Review – Speedball Elegant Writer Calligraphy Pens

It has been some time since I really practiced my calligraphy (and I only know how to do “gothic” because it’s the coolest-looking one). I really got into it for a moment a few years back, but for whatever reason I never really kept up. I write an alphabet or a quick note every now and then, but refilling fountain pens or cleaning up dip pens is such a hassle. Somewhere along the line, I picked up a set of Speedball Elegant Writer pens, which are more of a learning tool than anything else, but they do provide quick and easy access to calligraphy by removing the cleanup (and some of the drying-out problems). Does that make picking up a set worth it?

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The bodies of the pens are a very bland-looking, vaguely-pearlescent plastic cylinder that tapers out toward the cap. The top and bottom have little rings of black plastic and the cap has a cheap-feeling molded-in clip. Printed blockily on the side is all the information one would need to reorder or look the pen up. The grip section has a noticeably sharp step-down from where the cap covers it, and then a few more step-downs in front of the fingers leading to a small felt-tip nib (the size of which is marked on the side; my set contained two 2mm pens, a 2.5mm, and a 3mm).

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The nibs are a bit scratchy when writing, and lack that sharp edge you really want when calligraphing. They do a fine job for the material they’re made out of, but they certainly aren’t professional quality. It’s worth noting that the pen is super light, and posting the cap doesn’t affect the balance at all; whether or not that’s a problem depends on what kind of user you are (but it does make them feel cheap). The ink is black enough, but on closer inspection has noticeable shading. Most people won’t think anything of it, but again, it isn’t professional quality. On the page it behaves well, with minimal feathering and bleed-through even on copier paper, but it has no fortitude and easily washes down to a purple smear when exposed to water (I suspect no better results in the sun). It just isn’t meant to stick around for too long.

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Really, the worst thing I can say about these is that I think they’re over-priced. If you’re just learning letterforms or want to practice and remember them, these pens are more than adequate. They’re cheaply made with a non-permanent ink, but the tip is well-crafted and the plastic can actually absorb some shock. I keep them kicking around to keep my hand able to sculpt the correct letterforms (though they are just this side of larger than I prefer) and I’m not unhappy with them; they are entirely serviceable.


Mini Review – Pen + Gear Blank (3×5) Index Cards

I’m not sure I need to explain the usefulness/necessity of index cards to you. I’m also not here to try and figure out what the best index cards in the world are (does Clairefontaine make any? If yes, then they’re probably the best). But WalMart does sell reasonably priced index cards under their in-house Pen+Gear brand (which is a poor name, but that’s not relevant, and I’m here to take a look at whether or not those are worth purchasing if you’re just looking for some (whichever) index cards.

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(Note: I got blank cards, so I can’t remark upon anything concerning the ruling)

The dimensions of the cards themselves seem to accurately reflect the labeling, which is a good start. The paper is a bleached-white with a slightly pulpy texture that makes me think that over time or in sunlight these will become yellowed and brittle faster than your average paper products. This texture does make for a pleasant writing experience that is mostly smooth with a hint of feedback. Its ability to take ink and potential damage from eraser is about what you’d expect. Permanent markers, alcohol markers, and fountain pens will all bleed through, while even thicker fineliners (felt pens) don’t show through, and erasing doesn’t cause significant damage. If fact my only real gripe (though it is a big one), is that they are quite floppy for being “cards”. They’re flimsy, flappy, and easy to tear if handled frequently, meaning they would work poorly if one wanted to use them as say… index cards. Not only does this lack of stiffness detract from their main purpose, but it negates so many of the other things that index card were useful for in the past, like being structurally integral parts of craft projects. (Unfortunately, this can only knock the product down so far as, recently, I haven’t seen a brand of index cards that maintains the proper rigidity, so the best bet there is to make your own from card stock, I guess).

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If you’re looking for small cut pieces of paper for various reasons, like taking quick notes, testing swatches of ink or paint (though they may buckle), or organizing recipes that you don’t handle often, these will work just fine. And even though they won’t really work for maintaining a card-catalogue (who even has those?) they aren’t exactly anything less than I expected for the price.


