Review – Zebra SL-F1 Collapsible Pen

Earlier this year, my Fischer Space Pen Stowaway finally had the accident I was worried it might all along (the two halves of the pen became separated, and now I only have a cap). So, I needed to acquire some new small, daily carry pen. The choice wasn’t particularly difficult, my go-to ballpoint pen company, Zebra, has been making a collapsible pocket pen for some time and previously I simply never had an excuse to buy it. But, now that it’s in my hands, does it actually hold up?

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When retracted the pen is absolutely tiny at just over 3¼ inches long. The rear part of the pen is a cylinder 7mm in diameter and just under 2 inches long. At the top of this tube is a flat chrome finial with a simple chrome clip extending just beneath it. At the other end of the tube is a slight polished step-down that leads to a smaller tube, at the end of that is a similar step-down leading to a polished metal cone. Grabbing the smaller tube and pulling forward slides it out from the larger tube about an inch. This action also retreats the cone a quarter inch into the pen and pushes the point of the pen out of the end (leaving you with an overall length of 4¼ inches). Both of these cylinders are constructed of metal with a matte black finish applied, and the only markings are the word “zebra” written in silver near the bottom of the larger barrel.

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The retraction and extension method is a bit clunky and sticky, but it is very solid feeling and doesn’t show signs of failing anytime soon. The only potential problem I can see is that you need to be holding the tube that extends in order to write or the whole thing collapses back up again. The fine, .7mm ballpoint tip is, like all of Zebras refills incredibly smooth for a ballpoint while still having minimal skipping issues and providing a consistent and dark line (it writes almost identically to their standard refills for the “F” ballpoint series, but is a smaller, specialty refill). The extension of the pen is just enough to place it in the crook of most hands, allowing for it to be supported when writing, but the barrel/grip section, even for a lover of thin pens like myself, is small enough that your hand will cramp up over longer writing sessions (but this pen obviously wasn’t meant for that).

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If you’re looking for a pen that maximizes space while still being rugged and usable, this is a definite winner. The metal construction is hardy, while the extending feature is handy. It is easy to refill by screwing out the front cone (preferably when collapsed) but remains safely in one piece throughout normal use. The clip is very grippy and sturdy while not being sharp or prone to rip fabric, and its situations so near the top allows for deep carry with very little sticking out above to get caught or seen (though this is actually a problem for where I use it, as I have a hell of a time getting it out of the loop I’ve stored it in on my belt pouch. Something like that shouldn’t be an issue for most people). The writing is very nice and smooth with a permanence suitable to most people even though it can’t write upside down or underwater. And the price, while certainly higher than most ballpoint pens, is not going to break the bank.

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Review – INC PenMark Permanent Markers

As someone who bolts to the stationery section of every store I enter, every once in a while I just have to dive into one of the budget options there (I say that like cheap crap isn’t something that I have innumerable piles of). And if you do this at Dollar General you’re very likely to end up with something made by INC, a brand I’ve looked at before that produces writing utensils that function. Is their current foray into permanent markers, the PenMark, any good?

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The bodies are a simple design. The body is a cylinder with a foil label that has minimal information printed on it. The cap mostly continues this cylindrical motif until its end, when it slants off at a slight angle. The clip is plastic and unsurprisingly molded into the cap (for safe keeping). At the other end there is a hexagonal step-down for posting, which the cap nicely clicks onto. Underneath the cap is a series of 3 step-downs that lead to a metal tube with a small, stiff felt-tip.

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The performance is as to-be-expected. They smell like permanent markers, and the line stays like permanent markers. The ink causes a lot of bleeding and feathering, even on high-quality paper; the result is a line considerably thicker than the “ultra fine point” stated on the package. The colors are all pleasant and readable, with the exception of yellow, which is, like most yellow, essentially useless, and they do stick to the paper and remain vibrant once applied. Water has no discernable effect on the markings, but alcohol does start to break down the dye/pigment. The lines will break down and feather under regular rubbing alcohol, and bleed through increases tremendously, but during my tests the lines actually remained legible.

