Spoke Pen Review - Currently on Kickstarter

If you aren’t familiar with Spoke, they are small design and I’d say “tinkering” studio that have been producing machined goods for the last 6 to 7 years or so. Started by brothers Brian and Dan Conti, they are also the creators of the Baux pens as well as the Strong Like Bull magnet company. So, when I say “tinker”, I mean it in the most complimentary way. These guys just love making cool stuff.

After the release of their Spoke 4 (4th generation) mechanical pencil, they were in touch with fellow blogger (the Godfather of pen blogging really) Brad Dowdy of The Pen Addict who said he had some ideas…

Within a few months, the guys worked together to produce the first prototypes of what would be called the Spoke Pen which is currently on Kickstarter and successfully funded. They were kind enough to send me one to check out and I’ve been putting it through its paces over the last few weeks.

As an overview, the pen is an all metal (ALL metal) barrel designed to take the Uni-ball Signo DX refill, one of Brad’s favorites. There are other metal pens that have allowed the Signo DX refill, but this is the first one designed specifically with it in mind and I think they made a solid choice.

The overall design of the pen is very unique and plays nicely into the Spoke aesthetic which they refer to as “geometric-deco” which has inset milling with straight lines and some subtle curves for interest. It was one of the things that drew me to their Spoke 4 pencil specifically since I think it looks awesome.

The pen is made up of several parts, 12 if my count is correct, which is a lot when compared to what you see in most Kickstarter pens. This complexity has its reasons as they’ve also incorporated magnets into the cap and the ability to create a tremendous amount of customization as time goes by. Even with all the parts, everything is tight, sturdy, and intentional.

They sent me over an all black “Ninja” edition of the pen (they must know me pretty well) and I love the design in this scheme. The finish is uniform and well done across all surfaces, even in the tucked away parts.

The grip section on mine is also black being aluminum, but they are also allowing for a titanium grip if you so choose.

While writing, the Signo refill is snug. REALLY snug which makes for a solid writing experience. No wiggles thankfully.

The only part of the pen that isn’t black is the tip which is made from stainless steel so it can attract the magnet in the cap… segue!

Rather than using a threaded or snap cap, the guys opted for a magnet closure which, as mentioned above with their Strong Like Bull brand, is completely appropriate. The magnet is pretty much just the right strength for this application. It is just strong enough to hold the cap and barrel snugly in place, but easy enough to pull apart with very little effort.

When I mentioned I had put the pen through “it’s paces” above I wasn’t kidding. Pretty much from the day I got the prototype in the mail it hasn’t left my pocket. This is for two main reasons: I really like the pen and I wanted to see how it held up to somewhat heavier use.

And, somewhat contrary to how I usually carry pens (almost always in some sort of sleeve), I simply clipped this one to my pants pocket to see how normal use, pocket lint, and occasional “bumps” might interact with it.

Overall, the pen has taken it pretty well in my opinion. I wasn’t intentionally inflicting harm to it, but it has now adopted some weathering in a couple of spots over the past month.

Being the all black version, the steel clip is covered in E-Coat (Electrophoretic Painting Process…) which gave a nice uniform “painted” finish to the part. An area of wear I’ve noticed is on the clip near the edges which are a little sharper where it has met my jeans pocket.

The other place I kindly added some “patina” to the pen was near the top of the cap where I wore through some of the finish to reveal the aluminum below.

These points of wear I would consider “normal” if tucking a pen into your pocket is your regular routine. Throw it in with your keys and you’ll see tremendously more wear (which I didn’t do), especially with black.

The “lint trap”. I try to remove dust during photos…not this time. (sorry)

One thing I suspected would also happen with the design is the accumulation of dust/lint down in the nooks and crannies of the geometric-deco machining points. It is especially so near the end of the pen. I am a clean person, but it was surprising how much lint and dust got caught just from being in my pocket.

Cleaning it out periodically shouldn’t be too much trouble, but is something to call out as some potential ongoing “maintenance” with the pen. Again, being the all black finish makes any spec of anything more pronounced.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with the execution. I would honestly expect nothing less from these guys considering their past products I’ve had the pleasure of using.

