Pen Review: Parker Duofold

I remember when I first saw the Parker Duofold in black and white pearl. I thought it was such a classic looking pen. I bought one long ago in the 90’s, and it’s been a somewhat bittersweet experience. I would expect a modern production model to be very much like this one, but of course things may have changed.

It was one of the first pens I really lusted after, and buying it was no impulse purchase.

The pen is large without being gigantic, mine is the international size. I would call it full size, and it’s got just the right amount of heft without being heavy. The overall construction seems fairly solid, but not as well done as a Pelikan or Lamy.

There are pens I can chuck into a drawer and count on them writing in a month or so. Pelikans, Namiki’s, Lamy’s can be counted on. Parker has vents in their caps. I’ve read that this is to comply with some law designed to protect children who swallow caps and get them stuck in their throats. Regardless, it makes for a very unforgiving pen in storage. Perhaps a day or two, but beyond that you’d better be ready to wet the nib before it will write.

The two-toned nib is nicely designed, and has a classic look to it that I like. There are no ribs on the bottom of the nib feed to hold extra ink, which is good for filling, if not for dipping. The nib is stiff but expressive. I don’t know how this can be since the nib isn’t flexible, but it writes much less like a rollerball than many stiff-nibbed pens. A lot like the Lamy 2000 FP in this regard. One of the things I really like about this pen is that I can tweak the ink flow easily. By pinching or spreading the sides of the nib I can get a fairly dry writer for most note taking, or a nice wet writer suitable for heavy cotton paper. The pen does have a ‘rust ring’, a ring at the bottom of the grip, and true to its name mine has begun to corrode

The reveal is short, but the pen is large enough that it may not fit in the sleeves where a short reveal is a problem. The clip is a simple spring clip, rather than hinged. Why can Lamy put a hinged clip on a pen that costs half as much as this one? The top of the cap has nice medallion on it – most other pen companies these days don’t do much here. I don’t know if it’s the medallion or that the cap posts quite high, but the pen is less pleasant to write with when the cap is posted. I usually just hold it in the other hand.

The Duofold is a converter pen, so it doesn’t hold much ink but the cartridges can be nice for travel.

I used to feel dignified when I carried and wrote with this pen, but now it usually feels a bit over the top. I don’t think that is the fault of the pen, as it’s a classic, timeless design. Now I tend to use it for writing letters, or the like, but I do go through phases where I’ll carry it in a pen case and use it at work.

Parker is a brand that is hard for me. Part of me wants to use a pen with American heritage, but the Parkers I’ve owned have been mostly unremarkable. The seem constructed more like kit pens than the offerings of a real pen company should be. If I spend a lot of money on a pen I want real, functional advantages. Nice resin isn’t quite enough.

The vacation satchel. What to bring.

I’m going on vacation for a week in Florida. I’m not sure how much, if any, time I will have to write and draw, but I expect there will be some. I tend to think I will have more time to do these kinds of things than I actually do. More accurately, I have the time, but decide to spend it doing something else.

So what to take on vacation? Just a small notebook, or my regular journal? Should I bring my project sheets in case I decide to get organized, or add projects? I probably won’t bother.

What about colored pencils and water colors? I have this vision in my head of sitting on the beach sketching the kids under an umbrella in a beach chair. Of course the obligatory bottle of beer with a wedge of lemon in it sits on a crate nearby. The reality, however, is that there will likely be no umbrella, nor chair, and probably not even the beer. I will be wet, sandy, and helping one daughter or the other build something or playing in the waves.

But only some of the time will be spent at the beach, and we will be visiting relatives. That might also be prime sketching & writing time. Not to mention the 4,000 hour drive to get there. Ok, maybe not that long, but long.

The real question is whether there’s a satchel, per se, or not. We’re driving so the travel-light bug is in dangerous territory already – “Sure I can take that! I’ll just leave it in the car”. I’m always happier if I have only one bag I need to worry about. But it doesn’t take too many sketchbooks, laptops, or watercolor sets to add up to a second bag.

Maybe I should bring just a few pocket notebooks, a good ballpoint, and a pocket watercolor set. Ah – the lure of miniaturized travel perfection! But then, I’m driving, not going by air mail, so why not just bring what I want?

So how about it folks – what do you bring to record your thoughts while on vacation? Do you end up using it all, or just some of it?

[UPDATE: See what I ended up bringing here.]

What size is the right size for a notebook?

One of the things that got left out of my recent series on single vs. many notebooks was the topic of notebook size.