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If you’re looking for an assortment of permanent marker colors on the cheap, these technically fulfill that requirement. The bodies are cheap, the nibs are brittle, the ink bleeds and is more-than-likely not archival quality. But they provide a mark that is suitably permanent on household materials (paper, tin cans, and plastic containers; they will fade, but they will leave behind a water-resistant mark) in a skinny, portable body which fits anywhere your average pen will, with a clip that holds them in place.

Review – Rosetta 4- and 3-Pen Cases

Well, here’s a bit of a blast from my past. This product doesn’t seem to be available anymore, but it can now at least serve as a cautionary tale about getting what you pay for. I’m talking about Rosetta “leather” pen cases that came in both 3- and 4- slot sizes. I acquired these back when I didn’t have an adequate way to transport multiple fountain pens for use (I still don’t, but that’s because I won’t fork over the money for a good case) and these looked the part (they’re modeled after the Aston Pen cases) but were about a quarter the price; was there really any value there?

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There isn’t much to describe about the look of the cases; each has a flat back that curls around the front at the top to form a protective flap which tapers to fit underneath a securing band. Stamped on the end of this “tongue” is the Rosette compass rose logo. Beneath the flap, a single piece of leather has been stitched down in several places to form either 3 or 4 rolls in which moderately sized pens can be inserted. Most of the surfaces have a smooth finish, but the unseen inside of these tubes is rough and unfinished feeling. Any edge where there would be leather is covered by a sealant-type goop.

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From a design standpoint, there isn’t any real problem here, they hold pens well in a relatively compact space while providing protection. The real problem here is the longevity of the materials. The quality of the leather here is so poor that I’d question if it really was leather if not for the unfished inside of the rolls. And the finishing where the pens are held is thin and flimsy, it cracks and tears as the clips roll over it (and the space is small enough that most pens won’t fit inside with their clips not over the lip). And the whole thing is dry enough that it’s started to tear around the stitches with time. This isn’t damage from a dry environment (they’ve lived most of their life in a humid one) or that could have been prevented with an application of leather treatment (the outside is “finished” and hardly takes oil, besides it remains “supple” in that it can generally flex and bend without problems.). This is just a problem of poor materials, thin leather that wasn’t meant to last.

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And so, as pen cases, they’re not really useful to me anymore. I know that with just a little more use they’ll come apart completely. And it would appear that this was a complaint others had, as I can hardly even find evidence that these guys were produced at one time, let alone still being sold. To me, they now serve as a reminder that there are budget options that are too good to be true, or aren’t’ really even worth the time looking at them.

Review – Exceed 5×8.25 Hardcover Dotted Notebook

I’ve previously talked about the Exceed brand and the increase in quality from generic Walmart notebooks, so when I saw a standard sized notebook from them in hardcover (my favorite style) with dot-grid (my favorite ruling), I had to pick one up. From a distance the book is almost indistinguishable from a Moleskine (in their standard size), but comes at a much lower price-point. Are the two comparable? And which is a better value?

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The size listed on the packaging is 5×8.25 inches, dimensions which reality bears out with the addition of a 5/8 inch spine (slightly thicker than that of the standard Moleskine). I chose the black cover, which is a nice “matte” pleather with a very fine grain, though it feels a bit rubbery and the cardboard structure is noticeably flexible. On the back there is a simple embossed “Exceed” logo which is nicely subtle, and the attachment points for the secure-but-dangly elastic closure band. Inside, there is an ugly page with several lines to write down your information and another “Exceed” logo at the bottom. This is followed by the 120 sheets of dot-ruled paper. Bound to the spine somewhere along the way is a flimsy, thin, black ribbon bookmark that nevertheless doesn’t have a propensity to unravel. Attached to the back cover of the book is your standard (at this point) pocket which… works, fine.

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The paper inside has a classic 5mm dot layout with no additional formatting, and a pale-grey printing that moves into the background even under pencil lines, while still providing a neat and versatile guiding structure. The paper is a noticeably yellow-ish off-white and is thicker than your average notebook of this size (which accounts for the differences with a Moleskine book while having the same number of sheets). The increase in quality that this little bit of thickness allows (at least, that is my assumption), is well worth it, though. While it might not be the best for fine-writing instruments (the texture can best be described as “toothy”), it is opaque enough to allow for writing on both sides with basic utensils such as ballpoints and pencils. Furthermore, technical pens, brush pens, fountain pens, rollerballs, and even practice calligraphy pens all usually result in only minor show-through (at the cost of some feathering). However, alcohol-based Copic markers, Sharpies, and many felt-tip markers are too much for the paper, sometimes bleeding through entire pages. And there’s no guarantee of archival quality.

