Fountain Pen Holiday Gift Guide 2017

Shopping for Christmas gifts is always one of the most stressful parts of the holiday season. Would they like a toaster that monograms their whole wheat? How about a bluetooth speaker that’s shaped like a cat? It seems like every year it gets harder and harder for me to find creative gifts for friends and family, especially when most of them have everything that they could ever need (we live in a first-world country after all).

Pens and stationery have always been go-to gifts, but it turns out that the Cross pen you received for graduation is overpriced, and your birthday Moleskine actually provides a pretty terrible writing experience. Fortunately, there are plenty of great and affordable options, if you’re considering buying a loved one a fountain pen or a notebook for Christmas. But how do you choose from the countless options out there? I've looked back on my favorite things from the last few years and have compiled a short list of gift ideas for fountain pen beginners. Whether you’re buying a gift for a loved one, or a gift for yourself, these won’t disappoint, and I use most of these items daily. And why should you go analog for Christmas? Patrick Rhone has some inspiring thoughts on the matter. Note, the item titles link to my reviews, and the prices lead to sites where you can purchase items (affiliate links).

TLDR - Favorite Matchups:

Fountain Pens and Paper for Beginners

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Lamy Vista - Under $25
Sure, many will recommend the Lamy Safari or Pilot Metropolitan, but the Vista beats them both, in my opinion. I love the Vista because it offers a sneak peak at the inner workings of the fountain pen. This pen is a clear (called a demonstrator) version of the Safari, which is one of the most recommended starter fountain pens. This pen comes with an ink cartridge, so it can be used right out of the box. You can also purchase a converter, if you want to use it with bottled inks.

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TWSBI 580 AL - $65
So, you want something a bit nicer? TWSBI pens probably offer the best value and quality for the price. I use the TWSBI 580 AL everyday. No cartridges and no converters, just a piston with tons of ink capacity. For those unfamiliar with piston pens, check out this video to see how they work. This pen doesn’t use ink cartridges, so you’ll have to buy your loved one a bottle of ink. I make a few ink recommendations below, but you can also check out my penventory page for a full list of inks that I’ve reviewed.

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Lamy 2000 - $130
The Lamy 2000 is the best fountain pen that I have ever used. This gold-nibbed pen feels frictionless on paper and has a piston mechanism to hold lots of ink. This pen has been around for decades and for good reason. It doesn’t use ink cartridges, so you’ll need to pick up a bottle of ink to go with it. Note, gold nibs are softer than the steel nibs that you'll find on the other recommendations. Fountain pens require much less pressure to write than traditional pens, and pressing too hard can cause damage to the nib. This is especially true for gold nibs.

Leuchtterm1917 with the Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen

Leuchtterm1917 with the Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen

Leuchtterm1917 Notebook - $20
Although you can use fountain pens on regular paper, they tend to leave more ink on the page and bleed and feather (spread out) on regular paper. If you’re looking for a nice notebook to accompany your nifty fountain pen gift, check out the Leuchtterm1917. It comes in tons of colors and works very well with fountain pens. I use one as my daily notebook.

Inks

So you’ve picked the perfect fountain pen for your Secret Santa, but how do you you chose from thousands of inks? You can check out the penventory for a full list of ink reviews, but I’ll save you some time. Try one of these:

Lamy Blue/Black Ink - Bottle or Cartridges
If you’re purchasing a fountain pen as a gift, you might as well spice it up with a non-black ink. Lamy inks are some of the best, most affordable inks on the market, and Blue Black is one of my personal favorites.

Diamine Pumpkin - Small Bottle - $10
For those who find black and blue a little boring, Diamine Pumpkin is the solution. This ink is my daily driver. It’s consistent and dark enough for note taking, but bright and colorful. Life’s too short to use boring ink, and Pumpkin pops on the page.

Iroshizuku Tsukushi - Small Bottle - $13
Tsukushi lives in my Lamy 2000 fountain pen at all times. Its brown tone stands apart from the traditional blue or black, but is still understated enough to work well as an everyday color.

