Longtime readers of PW know I’m a fan of customized Edison Pens, and that I’ve also got a serious jones for urushi fountain pens. Since 2010 Brian Gray at Edison has been collaborating with Ernest Shin of Hakumin Urushi Kobo, and creating some beautiful lacquered fountain pens. Ernest, who has studied architecture and design at the University of Pennsylvania, is an up and coming urushi artist whose canvas is fountain pens. He formed Hakumin Urushi Kobo in 2010, and performs his magic on both Edison pens and vintage fountain pens.
I’ve been conflicted about sharing my beautiful pen because it’s so personal to me. At the same time, I want to demystify the process a little bit for those who might be inclined for your own personal urushi pen from Ernest. I have received Ernest’s permission to use his digital images, and to quote him where necessary.
The short story: a custom urushi Hakumin Edison is ordered through Hakumin Urushi Kobo. Payment to H.U.K. is made up-front once a design is agreed upon. Brian at Edison turns the pen for Ernest, sends you and Ernest photos of it for your approval, and then sends the raw ebonite pen to Ernest. The finished pen is sent from Ernest to you.
The long story of the ordering and design process: Since first holding an Edison Mina, I felt this pen cried out for urushi treatment. (Interestingly enough, it was Ernest and Brian also collaborated on the design of the Edison Mina.) Figuring that there would be an urushi Mina Project, I considered waiting to see what that pen would look like. Then again, I had a few thoughts about my own special urushi Mina, and pondered that. Even having seen Ernest’s gorgeous work elsewhere, there are lots of unknowns when approaching a custom pen like this. How well will the pen turn out? How will it fare with my expectations? What if it sucks? Will I love it after all? How much of an artist is this guy, anyway?
And so in early 2011 I wrote Brian asking what he felt about Ernest’s interpretive artistic skills. Brian wrote me that he “would put all faith in Ernest’s artistic abilities.” I do trust Brian, and so moved the discussion over to Ernest about a possible urushi Mina. In our email exchanges, I got a good sense of Ernest’s ability to take the few vague ideas I gave him and turn them into some good design ideas. No question about it, Ernest has an artist’s soul. Brian was right-on about his glowing words for his frequent collaborator.
My first email to Ernest was about the base cost for an urushi Mina to help me plan a budget. He answered and expressed an eagerness to answer more questions. The budget was made up knowing which cherished pens I needed to sell in order to raise the funds. (In this case, the budget came from an ebonite Extended Mina, a Bexley Submariner and a vintage Pelikan 400.) It was a small budget, but one that might get me a simple yet unique fountain pen to write with. And so, I emailed Ernest a proposed modest budget so that he would know the limitations he had to work with.
From there, I wrote Ernest of my desire for a standard size Mina, how I loved brown pens, and gave him some concepts that I hoped to see in his work. We had several exchanges about motifs for the pen. Ernest would present his thoughts and ideas, and I would respond back favorably or not to them. He recommended a shiro-tamenuri finish to complement the motif. Although we talked about a couple of other finishes I was interested as well (like a tame-midori), the shiro-tamenuri sounded like a good choice. Within a very short period of 3 or 4 days, we came to a resting place—at least for me, while Ernest mulled over what the proposed design would be. Remember in this kind of process, you too must do some mulling before responding to suggestions and proposals. A custom pen is a big commitment! The time from my first email to Ernest’s first proposal spanned over two weeks. The time from first email to final approval and payment was a little over three weeks.
When Ernest has a design, he sends it as a PDF containing a digital sketch for you to approve. The pen cannot be begun without your approval, n’est-ce pas? The design was very exciting to see: He managed to incorporate an idea we had earlier nixed, and I felt he had worked hard to give me a design that captured the essence of what I desired. Except the design was on the cap of the pen. Oh dear, could I have it on the barrel? I wanted to be able feel it or see it when pausing during writing sessions. He was agreeable to that, but felt that the pen length needed to be changed so that the design would not look off-balance. Thus, my Mina is not quite an extended or a standard, but something in between. It’s even more unique!
Important essentials: Once we settle on the design, there were two more important items about the pen to be configured: ink capacity and the fineness of the nib. I asked Brian to increase the bore of the barrel to give more ED capacity to the Mina. The standard and extended Mina normally hold 3ml of ink as ED pens. With the additional bore capacity, my Mina holds a good 4ml of ink!