So what is the right size? It of course is a matter of what works but here’s my observations:

Small notebooks – pocket size or 3″x5″ or so.

  • Easiest to carry, and it fits in most pockets. Not always convenient in a bag, as it can move around and end up on the bottom.
  • Requires small writing, and a narrow pen or pencil. I found this to be fine as long as I wasn’t planning to use that pen for regular writing, but a real fine point is not the right choice for everything.
  • The books fill up quickly. Very quickly. Sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. For myself I prefer to have more history.
  • it’s hard to shoehorn a full size sheet in them, like an agenda for a meeting or the like. It has to be folded more than once, which makes it thick to put in the book, and ugly once it’s unfolded.
  • They’re easy to conceal, and they feel more private.
  • It feels a little silly to sit one on a conference room table and take notes.
  • Small drawings are possible, but diagrams, org charts, and things with writing can be challenging to fit.
  • The pages aren’t big enough to devote to one thing. Any list that’s long enough to need to be written down is likely to be more than one page.
  • Too small to have much history, unless I write in very terse language.
  • Ok for lap writing. Really, I have to balance the book on a thigh.
  • Easy to buy – they’re everywhere, and they are cheap. This also seems to be the most popular size for specialty books, like music, storyboard, etc.
  • Easy to devote to a single purpose.

Medium notebooks – 5″x8″ or thereabouts

  • A familiar size, and they don’t look silly on a conference room table.
  • Easy to buy – if the store has notebooks, they’ll have them in this size.
  • A letter sheet can be folded in half and stuck inside. It might hang out at the edges, depending on the book.
  • A page is not quite big enough for some purposes. For example, a page devoted to listing all the books I plan to read might end up being two or three pages.
  • A good size for lap writing, like in a car or plane.
  • Big enough to have some history. A book might last 6 months or more, if I don’t draw much.
  • Won’t fit in many pockets, but will fit some. An outside suit jacket pocket will likely be ok, but not inside.
  • Better behaved in a briefcase or other bag, but it can still move around, rotate, etc.
  • Painful to have devoted one to a single purpose, and end up not using it.

Full size notebooks – 8″x10″ and larger

  • Not going to fit in a pocket.
  • Stays where you put it in a bag.
  • Doesn’t feel silly to carry by itself.
  • Doesn’t look sill on a conference room table.
  • Not always good for lap writing, especially in cramped quarters.
  • Harder to find.
  • It feels less private. I don’t know why, since my writing is the same size, but I feel like it’s easier for the person next to me to read.
  • I can write in large letters, lots of room for diagrams.
  • Seems more likely to be available in larger page counts.
  • Hold letter size sheets without folding, but many “full size” books are 8×10, which means a sheet overhangs.
  • More expensive. A pocket size book might be $10-12 for a premium brand. A full size book might be $30. Although the price per square inch of writing area is probably a better deal on the larger book.
  • A single page is large enough for many purposes, without worry that more pages will be needed.

Bigger is better for the journal, so far

My experience has been that while the pocket size books are very attractive, as soon as I went to the mid size I couldn’t go back to pocket. I tried, but it was just too cramped. Three to five words on a line makes it hard to write coherently. Now I’ve gone up to an A4 (actually a little larger), and I wonder if I will be able to go back to a mid size again.

For other purposes I think full size books are too big and expensive, and too much to haul around. However, I’m finding that I’ve rolled at least one of my special purpose books into the large journal – I no longer freewrite in a separate book. An average freewriting exercise is at most two pages, so it’s not taking up much of the book. I also haven’t replaced the mid-size (their size large) Leuchtturm1917 Jottbook that I’d been using for blogging material now that it’s full, and have been writing those things in my journal instead.

For the first time in several years I’ll be traveling with the family, and that means I will be using my journal in a lot of new situations and carrying it around a lot more. I haven’t done this with a big book before, and I’m not certain whether I will end up still loving it or hating it.

What size have you settled on, and how did you get there?

