As a hobby or a side enterprise, some people like to make pens. Some folks even make their own pen blanks, the material used to make the pen bodies. Given another life, I might like to make pens, and blanks, and my own inks, learn urushi techniques, and even grind up some nibs into stubs and italics. I don’t have the time nor the will this time around, and so my hobby is not making, collecting or repairing pens, but writing about the ones I love, from time to time.
Spend some time in pen turning forums, and you discover how many, many people like to make pens, from rollerballs to fountain pens. Some of them will even take commissions to do the odd pen project that a more established pen maker can’t necessarily take on for you. There are kit pen makers, and then there are kitless pen makers. What? A kit pen comes with all the parts you need such as the nib, section, clip… and the pen maker turns the barrel and cap, and then assembles all the pieces parts. Some very handsome pens are made from kits, although they lean toward a heavier pen than I would like. A kitless fountain pen means the pen maker turned not only the barrel, the cap, but also the section part of the pen that the nib unit fits into. Sections are not so easy to make, and require some practice and skill to turn them consistently. At least so I have observed from my chair.
Enter kitless pen maker Shawn Newton. It’s hard not to like Shawn. Even harder to not support what he does. (Hey, I tried!) As Shawn tells his own story, without someone providing him private financial assistance, he would not have graduated from college, and become a teacher.
As a teacher and enterprising artist living in Arkansas, Shawn has been making fountain pens for only a short time. In that time, he’s learned a great deal about making pens, and makes kitless pens of both his and his customers’ designs. He’s also freely shared what he’s learned along the way: on YouTube, in the pen forums, and on his website. More importantly, perhaps, is his desire to use his pen-making to not only provide students with fountain pens, but to raise money to help kids on their way to college.
And so down the Rabbit hole go I… or, rather, down the deep, dark forest path, to add yet another fountain pen to the tiny hoard.
I’ve many fond memories of Redwood forests, and banana slugs along the trails. This spotted acrylic at one time called “Chocolate Banana Chip;” now referred to as Astoria Acrylic Resin. This acrylic reminded me a bit of my western home state, of walks in the Redwood Forest, and seeing Banana Slugs across the path:
You never know where your inspirations come from, ay? Turns out there’s a whole other reason to get a pen. Feeling sentimental, and— more importantly—wanting to support Shawn and his mission, I asked him to make me one.
The Newton Pen website makes it easy for you to pick out options for a custom pen. New additions to the experience include pen wraps made by his wife, and incredible pen boxes made by a pal. If you’re confused about the options, though, you can email Shawn and he’ll help you out.
I wanted a pen that said “I was made by Shawn Newton,” because Shawn is a unique individual. I picked a model I thought would exemplify Shawn-ness. Let’s see, “Shawn, make it clip-less, in the shape of that grassy acrylic thingie you made, and can I please have an ink window?” Shawn’s enthusiasm, and positive nature make him a lot of fun to exchange emails with.
The model I ended up with is now called “The Gibby.” Along with “The Gibby,” you’ll also find “The Elizabethan.” Those names have been picked out by his students! How appropriate, ay? He still has a few plain descriptors, like “Seamless,” “Straight,” and “Pocket.” His website (like Shawn) evolves, and those plain descriptors may change over time.
Shawn’s fountain pens use JoWo nibs, the de facto standard among fountain pens these days. I decided on a steel F nib. Shawn’s nibs also come engraved with “N P.” (My nib pre-dates this new feature.) Shawn checks each nib before he sends your pen to you. He’ll tune the nib to your preferences (you like it dry or gushing?), and he can even grind you a stub or italic. Me, I just asked for “medium” flow. (I say “medium” in restaurants, too.)
Because Shawn has a job—he’s a teacher, remember? And a family, and all that good stuff, ordering from Shawn is a “if you don’t mind waiting process.” He keeps a work queue, putting orders in as they are received. So your wait may be short or long, depending on how many pens are ahead of yours, and what non-pen events are going on. You know your pen’s coming because out of the blue you hear from Shawn, with maybe a photo or two of your pen in progress. (Did I mention that Shawn’s a good communicator? Not everyone is, ya know.)
While Shawn has pen models you can choose from, he also takes custom orders, and may even take on the demands of making a pen to someone’s specifications. He’s incredibly willing to experiment with ideas and forms. He likes to learn how to do new things, and even took on the challenge of urushi application for awhile. (He’s sold a few urushi pens, yet the time, attention, and perhaps perfection required has caused him to table those requests for the time being.) Shawn also can engrave his pens, and his examples remind you that he’s an artist, first and foremost. The photo below is not my pen (*pout*), and is used with Shawn’s permission:
Once my order was complete, the pen took about two months to be completed. Not bad, ay? The pen came clothed in a sweet pen wrap made by Shawn’s wife.
The Slug is small enough to carry around in my jeans front pocket. (Yes, I’m one of those people.)
When I hold this little pen, I am transported to a place in my mind where I feel the soft forest floor beneath my feet; engulfed in the special silence you find among the Redwoods. Banana slugs, while not appetizing perhaps, are a part of the necessary composting of that wonderful forest material. These little critters have always been part of the joy for me, hiking in the Santa Cruz mountains, Muir Woods, Point Reyes, or, well, any other place Pacific Coast Redwoods live.
After using the pen awhile, and trying to figure out where it fit into my pen rotation, I decided the Slug would make a great travel pen. It’s compact size and ED capacity give the Slug an edge over a couple of other pens I’ve got in my arbitrary “travel” category.
While I like to throw the Slug in my pocket, it needed a different cap for traveling—one with a clip to secure the pen to a bag or a pocket. Shawn turned the second cap around in a couple of weeks, in time for a long bit of traveling I had coming up.
I like the shape of the clip a lot, and it works well to keep the Slug secured. It’s kind of fun having two caps for one pen, and I alternate between the caps a lot. Perhaps I should have gotten the silver flat clip to go with the steel nib, ay? At one time, I was using my orphaned Platinum #3776 F nib in the Slug, and so thought a gold-plated clip was appropriate. (The Platinum nib is back in my Danitrio Cumlaude which, uh, asked for its return.)
I confess a little bias against steel nibs, as I often find them rather boring nib to paper. I’m glad, though, I’ve returned to the Slug’s original steel nib. It’s quite pleasurable to write with.
The Banana Slug gets used for note taking, letter writing, and it gets to go on trips, too. My core writing pens stay at home when I’m traveling. No fighting has broken out amongst them in the pen box.
Newton Banana Slug Stats
Update 2016 Apr 20: Nib has been upgraded to JoWo 18K Fine. Modifed by Deb Kinney into a .5mm CI.
- Smooth, steel F nib tuned by Shawn for “medium” flow (not too dry—not too wet!)
- Holds a little under 4ml ink (as ED)
- Length nib to barrel end: 12.5cm
- Length closed with clip-less cap: 12.9cm
- Length closed with clip cap: 13.2cm
- Weight uncapped and inked: 14gr
- Weight capped and inked: 20gr (cap with no clip) / 22gr (cap with clip)
Thanks, Shawn! The world is a better place for people like you in it.
- Shawn’s photos of my Banana Slug
- Shawn’s YouTube channel
- Shawn’s Newton Pens
- International Association of Pen Turners
- A tiny list of cool pen makers whose pens I don’t own
- The Charismatic Banana Slug, National Parks Traveler, 2010 Mar 22
- Teachings from the Banana Slug, Creativity for the Rest of Us, 2011 Apr 13
- A Thriving Community of Banana Slugs, NY Times, 2012 Mar 28