Staedtler Initium Lignum Fountain Pen Review

This is one of those fountain pen posts I’m trying to keep out of this site, but this time you will forgive me because it features a venerable pencil brand that has made forays into a new market (or, rather, re-entered it): Staedtler’s Premium line, comprising resin, wood, and leather-accented writing instruments. I saw the new lineup for the first time while still in Canada, and was very surprised and pleased to see it; however, I had the not quite favorable impression that they were trying to do too much at once (e.g. everything from ballpoints to $2,000+ collectors’ items) instead of expanding the collection slowly and organically as they learned the ropes. I also felt the aesthetics were vaguely reminiscent of the Graf von Faber-Castell line. The price tag was outlandish: upwards of CAD 200 for a steel-nibbed pen. This particular model, the wood-barrelled Initium Lignum (the only one I considered buying, then or now), still costs CAD 279 (plus 15% tax). I liked the idea, I was a fan of the brand, but for that kind of money I could get myself a proper gold-nibbed pen (or two) from other manufacturers. So I passed on it then, until I got wind of a CultPens sale* that included a free leather-bound Atoma notebook with any Initium pen, so I took the plunge. Pricewise it was now or never.

A new pen, like a drop of water in a desert :)

However, once the euphoria subsided, I was unfortunately reminded of all the other reasons I didn’t buy it back then. It’s not only the price. The pen itself looks very nice, but the balance feels all wrong. It’s a heavy pen, and that by itself is not a huge problem (I have some Waterman heavies that I am quite fond of), but the problem is that that weight is not distributed evenly across the pen but overly concentrated at the nib end. The cap is substantial, too, and all this makes for a very top-heavy pen: it threatens to slip out of your hand when you try to write with it, because the grip section pulls it downwards and there is nothing to counterbalance it at the back. (And no, posting the cap doesn’t work either, because it then threatens to topple over backwards.) Perhaps I tend to grip pens more lightly than other people, but this is because I was told at the beginning of my pen life that I was unwittingly wrecking the soft nib of my Pelikan M300 by pressing down on it too much, and I have had to relearn how to hold a pen since. This is important, as this is precisely one of the advantages of using a fountain pen – it allows you to write for longer without your hand cramping. If a fountain pen forces you to hold it like a ballpoint, something is wrong.

I also should have known better than to buy a pen with a metal grip. I’ve avoided those ever since my experience with the Graf von Faber-Castell Pernambuco; these kind of pens look fabulous but are less than optimal for actual writing, because they are heavy, and they slip. (Come to think of it, I always tend to gravitate towards wood-barrelled pens, but once purchased, they don’t seem to make it into my regular rotation much.) I’m very curious where Staedtler sources its nibs, or whether they make them in-house; this particular nib is smooth enough but can be a bit slippery on paper like Tomoe River. I personally find the nib a bit small given the size of the pen and the price; small nibs, like the one on the Waterman Charleston, make me feel shortchanged, and I believe they write worse too.

Well, this wasn’t a rational purchase. I had tried out the pen in the shop and I knew what was coming. But strangely, inexplicably, I still wanted it, even with all its shortcomings. Brand loyalty is a funny thing: the sight of the logo-engraved cap peeping out of my pen pouch makes me happy, and I am willing to accomodate it, get used to its quirks, and see what good I can coax out of it. Sometimes a pen proves itself better than you initially thought it to be: I didn’t think much of my Kaweco Sport at first, for example, but later on I found that it never dried out, not even for months, which was pretty impressive for a cartridge-use pen in that price range. I’m curious to see what happens with my Initium. As for Staedtler, I do wish they will stay committed to the Premium line, but learn from their mistakes and come up with better models. There must be enough inspiring material in the Staedtler archives for them to make use of in this retro boom!

* This blog is not associated with CultPens in any way. I got to know of this promotion thanks to Matthias @Bleistift – they had the same offer last November.

