Mechanical pencils

ONLINE All Wood Marone

Last time I went to my local pen shop, Platts of Preston, I noticed that they started selling pens from ONLINE, a German pen manufacturer. Unfortunately the shop sold only ballpoint pens from ONLINE and the owner told me that he cannot get  ONLINE’s mechanical pencils and fountain pens. These ballpoint pens made me aware of ONLINE’s (relatively) new Top.Line range, which was introduced in 2006.

ONLINE is a fairly new manufacturer of pens, established in 1991 and focussing on “design-oriented writing instruments for students”. Even though the headquarters are in Neumarkt, in the Upper Palatinate region of Bavaria, it is next to Franconia (previously mentioned in the Eisen 402 post), only about 30 miles southeast of the headquarters of Staedtler, Faber-Castell, Schwan-STABILO and Lyra. In my opinion ONLINE is not a very good name for any kind of company as it creates confusion and makes searching for information difficult, but I can also see the pun (“on line”), related to pens if that was intended, and I can see that in the early Nineties the word “online” might have sounded extremely modern, representing a modern image for the targeted potential customers: students.

Last time I bought pens from ONLINE was in the Nineties. I liked the concept of the pens I bought back then: Rollerballs that can be refilled with standard ink cartridges, but after a few days of use the paint of some of the plastic parts started to wear off. A few years later I left Germany and went to the UK and in nearly ten years I have never seen ONLINE pens in any shop in the UK. The UK is not listed on ONLINE’s retailer web page, so I assume ONLINE pens are still not officially available here, but are imported by a distributor (who seems to import ballpoint pens from the Top.Line range only).  There are about 20 countries, including the USA, where pens from ONLINE seem to be available. As mechanical pencils from ONLINE are not available in the UK I asked my mother to buy me one and send it. It was bought from Schreibwarengeschäft Buntstift in Volkach, Germany and is the All Wood Marone mechanical pencil from the Business Line range, which is part of the Top.Line Collection 2009.

Every year ONLINE seems to launch a new Top.Line collection and Young.Line collection. The pens from the Young.Line collection are made in Germany. I did contact ONLINE to find out where the pens from the Top.Line collection are manufactured, but unfortunately I did not receive a reply.

The mechanical pencil is triangular-shaped and looks fantastic. The wood is matt and feels quite smooth. According to ONLINE’s web site it is Wawa wood. Coles of London write on their web site that this wood is

“cultivated on plantations on the Ivory Coast. The wood is processed in Italy; the first-class treatment prevents the wood from ripping due to dry air or swelling because of high humidity. One cubic meter of crude Wawa wood costs 700 €.”

Both, the Marone and the Nero version of the All Wood ballpen and mechanical pencil seem to be made using Wawa wood. I paid just under € 30 (42 US$, 26 GBP) for the Marone version of the mechanical pencil. It takes 0.9mm leads and the propelling mechanism is twist-based: turning the head of the pencil 120° will unlock the lead and advance it. Turning the head back will lock the lead again, so that you can write. Unlike most ratchet-based penils the All Wood there is no button that can be removed, which means that there is no eraser and if you want to refill the All Wood you have to twist the head and insert the leads through the conical sleeve. The clip is spring loaded, similar to the clip of the Lamy 2000 (reviewed at Dave’s Mechanical Pencils). The head of the All Wood is a bit wobbly, in its locked state more so than in the unlocked state. Even though I find this a bit annoying this does actually not make a difference when you are writing, as your fingers are holding the pencil’s head.

The spring loaded clip

Altogether a fantastic looking pen. Personally I prefer ratchet-based pencils or at least pencils with some form of built-in eraser, but the Wawa wood looks so good that it compensates for all the shortcomings (wobbly, no eraser) of this pencil.

Advantages:

+ Wood looks fantastic

Disadvantages:

– Head is a bit wobbly
– No eraser

Slimsy Box Black

Price and exchange rates: January 2010

The Kuru Toga – a disappointment

Introduction:

Kuru Toga UK packaging - front
Kuru Toga UK packaging - front

The Kuru Toga is a mechanical pencil from uni / Mitsubishi pencil. In Japan it has been available for more than a year. The plastic version is now officially distributed in the UK and other countries, while the successor, the new Kuru Toga pencil, is already available in Japan.

