Ink Drop Soup: Category Killers

3 08 2013

I want to do a brief lineup, a shout-out and nod to products so exceptional that it becomes almost impossible to review anything in their category without mentioning them, without adding a disclaimer acknowledging that the product under review certainly isn’t a so-and-so. Compared to the category killer, everything else lags behind in a competition for second place.

Mechanical Pencil: Uni Kuru Toga

Alpha gel grip for bonus points

Alpha gel grip for bonus points

It rotates the lead as you write. There’s an Alpha Gel grip model. All other mechanical pencils can go home because for me, this pencil reigns supreme.

Ballpoint Pen: Uni Jetstream

As close as a ballpoint can get to perfection

As close as a ballpoint can get to perfection

Your mileage may vary. I’ve heard some people complain that the Jetstream is too smooth, in what I assume is much the same tone that rich people use when they complain that they just have too much money. There may be good competition in the super smooth world, tolerable substitutes even, but a ballpoint pen can’t fall in my hand without being measured against the Jetstream.

Convenient Fountain Pen: Pilot Vanishing Point

  CLICK click CLICK click

CLICK click CLICK click

I love a lot of different fountain pens, but when it comes to convenience, the Vanishing Point is the undisputed champ. I own three now. Send help.

There are still categories out there where a single winner hasn’t seized my heart. Gel pens, rollerball pens, felt-tip pens, hardcase wooden pencils (though the Palomino Blackwing is pretty strong), lead holders (though I have a soft spot for the Ohto Comfort Sharp), highlighters … I don’t yet know the end-all champion in those realms (gel pens may never be settled, as there are many good gel pens). But now, henceforth, you all know when I review a mechanical pencil, ballpoint pen, or fountain pen touting its convenience, unless that product is the new category killer, it will go without saying that it isn’t in the same league as these fantastic writing utensils.


Holiday Gift Guide — AND GIVEAWAY!

24 11 2011

It’s just about that time of year, my good people, when all your favorite gift-giving holidays convene. That’s right, such holidays as: my mom’s birthday. My grandmother’s birthday. National Fritters Day. Letter Writing Day. Pepper Pot Day. AND MANY MORE!

You will need to be armed to the teeth with gifts if you hope to make it to the other end of December alive. Personally, I like to do all my shopping from the same location, as far away from humanity as possible, and preferably while sitting. I think you know what that means—online shopping! This post will almost entirely feature items from JetPens; maybe, if I’m feeling particularly industrious, I’ll do another (or more?!) post(s) involving writing utensils from other websites.

And! As promised in the title, there will be a giveaway associated with this post. Details will follow. But first—pens!

I’ll organize this into two major categories—pens I own, and pens I don’t own but am going to recommend anyway—and for the first category, I’ll break it down by price. Let’s begin!


Pens I Own

$1 to $10

There are far too many pens in this category to list them all individually. So I’ve compiled a wish list of them on JetPens! And now it can be your wish list.


$11 to $30

Pentel Pocket Brush Pen for Calligraphy – $13.50

Great for artists and people who can write in Japanese.

It’s got individual synthetic fiber bristles, and it’s refillable. Can write from a hair-thin line to an I-can’t-be-bothered-to-measure-how-thick broad line. Comes with 2 refills.


Uni-ball Alpha Gel Kuru Toga Mechanical Pencil – 0.5mm – $14.00

This has all my favorite things in a mechanical pencil. All of them. Including lead.

Fantastically comfortable Alpha-Gel grip + Kuru Toga lead-rotating mechanism = maybe the best pencil ever? Especially helpful for those who have to take a bunch of scantron tests / handwrite a bunch of essays in pencil. A.k.a. students.


Uni-ball Jetstream Alpha Gel Grip Series Ballpoint Pens – 0.7mm – $16.50

There is possibly nothing I can do to make this ballpoint pen better.

