen regular-sized pencils were going to fit in there! I showed the unopened tube to my wife, and asked her how many pencil she thought were in there, and her guess was around four to six pencils.

open-tube-baron-fig-archer_full.png

Finally, I lifted the top of the tube off, and sure enough, 12 pencils were fit together in a 3x3x3 honeycomb triangle. When we were recording, I asked Joey and Adam how long it took to design that packaging — Adam admitted to doing a lot of math in order to make that happen. It certainly paid off.

Concluding

I’m a big fan of these little guys. I still prefer pencils with erasers on the end. Blame it on my very American background — I maintain the eraser gives it a nice counterbalance when I’m writing, not to mention a super handy tool for when I need to rub out a mistake. But sometimes when I’m sketching or writing fast, I want a very lightweight pencil unencumbered by the extra weight a ferrule and eraser brings. These are sure to be a standard go-to for me.

tube-layed-down-baron-fig-archer.png

I think the price is perfect, too. It’s not cheap by any means, but at $15 a dozen, that means it’s $1.25 per pencil, which is quite a bit less than the $1.82 Blackwing.

Like Apple, Baron Fig puts intentionality and design into everything they do. They strip out the cruft that’s worked its way into stationery and office supplies, leaving only the necessities. If that appeals to you, you’re going to love the Archer. Pick up a dozen or two over on their website for $15 a dozen.

And thank you, Joey and Adam for this fantastic addition to your lineup, and for letting me feel like I was able to come along on the journey!

(These pencils were given to me at no charge by Baron Fig for review purposes.)

Review of the Bookblock Original

Just about a year ago, I got an email from Stefan Johnson, the creative director of a design agency in London, who was planning a Kickstarter campaign for a notebook. It stood out to me because, unlike most other Moleskine-style notebooks, this was for a completely customizeable notebook — from the cover to the spine, the elastic band to the bookmark, you could pick the design and the color, and you could do it without being required to order in quantity — each was completely one-off.

The Kickstarter campaign

I was intrigued, so I pledged £10 (disclosure: I pledged at a level that had a discounted rate for bloggers who reviewed the product. And here is that review). The campaign launched on August 18, and closed a couple months later on October about £600 over the £10,000 goal.

Pretty soon after, Stefan sent me a template to fit into my design. I really wanted to put the production process through its paces, so I wanted a fairly complicated, precise design. Which led me to this, based on TJ Cosgrove’s amazing reproduction of an old Eberhard Faber Blackwing box for Erasable:

image-7

In addition to this design, I chose a black elastic band, and a red bookmark to accent the red on the cover.

That was in mid-August, right after the campaign ended.

And then, everything stopped.

I heard back from Stefan again in March, apologizing for being silent for seven months, and letting me know my notebook was ready.

I responded, and then there was silence again for a couple months, when I heard from someone else from Bookblock — Phoebe — that she was going to send me the notebook.

A week later, 10 months after the campaign ended, the notebook came.

image-6

The notebook’s production quality

Well, first of all, the order was wrong. I asked for a black elastic band and a red ribbon, and got a navy blue band and a white ribbon.

However, the design itself was implemented from the template with exacting precision. I lined it up so the spine had a pencil right in the center — if it was off even by a fraction of an inch, it would be pretty noticeable.

The Bookblock Original came pretty darn close to the original design I submitted. Excellent work by whomever set up the template.

The quality of the printing is… decent. It has the resolution of maybe a nice color laser printer, and although the color is pretty true to the digital design, it was finished with what looks like a clear, matte coating that just dulls the whole design.

The Bookblock Original cover is covered with a dull finish and bubbles have appeared in places.

This is just a guess, but it looks like the design was printed on paper that was applied beneath some kind of contact paper — there are multiple instances where there are bubbles between those layers, especially around edges. It cheapens the looks significantly.

The notebook’s materials

Phoebe told me that Monsieur Notebooks was a “sister company” of the Bookblock Original, which looks to mean that they produce the notebook itself — the binding, the paper and the materials. If I were to guess, Bookblock Original wraps their designs around the Monsieur journal.

The Bookblock Original inside cover, with the Monsieur logo.

Monsieur’s a pretty popular producer of custom notebooks — if you’ve ever gotten a pretty nice customized journal that seemed nicer than and more personalized than a Moleskine with a stamp on the cover, it could very well have been a Monsieur.

The Bookblock Original inside spread. The paper is of decent quality and is pretty pencil-friendly.