Pencil-Shopping in Montevideo (And Thoughts On Cedar)

During a recent marathon bookstore-hopping session I came across some unusual pencils. In general, the pencil pickings in this country are pretty poor; in ordinary mom-and-pop stores it’s usually some vile Evolution-like green thing on offer, and at the better stationers they stock Faber-Castell Goldfabers and Staedtler Traditions. That’s about it. Not even the standard Castell 9000 or the Mars Lumograph can be easily found. Given this situation, you’d think the Brazilian subsidiary of Faber-Castell would be a big presence here, and it certainly is for colored pencils, but for some reason graphite pencils, especially ones just a couple of rungs higher than the neon Grip 2001 variants, are difficult to locate. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to come across some Brazilian-made Faber-Castells in a proper box.

The model name, Regent 1250, is unfamiliar to me and so I don’t know where they are supposed to fall within the spectrum of local FC offerings, but they don’t seem like total cheapies. The ends are scrupulously dipped, and the lead writes smooth and soft, slightly darker than the original Castell 9000’s. It’s interesting that the body color is not the usual dark pine-green you associate with modern-day Faber-Castell but something closer to the olive green of yesteryear. Also, Faber-Castell seems to have a local quality designation apart from the usual “SV” (maybe it’s just a translation?).

The most notable aspect of this pencil is the choice of wood. Inexpensive pencils often make use of pale, coarse-grained wood, and I can accept that as part of the need to control costs, but this specimen is a bit extreme. The wood is so coarse that the body, even coated with paint, appears pitted. This may be galling to the pencil purist, who rightfully considers woods such as red cedar the best: cedar is just soft and brittle enough, even-textured, fine-grained, nonresinous, light enough for bulk transport, and with a pleasing color and odor. (Thank you for the article, Sean!)

However, on a recent return visit to San Pedro de Timote, I came across an article in the American Hereford Journal on appropriate woods for fenceposts, and it gave me some perspective. As you may know (or not – I didn’t), maintaining good fences around his pastures is one of the top priorities for a rancher, since, apart from the obvious problems of theft and escape, raising a purebred herd is all about planned parenthood, which means ensuring that none of your Hereford girls have a sliver of a chance of meeting an unknown bull. Which is where fences come in. The article listed around a dozen different kinds of wood, and cedar was one of the top three candidates, capable of giving nearly thirty years of service in its untreated state. The woods at the bottom of the list (ash or some such) could only manage a paltry seven on average.

Considering that the same trunk could be chopped up to stand sentinel in the fields, come rain or shine, for thirty years, or grace a room for half a century or more as a heirloom cabinet, or be converted into several hundred boxes of pencils to be whittled away: which is better? Nowadays even old barn doors and fences are said to be repurposed to make vintage-looking furniture. Good wood has a surprisingly long life. On the one hand we are fortunate that red cedar was once considered so plentiful, and that manufacturers of that time left some extraordinary specimens to be admired and emulated. But on the other hand it certainly was an unsustainable luxury.

But should this warrant such a steep descent as with this Regent 1250? One of the main reasons FC maintains production facilities in Brazil is surely because of the plentiful supply of wood, and even here in neighboring Uruguay you notice how easy it is to grow and maintain forests here, given the temperate climate and abundant rainfall. I’m all for making pencils where it’s easy to make them, but please, let’s try to grow the right kind of tree. The Regent has a perfectly decent core, but the wood lets it down too much.

*                           *                          *

That day I also scored a couple of red-and-blue Nataraj “checking” pencils. I now have positive proof that Nataraj pencils exist on this continent.

  

There was also a fascinating eraserless version of the blue Staedtler Norica that I had previously assumed was only available in Canada. The imprint is slightly different (evocative of the minute differences between, for example, American and Canadian Mirados), and the local mystery Norica writes slightly darker and softer, but what does it matter, I was just so glad to see it again. Oh, and it is interesting to note that, regardless of the place of manufacture, both the Regent and Norica pencils are strenuously marketed as “German” pencils ;)

 

The Secret Lives of Colour

Happy new year to you all! I was hoping to get a couple of posts up before the year was over, but they ended up in the Drafts folder as I feared, as the past week has been particularly busy. It has been a bright and sunny Christmas and New Year’s down here, there is no snow and no hunkering down in the cold, and children are on summer vacation. We spent New Year’s Eve at the beach. It is all very pleasant but I have a sneaking feeling that the season in the northern hemisphere is more suitable for some quiet reflection at year’s end, the turning of pages, and (most important) the ceremony of starting a new diary.