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One could easily go out and find notebooks that are worse than this one. When compared to a Moleskine the paper and binding are superior, but it feels a little cheaper and there’s an increase in thickness. This isn’t an artist’s main book, it’s not archival and the paper feel isn’t inspiring. But it is a durable, inexpensive and widely available option that accommodates a wide variety of writing utensils. If you’re looking for a budget alternative in the “black-book genre”, these are definitely ones to check out.

Review – Muji Portable Scissors (35mm)

Scissors are one of the most useful tools the average person can have at their disposal. And, until I began looking for a more “travel-safe” option, were the main reason I kept a Swiss-Army Knife in my pencil case. My quest for an option that was a full scissors without a knife attached eventually led me to Muji’s minimal, compact, spring-loaded design. But how well do they actually shape up?

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When the cap is on, the entire device is a 4½ inch cylinder with a diameter of a little over a half inch and a thin wire clip attached on one side. The clear plastic cap is about 2½ inches in length. It snaps over a small ridge in the handle, and has an inner cylinder to keep the point of the scissors roughly on track. When it is removed, the scissor springs open using a wire spring mechanism and the white handle portion splits into two (with roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the volume in either handle). There is virtually no written information on the entire device, save for a warning in Japanese (which I can’t read, but it has a caution triangle).

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Despite only having to do two things, the functionality of this little guy is slightly underwhelming. The clip is far too tight to be useful in most situations, though it doesn’t have any sharp edges that might cause catching or tearing. And the default sharpness of the blades is basically tolerable. They cut paper, tape, and blister plastic just fine (so more than 90% of situations are covered), but they struggle with cloth or more cellophane type plastics.

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These little guys are probably the best set of folding travel scissors I’ve found that haven’t been attached to a multi-tool. They’re relatively compact, substantial feeling, and efficient, despite being unergonmical and lacking significant cutting power. Sometimes the spring is a bit overzealous, but it’s a convenient feature since there are no finger-holes and I like having a body that doesn’t feel like it’s going to shatter every time pressure is applied to it. If I could, I’d still probably want my old Victorinox (multi-tool) scissors back in my bag, but as a portable, checkpoint-friendly option, these guys get the job done fairly inexpensively and without having to fold out stupid finger-holes.

Review – Tombow Airpress

My Tombow Airpress was presented to me in Japanese packaging, and, as such, I had no idea what it was supposed to do. Upon careful inspection of the pictograms, I came to a conclusion that was reasonably close to the correct answer of: it is a pressurized ink pen (so it can write upside down or underwater and such {think: space pen}), but it only gets pressurized when you depress the click mechanism. If or why this would be an advantage over regular pressurized systems I do not know, but the pen does come with a set of other features to make it more usable in the rugged outdoors and whatnot, so maybe you’ll get a greater value out of it. I’m probably not the target market here (my pens lead a very relaxed life), but let’s take a look anyway.

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The body of the Airpress is cigar-shaped, with a rubber coating, and quite short at less than 5”. An eye-shaped indent in the middle of the pen and six plastic flutes on the section expose the inner mechanism so that you can see a little bit of what’s going on inside. At the front, there’s a removable cone (which is where the pen gets refilled) that tapers down to where the ballpoint gets exposed. Up near the back is a plastic area, attached to which is a weird-looking wire clip (with a plastic end for extra grip), and protruding from it is the click-button. Sitting opposite the clip is a clear-plastic lanyard hole. The identifying markings are hard to find, with “Airpress” being molded into the rubber and “Tombow” “Japan” very minute in the plastic around the mechanism. Still, there is enough there for refills or replacement if you need it.