The paper inside is really nice. It’s medium-heavy weight, about 90 gsm, and has some tooth to it (but not too much tooth), much like the Baron Fig Confidante. This means it’s pretty pencil-friendly. My General’s Cedar Pointe #1 wrote in it like a dream, smooth but dark.

The Bookblock Original page closeup.

The signatures of the book are visible and are pretty noticeable. I’m not sure what that indicates, but it seems to me to indicate that it’s been hastily assembled. Even most Moleskines, which have dropped in quality over the years, seem to be bound and cut carefully enough that it’s hard to pick out where the signatures in the binding start and end.

The price and market fit

Now that the Kickstarter is over, these notebooks are available publicly. The Bookblock Original’s website says that the notebooks start at $18, though they aren’t clear up front what features cost more until you’ve completed the process to design your own.

It’s also unclear what Bookblock Original’s relationship is to Bookblock, or what their relationship is to Monsieur. The original Kickstarter mentioned nothing about differentiating the “Original” from the brand name.

If Bookblock Original improves their production, $18 is a perfectly reasonable price to pay for the amount of customization you’ll be able to do to a reasonable quality notebook. It’s great for one to, say, five notebooks decked out with your favorite design.

I was hoping to be impressed by this enough to buy Johnny, Tim and TJ all a copy of this Erasable Podcast notebook, but until the dull finish is more vibrant and there are no bubbles in the cover, I don’t think I’ll be spending more money here. Now that they’re in regular production and out of the setup phase, hopefully that’ll be soon.

Unboxing the Field Notes Fall 2015 edition, Shenandoah

TJ Cosgrove from Wood & Graphite and I are falling into a good pattern here, I think — I send him some raw video of an unboxing, and he makes it look good and publishes it! Here’s this month’s release of the newest Field Notes COLORS edition: Shenandoah.

This is one of my favorites for a while, I think. I love the varying shades of green on the outside, with the brighter, “turned” colors duplexed on the inside. Time will tell how well that duplex holds together. This marks the first edition I’m using with my Field Notes Stuff Sheath to keep it nice in my back pocket.

The paper, for pencil, is very nice. It’s a little thicker than the old #50 stock paper, but thinner than the thicker, fountain pen-friendly #70 usually found in the summer editions.

My very favorite thing, though it’s kinda silly, is the belly band. They used a shaved wood on a substrate paper, like with Shelterwood and Cherry Wood, and that natural woodgrain with the green is just gorgeous. I think they captured the look and feel of autumn in the Shenandoah Valley really, really elegantly. This, to me, is why Field Notes stands out — great quality implementations of beautiful, simple themes.

This edition finally got me to convert to a COLORS subscriber, in fact — for the next three releases, I’ll be getting a couple packs automatically, along with a goodie or two. I’m definitely excited about that.

Buy a three-pack for $9.95 or subscribe, starting with this edition, at FieldNotesBrand.com.

Story Supply Co.: the TOMS of the stationery world

Have I mentioned lately how much I love the Erasable community? Well, a lot, I’m sure. But this is something special. One of our group members, Vito Grippi, recently launched a (successful!) Kickstarter campaign for his new company, Story Supply Co.

In a nutshell, they source and give away “story supply kits,” for kids to learn the art of creative writing, storytelling and journaling. They’re partnering with 826, a series of fantastic arts nonprofits that help kids with many of the same goals.

Here’s the video from Vito’s Kickstarter campaign:

Did you notice the cameos from a Mitsubishi Hi Uni and a couple Palomino Blackwings? I sure did.

This is the kind of thing I love — admittedly a pocket notebook and a pencil aren’t the most original offerings ever, but they’re tools for creation! It’s not about creating specialized notebooks with one purpose and one layout. It’s about making a good quality notebook, a good quality writing utensil, for a great cause — helping give kids the same opportunity.

I also love that they’re partnering with 826. I have a couple posters from 826LA, and I’m not too far from the original, 826 Valencia, which is in the Mission district of San Francisco.

Full disclosure: I pledged already, and Vito sent me a pack of notebooks and a pencil early for review purposes. So while I haven’t really paid for them, I am already a backer of this campaign.

I’m a bit late to this review (Johnny talked about it over on the venerable Pencil Revolution, and Gary Varner’s very active new upstart paper blog Papernery has a great review,) but I will mention a few things.

