Review – Swingline Tot (Mini) Stapler

I’ve been using an old Swingline CUB stapler at my desk for years now. The combination of small size and standard staples makes it perfect for me, a person who doesn’t have to staple often. I also have the super small Tot-50 stapler in my pencil case, and while the size is good it does use a different type of staple to most other staplers. But now Swingline has a middle ground even between those two with the Tot, a stapler that is just about as small as you can get while still using regular sized staples. But how useful could that be?

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The Tot is about 2½” in total length, 1¾” tall, and 1¼” wide. These measurements are a bit larger than they could have been due to the rounding of the stapler body; there are no sharp edges on it. At the back there is a curved piece of metal sticking out to serve as a staple remover. It works fairly well, though unlike the standard “jaw” type it does have the tendency to fling used staples across the room. On the top and bottom of the main body there are relatively comfortable divots in which to place your fingers when stapling. And the entire thing is a sort of teardrop shape, narrow in the back and widening near the front before suddenly dropping off.

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Underneath is a small rubber “plate” (for lack of a better word) covering with a handy mark representing staples stamped into it (in the previously mentioned divot), though if I didn’t know they were supposed to be staples I wouldn’t have figured it out. Peeling this back from the nice little nail nick (it’s held in place with tabs in slots) reveals a small storage compartment with enough space for a regular block of standard sized staples, and enough space for (someone with smaller) fingers to get in and grab it. Below these staples is the general information about the product, save for the brand name which is proudly displayed on top. This rubber piece is fully removable, though it is a bit finicky to get it past the staple remover on the back both when getting it on and off. I can also say, from a spill on my desk, that the rubber seals well enough to be water resistant (but I wouldn’t count on it).

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As with most Swingline products stapling is as easy as can be. There’s a surprisingly good amount of leverage in this design and it connects pages cleanly and neatly together. Its use of regular sized staples and a mouth about as wide as your standard desk stapler means that it will basically perform the same function, with its only limiting factor being capacity (and durability since it is made of mostly plastic and most staplers are metal). My only general complaint is the top; it’s quite easy to open and hinges back far enough to make loading a breeze, but the tab that holds it in place when it’s supposed to be locked down is very weak and I’ve found it to pop open with slight provocation, or even without provocation at times. And that’s slightly worrying: I don’t want staples everywhere. But the spring holding it down is fairly strong, and if kept on the desk or in a case this shouldn’t be a problem.

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So, if you’re not one that staples often, have limited desk space, or want to carry a stapler with you but not special staples (but maybe with a bag or case) this little guy will work great. It’s small, easy to use, and gets the job done. It isn’t as durable as the larger versions (or its metal predecessor the Tot-50), but with care it will work for a long time (but maybe not as long as my CUB) and for how inexpensive they can be I’d say they’re definitely worth it (and they come with a box of staples, which is cool).

Review – Caran d’Ache Sketcher (Non-Photo Blue Pencil)

Pencils are a nigh-indispensable tool for the artist. But usually, especially with ink work, they need to be erased, and that can be a hassle. It’s a lot of work, it risks ruining the drawing (or paper), it takes time, and it becomes harder to correct later. But oftentimes the final work is either a duplicate of the original, or more work is done over inked lines, meaning that using a pencil that simply doesn’t show up in the reproductions saves time and work by not needing to be erased. Non-photo blue pencils were used for this purpose as many image replication processes (mainly cameras and photocopiers that were used to duplicate artwork for printers) have a hard time transferring it, and they still retain a place with modern scanners that will be able to pick the color up, but do so in a way that the image can be easily edited to omit it. But is it really worth it to get a new different pencil like the Sketcher from Caran d’Ache?

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The pencil is as basic as one can get: made of wood and hexagonally faceted to limit rolling, one end is sharpened the other has a metal ferrule connecting the body to an eraser. The body is a pleasant blue color mirroring the color of the lead and on one facet neatly stamped and inked in white is all of the relevant information. It looks and feels very much like a standard #2 pencil.

