Test writing the Parker gel refill

Normally I tend to be a fountain pen guy, but from time to time I go through a ball point phase. What usually triggers it is travel – writing notes on shiny business cards is a great motivator to carry a ball point, as is fretting over ways to carry ink while traveling and worrying what will happen when I take the cap off a fountain pen on an airplane.

So as I was preparing for a trip I discovered my old Parker jotter in my rarely-used portfolio and got intrigued. I put some heat shrink tubing on it to make it a bit thicker and more comfy, and reminded myself that it’s really a pretty useful little pen. The ballpoint refill is pretty good. But I prefer gels to ballpoints, so I decided to see what refills were available. That’s when I discovered that Parker makes a gel refill that is the same form factor as their ball point refill.

To me gel pens are a really good compromise between the all-terrain aspects of a ball pen but the ease of writing of a fountain pen, but more paper-tolerant than a rollerball. The line quality and contrast so much better. If I could get a gel refill for the Fisher AG7 I’d be in heaven, but the Jotter is pretty good in terms of durability without serious investment.

So I went out and got a 2-pack of gel refills for the Jotter to check them out. All I could find was medium, and I was tempted to drive to Daly’s and get a fine but fortunately learned online that they only make a medium. Oh well.

The refill writes pretty roughly straight out of the box, but after a bit of writing it seems to have gotten better. I noticed that while on a plane the pen got very unreliable. The paper was Moleskine notebook paper, and it was clean, but the pen skipped like crazy and was not smooth. I suspect the change in air pressure put too much force on the ball. Regardless, once on the ground the pen wrote reliably.

The drying time is fast enough that I didn’t find my hands tattooed with ink. It also wrote fairly well on a coated business card I received, but it doesn’t write on the really shiny ones. The AG7 writes a bit better on those. Line width is typical for a .7mm, and line quality was pretty consistent. I’m still on the first cartridge, so I hesitate to make too much of the roughness I first experienced. It could be that this cartridge had a defect. The cartridges come with a ball of plastic sealing the point, so I’m curious what affect long periods of disuse will have on them once the seal’s been broken.

The net result is a $10 all-metal clicker style ball pen that writes nearly as well as a Pilot G2, but in a nicer body. At about $6 a pair for the cartridges, versus $3 for G2 refills, they’re twice the price. They’re also available only in .7 where alternatives are typically available in .5 as well, if not also 1.0 and wider. I’m not sure if I will keep putting gels in this pen or just go back to ballpoint cartridges (I have a few extras) when the gels run dry.

A cheap and easy way to improve the Fisher AG-7

I’ve long had a love-hate affair with my my Fisher Space Pen AG-7. It’s one of the most practical, usable, and durable metal ball point pens out there, which makes it a great pen to have around. You can read my Fisher AG-7 Space Pen review here.

For long writing sessions, though, the grooves at the grip of the pen get a little uncomfortable. It’s also a smidge thin.

Today I discovered a simple way to fix both problems. Heat shrink tubing. Either 3/8″ or 1/2″ tubing will work, with the former being tighter at the pointy end of the pen, but the latter ending up a little thicker and softer. You can get heat shrink tubing at the hardware store, in the electrical section – a few dollars at most.

The pen ends up with a nice smooth slightly grippy surface that is skin-friendly, and the pen ends up nearly a 1/16″ bigger in diameter, so it’s girth improves a bit. It also makes the pen more pocket friendly with other items, like my iPhone. So far I’m loving it.

And, if I ever discover I want to go back to the regular tubing free pen, a simple cut with a razor blade has it off in a few seconds with no residue.

A few tips:

  • You’ll need a heat source to do the shrinking. A heat gun is ideal, and handy for lots of other uses. A stove burner is nearly as good.
  • Expect to do it more than once. Getting the tubing positioned and shrunk evenly is an easy skill to master, but you may not get it on your first try.
  • Some places may have the tubing in colors other than black, so it may pay to look around.

The pleasure of good paper

Good paper is worth having, now more than ever. Paper quality has plummeted, from the pads companies buy for their employees to the paper in the copier. More than ever a paper document is seen as a barely necessary waste, and as a result we’ve developed a near contempt for paper. It’s hard to argue with documents that aren’t used much, or are destined for files.

But for personal planning documents it is worthwhile to get decent paper, both for physical and psychological reasons.

My project management system is handwritten on letter size sheets. I like software, but I haven’t found any that helps me think like writing on paper does. I’ve tried several and I always end up filing in the software after the fact. Instead of a leading-edge tool, it’s a trailing edge burden. So I have a sheet for every project where I log what’s been happening, and note what the next action should be. A few times a week I page through the stack of project sheets, bringing them up to date and making the next action list. When I write on paper I think more fluidly, and when I look over projects I’m constantly making notes on what’s happened, and those notes prompt the next actions. I look at this stuff a lot, and handle it a lot. How it feels affects how I feel.

The paper I use is Strathmore Writing 25% cotton in 24lb weight, in natural white. Neenah’s Classic Crest is also excellent, and Crane’s 100% cotton is good but not as smooth to write on. Finding these papers can be a little challenging, but try your local print shop. Not the Kinko’s style copier places, although they might know what you’re asking for, but a real print shop with actual offset presses. Or you can go directly to a paper distributor like Xpedx or Unisource, or a local company. Many will sell to the public, and Xpedx and Unisource have some stores that target that market.

You can also checkout the fine business papers section of the local office superstore, but my experience is that these papers aren’t aimed at writing, but resumes, thesis, and similar documents that are usually printed. Laid and linen finishes are common and while attractive to look at not very smooth to write on. Wove or kid finish is much nicer.

High quality paper is nicer to write on because it takes ink well and the surface has better texture than copier paper. I can write on both sides without show through. It’s nicer to handle because it is softer due to the cotton content. It’s stiffer so it handles wear better and when a little worn it looks a heck of a lot better than pure pulp paper.

It’s like dressing better. It makes me feel more dignified, and that translates to my work. I take my planning more seriously, and I write more neatly than when I use cheaper paper.

It’s cheap luxury. A ream of very good quality 24lb paper is $25-$30. That same paper, in the same quantity, in Tops Diamond Fiber pads would be about $50. Yes, I lose the cardboard backing, but an inexpensive portfolio is less wasteful and provides a nice surface.

Some may find the blank page to be too unstructured or distracting. You can download custom line patterns, such as the Cornell system, and make whatever you need. I prefer the blank sheets, even though my writing may not be quite as neat as it is on lined paper. I think better using them, although really good thinking often results in a chaotic looking document. Rewriting or typing it provides a good chance to edit and consolidate thoughts.

High quality paper sends a subtle message that is received less often today, but it is still a message worth sending.