What About Fountain Pen Nib Sizes

Choosing a nib size can be daunting, especially if you've never used a fountain pen before. The nib, by the way, is the tip of the pen, which has two tines that serve as channels for the fountain pen ink. I've provided an overview of the most common nibs below, and this will apply to all of the pens mentioned in the article.

TLDR: Buy a pen with a fine nib.

  • Extra Fine - Best for those who like teeny tiny writing.
  • Fine - For Lamy and TWSBI, I default to fine nibs. In my experience, this is the safest choice, if you're not sure which size to buy.
  • Medium - Lays a thicker juicier line. Not so great for regular note taking, but may be a good choice for those who like big bold letters.

Pro Tip: If you buy from a Japanese manufacturer (Pilot, Platinum, Sailor are the most common), buy a medium nib. Japanese nibs tend to run one-size finer than their western counterparts.

Hopefully these recommendations help you find the perfect gift for your loved one, but feel free to post any questions in the comments section below. Have other gift ideas? Let me know in the comments as well.


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The Road So Far

Japan, 2010

Japan, 2010

Starting this blog was part of a journey to ground myself in the physical world, at a time when I was lost in a digital ocean. I’ve met many awesome people over the last two years and have discovered a love for pen and paper, but I realize that there was more going on behind the scenes than digital overwhelm. The search for the perfect writing tools was an excuse. The pens and paper were inherently meaningless, but it was the potential energy that became kinetic through them that I’d been longing for. I love pen and paper because of what they allow me to create.

It’s been quiet around here for the last few months, but I think of the blog daily and wonder where to take it. In the beginning of 2017, I wrote about the new and exciting seeds of opportunity on the horizon, and I spent the year watering the garden. The novel now sits at 55,000 words, and I hope to wrap it up in December. The new course that I received funding for is actually coming together and fully enrolled. I started a PhD program and have poured ample time into learning the ins-and-outs of educational research (and still have a long way to go). Life is truly coming together in unexpected ways, and I realize that none of this happened because of the pen or notebook that I used.

It's a funny thing when the mind realizes that sitting still is riskier than leaping into the unknown, and 2017 has been a year of leaps. In truth, taking chances was easy at first. Anyone can be brave for a short amount of time. I assumed that putting myself out there would be a one-time challenge, that I would take a chance and everything would fall into place. I found that every new opportunity came with another chance for rejection and spectacular failure. It was through this process that I realized overcoming self-doubt, fear of rejection, and anxiety wouldn’t be a one-time hurdle, but rather a series of small skirmishes in a lifetime war. Instead of throwing in the towel and resigning to my couch and The Great British Baking Show (ok, this still happens on occasion), I spent much of 2017 exploring and re-evaluating my relationship with fear and anxiety. The year was full of reading, reflection, and active experimentation, as well as spectacular personal growth.

Looking inward in Aomori.

Looking inward in Aomori.

How does all of this translate to A Better Desk? I’ve written extensively about new writing tools over the last two years, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m mostly happy with the tools that I have. I am more excited to put them to use than to continue reviewing new bits and bobs that really don’t add much additional value to my work. But I still feel that there’s work to be done here, and I found a bit of inspiration from my Start Here page, something that I’d written years ago:

Why A Better Desk? Having a better desk means more than using expensive apps, fancy pens, and a complicated paperless workflow. Sometimes it means reflecting on why we work the way we do and why we spend so much time worrying about the things that we can't control.

The answer was here all along, and I plan to broaden the scope of ABD within the upcoming year. This doesn’t mean that I’ll be dropping reviews completely, but I do plan to use the blog as a platform to explore all of the new topics, tools, and strategies that have made my life, work, and relationships more enjoyable. I'm not exactly sure where I'll end up, and I still have a long way to go, but I hope that you’ll come along for the ride.

