A few months ago I reviewed an excellent custom pen I had commissioned from John Sanderson at Silverburl Customs. That pen is still an almost daily driver for me and remains a firm favourite. I have now added to that pen a custom nib of my dreams (a 14kt Jowo platinum plated fine stub) to go with the pen and all I can say is it has elevated an already lovely pen into something truly special! I’ve previously written a bio about John and won’t repeat that here – but what I can say is that his pens demonstrate the skill borne of a life of engineering and decades of pen making. This makes owning a Silver Burl pen a little bit special, interesting and often a bit of a conversation starter when I show people my pen collection (via video / zoom, these days!)
After a few conversations during the commissioning process, John was kind enough to send me a series of pens he had made recently, as a kind of smorgasbord of his talents for design in shapes, sizes, materials and silverwork. As well as pens turned from blanks by Diamondcast and Kirinite and marbled ebonite, John supplied 3 pens from his own blanks made from wood burls and encapsulaed pine cone resins as well as an “abalone” material made to his own recipe by Paul Buckley. In all the pens he sent, his extensive experience in metalwork was on display in the beautiful argentium trim, clips and rings. (Argentium is a form of sterling silver that replaces the 5ish% copper with the element germanium to give the silver extremely tarnish resistant properties).
I’ve not written a group review before, so if what follows is a little clunky, you’ll have to forgive me. For ease of reviewing I have grouped them into three groups by style and features.
All the pens were sent via Special Delivery and supplied in simple attractive outer boxes, with inner velvet sleeve resting on a cotton filler material. Unfussy and effective. John is planning on redesigning the boxes over the course of 2021 to increase his branding.
Overall Writing Experience
I won’t focus too much on the writing experience: all the pens take either Bock or Jowo nib units of your choice: in all cases they were excellent writers: light, well balanced, good proportions and I could live with any of them as writing instruments very happily indeed. All the caps are triple start triangular cut threads that are smooth and catch free and all uncap in around 1.5 turns so a very easy to use and enjoy.
What sets the pens apart from each other, is the sheer breadth of different details, styles and materials combined as well as the sizes and shapes.
The range of styles and materials is deeply impressive: a deep, black / purple / glittering diamondcast oversize prestige pen at one end of the spectrum, through to a beautiful, slender range of resin encapsulated wood burl and pine cone resin designs at the other and a couple of more conservative designs in the middle!
Group One: “Ray Bradbury meets F. Scott Fitzgerald”
These were to the two longest and largest pens John supplied, and for me, my favourite in terms of ergonomics. I have large hands and consequently, oversize pens work well for me generally and these had dimensions that were perfect for me! In design terms, there was much that was similar, but the differences were almost as if comparing pens from two adjoining design eras – the glitzy glamorous late 1920’s on display in the abalone pen, while the zany sci-fi 1950’s represented by the huge diamondcast design.
At a quick glance, these pens are really similar in size, though in fact the abalone pen is 1mm slimmer in barrel and section. My other initial though looking at these is they are somewhere between art-deco and mid century modern in style, the chunky very nicely executed trim rings complimenting the barrel and section materials beautifully.
The Diamondcast is deep, sparkly, lustrous – like staring into the heart of the galaxy. Its a material thats very easy to like. Its deep purple tones and sparkles all the more beautiful as a result of the excellent deep polish. The pen is definitely oversize with a large 15.5mm barrel tapering to 12mm at its narrowest and a total length of almost 155mm.
The most interesting feature of this pen was the stepped section – see the closeups. This is a marmite feature: I love how it feels and makes the pen sit in my grip and the visual appeal of this feature – but it may not suit everyone’s tastes.
The clip is also unusual: a curving surrealist, scifi design that felt straight out of a 1950’s sci-fi horror B-movie! Again – a matter of taste: for me a little too gaudy or maybe even not quite zany enough, but a very beautiful piece of metalwork, nonetheless! The pen was completed with a series of cap and barrel rings that add character and prestige.
Overall the Diamondcast feels like a 1950’s sci-fi revival in the form of a pen and is fantastic oversize pen: light enough to use for long writing, comfy for larger hands, ergonomic and impressive as well as fun.
Just as beautiful but visually simpler, the Abalone pen is stunning! It’s one of the most interesting materials i’ve seen and a truly impressive pen. Disclaimer: I loved this pen so much that I actually bought it, added a 23kt palladium BB nib and gifted it to a family member who is also totally in smitten with it!
The simpler clip design really suits the pen, and the section which is a little longer, with the flanged end is really comfy – probably one of the comfiest pens I have held. Its even longer in total length than the diamondcast pen: 140mm unposted, but slightly thinner too – 14mm barrel and 13mm section make a big difference: even in my large hands this feels a wonderful size: comfy, easy and of a similar size to another favourite pen of mine – the Narwhal Schyulkill that I will doubtless write about fairly soon.
The additional section ring and flange, and simpler clip design as well as the material itself take this pen a little further back in history in design terms: it feels like something that brings late-art deco styling from the 1930-40’s and are a perfect match for the abalone / almost mother of pearl look to the pen.
