Recording coffee roast data – a new analogue option

Image courtesy 33 Books Co.

Though I’ve yet to get my hands on one directly, this bite from Sprudge recently caught my eye. The folk at 33 Books Co in Portland, Oregon, have just released a coffee roasting log: 33 Roasts, which looks just about perfect for an enthusiastic home roaster. Reading about this new offering triggered a few thoughts on how I’ve recorded my home roasting data in the past, and how I might continue from here.

Recording my roasts – so far

While there are many ways to record data when roasting your own green coffee, I’ve generally found analogue systems well suited to my needs, having tried digital methods on and off over the four years I’ve been roasting at home. If I could suggest one thing to someone considering having a go at home roasting, it is to record data somehow. The exact means is not important, however as trends emerge and you look to make adjustments, having something to refer back to is fairly valuable.

So how do I do it? The most obvious means of doing so given my fondness for all things analogue, is a notebook and pen. In the absence of setting up some form of more automated temperature logging and roasting software (the probe, thermocouple and roasting software based “HeatSnob” from Coffee Snobs for example), I have always relied on taking down data points manually (time, temperature and heat settings) — irrespective of whether these end up in something digital or remain on paper. After keeping things in Evernote for a short while, I ended up simply taking the relevant notes down in a pocket-sized Field Notes notebook, and have many filled to the brim with roasting records now safely stored in a shoe box.

Meaningful scrawl in a notebook

In recent months I’ve been using an infrared thermometer gun 1 to capture temperature readings, and manually entering the data on a per minute basis into a spreadsheet template I stumbled across online via the Home Barista Forum. The advantage of course being the roasting curves produced automatically as the data is entered, however I generally don’t have a look at these until the end of the roast, simply following the rate of rise by looking at the temperature change down the column as the roast progresses (also calculated automatically as I enter the raw temperature readings).

Raw data and curves

I’ve found it easier to take note of the readings rather than look at the curve, given I cannot really see it easily working in split view on my 9.7 inch iPad Air 2, with a third of the screen displaying the timer.2

Using one-third split view on iPad for the timer

I have enjoyed using this method, as I can see a visual curve of how the roast progressed, though at times it can become a little tiresome to manually capture and log the temperature readings every minute or so. Again, with dedicated, connected temperature probes this would be a breeze, however that might be a project for another time.

Why the move back to analogue then?

Well, the obvious why not? aside – even when using a spreadsheet, my notebook is always on hand, as I find in the heat of the moment around first crack, it is easier to keep an eye on things and scrawl down the time and temperature data by hand rather than worrying about entering data onto the spreadsheet. Given things can happen fairly quickly at that point in the roast, I usually fill in the blanks on the spreadsheet once the beans are out and cooling.

There are some apparent disadvantages to an analogue system in terms of search, and viewing or manipulating data, however remember we are not talking about a professional, commercial-scale roasting operation here (very far from it actually). Most times in the past I’ve flagged the great roasts and referred back to my previous records be they digital or analogue fairly easily anyway. Having recently begun creating a digital index of my analogue archives (irony not lost), I plan to get around to my roasting logs and do the same. Of course keeping on top of things like this as I go would be a much better idea. You might be surprised how easily things are found with a decently constructed and searchable index. Then again perhaps you might not, for I guess it is common sense really isn’t it.

Finally, there is a simplistic ease in opening a notebook and recording data, without setting up my iPad, opening Numbers, selecting a spreadsheet template, creating a new file, copying some tabs and then entering some preliminary information. Sure, analogue isn’t for everyone, however after using a few different systems (both digital and analogue) over the past four years, I’ve come to know what I like, what I need, and what works best for me.

Reason enough.

33 Roasts: A Coffee Roasting Log

Analogue is well… analogue. Why the need for a pre-formatted option such as this latest offering from the 33 Books company?