Japan, 2010

Japan, 2010


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Midori Traveler's Notebook Review - On the Road

Ah Japan, the land of shrines, kindness, and obsessive high quality. Japan feels like a second home to me. I spent six months working there as an intern and take a group of students back every year to get a taste of what it’s like to live there. A visit to a Japan stationery store a few years ago sparked my interest in everything analog, which resulted in this blog, and the Midori Traveler’s Notebook is one of my favorite Japanese stationery discoveries. While I published a high level review of the Midori Traveler's notebook months ago, it’s hard to completely review a product that’s so customizable. The Traveler’s notebook can be whatever you want it to be, so it took some time to figure out where it fit in my analog workflow. Now that I’ve been able to break my Midori in, I wanted to revisit it and review it for the purpose for which I’ve found it most useful, travel. If you're looking for a basic overview of the Midori Traveler's notebook, check out my original review.

Although I love the Leuchtterm1917, which is my everyday carry notebook, it’s not quite up to snuff as an all-inclusive traveling companion. It doesn’t fit in my travel bag, nor does it hold the things that I typically take with me during a business trip, like business cards and railway maps. This is where the Midori Traveler’s Notebook shines. Check out the screen shots below to see how the Midori insert size compares to the Leuchtterm 1917 A5.

I bet you’ll never guess my favorite thing about the Midori as a traveling companion. Go ahead, I’ll wait… Its battery doesn’t die. There’s something magical about cell phones in that their batteries seem to magically drain twice as fast on-the-go. I typically save a digital version of the Japanese train and subway maps on my phone, but they’re completely useless if my phone dies. I still keep a digital map handy, but I also tuck a subway and JR map into the back pocket of my Midori’s artisanal storage folder (artisanal in the sense that I made it out of a Manila folder and some tape). I always forget to bring business cards on business trips, so I slide a few business cards into the business card slot of the custom folder, and there’s no longer a need to freak out when I leave my card case in my other pants. I added the Midori zipper bag to my notebook during my trip to Japan, and it’s the perfect place to tuck away business receipts that I’ll need for reimbursement later. Instead of cramming receipts in pants pockets and bags, they’re in one place which makes it so much easier to sort through them later.

Patrick Ng’s Chronodex is one of my favorite planning tools, and it turns out that it’s a perfect tool for travel too. Remember that terrible cellphone battery? I copy my trip itinerary into the corresponding days of the Chronodex, so that I have a backup. All of the occupied time is filled in with black lines, and I fill in the free time with red lines. This gives me an idea of how much free time I have during the day. In the office, I might use this time to do some writing or answer emails, depending on how big the time chunk is (more on time chunking some other day). In Japan, I use this process to see when I might be able to sneak away to go see an old friend or visit a favorite restaurant.

If you read my writing regularly then you know of my fountain pen affinity. Although I love my Lamy 2000 and Pilot Vanishing Point, they don’t travel with me. I’ve read all sorts of stuff about how easy it is to fly with fountain pens with careful planning, but I just don’t need that level of uncertainty when I fly. Traveling is stressful enough without having to worry about a pen leaking all over there place. Instead, I carry the Fisher Bullet Space which rests comfortably in the Midori Traveler’s Notebook pen loop. The Space Pen is rugged and pressurized, so it could write in an underwater war zone, but it works well for brainstorming on the plane and business meetings too. It’s worth noting that the Space Pen is a bit small for the large pen loop, so make sure to buy the optional Space Pen clip or go the small pen loop, if you’re an avid Fisher fan.

You're right, this isn't a picture of a Space Pen. I discovered this little J. Herbin beauty while traveling, and am putting it through its paces.

You're right, this isn't a picture of a Space Pen. I discovered this little J. Herbin beauty while traveling, and am putting it through its paces.

The Midori is an all-in-one powerhouse. Although I no longer carry it in my work bag on a daily basis, I think that I’ve found the perfect use for it. Instead of tossing random bits of paper and business cards into my man-bag (yes it’s normal for men to wear bags in Japan), the Midori Traveler’s notebook keeps everything safely tucked away and organized. I use the full-size Midori Traveler’s Notebook, but there’s a passport-size Traveler’s Notebook too, which is more of a pocket companion. The Midori Traveler’s Notebook is a best-in-class product. Aside from its excellent performance, its leather cover serves as a record of the many journeys and adventures of its owner. With dozens of accessories and inserts, it can be highly customized to fit the needs of its user.