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The eraser is well done; it erases cleanly and is dense enough to not float away far faster than the rest of the pencil. The lead is hard to place in hardness; it feels softer than a standard HB but it has a more waxy quality (characteristic of colored pencils) that makes it give a much harder line. So it writes somewhere harder than HB and wears somewhere below. The line it produces can go from very light to surprisingly dark, but even at its most dark, it is barely visible in scans and can be easily isolated and removed. But it is only a tool for pure ink drawings, and its use is limited in other senses. If one were to, for instance, lay a wash over it, it would be harder to isolate and almost impossible to be rid of on scans, and it resists being covered by lighter washes. And if one were to erase before laying down a wash they would find that the ink laid on top of the pencil is cut down severely, with the entire line becoming grey and having several holes that are almost white, basically where the ink adhered to the pencil and not the paper (this effect is present, but much less severe, with standard graphite pencils). A similar set of problems would be encountered by someone wishing to put color down. So using a pencil like this would necessitate an additional step between inking and coloring/washing where the inked drawing is reproduced and tweaked to eliminate the blue (and potentially other errors).

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I’ve also had a bit of an issue with the lead being soft enough to break inside the pencil. It hasn’t been severe, but it’s worth noting.

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So am I converted to the blue pencil? Not quite. I really like it, and for a specific type of work-flow it is perfect, but that work-flow isn’t mine. I color/wash my original drawings, and I don’t see that stopping unless I get big enough that I can hand it off to someone else. So the pencil has very little use inside my work environment. I do use it now and again, but it also wears down quite quickly, and having to use a sharpener just drives me back to my mechanical pencils. That being said, it is a well-made pencil that does its intended job superbly. If you need to reproduce or scan in original inked artwork and don’t want the hassle of erasing, I would say this is right up your alley.

Review – INC Soft Scripts Mechanical Pencils

Pencils for the office, school, or just someone who loses their pencils a lot can get pricey, fortunately there are a lot of inexpensive options out there. But are they even worth it to try? Sure, there are a lot of inexpensive pencils, but if they don’t “pencil” there is no reason to even consider them. INC Soft Scripts are one such pencil on the less expensive side of the aisle. How well do they work?

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The design here is pretty stereotypical, with the barrel being a thin, featureless tube of black plastic that tapers at one end to a plastic lead pipe. Near this end is a rubber grip in one of a few (5 in my case) colors that is narrower in the middle and has ridges toward the end, both ostensibly to help with grip, and they succeed in being barely noticeable. On the back end is a colored plastic push-advance mechanism (that matches the grip) with integrated pocket clip and eraser holder. This bit can be removed to expose the lead-holding tube that contains 2 extra leads (for a total of 3 per pencil). The clip is nothing spectacular, with most of the necessary information on it, and fairly brittle. But I feel the entire end piece would fling off before it broke.

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Performance is what one would expect. The HB lead is middle-of-the-road, leaning toward soft, but there’s nothing particularly off about it. I personally don’t use a .7mm size but it is a fairly standard size and makes breaking less of a problem. The eraser is one of the little white ones that will get the erasing done pretty well, but will seem to disappear almost immediately. The clip is serviceable but I wouldn’t recommend using it. And, finally, the mechanism is quite solid and workable; pushing lead out and holding it in place when commanded to do so.

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They’re easily usable, but far from spectacular, pencils, with their main benefits being the rubber grip (if you happen to like those) and the fact that they are the ones at the store (if indeed they are the ones at the store). There’s nothing really there to recommend them on, but no reason to tell you to stay away, either. They will perform fine for office, school, car, or other tasks where pencils should be inexpensive because of the frequency with which they are broken or lost. In comparison to others at a similar, price it would really come down to personal preference.

Review – Cross Jotzone Notebook and Pen

Notebooks are quite handy things, but most of the common ones look a little unprofessional. If the standard spiral and composition books won’t work for you, and Moleskine just seems a little cliché, maybe Cross has the answer for you with its Jotzone series of notebooks.

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I feel I need to put a bit of a disclaimer here at the front. I usually carry a notebook around with me and try to get through about a quarter of the pages before I do a review on it (that’s why I’ve done so few notebook reviews: it takes time), but on this one I certainly didn’t get anywhere close to that, for reasons that will be explained in a moment.