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The tip is a little finer than the average medium ballpoint and writes smoothly enough, though I do find it has a problem with blobbing or bits of dried ink on the end like many of the pressurized ink cartridges. It is indeed capable of writing upside down (or without gravity) and underwater (which also proves that the ink is waterfast) with no noticeable effects on performance. The body is rugged and tough (though I don’t put my pens through terribly destructive situations) and the rubber coating allows you to maintain a solid grip throughout use. The clip is quite grippy, with the plastic attachment having several ridges that catch as it clips, and the wire design allowing it to open to almost a 45-degree angle without deforming or breaking. (I haven’t “tested” the lanyard hole, but it seems to be fine)

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Everything about this pen is pretty solid. It’s easy to write with, easy to hold (it’s quite chunky and a little thicker than I like my pens, but some people prefer that and it’s better for the use case of this pen in particular), and well built. The clip and the click mechanism are both satisfying to use and the rubber is solid while lacking that sticky-feeling rubber can sometimes have. All of this comes in a very portable package at a decent price (cheaper than your average Fischer Space Pen), which makes it something ideal to look at for someone in one of the various “rugged” professions or as a reliable EDC (everyday carry) pen.


 

Review – Copic Ciao Markers

Copic Markers are a professional artist’s staple and set quite a high bar in terms of how a marker performs. I personally don’t have the skill to utilize them effectively, but I have seen the wondrous products of many who swear by them. Getting to that level takes practice, and while one can learn with other markers, it’s never too soon to get attuned to the markers you intend to be using for a long time. That’s where the high price-point of Copic markers really starts to become a problem. To build up a library of the markers would cost hundreds of dollars, and when starting out one doesn’t know what tints and shades they need or prefer (the markers are refillable, thankfully, but that doesn’t change the upfront cost, just the upkeep). There is a budget option, the Copic Ciao, which at $4 are a dollar and change less expensive than their bigger brothers, but that price is still up there. Are they worth it?

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The markers are roughly cylindrical with a ⅜” diameter. There is the smallest of bulges in the center for the purposes (I assume) of aiding grip and disincentivising rolling. On either end there is an inch-and-a-quarter long color-coded cap with a quarter-inch step down on the end that allows either cap to be posted on the other. Near the base of each of these caps there is a small nub that makes it easier to remove and also helps prevent the marker from rolling. Each tip has a butte-esque taper leading from the body to the felt “brush”. The chisel tip is molded in the same plastic as the body, while the brush tip (the one you’ll most often be using) is a darker plastic that extends to an easily visible band underneath the cap. Which ends are which, what color the ink is (both descriptive and in code), and every other needed piece of information is nicely printed on the sides, and it appears underneath a shiny finish to prevent wearing with use (after all, these markers can be refilled).

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I’m not an expert when it comes to actually using these (or any) markers, but a quick search online of what people are able to create speaks for itself. What I can say is that the tips are well-made and hard-wearing (and they’re also replaceable, decreasing future expense). The chisel is sturdy and unyielding while the brush easily bends to create lines ranging from 1/32 to ¼ inch. The ink is alcohol-based and goes right through absorbent papers, feathering and drying quite quickly. It’ll still bleed through fairly heavy and high quality papers, but it doesn’t dry as quickly, allowing it to be blended more easily either with other colors or the colorless blender (which, as far as I can tell, just contains alcohol). Once down, the ink is essentially impervious to water and alcohol-based attacks, but they are sensitive to sunlight (as per their website) and, being solvent-based, aren’t the most “archival quality” things in the world.

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In my opinion, even forgoing the financial difference, the size and shape of these smaller Ciao markers is just more comfortable and easier to use. And they allow an artist to build up a collection of various colors in a much more consolidated space if they are willing to lose the color labels on the end. But they’re still expensive, and getting them won’t make you a better artist or a blending magician (as I can attest to). If you’re unsure if you want them or can utilize them I’d recommend starting out with only a few (greys would work best in this scenario) and getting more as you need them or improve your skills (the sets are quite expensive, especially if you end up not using them). But the bodies will last forever and the refills/replacement(s) (felt tips) are fairly easily available and extend the life of the marker significantly. This is a fine (and for some superior) version of a marker that is trusted by professional illustrators around the world.