For one, I think they look fantastic, and the pre-formatted pages contain just about every field you might need (particularly as a home roaster), along with a notes field for any little extras. A graph to plot those data points on a curve? There as well. Add to that a ratings field for retrospectively adding tasting notes over subsequent days or weeks is also a nice touch.

Image courtesy 33 Books Co.

Speaking of nice touches — from 33 Books Co., something unable to be captured in a pixel:

A teeny, tiny amount of real freshly-roasted coffee is added to the ink in each new edition, which is cryptically noted on the back.

At 5×7 inches — or what I’d call just the right size, the log is similar to my current general note-taker in the Baron Fig Vanguard, or the new upsized Pitch Black Field Notes offering. Incidentally, one my favourite roasting logs in the past was the Field Notes Arts & Sciences edition, which came in at this same slightly larger-than-pocket size.

Signing off

In noting down these thoughts on my coffee roasting logs, of course I’ve yet to get my hands on one of those beauties from 33 Books Co., however the fine folk at Bookbinders are on the case and will come through with the goods pretty soon – of that I’m certain.

Having just taken delivery of a new coffee roaster (another post for another time), what better time to start afresh with my data logging process – and for that, the 33 Roast Log seems pretty much spot on.


  1. Although the readings lack validity, they are reliable for comparisons of minute to minute absolute temperature, and to monitor rate of rise over the course of the roast. ↩︎
  2. Yes I could indeed use my phone or some other time, however the size of the iPad screen is ideal to have the timer visible from a distance. ↩︎

My Pelikan M805 Fountain Pen

You might say this Pelikan M805 comes directly from the executive collection, a description perhaps befitting its appearance. Although I wouldn’t necessarily disagree — for myself at least — that description is perhaps a little misleading when it comes to the true nature of the pen. On that score, I’d consider it a smooth, comfortable cruiser, rather than simply a boardroom status symbol. A pleasant long form writer more so than a one signature wonder.

The Pelikan M805: great 18k F nib on a great pen.

This black and rhodium M805 (18k fine nib) was kindly and very generously passed on to me by a fellow enthusiast downsizing his collection. It is a pen quite frequently inked and often called upon for writing duties, ending page six as comfortably in the hand as it commenced page one.

Look and Feel

As you can see in the accompanying images, the outward appearance of this pen can be described as standard executive-looking black. I do own a number of black pens, and of those, the rhodium trimmed are my favourites. It is a colour scheme I never really tire of. Classic, timeless, and yes — perhaps boring for some. Be that as it may, however you might choose to describe that look yourself — I love it.

The members of the M800/805 series from Pelikan are sizeable pens (though a step down from the 1000’s), and setting off on this post also triggered a few thoughts on whether I have a preferred size in relation to my pens in general. That post morphed into something a little different, however as far as sizes are concerned, I would note the 805 — though at the upper limit — remains firmly in my preferred zone. For reference, my M600 is probably right in the centre, as is the Sailor 1911 Large.

Pelikan siblings (L to R): M400, M600, M805

I’ve found it interesting how my cap-posting preferences have changed over time, and I put it down to the fact some of my favourite writing pens are from the larger end of my collection, thus requiring the caps be posted on many of the smaller to retain a semblance of this new-found “balance” I’ve become accustomed to. Here of course I make reference within my collection, for there are certainly many larger and more weighty pens on the market which aren’t sitting in my drawer waiting for ink.

As you can imagine, I use this particular pen without posting the cap. Being a pen which prefers a medium to large hand, posting might of course suit a small few, however I’d expect those to be at the far right of the bell curve on that one. Overall it is a very well-balanced pen (when not posted), and the main difference for me compared with the M600 is the diameter at the point my index finger sits on the section. The 805 being that little bit larger here, separates my thumb and index finger just a little further then the 600, and as a result I find it not quite as comfortable as some of my pens with slightly narrower sections (again the 1911 Large comes to mind – though similar in diameter, probably suits a little better given the shape of its taper relative to the barrel).