Can’t have my favorite mechanical pencil without my favorite ballpoint pen. As an added bonus, I have reviewed this one before! This body takes any size Jetstream retractable refill (I currently have the 0.5mm refill in mine), and also fits the Zebra Sarasa gel refills.


Sailor HighAce Neo Beginner’s Fountain Pen – $16.50

Be careful, you're gonna put your eye out with that thing.

I’ve reviewed this one before, too. It’s a nice fine nib pen. Warning: doesn’t come with a refill. I’d advise buying the converter; it’s cheaper than the cartridges, and easier to refill. Warning: I bought the cartridges (which I refill by syringe), but I have not personally tried the converter.


Akayashi Sai Watercolor Brush Pen – 5 Color Autumn Set – $17.50

Convenient watercolors? Yes. It can exist.

I would recommend buying these brush pens with the Akashiya Sai Watercolor Mini Pallet ($4.50) and a waterbrush pen like the Kuretake Small Compact Size ($4.25), which actually pushes the total cost of this set up to $26.25, but I think it’s worth it. And the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen works great with these for a watercolor black.


J. Herbin Tapered Body Frosted Glass Dip Pen – Large – $20.00

Fun fact: I studied abroad in Venice before my fine pen obsession kicked in. I only bought 1 glass dip pen from Murano. I REGRET THIS VERY STRONGLY.

Impractical, but beautiful. Especially nice for ink enthusiasts (I recommend Noodler’s, which you can get through places like Goldspot Pens or the Goulet Pen Company). Easy to clean; just don’t drop it.


Kaweco Classic Sport Fountain Pen – $21.00

Alas, the price has gone up on these since I bought this one. Curse you, modern economy!

From extra-fine nib to broad nib in a variety of colors. Also check out the Kaweco Ice Sport line if you like translucent and bright colors. I have the medium nib, which I find to be one of the thinner mediums I own.


Lamy Safari, Vista, and Al-Star Fountain Pens – $26, $26, and $37.50

So the Lamy Al-Star is technically out of this arbitrary price category I decided to sort things by. JUST TRY TO STOP ME!

Colorful, durable, with nibs ranging from extra-fine to broad, and in my experience, they’ve all been wonderful writers. I’d recommend getting the converter with this one, as these pens go well with having a nigh unlimited spectrum of ink colors to choose from. Warning: also recommending the converter because the Lamy takes a special cartridge rather than the standard international short cartridge. The pen is designed so that you just drop the cartridge in and then twist the nib section back onto the barrel; the cartridge then punctures itself. Warning: I’ve never actually tried to shove an international short cartridge into a Lamy, as far as I can remember, so I can’t advise what would happen.


Lamy Joy Calligraphy Fountain Pen – $29

Pen is conveniently named to describe what emotion you'll be experiencing while using said pen

Comes with a converter. And a lovely tapered body. And the cap posts on the end! Calligraphy nib options: 1.1mm, 1.5mm, and 1.9mm. Nibs are interchangeable with the regular Lamy nibs, if you just like the body.


$30 and up (except for the already mentioned Lamy Al-Star)

A. G. Spalding & Bros. Mini Fountain Pen – Fine Nib – $33.00

Sleek and classy, like a little sci-fi spaceship.

This pen has grown on me a lot more since I first reviewed it, and especially since I started using Rotring Turquoise ink in it (warning: that is a ridiculous price; I paid $4 for my refills at the Art Brown Pen Shop, but they don’t seem to sell that refill online). More of a medium or maybe even broad (what do I know; I never use broad nibs) nib. Warning: do not try to take the clip off or accidentally take the clip off. It comes off, and scratches the satin metal finish in the process. Oops.


Kaweco Liliput Al Fountain Pen – $53.00

This is such a disappointingly unsexy picture of a phenomenally sexy pen.

I got the fine nib. Yes, this pen is everything I hoped for, and also more. Yes, I desperately owe you all a proper review of this pen;  I am waiting for the opportunity and the lighting so that I can take the kind of pictures that do this pen justice.  Comes in extra-fine to broad nibs. Takes international short cartridges. Also takes….YOUR HEART.


