In November 2017 I went to a business convention in Washington DC, and while there I stumbled upon a tiny stationery store that had some Retro 51’s for sale. I liked the red colour of this pen, and some (not all) of the cat illustrations on it, and so I bought it. It was an utterly unreasonable impulse buy, because at the time I already knew that the Schmidt refill rendered my Retros virtually unusable for me, and I was years from finding a suitable replacement refill. The pen gathered dust in a pen cup on my desk for the past two years, until this week.
As part of my decision to use my Retro 51s more, I replaced the (dried out) Schmidt refill in this pen with an Ohto FlashDry gel ink one, and I’ve been using it pretty regularly for the past few days. It’s a bright and cheerful pen that writes like a dream now, even though in a quiet room you can definitely hear the tip rattle a bit as you write.
There’s no texture to this pen, the rescue cats are just printing on it, and I wish Lucy Kinsley had drawn them. So I’m not yet sure if this pen stays with me or I’m going to gift it to a cat loving friend, but for now I’m enjoying giving it a spin.
I bought this pen in November 2014 from Jetpens after eyeing it for a while. I thought it looked so cool, and I still do. There’s just something about the finish that makes it a little unpleasant for me to hold.
The Moleskine gel refill was great. It’s a shame that they’ve stopped producing it.
My favourite part about Retro51s has always been their twist and finial/top-disc design. My least favourite part has been the Schmidt refill they come with. It’s the cool designs that have driven me to buy around a dozen Retro51 Tornados, and the Schmidt refill that has driven me to not use them. It doesn’t work with my writing style or the paper I prefer.
So I set out on a quest to find a Retro51 refill that I’ll enjoy using, and I eventually landed on the excellent Ohto FlashDry gel refill. The problem was that buying and shipping the refills from JetPens ended up being expensive, and I had trouble sourcing them from a different supplier. Only now have I found an eBay seller that sells them for a reasonable enough price for me.
So, with those refills on the way, I’ve decided to pick up my Retros again. From now until the end of the upcoming Pen Addict Kickstarter I’m limiting myself to Retro51’s, pencils, and my Homo Sapiens fountain pen. I’m trying to see if I can justify paying what I guess will be a high sum for the final Pen Addict Retro51, because I’ve decided that I don’t want to just have pens for the sake of having them anymore.
If I end up enjoying my Retros, that’s great. If not, I’ll pass them along to other people who will.
In late 2014 I visited the wonderful Mora Stylos in Paris, France. I was there to buy a pen. A specific pen. One that had made a buzz in the pen world the moment it came out. The Visconti Homo Sapiens:
There are dozens of Visconti Homo Sapiens reviews out there, and so I wasn’t planning on reviewing this pen. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, it has a satisfying heft to it, the material feels amazing to the touch, the nib has some delightful springiness to it, and did I mention that it’s a hulking large, beautiful pen?
It’s also a very, very expensive one. It was the most expensive pen I had purchased until then, and since then only three other pens in my collection have come close to it in price (my Nakaya, my Henry Simpole Silver Overlay Conway Stewart, and my Oldwin).
I remember spending a lot of time in that store, holding the pen (it’s large and I have tiny hands), trying out the nib (I bought an Extra Fine. Today I would have gone for something broader), debating the price of pen.
In the end I liked the aesthetics, the nib, the unique filling mechanism, and the story around the pen enough to buy it. As I bought it from Mora Stylos, it was customized with my initials on the finial. This made the pen even more special and precious to me.
I got home and I couldn’t get enough out of just looking at this pen, this piece of art that looked like it belonged in a museum.
Who would want to sully this with ink, right? I could accidentally drop it or something.
But I forced myself to fill it and try using it, if only at my desk at home. I loved writing with it. It’s truly a joyous pen to write with, especially if you have a light touch. The nib is something else, comparable to my Nakaya in terms of feel.
But then I had to clean it out. And that was an absolute nightmare that took ages and ages. The filling mechanism was great to use, but terrible to fully flush out. Who has the time for that, especially for a pen that I daren’t carry with me at all times?
So over the past 5 years I’ve used my Visconti Homo Sapiens a grand total of three (!) times. It stands to reason I should sell it and let someone else enjoy it. Yet I can’t bring myself to do that. Why?