In the end these pens are both similar and wildly different: if you were to choose between them it would come down to whether you like big prestige pens like a Montblanc 149 and wish to indulge in a Ray Bradbury style 1950’s sci-fi behemoth or want something a little more “Great Gatsby” in the Abalone pen. Both are wonderful!
Group 2: “A Day in the Office”
These pens were the most conventional looking designs -and if we ever get back to working in offices again, this is where they would be most comfortable. There are interesting elements to both the pens when you look a bit closer into the details though.
Once again, to be clear: these are excellent writers; light, comfy, balanced with no elements that are uncomfortable or out of place as writing instruments. If the first two pens were old fashioned flamboyant and glitzy, these are definitely something of the 1970’s office: quiet, unassuming, unprovoking – you’ll be able to quietly enjoy these two with no distractions.
Looking first at the marbled blue ebonite pen then. The main thing to note (and I was warned about this) is that ebonite reacts quite a bit with silver and causes accelerated tarnish. This pen will need fairly regular polishing to keep it shiny and bright. The ebonite smell wasn’t too bad in spite of being recently turned either.
Being ebonite, it was warm and slightly grippy to hold – very comfy, and the deep “verdigris” blue marbling in the ebonite is subtle but really handsome. The pen is mid-sized: 14mm diammeter section, 10.5mm section with that subtle but very welcome slope / step that I like so much on the diamondcast.
The relatively wide cap clip is hand engraved – not very clear as a result, but attractive and lends a slight shabby-chic element to the design – yet again it reminds me somehow of a pen from the 1970’s even though the diamond clip imprint is all art-deco again. For me the clip is the one element in any of the pens I didn’t quite like. I felt like it could have been a little tapered, crisper in its execution and cleaner in its appearance to suit the slighter build of the pen. Of course, this being a custom pen, John would be able to to do this very easily!
The Kirinite pen, has a much finer clip with a very pretty subtle wave like engraving that is much tidier and fits the pen well. Its a well made and simple pen, with a smooth smoky black and grey streaked acrylic resin, and has a long section at 30mm as well as being quite long in its own right (158mm capped). Of the pens I am looking at here, this was the most utilitarian, with just the very attractive clip design to make it stand out. It is an easy pen to like, serious and mature in its style – perfect on a desk as something to grab at a moments notice or take into a business meeting.
Group 3: “Into the Woods”
Last up, in many ways the most interesting trio of the pens John sent me. These are combinations of wood burl and bright colour matched kirinite or aluminite diamondcast sections and caps. I feel really conflicted by these pens: a good review should be objective, but of course individuals have tastes and preferences. My tastes dont run to as bright and funky colours as these and I didn’t love the designs. However, and this is really important, these are unbelievably beautiful pens, unusual, tactile, bright and fun. They’re not to my taste, but they absolutely are amazing pens!
The pine cone and diamondcast deep green pen was tactile as well as comfortable. Holding this pen in my natural position, there was a faint tickle of rough resin in my first webspace as a wrote: this could sound like a bad thing, but it wasn’t – it left me feeling connected and reminded me of this pens natural origins. I really enjoyed the feeling. The sweet chestnut burl (pale green) and buck eye burl (redish) designs were equally comfortable, all are well executed, medium sized pens with 12-13mm barrels and 10mm sections, well balanced and felt great in the hand. For me, I think the diamondcast resins matched but if I’m honest I ended up feeling that the wood-burl resins are so beautiful I would have loved it if the whole pen and cap could have been made from just one material rather than the combination. I guess it’s just a personal taste thing.
Also of note is that the buck eye burl resin pen has a metal liner in the section of the pen, which brought the weight slightly forward in the balance, and made it very slightly more positive when writing with it. Again this is something I wan’t expecting but really felt it added to my writing experience with this particular pen.
How to sum these pens up then?
If this was an all you can eat buffet, I’d be feeling bloated but happy: there are 7 amazing pens in this group all demonstrating subtle but really important details that make it clear why custom pen commissions can be so fun. Its not just the choice of material and colour, but its in the details of how a section is shaped and sized, how weight is added or removed from a design to alter subtly the writing experience, the use of materials that contrast and compliment, the extra trim features, clip designs, finnial designs, length and breadth: you can literally have your cake and, for a price, it will be mighty fine cake too. (I means! Definitely pens!)
John’s pens typically cost around £200 depending on materials, elements and nib choices. While this means they are not cheap, I do believe this represents really excellent value. Taking the time, expertise, customisation and customer care all together, you will be receiiving a pen of a similar quality to some of the great pen producers of the world – Maiora, Delta or Visconti would be fair comparisons, but with the option to change any element you want until the end result exactly suits you. This is worth a lot more than the headline price.
Is it an accident I have compared with Italian and 20th centuary design styles? Not at all: Italian pens are about creativity, craftsmanship, flair and taking risks that work. This perfectly sums up Johns pens. He maybe from Rotherham, but you could be forgiven for thinking these pens are made by Nino Marino or even Armando Simoni.
If you get the chance to work with John or even just want to buy a great pen, you should look him and his site up; a Silver Burl custom is not a pen you will regret owning!