Pilot Prera Clear Body Fountain Pen – $58.00

When I first held this pen, I couldn't leave the store without buying it. And now here we are!

I bought the fine nib, which was a Japanese fine nib—also known as an extra exceptionally fine line nib. Possibly the finest nib I own (too bad I dropped it on the nib (ARGH WHOOPS)). Also comes in medium nib. I’d recommend getting the Pilot Plumix as well (currently cheapest at Target, I believe); the nibs are interchangeable. You (like me) can have a Pilot Prera with an italic nib! Makes your handwriting look even fancier than normal.


Pens I Don’t Own

I’m only going to make two recommendations. First, the Uni-ball Jetstream 4&1 4 Color Ballpoint Multi Pen + 0.5mm Pencil ($16.50); I bought one for a friend and he loves it. Four colors of Jetstreams, a pencil, and an eraser all in one body! Second, the Zebra Sharbo X….specifically the Zebra Sharbo X LT3 Pen Body Component – Silver ($49.50). Look at that thing. I want it. Why wouldn’t you?





Brad at JetPens has generously offered up a $10 JetPens gift card for one lucky commenter on this post! The rules:

  1. Leave one comment on this post any time between now and Sunday, November 27th 12:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. This contest is open to all readers in any country! That includes you, international people!
  2. One winner will be picked at random from the comments section of this post. Just make any kind of comment—but only one comment! Comments in excess of one shall be deleted. The comments will be numbered in the order they are received, i.e. the first comment is #1, the second #2, and so on. The Random Integer Generator at will be used to pick the number of the winner.
  3. I’ll post the contest winner in the evening of Sunday, November 27th (sometime between noon and midnight). Winner will have one week to email me. There’s a link to my email at the top of the right sidebar.

Good luck! And preemptive happiness to your holidays!



P.S. I should have it set up so comments will post without my having to approve them all moderator-style. But if your comment doesn’t show up right away, that means I didn’t set that up correctly, and your comment will show up when I go through and hit “approve” on all of them. Don’t worry! Or, if you are worried, feel free to email me!

Uni-ball Kuru Toga Auto Lead Rotation Mechanical Pencil – 0.3 mm – Silver Body

13 05 2011

For once, the smudges on the page are ACTUAL product-produced smudges, and not the result of using a series of abominably crappy scanners. But the paper appearing a slightly pinkish hue? I HAVE NO IDEA.

Brad, now at JetPens, generously arranged for JetPens to send me a Jiffylite envelope cushioning samples of pure wonder and delight in writing utensil form. It is taking all my willpower to avoid typing this information in all caps, and to refrain from typing this face— :D —dozens of times. Oh heck, we’ll let loose for one sentence. THANK YOU BRAD AND JETPENS!!!!!! :D :D :D Those faces count as punctuation on that sentence.

This is a pencil. Not a pen. I am going to want to refer to it as a pen, because that is all I have reviewed, but stop me. It is a PENCIL.

Before I can get into a review of the Kuru Toga, I’ve got to point you toward some of the great reviews that came before me. Go read these and then come back. I’ll wait for you here.

OfficeSupplyGeek Kuru Toga review
Dave’s Mechanical Pencils Kuru Toga review

This is a highly technical pencil. You have to read up and get educated on this thing.

Everything I know about this pencil (aside from my own experience with it) has come from reading those reviews (which is why I linked you to them, rather than awkwardly trying to summarize what’s already been well written, seeming as though I came by such knowledge all on my own), and from JetPens’ own description of the Kuru Toga engine:

Printed on every pencil, in case you forget what is in there.

