Eyedropper update, and a little about my journalling habits

I posted last year about the Airmail 69L eyedropper – a simple, well made, large capacity pen – and I thought I would write a little follow-up.

Since then my journalling and writing practices have become a bit more regular. There are three pens that I need at any one time to be fully efficient:

  1. A writing pen – this can be almost anything depending on my tastes at the time, as long as it is loaded with some reasonable ink that isn’t red, and I have it with me.

  2. A red editing pen. When I am “processing” my journal I read over previous entries and add tasks based on them, or copy them up. When I do this I write what I have done next to the entry with the date that I did it (e.g. “16/2/2012 tasked”) and, when everything on a page is dealt with, I cross the page number out. I do all this in red. Sometimes I write little comments on the page as well. These are often sarcastic.

  3. A highlighter, optionally, to emphasise things while I am writing them, as immediate editing.

For #3 I use the Pelikan Duo highlighter. That one is a easy choice. There isn’t a lot else that the Duo is actually for.

For #2, I played with a few solutions, but ended up buying another Airmail with a red cap that I fill with Noodler’s Empire Red, slightly diluted. An editing pen needs to have a fine nib, since you may have to fit notes into limited space, and it needs to reliably work regardless of how long it was since you last picked it up, since I edit quite unpredictably. The Airmail works very well for both of these. It doesn’t dry up easily and if it does, it’s very easy to re-prime – just unscrew it a bit, point it downwards, screw it up until a drop of ink appears on the nib, then turn it to point upwards and finish tightening it.

For #1 I use whatever pen I have at hand, but generally I carry a spare in my bag, and that has ended up being the original Airmail most of the time, for similar reasons – it writes reliably whenever I need it, and it’s better to have a spare with a fine nib to cover more possible uses (a pen can be too broad for a purpose, say drawing diagrams, but it’s much rarer that it is too fine).

Increasingly frequently, I think “you know what, I can’t be bothered with another pen, I’m just going to use the Airmail”. I still load it exclusively with Noodler’s Heart of Darkness, which I rarely put in anything else. I have a large bottle of HoD which has an eyedropper built into the cap – this makes it ideal for filling eyedropper pens, but awkward to fill other pens from. (The eyedropper arrangement comes out of the bottle covered with ink, so has to be wiped down or put somewhere impermeable if one is going to fill a pen straight from the bottle, and this always means getting ink all over my fingers.) HoD is an excellent black that suits almost all occasions, being fast drying, dense and permanent. The pen itself has proved to have just as good a nib as I thought initially – fine but smooth, really quite amazing for a sub £10 pen – and the shape and balance make it very easy to write with. It’s really only when I have a fancy to use a new ink in a broad nib as part of some pretentious writerly mood that I use something else.

Perhaps this means I am getting boring, but the Airmail has certainly ended up high on my favourite pen list. I gave it a positive review when I first got it, and a year later I’m glad to see I was right. So, buy one. Or more. I may get some in different colours.

Varuna Gajendra – sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

I recently took possession of what is, basically, the largest pen ever. I’m not entirely sure why I did: I did want to try writing with a really fat pen, as people say that they’re more comfortable, and the Tombow Egg Pen is not available as a fountain pen any more.

I ordered it from Andy’s Pens, which, while it might not look that modern and requires you to email the owner to order rather than having shopping carts and other e-commerce widgets, is a terrific site, with a huge variety of popular and obscure makes at good prices. I got a response to my email (sent in the middle of the night) in the early morning and had completed the transaction within minutes of reading it – the pen arrived the next day. It’s a pity that the design might put off some customers.

I ordered the black model with the “Bakul” finish and the standard Wality nib. I’ve had Wality nibs before, and they’ve been fine, so that didn’t bother me, and I liked the idea of the enormous capacity of the eyedropper chamber to go with the enormous size. The body of the pen is hand-made ebonite, and the Bakul finish is a slightly rough texture that’s given to it which is then polished to be quite smooth to the touch – if you have used a Lamy 2000, it looks and feels a lot like that.

