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Stop Sniveling and DO Something , or:
Tackle some Pen Improvement!
with Dave "The Toolman" Mason
Many of us advanced boomers came to the fountain pen relatively late after a long apprenticeship with the ubiquitous ballpoint. Besides the romance, mystique, and downright funk, what drew us to the fountain was the free-floating ambience and lack of pressure needed to make it hum and sing.

There is nothing inherently wrong or evil with a ballpoint pen as a writing utensil. If Aristotle, Shakespeare or Jefferson had had one, rest assured that they would have used them. Modern-day flexheads, stubheads and status seekers may quibble to no end, but the fact remains that most new fountain pens have stiff monoline nibs and the most valid argument against ballpoints is that they are uncomfortable to use because they are so skinny.

There is an auspicious solution to this problem, of course: MAKE YOUR PEN FATTER, duh. Although fatboy pens are available commercially, most notably the Sanford PhD, the Pilot Dr. Grip and a variety of inexpensive to ultra expensive ballpoint/rollerball convertibles, I have found the greatest satisfaction with pens engineered in the "Sensa" mode: skinny body, fat grip. The ergonomic geometry behind this is rather simple; the pen is fat where you grip it with your thumb, index and middle fingers but skinny where is it passes over the first joint of your index finger. The back of the fat grip should be about 2 1/2 inches from the tip of the pen so that the inside edge of your index finger can help exert pressure. Unless you are gargantuan, in which case I'm not about to tell you what to do.

There are two basic sources of pen fattening material, home-made and store-bought. Although any number of "found" objects have presented themselves to an inveterate junker like me, I have had the best success finding pen-fattening materials at my local hardware and auto-supply stores. Hardware stores have BIG SPOOLS full of plastic PVC tubing, often different stores have different brands with varying wall thicknesses and so forth. Some are reinforced with nylon thread, some are clear and some opaque etc. Most ballpoint pens require tubing in the 5/16 inch interior diameter range (Cross Townsend and the like take 3/8) but there's NOTHING WRONG with taking your pen to the hardware store and poking it into the various rolls of tubing. Carry a clipboard along, if the store clerks hassle you just say you're with the head office, "quality control" and "employee efficiency" check- up. Heh, heh, heh.

Buy a foot of suitably-diametered tubing (like, $0.35) take it home and cut off a 1 5/8 inch piece. It's real handy to have a dead BiC or Papermate pen carcass at this point because you want to: A) round off the ends of your new pen grip and: B) TEXTURE it with sandpaper to make it suede-y and non-slick PVC-feeling. Just wrap some 150 grit sandpaper around some kind of little sanding block and go to it. I can't give exact directions because everyone's work habits vary, but suffice it to say a household without 60, 150, 240 and 400 grit sandpaper is not a home. PVC tubing sort of RESISTS being sanded at first, so enthusiasm counts. One needn't stop at one layer of tubing. Several of my favorite ballpoints have a grip with an outside diameter of 3/4 inch, really FAT but the grip is still 1 5/8 inch long and the back edge is still 2 1/2 inches from the ball.

Another source for grip material is an auto supply store. A piece of 5/16 inch (8.0mm) I.D. fuel line from Gates, #4219LC, will do wonders to perk up that slippery old chrome Cross that's been languishing in your back drawer since high school graduation. This size goobie works on BiCs, too. Last but not least there is foam tubing in either 3/4 inch or 1 inch outer diameters available from medical care suppliers in foot long lengths. It's designed to be used by arthritics, carpal tunnel sufferers and the like, but you don't HAVE to mess up your hand until you hurt first - fix your ballpoint now.

There are a number of commercial add-on grip enhancers. Many office supply sources carry little thin soft foam grips from Sanford, virtually worthless in my opinion, but they also carry triangular urethane grips from the Rogers Mfg. Co. which have much merit. They're sliced off straight and hence need attention with sandpaper to be made comfortable. There is an asymmetrical triangular hard foam add-on called "THE PENCIL GRIP" available through www.paperinkbooks.com and www.dickblick.com. These are engineered to lock your hand into a real specific writing position. I find them to be surprisingly uncomfortable, but somebody must like them and they're certainly better than nothing. Last but not least, there are little sharkey grips called ADD-A-GRIP available from E-Z-Grip at www.dextek.com. These take a completely different approach to pen ergonomics, adding a little ledge for the tip of your index finger or the side of your thumb or middle finger to rest on. I tend to use a LOT of different pens in any given day, but an E-Z-Grip-equipped Cross is almost certainly bound to be among them.

I love fountain pens and never expect to be caught without one, but I refuse to view ballpoints as the enemy or even a necessary "evil." Any tool which can be used for HumComm is valid to me, including finger puppets and even these silly computers. Perhaps nothing else can expect to ascend to the lofty passion, grace and fire of the Temple of the Almighty Nib, but a carefully-hotrodded ballpoint can at the very least keep you off of the Repetitive Stress Injury ward a while longer.

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