“The Kuru Toga, on the other hand, has a core rotation mechanism that continually rotates the pencil lead as you write. The lead is twisted through a spring-loaded clutch, it works by twisting incrementally every time you lift the pencil up (i.e. during printing words, etc). This allows a uniform wearing of the pencil lead so that it always remains as a pointed tip. Not only does it solve the above problems, but it also gives you an amazingly thin line. You are effectively using only 50% of the lead area that you were previously using with your old mechanical pencil. Thus, a 0.3 mm Kuru Toga will write incredibly thin lines and have less breakage than a standard 0.3 mm mechanical pencil.”

This is not JUST a mechanical pencil; it’s innovation in a barrel. Don’t forget that. I like seeing products where the makers have pushed the boundaries, have gone above and beyond what’s strictly necessary into the realm of what’s potentially extraordinary. Even if this pencil were a complete disaster, I’d still be excited about it for that reason alone. It shows vision.

Speaking of vision, let's talk about the way this thing looks.

From the grip up, the Kuru Toga isn’t anything particularly remarkable. A small, translucent, smoky black plastic cap (not pictured, oops) makes a nice little click to securely cover the eraser (I’ll miss this cap, when I inevitably lose it). The eraser, while not as big as those on wooden pencils, is at least not the smallest thing I’ve found on the end of a pencil, and erases well. The grey branding on the clip goes nicely with the silver-grey barrel. I don’t know how secure the clip is, but I have an instinctive distrust of all plastic clips, having dislocated many in my youth. All the fun of the Kuru Toga, of course, is on the other end.

Office meeting on the top, PARTY ON THE GRIP. Wait, why would I obliquely compare this wonderful pencil to a mullet? Mullets are terrible. This pencil is fantastic. Shame on me.

The light-grey see-through grip gives you an excellent view of the Kuru Toga engine in action. If you push your finger on and off the tip of the pencil repeatedly, you can see the yellow part turning around and around. You can also see how much pressure it takes to get the engine turning; too light of a touch will fail to make the mechanism turn, which could be a problem if you write lightly.

The tip, I believe, is all metal (or at least, it tastes like metal), which I find pretty visually appealing, though it might look better if the clip and the tip were the same color (either both white, or both metal). There’s also a little rubber ring around the metal tip, toward the top. It looks neat, but I find it a little confusing, being so small. I guess you just line that up to be the point of contact between the pencil and the finger you rest your pencil on? But if you grip higher, then that ring is of no use to you at all. I just want to know what the thought process was when including that in the design. I’m also torn between the aesthetic appeal of having the Kuru Toga engine components visible, versus the desire I often had for a cushiony grip on this pencil. If you’re making your marks too lightly, the engine doesn’t rotate, so I felt I had to write with a little more force than I might have otherwise used, which led to me gripping the pencil a little bit harder than was strictly comfortable for a long writing session. And the pencil itself provides almost no weight to help with this; being almost entirely plastic (including the Kuru Toga engine), it’s a very lightweight pencil. A lightweight pencil feels nice, but I think having more weight in the pencil itself might be helpful in terms of making the rotation process a little easier for lighter writers.

So how did it write? First, I wanted to replicate OfficeSupplyGeek’s findings by filling out a crossword with the Kuru Toga and comparing it to the same crossword filled out with a non-rotating mechanical pencil (since the only other 0.3mm pencil I have was Muji’s hexagonal mechanical pencil, that’s what I used). I am terrible at crosswords, so I also just copied down the answers from the solved puzzle from the first website I found that would actually print the crossword out, instead of just printing out all the clues and no crossword table.

Kuru Toga on the left, non-rotational on the right. Since I'm left-handed (a.k.a. smudge-handed), I filled out these puzzles starting at the bottom right, working my way leftward, then going up to the next row and repeat.

In hindsight, I should have made sure to use the same brand of lead in both pencils, starting from a fresh piece of lead, but I just used the lead that each pencil came with. For the Kuru Toga, I think that’s Uni’s NanoDia HB lead. For the Muji, I have no idea, because as a rule they brand nothing. Presumably it’s also HB.