I fretted quite a lot over the Mina’s nib, having been spoiled rotten by the wonder of Japanese nibs. Ultimately, Brian arranged for master nib grinder Michael Masuyama to give me a seriously smooth EF Mina nib.
The Edison Mina is a small “canvas” for maki-e. One of the reasons 99% of Danitrio fountain pens are so large is because the larger pen gives more space for the artist to work.
While the urushi and maki-e components originate from Japan, and the nib units from Germany, the fountain pen and lacquer work are done in the USA. Brian ships from Ohio. Ernest ships from New Jersey.
Timing: Ernest estimated 8 to 12 weeks to complete the pen. Due to some supply issues, he adjusted that to 16 weeks. Ultimately it took him much longer to complete: from payment to receipt the pen reached my door in about 55 weeks or 13 months en total.
The longer the wait became, the more excruciating the wait became. What if there was a problem with the design? What if I hate it? I should have nixed the turtle after all! One tries to be patient, understanding and not a pest. After all, the work takes as long as it takes, and the man has to live in between detailing pens, right? A periodic update of pen progress didn’t feel like it was in place, and so I had to occasionally pester. Ernest reassured me that he was doing his best work for my pen, and guess what? That proved to be true—the pen shows off exquisite, meticulous work. Ernest even made a stunning pen kimono by way of apologizing for the long process.
You gotta understand that if you want customization from Ernest (or Nakaya or Danitrio)… you gotta wait. It gets done when it gets done. As Miracle Max has oft been quoted,
You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.
Ernest explained to me at one point,
What had been taking so long is building up each individual shape of the hexagons and the individual pieces of the shell of the turtle. I realized after the planning stages that I would only be able to apply one or two shapes a day to make sure the lines between them are as neat as possible. This is because I am painting each shape individually with a brush, and getting those shapes close without touching requires me to let the individual shapes cure before applying the ones adjacent to it. In addition, each shape requires 2-3 layers of lacquer to build up the thickness sufficiently.
The thing is: the pen was worth the wait.
Oh yeah, all of this pen goodness came within the budget I gave to Ernest. He may have underestimated the time and difficulty of the turtle part of his design. He might have felt afterwards he should-a charged me more, eh?
Were there flaws? There were some aspects to the section and the inside of the cap lip that felt unfinished to me, and surprised me to see. The raw ebonite still clearly visible and appearing a bit rough. I’d never seen that kind of ‘unfinished’ feeling in my few Danitrios or Nakaya. However, over a short time of use, the flaws have smoothed out and disappeared.
Urushi Comparisons: People have asked me, how does Ernest’s lacquer-work compare to Danitrio’s or Nakaya’s? My answer would be kinda meaningless. I don’t know enough about urushi or maki-e. I only know what I like, right? All of these pens are hand-crafted. Danitrio’s lacquer work is my favorite, and the great artisanship stands out for me with these pens. Ernest’s work is very good yet not up to Danitrio’s or Nakaya’s. Nakaya pens are also different in look and feel, and have those wonderful Japanese made nibs, unlike Danitrio or Hakumin Edison pens. Photos can’t capture the difference. You have to hold them to feel and see.
Ernest’s work is gorgeous, and he impresses me as someone on the way to becoming a artisan master. His work is exciting and wonderful to hold.
The end result: While Ernest offered to send me photos of how the pen was progressing, I opted to wait to see the completed, finished fountain pen. The pen arrived in an Edison box, wrapped in the stunning handmade kimono Ernest had made—much nicer and sturdier than the standard kimono that came with my Nakaya and Danitrio. The shiro-tamenuri was a very dark red-black finish—except at where the cap and barrel meet giving a peak of brown—glossy and handsome. The technique for the motif, a sea turtle on a hexagon pattern, is taka-maki-e which is a raised, layered technique. Ernest’s small signature is next to the hexagon pattern. The gold maki-e sea turtle shows Ernest’s patience and his meticulous artistry. Underneath the turtle, my favorite part of the maki-e work, is the black lacquered hexagon. I don’t have the proper photographs to show you the wonderful details of the maki-e. The taka-maki-e gives a lovely, tactile aspect to the pen, exquisite and beyond my expectations.