Kassia St. Clair’s new book, The Secret Lives of Colourhas kept me entertained throughout the holidays. It’s a collection of short essays on 75 colors (pigments, dyes and even shades associated with precious metals or stones, like gold or amber), laying out the history and interesting facts about each, such as when it was fashionable and why it was prized. When I first started buying colored pencils, it was their mysterious, romantic names as much as their shades or manufacturing history that captivated me: Naples yellow, heliotrope, celadon green, Prussian blue, Payne’s grey. The book is by no means exhaustive, as a color is sometimes allotted only a couple of pages. But if you have ever found such names beautiful, and if your interest in stationery and the larger world has an anthropological bent, you might find it worth reading. The hardcover is only available in the UK at the moment but comes out later this year in the US.

Discovering America in a Uruguayan Estancia

Recently we went on holiday to an estancia up north, near the town of Cerro Colorado, Florida. (The Uruguayan “Florida” is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. The rest of this post is going to be about old books and Hereford cattle, so if you’re not interested, stop now.) The ranches around here, whether “working” (i.e. still a sheep, cattle & horse operation) or rehauled as a hotel catering to the tourist trade, generally offer a tranquil respite in a bucolic setting, with horseriding, sports facilities, four square meals a day and spotty Internet coverage. However, this particular estancia had an unusually illustrious history behind it. San Pedro de Timote started out under the Jesuits in the 18th century, and after being sold to an English immigrant in 1825, stayed in that family for more than 160 years through five generations. It was sold and converted into a hotel in 1997, but the estancia still has a family-owned feel to it, and many artifacts remain from its former life, including an impressive, dark-panelled library across from the main house. I spent many delightful hours there while my family was engaged in sunnier activities.

The collection reflects the fascinating lifestyle and pursuits of the landed gentry at the far end of the world. They were the descendants of English, German and Spanish immigrants who transplanted themselves across the ocean, but they still considered themselves Europeans, and sent their children abroad to study when the time came. There are books from throughout the 20th century in the major European languages: French medical books, old German photography magazines,  TIME (a young Edward Kennedy!), international tennis and boxing journals. Someone took up gardening, and collected reference books in English. All in all they were surprisingly connected to the larger world, in a place where it is even now difficult to get any reading material in any language other than Spanish. 

The bulk of the collection, and what made for some unexpectedly riveting reading, was made up of leather-bound volumes of periodicals relating to cattle husbandry and rural life. There were seventy years’ worth of the Herd Book of Hereford Cattle, as well as The American Hereford Journal, Farm & Country, The Pastoral Review, Meat & Wool, Hoofs & Horns, The Cattleman, Vie à la Campagne, El Campo, La Hacienda, El Chacra and various other almanacs. I spent most of the second day absorbed in the issues of The American Hereford Journal from 1939While later issues (post-1940’s) mainly list upcoming cattle auctions in a brisk, businesslike manner, the earlier journals have more romance to them and feature historical overviews of the industry and bits of wisdom from veteran cattlemen that even a lay reader finds interesting.

(The lighting wasn’t great inside the library. I apologize for the fuzzy pictures)

Have you seen a Hereford cow? I had not up until that point, and this happens to be a breed that looks very exotic to my eyes. Herefords look expensive and quite cuddly, with its head of plush cream-colored fur and a plump belly held up by short stumpy legs. I wanted to know why the owners of San Pedro were so crazy about them.

Western beef producers like Herefords. That fact is proved conclusively by the overwhelming predominance of cattle bearing the Whiteface trademark in western range areas. Herefords won their spurs early by going into a vast territory where beef was made the hard way – on short pastures and scant water supplies – and thrived on the hardships they found. So satisfactorily did they meet every requirement of the beef maker that their position as the “beef breed supreme” is to this very day unchallenged.

To me it has long been a wonder that Scotchmen didn’t adopt Herefords as their own breed, for Herefords are extremely economical converters of grass and forage into beef, and they can pick up a living where the picking is poor. The Scots, however, developed a breed in Scotland which shares with the Hereford a trait or an instinct of the highest practical value. That breed is the Ayrshire which can also maintain itself under hard climatic and feed conditions.

