A Custom Commemorative Commission
Back in the summer I got my first consultant post in the NHS, as a consultant neuroanaesthetist in Plymouth. The hospital backs onto Dartmoor National Park, where I am lucky enough to also live. It was natural for me to want a pen to commemorate this professional milestone – and the choice of material was also easy: Conway Stewart, when revived in Plymouth in the 1990’s made a number of pens in resin called “Dartmoor” including the iconic Raleigh – a pen I still want but cannot find or afford!
I was able, though, to buy some Dartmoor resin blanks from the Turners Workshop, ready for a custom pen instead. I had a loose idea of a design in mind: something classically styled with domed ends, an oversize pen with a size 6 nib and some nice silver trim on the cap, barrel and section, but light enough and ergonomic for daily use. After several months of chatting with different pen makers, I was frustrated. No one I spoke to seemed confident they could deliver the silver trim I was so keen for (I don’t much like gold trim).
Then in late December, Phil Dart at Beaufort Pens told me about a pen maker I hadn’t come across – John Sanderson of Silver Burl Pens. Before I talk about the pen, I want to introduce you to John so hopefully you can see why I was so excited!
Experience and Humility
John is not well known in most of the forums and social media spaces I normally visit. This is a shame if I’m honest. Much of this I put down to the humility of a man who has engineering and craftsmanship in his blood but dislikes unnecessary fuss; he has also only recently developed his own website (although he has been selling through Etsy for quite a while), rarely advertises and doesn’t have a social media presence.
Although retired, John’s working life perfectly set him up as craftsman: a half century career in engineering in the steel industry, blacksmithing and heavy fabrication, led later to management positions in the locomotive industry before eventually starting his own business maintaining equipment in paper mills around the UK and beyond. John recalls these days fondly – and in particular taking pleasure in working on machinery at the James Croppers Mill in Kendal – one of the oldest and most prestigious mills in the UK producing some of the world’s finest paper products.
John has been making pens for more than 30 years alongside fine joinery, cabinetmaking and more. His first pen, made for his daughter, was turned from a simple stick picked up while out on a dog walk with her. He even left the tooth marks on the stick as a reminder! After that, pen making became a regular part of John’s hobbies and he frequently gave pens to family and friends as birthday or Christmas presents. Following a heart attack some years ago (now fully recovered) he even made pens for the cardiologist who cared for him – who returned to him for several more commissions later. This was the inspiration to start selling pens more widely – through word of mouth and recommendation initially and via Etsy more recently as well as at pen show and now via his own website.
Alongside designing and creating custom commissions for pens, John makes his own pen blanks from a variety of materials – his favourite being wood burrs or burls. He also uses his extensive experience and skill in metalwork to make his own trim for his pens, out of tarnish resistant argentium silver. (Argentium is a form of sterling silver that replaces the 5ish% copper with the element germanium to give the silver extremely tarnish resistant properties).
When designing a commission, John starts with a detailed conversation about the styles of pens previously enjoyed by the customer. Once he is clear about the design and style ideas, he often invites his clients to sketch out their ideas for him – ensuring his ideas meet theirs while the eventual owner also gets to enjoy the satisfaction of having guided the design too. He adds in inspiration from his own pen collection and research on pens the customer likes while adding his experience as a craftsman to ensure the end creation is practical as well as beautiful.
John translates his sketches and notes relatively directly from sketch to lathe changing designs only if essential to ensure a practical balanced pen at the end of the process.
Putting this all together it is clear John is a man of uniquely broad skill – which is instantly visible in his wonderful custom commissions. It was clear John immediately understood what I had in mind and was confident he could get all the elements right – and by sheer luck, he even had his own stock of the exact Dartmoor blanks I wanted himself.
From initial conversation to receiving my pen was around 3 weeks – no time at all when considering many pen makers have waiting lists of several months for their commissions. There were frequent messages and photo updates as the pen took shape and comfortingly, John refused to share his payment details with me until I had received the pen and was happy.
The pen arrived via Special Delivery in a simple, but attractive outer box, and an inner generic velvet sleeve resting on a cotton filler material. Unfussy and effective. On opening the box, and removing the pen from the sleeve i was immediately struck by the flawlessly polished finish to the pen, its smooth contours and the deep red/purple hue to the brown Dartmoor resin. It strongly reminded me of Iroshizuku’s Tsukushi ink – an almost reddish, pinky brown; deep and wonderful to look at, flecked through with greyish white marbling. The argentium trim gleams a whiteish silver in the light that really compliments the resin. All in all, a really good first impression – and I couldn’t wait to get to work with the pen!