The Notebook

I’m definitely loving the simple, navy blue cover with the Story Supply Co. logo on the front. It’s clean, and the navy-over-cream cover stock seems thick and rugged. The cover has a bit of tooth, as I noticed that there’s a subtle fiber interwoven in the paper, sort of like a dollar bill.

pencil-and-notebook

I’ll mention that the cover itself is pretty bad at closing completely once opened, and when it’s open, it wants to fold up pretty bad. It’s not dissimilar from Scout Books in that regard, though I know for sure that this is not a Scout Books product.

The inside is a creamy, thick graph paper. According to Gary, it’s a luxurious 70# weight, which is more than enough for the darkest of pencils, and perfect for all but perhaps the thirstiest of fountain pens.

IMG_4165

The 5 millimeter grid is a great size, though it’s laid out strangely on the page. It doesn’t quite meet the top of the paper, though there isn’t enough space for a non-gridded headline, and there’s a slightly thicker line running a quarter of the way in from the outside of the page, and a quarter of the way up. See?

grid-paper

Maybe that was intentional? I have no idea.

Still, though. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s a damn fine notebook, especially considering it was their first run. As the company matures, I’m sure it’ll get better and better.

The Pencil

pencil-sharpened

Now, this is an interesting one. Vito was kind enough to include one of their later offerings, a round, natural-finish pencil! It bears the name, tagline, and some other information about the company, and on top of a golden ferrule, it has a navy blue eraser that matches the silkscreen on the barrel! Swoon.

While it physically resembles the Field Notes pencil, I’m convinced it’s better quality. The wood isn’t as splintery when I sharpened it (with my KUM Masterpiece!) and while the pencil itself isn’t as fragrant as the Field Notes pencil, the shavings are more so.

shavings-comparison

I’m not sure why that is, but I’m guessing that there’s an ever-so-thin layer of clear lacquer or sealant over the Story Supply Co. pencil. It’s thin enough to leave you feeling like you’re gripping a natural-finish pencil, but it’s not splintery at all, like I find the Field Notes pencil to be.

(It’s worth noting that this is a Musgrave-sourced pencil, so there’s a good chance it’s basswood, which seems to be confirmed when the shavings are next to the more pink Field Notes pencil. I also see a definite woodgrain, which makes it seem like the Story Supply Co. pencil isn’t processed wood.)

They leave very similar marks, but the Story Supply Co. pencil is noticeably smoother to write with than the scratchy Field Notes pencil.

point-comparison

In fact, the only things I think the Field Notes pencil has over this one is a) the typography is better (because, duh, Aaron Draplin) and the ferrule is more unique. Though maybe not as effective — a lot of people have told me the eraser comes out easily.

Story Supply Co.’s ferrule isn’t particularly special but it seems to do it’s job, which is what it’s all about, right?

The Kickstarter

The Story Supply Co. Kickstarter campaign successfully reached its $5,000 goal four days after launching, which is impressive and commendable. At the time of this writing, it’s at $7,167, which seems like it’s still got a lot of momentum in it.

For five dollars, you’ll get a sticker and a pencil, which is a pretty fantastic deal. For just double that, you can get a pack of notebooks in plain, ruled, or graph, and donate a kit to “a kid with a story to tell.”

I can’t wait to see Vito’s stretch goals!

This is the way to do it, folks. I’m loving Vito’s vision for the company, and his Kickstarter prowess.

Check out more about Story Supply Co. at their website, or go straight to their Kickstarter page.

If neither pencil nor pen, then what is it? Reviewing the Napkin Prima

Pen Chalet is such a cool online shop. I wish I could give them more love on this blog than I do. But, alas, there are far better fountain pen reviews on other blogs than I could provide, and Pen Chalet is really intended for the fountain pen and finer rollerball market. Wooden pencil blogs lie pretty far outside that market.

I did write about this mechanical pencil, but other than that, there isn’t much I can rightfully cover on this blog.

Here’s something cool they just started carrying recently — something I’ve been wanting to try for a while. It’s often called a “forever pencil”, though that’s kind of a misnomer.

This chopstick-looking thing is called a Prima, made by an Italian company called Napkin. Pen Chalet sells writing utensils in three varieties that writes in a pretty unique way. This is the budget option, at $49.

According to the Napkin brand page on Pen Chalet’s site, it writes “using oxidation when it contacts paper. This leaves a unique mark different from a pen or a pencil and the tip lasts forever.”