You see, I’ve grown lazy in my fountain pen use over the years, and this pen was one of the turning points. Fountain pens require effort. They have always had. That’s why people moved to ballpoints the moment they were a semi viable substitution. Fountain pens can be messy. They need filling and cleaning, and care during use and storage and while cleaning them out. You don’t use them for convenience, you use them because they bring you joy.
I’ve lost touch of that, just as I’ve lost touch with the joy of playing around with various inks. My pen usage has fallen into a rut of mostly easy to clean inexpensive cartridge-converters or TWSBI pens filled with easy to clean inks.
It has taken me a while to realize that. As I was building my goals for 2020 the realization that I’ve stopped actually enjoying my pens and ink dawned on me, and I’ve decided to see if I can’t change that.
So I filled my gorgeous Visconti Homo Sapiens, and I actually carried it with me in my bag (the skies haven’t fallen yet and the pen is OK), and I’m thoroughly enjoying using it. And I dusted off my beloved Diamine Denim, one of my favourite blue-black inks and previously one of my favourite inks that has seen absolutely no use over the past two years, and I’m giving it a spin. It’s as richly delightful as it ever was. There’s no sparkle or sheen to it, and not much shading to speak of, and yet I still love it. Diamine Denim is just a very good blue-black ink period.
So, who knows what the future holds, but I hope that this pen that does so much to evoke humanity’s past will get me interested again in my fountain pen future.
Back in 2016 I purchased the 2016 Anniversary edition of the Karas Kustoms EDK. It was a Parker refill machined pen (i.e. relatively short) that came with a Schmidt P2186 rollerball refill (and a Rickshaw bag pouch with a notebook which I won’t review here).
You can see that pen on the right, with it’s grey red finish and its Karas logo with the year 2016 engraved into the barrel:
The 2019Anniversary Retrakt is the pen on the left, and when I first saw it during Karas end of the year sale I fell in love with the sleek design. The 2019 anniversary Retrakt fits a Pilot G2 refill (astrix. We’ll get to that later), comes in a matt finish with a black click mechanism and clip, and a “fluted” grip. Unlike the 2016 edition, it’s completely unbranded.
Both pens have a distinctive and attractive industrial design, and both are built like tanks. The anodization is fantastic, and both the clip and click mechanism are rock solid. The pens are fairly priced for the quality you get, they have good heft and balance, and are a joy to use. I personally found the fluted grip slightly less comfortable for use in long writing sessions than the regular grip, but I have a tendency to go “grip of death” sometimes. The fluted grip just reminds me to let go a bit, the pen isn’t going anywhere without me.
This brings us to the refill situation on the 2019 Anniversary Retrakt. As soon as I got it I took out the Pilot G2 refill it came with and tried to replace it with my favourite G2 compatible refill, the Uni-ball UMR-85. It’s something that I do automatically with every G2 compatible machined pen. The click mechanism wouldn’t engage. The plunger went down but didn’t stay down, the tip of the refill never saw the light of day. This has never happened to me with a G2 compatible pen before, so I grabbed the original refill and placed it side by side with the Uni-ball one:
This was when I realized that the Retrakt V2 must have somehow been designed to accommodate the Pilot G2 tip configuration and only the Pilot G2 tip configuration (unless you purchase a Parker style conversion kit from Karas). This was a big disappointment to me.
I probably wouldn’t have purchased this pen had I known this going in. I don’t hate the Pilot G2 refills, but I’m also not a huge fan of their tendency to be globby or stop working while they’re still half full. This means that I’ll be trying to hack a Uni-ball refill into this pen one way or another. Here’s hoping that I succeed because this the 2019 Anniversary Retrakt is a handsome and well made pen that I would really like to have in my rotation.
In 2013, while I was at a convention in Boston, I went into the FedEx at the convention centre to collect a package. As I was waiting in line my eye caught the Zebra G-301 pen on a rack near the till. I’d heard good things about the Zebra F-301, but it’s a ballpoint pen and I wasn’t a fan of those. The Zebra G-301 was a gel pen. In stainless-steel. For just a few bucks.
Of course I bought it.
Fast forward six (!) years and that same Zebra G-301, the exact same one, is still on my desk, and is still my daily workhorse pen in the office. Here’s how it looks now:
Impressive, right? The imprint is almost gone (mine didn’t have the Zebra logo etched into the clip, so it now looks like an unbranded pen), and the plastic grip is a little worn with use, but otherwise the pen looks practically brand new.
