The hardest thing for me about being a stationery enthusiast in the modern world isn’t other people’s insistence that everything “be done digitally.” Frankly, I’m in a pretty technologically backwards profession, and my office is full of technophobes. Using a paper planner isn’t something that’s going to cause you to stand out. No, the quality of the office supply-closet stationery probably gives me the most grief. I’d venture to say that it even impairs productivity at times. Paper is the worst offender. Nothing offers a worse writing experience than a cheap legal pad that can barely handle Bic ballpoint ink. Sure, I bring my own notebooks to work, but at the same time, I go through so much scratch paper - for things like useless meeting notes that I can't put in a notebook because they need to be shredded, electronic documents that I need to print and edit, etc. - that supplying all of that myself would create a financial burden.
So how do I deal? I know nothing about my situation is unique, so I thought it might be helpful to do a quick post discussing how I address “cheap paper problems.” Honestly, you really only have three options:
Don't Use Fountain Pens (or Rollerballs)
I know, heresy, right, but there are certain very low grades of recycled copy paper and legal pads that simply won’t take fountain pen ink at all. Other liquid-ink pens will often fare the same, so if you’re working on this type of paper I’d recommend going with a hybrid ballpoint pen or a pencil. Lately, I’ve been favoring the Pilot Acroball, Uniball Jetstream, or a classic retro Bic Clic or Bic Crystal. On the pencil side, my favorite remains the Palomino Blackwing 602 (or another Blackwing based on that graphite core.)
Choose the Right Nib and Ink
If the idea of using a ballpoint simply isn't something you can live with, choose your fountain pen ink carefully, and match it with the right nib. I generally use nothing broader than a medium nib at work because otherwise it applies too much ink to the page and leads to excessive feathering and bleed-through. Here are some of the fountain pen inks that I've found work best on cheap paper:
- Sailor Pigmented Ink. By far, the best cheap paper ink is Sailor Kiwa-Guro Nano Black. Sailor's pigmented ink is more expensive than Sailor’s regular "Jentle" line, but there's very few papers it won't work well on. It even functions in a Moleskine! There’s also a blue-black pigmented ink, Sei Boku, which I haven’t tried. Some people worry about this ink clogging, since it contains particles of pigment, but I've never had an issue with it. It's made for fountain pens - just don't go months without flushing your pen.
- Sailor Jentle Ink. Sailor makes some of the best fountain pen inks out there, and one of the reasons I like the line so much is the way the inks handle thin copy paper. For this reason, 75% of what I use on a daily basis at work is Sailor ink. In addition to their regular line, check out the special (and more expensive) colors made for Japanese retailer Bungubox.
- Montblanc Ink. Montblanc’s standard inks perform very well on office paper, so they also get a lot of use at my desk. The performance of some of the special or limited edition inks may vary. For example, I found the new Ultra Black limited edition ink very wet, with a lot of bleed-through on cheaper paper.
- Iron Gall Inks. Rohrer and Klingner's Salix and Scabiosa, as well as KWZ's entire line of Iron Gall inks, are another good option. You do need to remember to clean your pens out frequently, however, as iron gall can corrode stainless steel and some other metals. The blue-black inks from Pilot and Platinum have some iron gall content, and are other good performers.
- Other “pen company” inks. Pelikan, Pilot, Sheaffer, Waterman, Lamy, Parker, etc. A good rule of thumb is that if the ink is a “basic” color (i.e., blue, black, blue-black, red) and is made by a “boring” old-line pen company, it probably will perform at least decently on cheap paper. Larger pen companies want to sell their pens to a broader market, and they assume the majority of their customers are writing on garbage recycled office paper. This “rule” shouldn’t be applied to the “wilder” colors like green, purple, etc., since the dyes used in those inks can cause performance to vary.
Stay away from highly saturated inks like Noodlers, Private Reserve, Levenger, etc. Though there is some variability across the brand, these inks typically require heavier, coated paper like Clairefontaine or Rhodia to perform their best.
Supply your own paper.
For cost reasons, mainly, I refuse to go all-in and import ALL of my own supplies, but I've explored some of the cost effective options beyond Rhodia, Clairefontaine, and Leuchtturm. If your situation allows, or if you simply can’t stand the thought of raiding the supply closet any longer, try these:
- Sugarcane Paper (Staples Sustainable Earth and similar brands). Traditionally this has been the best budget option for fountain pen users, though lately I’ve found that the quality varies a lot between batches. It’s getting harder to find in stores.
- Tops Double Docket Gold legal pad. These are pretty good if you need a standard white legal pad, and come in packs of 2 pads at 100 sheets apiece. The problem is, they’re not THAT cheap. In fact, if you shop around for Rhodia, you may be able to get the overall cost pretty close to the cost of Tops Double Docket.
NOTE: Don’t buy the yellow Tops Double Docket if you’re a fountain pen user. For some reason, yellow legal pads don’t handle fountain pen ink very well at all. The yellow Sustainable Earth pads work OK, but the white is still better.
I hope you find this "mini guide" helpful. This past summer has been fairly busy for me at work, and on countless occasions I've found myself sitting in a meeting with paper of dubious quality, or stuck on an airplane where the only paper I have is the pad I stole from the last conference room. You could say that I've had way to much time to think about these things.
Please share this post with anyone else who might find it useful. I plan on pinning this to the "Best of" Lists on the front page, and will try to update it periodically along with my other guides and lists.
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