John also surprised me with a little extra; a second cap made from a spare piece of the material; clipless and shorter, so the pen could function as a very clipless pen to just chuck in a pocket without catching on anything! Another really neat touch that really set this experience apart from buying a pre-designed pen!
If you have read my other reviews, you will know I am very fond of designs with rounded ends and smooth curves – and so if this pen has some resemblance to the Paradigm by Izods, or a Leonardo Furore Grande, then it is intentional: these were pens I mentioned to John as part of our design conversation. The cap is a little shorted than on a many similar pens – and has a wonderful thin / thick cap band trim arrangement – a nod to a Montblanc. The section is narrower than the barrel of the pen beautifully sculpted and finishes at the threads with a section ring – a feature you don’t often see and that I really love! From the flat threads there is a fairly crisp 1mm step to the main barrel which again has beautiful tapering of the chunky 14.5mm body down to the barrel end trim ring and domed end. All in all very handsome.
The pen is deliberately designed for large hands: the section in 10mm in diameter, the body of the pen 14.5mm tapered, and the overall length is 148mm capped, 136mm uncapped. It weighs around20g so is light. In spite of its size, it works well for me – but then I have always gotten on well with “oversize” pens. In spite of its proportions, the light weight, smooth polished resin and gentle curves mean it fits wonderfully in the hand and is neutrally balanced – neither tail nor nib heavy.
The clip is broad and chunky – maybe even a shade chunky for the cap itself. It has a roller ball that helps it glide into a pocket. It is firm and grips well and I feel sure it won’t fall out of a pocket or off my scrub top at work.
The cap is a screw closure of triple start flat threads that are smooth and are noticeable with the pen in the hand during writing. Very well executed and the cap requires just a shade over 1 full turn to unscrew – quick and easy for getting out in a hurry.
The only minor flaw in the ergonomics, is the step from barrel onto threads, which is precise and sharp, but a little prominent in my grip position. I fed this and my thoughts about the clip back to John – and he has asked I send the pen back to him when I’m ready; he will then smooth this barrel step for me and address my concerns with the clip – a massive win for me and for the custom pen process: you really do get what you ask for when you work with someone like John!
Another advantage of a truly bespoke pen is that the nib choice was mine: given I could have had either Bock or Jowo, I requested the latter and John supplied a good steel nib to get me started – it was smooth and well-tuned out of the box, though it did run slightly dry with some of my driest inks. After a bit of a fiddle with the feed it’s now a super smooth, wet writer, just as I like.
You can see my hand-written notes in the gallery pics with this review. The pen is a fabulous writer! I have used it for anything from a few minutes up to an hour or more without fatigue of my hands, it just glides and keeps going and you can almost forget you’re holding a pen at all. John has sent me seven other pens to test (see group review and meta-review for United Inkdom) and the experience was the same with each of them: very nice balance, not heavy or uncomfortable and all of his pens, this included are destined to be daily workhorses, but ones that feel very special indeed!
I will in due course treat this pen to a nib that it really deserves – likely an 18kt Jowo with ebonite feed. I just feel a pen that feels this high quality is slightly undersold with a steel nib even though it really does write superbly with the nib that was supplied.
It’s no surprise that a truly custom commission like this is so good: John was attentive and diligent in listening to what I wanted and drew on his many years of experience to create a pen bespoke for me. Not only that, but with the choice of nib, trim levels, design, balance and weight left to me it was always going to feel pretty special. But that’s the point. John knows his clients want special and works with them to achieve it at every step.
If I had wanted a heavier pen with a nib down balance, he would have added some additional material into the design to achieve it. If I had wanted a pocket pen, or a slender angular design – that’s what I would have got. That I was able to feel so involved and in control of the process was a huge part of the fun and pleasure of this pen – and remains something about it I really enjoy! It’s my most “personal” pen and as a result something I can be truly invested in. But more than that; its beautifully made: the joins, trim rings, curves and threads are perfectly executed – at a level consistent with serious pen makers like Pelikan, Visconti or Montblanc. And, as well as being “a beautiful thing’, it writes effortlessly well.
Prices for Johns pens very depending on the elements required; mine was £200 including a steel Jowo nib – which seems great value when factoring in the time, the sterling silver (argentium) trim and quality of the finished product.
Does my commission feel special and commemorative? Absolutely! But more than that it’s unique and made to a design that I am totally invested in and that, in the end, is almost more important.
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 ever regret owning!