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The cover of the book is a nice, smooth faux-leather, black save for a triangle on the lower right of the front where the color varies (mine’s blue). It covers the full 5.5” x 7” paper part of the book, with a ½” extra bit around the spine, which is hollow, creating a “tube” where pens can be stored (it also helpfully says “Cross Jotzone™” on the spine) . “Cross” is nicely but subtly stamped both on the back and the triangle in the corner. An elastic band is attached to the back in a novel way, so that when it is being used to hold the book closed it lines up with edge of the colored triangle. Inside there is nothing special behind the front cover, but inside the back is a small, simple cardboard and paper pocket. It is attached so it is accessed from the top, a decision that with its small size seems to have been made only to avoid comparisons with Moleskine.

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The paper is very good, a nice 100gsm (70lb) that is smooth, but not too smooth in my opinion (it certainly isn’t as smooth as the Clairefontaine paper fountain pen people love). It handles fountain pens and liquid roller balls quite well; with minimal feathering and show-through under normal usage conditions (I’ve done no test with flex pens or triple broads) and the dry time isn’t that bad, though far from instant. The pages themselves are nice and white with a ¼” grey ruling that stops before the page ends, and a stupid grey triangle in the corners right under where the triangle is on the cover. This area helpfully says “Cross Jotzone™” on every page, and it’s supposed to be where you put your quick summary notes or something so you can easily riffle through the pages and find what you’re looking for. I think this is dumb (and I hate pre-printed words on the pages of my notebooks) but nobody asked me and the paper is good enough that I could easily ignore that (and the ruling that is far too large for me).

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But now for the reason I haven’t used the book that much, and wouldn’t buy another one. I admit it’s quite petty but I use my notebooks a lot, and I want them to look good. That’s why I still use Moleskine classic hardbacks, it’s very hard to find a notebook that resists damage (page corners bending, cover denting/ripping/bending etc) better than those books. And this one is, cosmetically speaking (it feels easily strong enough to not fall apart structurally before being used up) is the worst I have encountered. After sitting for a day or two in my bag, with the only other items in the bag being non-spiral notebooks the cover became covered (no pun intended) with irreversible scratches and scrapes that are quite noticeable. Basically, if you want to maintain the “Cross” professional look, it’s a desk notebook, and I have reviewed it like a desk notebook. It’s a pretty good if gimmicky one, but I personally couldn’t stand to look at the satin faux-leather cover getting so beat up over time (and I wouldn’t recommend using the spine pen holder, as its made out of the same, easily damaged material). I feel like it wasn’t really thought out, and is more of an “executive gift” that no one is expected to really use, and that’s a shame because it comes with a great pen.

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The pen is a very simple chromed metal pen (I would say steel from the weight, it’s quite heavy for a pen of its size) with a smooth cylindrical non-tapering barrel. There is pointed-ish cap finial at the back and a cone at the front leading to the point. It’s retractable, with a twist action, and there is a clear mark and band signifying where the pieces come together (and it is the smoothest action I have ever felt in a pen). The adornment and the clip are minimal, probably to be inexpensive, and while it’s a little ugly, the simplicity makes it easy to overlook. The cartridge is a short version of the standard Cross cartridge in a medium point. It, like most Cross pens, is very smooth, in this case especially when writing cursive. It does have some startup problems, especially when left unused for a time, but that problem can be solved by using it more or getting a new cartridge.

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In the end it’s an alright notebook, and a good pen. I wouldn’t purchase them for myself, but it does make a very nice looking gift, and it’s functional, with good paper and a nice writing pen. It’s a desk notebook, and a heavy desk pen (but I like the weight) made of good quality materials, but essentially with a disregard for useabilty. I can recommend them as desk materials, but not as daily users.

Review – Western Family Mechanical Pencils

If you are ever in dire need of a mechanical pencil, and somehow find yourself at a shop that doesn’t sell Paper:Mate Sharpwriters at the price of whatever change you have in your pocket, or even at all, the Western Family mechanical pencils may be a cheaper, and click-advanceable, alternative. But are they actually useable?