After using the pen for minutes I knew I would also want to back the project. For my pledge I’ll be opting for a more “raw” metal look with a titanium grip. Seems like a nice contrast to the all black…

As mentioned, the Kickstarter project has already met its goals, but there is still about a week left to hop on. Thanks again to Spoke for sending me over the sample to check out!

The Ajoto Pen 2.0 - Ebony Cerakote Stainless Steel

I’m often surprised at how much time passes when I look back at past reviews. My first review of an Ajoto pen was 18 months ago….doesn’t seem like that much time has passed. My feelings for that pen (positive ones) remain the same, but when I heard last year that Ajoto was making some adjustments to the model I knew I wanted to take a second look with the revised version.

In this instance, I would recommend going back and reading my previous Ajoto review to get a feel for what we’re talking about today.

This time around I stayed with the stainless steel body, but chose to purchase the matte black “Ebony” cerakote finish.

As a quick overview of Ajoto, they are a small design firm in the UK that decided several years back to release their own pen and other EDC type products to the world. One thing that stands out to me is their almost obsessive perspective on quality and detail. There are a lot of people that make pens, but few (in my opinion) that do so with quite the same level of standard.

Upon someone’s first look at the Ajoto product line, what initially stands out is the price. I won’t dance around this subject: Ajoto pens are expensive. When compared to others in the market, the price point can be upwards of two or even three times the price which, at face value, seems ridiculous. A machined pen is a machined pen, right? When using them side by side with others of comparable features, these really are a step up in fit and finish. Some pens feel “mass produced” if that makes sense; the Ajoto doesn’t, and I think you pay for that.

I still hold true to my statement in my previous review that I would consider the Ajoto products under the umbrella of being a luxury item in a sort of Montblanc kind of way, but for machined pens.

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The Ajoto pen deploys a twist mechanism of their own design which, in the first pen, was given some tension via a leather gasket. Over time, and at the recommendation of Ajoto, these parts tend to get a little slow and tough to deploy which requires adding some oil. Once you do that, things smooth right out.

If there is a gripe anyone has ever given me when using my Ajoto pen, it is that the twist takes a bit more effort than others with a snappier mechanism. It is a tactile experience for sure to get the tip deployed, much like opening a folding pocket knife that doesn’t easily flip outward.

In version 2.0, they’ve replaced the leather gasket with an o-ring and added an additional brass section to the twist mechanism. Now, I’m no expert on tension or resistance, but over several months of use I’ve found that the o-ring does perform better with less maintenance which is a plus. And, with an even longer term type of view, rubber o-rings are much easier to come by than custom leather gaskets.

The only other revision that I can see in comparison to the previous version is that the line “knurling” pattern on the mechanism is more spaced out. I’m not certain as to why the change in this area. Perhaps as a visual differentiation to the original, but I haven’t felt a drastic improvement in gripping while using the mechanism.

The Ajoto pen uses the popular Schmidt P8126/7 style refill which provides a smooth experience and is a solid choice. Included with the pen are 3 Ajoto branded refills in black, red, and blue which I thought was nice.

Once deployed, the tip is strong in its placement and has literally no movement while writing. Both the V1 and V2 have the same experience. There are other pens on the market with a similar shape and for a cheaper price, but they tend to have some movement while writing.

As mentioned above, the fit and finish on these pens is pretty fantastic. Every millimeter has been inspected, the angles are tight and precise, and there isn’t a blemish to be found.

Like the original, the packaging for the pen is beautifully done. The pen is encased in a card stock box with a silver AJOTO foil stamp which is opened by pulling a perforated tab. Inside there is an aluminum sleeve (black in this case to match the pen) which holds a molded cork “box” for the pen. The metal sleeve and cork box are definitely “keeper” type packaging.

Being stainless steel, the pen is a bit on the heftier side at 1.8 oz, but the teardrop shape makes it more bottom heavy and therefore comfortable.