As breeds, Herefords and Ayrshires possess an almost miraculous power – a kind of unconquerable will – to live. Call it vitality, survival ability, hardiness, stamina, “rustling qualities,” resourcefulness, constitutional toughness, or what you will. The fact has been widely established and accepted that the Hereford breed is capable of “carrying on” and giving a creditable account of itself where living conditions are exceedingly hard and precarious.

And Herefords seem to inspire some pretty serious devotion. This from another fascinating article entitled “Why I Do What I Do With Herefords,” by Sam R. McKelvie, of Wood Lake, Neb.(I later found out that he had once served as governer of that state):

I have not built my herd. I am working at it and expect to be for the rest of my lifetime. The longer one works with purebred livestock, the more he realizes that the job is never finished. I hope the time never will come when we think that our herd is good enough.

It was in 1931 that we acquired By The Way Ranch in the heart of the Sandhills of Nebraska. That region is incomparable as a cattle country. The Sandhills are entirely different from the farming locality in which I was reared. Primarily and wholly, it is a cattle country. God intended the terrain there to be left green side up, and those who violated that rule saw their land wafted away on the wings of the wind. We produce no grain. This fact has a bearing upon the manner in which we must handle our breeding and range herds.

Wow. 

And indeed, after skimming thousands of pages on such issues as the relative merits of cottonseed meal vs. cold pressed cake and gazing into some soulful bovine eyes in three-fourths profile with names like Princess Domino and Belle Blanchard, I do think I’m falling for them, a little. And I never thought I could understand the appeal of a life on horseback, either, but then again, listen to this:

With the possible exception of the fur trade, no industry requires so few men for its successful operation over a large area as does ranching, and perhaps no other industry has employed so few men for the amount of capital invested. The lean, hard-bitten men who rode the great ranges of the West never numbered more than a few thousand though their great pastoral empire was larger than all of Western Europe.

(An interesting pictogram, from 1954)

I look forward to furthering my education on my next visit. Oh, I did look for pencil ads everywhere (the journals looked very promising at first), but it doesn’t seem like pencil manufacturers thought much of ranchers as a potential market. Maybe pencils and field notes were more for grain and produce farmers. I did see a typewriter ad but that was as far as I got regarding the stationery front.

Another fascinating subset of books that I found in the library was a prewar selection of travel guides, mostly in French, to Italy, Germany and the like. This included a series of illustrated books (“Le Monde En Couleurs”) intended to serve as a general introduction to certain countries. Of particular interest was the installment on the U.S., Les Etats-Unis d’Amérique (1946), which gives the vast country a state-by-state overview. Nowadays in this multicultural, politically correct age, any such article would read like a dry, factual Wikipedia entry heavy on the statistics, but a few pages into this book and you realize that people had a different attitude towards truth back then. The authors dispense few figures but simply know Kentuckians are like this and Vermonters are like that, and the anecdotes can be quite amusing.

Un vrai Vermonter répond «oui» ou «non» aux questions d’un étranger. Il ne supporte pas la vaine curiosité et ne se laisse jamais aller aux paroles inutiles. Ce n’est pas qu’il soit désagréable, loin de là, mais il n’a pas l’habitude de discourir sur des sujets qu’il ne connaît pas parfaitement et de première main. Le président Calvin Coolidge est le type parfait de ces paysans peu loquaces.

(A real Vermonter answers “yes” or “no” to the questions of a foreigner. He cannot stand vain curiosity, and never engages in useless talk. It’s not that he is being disagreeable, far from it, but simply that he is not in the habit of talking about subjects that he does not know perfectly and firsthand. President Calvin Coolidge is a perfect example of this kind of taciturn peasant.)

I regret the fact that I am not of the generation acquainted with President Coolidge. And while Emerson is quoted as saying that “Boston’s destiny is to lead the civilization of North America,” I get the distinct impression that Boston’s crown has passed on to New York since then… but what do I know. The below is from the chapter on “Le Massachusetts”:

Even today, there is not one young man or young woman who does not aspire to a “tour” of Europe in order to complete his or her education, and the New England accent rings out high, chanting the pages of the Baedecker, in front of all the sites and monuments that esteemed little book suggests for the tourists to admire. Even soldiers hailing from New England distinguish themselves from the rest of the American army in Europe with their eagerness to see and know all.