Review – 25-Piece 1” Foam Brush Pack (Walmart)

I’ve been experimenting with some new (to me) “craft-y” techniques using paints and glues and such. Since I’m simply performing tests and I wanted an inexpensive way to acquire enough brushes for my purpose that didn’t necessarily need to stick around (not that foam brushes are known for quality or longevity). I quickly solved this problem at my local Walmart with their large pack of 25 one-inch foam brushes, and really there isn’t much to say beyond that description.

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These brushes are a ¼” wooden dowel of the cheapest and lightest variety, with a poorly stamped “not for lacquer or shellac” “warning” on the side, that are attached by a plastic tongue to a sponge too delicate for kitchen work with a wedge on one end. Since the price is only a few dollars for two dozen, none of the materials here are of notable quality, but they do hold together long enough for one to get a few uses out of the things. I’ve found that after 3 glue applications (uses, not individual coats) and subsequent washes, these brushes begin to disintegrate, but this doesn’t affect how they work for at least a few more washes (and paint is obviously a little less harsh on them than glue). Even with foam brushes not being the highest quality at the best of times (where would one even acquire “high-quality” foam brushes?), these do seem to break apart fairly quickly, though not more than I would expect for the price.

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I don’t see much of a reason to fuss about which foam brush set to pick up. The nature of foam is that they are inexpensive and allow for easy application of media in exchange for their own durability. This set is a cheap way to get a lot of brushes that will get the job done. If that’s what you need, they’re easy to find in most places.

Review – Crayola Erasable Colored Pencils

I’ve looked at Crayola’s regular colored pencils in the past, and I’ve been known to go into far too much detail about the color and quality of what are ostensibly children’s products. In this review of Crayola’s erasable colored pencils I will be concentrating on the “gimmick” as opposed to the colors (in other words, I won’t be looking at the 24 colors from my box individually). So, do erasable colored pencils do as they say on the tin?

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First, a quick note about the aesthetics, which have changed from your standard Crayola pencil. These retain their round form with the addition of a ferrule and color-coordinated eraser at one end. The name of each of the colors is printed on the barrel, but not embossed into it, and little white designs have been added to the front and back over the color-coded label. Each one also has a large uneven white patch in the middle containing a couple logos (and “f6b”, which I assume is the hardness). I think this re-design is poorly conceived, but it is a product for children, and doesn’t affect the use of the pencils.

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When put to paper, the pencils feel a bit more waxy than the standard set. It’s a kind of unnatural and unpleasant feeling with the colors being a little more faded and uneven than the regular pencils. There is a little bit of blending that can happen, but it is splotchy and sometimes one simply covers another (I didn’t test with mineral spirits for blending, so I don’t know how this formulation would react). And finally, the erasability is… better than one might expect. All of the colors erase to about the same degree, which is not totally, but there is only the faintest wisp of color left on the page. It’s pretty comparable to erasing your standard graphite pencils, and it seems to work with most erasers (even gum ones, though they don’t work as well), not just the strange cheap ones that come attached to the back of the pencils.

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So yeah, they work essentially as advertised. It’s not the best erasing experience but it beats not ever being able to change a mistake, and that, combined with the better blending, makes these, in my opinion, the better artist’s tool. But they’re still not comparable to higher-quality artist pencils. At school or whatnot, these work especially well as map colors (unfortunately, probably the most common use of colors in school), allowing you to fix minor mistakes. If that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, these definitely fit the role (and they’re a couple bucks for 24, which is super cheap).

Mini Review – Hobby Lobby Foam Core Board

Once in a while, every artist or crafter has to schlep down to the dollar store for some foam-core board. And inevitably when it cracks or tears one finds themselves wishing they’d gone for the slightly more expensive option. Could Hobby Lobby have been the savior in this scenario?

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Perhaps; the generic foam core available from Hobby Lobby has a nice smoother (bordering on slick) finish over its cool white paper. The foam filling is rigid but still has a little bit of give. The whole assembly is lightweight and easy-to-cut; and, with a reasonably sharp blade, there is no tearing.

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Depending on the store, this stuff is greater than or equal to the quality you will find in dollar or discount stores. It just feels nicer and holds up better. It may not be the best quality board in the world, but if you’re contemplating an upgrade and are unsure, consider yourself assured.

