Review: Retro 51 Hex-o-matic, Ballpoint, Medium

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Put them side-by-side, and the Retro 51 Hex-o-matic looks a lot like an ‘everyday carry‘ version of the Retro 51 Tornado. But really, aside from the knurled-metal end, the two pens share little similarity. The Hex-o-matic is thin, clickable, and durable. It has a matted, hexagonal body with a round, knurled grip, and it has an overall shape that is reminiscent of a syringe. Its metal construction gives it a nice bit of weight, and, like almost everything Retro 51 produces, I like it a lot.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Hex-o-matic is actually its packaging. It is fairly intricate, as if it were designed by an origami expert, which makes for a great first impression. But unlike the Tornado’s packaging, which doubles as a pen holder, this elaborately-folded cardboard tube is ultimately useless. I’ll soon be tossing it in the recycling bin as I wonder, “how much did this packaging add to the cost of the pen?”

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The Hex-o-matic comes loaded with a Schmidt Easy Flow 9000 ballpoint refill, which is the same refill used by the Retro 51 Slim Tornado. It’s definitely good; much smoother and darker than a typical ballpoint, though it smears more than it ought. However, since it is a pen that seems built for ‘on-the-go’ usage, I really wish it came with a pressurized ink refill, such as the one that comes with the Fisher Space Pen. Unfortunately, that particularly refill doesn’t quite fit, at least without modification.

At $28, the Hex-0-matic feels a little expensive, especially when a decent metal pen like the Pentel Energel Alloy RT is under $10. But now having used the Hex-0-matic a while, I find it competing for pocket space against the Everyman Grafton, a favorite of mine (that costs even a little bit more money). So if you want a nice, durable pen to throw in your pocket as you run daily errands, this pen is a very good choice.

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Retro Talk: A Tribute to Gray’s Anatomy

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When I was in college I bought myself a copy of Gray’s Anatomy – not to be confused with Grey’s Anatomy, the TV show – edited in the form of a coffee table book. At the time I didn’t own a coffee table, but I really liked the anatomical drawings. The illustrations are something almost anyone can appreciate, as they are an amazing example of functional art. Each drawing takes attention to detail and a lot of study.

So, when Retro 51 released a Tornado design earlier this year named Dr. Gray, I didn’t wait long to place my order. The barrel features an anatomical drawing of the skeletal system with 30+ of the major bones identified. I’m not sure whether this illustration is a Gray’s Anatomy original or if it has been redrawn by another artist, but, either way, it would be good enough for at least a couple of correct answers on a biology exam.

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Like the Albert Tornado, this design is part of Retro 51’s “Vintage Metalsmith” series, which mainly means that the metal on the clip, twist, and tip has been weathered. One fairly unique feature, however, is that the Dr. Gray glows in the dark after being exposed to light. Since I usually keep pens in my pocket (and I don’t use them in the dark), it took me a while to notice. Throw it directly under a bright bulb for 10 minutes, however, and it glows quite brightly. It’s a neat little gimmick that gives it a Halloween vibe.

I like the Dr. Gray, although, at $40, it’s more expensive than many other Retro 51 Tornado designs. But if you know an orthopedist or a med student, it would probably make a really cool gift.

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Retro Talk: The Birthday Tornado

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Take a look through any Retro 51 collection, and you’re bound to find a lot of really amazing designs. And though a simple classic lacquer Tornado costs only about $20, you’ll have to shell out around $25 to $50 for a special or limited edition Tornado or sometimes upwards of $100 for a Tornado design that’s discontinued or currently out of production. There is, however, one exception that I know of: the Retro 51 ‘Birthday Greetings’ Tornado series.

At one point in time, Retro 51 was making a bunch of these ‘Greeting Series’ pens. There’s the ‘Happy Holidays’ Tornado, the ‘Congrats’ Tornado, and even the simple ‘Thanks’ Tornado, but these days they are all pretty difficult to find for a reasonable price. But for whatever reason, the ‘Happy Birthday’ Tornado can easily be found for under 15 dollars.

