Revive A Bad Ballpoint

Ballpoints, like all pens, write best when they’re used. While rollerballs and fountain pens stop writing when they dry out, ballpoints often just write poorly. Sometimes simply using the pen will usually revive it, and within a few pages of writing it will be back to full potential. Other times that doesn’t work, or the pen just doesn’t write. If it’s a cheap disposable you might be happy tossing it, but if it’s a cartridge that cost a few bucks it’s worth a little time to fix.

When I buy a new pen I often con myself into getting a spare refill (or two) when I buy it, and then they sit around for a few years before they get used. After that long, they tend to be sticky writers, and even the supposedly 100-year self life Fisher refills don’t write very well when old. Not to mention the freebie pens that accumulate here and there that invariably get really stiff – especially the ones that have lived in a car for a few years. All can be improved.

Alcohol is the answer. First pour yourself a stiff drink. Actually, no, you don’t need the drink. What you do need is alcohol – rubbing alcohol will do nicely. A quarter of an inch or so in a shot glass works well. Now dip the point of the pen in and let it sit for a few minutes. It usually doesn’t take long, and you’ll see a bit of ink dissolving in the water. Alcohol will dissolve ballpoint ink, and will loosen up any cruddy ink near the ball. Take the pen out and write a bit. It should be smoother and have more nicely flowing ink. If not, let it soak for a little longer and try again.

So why not revive some of those old pens that are lying around? You may be surprised at how well they can be made to write.

Why You Need A Yellow Pen

Yellow is rare. You won’t find many pens in this color. This means you don’t have to worry too much about temptation. There just aren’t enough out there to break you. In fact, you can probably go into any pen store or pen show and leave with nothing because they didn’t have anything in the right yellow.

EXCEPTION: The Parker Duofold in Mandarin Yellow is hotter than a June bride in a feather bed, but cost enough for a weekend in Vegas. The ‘Citrine’ isn’t quite as nice, but costs less.

I have four: Caran d’Ache 849 ballpoint, Pelikan M200 fountain pen, and Lamy Safari fountain pen and ballpoint. Only the 849 is the ‘right’ yellow in my mind, but ‘wrong’ yellow is better than no yellow.

Yellow is a high energy color. So is orange, but orange looks like a traffic cone and yellow looks like the sun – which makes you feel better? It stimulates thought, and reminds me of a beach. But orange shares most of the other fine traits of yellow.

There’s no doubt about ownership. Who else owns a yellow pen? This is why I have yellow luggage. Do you want to steal a yellow bag and then try to blend in?

Yellow is a high-visibility color. Easy to find in a bag, in the dark, and on the ground. Ok, in early summer out on my lawn there’s a little competition.

Yellow is distinctive. “Oh, you mean the guy with the yellow pen?”

Yellow is one of the manliest of colors. Scuba tanks, hard hats, heavy equipment, caution signs, race cars, and many uber cool watches are yellow.

Is your pen collection dominated by safe colors – black, silver, gold? Get yourself a yellow pen, and see if it doesn’t improve your state of mind. You might be surprised.


Want To Write More?

Does a bigger book encourage more writing? I feel like I’m writing a heck of a lot more than I used to, and I seem to be filling up books at the same rate, despite their being larger.

My theory is that a page is a psychological milepost. Whether that page is large or small doesn’t matter, a filled page is a filled page. Want to write more? Use a larger page, or so it would seem for me. But really?

Fortunately, it’s an easy thing to measure.

I counted the number of pages filled, the number of entries, dates of first and last entries, and the page size of  10 notebooks I’ve filled starting in the late 90’s to present day. Not all of them, but enough, I think.

The came in three sizes: four Pocket moleskine books which are about 19 sq. in per page, four medium 5×8 books which were about 40 sq. in. per page, and two large books, which were 70 sq. in. and 107 sq. in.

The interesting thing is that averaged across a total of 1,035 entries, a total of 2,029 pages were used, for an average of 1.96 pages per entry.

Large books averaged 1.98, small books averaged 2.29, and medium averaged 1.88. Not much of a spread, when you consider that the area of a small book page is half that of a medium book’s page. If we assume that square inches are proportional to number of words written, which should hold true if text size stays constant, then it’s true – a bigger book means more writing. A medium size book averaged 74 square inches per entry, a small was 44, and large books averaged 134.