Varuna Gajendra - capped vs some other pens Varuna Gajendra - uncapped vs some other pens

Construction and feel

It really is an enormous pen, mostly due to the huge size of the (screw) cap, which makes up about half the length – it is far larger than it needs to be to protect the nib. This makes it very easy to unscrew the two no matter how cack-handed you are, and very hard to lose the cap, two good aspects as far as I am concerned. It’s very easy to open and close as long as you have two hands free. There is no clip and the only visible feature is a breather hole in the cap – both a minimal and maximal pen.

When open, it isn’t all that much longer than any other largish pen. It is still, of course, a lot fatter. The body is 19mm in diameter, and the finger grip tapers from 14 to 12mm. The size of the body doesn’t matter that much in practice if you have a sensible grip, because all it does is rest against the side of your finger, and I found that the width of the grip was comfortable and probably ergonomic in some sense. (Small hands might have problems with it, I couldn’t say.)

The pen is is surprisingly light in the hand – the site says it is 50g when full, which isn’t much, and that includes the cap, which you won’t have in your hand when writing. It is not easily pocketable unless you have ridiculous clown pockets, but it fits into bags easily enough.

Varuna Gajendra - front section and nib Varuna Gajendra - uncapped, with cap

Nib and performance

This model of the Gajendra is an eyedropper filler, which means that the whole back section is an ink reservoir, which you fill using (traditionally) an eyedropper1, one of which came with the purchase. The reservoir holds 7ml or more of ink. That is a lot of ink and you will not, in practice, run out. For tests I loaded it with good old Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, and have had no trouble with this: the flow is fairly generous but not too wet, I’d say slightly on the wet side of average. It does have a tendency to be a little dryer than normal when starting up after being left for several hours; this is easily dealt with by re-priming the nib (i.e. unscrew it slightly, turn it upside-down and screw it up again – air in the reservoir forces a little bit of ink through the feed) or just by writing with it a bit.

The F Wality nib was smooth out of the “box”, though, being the picky2 sort of person I am, I smoothed it a little with a nail shaper to suit my preferences. It’s the same nib that was in the Airmail 69L that I’ve written about here previously, and that was also good (the one on my Airmail was better actually but stock nibs do vary ever so slightly). Normal people would not have to do this; I didn’t have to with the Airmail at all.

Why would I own this pen?

The most obvious target audience for a pen like this is people who prefer fat pens, either because they just like writing with and holding fat pens, or for some sort of medical reason – and there are a significant number of fountain pen users who fall into the latter category, from arthritis, RSI or whatever. Not only is it a tough and good-sized pen to hold but it is also easy to manipulate in almost every circumstance except filling, and you’d only have to do that every few years.

Even without these reasons, I’ve been using it as a standard writing pen for a few days now and it’s a generally very pleasant thing to write with. It’s much lighter than it looks, it is easy to grab and unscrew even when half asleep, the nib is well balanced in size, it is not going to suddenly run out of ink, and it isn’t going to break if you step on it. You may hurt your foot but the pen will be okay. The whole thing is extremely simple in structure, as is standard for eyedroppers, and there are no fiddly bits which will ever need work; the nib is pretty much all that would ever be likely to need changing.

It isn’t a good pen for people who want to show off, because it’s very subdued in design. At least, the black one I have is; they do come in colours as well, but nothing terribly flashy, and by design there is a complete lack of ornamentation. Despite the size I think it is very elegant. It could be a talking point when used in public, I suppose.

It is also not a terrific pen for people who will want to cap and uncap it to make rapid notes. Not only is it large, the cap screw is quite long. One could certainly use it in a meeting but would not want to fully screw up the cap between periods of writing. This would work. I will try it next time.

Final word because I am awful at finishing blog posts


Addendum (Monday 11 July 2011)

I was wondering whether the large size of this pen would insulate it from Eyedropper Heat-Related Blobbing, which is when heat from your hand or from the sun occasionally causes the air inside the reservoir of any large-capacity pen to expand and force ink out unexpectedly. (This is similar to pens leaking in aeroplanes, though that is caused by the air pressure outside the pen going down rather than the air inside the pen going up.)