How I Improved My Handwriting But Didn’t

Seems like a lot of folks want to improve their handwriting. I’ve had “improve my handwriting” on my to do list for most of my adult life. A few years ago I decided to put forth a serious, prolonged effort. Here’s what I felt worked for me in improving my handwriting:

  • Finding an example of what I wanted my writing to look like. I ended up with a mix of Spencerian and Palmer, but having properly written forms to use as a guide was enlightening, and more than once I found that my memory of how letters were formed was wrong.
  • Identifying the problems I need to solve. I made a list of the items that needed to be fixed. Lower case r’s and k’s, for example, were obvious, others less so. I knew that some words always became a train-wreck when I wrote them but figuring out the exact cause was key. For example, the word survey, which is a problem given that I do a lot of surveys in my job, always caused me trouble. I learned that the reason why is the ve combination. The v ends high, and the e wants to start low. I found a properly written example and copied it. I still have a wreck now and then, but I can write it neatly when I need to.
  • Fixing one problem at a time. First I didn’t like the way my r’s looked, so I figured out what kind of r I wanted to make, did some drills, and then worked to adopt it in everyday writing. After I knew I could make r’s the way I wanted I moved on to other problems, like the ve letter combination.
  • Getting rid of letters that I think are ugly, stupidly constructed, or just annoying. the capital Q that looks like a 2, the capital G that has a beer belly, and a few others have been banished and replaced with sensible alternatives. My goal is neat handwriting, not strict adherence to a particular style.
  • Crossing out anything that’s not up to snuff and rewriting it. It forces me to slow down and write neatly, and it helps kill old habits. There are spots in my journal where a word might be crossed out 5 or 6 times on a bad day.
  • Remembering that I only improve when I’m trying to improve. Writing neatly is not a thoughtless process. Therefore, if I want to write more neatly, I have to think about it and make the effort.
  • Accepting that speed and neatness tend to be mutually exclusive. Fortunately, most of the time I don’t need to write as fast as I think I do.
  • Enjoying the process and allowing myself to be imperfect. Sometimes sloppy writing is better than none at all. The pursuit is the ability, not the requirement, to write neatly.

Here’s the list of the faults that needed to be fixed:

  1. My lower-case r’s looked like i’s most of the time. I wanted them to have the proper stepped shape.
  2. I ended w’s low instead of high, which made them hard to read.
  3. My v’s also tended to end low, and also didn’t have the correct shape – they tended to look like u’s.
  4. Not closing a’s, s’s, and other open letters.
  5. Not crossing t’s fully.

I started working on all of them, one at a time. I thought I’d made great progress, as I felt I was living to this higher standard pretty consistently.
Then I went looking for before and after photos for this post – no point in proclaiming success without proof, right?
When you show your spouse a set of before and after shots, and the response is “Ok, which one was the first one again?” the progress might not be as obvious as one had thought. As I looked for recent examples of nice writing, I found that I had regressed far more than I’d thought. My progress was mostly in my head.
That’s not to say there’s been no improvement. Most of the items above are improved when I write slowly and with a conscious effort. The problem is that most of the time I’m thinking about what I’m writing, not how I’m writing it.
Now, more than ever, I have respect for those who really learned beautiful penmanship when they were young.

Pencil Review: Uni Kuru Toga .5mm with Auto Rotate

I remember the dark ages. Back when one had to actually get up, out of the chair, walk across the room and turn a dial on the TV to change channels. In fact, there were two dials, and a switch to choose between them. It was hell.

The miracle of technology has brought us the remote control, electronic tuning, and lots of other conveniences. But it was still the dark ages because even now, when 300 channels isn’t the top end cable package, we still have to manually rotate a pencil while writing to keep the point conical.

That is until the Hi-Uni Kuru Toga .5mm mechanical pencil with auto rotate. This truly inspired device actually rotates the lead 10 degrees or so each time the pencil makes contact with the paper. It does this without making the pencil feel spongy, or making any noise whatsoever. It’s not even expensive, at $16.50 from


It’s got a sturdy clip, a comfortable grip, and is neither too heavy nor too light. It comes in black, silver, and a few colors so you could have multiple grades of lead in use. It does not have one of those lead indicator bands to show what lead is in the pencil.

But does it work? Does it really result in a narrower, more consistent line? Yes and no. My experience is that when I’m printing or writing lots of numbers it does a good job. Writing cursive, not as good. The purpose of cursive is to reduce the number of times the pen is lifted from the paper, and it does exactly that. The result with the Kuru Toga is more of a chisel point, unless there are a lot of dotted & crossed letters or punctuation. With softer lead a conical point becomes even harder to maintain. I’m still using it because it does help some, and it’s certainly no worse than a regular pencil. I can still rotate by hand if I like, any autorotation is better than none, and the pencil is comfy to boot.

The poor man’s Midori Traveler’s Notebook

I don’t remember where I first saw the Midori notebook. But I remember thinking two things at the same time:

  1. Distressed leather is really cool.
  2. What an unusable size.

The leather finally won out and the other night as my mouse cursor hovered over the buy button on a vendor’s website, ready to send the better half of a c-note on a notebook and refills that smarter voice stopped me. “Surely you could make one!” The voice said. “Surely it would be cheaper!” The voice said.

