Monday, November 2, 2015

Mad Mod for the Pilot Parallel

10/31/15 Pilot cartridge ink and modified 3.8mm
Pilot Parallel pen, Stillman & Birn Alpha
 (young Arctic fox sketched from photo)
Several months ago I kept hearing about “folded nib pens” in the blogosphere. It’s not a new concept – I made one out of a cut-up Coke can years ago as part of an experimental ink-drawing class – but it seemed to be getting renewed attention, especially among sketchers in Singapore.

Seeing those cool sketches online made with huge, splashy marks, I was tempted to dig up my old folded nib pen (though I recall it being very clumsily made) or make a new one, but one thing stopped me: No matter how much fun it was, it would still require a bottle of ink to dip into, and that’s always a messy prospect for sketching on location. (Just carrying the ink in my bag is a risky endeavor.) I decided to forget about it.

Fast-forward to last week, when a link on Parka Blogs led me to instructions on Andrew Tan’s blog for modifying a Pilot Parallel’s nib to mimic the shape of a folded nib. In his first attempts, documented on video by Parka, Andrew used a Dremel to grind away at his nib, with mixed results. He used that experience, though, to find another solution – one that turned out to be much simpler and easier.

The top green pen is the 3.8mm Parallel
in its unmodified state.
All it takes is sandpaper – a fairly coarse grit for the initial shaping and then a fine micromesh (used by nibmeisters to finesse fountain pen nibs) to polish the edge to smoothness. I raided Greg’s workbench and found a sheet of 220-grit for the coarse phase and put some elbow grease to my 3.8mm Parallel. Surprisingly, the shaping took a lot less time than I would have expected (and I don’t have much patience for stuff like this) – maybe 15 minutes. As Andrew recommended, I spritzed the sandpaper with water as I sanded. I didn’t have any micromesh at that time, so I used 400-grit to polish it.

After flossing out debris from between the nib’s parallel blades
My newly modified 3.8mm Parallel nib.
(using the “flosser” that came with the pen), I inked it up. Though it felt rougher than most pens, I was amazed that his trick worked beautifully. While an unmodified Parallel has interesting wide and narrow strokes, there’s nothing in between. The modified nib now has a somewhat unpredictable, wide-ranging line variation very similar to a folded nib pen (though not as wide, of course), with all the portability and convenience of a fountain pen!
Line variation in the modified 3.8mm Parallel nib.

I took the mod Parallel out for a spin Friday at the Grand Central Arcade and was stunned by how much ink that fire hose puts out now! If I had inked it with Platinum Carbon Black or some other waterproof ink, I would have been frustrated waiting for all that ink to dry sufficiently for adding watercolors, but I deliberately inked it with a water-soluble Pilot cartridge that came with the pen. All that ink made for really dark, rich washes – exactly the effect I like when using water-soluble inks (see sketch at bottom of page of the Arcade).

10/31/15 Pilot cartridge ink and modified 3.8mm
Pilot Parallel pen, Stillman & Birn Epsilon
 (northern saw whet owl sketched from photo)
The nib’s scratchiness annoyed me, though (I could see the scratched-up surface of my 140-pound paper in places), so I knew it needed more polishing. I got a sheet of micromesh (12000 grit), again with water as Andrew suggests, and this time it took quite a bit more elbow grease to get it to a degree of smoothness that I liked. I have no idea if this is correct, but I sanded the nib against the micromesh in all the directions that I would be likely to move the nib while sketching – both up and down as well as side to side. That seemed to get rid of the roughness the most efficiently.

Getting more practice by using it to sketch animals from photographs (sorry that youve seen these critters before! I need a new source of animal photos), I realized that the modified Parallel nib operates similar to a fude nib: When I tilt it nearly upright, using its remaining corner, the line is finer; when I tilt the pen flatter toward the paper, the line gets broader. I’m accustomed to that up-and-down angling, so using it is almost intuitive.

The sketch of the owl and the young Arctic fox probably show the best range of line variation. My favorite use of the pen is laying down areas of heavy, solid ink very quickly, which results in nearly a wood-cut print look (see the fox).

Thanks to Andrew Tan’s ingenuity and experimentation, I made a fun pen even more fun with just a little sandpaper and determined elbow grease! I like it so much that I’m taking it with me to Japan. And when I get back, I’m going to try it with my 6mm Parallel, which should make an even wider stroke.

(If you try this yourself, be sure to read Andrew’s tips – he learned important things from his previous attempts.)

10/30/15 modified Parallel, Field Notes notebook
10/30/15 modified Parallel, Field Notes notebook
10/30/15 modified Parallel, 140 lb. paper


  1. I admire that you are willing to experiment...even with your pen nibs. I had seen the sketches people did at the class in Singapore and then I watched a video on how to create your own folded nib pen. I don't think I'll experiment. I like my fingers without cuts in them. lol These sketches came out really good. There is such a variety of ink lines and textures that you were able to get. Good work!

  2. The animal sketches are perfect, Tina. I wonder, though, what is gained by this modification. It seems you can get the same line width variation from a fude pen and, in fact, you lose the ability to generate the full 3.8mm line that the stock pen provides. Opinions?

    Lastly, you're working too hard with the sanding. Wood and metalworkers learn quickly that the road to sandpaper efficiency requires working through the paper grades. Going 220 -> 400 is fine and an example of what I'm talking about. A 400-grit paper will quickly remove the scratches left by the 220 grit.

    But then you jumped all the way to 12000 (which, by the way, is a completely different grit measurement system). It would have been much better to go to 600-grit and then to 1000-2000, maybe to 4000 and then do the final polishing with the 12000. Not only would you get a smoother surface, it would happen much quicker. --- Larry

    1. The modded Parallel is definitely not as smooth as my fude pens, but the widest stroke is a bit wider. I'm going to try the 6mm later -- that should be interesting! Thanks for your sanding tips! As someone who has never done woodwork or metalwork, I didn't do too bad! ;-) But I'm sure your tips will save me time on the next one.


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