An example of some of the available inserts.

An example of some of the available inserts.

Want to learn more about the Midori? Check out the Midori section of the Penventory.


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The Five Minute Journal Review

"Why do these kind of things always happen to me?"

I stared at the hole in the front grill of my new car. Someone backed into it with their trailer hitch, cracked the grill all the way down the middle and drove away. No note and no apologies.

There are a few things wrong with the "woe is me" attitude into which I eagerly slipped. To begin with, it was based in pure fantasy. "These things" never happened to me. In the course of my 12 years of driving experience, this was only the second time that my car had been damaged. Aside from the delusion, this negative attitude also made things worse. Instead of getting over the incident and moving on, I agonized over it, surveilled the neighborhood for suspects, and lost sleep worrying about a repeat offense. My interpretation of this tiny little incident cost a week or two of mental capital and anguish, anguish which turned out to be much worse than the event itself.

What would have happened if I approached the event with gratitude? It sounds anti-intuitive and a bit insane, but let's take a closer look. Although a hit-and-run is less than ideal, someone with a gracious mindset might focus on the fact that they have insurance, while the offender may not have been able to afford it or the bump in rates that come along with causing damage. If I had a gracious mindset , I would have been thankful that it only cost a tiny fraction of the actual damage amount to repair. I paid $250 to repair $1,000 worth of damage. Aside from repairing the damage, the body shop also detailed my dreadfully filthy car. The $250 was worth it just for the cleaning.

The human mind is much better at noticing the negative events over the positive ones. Remember all of those times that someone didn't cut you off on the road? What about all of those times when your flight left on time? We notice the missed deadlines, perceived slights, and unfair treatment, but we easily forget the 99% of the times when things go as planned. We forget how lucky we are to have flights to take and cars to drive. Reveling in the negatives is a hard habit to overcome, but overcoming this bad habit can dramatically increase happiness. Had I focused on the positives in my situation, I would have saved a week of agonizing over my first world problem, and I would have been happier as a result.

This is all great, but how can someone develop a mindset of gratitude? Journaling is one way. I've tried various forms of journaling and often turn to journals when the times get tough. Despite knowing the benefits of journaling, I've never been able to make it stick, meaning the relief is only temporary.

I found my solution to the journaling problem in The Five Minute Journal. The concept is simple and revolves around establishing a habit of gratitude. Each page of the journal represents one day, and there are approximately 200 days worth of pages. I start each day by listing three things that I'm grateful for, three things that would make today a great day, and a daily affirmation.

The Five Minute Journal Review Closeup Morning ritual Grateful.jpg

In the evenings, I wrap up the day by listing three awesome things that happened during the day and a way that I could have made the day better. The key is to complete the morning half as soon as possible upon waking up and the evening half as close as possible to bedtime. This leads to starting and ending the day with feelings of gratitude, and this regular practice is a powerful way to develop the habit.

Nope, this picture isn't underexposed. The night portions of the page are shaded grey.

Nope, this picture isn't underexposed. The night portions of the page are shaded grey.

I've often gone to bed worrying about a work problem or started the day grumpy about the weather. The Five Minute Journal journaling process flips the script. After a week or so of the process, I started to expect to feel gratitude first thing in the morning and prior to bed, which affected my emotions before I even filled out the day's page. Instead of fixating on the bad, my brain started to fixate on the good. It sounds silly, but it really works.

I started The Five Minute Journal process with a simple text file and blank notebook, and I found it beneficial enough of a process to buy the official product. The official version is certianly pricier than a text file, but spending a little cash up front reinforces the need to stick to the habit, for me at least. I hate wasting money on things that I don't use. The journal itself is very well made, with embossed lettering on the front and a woven hardback cover. It starts with a complete primer on how to use the daily pages and provides substantial background on its design process and intended use. The paper is thick and fountain pen friendly.

From start to finish, The Five Minute Journal's little design choices here and there make it a joy to use. Each daily page comes complete with an inspiration quote, and there's even a weekly challenge to amp up your gratitude game. These challenges range from simple thankyou writing to making small donations to favorite charities.