Review – Exceed Notebook (7⅜x9½ {7½x9¾})

Once again I was foolishly tempted by the stationery shelf at my local Wal-Mart. But the quality of such notebooks can be all over the place, and in general tends to be trending upwards. I believe this is the case with this “Exceed” brand notebook I picked up several months ago (notebook reviews take so long, these books might not even be available anymore). This ruled, soft-cover notebook looks and feels almost as if it was manufactured in the Moleskine factory, for a relatively inexpensive price.

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The entire notebook is bound in a black faux-leather that is slightly less shiny than a soft-cover Moleskine. This material is slightly warped by the black elastic band that wraps around it from the back cover to keep everything closed. On the back, very tiny and near the bottom, is stamped the EXCEED logo, and the area of the back inner pocket leaves visible indentions in the black material.

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Inside there is a thicker page with space for a name, 96 sheets of (“college” ruled {36 lines per-page}) paper, and an expandable pocket in the Moleskine style that takes up the entire inner back-cover.

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The paper itself is off-white and of “decent” quality. With standard ballpoints and pencils there are no significant problems. There is enough show-through that one can tell there is writing on the previous page, but using both sides of a sheet wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. With more liquid ink pens (rollerballs, Sharpies, porous points, and fountain pens) there is a considerable amount of show-through with even some bleed-through, though, with standard implements (no calligraphic or broad tips), I didn’t get any bleed onto the next page. The mostly-smooth paper is still pulpy enough that it quickly absorbs ink, preventing bleed on the next page and drying quickly, but exacerbating feathering (to an almost unbearable level with a fountain pen).

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For the time that I’ve used it (with a regular ballpoint) I’ve encountered no problems. The cover looks nice (despite the elastic indents), the binding has held up, and the light-grey lines are un-intrusive and thin enough for my writing style. I’m not a particularly harsh user of notebooks, but I suspect this one could take much more punishment that I’ve dished out (however the nice plain-ness of the cover might suffer, it dents easily, especially when exposed to spiral binding, and even though it does pop back, I don’t know where the cutoff is). If you’re looking for something similar to a Moleskine soft-cover but at a reduced price, I would certainly consider tracking one of these down.

Review – Pilot FriXion Highlighter

While I have reviewed highlighters before, it is a fairly rare occurrence, mostly because we all know what a highlighter is and how it works. For the most part, what brand of highlighter you buy doesn’t even matter; they all do the same thing. The companies producing these products know that, so occasionally they find a new gimmick to get you to buy their specific product. Most of these gimmicks are pretty silly, but some, like adapting the Pilot FriXion pen system to highlighter form, might actually be useful if they work.

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The body of the pen is a bit ugly-looking. On top of the back end of the barrel there is a tattoo-esque design that doesn’t quite look right with the words “remove by friction” in n boring font, all in miniscule. On the very back end is a dome of frosted hard-rubber that serves as the “eraser.” The cap is a translucent plastic, matching the ink color with an integrated clip that slopes off a flattened tip. Popping it off reveals a slick black section ending in a chisel-point porous tip. The “Pilot” and “FriXion” logos are the only real information included.

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My particular three-pack came in orange, pink, and yellow. The colors are about what you’d expect but when compared side-by-side are noticeably paler than your standard highlighter. They are still bright and easy to see, while allowing text to be seen through them, and keeping smudging to a minimum. The real interesting thing about the FriXion line, though, is that when friction is applied (or it’s, you know, heated) the ink is “erased.” There’s definitely still something there, but whatever was underneath shows through, so the ink becomes transparent. This actually works surprisingly well; you’ll never fully get the ink to go away without a trace, but it looks much nicer than a bright highlighted mistake staring you in the face (the originals were ballpoint pens, which are nifty but kinda defeat the purpose). Now this obviously has archive-ability problems, I was able to use a flame to make the ink disappear and I don’t think heat or sunlight will do it well, but for something like highlighting I’m not sure that’s a very big deal.

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Wet ink will smudge when writing, inkjet printer ink will smudge when erasing.

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I’ve had a really good time using these pens they’ll probably end up somewhere in my system. I’m not a big highlighter person (I’ve never used them in books, for instance, and I don’t plan to in the future) but I’ve turned to them for marking off items on to-do lists because they have a cleaner look than “crossing out.” And for that, these little guys work perfectly. I never have to worry about making a mistake (and I can draw silly little pictures or whatever).