As with all Pelikan pens, the finish is on point, and although the images do a far better job than my words, there are a couple of things which do come to mind when considering what I enjoy most about its appearance.

In addition to the black and rhodium combination I’ve mentioned already — I’d say the overall balance between the finial/clip ring, cap/branding ring, and those around the piston knob when the pen is capped. The typical Pelikan beak-shaped clip, and finial logo complement things nicely, and although there is a slight taper towards either end, the flat ends exhibited by Pelikan pens I find neat and definitive.

That nib again…

When uncapped, the 18k nib stands impressively, with engraved detailing, Pelikan logo, and nib designation lettering. The nib itself is a step up in size from the M600, commensurate with the overall size of the pen. A gentle taper at the section and unobtrusive cap threads round things out nicely.

Overall, a classically styled, yet sharp and well-appointed pen which looks out-of-place nowhere really — perhaps with the exception of a dusty work shed or rolling around loose in the bottom of a gym bag.

Specifications

Courtesy Appelboom

  • Pelikan Souverän M805 Fountain pen
  • Nib: Fine
  • Nib content: 18k Gold
  • Filling system: Piston
  • Closing System: Screw cap
  • Material: Resin
  • Colour: Black
  • Trim colour: Silver
  • Weight: 28 gram
  • Length closed: 142mm
  • Length barrel: 127mm
  • Length posted: 167mm
  • Diameter: 13mm

Depending on where you might pick one up, pricing is approximately AU$600.00 – $795.00 (RRP: AU$795.00) at the time of writing.

Writing performance

The 18k gold nib on the M805 is one of the larger nibs in my collection. I must admit on occasion, after writing with a smaller nib for any length of time, it does take a little time to adjust. Of course after a few lines it feels as comfortable as any from my pen drawer.

Though it carries the Fine designation, depending on paper type, the resulting line width approaches your Japanese Medium or even beyond. Of course that is nothing unexpected, and remains consistent with most other European nibs, and certainly those on my other Pelikans.

Despite the quality finish and stylish appearance, the not insignificant price point carries with it a certain expectation in terms of performance, and having always found Pelikan to deliver as promised — I’d have to say this time is no different.

A few words: Life Symphony Notebook; Bookbinders Snake Ink – Ground Rattler

As I’ve touched on already, though sizeable, the nib is well-balanced given the overall size of the pen. Depending on the size of your hand and preference (one of course influencing the other to a large extent), the large nib/full-sized pen may be a combination slightly outside your comfort level for lengthy writing. I’d say my hands are average, and as I’ve mentioned, it probably sits at the upper end of my “comfort range”.

The 18k gold nib is perhaps not as soft in the “give” side of things as some of my other pens, however I don’t consider that a negative as such. Although firm, it is an effortless glider with just the right footprint on the page to carry a dense, vibrant line — the magnitude of which will of course relate to the particular ink you have filled at the time.

Some of my other gold nibs (particularly the 14k fine and extra fine in my M600 and M400’s respectively; or say, the Sailor Sapporo 14k), tend to give a little more and “sit in” to the page, which I find just as comfortable really — again depending on the type of paper you are using.

Ultimately, the overall balance, size, and nib combine perfectly to produce the effortless feel this pen provides when I write with it.

Signing Off

Probably the most pertinent aspects about this pen are its size and performance. Yes, I find the build and design of high quality — and typical of the Pelikan pens I own — however what makes this any different to those other pens?

Were it larger either in diameter or length, the pen would most likely see less use, which is of course a matter of personal preference. Were I looking to buy another, the Pelikan 600 series probably would be the point I’d be considering — offering just a marginally better size fit, and of course saving a little money (depending on the particular model) to boot. As far as writing is concerned, this pen is simply a beauty.

Sometimes I feel it might be more systematic to have some sort of rating system for these posts, however most of them are approached with a couple of points in mind. Anything not discussed you can assume is relatively unimportant to me in the grand scheme of things (for example piston vs converter, or ink capacity to name a couple).