The cerakote finish is nice. I’ve had pens with a few different finishes like anodizing, PVD, electroplating, but the cerakote definitely provides a more “solid” coating. To the touch it is smooth, but does provide some slight texture for grip. Cerakote is the same finish that is often applied to high impact parts like on firearms, so I wager it will hold up well, although I don’t see myself beating it up unnecessarily.

While I do like the cerakote finish, I think I might prefer the raw stainless more. I like the cold, metallic feel as well as how the material reflects the light differently. Being all matte black is cool, but it could be made out of plastic for all someone knows. But, the stainless stands out and I’m always of the opinion that a silvery raw metal version of any machined pen represents its “true colors” best.

Due to their price, the Ajoto pen isn’t something I would refer everyone to, but for the right person most certainly. There are definitely more practical options out there to get a somewhat comparable experience, but I can certainly appreciate the difference in how Ajoto creates a higher quality and refinement. Writing with their pens is a true pleasure.

I am definitely grateful that Ajoto has made these and am glad to have them in my collection.

It’s hard to explain… Are there any items that you love that you paid more for, but can appreciate the difference?

Q&A With Richard Koehler, Art Director at Retro 51

Last year I got the amazing opportunity to work with Retro 51, one of my favorite brands, to create my own special edition Tornado called The System. Before The Clicky Post even existed, the Retro 51 Tornado was my first ever “nice pen”, so to be able to do a collaboration with them was like a pen nerd’s dream come true!

During the design phase of the collaboration and over the last few years I’ve gotten to know Richard Koehler, Art Director at Retro 51. As with most things, the “behind the scenes” work often goes unknown or unnoticed by the end consumer, but I thought it would be fun to showcase and introduce Richard to the pen world. If you enjoy Retro 51 pens, he undoubtedly has had a hand in many of them…

He was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about himself and his time at Retro 51. Enjoy!

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How long have you been with Retro 1951? How did you get a job designing cool pens?!

I have been working at Retro since September 1999, so this year will be 20 years with Retro which is hard to believe! It started as a graphic design internship class I took at the University of North Texas (UNT). I had finished a class project that had a 50s look to it and my professor thought Retro would be a good fit. In December, I told the owner my internship class was ending and the next week would be my last. He asked if I wanted to stay on and I accepted.

Nineteen years later, I'm still here and it's been a huge blessing. The job started with print design, packaging, catalogs, sale sheets, etc and grew into product design for pens and many other items over the years.

Tell us a bit about your design background...

Prior to graduating High School, I got a job helping a freelance designer make safety posters which introduced me to graphic design and Corel Draw programs. I really enjoyed it and being creative so I went to UNT and graduated in 2001 with a BFA in Communication Design with a Graphic Design emphasis (instead of advertising). Since I started as an intern, this is the only career job I have ever had.  

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How many Retro 51 pens/products have you helped design?

I don't even know how many but quite a few! (Somewhere between 200-300…) The Tornado was already being sold when I joined Retro, so I did not have a hand in its initial design, but have done numerous designs on it since. Together with our team I had a hand in designing past pens such as Double 8, Scriptmaster and a couple others I’m sure… 

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Where do you get your inspiration from?

I love art, design and illustration so in my free time I look at Instagram, Pinterest and other design/art boards. I spend too much time on there but it's my passion. 


Can you share a bit about how the design process works?

 We like to keep our design process a secret, but I will say that it involves a team looking for "cool" designs that we are excited about having or gifting to someone.

Since my early days at Retro when a project was approved, the boss would just say "cool." Whether in person or via email. Once I got the "cool" the project moved on. I don't think it's any secret to say that there are several stages in producing a design: research, presentation, designing, pre-production sampling, revisions and then production and market release.

Another detail most people don't know is after designing the pen the art has to be set up for printing which can be quite difficult and take multiple hours to prepare. If you're familiar with silk screen printing, it's like this, but on a 360 degree tapered surface. Our factory does an amazing job producing the complex designs we’ve thrown at them.

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What are your top 5 favorite designs and why?

