Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Pencil Fetish

I'm a big fan of particular writing instruments. My preference is as much about feel and heft as it is about the way it writes and the way it looks.

My favorite fine-point pen is the Rotring Rapidoliner (disposable) 0.25 mm (white tip). This gives an extremely fine line. Not the finest, though -- there is a 0.18 mm Rapidoler, which I have not used. I used to use refillable Rapidographs for drawing: my experience cleaning them and cleaning ink stains from my fingers has led me to greatly appreciate these disposable pens.

This pen has been discontinued, unfortunately. I have a few refills on hand, since when they started disappearing from store shelves I went scrounging for them and stocked up, but it seems I won't be using them for too much longer.

There are some downsides: it is "scritchy" because the tip is so thin, and requires smooth paper for best results; it clogs easily, and if you've left it alone for a couple of days you will probably have to spend some time shaking and coaxing it into delivering a line; it is somewhat expensive; and it seems wasteful to dispose of both the tip and the ink supply while keeping just the pen barrel. Also, the ink tends to bleed through thin paper like that in my Moleskines.

My favorite mechanical pencil is the Rotring 600 matte silver model with the knurled grip. This is also discontinued, and they are now going on eBay for $50 or more. There are later versions that have a smooth finger-grip area, but that doesn't seem right.

The old-style 600 is heavy, made of brass, nicely balanced in the hand, and seems nearly indestructible (it had better be, because probably won't be able to buy a replacement). I have this pencil in 0.5 mm and 0.35 mm tips. I found the 0.35 mm pencil on eBay from a seller in Germany. The 0.35 mm lead is not widely stocked, so I had to order some. I find that I like the fine line, but it feels like I am cutting the paper with this very thin lead, and because it is so thin, it disappears very quickly, so I am constantly having to advance the lead. I wind up using the 0.5 mm pencil most of the time. Both are a pain to carry around because unless they are in some kind of case, they will snag and tear holes in your clothes or scratch up anything else they are rolling around with.

My notebook of choice is the black Moleskine, in pocket size with blank pages for personal use, and the slightly larger 5x8" size, with grid pages, for work. I also like the brown kraft Cahier notebooks, also with grid pages, for my hobby programming projects.

My eraser of choice is the Pentel white Hi-Polymer eraser. This is particularly nice for Sudoku puzzles because it is soft and can be used repeatedly without tearing holes in the paper. This means I have to carry a loose eraser with me. I'm keeping an eye out for some kind of idea case that would hold pen, pencil, supplies, and one of these erasers, but I have not found it yet.

It seems like there is some improvement taking place in mechanical pencils. Pentel has models that acknowledge that a lot of space in the mechanical pencil is wasted and could be used for a larger eraser (the tiny pink or blue erasers in the traditional mechanical pencil is nearly useless). They let you twist the barrel to extend the eraser -- you don't have to remove, and possibly lose, a metal cap. This falls nicely into the "why didn't someone think of this before?" category.

I'd pay quite a bit for a pencil with the lovely finish, heavy brass body, and knurled grip of the old-style Rotring 600, but which uses a larger and longer white polymer eraser, like Pentel's, that I can extend with a twist. It should also have a retractable tip so I can carry it in a pocket.

I would also bend over backwards to give a manufacturer money for a slightly less expensive Rapidoliner that had a bit more ink in it and that was readily available in 0.25 and 0.18 mm.

The other pen I love is the plain black PaperMate Flair felt-tip. I can't think of a single design improvement I would make to that pen, but if I could, I would figure out how to make it with waterproof ink. It seems to bleed through my Moleskine paper less than the Rapidoliner. This pen has been essentially unchanged for my entire life; I think it was introduced in 1966!


none said...

I happened on your year old blog post when researching something about my Rotring pencil and we had such common writing interests I just had to comment.

I just got a Rotring 600 .35mm pencil for about $40 from penwish.com. They are not too hard to find at a few dealers and on ebay. You mention difficulty finding lead, but from what I've read and found so far myself it works fine with .3mm lead, which is a standard size. (Some say it is actually the exact same size... .) I just ordered a batch of leads across the entire hardness range. I think I'm going to prefer H or maybe 2H to HB. But I also got some soft ones just out of curiosity.

And I also use a Rotring technical pen for ordinary writing. I think the model you discuss has been replaced by the Rapidograph, which I have, and which does not require replacing the tip with the ink cartridge. I have the .18 and yes it can be scratchy and the ink can clog at the beginning of the day. But writing smaller lets me write faster.

Actually, I got into these writing instruments out of almost medical necessity. I have a definite dysgraphia, and for most of my life handwriting has caused me painful cramping or seizing in my hand and forearm. (Though I can handle, say, a micro screwdriver with no problem... .) I finally started experimenting and found that felt tip pens avoid most of the discomfort. I started with Pilot Razor Point. I still have them for general scribbling, but I prefer a finer line--for speed and I don't know maybe comfort too. That lead me to the Staedtler 0.05 Pigment Liner. It's pretty fine, but could be finer. And the tip wears out very fast. From there I got the techincal pen. I don't know what it is about these pens that helps me. Maybe it's the friction (and thus the harder pencil leads). But I definitely like as fine as possible. I'm thinking of trying the tungsten point when it's time for a replacement. They're about $40 and meant for Mylar film or whatever professional drafters use. I'm hoping it might be smoother on paper. Also, I think they get even finer, maybe a .12. I should probably try something a bit wider too, just to see how much smoothness gain there is.

Back to the Rotring pencil. you mention its being indestructible, but I've found a few accounts online of people dropping theirs and bending the tip and having to trash it. I'm pretty scared of that happening at this point and almost can't bring myself to bring it to school. I haven't been able to find a decent pencil tin. I found metal cigar tube cases for $15 to $20--would that be overinvestment? Or if I can find a cigar locally that comes in a cheaper aluminum tube that could work. But then I think the perfect solution hit me: toothbrush cases/boxes. I'm heading to Walgreens this afternoon to find one.

Oh yeah--the exact way I found this post was googling for replacement tips for the Rotring, for a spare. There don't seem to be any. I wish that if they couldn't make it retractable and well built enough that they at least gave a screw on cap. Okay, now my "comment" is probably longer than the actual post. ...

Paul R. Potts said...

Thanks for your comment! I am glad there are other people out there who can get as obsessed about the qualities of writing instruments as much as I do.

I have also tried the Pilot razor points and Staedtler pigment pens. They are OK but don't quite have the same feel as the hollow-tip liquid ink pens. I don't have any really good suggestions for a case for the Rotring pencils but I will have to experiment.