The pen costs $2.5 on JetPens. I’ve been using it for my daily to do list and for general planning and meeting notes every day for six years. It just shows that a pen doesn’t need to cost hundreds of dollars to be a good, solid workhorse that’s a joy to use.
Oh wait, I haven’t actually reviewed it yet…
The Zebra G-301 has a stainless steel body that is durable, gives it more heft than a plastic bodied pen, and yet isn’t too heavy to be uncomfortable to use or unwieldy. The plastic grip has no give, so if you like mushy grips it’s not for you. Otherwise it gets the job done. The branding is classy (one font, understated, sleek and modern), and well suited for office use. The pen is durable, and the click mechanism isn’t mushy and lasts for years.
The only possible downside of the Zebra G-301 is the refill. It’s proprietary, on the expensive side (a pack with two refills costs $1.90 on JetPens, almost as much as the pen), and they don’t last long if you write a lot with them (I get about 2 months out of each refill). I also only use the G-301 refills (theSteel JK 2 pack), so they come only in black or blue, and only in 0.7mm. JetPens also notes that the Zebra Sarsa JK refills fit the Zebra G-301, which come in 0.5 and also in green and red, but they cost a little more per refill. As I view the Zebra G-301 as an office use pen, I don’t mind the ink limitations.
I never thought when I picked up this pen back in 2013 as an impulse buy that I’ll be using it six years later. I like it so much that I bought a backup a few years ago, because I was sure a $2.5 pen wouldn’t last for long and I didn’t want to be stuck without it. The replacement is still in its blister pack, as you can see in the photos above, and the original G-301 is still going strong on my desk. I wonder if I’ve accidentally stumbled on the modern equivalent of the Esterbrook Dollar Pen.
In 2016 I purchased my first Karas Kustoms pens, a grey Render K. Brad Dowdy said that the grey Render K is worth checking out, as photos don’t do the pen justice, and he was right. I love that pen and I still use it regularly, despite it having two minuses:
The refill is a ballpoint, which I’m not a fan of.
The cap doesn’t stay on. Ever.
So I relegated my Render K to desk use, and I only used it in my reading journal, where I don’t write as much, so I can usually wait a few minutes for the ink to dry.
The “cap not staying on” bit didn’t bother just me, and Karas decided that it was worth addressing. Their Render K V2 mainly came out to address that problem. When one of the V2 Render Ks in Battleworn finish came on sale on Black Friday, I decided to give it a try. And this time I got the G2 version, which accepts Pilot G-2 refills (my favourite refill, the Uni-ball UMR-85N is G-2 compatible).
This is the olive coloured Battleworn Render K, and though it looks heavy and hefty it’s super light. It’s much lighter than my old Render K, and more well balanced.
The “Battleworn” finish means that the pen was tumbled after anodization, and so it’s full of nicks and has an “old jeans” kind of look to the top of the cap, the threads, and the tip.
You can see the effects of the tumbling most significantly on the grip. The rings on it are pretty well battered and chewed. While it may look rough, the finish is smooth and there’s no risk of cutting your fingers on a raw edge.
The finish on the cap looks great too. The cap has an o-ring inside that makes sure that it stays on unless you unscrew it, and the threads have also been redesigned to make capping more secure. As in the old Render K, you can’t post the cap.
I was prepared to dislike the olive colour, but I like its subtlety. It’s interesting without calling too much attention to itself.
When you put the new and old Render Ks side by side you can see that they’re practically the same size, that the grip section has been redesigned, and that their threads look different.
The old Render K accepted refills through the top part of the grip, unlike the new Render K, where the entire grip section unscrews. I think that the new design is more streamlined and elegant, and in general the rings on the new grip make the Render K V2’s grip much better designed and less slippery to hold.
The old Render K feels much heavier than the new one, partly because I think that it’s not as well balanced as the Render K V2. However, it’s worth noting that in both Render K versions the grip section is a little on the thin side, so you might not find them well suited for long writing sessions.
The Karas Kustoms Render K V2 is one of the best machined pens in the market, and now that the cap stays on its a great EDC pen. I personally love the look of the “Battleworn” finish, and I highly recommend getting the G2 version of the pen and swapping the Pilot G2 refill with one of the many, better, G2 compatible refills in the market.