Review – Muji Hexa Ballpoint (.25mm Gel Pen)

My handwriting is very fine, and I always gravitate toward finer and finer tipped pens in my quest to jam as much information on the page as possible. But there is a limit to how small the tip of any given pen can be. Too thin a felt-tip will simply break, and ballpoints or Rapidograph-style pens will either not allow ink flow or damage paper. Thus, even pens on the smaller end of the possible scale are hard to come by (being more expensive and relatively user-specific when compared to more standard sizes), with .25 being about as thin as one can find. Muji, in its characteristic minimalist style, offers a gel pen in such a small size. Is it a worthwhile purchase?

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As with many Muji products, the pen is outwardly pretty simple. The hexagonal black body is a little larger in diameter than a pencil, and covered in a matte rubber that is only interrupted by two slits in the plastic near the front (for seeing the ink level) and a set of bumps with the slightest of step downs for posting in the back. After a brief clear plastic part, the metal cone in the front quickly brings us to a very fine protruding ink tube that’s about an eighth of an inch long. The clear plastic cap is also hexagonal, with an integrated clip and matching color insert that both covers the tip and displays the sizing information where it can be read easily from a pencil cup. Other than this, there are no markings on the item itself, as the label comes off, stripping you of all its information(in Japanese).

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Performance is good. The pen is comfortable to hold and stays firmly in one’s hand (though the material can make capping and uncapping a bit more “frictionful”). When put to paper, ink flows relatively smoothly. At this size of tip, it is impossible to eliminate all of the scratchiness, but a good job has been done of controlling it. Likewise, another problem at this thinness is that a pen will tend to skip more if at any angle other than perpendicular to the page, but this too has been mitigated. I’d still recommend you write as straight as possible, but it shouldn’t have too great an effect on the writing. I don’t have much information on the ink, but I can tell you that it dries quite quickly (I almost can’t get it to smudge) and it’s waterfast and alcohol resistant (it does bleed a little, but remains legible, which is good for writing and bad for stains). Its spread isn’t too bad either, laying out on the average page about the same thickness as a .25mm (01) technical fineliner (though, with my handwriting both seem very close to a .7 ballpoint).

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The pen’s a good one. It’s nice and sleek with a rugged body (I might be worried about the longevity of the cap. though) and a good writing feel. It’s slightly more expensive than a gel pen of comparable quality in the States (the price tag says ¥210, or about $2, but they sell it in the US for $3), but not enough to be out of their range. The tip is noticeably more fine than other ballpoints and gel pens you’ll find, but in my opinion almost awkwardly so (I’ve never been a fan of how gel pens look on the page {when written with my hand}), and there can be potential issues with the pen drying out. Still, if you’re looking for a functional and minimal super-thin writing pen (that isn’t as finicky or fragile as a technical pen) this is one to look at.

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Review – The Fine Touch 3-Brush Set (1-,2-, and 3-inch Flat)

I’m not a painter, or at least, not very often. Painting is expensive, time consuming, and space requiring. But nowadays there are budget products that are easing the “pain” a little bit. Bopping in to your local superstore and buying a set of brushes with a canvas or two for less than $20 is incredible. And “The Fine Touch” is one of the more visible brands (in my area at least) selling inexpensive painting supplies, like a set of three 1-inch increment synthetic brushes. Do they really work though?

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Despite the common wisdom for years being that natural hair brushes are superior to synthetic nylon ones, they have made some improvement in quality over that time. I don’t know if the best synthetic brushes are better than the best natural ones, nor would I claim that these are better than any other brush, but I personally prefer the little extra “bounce” the nylon provides, and they’ve worked quite well for me over several painting projects.

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The basic structure is the same as virtually all paint brushes: a wooden handle with information printed on it (varnished in this case) shaped like a paddle with a ferrule on one end that holds in a set of bristles. Conveniently, these also have a hanging hole at the end for easy storage. Everything about them is cheap; the wood is lighter than the bristles, with brush strokes in its finish and burs on the drill holes; the ferrules are a flimsily metal (which will likely rust) that has either cracked or slightly splintered each handle in the fastening process, and the bristles have a bad habit of falling out during the first few uses.