The Five Minute Journal is an excellent tool for developing a habit of gratitude, which leads to a happier life. The positive results of using the journal were immediate for me, but I really noticed a mental shift after my first month. For those who aren't quite ready to drop $20 for the official version, start with a plain notebook or text file. If that works for you, consider the fancier version. Regardless of what you use, incorporating a journaling practice into your daily life can have major positive benefits.


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Pilot Vanishing Point Fountain Pen Review

When I think of U.S. campus bookstores, I imagine overly-priced flimsy spiral notebooks, cheaply made coffee mugs, and sports apparel. This isn't a place to go to find the best writing instruments or paper. Japanese campus stores are vastly different. I visited Kyoto Sangyo University, for a conference in 2015, and was amazed by the campus store. There were rows upon rows of notebooks, as well as a wide range of pens and pen cases. While this was drool-worthy in itself, it was the pen at the bottom of a glass display case that caught my attention. I had never seen a Pilot Vanishing Point in person before, but there it sat, shining in the florescent store lights. $200 seemed like an outrageous price at the time, but the experience cemented the Vanishing Point in the back of my mind.

Pilot Vanishing Point Desert Orange Review Tip.jpg

Fast forward a year and my pen hobby has teetered towards obsession. I worked my way up to the Vanishing Point over time and finally decided to pick up a Desert Orange Vanishing Point from Amazon. It's difficult to gage the orange color from pictures, but it's a subtle orange with shades of brown. Since this color is a part of the Metallic series, it has small flecks in the pen body which shimmer in the light. Overall, I wish that the orange was more vibrant, but it's still my favorite color out of the bunch.

The Pilot Vanishing Point's metal body gives it a nice heft. Although the smooth lacquered body would be slippery to grip on its own, the matte black tip provides a subtly-textured surface that grips well. The Vanishing Point is capless and uses a nock mechanism (the clicky thing) to reveal the tip, similar to a standard capless ballpoint. The pen clip is attached to the pen body at the grip area and has two small finger indentations, which allow for fingers to slide into place and grip the pen comfortably. The clip was my biggest concern, but I've been pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the pen is to hold. I am right-handed, so lefties should definitely try the pen themselves or refer to a lefty review before purchasing.

There are only a few capless fountain pens in the wild for a reason; they're hard to design. Pens like the early versions of the Lamy Dialog have received negative reviews, due to dried out nibs, but the Vanishing Point seems to have gotten this right. Depressing the nock pushes the nib through a small metal door, which moves out of the way and exposes the nib. Clicking the nock again recesses the nib and closes the metal door, keeping air out of the pen chamber. Side note, the nock's click is extremely satisfying.

The nib for the Desert Orange Vanishing Point is a sleek black color, but the nib color varies by body color style. Although the pen comes with a gold nib, there's little flex, since the nib itself has to be slender enough to retract into the pen. Nib units can be easily swapped between Vanishing Points, much like a traditional ink refill in a capless ballpoint pen. I chose the medium nib, since Japanese nibs run finer than their European counterparts, and the medium nib is on par with a western fine nib. The writing experience is smooth, although the nib has more of a marker feel on paper, compared to my Lamy 2000, which feels like writing on glass.

Speaking of the Lamy 2000, I'm sure that some readers of this review will want to know whether they should choose a Lamy 2000 or a Vanishing Point, since both are similar price points and popular choices when leveling up your pen game. The short answer to this question is that you should choose the pen that has the best features for you. The Vanishing Point's capless design makes it easy to grab and use one-handed, and you can store it in a pocket or bag without fear of losing the cap. The Vanishing Point uses a cartridge or converter, so it holds much less ink than the Lamy 2000, and the clip grip may be a turnoff for some users. The grip itself is a touch wider than that of the Lamy 2000. The base model of the Lamy 2000 comes in one color, while the Vanishing Point come in a wide range of colors. All of these factors are worth considering, but there is no objective answer to which pen is better. Both the Pilot Vanishing Point and Lamy 2000 are excellent pens for the price.


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