Kuru Toga on top, non-rotational on bottom. Order of letters written: N-O-M-E-L for the first word, D-E-R-A-D for the last word. The N and D in the middle is a side-by-side comparison of the first letter written against the last letter written. Click for a closer examination.

Ignoring the fact that the lead in the Kuru Toga wrote darker overall, you can see that there’s no difference in the sharpness between the first letter written and the last letter written. In the non-rotational pencil, the D is palpably wider than the N; I kept the pencils still in my hand when writing (no habitual rotation of pencil in hand) to make sure this is just a comparison of normal lead wear. The crossword puzzle was the first writing test; let’s look at the lead.

Click to peer even more closely

Kuru Toga’s on the right, but the leads look almost identical. I think the difference here was made by the fact that the sharp side point was kept rotating around, instead of having that flat plane continuously in contact with the paper, as was the case with our non-rotational friend on the left. So then I did a drawing test; unlike writing, drawing involves way more variation in weight of the lines you make and the amount you press the pencil to the page.

"Oh, I can use a pencil with an eraser! Now I can prove I actually know how to draw!" Proceed to not do that, barely use eraser, and not finish drawing bothersome things like hands.

The Kuru Toga does well for drawing, though it takes a bit to get used to the springy quality that’s integral to the function of the turning mechanism. It almost feels a little unstable when drawing at first. “THE TIP MOVES OH CRAP THE PENCIL IS COLLAPSING I BROKE IT” may be one of your first thoughts, if you’ve never used one of these pencils before and don’t know what you’re getting into (which is exactly what happened with my first Kuru Toga last year, 0.5mm). It’s just something you have to get used to.

I’m surprised to note that, at no time was I ever worried by working with such a thin lead. In spite of the springiness, the lead never felt fragile; I was never worried about making heavy marks. It’s a weird combination. The lead felt totally secure, and yet the springiness made the pencil feel a little odd. Not as noticeable when writing, but something about drawing really made me realize that yes, there is a spring in this pencil, and that spring is necessary to rotate the lead. Now, the lead the Kuru Toga came with, well…

Probably designed by the right-handed tyranny.

I will want to find a different lead for this pencil, or I’ll want to learn to do all my writing from right to left. This was after doing the writing sample at the very top (remember the top? Feels so far away) of this review, where I did not work from right to left like I did with the crosswords or the drawings. Back to the drawings; how did the lead look after the drawings, my second Kuru Toga use exercise?

The end of the lead almost looks like this: > instead of like this: 7 HOORAY! Click to gaze more closely at the leadly depths.

Starting to achieve that advertised ideal! But would it last? Let’s see how the lead looked after my third Kuru Toga exercise (the writing sample at the top):

Multiple angles, to give you a better idea of the actual lead shape

Well, it’s got a bit of a lean again. But I don’t think the lean affected the performance; writing was sharp from beginning to end. My guess is that the lead is, more often than not, off from the ideal symmetrically pointed shape, but the constant rotation still keeps your writing looking fairly sharp. If there are any unsavory broad sides developing on the lead, you don’t write with them long; every lift of the pencil rotates that surface, changes it a little. And I didn’t have any breaking of the lead, not at the tip, nor further up the shaft. I do remember in days of old having the very sharp and pointed tips of my mechanical pencil leads break a little, leaving a dark point surrounded by little lead crumbs on the page. Never had that happen with the Kuru Toga.

This review has gone on forever. I don't remember my name anymore.

Great, affordable, creative, and innovative mechanical pencil. I’ve also started to see the 0.5mm version of this pen in big box stores (but not at as good of a price as JetPens), so this isn’t some totally isolated-from-mainstream-America product. If you want to stop having to rotate the pencil yourself to keep a sharp point available, the Kuru Toga HAS GOT IT GOIN ON, YO.

Thanks again to JetPens and Brad! :)
Uni-ball Kuru Toga Auto Lead Rotation Mechanical Pencil – 0.3 mm – Silver Body at JetPens