Lift Off - Seeing the reaction to this design was awesome! It came out after Homerun (baseball design) which was a huge success and this one had an even better response. After seeing this reaction, I realized I needed to start watching the space documentaries with my wife more.

Flying Tiger & Tiger Shark - This design came out right after the Lift Off and we had no way of knowing at the time that it too would ultimately be considered an all-time fan favorite. There's also the kid in me that remembers playing army or GI Joe as a child and using this pen brings back good memories. The Tiger Shark is one of my most used Retros.

Fahrney's Signers of the Declaration of Independence - Something patriotic sparked in me when this pen came about. I had to trace every signature on the Declaration of Independence because I couldn't find good enough art to produce the pen with. It was time consuming but interesting seeing each signature in its uniqueness. One of the signatures was by someone who barely knew how to write, which made me think about what the signers might have been thinking when they signed this document.

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Nightwalkerz - Someone outside of Retro suggested this idea and was proposed in early August so it was one of the fastest turnarounds we've ever done (it was released in late September).  I was really happy with how the scene on the pen turned out, although it was a very challenging piece to put together. The stress of a short timeline plus the desire to make sure it's good (a pressure that is always there) was very paralyzing to some effect, so once it was complete I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Also I never bought one because I’m not into zombies personally and I always regretted it. I was talking with a Retro fan and mentioned something to the sort and a week or so later I was gifted a Nightwalkerz. I thought it was beyond kind of a fan to do that for me, plus the gift had come full circle.

Space Race - The reaction to this design was very fulfilling for a designer. As I mentioned before there can be a lot of stress to make sure the design is right and how will it be received and the positive feedback was very fulfilling. Also getting to look through all of NASA's photos, diagrams and schematics is a lot of fun. It's also very humbling to think how many brilliant people there are to have launched these behemoth rockets into space only later to walk on the moon and make it back safely. My brain can't comprehend how they did that.

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If I could add one more...Vintage Surf. I watched Endless Summer countless times and surfed a little while in high school and college so it brings back good memories, plus this is considered one of the "holy grails" by Retro fans to have in the collection.

It's hard to narrow down to just five. These are some of my everyday carries: Shark Alley, The System (of course!), Smithsonian Dino Fossil, Ebony Bamboo, Stealth, Lincoln FP and the Hex-o-matic Pencil. 


Do you have any Retro 51 discontinued products that you totally loved and wish would come back?

One of my favorite designs was the Kaligraffiti (click-top pen with spray paint nozzle top) also produced with the Disney license for their Bloc28 (street influenced) line. We felt the pen would be well received and the owner patented the design and graciously put my name on the patent. I had ideas of how we could continue with this design but unfortunately they weren't meant to be. 


What is your favorite non-Retro 51 pen? (Blasphemy!)

I really like Pigma Microns to draw with. I also like Le Pen, very similar with a fine line. 


What has been your "coolest" experience while working with Retro 51? (Example: meeting a celebrity you admire, a cool trip, getting to see stuff that normal people don't, etc)

The friendships that have developed over the years and traveling around the world is by far the coolest experience. I am beyond blessed to get to work at Retro doing creative work but working with the Retro team, developing friendships and traveling bring the most joy. 

From dining with the factory in Taipei to getting to meet and befriend Retros fans and having happy hour with them, it's a lot of fun. Retro has sent me on multiple trips to Hong Kong and Taipei and also a couple trips to Germany and France. 

On my honeymoon in Italy my wife and I met with a Retro contact and we toured his factory and dined with him. One specific memory and experience is the ride on the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. It's just a boat ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island but it's a simple pleasure I do even if I'm staying on Hong Kong island. I remember the first time I took the ferry with George the owner and how excited he was about riding on it. He passed that onto me. The factory in Taipei also took us up this mountain where we went to have tea overlooking Taipei City. It was an amazing experience sitting there with them, learning about drinking tea and just chatting. As our packaging says about the Tornado, they are "Made [by our friends] in Taiwan" and there couldn't be more truth to that. 

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