There were only two large books to be counted. One is an accounting record book which was the oldest in this experiment. The other is the Leuchtturm1917 which I’m currently using. So it’s possible that with a few more books the numbers could shift, but even if we ignore the largest books, the difference between medium and small size books is pretty significant. Some of the small books came after some of the medium books, so it’s not simply that I’m writing more as I get older. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the average entries per day in a book and the average pages per entry in the same book.

The bad news is that bigger books may hold a lot more writing, but they don’t hold a lot more history, since they don’t hold a lot more pages. A pocket moleskine has 192 pages, a Leuchtturm1917 hardcover has 218 (not counting the perforated sheets), and a large Moleskine has 240. At two pages per entry, there’s not a lot of difference.

So if you want to write more, using a bigger book may do the trick.

By the way, all those entries used something over 72,000 square inches of paper, or smudge over 500 square feet. It would perhaps cover the walls of a large bedroom – say 18′ x 14′, allowing for windows.


Finding the right pencil lead

Who knew there were so many brands and types of mechanical pencil lead. At least 3 major brands, with perhaps 3 lines each, and this is just looking at Hi density, long wearing, with silica, and more. At a few bucks each (ok, maybe 6 in some cases) it’s hard not to order them all and try them out. So instead I ordered 3, and decided if I couldn’t tell the difference I’d end it there.

The three brands I tried were Tombow, Pentel Stein, and Hi-Uni, all in HB, B, and 2B. They all come packaged in very nice plastic containers, with nice closures designed to keep you from dumping all the lead out on the floor. Definitely a far cry from the usual box we find in a US store.

I could tell the difference between them in writing feel, but I’m not sure I could tell them apart on the page once I’d forgotten what I’d written where. I did not test the longevity of them, as a single lead can write several pages even in the large A4 size journal I’m using.

Pentel Stein was my least favorite, although if I was a student I might feel differently. It felt the hardest, and wrote slightly fainter than the other two, I think. How adding silica to a lead and making it more wear resistant is different than simply choosing a harder lead, I can’t tell you. Perhaps there isn’t any difference, it’s just not hard enough to be a full grade harder. Regardless, it felt a bit scratchy.

The Tombow was fairly pleasant, and seemed a bit darker. I could live with this lead easily.

The HI-Uni was the smoothest of the bunch. Buttery is a word that comes to mind, Rich. Dark. Wears quickly. I noticed I was hitting the clicker button more with that lead.

There was not a lot of smear difference between them.

Really, I think it comes down to how they feel to you. If I was back in school, taking math and engineering classes, I would probably start with the Hi-Uni, but end up with the Stein. Eventually the wear rate of the softer, albeit more luxurious lead would drive me to go after the harder stuff. Then again, I might just end up with B, or HB in the Uni instead.

At $4 or so a pop, it’s blessedly cheap to experiment.

The BookFactory Engineering Notebook

The folks at were generous enough to send me a sample of their hardcover engineering notebook for review, and I’ve had a chance to use it for a while. I’ll compare it to the Leuchtturm1917 book I’ve been using as a journal for a while now, since that’s the only other large book I’ve used in the past few years.

I’m using it to hold notes for a business research project, and so far it’s been a good book.

A half-filled Leuchtturm1917 Master size book shows some bag wear
Cover thickness compared - BookFactory on top

I love the heavy, stiff covers. This is one area where the European competition is weak. Is a smaller book it’s not a big deal, but with a full size book it’s critical that the covers be thick and strong enough to support being written on. You can see the Leuchtturm1917 A4 size book I’m using is starting to get bent, and also how much thicker the BookFactory cover is.

8×10 is a nice size. Actually 8.25 x 10.25, but big enough to have the big-book feel without the slightly too-big hassle that can come with A4+ size Master books. For example, the RedOxx Gator bag I’m thinking of getting would fit the BookFactory book no problem, but is actually 3/8″ shorter than the Leuchtturm1917 master dots. The LT will probably fit if angled a bit, but I’d rather have something that fits easily. Many bags I own were designed around fitting a letter size sheet of paper or not, and the BookFactory book fits just under that threshold where the Master is a tight fit.

Comparison of tables of contents. Leuchtturm1917 on top. Note the date column on the BookFactory book.

The table of contents is the best I’ve seen. Having one entry per page makes it easy to jot down what’s there. For me this makes the difference between a table of contents that gets used, and one that doesn’t. I can deal with the task of summarizing what’s on a page in a few sentences. I have a hard time deciding when a particular entry is important enough to warrant using up one of a limited number of TOC entries. Making it even better is the date column. Many times I know what date I’m looking for, and scanning down the TOC to find that date would be easy.