The answer to this question is “no”. If you sit in the hot sun writing with it, expect to see the line get wetter and wetter and eventually, some ink blob out onto the page. So don’t do that. I’ve not found it to blob just from the heat of my hand though – the ink level would have to be pretty low for it to do that.

  1. I should really write a page about filling eyedroppers, not that it is hard at all, but it’s not a common mechanism these days and the idea might put people off. 

  2. I am absurdly picky about nibs and the slightest of scratches. This often leads to my ruining nibs because of a tiny imaginary scratching sensation that is probably due to some dust on the paper which I insist on trying to smooth out with unsuitable tools. I don’t advise this as general practice. 

Airmail 69L eyedropper fountain pen

I promised myself that I would not buy any more stationery until I had reviewed all of the items I had already bought, which is to be honest a ridiculous requirement, and the consequence is that I have just ordered some more. Perhaps this will teach me not to set myself such impossible goals to which I know I will not keep. I am therefore modifying the promise to be “at least one-in-one-out”. With this in mind, I have to review two items now, and the first might as well be the Airmail 69L eyedropper which I’ve been using for a couple of weeks now so can reasonably comment on.

Airmail 69L uncapped

The 69L is made in India – I understand that the company has two main lines, the Wality (I have a couple of these too) which is designed for export, and the Airmail, which isn’t, despite the name. I purchased mine from the seller ashishwakhlu via a sales post on Fountain Pen Network for a very reasonable sum, and at time of writing there are three left, but I understand that they are also for sale on eBay.

Airmail 69L eyedropper pen vs cartridges

You’ll see that it is pretty big – it might be a bit much if you have teeny tiny hands, though I didn’t find it too bad even though I mostly prefer smaller pens. You will also see that it holds a lot of ink. Some readers might not be familiar with the “eyedropper” filling mechanism – this is one of the earliest and simplest systems. Instead of inserting cartridges, or putting the nib into a bottle of ink and sucking some up with a piston or a squeezy sac, one just unscrews the top of the pen and pours ink into the reservoir. (The name “eyedropper” refers to the common use of an eyedropper to do this, and some antique ink bottles had integral eyedroppers in the caps. Some – e.g. the 4.5oz bottles of Noodler’s inks – still do, but otherwise you will need your own eyedropper, or syringe, or very small funnel, or miniature squid, or other).

Eyedroppers have their issues – they’re a bit awkward to fill on the move, they can be messy to fill, and when they are low on ink the heat from your hand can make the air in the reservoir expand slightly which results in the odd blob coming out of the nib. They do, however, excel in terms of simplicity (there’s simply nothing to be broken) and capacity. There is no filling mechanism to take up space inside the barrel and so the whole thing can be filled with ink. The Airmail holds about 4.5ml of ink, which is around 3 times as much as a piston-filler or gel pen, and you can easily see how much is left and top it up, say, before a trip or exam.

Airmail 69L writing sample

The nib is a fine one1, and of good quality – smooth and a comfortable writer. Combined with the huge capacity this means that you’re even less likely to run out of ink. I’ve not had any issues with starting or writing; flow seems good and regular. The pen feels tough and secure when held – thick plastic with a screw-on cap – but it is not heavy, and the balance is good, not too biased in any particular direction (I’ve not written with it posted, nor would I want to, but the cap is not too heavy). In terms of looks, I’m not a fan of showy pens, but I find the swirly purple colour attractive and not distracting – in any case it balances the simplicity of the transparent barrel.

Overall, I’m very happy with the Airmail. I have it loaded with Noodler’s Heart Of Darkness and it’s become a general go-to – comfortable and useful for all purposes, very much a “desert island pen”. Certainly for the money it’s of excellent quality, and if you like a fairly fine nib and do not have an issue with largish pens, I would definitely recommend it.

  1. I have four Indian pens in total, and they all seem to have pretty fine nibs, towards the Japanese definitions of “fine” and “medium” rather than the European ones, though somehow I think four pens from two different companies out of X millions produced over the years may not be necessarily representative.