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.

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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.

Review – Kuretake No.14 Brush Pen

I think an ideal gift is one where you receive something that is useful or interesting to you, but from a direction you would have never looked yourself. Such was my case with the Kuretake brush pen number 14. For personal use, I’ve basically settled on my brush pens, and wasn’t really on the lookout for another, but I was still quite glad to receive one of these little guys as a present. Let’s see how it performs.

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The body of the pen is a black-flecked maroon, slightly-soft plastic that looks and feels a bit like ebonite. The cap is uniformly thicker than the barrel with a black cylinder protruding through a diagonal cutout for the top quarter-inch. From this comes a simple but functional spring-steel pocket clip. The barrel has no decoration save gold-imprinted Japanese lettering (that I can’t read) and an Arabic numeral “14”. The butt end is a similarly simple black convex disk. The section is made of the same piece as the barrel, and aside from a sealing ring for the cap, has only a single small step-down before a black plastic cone leads to the incredibly small “nib”.

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The little felt tip is only two millimeters long. And, despite many of the online references I found referring to this pen as “hard”, the line produced easily moves from half a millimeter to three millimeters. The ink is fairly black but not particularly dark, and it has a tendency to fade or split during long or fast strokes. It also bleeds/separates/fades when exposed to water. It’s not super runny but most work will still look ruined (it plays nice with alcohol, though). The feel of the grip section is nothing special but I have no real problems with it, and with the cap posted it is quite well balanced (the cap does feel like it might have a cracking problem with prolonged use, but the pen is disposable). Unfortunately, despite this, I just can’t seem to shake the feeling when using the pen that I’m not in control. Brush pens don’t play well with my style at the best of times and this guy can really get all over the place quickly.

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I’m not sure this pen would be useful as a serious artists’ tool: its ink doesn’t take traditional washes, the ink flow is sub-par, and the tip is imprecise. But as a portable sketcher it has a resilient body, a good clip and a wide range of possible expressions. It isn’t inexpensive, but it isn’t egregiously costed. This isn’t the be-all end-all of disposable brush pens, but id does make for a fine introductory pen or a “backpack beater” as it were.

 

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 – Muji Bunkobon Notebooks (Thin/Regular)

I’ve had a couple Muji notebooks in the queue to review for quite some time now, and ironically it’s the product that I have most recently purchased that’s making its way to my metaphorical “review table” first. Muji has a reputation of being both minimalist and high quality, and Japan in general is often seen as being more focused on a good writing experience, but do Muji’s inexpensive Bunkobon notebooks live up to the expectations?

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When looking at aesthetics, the exterior is about as minimal as one can get: a brown “craft” paper cover with a smooth (not glossy, but definitely coated) finish wraps the whole book, only interrupted by a barcode sticker on the back. Inside, the pages are blank with no additional features (no name page or back pocket) save a red ribbon bookmark.

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The paper is a pleasant off-white with a very smooth texture. For how thin it is, it does a very good job of holding up. Almost any mark you make has “show through” where it can be seen from the other side of the paper, and with pens this quickly renders the reverse side unusable (I never use it anyway), but in most cases this doesn’t result in “bleedthrough” where marks appear on the next page. Gel and fountain pens work fine, but Sharpies and calligraphic pens are too much for it to bear (though only barely, it seems). The actual experience of writing on the paper is also quite pleasant, it’s got just a little bit of tooth to remind you that you are indeed writing, but most pens just glide across. For me personally, it sometimes feels a bit slippy or like I’m losing control, however, I have the same problem with the gel pens that everyone else in the world loves.

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The book comes in two (very reasonably {but not proportionally} priced) sizes, regular with 144 sheets, and slim with 50. And the larger size would excite me more if I didn’t have a few issues with durability. These 4 1/8 x 5 ¾ book’s covers are only a piece of slightly thicker paper, and on the top this overhangs a sixteenth of an inch beyond the one side of the book with a deckled edge. This quickly creates bent corners and a curled-in top area (I unsuccessfully tried cutting this excess off my slim, and it now looks like I’d imagine it would after a little while of constant use), which might be overlooked if the cover itself wasn’t so fragile and easily bent. Even I, a man who is very careful with all of his possessions (because he doesn’t like them to look worn) bent and tore the cover while the bookmark unraveled itself. While the binding is very solid I don’t feel like the cover of this book will adequately protect it over a longer period of time or through rigorous use (so it’s out for frequent traveling), and I think that this problem will get worse with the larger size.

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For the price of a couple dollars this is a very good notebook to write in. While there are some problems with cover and bookmark it makes a fine office or school notebook, or, if you aren’t a stickler for aesthetics, it’s a nice convenient size to carry around (though larger than that average pocket). If you’re looking for an inexpensive notebook upgrade or are just tired of people putting words or logos on your writing area these are nice, minimal and well crafted books.

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.