Just Enough to Work

The first few weeks of the school semester are always complete chaos. My calendar is filled to the brim with students, class prep, and meetings, and all of my favorite hobbies and normal healthy habits fall by the wayside. Despite the temporary insanity, this time always reminds me of which systems are tried and true, as well as which tools are vital to my survival. Instead of trying tons of notebooks and pens, it becomes a game of finding just how little I need to get the work done. Over the last year of experimenting, there are a few tools that I come back to over and over again. These are the tools that I turn to, when times get tough. Note, header links link to my reviews if available, and paragraph links may contain affiliate links.

Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen

The Lamy 2000 remains my favorite pen in the arsenal. This is my goto notetaker, and the smooth nib makes writing anything a complete joy. I combine this bad boy with Pilot Iroshizuku Tsukushi ink. The ink's subtle shading properties and slight flex in the 2000's nib work together to produce beautiful shades of brown on the page. The 2000's piston filling system ensures that there's plenty of ink for long writing sessions, and the pen's sleek design makes it appropriate for formal and informal settings.

TWSBI 580AL Silver Fountain Pen

My job involves dozens of resume reviews every semester. Although I do provide some feedback digitally, I mostly rely on analog tools to mark up student documents in one-on-one sessions. The TWSBI 580AL is my favorite pen for this task, due to its huge ink reservoir and consistent performance. I use Diamine Pumpkin, as a more interesting variation of a traditional red. The TWSBI's slightly wider nib and clear body bring out the best aspects of the bright orange Pumpkin ink.

Nock Co. Sinclair Pen Case

I've tried several pen storage options, but the Sinclair beats them all. The top zipper makes it easy to quickly grab a pen, and the three pen slots provide a great balance between capacity and size. I keep my TWSBI, Lamy 2000, and Retro 51 Tornado Slim on deck, and keep a Nock Co. DotDash Notebook, with some Nock Co. DotDash Index Cards in the notebook sleeve. My Sinclair lives in my messenger bag, but I can take it solo when I just need a few pens and a notebook. The only thing that would make this case better would be if it came in a Steel/Mango color way.

Leuchtturm 1917 A5 Notebook

Some of you may be wondering what ever happened to my Midori Traveler's Notebook. I love the Midori, but I find that I enjoy it most when I'm on the go and need a notebook that can hold a pen, business cards, and other goodies. It's great for trips, conferences, and events, but it's just a bit too much for my simple day-to-day needs, when I just want to write. I discovered the Leuchtturm notebook this year, and I'm in love. The dot pattern and fountain-pen-friendly paper work well for my needs. I enjoy the wider A5 sheet, compared to the slimmer Midori paper size. It also helps that the Leuchtturm comes in a brilliant shade of orange, which seems to be a favorite color among pen addicts, myself included.

Retro 51 Tornado Slim Apple Edition

I picked this guy up during my visit to the Apple store on Apple's campus. It's only available at this location, but it's comparable to the standard slim models, which are widely available. I typically use fountain pens, but the Tornado is my favorite alternative, when a fountain pen just won't do. The refill is excellent and the pen's body is the same material as a standard MacBook.

It's fun to experiment with new pens, stationary, and ink, but times of chaos ground me in what's truly necessary to get the job done. These times also provide an opportunity to clear out everything from my pen case to my laptop until I have just enough, just the bare minimum needed to do the work. This culling of the unnecessary provides focus and reminds me that its not about the tools, but rather about the work. When I'm rushed or cranking away, all of the extra stuff just gets in the way.

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Jinhao 159 Fountain Pen Review

Made in China

We see these words on a daily basis, on most of the things that we own. The tea mug that I'm drinking from is made in China. The chair that I'm sitting in is made in China. My laptop, iPad and iPhone are made in China. There are only a few places in my life that have been completely free from anything made in China, and one of them has been my pen case. I can't help but feel that Made in China is a dirty phrase in the pen world, especially considering things like the recent Esterbrook controversy, where the revamped American pen company tried to obscure the fact that its revamped pens would be made in China. Despite the negative associations with Chinese pens to poor quality, there's a name that keeps popping up in my news feed and has even made it to mainstream pen sites like Goulet Pens, and that's Jinhao. I set out to test just how well Jinhao held up to its western competitors and wanted to see just how much bang I could get for my buck.

I set a few parameters for my Jinhao pen search:

  • The total cost of the pen, including shipping, should be less than $5.
  • The pen should be larger. I've always wanted to try a larger pen, but I prefer smaller pens for everyday writing. There's no way that I would spend a large amount on a large pen, but I was willing to spend $5.
  • The pen must be orange. There's no rational reason for this, except that I like orange.

My search led to the Jinhao 159, a large fountain pen with a bright orange enamel. I managed to find one on Amazon for a grand total of, I kid you not, $3.28 including shipping. I chose a medium nib, since the fine-nib version was nearly three times the price. The order came with a month ship time and little guarantee that it would ever arrive. I've been burned by ordering items directly from China in the past, so I had no expectation of ever seeing my bright orange Chinese friend. I was shocked when the pen arrived in less than two weeks, all for the low-low price of $3.28. The Pen Economics blog has an excellent article on how this low pricing might be possible, but I figured that its pricing was just reflective of the pen's crappy quality.

I removed my Jinhao 159 from its cheap shipping envelope and was greeted by a bright orange pen that actually appeared to be well made. The pen's metal body had a surprising heft. The pen has shiny chrome accents that recess nicely into the pen body, and the clip, although not quite my taste aesthetically, is very sturdy. The Jinhao has the appearance of a $50-$100 pen from a distance and mostly holds up to closer scrutiny. There is a small manufacturing defect in the enamel, where the clip meets the pen cap, and the pen has a plastic cap insert that cheapens the look, but these require close inspection to notice.

