A Man of Letters and Papers

What I need to learn about next are the qualities to writing paper.

In high school we hosted an exchange student from southern Germany. I was a junior and he was a senior. We got along, though he was exponentially more socially capable than I was, and classmates would come over to pick him up for parties while I stayed home. But his family was grateful to my family, and they gifted me with a stationery set. This included very thin, lightweight sheets of paper for international correspondence, which I found romantic with all its potential, and a fountain pen.

I actually did obtain an international pen pal. Our English teacher announced some kind of correspondence program and I volunteered. I wrote several letters back and forth with a nice young woman, Javorič Saša, living in what was then Jugoslavia. Later, when I went to Fort Jackson, SC, for Basic Training but before the training had started, I was pulled out of line and screened for Military Intelligence. I had been on track to operate FM radios and telephones, but someone decided I was qualified to intercept and decode foreign transmissions. I was the only trainee out of ten to pass all rounds of testing but was ultimately disqualified for no stated reason: I have to guess it was my Jugoslavian contact, as I was a very boring kid with no criminal background.

Anyway. My first fountain pen was an inexpensive Parker, suitable for someone who doesn’t know anything about writing with fountain pens. It was engraved with my name, and I retained it for several years, throughout my military career and into college. It introduced me to ink cartridges as well, the special German kind with a reservoir at one end: when you’ve run out of ink, you flick the reservoir with your fingernail and it spills a small emergency dose to help you finish what you were doing. As well, it was a special ink that came with a neutralizing pen, so you could “erase” an error before it had sufficiently dried.

I repaired my pen (badly) when it snapped in half in my pocket. Ultimately, though, I lost it in a health and nutrition course in community college. Never mind it had my name on it: whoever found it decided they needed it more than I did. Or else they knew exactly who I was—the library worker “with the bad attitude”—and tossed it in the trash.

Several years later I was wandering around Downtown and passed a jewelry store with a display case of fountain pens. Up to this point I had been very particular about pens, ballpoints and rollerballs, and learned to test them all on various notepads and notebooks to determine which showed the ink best, which pages would let the writing bleed through, drying times, etc. This was important to me because I did a lot of handwriting (though I wouldn’t practice calligraphy for over a decade later). I even learned to love a disposable fountain pen, the Pilot Varsity, at one point buying a box of them because I favored them so heavily. But in passing this jewelry store, I wondered about getting a very nice pen for myself, once and for all. I was particularly flush at that time, so I went in and asked the clerk about pens. They laid a few out, showed me how to dip them for a “wet tip,” and I got to practice a variety of nibs until I found the smoothest, most agreeable stroke.

This was a simple Cross pen. The barrel was thicker than a ballpoint by a little: I didn’t care for the large, chunky “big crayon for small fingers” grips on other, fancier fountain pens. It was a glossy, smoke-mirrored metallic with corrugated sides and a gold nib (I referred to it as “the gold Cross I bear”). I never did use the bladder cartridge it came with, as the plunger converter was entirely convenient. As for the ink, it came with some cartridges, but I did make my first pilgrimage to Lunalux, a letterpress store on the edge of Loring Park, and picked up a bottle of classically brown ink which lasted me a surprisingly long time. I probably also bought a brace of black ink cartridges, which I never worked through and which still rattle around my junk drawer to this day, 15 years later.

I have other fountain pens and much more ink. I befriended the owner of Lunalux, and frequented (until it was gently but firmly explained to me I needed an appointment) Ink, an expensive pen boutique. Friends have also gifted me these. But in much the same way we purchase a book with the mistaken notion we’re also buying time to read it, the accrual of all this stationery (blotter, sealing wax, calligraphic nibs, &c.) did not generate any obligation on the universe’s part to provide me with pen pals. I’ve written to a few, for a short while, people I picked up through Postcrossing, a postcard exchange program.

This post isn’t going to get any more interesting. Make some tea or go watch videos of disabled goats on Facebook instead.

Which brings us to today: my Cross is on its last legs but still giving its all. I have a tortoiseshell Retro 51 that broke in an interesting way, a steel Retro 51 that’s gummed up solidly in the nib, a simple Lamy Safari that won’t accept any cartridges in my possession, and two Kawecos. When I made the frenzied flight down to southern Iowa and caught the store Pendemonium 30 minutes before they closed—the owner and his daughter had no way to process my excitement at being there nor how much effort I put into it—I learned that DIY fountain pen repair was a big thing. The owner pointed me to tools and equipment for this, as well as a bowl of pens so thoroughly kaputt they were only good for practice, but I didn’t consider myself that far along the journey. Now, of course, I wish I’d made the effort and learned how to disassemble a fountain pen safely and effectively. I’ve taught myself a few things, but I’m sure I could do better.

I picked up the second Kaweco, through the friendly and well-reviewed Goulet Pens, specifically to use in marking up hardcopy when editing. I ordered some oxblood ink cartridges and specified a fine-tip nib. We’ll see how well this does. But I also ordered a notebook of Tomoe River paper, because I’d heard so many good things about it.