The Kuru Toga’s unique selling point is that its lead rotates which keeps the tip sharp when writing. When pressing the lead against the paper to write or when lifting it the gears of the “Kuru Toga Engine” revolve, rotating the lead slightly.

After reading a review of the Kuru Toga on Dave’s Mechanical Pencils I was really impressed and quite excited when I saw that the Kuru Toga is now officially available in the UK. Cultpens.com sells this mechanical pencil in many different colours for £ 7.99 (~ € 8.90). I bought mine from Ryman, a High Street chain, for £ 4.99 (~ € 5.50), but unfortunately they only seem to stock the black version.

Packaging:

My first surprise, when I saw the packaging, was that the advantages of the Kuru Toga Engine were not advertised as much as I expected. Somehow I expected this pen to stand out from the other pens on the shelf, but this wasn’t the case at all. For the designers who created the packaging the Nano Dia leads seem to be nearly as big a selling point as the Kuru Toga Engine. If you are in marketing or advertising it might be difficult to resist telling the potential customer about the “400 million nano diamonds” in each lead. Yes, nano is a buzzword (see PhD Comics) and diamonds sound very precious, but instead of just throwing numbers and cool words at customers I would have preferred an explanation why having 400 million nano diamonds in a lead is an advantage and how that helps to deliver super strength and a smooth, crisp line.

Kuru Toga
Kuru Toga

Problem:

Using the Kuru Toga for writing was a big disappointment. The pressure I exert when writing “normally” does not seem to get the lead to rotate. I could of course press the pencil down harder to get the gears to revolve and consequently the lead to rotate, but that is not how I would normally write. Real world use has shown that when I write in a hurry I use more pressure and the lead will rotate, but the lead should rotate whenever I write,not only when I write in a hurry. When using more pressure the lines tend to get wider anyway and I got better results, i.e. thinner lines, by rotating the pencil in my hand.

Kuru Toga UK packaging - reverse
Kuru Toga UK packaging - reverse

Analysis:

Two possibilities come to mind when looking at the problem of the non-rotating lead.

  • It might be a substandard pencil, and other Kuru Toga Engines work with less pressure. This would would mean that there is a quality control problem at uni / Mitsubishi pencil. This is probably not the case.
  • I might not press the pencil down hard enough to get the gears to revolve. This could be because of many years of using fountain pens (which do not need a lot of pressure) and a relatively infrequent use of ballpoint pens (which need much more pressure). When I went to school you had to write with a fountain pen and today I still like to use fountain pens and avoid ballpoint pens. My wife, for example, is using much more pressure when writing.

Conclusion:

The Kuru Toga has been a disappointment for me, as the lead is not rotating, eliminating the advantage of this pencil while the disadvantages of this pencil remain:

  • the relatively high price for a mechanical pencil compared to similar pens made from plastic …more than twice the price of a Rotring Tikky, which is usually £ 1.99 (~ € 2.20), but to be fair: the Tikky does not come with a pack of replacement leads.
  • and the inability to fill in as many spare leads as in some other mechanical pencils (maximum 4 – 6 leads, depending on length and whether you try hard to squeeze them in)

It is difficult to predict, but my guess would be that the market share of pencils using the Kuru Toga engine or similar mechanisms will increase, because they are great of they work for you. On the other hand most mechanical pencils still do not even have a retractable sleeve and most consumers do not really seem to care but buy what is available and cheap.

Assuming you usually write in a Western language and use joint writing a lot (I do) the lead will also not rotate as much as it would if you use block letters or South-East Asian characters ..unless you apply different levels of pressure.
On a positive note the eraser of the Kuru Toga seems to be working really well, and if your writing pressure exceeds the pressure necessary to set the Kuru Toga Engine off this might be the pencil for you. The rotating lead is a great idea, but the implementation does not seem to do this idea justice. I think I will give my Kuru Toga to my wife. She is using much more pressure when writing…

Prices and exchange rate: November 2009