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The ‘Birthday Greeting’ series was made with three different colors/designs: blue (shown above), yellow (shown below), and red (shown here). Apart from the colors, the red and yellow pens are identical. They have phrases and icons pictured all over the barrel, and the word “BIRTHDAY!” is splashed across the side. The blue version is subtler, and it mainly consists of numbers/ages. The blue design still contains an assortment of birthday-ish words and icons, but you’d really need to examine it in order to see the theme.

Perhaps it feels like you can only use this pen one day a year, but I actually use mine all the time (I bought the blue version for myself last year). It’s also a nice and easy present. In fact, I just gave away the yellow version as a gift, and I might just stockpile the red version to give away sometime next year. And as an unskilled gift wrapper, I always appreciate when a product comes in its own gift box.

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Retro Talk: The Pen Addict Tornado

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Over the past year, I’ve become a fan and collector of the Retro 51 Tornado, but it was an old episode of The Pen Addict Podcast that first brought the pen to my attention. So, last month, when Retro 51 announced a new Tornado made in collaboration with Brad Dowdy, the creator of The Pen Addict website, I jumped at the chance to order one. And it turned out that I was lucky to act so fast, as this edition – limited to 300 pieces – sold out within a week.

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Made in the image of The Pen Addict, this Tornado has a shiny, orange lacquered barrel (like the one first reviewed by Dowdy in 2012) with weathered, metal hardware. However, the principal element is the finial, the little disk inset at the top of the twist, which features The Pen Addict logo. I’ve always felt that the pen-syringe hybrid is one of the more clever logos I’ve seen.

Though you can no longer purchase The Pen Addict Tornado, it is very similar to the orange Classic Lacquer Tornado, which is still widely available.  Personally, I would have preferred a brighter orange, like a safety yellow or an umbra orange, but I’m not complaining. Cheesy as it may sound, I feel like I’ve got myself a small piece of history.

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…and if you haven’t had your fill of orange, check out this, this, and also this.

Retro Talk: The Tiger Shark

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The Flying Tigers – officially called the 1st American Volunteer Group – were a band of Air Force squadrons sent to defend China against Japanese attacks during Word War II. They were successful and popular in their time, but they are probably best remembered for the creative paint jobs they gave to their P-40 Warhawk fighter planes. So, in August 2015, 70 years after the end of WWII, Retro 51 announced a Tornado pen in tribute to the Flying Tigers.

The Flying Tiger Tornado turned out to be a very successful product: 500 pens were made, and they sold out fast. I missed out, unfortunately – I hadn’t gotten my first Retro 51 Tornado until a couple weeks after the Flying Tiger was released, so it was long gone by the time I caught wind of it. To my delight, the design was so popular that Retro 51 decided to release two more versions of the pen earlier this year, the Tiger Shark (the one I have, pictured above) and the Fortress (pictured below).

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All three pens feature a design printed on a lacquer wrap with acid-etching for detail. The acid-etching is especially cool, as it adds texture to the rivets and grooves in the paneling. To give the pen a grittier look, the metal of the nosecone, clip, and twist have been artificially weathered. All three pens look great, but I especially like the camouflage on the Tiger Shark. The “Dear Becky” insignia on the Fortress design is also pretty great, but it lacks the iconic set of shark teeth at the pen’s tip.

This has got to be one of my favorite Retro 51 Tornado pens. Like the Albert Tornado, the pen has a great design along with an interesting history. Both the Fortress and the Tiger Shark are also easy to get a hold of – unlike the Flying Tiger, the Fortress and Tiger Shark aren’t being sold in limited quantities. However, they both still have a production number stamped near the twist. I’m not sure I understand the reason for this, but if you have a higher number than mine (#180), then I think you should owe me a drink.

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On a side note, Vanness threw in a blue Retro 51 refill with my order. I don’t usually use blue ink, but I decided to throw it in the Tiger Shark anyway. To my surprise, I’m actually liking it. It’s smooth and has a nice, deep hue …though I suppose a green ink might make more sense with this pen.


Update 8/29/16: Retro 51 pointed out on their Twitter account that the Fortress Tornado is actually based on the designs painted on B-17 Bombers (also known as a Flying Fortress).