Generally each post can be summed up before I begin, by thinking what I might say if asked for a quick summary about the pen in question.

This one?

It’s probably one of the largest I’d comfortably use, however it’s a very high quality pen with a great nib, and is an absolute joy to write with.

Monokaki Notebooks: Now On My Doorstep

Late breaking stationery news this blog certainly isn’t, however when there is good news to share…

A little over a year ago I wrote about the Monokaki A5 notebook, received from a friend who’d been travelling overseas and picked one up in a Japanese stationery store. Well and truly filled cover to cover some time ago, I occasionally come across it when filing other notebooks away, and usually pick it up and flick through.

In reading over that original post, I’m reminded just how much I loved using that notebook with its Masuya paper, and fabulous overall design and attention to detail.

As luck would have it, the great folk at Bookbinders now have that very notebook in stock, along with its larger B5 sibling. You’ll also find some Masuya Manuscript paper as well. To clarify — the luck is with me, however the collection of stock Bookbinders are assembling shows a real passion for — and understanding of — a pen and paper enthusiast’s needs.

Of course we all have our favourites, whether notebook, paper type, or combination of both. The perfect size and construction; our favourite binding; just the right amount of slide or skate of the nib; perhaps a little tooth (raises hand) to help control things just a little. While our styles and hand are different, you and I, the Masuya Monokaki notebook stakes an overwhelming claim as my all time favourite.

Sure, I’ve not used every notebook out there, though I’ve tried a few, and I’d encourage any keen fountain pen user to at least check these out. If by chance you all do so before I get over to the store — yes, the actual store on the other side of town — I’m sure there will be plenty more coming.

Err… right Bookbinders? Right?

Fine print: Please note I have no affiliation with the Bookbinders company, brand or products. I do however have every known affiliation, connection, and association (both direct or implied) with stationery related products I buy and thoroughly love using.

A Static Yet Evolving Fountain Pen Collection

2017-02-26-post-writing
In use, a Pelikan M600. Looking on, a Pilot Decimo; Faber Castell Ambition; Lamy Safari
Anyone with a keen interest in fountain pens will eventually own more than one. The “more than one” will of course in all likelihood not merely duplicate the original. Most look towards having some variety of experience — different pens, nibs, sizes and designs. A cursory glance through any pen enthusiast’s social media feed will provide an insight into the amazing variety in many collections, be they developing or mature.

Usually, variety also comes with favourites. Those we might prefer to pick up just a little (or perhaps a lot) more than others. “Favourites” however — is not necessarily a category into which all of those great pens will fit into. Such a category is quite personal and subjective after all.

Perhaps “preferred” might be a better term. Horses for courses. Specific pens which may better for certain tasks than others. I’ll touch on this a little more below, however regardless of what title we put on, or how we define it, I think you get the idea.

An aside

There are times when I’m writing a post for this blog where I suddenly stop and think: why am I actually writing this? Who really cares about my personal experience or thoughts on x, y, or z? Something which occurs more often than you would think — and certainly more than I would like. This? Definitely one of those times.

When it does occur, one of two things generally happens: (i) The specific reason something might be of value to someone reading becomes clearer, generally resulting in a re-write with a more specific focus; or (ii) I feel like a bit of an idiot for spending so much time only to scrap the entire thing quite late in the piece.

Blog posts I find most valuable have a way of changing how you think about something — not simply make you think about it. How your own situation is — and will be — influenced by your approach to it, and your philosophy behind that approach. There are plenty of posts published on these pages which won’t achieve that, however hopefully on occasion some will.

Of course when I hit a point in my writing as I’ve described above, I tell myself it improves the overall quality of what does end up published here, though I’m not sure I fully buy that. Here’s hoping I’m onto (i) above with what follows.

Not a “favourite pens” post

So, I’m talking about what exactly?

Well, I can only speak from personal experience of course, however perhaps I’d call it the curious case of my static yet evolving fountain pen collection. It is evolving more with time, and as that continues, it is providing quite an intangible change in value — something that is as exciting as it is perhaps a little unusual (to me at least).

