Hi Pen Fans...
I am creating a new blog entry that will kick off a series of articles that I have written.
Throughout my time running my little business, I often find that the same questions come up time and again. With this in mind, I am going to start a series of articles that will address common questions, misconceptions, trends, or whatever is on my mind.
These articles will be organized under my blog entries, and also under the Articles page.
So without further ado...here's the first of many articles to come....feel free to comment or ask about more information...
The “Feel” of Materials
A Guide to Selecting a Pen Material
Brian Gray, Edison Pen Co.
I wanted to put together a quick article that may help pen consumers when it comes to selecting a material for a pen.
Obviously, when it comes to looks, this is easy. Most pens that you see on today’s websites and catalogs are photographed very well, and the appearance of the material is exactly what you will get.
However, I wanted to address some of the differences in pen materials based on feel. This is something that you simply cannot experience without having the pen in your hand, which is not always possible.
The whole reason for this article stemmed from a thought that I had a while back….
Could the ‘feel’ of a material just be in our heads? Some people say that ebonite feels "warm", and I agree. But what exactly does this mean? It's really hard to put into words. Celluloid feels a little bit "greasy". I also agree. However, is that in our heads because we know what the pen is made from? If someone handed me a cellulose acetate pen blindfolded, and told me that it was celluloid, I think that I would know it to be false, but would I?
Before getting started, I want to discuss the four categories of materials that I will refer to in this article, and also their terminologies. In my mind, there are four general categories of pen materials. The categories for the purposes of this article are as follows….Standard Acrylics, Cellulose Acetate, Celluloid, and Ebonite. Obviously, there are materials such as casein, wood, bakelite, and others. I will not cover these materials, as they are a bit rare in my use.
Also, since this can be confusing, I want to clarify my terminology. Cellulose Acetate is NOT Celluloid. When I refer to cellulose acetate, I am referring to a plastic that often gets confused with celluloid. When I refer to celluloid, I am referring to “true” celluloid, which is made from cellulose nitrate. Also, ebonite is the same as vulcanite and hard rubber.
Also, I will say that my category of Standard Acrylics is a bit of a catch-all for all acrylics, polyesters, plastics, and blends that do not fall into the other three categories. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand the chemical differences between many of these “Standard Acrylics”. I was told the following by a good friend who is well versed in plastic chemical composition…
“Probably the best comment I can add is that the names of plastic pen blanks that are used by distributors are often used incorrectly. If you don't test them, then you really don't know. There are so many possible variants and combinations that in the end it only matters what it looks like and feels like.” -Bruce R.
With this in mind, I feel that the four categories that I’ll use for the purpose of this article will suffice. On with the article…
I have four Pearl pens in my studio. All have identical finishes, all identical in shape so that I wouldn't be able to tell them apart in my hand, eyes closed.
One was standard acrylic, one was cellulose acetate, one was celluloid, and one was ebonite.
I closed my eyes, and had my wife mix them up. I went through five rounds of trying to identify them.
(Also - the doors and windows were open in the shop on this beautiful Ohio day, so I couldn't smell them, and didn't bring them to my nose to try to. Obviously, smelling certain materials would be a dead give-away)
The celluloid was easy, and I got it every time. The ebonite was also easy, and I never missed it. The cellulose acetate and standard acrylic were inconsistent enough to not give a conclusion.
I'm not surprised that I couldn't tell cellulose acetate and standard acrylic. They are similar in my mind, and don't really offer any significant advantages over each other, in my opinion. They are just simply good acrylics.
But I nailed the celluloid and ebonite every time.
So what do they really feel like? I'm no poet, but I'll try my best.
Celluloid is the smoothest of them all. It does feel a little "greasy", or "wet". When you rub it, it gives very little resistance. I would guess that it has the least porous surface if you looked under magnification. This may explain the feel. My fingers glide across it. Oily, greasy, wet, and very smooth. The best feeling of the four to me.
Ebonite is very very smooth (almost as smooth as celluloid), but a different feel than celluloid. Perhaps on a very very small scale, it "gives" just a little more than the others, due to the rubber aspect. It feels warm, smooth, but not as "slick" as celluloid. It doesn't feel like plastic. Plastic in my mind feels hard and maybe brittle. It feels soft, not brittle at all, and has some give, on a teeny tiny scale.
Standard Acrylics and Cellulose Acetate feel the same. They are very smooth, feels like plastic, but the difference is the slickness. It resists rubbing a little bit more. Also, I can't describe this well, but there's no give...feels firmer than the others.
So what have I learned? Well, I set out to learn if all this was really in my head. By all means, the answer is no. I nailed celluloid and ebonite every time. I couldn't pick the cellulose acetate or the standard acrylic from each other, but I knew that they were not celluloid or ebonite.
To me, celluloid is the best material out there. From a maker's standpoint, it's soft enough to machine like a dream, but will not deform during threading or assembly. It holds small threads wonderfully, especially considering that it is relative soft when being cut. However, it is limited. It’s hard to find. But when you can find some, the colors and depth are always outstanding. Also, celluloid has a very distinct camphor smell. Think Vick's Vap-O-Rub. To me, this is not an offensive smell. I like it a lot. Hands down the best, in my opinion (when you can find it!). However, as of writing this, there is a new company holding some very promising stock that is almost ready for distribution.
American Art Plastics is the company mentioned above. This is the only place to get celluloid material that I’m aware of, with the exception of private sellers.
One note about celluloid that is simply more anecdotal than of real importance…it is flammable. If you get a flame near it, it will not instantly go up in flames, but if exposed to a flame long enough, it will go up!
Watch a little experiment that I did with a faulty celluloid barrel. (if the video will not play, or if you get redirected, press the "reload" button)
Now what does this flammability really mean to a pen consumer? Nothing really. Any situation that would put a celluloid pen anywhere near ignition would certainly be abusive, regardless of the material.
Ebonite is a great material, as well. The sunlight and oxidation issue can be a setback, but if taken care of and loved, ebonite pens will last longer than any of us, keeping a great color and finish. It feels totally different, and it's warmth and softness needs to be experienced to appreciate. It's also a relatively soft material that machines beautifully, although a penmaker does need to take smaller cuts in threads to avoid minute tear-out. In spite of this, it holds tiny threads very well, also. The smell is sulfuric, which some people are offended by, but I enjoy it. The smell is just part of the experience, and goes away after time if you don't like it. The pattern and color palette of ebonite can be limited, but the palette and patterns available are unlike any acrylic or celluloid. There are some new companies offering some pretty special stuff as of late.
The Cellulose Acetate and Standard Acrylics are perfectly fine materials. If Celluloid is an A++, Ebonite is an A+, then the Standard Acrylics and Cellulose Acetates are an "A". They machine nicely, and are a little harder. They cut clean, and take a great polish. The feel is not that same as the other two, but the advantages are the nearly infinite variations of patterns, colors, swirls, pearlization, shimmer, etc. They are widely available in any pattern and color that you can dream up, and will hold up long term just as well as any other material.
So is the feel of various pen materials all in my head? Nope. Not regarding the best materials. That's why they are in demand.
Brian Gray, Edison Pen Company
Please note - this, along with all of my articles, is based on my personal experiences and is not intended to be authoritative. If you feel that something is factually incorrect, I’m always striving for the most accurate information to give and receive from the pen community. I welcome emails and comments regarding.