The paper is white and thick enough. I haven’t tested it extensively with fountain pens, but it feels more like 100gsm than 80gsm to me. About the same as the Leuchtturm1917, and performs the same. I’m not a heavy fountain pen user and most of mine are fine, fairly dry writers, so bleed and so on aren’t an issue for me.

You can see the Leuchtturm1917 page numbers are much less obtrusive

The printing is toner based and is very bold and dark. I imagine this is to ensure it comes through on photocopies, but it makes me feel like I’m filling out a form. I much prefer the gray printing in Leuchtturm1917 books. You can see the difference in the page numbers.

The writing area is framed, which is strange. I’m used to grid and dots books with no margins, so having a window to write in does provide some structure. In the other hand, there’s a half inch of wasted space all around the sides. The spot at the top to write the “continued from” page number, and the spot at the bottom for the “continued to” page number are handy. I know I could just write it on any page, but the space is nice to have. It will sound a little silly, but the form at the bottom with date and signature and witness blocks makes me feel like what I’m writing is important. Don’t know if I’ll ever use them.

Flysheet reinforced with fabric tape
Fly sheet also stitched

Last but not least, the construction of the book is very sturdy. The book block itself is fastened securely to the fly sheet via tape, and the end sheets are also stitched. This book should survive just about any reasonable use, and the heavy covers will make it a lot more durable in the bag.


The BookFactory engineering notebook has been refined to suit a particular purpose over a long period of time and it shows. Whether or not it would make good place to record thoughts depends on what one plans to do with those thoughts. I find the table of contents very attractive, but the page design distracting for anything but straight writing. I feel too much space is wasted, and I don’t care for the ruling. Is the table of contents good enough to overlook the rest? Probably not for a journal, but as a notebook for any purpose where sketching isn’t likely to be involved I think it would be my first choice.

So what would make this the perfect journal? Basically, the covers and construction and table of contents of the BookFactory with the page design of the Leuchtturm1917. Specifically:

  1. Pages with 5mm dot grid in gray/halftone, without the border – have the dot grid overlap all edges.
  2. Unobtrusive page numbers in the upper outside corners, also in gray/halftone.
  3. Include the “Continued from page:” and “Continued to page:” entries in gray/halftone, in the upper left and lower right corners, respectively.
  4. BookFactory style table of contents, with one entry per page and a date column.
  5. 300+ pages, so I have more history with me.

I’ve spoken to the folks at BookFactory about creating a new version with some of these features, and it’s possible. The challenge of course is meeting minimum order requirements. The good news is that I don’t need to order hundreds – fifty would be enough.

Would you be interested in a book described above? Would you rather have dot grid pages or plain pages?

The Vacation Satchel: What I Brought

A short while ago I posed the question about what to bring on vacation, and what to bring it in. We got back from our trip to Florida on Saturday morning, and here’s how it turned out.

I brought:

Leuchtturm1917 Master Dots notebook – what got used. This is my main journal, and it was where I wrote everything. Carrying the book didn’t prove to be as much as a pain as I thought it might be – more on that later. I wrote about what we did, things to improve for next time, a battery wiring diagram for my father-in-law’s golf cart, a few sketches, and so on. I filled thirteen A4 pages.

Home made leather notebook – didn’t make it out of the bag. I don’t know why, but I’m just not getting into using this book.

Stories Of A Father And His Girls notebook – didn’t make it out of the bag. This was a gift from my wife, and I had great hopes of filling this one with stories of the trip, but I realize now it needs to be written in after a bit of contemplation.

Stillman and Birn Epsilon 5×8 notebook – did a very brief watercolor in it. Could have stayed at home. I brought it specifically to draw in, but I realize now that I draw to record what is happening, which needs to be in the journal.

BookFactory pocket notebook – carried it a few times, but never used it. It’s my favorite small notebook because of the table of contents, but every time I went to go use it I ended up using the journal.

Sakura Koi 12-color pocket watercolor set – used once. I think I will leave this at home in the future, at least until I know better what to do with it.

Nomadic pencil case with a variety of pencils and pens. Could have left most of it at home, along with the case. Partly because the backpack I took didn’t have room for it, and partly because I just didn’t need that many options. I ended up using my yellow Caran d’Ache 849 with a CdA blue medium cartridge, and the Kuru Toga mechanical pencil.