From Ernest, here’s his description of his work on my Mina:
The base is shiro-tamenuri, which is the white lacquer (shiro-urushi) with natural colored translucent lacquer applied over it.
The motif is all taka maki-e. The hexagons were done by sprinkling charcoal powder into the painted motif to increase the height. Once there was sufficient height, I covered it over with black lacquer and polished it. The turtle was first done with charcoal powder but later with gold powder for the visible surface. To increase the height in taka-maki-e, the motif is first painted with urushi, then sprinkled with charcoal powder. Once cured, another layer of urushi is applied, cured then lightly sanded to smoothen the raised parts. This is repeated as many times as necessary to gain the height desired. Once the height is achieved, the decorative layers (in this case, black urushi and gold maki-e) are applied to the raised surface.
Inked up as an eyedropper, my pen weighs 26g capped and 19g uncapped. (Remember—there’s no way to post the Mina pen.) The lacquer and maki-e work do add significant weight to the pen. A normal inked-up Extended Mina weighs 23g capped and 16g uncapped.
The pen sports a gold single-tone 18K JoWo #5 nib with no Edison logo. The F nib was turned into an EF nib by Michael Masuyama. Brian gave the original EF a go, but it was far too, uh, scratchy. In fact, Mr. Masuyama (aka MikeItWork) now grinds all customized EF or smaller nibs for Edison Pens. This is a great service that Brian has brought to Edison Pens. Michael Masuyama does superb work, and I’ve used his nib services many times over.
My Hakumin Edison Mina combines my favorite pen things: a sweet, smooth EF nib, a large ink-tank, Edison design, and inspiring urushi and maki-e artisanship. A pen made for writing, it’s put to work every day. The pen will continue to get a good work out as I attempt NaNoWriMo in November. I’m looking forward to finding out how many pages the pen will write before it needs refilling.
Don’t be afraid! Even if you only have a vague idea of a possible customized Hakumin pen, don’t hesitate to contact Ernest. You don’t have to have a fully formed idea—or even any idea according to one pen friend of mine—in order for him to help you. He’s really good at getting you to a pen design you will
like want. Of course, you don’t need to customize your Hakumin pen. You can peruse Ernest’s website and select from a variety of urushi Edisons.
- Update 2016 Apr 11: Making of a Grail Pen—Hakumin Urushi Kobo Edison Skinny Pearl Kyokko, Penucopia
- Caring for Lacquerware, Hakumin Urushi Kobo, home of Ernest Shin’s urushi pens
- 2014 Jun, Okami’s Blog, Featured Pen – Hakumin Urushi Negoro Kuro-Tamenuri
- 2012 Sep, FPN Review forum—a different Hakumin Edison Mina in shiro-tamenuri
- 2012 Sep, FPN Pen Turning forum, Collaboration in progress: Dan Furlano’s Samurai Mina
- 2011 Sep, FPN Review forum—Hakumin Edison Pearl with raden
- 2010 Oct, FPN Review forum—Edison Urushi Pearl LE (comparison photo with a Nakaya Piccolo)
- 2012 May, FPN Writing Instruments forum, Edison Morgan Heki-Tamenuri Urushi Clipless Bulb-FIller
- 2012 Jan, Okami’s Blog, Featured Pen – Hakumin Koboku Shiage (Edison Pearl)
- 2011 Apr, FPN Writing instruments subforum, Extended Mina in kuro-tamenuri
- 2010 Aug, FPN Market Watch, Hakumin Urushi – Japanese Lacquer Pens (Ernest’s original announcement about his company)
- Edison Urushi Project Limited Edition (LE) collaborations:
- Hakumin Kobo Urushi, Ernest Shin
- Edison Pen, Brian Gray
A Bit of Reading about Urushi
- 2005 Apr, Stylophiles Magazine, “Danitrio Tamenuri Urushi”
- Kyoto Visitor’s Guide, “Urushi Lacquer”
- Urushi Kobo, “History” (Note: this is not Hakumin/Ernest’s site)
- Architonic, “Urushi—Japanese Lacquer in Modern Design”
- 2007 Apr, From FPN, Basic types of maki-e
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