If you’ve heard of the company Skilcraft, it’s probably for two reasons. First, it’s the manufacturer of the U.S. Government Pen, a low-cost, professional-looking ballpoint that also happens to be very reliable. And second, it’s held in high regard by the National Industries for the Blind for employing scores of blind workers in their manufacturing facilities. Skilcraft is a good company, and so I was interested in trying another of the their well-known pens, the stealthy-looking B3 Aviator multi-pen.
As the pen’s name makes obvious, the B3 Aviator is marketed towards pilots. It meets the FAA’s “FOD” requirements, and it has a matte black finish to prevent glare. The multi-pen has three components: a 1.0mm black ballpoint, a 1.0mm red ballpoint, and a 0.5mm mechanical pencil. The midpoint of the barrel twists in either direction to eject and retract the three tips in turn, and the end-cap also screws off to reveal an eraser.
Oddly, the design and function of the B3 Aviator is pretty much identical to the Zebra Surari Sharbo 1000. So, it probably goes without saying that the problems I had with the Sharbo are the same problems I have with the Aviator. In particular, there’s no indication on the barrel for which tip is selected (you have to closely examine the tip to know if you’re about to write with black ink/red ink/pencil), and the cap that covers the eraser is a small piece that’s begging to be lost. For some reason, I also had some trouble getting the Aviator’s pencil lead to eject without breaking.
But, unlike the Sharbo, the Aviator feels a lot more substantial and durable – for about $18, you don’t feel like you’re getting ripped off. But that’s all that this pen really has going for it. The refills are fine, and it generally works okay. However, I still wouldn’t recommend this multi-pen – the design just isn’t very good.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d gotten when I purchased the Zebra Surari Sharbo 1000. I’d stopped into the Kinokuniya Book Store during a recent visit to New York City, and stumbled on the store’s Japanese stationery section tucked away in its basement. The Surari Sharbo’s bright yellow barrel caught my eye, but since I couldn’t read the Japanese packaging, I had no idea that it was a multi-pen when I bought it.
The Sarari Sharbo 1000 contains two ink cartridges, 0.7mm black and red ballpoints, and a 0.5mm mechanical pencil. In order to switch between red ink, black ink, and the mechanical pencil, you twist the pen in either direction around its midpoint. There are no markings on the barrel to denote which you are getting, so I frequently found myself having to examine the pen’s tip to see if I’d selected the proper one.
The red ink is smooth and doesn’t smear, and the black feels somewhat sluggish. After switching to the pencil, the top becomes clickable to eject the lead, and the the finial twists off to reveal a small eraser. The mechanical pencil lead seems fairly resilient but generally not noteworthy. Just be careful switching back to a pen tip, as the lead will snap if you forget to push it back in.
I’m not a frequent user of multi-pens – obviously, I bought this one by accident – but I can confidently say that better ones exist than the Zebra Surari Sharbo 1000. Though I love the bright yellow plastic barrel, I just never got used to the twisting mechanism, specifically the lack of lead/tip indicator. Perhaps this is something I’d have gotten used to over time, but it is enough of an annoyance that I can’t be bothered to stick with it that long. And for the $20 cost, this multi-pen just doesn’t seem worth the trouble.
Earlier this year, my girlfriend and I took a short trip to Manhattan where, completely unintentionally, we happened upon a Muji store. If you’ve never heard of Muji before, it is sort-of like the Japanese’s answer to Crate & Barrel. It’s a store full of household items, clothing, and stationery products, though all of it is unbranded. It’s trendy and cool, and it’s difficult to walk into a Muji store without buying something. Short on time during my New York vacation, I settled on this simple Hex Oil pen, which cost about $1.50.
The name “Hex Oil” does a pretty good job of describing the pen itself. It has an all-black, hexagonal barrel – like a cross between a pencil and a Signo RT1 – and it uses ballpoint (oil-based) ink. As you might expect, the pen itself feels very much like a pencil in hand. Even though it lacks any sort of grip, the hexagonal shape does a good job of making it fairly comfortable to hold.
The ballpoint ink, on the other hand, isn’t very good. It feels sluggish, so your hand is bound to get tired if you plan on writing a lot. Also worth noting: the ink also has a minor blobbing problem, the clip is fairly flimsy, and the refills cost a dollar each, which is way overpriced.
The Skilcraft U.S. Government pen, like the Fisher Space Pen or the Parker 51, is a classic pen with a storied history. Created decades ago by the National Industries for the Blind, this pen was made to comply with a 16-page government document that mandates the specifications for ballpoint pens to be used by federal employees. For example, in order to comply with these specs, these pens must perform between -40°F up to 160°F. The ink cartridges have to write for at least 5,000 feet, and they can averaging no more than 15 ink blobs per 1,000 feet of writing. The average ballpoint wouldn’t be up to the task.
At it’s core, however, the Skilcraft U.S. Government pen is a basic, retractable ballpoint pen, albeit one that has a professional, yet frugal quality to it. In my experience, it writes reliably with little smearing. It’s a light pen, though it still feels fairly durable, and the retracting mechanism provides a satisfyingly chunky ‘click.’ The clip is on the tight side, and it’s neither the smoothest nor is it the fanciest ballpoints around.
But, overall, I like it. Maybe the main reason I like it so much is that it’s so easy to imagine a cupful of these ballpoints atop an FBI agent’s desk. So, if I had to order pens in bulk for the government (or even for an office or a restaurant), I’d probably go with these by Skilcraft. It’s a retractable ballpoint that works well and looks nice.
If you’re interested in more history about the Skilcraft U.S. Goverment pen, The Washington Post has this good article. Apparently, Skilcraft used to produce 21 million of these pens per year (about 30 years ago).
Here’s a review from No Pen Intended. It points out that this pen, mainly due to its smaller-than-average size, wouldn’t be great for marathon note-taking sessions. If find this to be true of most ballpoints, as they are not as smooth as gel or rollerball pens.
There’s a lot more info about Skilcraft and this pen on the Tiger Pens blog. Apparently the length of this pen equals 150 nautical miles on a Navy map. I’m sure that comes in useful from time to time.
I don’t recall where I found the Linc Glycer (and I have absolutely no idea what the name Glycer means), but it’s a pen that’s remarkably similar to the Pentel R.S.V.P., only a bit smaller (or, rather, more average-sized). The Glycer is a fine-tipped ballpoint and writes cleanly with little smudging, smearing, or ink-blobbing to speak of. It has a small rubbery grip area that does little, yet is still fairly comfortable to write with.
Besides a somewhat rinkydink clip, it’s a decent ballpoint pen. My only big complaint is that the Glycer purports to be a “super smooth ball pen,” but that just isn’t true. Its smoothness is average, at best, and it comes nowhere close to the smoothness of a hybrid ballpoint like the Pilot Acroball or a pressurized ballpoint like the Fisher Space Pen. Not that I’d expect a standard ballpoint to be able to compete with those pens, but when “super smooth” is the set expectation, it just ends up feeling more sluggish by comparison.
Anyone that would rather opt for a much cheaper ballpoint (like the BIC Round Stic, for example) instead of the Glycer won’t be missing much. Though, as a fine-tipped ballpoint that works well, nobody would be too disappointed by the Glycer either. In other words, it’s a relatively good pen, but it wouldn’t be worth expending any effort to obtain one.