I ended up using a daypack that was part of a Eagle Creak solo journey  backpack combination, and while a daypack is nice I think I will be upgrading to a RedOxx Gator in the very near future.

How did it work out?

I wanted everything in one book. Every time I thought about writing in another book I felt like I was breaking the rules. I’ve had no trouble writing in other books in the past, but  I have noticed I have this feeling more often since I started using a larger book as my journal. It’s also that when looking back on the trip it’s nice to have everything together.

Wind, sand, and humidity mess with notebooks. The sand gets between the pages and makes the writing surface uneven. The wind makes holding the book open and writing in it a challenge, even with the band;  Wind is actually a good reason to have a band on a large book. The humidity made the pages wavy.

Sand actually jammed the 849’s pusher mechanism, but was cleared easily. I’d thought the 849 would be an ideal pen on the beach because the mechanism is more accessible than the Parker Jotter, but it actually jammed a few times. Not a big deal, and I never used the Jotter so I can’t say it would have been more reliable.

The thin cover of the Leuchtturm1917 was a bit of a liability. When carrying it in a briefcase with files and other similar objects the thin cover is not really a problem. But when the book is the largest thing in the back, and it’s sharing the bag with a camera, clothing, and whatever else it didn’t fair so well. As you can see it’s starting to get misshapen. If I was normally carrying this book the way I do on vacation, I’m sure it would be a pretty ratty looking mess before long. Writing at home and at work usually means writing at a table. Writing when traveling means half the time the book is in my lap, or some other less than fully supported situation. This really needs the kind of cover thickness that BookFactory and Stillman and Birn provide.

A big book was fine in the car and most other places. I’d worried that it would be harder to write in, or would be harder to get into a comfortable position, but it was just as usable as the 5×8 books I was used to carrying. The only time I felt the larger book was a problem was in the wind – those big pages were hard to hold down with my forearm and I eventually gave up, although a few binder clips would have worked ok. I just didn’t feel like digging them out of the bag. I think the thicker paper of a Stillman and Birn might be more wind resistant, but then I’d give up ruling and page numbers .

What I’ll Bring Next time:

Main notebook. It might be another Leuchtturm Master Dots, or maybe something else. I’m thinking a custom version of the BookFactory lab notebook might be on the horizon – more on that later. Regardless, I will use something large enough that I don’t hesitate making notes.

Maybe a sketchbook, with the purpose of filling it with bad sketches. I noticed that many times I hesitated to sketch because I didn’t want to fill up my journal with aborted sketch attempts. Maybe the solution is to carry a book specifically to fill in with the bad drawings one needs to make before the good ones become more frequent. Maybe I just need to get over the fear that someone will walk up to see what ‘the artist’ is drawing, only to see the pathetic graphical train wreck that is unfolding on my page 😎

A mechanical pencil, with a few spare leads. I took the Kuru Toga, but really any decent pencil would do.

A click eraser. Didn’t need anything bigger, but I wouldn’t depend on the stubby thing that comes on most mechanicals.

A ballpoint pen, with a spare – both taking the same cartridge. I think next time it will be a pair of Caran d’Ache 849’s, maybe in different colors or point sizes. Having two functioning pens is a good idea with kids, because as soon as one wants to draw, another does. If I didn’t have kids, I might bring something more refined, but when a hungry, tired kid wants to draw on a paper restaurant placemat (or glossy brochure, or whatever is available for them to write on) while waiting for dinner to come, I want to hand them something that works, won’t break, and won’t write through to the table(cloth) underneath. That’s a ballpoint.


Schmidt P950 Pressurized Ballpoint Refill Really Is Pressurized

I’ve been infatuated with ballpoint pens lately, and since my usually awesome Fisher space pen hasn’t been performing well it was a matter of time before I started looking for an alternative.

I thought I’d found it in the Schmidt P950 megaline refill, and since I was ordering their EasyFlow 9000 I thought I’d give one a try.

Any doubts about whether it was actually pressurized vaporized when I pulled the gray cap off and the tip came with it:


The ink came flowing out with an eerie, unstoppable slowness. It didn’t sputter or splatter, but I wasn’t about to try and shove the tip back in. This is the only refill that I’ve ever had leak or break. The ink had a pearlescent quality to it, was thick and gooey and sticky.

The vendor has offered to replace it, or substitute an Easyflow 9000. I think I’ll take another Easyflow 9000.

[UPDATE: The vendor I’d bought the refill from, Lanier Pens, was awesome and quickly replaced the defective unit without hassle.]