I have a fountain pen collection which has not been added to for well over a year now. For those who may be interested, a listing of said collection can be found here. For those unfamiliar with how much of that collection came together, it is explained here. To say I remain grateful for these pens every day I uncap one would be an understatement.

To explain the apparent incongruity in this same, yet different notion — this “evolution” I speak of, is not in the “I’ve moved on” sense of the word. Over time I’ve noticed an ebb and flow of usage and delight within this collection. Granted, not entirely unusual, however I’m talking about pens I had placed (somewhat firmly) in the unsuitable/not my style/not comfortable/just cannot seem to like it category, completely coming around.

This whole pen caper can be a complex one to think about at times. What’s that? Well if you make it complicated it certainly is. I don’t disagree with you. Just pick up a pen and write with it — simple. Again agreed. However that is precisely the essence of what I’m talking about here. Those we choose to pick up, and those we don’t, and what becomes of those we more often than not don’t.

My collection

Thinking back on previous pen posts here, most have always contained a few points on my usage patterns, a big part of which is dictated by the size of the pen, and how comfortable it may be over longer periods of use. Most I generally consider to be either shorter note takers, or long form writers. Of course long can be short — though short is usually never long.

Pens which fit into the long form writers category, and by default can of course handle the short stuff, tend to be those “favourites” or “preferred” pens of the bunch.

From a previously published post, my thoughts on the Faber Castell Ambition:

Over longer writing sessions, the Ambition is probably not quite as comfortable as some larger diameter pens with a tapered form, however here I am referring to a three or four A4 pages before I began to have those thoughts

Another, on the Sailor 1911 Large:

For me personally, the answer is just about perfect, both from a size and weight perspective. At 122 mm (unposted) the barrel has enough length to provide scope for a higher or lower grip on the section, which I will vary at times during lengthy writing sessions.

Finally – the Pilot Decimo:

For shorter writing sessions or quick notes, it is just about spot on. When in the zone and powering through multiple pages of a longer draft, I’d more likely pick up one of my other pens.

Perhaps some form of size/balance sweet spot or preference appearing over time?

In actual fact, I drafted the beginnings of this post some months ago. Seriously? What have you been doing? Good question for another time — actually no it isn’t. I don’t actually have an answer to that one.

In any event, that original post had a working title of A Pen Sweet Spot. In it I began to wax lyrical about how it wasn’t just about nibs. It was (and is) about weight, dimensions, and overall balance as well. That is often why I pick up what I do on any given writing occasion. About how it isn’t just about numbers and specs. How there is a good deal of the intangible.

It might help at this point to provide a little context of where I was headed with that post.

The original draft

A surviving excerpt from the original:

So, it sits about where this so-called sweet spot?

For reference, it’s around a Pelikan M600; a Sailor 1911 Large; or a Pilot Custom 912. Towards, but firmly within the lower (read smaller) end, it’s a Pilot Custom Heritage 92; a posted (of course) Kaweco Sport; or even a Pilot Kakuno. Aside from the Kaweco, all of the above are used without posting the cap, as are those towards the upper end of the window.

Towards the larger end we have contenders such as the Pelikan M800 series, my OMAS Ogiva Alba, and even the Platinum President.

There are also some notable omissions from that list. If we are simply talking approximate size, then it also should be the Lamy Safari, probably the Lamy 2000, and even the Pilot Metropolitan. To me that suggests there is more at play. Those and a few other pens I’ve never really gelled with. Great pens mind you — each of them, and I do enjoy using them — just not for any significant amount of time.

Some notable omissions? Probably the Pelikan M200 and 400 series, the Faber Castell Ambition, and the Pilot Decimo. Each probably a little on the slender side to keep things completely comfortable over the course of more than a few pages.