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The body of the pencils is very simple; a smooth cylinder for the barrel with a tapering and fluted (for grip) cone leading to a plastic nub (lead pipe) at the front (this part is free spinning but doesn’t appear to detach). At the back is a nothing-special click mechanism with an integrated plastic clip (that does indeed clip to things and hold it in place, but is pretty flimsy) and a small white eraser on the back. Removing the eraser (which actually fits down inside almost all of the click mechanism) reveals the inner lead-holding tube, which comes stocked with one extra lead per pencil. The entire click mechanism can also be removed for more direct access.

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The performance is nothing to write home about. The HB 7mm lead is, as one would expect, fairly soft but not too soft, and a bit wide for people like me (I prefer 5mm, but I can live with 7). The eraser does indeed erase: it gets rid of most regular graphite marks but can be used up very quickly. The barrel of the pencil feels sturdy, but the ends are flimsy and plastic-y with tolerances that aren’t very tight.

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Overall the package is fairly bare-bones, but functional. I wouldn’t use them as my main pencils, but they’d work in a pinch. For only a few dollars you get 10 pencils (in 5 terribly boring colors) with 2 leads each and a body and eraser that will hold up probably no longer than it takes to use those 2 leads (the clip being the weakest link there). There is nothing particularly appealing aesthetically about them and no information (like lead size) other than “Western Family” printed on them. They’ll work for scattering about for use if you can’t find your normal pencil or for loaning to people who don’t care about the pencil (like at the office, or playing D&D) but I can’t recommend them for any other reason.

Review – Art & Parcel (September 2016)

Art & Parcel is a monthly subscription service for art supplies from H. Blyth & Co. It’s like a Lootcrate, but for art supplies; so it’s way better than a Lootcrate (my opinion). But with so many of these monthly-blind-subscription-service things around, what makes this one special enough to look at? (Answer: Art supplies) And is it worth it to get one?

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(Couple of notes here: I got this parcel for free {and even though I got to pick one, I didn’t get the one I picked, so the picking part won’t influence the review} for review, and I live in the US where the “subscription” part of this service is unavailable. From what I can tell that means that I would have to pay up front as a lump sum to get my parcels, instead of being able to pay by the month, this also means that shipping cost is terrible to get them here, £16 (About $20) is a steal for these products, and the shipping in the UK is a great deal too, even throughout the rest of Europe it doesn’t exceed the price of the items like it does coming to the US)

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The one I am going to be looking at today is September’s parcel, which is focused mainly on colored pencils, but first I’ll talk quickly about the packaging. Mine was shipped in a bubble envelope, inside of which was a very nice cardboard box that was very well sealed with brown tape. On the top the Art & Parcel logo is printed very plainly, and on the bottom in pencil there is the month. (My box was a bit dented, but this is likely from the post office as, due to my schedule, the box had to be sent through the post twice) Inside is a nice packing slip that explains everything that is in the box along with its regular retail price (if that’s anything to go on you save a pound or two from buying the items individually in this set). All of the materials are neatly and securely wrapped in a newsprint/tracing paper that is sealed with a sticker of the Art & Parcel logo. It is all very well executed and nothing got damaged.

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The first items in this box were four Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils. I am no stranger to these pencils (they were the subject of one of my first {and not as well written} reviews), though I don’t have these particular colors: Naples Yellow, Light Phthalo Blue, Chrome Oxide Green Fiery (wonderful name that), and Red-Violet. I think the choice of colors is a bit strange, but they are definitely useful, and give a better representation of the pencils abilities than a plain RGB or RYB would have. There’s not much more to say there since they are some of the best colored pencils around. One thing I do really like about them is the fact that they layer so that some colors can somewhat be on top of other colors, unlike the cheaper colored pencils where they’re pretty mutually exclusive.

