Retro Talk: Crosswords and Space Pens


Crossword puzzle enthusiasts can be divided into two categories: those who use pens and those who use pencils. In my everyday experience, the pencil seems to be the more popular choice. Flip through a disheveled Sunday paper left behind at a coffee shop, and, nine times out of ten, the crossword puzzle was solved in pencil. The reason is obvious; pencils have erasers, so mistakes are more easily fixed. Perhaps that’s why Retro 51 no longer makes the (above pictured) Crossword Tornado pen, yet the company still produces the Tornado Crossword pencil.

Discontinued after 2008, the Crossword Tornado pen is similar to the standard Retro 51 Tornado but with a crossword-themed wrap. They’re quite difficult to find. I saw this one listed eBay about six months ago, so I quickly snapped it up. However, I haven’t seen one listed since, and no other online seller seems to have any in stock. Whether this is due to their rarity or the general lack of interest in a crossword pen, I couldn’t say. Regardless, the advantage of using a pen for solving crossword puzzles should not be overlooked, as it so often is.

Jim Horne, a former writer for the New York Times and a crossword puzzle enthusiast, writes that “counter intuitively the best way to ‘pencil in’ answers is to use a pen. You can write guesses very lightly, scribble in better ideas a little darker, and then press down when you’re sure of the letters.” But with pencils, “once you start trying to use the eraser the page quickly becomes a mess.”

To use a pen in the way that Horne describes – jotting down guesses very lightly and writing darker for more certain answers – you need a ballpoint pen, which uses oil-based inks. The standard Retro 51 Tornado refill, on the other hand, uses a (water-based) rollerball ink. Rollerballs are great for producing pronounced, dark lines, but they’re terrible for doing shading the way that Horne describes. So, the Retro 51’s rollerball will have to be replaced.


After a little thought, I decided that the best option for a crossword puzzle pen has to be the Fisher Space Pen refill. Not only is it a ballpoint, perfect for shading, but it also uses a pressurized ink cartridge. It lets you write at any angle and on dirty/wet surfaces – great for travel, whether you’re killing time on a commuter bus or at an airport terminal. The problem is that the Space Pen Refill doesn’t properly fit into the Retro 51 Tornado barrel. The refill is a little too short. To solve this, I added a little plastic spacer that I pulled from an SKB Click Ball, and, after cutting it down a little, it seemed to work.

Personally, I’m not very good at solving crossword puzzles. My mom, on the other hand, flies through crossword magazines at an impressive pace. And being newly retired (since the beginning of January), she’ll also be flying through those BICs pretty fast. So, I hope she likes this Retro 51 Crossword pen as a little retirement gift. And that Space Pen refill should keep her going, even if she accidentally drops her crossword magazine into a sandy puddle on the beaches of Key West.


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