2017-02-26-post-sweet-group
L to R: Pilot Custom Heritage 92; Sailor 1911 Large; Pilot Custom Heritage 912; Pelikan M805; OMAS Ogiva Alba; Platinum President
Between writing those words in the initial draft and now, a few things happened which I have to admit surprised me. For one – I powered through a number of pages with the Ambition and wondered why I enjoyed it so much. I wrote a lot of the first draft of this very post with the Lamy 2000 – again stopping to think: what happened there? That is, with reference to the above, the short did become the long — and I thoroughly enjoyed the fact, and the pens. It changed my whole perspective on some of the pens I’d not used in a little while.

How did this magic occur?

The zone

A few pens with which I’d never managed to end up in “the zone” with, magically appeared there — and appeared there effortlessly. Though we might all have our own word or term, you know what I’m talking about when I refer to “the zone”.

Those writing days where everything just feels right. The pen sits truly in your hand — the nib gliding freely but with precision. The slope uniformly even, the tails curve in symmetry, and no matter how fast the page is filling — it’s all falling into place. You’re in the zone — and it will take a big nudge to bump you out of it.

Somedays it can be found in the first sentence. Perhaps late in the first paragraph or even over the page. Other, more frustrating days? Good luck finding it at all. It’s a Field of Dreams really isn’t it? Putting together a combination of perfect tools: pen, paper and a perfect position will see it somehow magically appear from the corn field. Other times? It’s just you sitting in the empty stand.

Your point exactly Pete?

This (sweeps hand above pen storage boxes) — all of this changes.

2017-02-26-powderfinger-quote
Powderfinger and a Lamy 2000
This is a journey that goes not from A to B. To borrow a phrase from legendary Australian band Powderfinger, it goes up and down and back again. It isn’t simply a linear spectrum or continuum — there is more to it.

As I mentioned – I’ve not acquired any new fountain pens for some time, yet somehow, I have what I consider a whole “new” group of pens patiently waiting for me. That is as weird to me as it is wonderful. I’d begun thinking a little about my longer term plans in relation to these pens, yet now it’s decided – I’m hanging onto them, for I’m sure those sitting patiently in that drawer are likely to have something more to offer when called upon.

I feel extremely lucky all over again.

Signing off

If you’ve made it this far I thank you, and apologies if what I’m trying to say remains unclear. The essence of the message is simply that it seems this whole fountain pen journey indeed evolves, however it is equally back to the old as it is on to the new.

So yes, buy on recommendations, however embrace what you own. Love your pens, look after them, and go back to them. You never know when that one at the back of the drawer might become “the one” — at least for a while anyway.

There you have it, over 1900 words that could have been summed up in a tweet. Long form writing though — with fountain pens.

Exactly. You get it.

Having An Absolute Rollerball

Clockwise from top: Baron Fig Squire, P8126 & Retro 51 refills, Karas Kustoms EDK, Retro 51 Stealth Tornado, Kaweco Classic Sport
Clockwise from top: Baron Fig Squire, P8126 & Retro 51 refills, Karas Kustoms EDK, Retro 51 Stealth Tornado, Kaweco Classic Sport

The nature of intermittent pen-related posts appearing on this blog would lead you to believe my pen-life is mostly fountain and little else. Inherently there would be nothing wrong with that, however in reality it’s not all nibs and pistons. There is quite some variety in the writing instruments I use on a day-to-day basis, and on that score I’m sure I’m not alone.

Retro 51 or 8127 refill - 0.7mm
Retro 51 or P8127 refill – 0.7mm

A big part of that variety is the rollerball, or if you prefer — liquid ink pen (for consistency and convenience we’ll go with the term rollerball from here on in). Although the specifics of my rollerball history are varied in themselves (more on this below), in recent times my usage has largely revolved around the “capless” rollerball refills of both the Retro 51 (at times stamped with the P8127 designation), and Schmidt P8126 variety.