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Next is the KOH-I-NOOR Hardtmuth Magic pencil, which is basically a fat colored pencil that has a “lead” made up of the 3 RYB colors. This means that as you write or color with the pencil it changes, and the colors mix together to create a nice gradient effect. In practice the yellow mixing with both the red and blue works great, but the purple almost looks black and rarely shows up, and getting a nice solid version of one of the primary colors is very difficult, so the gradient looks more green and orange than anything else. I would bet that with some practice and odorless mineral spirits with a blending stick that it could produce wonderful effects, but I would still have trouble finding a use for it.

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Third up is another Faber-Castell product; one of their Pitt Artist Brush Pens, another item I’ve looked at in the past, though this is a different version. It’s a “big brush” and the body of the pen is over a half inch in diameter, a bit chunky for me but still very easy to hold on to and surprisingly comfortable. The color is “Cold Grey IV” which seems to be in the middle of the grey family, and the brush is very fat, going from lines of about ½mm to almost 5mm. It’s also got all of the stuff you want out of an ink: waterproof, lightfast, and archival quality. But I’m not really sold on how it fits with the rest of the stuff here. It is a grey, which makes it more like a pencil when sketching, but going over the same place multiple times does make it darker. It’s just strange to me, but then again I have a very different style to most people, and playing around with a new brush pen is always fun.

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And the final item included is a 10-sheet pad of watercolor paper. It’s made by Fabriano but has the Art & Parcel logo again on the front. It’s A5 size, which is about 6” x 8” and is a hefty 300gsm. It handily took everything I threw at it without flinching, bleeding, or feathering. Sharpies, calligraphy pens, and brush pens push most papers to the limit, but this stuff is truly meant for paint (watercolor at least), which I don’t have too much of lying around (in accessible areas, I did have some tempera and it handled that very well), but it seems easily capable of handling it. A liberal application of water will turn it in to one big slight buckle, but that’s about it. My only complaint is that there are only 10 sheets.

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Overall I’m very satisfied with this box. It’s well worth the money and provides several products that work in tandem, allowing you to start creating right out of the package without having to look for more materials. From what I can tell, this is true of the previous parcels as well, but each one comes based in a different medium. The subscription would be relatively inexpensive way to try out something that might not be in your comfort zone without having to do a lot of research or spend time picking out and ordering products. It was honestly really hard for me to try and pick out a parcel I wanted. The recent ones at least were all super cool (and they can be purchased even after the subscription goes out, so nobody needs to miss out like with other sub boxes) and I’d be signing up right now if shipping to the US didn’t more than double the price (damn the postal service(s)). I really like this box. It’s given me a bunch of cool stuff to play around with (and a Haribo candy to eat*) and if the idea of getting a bunch of high quality art goodies in the mail every month appeals to you I would recommend it.

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*I ate it; it was good (like a softer laffy-taffy).

Blog 10-30-16 – October Update

All right, I said I would be doing another blog before November, and here we are… with less to report than I had hoped, but nevertheless it is an exciting time.

First things first I will be participating in a few events: the second Big Bend Comic Con will be in Alpine Texas on November 5th, and I’ll have a table in the Artist’s Alley. And the 2016 Artwalk festival will also be in Alpine November 18th-19th where I will have a stand on the walk selling my books.

And speaking of books I have a couple new ones I’ve been working on that will be debuted at the Comic Con and then go on to be featured at Artwalk. These will be available soon from the Amazon store link as well. Here’s a photo of the proofs.

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There’s a new Walking the Roosters, Stamped, and a printed version of the Beta of RPG LTE.

On the more personal side of events, I have finally finished my move (which if you count that as the time from when I moved out of my last solo place to where I am now, took more than a year). I still have to finish unpacking (which I’m sure will be a wonderful experience) but I will be moving to a more stable schedule that means I will be able to produce more online content.

And I know I said that I would get more posted in September and October, and I do have many more things finished than I haven’t posted, but I run things by an editor before posting them and she has been very busy lately as well, making it hard to get new things through. But now that I am in a more stable place (and have finished the new books) I will be able to sit down and concentrate much more on what needs to be done on the site. I have my own personal goals for catching up on everything, but I won’t post them here because they will inevitably change. I do really enjoy doing the things I have been online and I hope to get back to it soon, and it shouldn’t be too long before I put up another post with more information about how things are going.

-Austin

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