Hmmm, interestingly enough the only people I ever noticed as having this notorious NE accent in and around Boston were the cops and the subway conductors, the student population having long since become mixed and internationalized. 

And yes, America was king of production at that time. From the chapter “Le Pennsylvanie”:

Today, the ten million inhabitants living on its 45,000 square miles have helped Pennsylvania to take the lead in global production in numerous areas. The state, by itself, produces one-thirds of the nation’s coal, and half of all the steel that it consumes. Powerful Pittsburgh is the world’s biggest center of steel and glass. Hershey is the capital of chocolate, Lancaster the metropolis of linoleum. Allentown, Easton and Philipsburg take the lead in cement production. Three-quarters of all the slate used in the world come from the quarries of this state.

I had only ever heard of Wilkes-Barre, PA in connection with Eberhard Faber, but I was delighted to find it on the industrial map :)

Telephone Pencils In Action

It’s been a while! I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, due to a sudden onset of homesickness, and the relentlessly depressing news from home and abroad hasn’t helped. Although I’m a bit too lazy and optimistic by nature to become a full-blown depressive, these moods do come over me once in a while, usually some months after settling in a new place. All that moving takes a toll. Especially in the past couple of weeks, it feels as though all I’ve been doing is watching the news and wishing I was back home doing candle waves with everybody else. 

However, life goes on, and I rely more than ever on my pens, pencils and books for the “small but sure joys” of everyday life, as Haruki Murakami so aptly put it. I recently started watching the Netflix series “The Crown,” which pen-lovers will have a field day with as everybody from Churchill to the newspaperman writes with some kind of vintage fountain pen, but which is proving to be a harder nut to crack for pencil lovers. However, I did catch a telephone pencil in action in Episode 6.

This is where the switchboard operators put through a call from Princess Margaret in Rhodesia to Queen Elizabeth at Sandringham. Telephone pencils are often shown with rings attached to the end, but here we see another kind of ‘phone pencil in action that has some kind of ball tip “used to dial the telephone number, saving finger nails.”

If anyone else is watching the series, let’s all keep an eagle eye on those secretarial pools and desks for more pencils! 

Addendum 11/15: Gunther has sent me an amazing thread on the Classic Rotary Phones Forum that has pictures of more telephone pencils. The ball tips are referred to as “dialers” that conform to the Bell System. Wow! Thank you Gunther :)

Happy Halloween!

My son always brought back a pencil for each Halloween we spent in Canada. I have to say, it wasn’t the ideal place to celebrate the occasion since it was always freezing around trick-or-treat time (the children had to wear coats over their fancy dress), but Canadian parents go to exraordinary lengths to put up a good show, complete with audio and special effects. I salute them!

The birthday pencils were special too. The French certainly helps :)

Spring Cleaning

I went through my stationery hoard for some spring cleaning today, and decided to break out this cheerful Caran d’Ache rainbow pencil. Thank you M. La Plume!

I also decided to ink one of the pens I’d been saving for later. 

The Lamy Safari is a hugely popular pen, but I never had any plans to hunt down any since I discovered long ago that the triangular grip doesn’t suit me very well. But then I came across this discontinued version last year at a Montreal tobacconist’s. I find these cigar shops fascinating, because many of them also make a point of catering to the broader gentlemanly interests, such as Zippo lighters, shaving kits, chess boards, Swiss knives, and if you’re in luck, writing instruments too. Vasco’s selection of fountain pens was quite broad if idiosyncratic (Delta, Visconti, Ferrari, and Dupont, in addition to the more regular brands), and they had interesting old stock too. (I lucked into some past Caran d’Ache “Crayons de la Maison” editions there.) 

This yellow Safari was calling to me from the rotating stand next to the cashier, and as soon as I recovered from the initial shock, I decided to get it as my one and only symbolic Safari. This canary-yellow version with the black clip happens to have been the one often spotted in the hands of Korean celebrities way back when, and no doubt did its bit for the analogue boom.

I opted for the proprietary cartridge this time, but that only served to remind me why I hate using cartridges. The ink takes forever to reach the nib! I had to dip the nib in a little Staedtler blue to coax it out.

Somehow it feels a bit nostalgic, using this pen…