The refills

The Schmidt P8126 refill - 0.6mm
The Schmidt P8126 refill – 0.6mm

Like many before me, and no doubt many after — my initiation into said refills came through The Pen Addict podcast, although the exact episode number is not known to me. I’m sure there is an enthusiast or two out there able to pinpoint the actual number, however given Retro 51 pens are mentioned at least every few episodes, specifics are probably not relevant. With a little trepidation (the hype surely couldn’t be matched by reality) I ordered a Retro 51 Tornado pen (the all black Stealth model), and upon receipt was pleasantly surprised. This was a fine-looking and equally stellar-performing pen, and that refill? Yes – it’s a beauty, and has been a regular purchase of mine ever since.

The 0.6mm P8126 refill (l); and 0.7mm Retro 51 (r)
The 0.6mm P8126 refill (left); and 0.7mm Retro 51 (right)

Although you may find interchanging use of the Retro 51/P8127 and Schmidt P8126 designations when searching online, they definitely are different beasts when talking line widths. If I had to pick my favourite? Probably the ever so slightly thinner line of the 0.6mm P8126, however to be honest I’m happy with either, and my local pen store (Brisbane’s Pen and Paper) which I often visit when refills are required, stock the Retro 51 branded P8127 (0.7mm) version.

A description of the P8126 refill from Jet Pens tells us the following:

  • the refills use a ceramic ball in the tip
  • they are available in black, blue, green and red (the Retro 51 refills in black and blue only)
  • “capless” means a one year cap off time without drying out
  • the P8126 refill is 3.9″ (10 cm) long. It is not the same as the Schmidt 8126 refill, which is 4.3″ (11 cm) long.

Probably worth noting that last point as far as ordering the correct refill size when the time comes. Speaking of which, when it comes to refills and options for them, you could do no better than to consult an epic guide on such matters, aptly titled The Epic Refill Reference Guide: Rollerball, Gel and Ballpoints by Ana Reinert of The Well-Appointed Desk.

Once you’ve taken a look at Ana’s post, the realisation dawns of the multitude of options out there — many of which I have yet to explore myself. Just prior to finalising this post today, I came across Joe’s review of the Steel and Flint Kickstarter pen on The Gentleman Stationer, which contained the following:

For some reason, I’ve never had the opportunity to use the Schmidt Easyflow 9000 ballpoint refill, and that’s a shame. After using this pen for a few days, I ordered a pack of six, and have since swapped out all my Retro 51 / Schmidt liquid ink rollerball refills for the EasyFlow. It’s that good…

Stay tuned for my future ”Having an absolute ballpoint” post perhaps…

Some current pens

Anyway, the rollerball refills in question are known to many within the pen enthusiast world, and are accommodated by an array of pen housings, with Kickstarter often fertile ground for additions to the list. There are quite a few pen options to choose from really, a couple of which I have previously written about (links below), and the others in the list I’ll no doubt look at in future posts as well.

Again, certainly not an exhaustive list, however the pens I commonly rotate these refills through, provide a good example of the variety at your disposal in terms of overall design, weight and feel in the hand. The writing experience however is of course consistent and familiar.

My pens themselves, in no particular order:

The Nova Minimal pen by Namisu - a recent Kickstarter arrival
The Nova Minimal pen by Namisu – a recent Kickstarter arrival

Rollerballs past

As with many in this hobby, the memories of where specific points of interest or phases began are quite vivid. I distinctly remember dabbling in a few different types of pens through high school, and in my university years beyond that (student budget permitting). There were no fountain pens to be seen at that time, with the first to come almost a decade later, however you would definitely have found a rollerball or two on my desk.

Although it’s a bit of a stretch to remember exactly what they all were, I do recall sampling a good few of your disposable varieties, like the Uni-Ball Eye Rollerball, and I believe some Pentel variants of whatever specific moniker they carried at the time. In attempting to become a little classier (I guess), the Parker Vector made an appearance, along with a Diplomat (the model escapes me), creating my most distinctive memory of them all — it ran out so quickly I was driven back to ballpoints for a while.