So the next day I stopped by Tandy leather to pick up some leather. I’ve never worked with leather before, and I have to say its an enjoyable experience.

Of course, it comes in cow-shaped pieces, not nice rectangles:

I bought what was classed as 6/7 ounce vegetable tanned leather, which is about 4mm thick. Picking a nice piece is not easy. I can see why quality leather goods are so expensive. You really have to feel it, look at it, and bend it to see what it’s really like before you buy it.

But it was a simple matter to make a paper pattern, and use that to guide the knife around the leather. One of the reasons I made my own notebook was that the Midori size is just strange to me, and the half-letter size has a lot of convenience. I can see where the Midori would be a better fit (maybe) in an inside pocket, but I don’t wear jackets much.

So I made the pattern a simple rectangle 9.5″ x 12″. I think next time I would go to 12.5″, especially if I planned to use three books in the cover.

Once the piece was cut, I folded it to see how stiff the leather really was, and whether it would crease or not.

The lady at the leather store stopped me from buying anything but vegetable tanned leather because she said anything else wouldn’t take a fold. After trying, unsuccessfully to clarify whether it wouldn’t fold because it would crack, or whether it wouldn’t fold because it just wouldn’t take a crease, I decided to take her adamantly given advice and go with the veggie tanned leather. It took a crease just fine, and I probably didn’t even need to wet it, but did anyway. So, I wet the leather, matched corners, folded, and put a board and some weight on it for about an hour:

After letting it dry for a while, I used the crease as a guide to punch holes. About this time I realized I should have done things in a different order:

  1. Measure & cut leather
  2. Sand the rough side (this takes a much finer grade of sandpaper than you’d think. I used 220 grit and that was too coarse)
  3. Punch holes using a straight edge to ensure they end up in a straight line
  4. Fold the leather using the holes to position the crease
  5. Trim edges as necessary

Sanding the rough side of the leather to make it smooth was something I hadn’t even thought of until I noticed the back was really, really fuzzy. I used a random orbit sander and it took more time than I expected. I did it after I’d threaded the book with cord, so I couldn’t do the job properly, but it’s good enough.

Oh, well, this was a prototype anyway.

Then I took my elastic cord, purchased from the fabric store, and threaded it through the 4 holes, two at each end:

Five holes in the spine, four for the binding elastic, one for the band to hold it closed
The holes for the binding elastic were about 1/4" in from the end, and 1/2" apart

I made three trips through the holes, leaving three strands to use for notebooks. Then I used a square knot at one end. I’m not sure the knot’s going to hold.

For the band to hold the book shut, instead of a hole in the middle of the back cover (a very silly place to put it, in my mind) I put another hole in the middle of the spine. then I ran the cord through the hole, around the non-notebook holding strands, and back out. Another knot and Fin!

Well, not really. You see wet leather takes a really long time to dry. I learned that one should take some cheap paper, fold it, put it in the cover, then sandwich that between towels and put a bit of weight on it. Change paper every few hours or so. It takes a while, but until it’s really dry you’ll end up with soggy paper if you use it.

At first I left it completely unfinished, content to let the natural oils in my hands and the divine chaos of every day use to provide the desired patina. After a day or so of this I confronted the fact that I have no patience. I suppose I could have loaned it to some literary desperado to use during their adventures in the west, but desperados are hard to find, and riding in a Volvo doesn’t provide the kind of abuse that riding horseback used to.

I saddle soaped the cover, and then applied some beeswax finish I’d bought at the Walking Store. The the soap brought out a little character, and the wax darkened it a little. I can tell that getting the look I want will be a matter of time, but a lot of it.

Doing it yourself doesn’t save money

I spent about $60 at the leather store, but that included enough leather to make several covers and a 1/8″ punch.

Another $5 at Joann Fabrics getting elastic cord in black and some colors.

Last is the paper to go inside. I sewed some basic signatures out of Crane’s 24lb paper, and some Neenah Atlas bond in 20lb. My wonderful father has offered to make some books out of Strathmore Writing (my favorite paper). Moleskine Cahier notebooks in the large size fit just about right.

I spent $65 to get a $60 notebook, but for me this was preferable because I wanted the experience, the extra leather, and the ability to make it the size I wanted. Of course, answering the inevitable “What’s the leather for?” from my wife with “for your bustier. Where’s a bra I can use for a pattern?” was priceless, but I digress.