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So obviously they aren’t “forever” brushes, but for what they are (cheap superstore brushes) they are entirely adequate to paint with. If you only have a couple projects, just want to get some paint down, or feel the need to ease into things you might not know you want to do “forever”, then they will work just fine for that. You won’t become a master using these, and you might get frustrated with the bristles in your paintings, but they work, and for just getting started, that’s enough.

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 – Maped Globe Pencil Sharpener

I’m a sucker for globes. I see a globe and I buy it. Well… that might not be necessarily true, but it was in this case. I saw a globe on the shelf and bought it. It was only later that I learned it was a pencil sharpener (and more expensive than the dollar I thought it was worth). I was actually unaware that Maped was an office supply company, but does that say anything about the quality of their globe pencil sharpener?

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With such a cheap and small product, one can’t expect a large degree of accuracy, and that is certainly the case here: Great Britain is fused to the rest of Europe, islands in the Pacific are comically uniform (and poorly labeled), Kamchatka is colored as if it is part of North America, and Mexico south is apparently South America. Beyond that, the actual quality of the product isn’t held to a high standard either. Mine came with a few paint chips and scuffs; while that isn’t the worst thing, it is very noticeable at the small scale.

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But, none of that matters unless the sharpener works, which it doesn’t… very well. Obviously, any blade screwed into a cone will sharpen a pencil, and this technically does that, but out of the box it is dull enough to tear at the wood, and the cone misshapen enough to turn the pencil tip into a fragile needle. Technically, it does sharpen a pencil (and I’ve had some “sharpeners” that didn’t) but it makes an ugly and fragile mess. The position of the hole isn’t much better, being in the “stand” part of the globe, and thus, pointing down, it dumps little bits of graphite onto whatever surface you set it on.

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I can’t really recommend this one, even if you’re a globe fan. The illustration is poor, the metal is nothing special, and the sharpener is of shoddy quality while being badly positioned. I’d only really get it as a curiosity if it was on sale for 50¢ or so.

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 – Sharpie Clear View Stick Highlighter

I would imagine that somewhere within the companies that produce writing implements there is an R&D department or team, whose task it is to come up with new products that will sell and grab market attention. I would also imagine that this job is fairly difficult at this point. Not only are physical writing implements perceived as being on the way out, but those that are around have been honed for decades to be exactly what the markets are looking for. In other words, I’m not entirely sure the motivation behind “improving” highlighters with the Sharpie Clear View highlighter was actually an intention to make the product better. But maybe it does. Let’s take a look.

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The main bodies of the pens are a matte plastic matching the color of the ink. They’re more ovular, rather then entirely cylindrical, and they taper down to the end more in one direction than the other, making their ends appear squished (or chewed on, like the ends of many pens I’ve seen). Underneath the cap is a shiny black plastic section that is slightly more slippery than the body but doesn’t really impede use. This tapers down slightly and from it protrudes a very angular, chisel-shaped felt highlighter tip. Inside this tip is a similarly shaped piece of clear plastic that both holds the tip in place and allows the user to see through it. The cap is made of a frosted plastic to allow one to see the special tip through it and the packaging, while being soft enough to not shatter easily (like many clear plastics would). It has an integrated clip and posts securely, but with a strangle wobbly feel from the “squished” rear.

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The three colors that come in the package are your standard highlighter colors: pink, yellow, and green. Each is quite bright and visible, but doesn’t block whatever is being highlighted. Green is the darkest, and is a color almost unusable in some highlighters, but here it is serviceable, if my least favorite because of the “shading” pools that tend to form at the start and end of a highlighted line. Pink is slightly better at this, and of course yellow trumps both in the visibility of words beneath it, its own visibility (in good light), and lack of shading. Sharpie’s smear guard is still working as good as ever and most inks can be highlighted without trouble (but some water-based inks are more unhappy about it than others). And then there’s the main feature. After using it, I don’t get it. It is technically possible to see through the highlighter so you know what you’re highlighting and when to stop. But if you didn’t know that going in what were you thinking? And the angle you have to hold the pen at to see well isn’t a very comfortable one. I mean, I can’t fault it for “not working”, but I just don’t understand how it’s supposed to be used. It doesn’t make anything easier or better, it’s just there.

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If you’re looking for a set of highlighters, these work, and if you find them at around the same price as normal highlighters (the price fluctuates) I’d say get them (it doesn’t hurt). But I wouldn’t go out of my way for them, or pay much more. I can’t see their gimmick as anything more than that, and it doesn’t work for me.