The Jinhao 159's grip is a standard smooth black plastic grip. It's a fatter grip than I'm used to, but I'm surprised by just how much I enjoy it. Like most smooth plastic grips, the Jinhao's grip becomes very slippery during long writing sessions; however, I'll leave my novel writing to pens like the Lamy 2000.

The cap of the Jinhao 159 has a threaded fit and caps very securely. The pen can be posted, but the cap wobbles too much for it to be comfortable, and ratcheting down the cap will likely damage the enamel. Since the 159 is a large pen, it nestles comfortably in the webbing between my thumb and index finger without the cap.

The Jinhao 159 comes with a standard piston converter, which holds a hilariously small amount of ink, compared to the pen's size. The pen's size can also make it difficult to fill with smaller ink bottles or ink samples, and the grip of the pen is too large to fit in the 30ml bottles of Diamine that I typically use. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to pop the converter out, fill it with an ink bottle, and then pop it back into the pen. This certainly isn't ideal, so make sure you have some larger bottles of ink on hand for easy filling.

I've read some terrible things about the nib quality of Jinhao pens, so I had zero expectations for the nib's performance. I was pleasantly surprised when the medium nib slid smoothly across the page. The nib is hard as nails, but that's to be expected from a steel nib. The Jinhao medium reminds me of a TWSBI fine, which leaves a slightly thicker line than a western fine. There may be manufacturing differences in nib quality, but the one that I received functioned perfectly. After writing an entire article and playing around with the Jinhao 159 for several days, I'm pleasantly surprised by just how will it performs for under $4. Those looking for a better nib quality should turn to a standard replacement #6 nib, which you can find on sites like Goulet Pens.

Although the Jinhao 159 won't make it into my daily rotation, I may keep it in my office, or somewhere where I may need a pen but don't want to risk losing a more expensive one. The Jinhao 159 is certainly worth the $3.00-$5.00 Amazon price tag, and it's even a great value for $10-$15, if you go through official channels like Goulet Pens. It's a great starter pen for those who want to try a cheap fountain pen before moving on to a more expensive model.

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Lamy Vista Giveaway Winner

Thanks to everyone who entered the Lamy Vista giveaway! I'm happy to announce that Anne M. is the winner! Be sure to check out the awesome artwork on her Instagram page.

Thanks again to everyone who entered, and thanks to Pen Chalet for sponsoring the giveaway. Pen Chalet is an awesome purveyor of fine pens and inks, and this giveaway wouldn't have been possible without their support.

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Lamy Vista Fountain Pen Giveaway

My love of fountain pens began with the Lamy Vista. I still remember seeing this sleek demonstrator on the shelf in a Japanese stationary store. I anxiously waited until I returned to the U.S. to pop in the ink cartridge, to avoid any unfortunate plane leakage, and I was hooked from the very first scribble. In my opinion, the Vista is one of the best starter fountain pens, since its grip guides the user to grip the pen correctly, and the clear body provides a look at the inner workings of a fountain pen.

To celebrate A Better Desk's first birthday, I've teamed up with Pen Chalet to give away a Lamy Vista to a lucky reader. Check out the Rafflecopter entry form below for entry instructions. The giveaway is limited to U.S. addresses only. The winner will be announced on Tuesday August 30th, and all entries must be received by midnight on the 29th. Check out the Lamy Vista page on Pen Chalet for more details on the Vista.

Thanks so much to Pen Chalet for sponsoring this giveaway. Pen Chalet is my go to online pen shop for any large pen purchases, most recently my orange Pilot Vanishing Point, which I hope to review soon. Its awesome prices and quick shipping make Pen Chalet hard to beat! Show them your love by visiting the Pen Chalet site!

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One Year of A Better Desk

On August 27th of last year, I published the first post at A Better Desk. What started with the need to write, combined with a visit to a Japanese stationary store, quickly resulted in a full-fledged nerdy hobby. I never imagined that I would pass the 50 post mark, nor did I think that I'd be here a year later, planning for the next phase of my geeky experiment. I've loved discovering the friendly pen and paper community, reviewing awesome pens and stationary, and sending 54 little creations out into the world. Every minute has been a blast.

I've dedicated the last year to finding the right analog tools for the job, but choosing the right tools is the smallest piece of the puzzle. It's easy to fixate on choosing the right pen and paper, but it's much harder to develop the strategies and habits required to get the work done. It's when pen finally meets paper that the real magic happens, and I feel myself wanting to dive deeper into this topic. There's nothing wrong with just being a pen and stationary review blog, but I'm ready to take the next step. I turned to the analog world to find clarity and focus, but I've talked about these topics very little. I look at my about page, what I wanted my blog to be in the beginning, and I can't help but feel that I've barely scratched the surface:

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. It also means learning how to work with others and understanding that, deep down, we are all still in grade school. Like any geek, I'm fascinated by all of the accessories of a productive work life, but I'm even more interested in examining my own stupid lizard brain and figuring out how to work around it to get the work done.

So where does A Better Desk go from here? If you've enjoyed the reviews, don't panic, because those aren't going away. I still plan on covering my pen and paper exploits, and I haven't even begun to review many of the items that have made it to my daily arsenal. That said, I'm ready to grow, and I hope that you're ready to grow with me. To those of you who have tuned in this year, thank you. And I truly mean THANK YOU. I started this project on a whim and never imagined that I'd receive as much support as I have from this amazing community. I hope that this is just the start of our journey together.

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