I love the feel of the book, and I like the idea of having multiple books in one cover. Not really thrilled with the size (a letter sheet folded in half) and that it doesn’t lay flat. But there’s a certain thingness to this sort of notebook, and I can see why people fork over $60 for one.

The thing about home made stuff for me is that there is a freedom to experiment. If I decide I’d rather use Midori inserts I can just cut the cover down to size. If I need page markers, I can add as many as I want, or change the bands, or do whatever. I can do the same with the Midori cover, but then I’d be ruining something that had a specific design in the first place, where the home made cover was never a specific intent. Using something I made provides some self-actualization, and this makes the book attractive to use even if it’s not the most convenient.

Potential Improvements

  • Using thinner leather and/or chrome tanned to see if not having the crease works better.
  • Making one in reporter’s orientation, with a double layer of leather on the back for writing on.
  • Using regular cord instead of elastic for the binding.


Living with the Leuchtturm1917 Master Dots notebook

I did a short review of the Leuchtturm1917 Master Dots a while back.   I’ve been waiting until I filled the 5×8 size Leuchtturm I’d been using. On the 19th of February I wrote my first entry in the larger book. I’ve filled 31 pages so far.

I’ve developed some fairly strong opinions about it:

  1. I’m very surprised to find I love a big book. Yes, it is hard to fit in a pocket, but it fits properly in a briefcase. I haven’t yet traveled with this book, and traveling might change my mind, but I don’t think so. A full size book has so much room I never hesitate to put something in it. I feel like it will hold everything. In a small book I feel like I can’t afford white space. In a big book I don’t worry about it, and it makes a big difference in readability. Diagrams, mind maps, and the like can be the right size. There’s room to breathe.
  2. This is not a book for jotting quick notes while standing in a store, or that quick phone number while meeting someone briefly. I’ve found that the letter-size sheet I have my next-action list on works fine for these items.
  3. The covers are way too thin. The book is floppy, and I fear the covers are going to end up being pretty ratty by the time the book is full.
  4. An elastic band on a full size book is annoying. When sliding the book into a briefcase the band is horizontal, and that means that it either hooks on stuff while sliding the book in, or other things get stuck in it when sliding them in. More than once I’ve pulled the book out to find a file folder suck in the band. On smaller books it’s more of a necessity because they’re more likely to be carried loose in a bag. On a big book it’s just not needed.
  5. The paper is great. Love the dots, of course, but the paper is thicker than the paper used in the smaller books. It is 100gsm vs. 80gsm, and it’s nice and heavy. Little show through, and so far no bleeding, but I’ve been writing mostly in pencil. If you’re happy with regular Moleskine or Leuchtturm paper this will make you happier, if you have problems with bleeding this might help.
  6. The table of contents design is ok. I like BookFactory’s one entry per page design better, but any table of contents is better than no table of contents.
  7. Pages 219 to 232 perforated. I HATE perforated pages in a journal, and it’s even sillier to do it in a book this size. If I really, really need a piece of scrap paper that bad I can just tear out part of a page. There’s no need to ruin perfectly good pages by perforating them. Thankfully Leuchtturm1917 doesn’t get carried away with this nonsense, and only does 8 sheets. They also perforate far enough from the binding that they can be taped to make them permanent.
  8. The pocket in the back doesn’t hold a letter size sheet. It’s about 1/8″ too narrow. Sheets have to be carried outside the pocket. I’m not too upset about this, and after years of using Moleskines I’ve come to see the pocket as a bit of a gimmick. It works for receipts, but more than a few items in there makes the book lumpy.
  9. I can carry letter size sheets without folding them. They don’t fit in the pocket, but that’s ok, and it’s very handy to be able to carry the occasional form or document without having to carry a portfolio.

If you’ve never tried a full size book as a journal, you should. It is a different experience than using a smaller book, and so far I’m finding it to be a much better one. I haven’t actually counted pages yet, but my feeling is that the amount I write is proportional to the size of the book. In general, more writing is more recording, and that’s what it’s about.

The Leuchtturm1917 Master Dots book is NOT easy to find, although the grid, plain, and ruled versions are available. The word from Kikkerland Design, the folks who import Leuchtturm1917 to the US, is that there just wasn’t enough demand so they haven’t been reordering them. They make a slim dots that seemed to be available, but has fewer pages. Personally I’ve come to appreciate books that hold more, and I’d rather go up on the page count than down.

I’m talking to about a custom version of their large book with a dot pattern instead of a grid or ruling. More to follow!