Clearly unfazed, over the next two decades (yes, its been that long) I dabbled here and there, however in recent years with a renewed vigour and enthusiasm for writing instruments in general, the rollerball has made a somewhat triumphant return.

Why the attraction?

There are probably two main reasons I attribute my fondness for rollerballs: my writing style primarily; and the saturation and vibrancy of the liquid ink a rollerball produces.

My writing style does not lend itself well to ballpoints or gel inks below about 0.5mm in tip size. At times depending on what I’m specifically doing, even 0.5mm is a stretch. Of course your average ballpoint or gel ink pen will typically write drier than say an EF fountain pen nib. The angle and stroke of my natural writing provides a very scratchy experience with finer non-fountain pens (and certain very fine fountain pen nibs as well), however a rollerball in the usual 0.7mm or 0.6mm is just about perfect.

As for the saturation and vibrancy of the ink, this speaks for itself really. A good rollerball will often provide output (once on the page at least) not dissimilar to what you might see with a fountain pen. The blues are deep, saturated and hold their colour over time, the reds and blacks are generally the same.

Quite a vibrant blue on the page (Rhodia No. 16 Dot Pad)
Quite a vibrant blue on the page (Rhodia No. 16 Dot Pad)

Of course it goes without saying that your colour choices are generally somewhat limited, unless you look further afield to something like the J. Herbin rollerball pen, which I’ve not personally tried, and accepts standard international ink cartridges. Personally, for the uses mine see, I’ve no real need for a vast selection of ink colours, and the basics do just fine.

Typical usage

Here the immediate thought of: “well for lots of things where fountain pens dare not tread” is probably not 100% accurate. As you probably know, rollerballs — while perhaps more versatile in some ways than fountain pens — still do not have the ubiquitous acceptance a ballpoint might.

On very glossy paper or card stock, they can be just as bad if not worse than a fountain pen. In addition, poor quality standard paper will see feathering typically less than fountain pens, however the ghosting and/or bleed through can actually be worse. If you are anything like me, and unintentionally take a rollerball as a ticket to writing with a firmer hand — this effect can be exaggerated significantly.

That said, there is a pretty decent range of paper types that will provide a fantastic writing experience with one of these capless rollerball refills. Personally, I’ve found some of the best to be on slightly toothier paper, such as Baron Fig’s Confidant, or your typical Field Notes for example. Even the standard copy paper we use at the office is a pretty good match, upon which I print out an Emergent Task Planner for the day’s tasks and scheduled activities, and a Cornell notes formatted printout for general note taking.

Although I find the writing performance of these capless refills quite an enjoyable experience, longer form writing is not something I choose to use them for. For various reasons, the pens are either a little thin, fairly heavy, or a combination of both. I say that not in a negative way, simply to point out I’d probably choose one of my fountain pen options were I to sit and churn out a few thousand hand-written words.

That being the case — where do they excel? As short form note takers. That is, for meeting notes, recording phone calls, daily planning and brainstorming, or outlining blog posts. They are hardy enough to withstand a drop, or lend to others without the need for undue concern. Perfect office pens really, which as I’ve mentioned, is mostly where you’ll find mine. I’ve also been known to have them rolling around on the shed workbench while recording coffee roasting data — a task for which they are more than hardy enough.

Signing off

The benefit of having so many choices available for these great refills is just that — the choices. The variety of pens available should see something suitable for just about any particular preference — all the while retaining the same great writing experience between refill tip and page.

Of course there are other great rollerball or gel based refills around, and I’m not suggesting the Retro 51/Schmidt’s are the be-all and end-all in this category, however are a standard and favourite for me, seeing some form of use pretty much every day. With the newly arrived Nova Minimal pen, I now have five options — perhaps a ready-made Monday to Friday rotation! More likely though is that I will simply continue what I’ve done for some time — use one for a while, and switch when the desire to do so hits me.

One thing remains a certainty — although the housing may differ, the smooth, rich, and vibrant writing experience certainly won’t.