Now, I’ve been a fan of Moleskine almost as long as I’ve been writing. It’s a beautiful notebook, classic oft-imitated style, and I’ve bought many of their products. I’ve even decorated their plain cahiers and resold them on the Moleskine artists’ website. But the largest complaint about Moleskine is the inconsistency of its paper. The inks that can be loaded into my Kaweco bleed right through the recto face, rendering the verso unusable (except to hold stickers or something). When I read up on others’ complaints in some stationery forum, someone had promoted Rhodia as a better alternative: the paper quality was consistent from batch to batch, unlike Moleskine, and it held the ink sufficiently. The owner of Pendemonium further explained to me that Rhodia uses Clairefontaine paper, which is why it’s so great. Goulet Pens, however, clarified that although Clairefontaine purchased Rhodia 20 years ago, they are maintained as distinct brands and their paper is not the same. Clairefontaine uses 90g paper and Rhodia, 80g.

What does this mean? That’s why I need to learn about paper.

Prior to this, all I knew about paper was brightness and that it used to be made from rags. I knew about brightness due to my history as a temp worker, as certain employers had very strict regulations about the quality of paper loaded in certain drawers in the copier. This isn’t petty or trivial at all: I printed my résumé on very nice paper, and that was what got me one job, when my experience only tied me with the other applicants. As for the other factoid, I remember this antiquated English joke among rag-men who used to beg for rags, which they could sell to paper manufacturers, whose product would be used to print money on, which people could work to earn and buy clothes with, which they’d wear until they fell apart and donated to the rag-men once again.

The “g” in 90g means “grams,” short for gsm², or grams per square meter. More grams means a denser paper: 74g is cheap office printer paper, also known as 20# bond or 50# text. Above that, 90g is glossier, smoother, considered ideal density for a smooth fountain pen writing experience. Up to 120g is used for brochures and formal presentations or formal correspondence. Packing in even more grams per square meter means real density: 165g is good cardstock and 215g is appropriate for a nice business card.

What does the poundage mean, with qualifiers like “bond,” “text,” “index,” and “cover”? Print Outlet explains: the standard size for paper is considered 17″ x 22″, and one ream of paper is 500 sheets. The weight of one ream is part of its designation; the rest comes from the physical thickness of the paper. Bond stock (74g, 20#) is used for printers and copiers. Book stock can be as thin as onion skin pages (like in some Bibles) or as thick as a poster. Nice letterhead will be text stock (120g, 32#), and cover stock (260g, 100#) ranges into business cards or postcards. Bond, book, writing, text, index, &c. are weighed at different sizes, too, so 20# bond does not have the same dimensions as 20# cover. As you might guess, the measurement in pounds is a United States convention, while much of the rest of the world uses gsm².

As for brightness, Colorwise spells it out clearly: it’s just how bright a paper looks, by reflecting the blue wavelength of light. Paper that’s 95% bright will look whiter than 85% white. Fluorescent additives can make paper appear even whiter, above 100%, which can be painful to read on!

Whiteness doesn’t seem to be a factor for writing paper, among the conversations I’ve glossed over on the topic. A writer would be more interested in the paper shade, or the hue of the paper, rather than writing on a glaring sheet of brilliant snow (unless their calligraphy demands a dramatic background). No, writers seem to be more concerned with the surface of the paper, how well it allows the nib to slide around, how well it holds the ink without feathering or bleeding, and such like this.

Tomoe River 68g
Moleskine 70g/47#
Field Notes 75.2g/50#
Leuchtturm1917 80g
Rhodia 80g/21#
Clairefontaine 90g/24#

Please note these weights are not universal: some of these brands produce lesser grades for various functions, for cheap notebooks and premium merchandise. For example, as Rhodia reports, “The US made Quo Vadis Habana journals contain a 64g Clairefontaine paper in the small version, and the ‘typical’ 90g in the larger version.” I hope not too much danger would be created by considering these to be the stats for their “standard” products.

I’ll jump ahead and say that these numbers confuse me, because in recent past I’d heard wonderful things about Tomoe River paper. But how could people be so excited about this exquisite Japanese blend while complaining about the flaws of the Italian Moleskine product?

The answer to that is… I don’t know. I have my Moleskine journal and a notebook of Tomoe River paper right beside me. The Moleskine paper feels rougher by contrast and it’s a creamy yellow with gray lines. The Tomoe River is a brighter white paper… I’d guess 80%… actually, let me compare this to our office printer paper under fluorescent light.

Okay, we’re starting with Hammermill paper, 75g/20#, at 96% brightness. Tomoe River is by contrast slightly yellower and 68g; Moleskine is much creamier and 70g. Moleskine feels rougher, to my gliding index fingertip, out of all three, and I only detect a slight difference between Hammermill and Tomoe River (I could be convincing myself that I think the Hammermill is smoother). As for writing with Kaweco ink, it dries quickly on Moleskine paper but blots on the other side; it dries slower on Hammermill and slowest by far on Tomoe River, but with no bleeding or feathering at all. When it finally dries on the Tomoe River paper, the black ink is slightly shiny.

As for the quality writing experience: I can’t tell. I used the gold-plated steel nib of my new Kaweco Classic to write on all three surfaces (damn, I wish I knew where my pad of Clairefontaine is), but my tactility is not honed enough to discern a difference. They all had a pleasant drag to them, I had sufficient control over the shaping of my letters.

So there’s something else to this. Moleskine’s weight lies between Hammermill printer paper and Tomoe River specialty Japanese paper, yet it bleeds through like an annoyance, like the better and worse papers don’t. There’s another factor I don’t yet perceive. Density? Moleskine feels a thick (that is, as flimsy) as Tomoe River, and Hammermill is stiffer and stouter than either.

I still have much to learn. I haven’t even gotten into dye vs. pigment inks. On and on the rabbit hole goes…

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