Sunday, January 25, 2015

Epic Pen Search and Discovery, Part 1: MikeD’s Pen

Spoiler alert: These are some of the nibs you'll meet in this epic blog
post series.
Impulse buying is not something I’m known for. (The last time I made a totally impulsive purchase, I came home with a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser collector’s box to hold my then-small ink collection – but who could resist that?). Whether it’s a clothes washer or a can of soup, I tend to read reviews and labels carefully. I do my research.

At the same time, I always come out strong as a J on the Myers-Briggs type indicator, which means I’m not comfortable with lots of options, and I prefer to seek closure and resolution rather than keep things open. In terms of shopping, that means I like to make the purchase as soon as I’ve made the decision to buy something. Once I decide, I don’t like continuing to look for more options.

All of this is preamble to documenting the epic search-and-discovery mission I have been on since last August that I’m finally ready to begin describing. (It’s going to take me a while, though – I’ve written seven parts so far, which will appear weekly on Sundays.) Six months may not seem epic to you, but for me it is, mainly because of my discomfort with unresolved searches. And as of this writing, the search continues.

The object of my search? The grail of variable-line-width fountain pen nibs.

Before I get to the search itself, I should explain why such a nib has become so interesting (OK, obsessive) to me. What’s the big deal? What’s wrong with a plain ol’ conventional, single-width pen nib?

For my first couple of years as a sketcher, I used mainly single-width writing instruments of various types – first a variety of technical pens (such as one favorite, the Copic Multiliner SP), which are designed to produce a consistent line width, and eventually Lamy and Pilot fountain pens. I was happy with each at the time.
The Sailor fude nib.

Somewhere in 2013, variable-width writing instruments moved into my radar range, and after trying a few, the first to really grab my attention was the cheap Sailor “calligraphy” pen (with what I now know is the fude nib). Not overnight, but slowly and gradually that pen changed the way I drew by making me more aware of the expressive line – and how a varying line width can be a large part of that expression.

1/20/15 Private Reserve Velvet Black and Fuyu-syogun inks, Pilot
Petit1 pen, Zig marker, Baron Fig Confidant notebook
Shown at right are two sketches I made of the same tree in Shoreline as examples. Although I would probably typically add color to the sky and maybe more shading, I deliberately left these sketches minimal to emphasize the line work in the tree.

The one on top was made with a Pilot Petit1 fine nib fountain pen – a perfectly serviceable, extremely inexpensive and highly reliable pen with a firm, conventional nib that makes a clean, consistent line. The one below it was made with my trusty Sailor fude.

1/20/15 Iroshizuku Take-sumi and Fuyu-syogun inks, Sailor fude pen, Zig marker,
Baron Fig Confidant notebook
Which one seems to describe more about the tree and, I hope, tells more about how I was feeling about this tree? To me, its the one sketched with the Sailor fude.

Perhaps the difference between the two sketches is subtle, but it’s a huge difference to me – in the way I feel while Im sketching. And so the search began.

(To be comprehensive in my documentation, before I get to the nib search itself, I’ll mention here two other contenders among variable-line width drawing instruments that I’ve discussed previously: the twig (surely able to produce the most variable – if also unpredictable – line width) and western calligraphy nibs. I’m happy with the twigs I currently use, and if I’m not, I can always go out to the backyard and pick up a few new ones, so I’m not including twigs in this epic search. Likewise, I currently own as many calligraphy nibs as I’ll probably ever consider for sketching, and I’m not fond of them for that purpose anyway, so I’m not searching for more.)
Two other variable-line-width sketching tools I've tried:
Above, a Lamy Vista fitted with a 1.5mm calligraphy nib;
below, a twig from my backyard -- the most variable (and
unpredictable) line width I've used.

My search started innocently enough in August 2014 when I saw a photo of urban sketcher Mike Daikubara’s (MikeD) sketch kit on Flickr. I spotted a cool-looking fountain pen and asked what it was. When he responded that it was his “trusty Sailor pen,” the Sailor Transparent Profit 21 Naginata Fude De Mannen, my heart skipped a beat – the Fude de Mannen is the same type of “bent” nib as on my own Sailor pen!

Readers of this blog have heard me refer to “my trusty Sailor pen,” which has appeared on my Top 10 list both this year and last year. I absolutely love the variable line width that crazy nib can make with just a front-to-back tilt, and I’ve been amazed that its price is under $20 (under $10, including shipping, when purchased online at J-Subculture) for such a fantastic pen. My only complaint is related to its plastic body, which, though comfortably lightweight, is a bit too slender, looks cheesy and insubstantial, and posting its cap causes the trim ring on the end to fall off. Even the slightly higher-priced Sailor Profit model, which has the identical fude nib, isn’t much better. I had resigned myself to putting up with the less-than-satisfactory pen body to use this favorite of nibs.
The Sailor "calligraphy" fude pen (top) and the Sailor Profit
model with the identical fude nib.

It had never occurred to me that the same type of nib could be acquired on a better quality body. Seeing that photo of Mike’s much more handsome and higher-quality Sailor with a fude nib turned on the proverbial light bulb over my head.

I immediately e-mailed Mike for more information, and that’s when I discovered that the fude is only one of many different types of specialty nibs that Sailor makes. The fude nib itself could be purchased in a 21kt gold version that Mike said is a whole different experience from that of the steel nib I have – the same, but better. It would be the Mother of All Fude Nibs! What’s more, it turns out that Sailor sells outside of Japan only through a few authorized dealers, and the pens with specialty nibs can only be purchased through a third-party vendor. Further research led me to one such vendor,, which stocks a dazzling array of Sailors, including several models that could be custom-made with a fude nib and finessed by nibmaster Nagahara himself – a process that could take up to six months. My grail was still far away but in sight! All I had to do was order.

But a funny thing happened on my way to the checkout button. . . (stay tuned next week).


  1. You're killin' me... I want to know now!

    Honestly Tina, I love how thorough you are and appreciate all the examples you post. I have a cheap Duke 209 with a fude nib... I love it but I certainly need to work with it as much as you do yours. Thanks!

  2. I'm on the edge of my seat...and the conclusion is going to take HOW LONG???


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