From the way this is worded, it’s unclear whether or not:

  1. The alloy tip oxidizes the paper on contact,
  2. or an oxidation forms on the tip, and rubs off when it makes contact with the paper.

Keith McCleary is a chemist, and a lister of the Erasable Podcast. He’s pretty active in our fantastic Facebook group and when we were discussing how the Napkin products work, he postulated the latter, that the alloy quickly oxidizes and rubs off onto the paper. He thinks the tip could be made from a blend of lead, tin and possibly bismuth, all of which have black oxides.

What’s fascinating to me is that, if this is true, it can oxidize fast enough to continuously generate rust to rub off as you’re writing. Keith confirms — that the combination of heat from friction and air can cause that reaction instantly.

So is this thing a pencil? Or a pen? I think it’s still up in the air. It doesn’t leave bits of itself behind to write like a pencil, but it also doesn’t distribute a medium that introduces pigment to a surface, like a pen. It causes a chemical reaction that rubs off to make a mark. It’s a science pen!

Ergonomics and aesthetics

Visually, the Prima is striking. It’s long and skinny, and it gently tapers to a point. The other two products in the Napkin line carried by Pen Chalet are also striking, through in completely different ways.

There’s the $59 cigar-shaped Cuban with a round, blunt tip intended for drawing and shading.

And, at $119 (more than twice the price of the Prima), the Pininfarina Cambiano is (in my opinion), the handsomest and most ergonomically friendly. Its tip seems to be about the same fineness as the Prima, though I admit I’ve never tried this or the Cuban.

The Prima itself comes in aluminum, anodized in seven colors — mine is “Airforce Blue”. It’s just over seven inches long — slightly shorter than an unsharpened Palomino Blackwing — but also much thinner at the writing end than a typical pencil. It’s perhaps too thin to effectively hold and write with. If I could hold it at the opposite end, it would be perfect.

Performance

Roger Ebert is said to have reviewed movies based on, not what they are, but if they accomplished what they were trying to be. That’s why he gave good reviews to so many bad movies — they weren’t trying to be some seminal works of art. They were just trying to be mindless diversions. And they were.

That said, I’m no Roger Ebert, but I do try to emulate review process. Should I compare the Napkin Prima to, say, a Palomino Blackwing, or a nice smooth rollerball pen?

I don’t think the Prima is trying to be either. From their website:

Different from all other writing and drawing tools, the mark is achieved by oxidation, due to contact between tip and paper. So the mark left is very particular, it seems like a pencil but it cannot be erased like a pen, and this makes our writing tool unique in the world.

So here’s my conundrum: the Napkin products are “unique in the world,” so how do I tell if they’re good or not?

For my particular use case, it’s not ideal. It lays down a light mark, lighter than a 3 or 4H pencil, and it’s not smooth to write with, even it is just a metal tip. The tip is slightly sticky and laggy while it slides across the page.

After trying it on several kinds of paper, the best kind to use it with is something more toothy than smooth. Think Ampad, rather than Rhodia.

After a tip from Chris Rothe, the proprietor of Write Notepads (and a guest on Episode 30 of Erasable), I tried the paper in a Write pad. It was indeed noticeably better than the other papers I’ve tried. Just as toothy paper grabs more graphite than smoother paper, it seems to grab more oxidization from the Prima, leaving a darker mark.

(Chris, in fact, loves his Pininfarina — he uses it every day to write thank-you notes to those who place orders with him.)

So, what is an ideal use-case for a Napkin product?

I’m just not sure. If you love the novelty and the lack of maintainance that this brings — you never need to sharpen it, refill it, or as far as anyone knows, replace it — it’d be perfect for you. You can write and write and write, and you’ll run out of paper before you run out of Prima.

But personally, I like being able to switch it up a bit. When my pencil is running out, I can switch to a new one. Same thing with pens, though admittedly I usually lose them before they run dry.

Would I buy a Napkin for myself? Probably not. It’s expensive and the performance just doesn’t rival a nice pencil or pen. Am I glad I have one? Absolutely. It was fun to try out, and dang, it beautiful to look at. It’s a novelty for sure, but I’m sure I’ll bring it out to show someone every now and then.

If you want to try one for yourself, head over to PenChalet.com and pick one up for $49 here.

Disclaimer: I acquired the Napkin Prima from Pen Chalet for review purposes, and paid no money for it. Other than the product, I have not received any financial recompense whatsoever from Pen Chalet.