Yard-O-Led Viceroy Pocket

I didn’t want to write this review. I feel like it’s going to be one of the few dissenting YOL reviews out there. But the community needs to hear about my experience.

I actually love Yard-O-Led, in principle. I gushed over them in my post on the YOL Viceroy Grand–which is truly a remarkable work of art.

But I also outlined some of the issues I’ve noticed with the company in my post on the YOL Standard.

For context, I recommend reading both of those reviews before continuing.

First, the good: this petite pen is beautiful. Each pen is individually made either on very old machining tools or chased by hand by silversmiths. Because of this, one can see the different styles used by the individual silversmiths–for instance, it’s very obvious that my older Viceroy Grand was made by a different person than the Pocket, even though they are the same pattern.

Detail of the Viceroy Pocket’s finish.
Pocket on the left, Grand on the right. They’re both the same finish, but made by different smiths so they have different character–the patterns and the depth of the strikes are much different. Both are very pretty.

The Pocket is awesome. Delicate. Petite. Painstakingly made with care by artisans.

The tiny size necessitates writing with the cap posted. The pen only fills via short international cartridges officially, but I found that the pen can use a Kaweco slide piston converter if the converter is only filled to about 70-80% capacity. The barrel of the pen cannot accommodate the piston rod when it is fully extended and filled, and reassembling the pen creates a mess when the barrel compresses the tiny piston. Is this hassle worth the 0.4mL ink capacity? That’s up to the user. If it were my one and only pen, I’d just use cartridges.

The finial is polished silver.
The end of the pen is shaped much like the section so the pen can post well.
The pen will fill with the Kaweco mini piston converter, not the squeeze type. It is shown filled as full as it can get without squirting ink all over when reassembled.

This is where my YOL Viceroy Pocket love affair stops. It’s all downhill from here.

The cap is not secure. The pen–like all of YOL’s fountain pens–uses a simple plastic inner cap that engages with a lip on the pen and is subsequently snaps into place. But for whatever reason on my Pocket, the inner cap does not engage very well; in fact, it is downright insecure. Any lateral pressure on the cap, whether posted or in the pocket, causes the cap to dislodge and pop off. This doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but think about all of the times one could conceivably place pressure across the pen when it’s in a shirt pocket–crossing your arms, leaning against a surface, or bumping into something can cause the cap to come lose. Now you’ve got a cap clipped to your shirt and a pen floating around your pocket. Forget about having it rattling around a purse or bag, unless you can find a suitably rigid pouch to keep the pen in. This is obviously a very bad quality for a pocket pen.

Detail of cap and clip. Each pen is serialized, also shown on the clip. Not shown is the exceptionally weak inner cap that does not keep this pen closed.

I have great disdain for Bock nibs. Every nib that I’ve tried that was originally made by Bock, whether on a $20 Kaweco or on this very expensive Viceroy has had some issue and required some level of correction to make it write correctly. The nib on this pen was a disaster out of the box. It came with a very blobby, wet, medium nib that was so unbelievably over-polished that it barely wrote. That nib is now on my Viceroy Standard and had to be corrected by a nibmeister. The nib that is currently on this pen was also so over-polished that it did not function out of the box. Dan Smith ground this nib into an extra fine for me when he was still doing outside work, and now the nib is okay. Dan does magnificent work and the grind is perfect, but I still don’t really like how it writes. It feels like the nib has too much flex but in a weird way, like the tines flex too much radially creating weird, needle-like feedback. It’s an 18k gold nib and it has to be very thin to get this level of softness, which makes the nib feel unpleasantly fragile to me. Flexing this nib would certainly spring it or outright destroy it. There is a reason why the best vintage and modern flex nibs are 14k gold. To counter-act this sponginess, my pen has to be used with a very delicate touch, which might be okay for some users but I don’t like that quality in a pocket pen that is, presumably, intended for hurried jotting. I’ve half-considered finding a generic steel #5 Bock nib and trying that in this pen to see if I like it more.

It’s a lovely nib, and although it was pretty crappy originally it’s since been fixed. It’s a bit too spongy for my tastes, unfortunately.

This pen currently retails for well over $1000. I didn’t pay nearly as much for it when I got mine, but even for what I paid for it it should have wrote well.

edit: Looks like Fahrney’s is carrying some YOL pens again for a much fairer price–no affiliation, and they don’t seem to carry the Pocket model. That’s probably where USA customers will need to go for a YOL pen.

YOL has, historically, been noted for its good customer service but when I emailed them with a question I received a canned response telling me to send the pen back to Birmingham. That’s a solid “meh” from me on the customer service front. Plus they’re not accepting repairs because of the pandemic–I don’t hold that against them for obvious reasons, but it’s something to consider if one is currently trying to decide on a YOL instrument right now. You don’t want to get stuck with an unrepairable dumpster fire of a pen that cost you a whole stack, now do you?

So, there we have it. I love YOL as a company, I really do. I love the company’s story, I love the art they are producing. But I am not a silver rod collector, I am a pen collector, and I can buy a hell of a lot of pen for $1000. Maybe that’s harsh, but I’d point-out that silver still isn’t that expensive as far as precious metals go (the spot price is under $30 per ounce [28 grams], as of this writing.) Compare this price to, say, Nakaya pens that are also produced entirely by hand and undergo lacquering processes that take months and can be found for well under $1000. And their pens are basically guaranteed to write.

It breaks my heart to write this, but I’d pass unless you get a good deal or can get it from a retailer with an outstanding return policy and even then I’d only pull the trigger if you really have your heart set on a Yard-O-Led fountain pen.

edit: I was thinking about this and I am pretty sure I bought the YOL Pocket when the Pound/Dollar exchange rate was very favorable. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t ranting about price increases and stuff that had more to do with geopolitical market shenanigans than it did with the company.

So I checked some historical prices via http://www.archive.org (no affiliation.) The Pocket was around £356 ($500ish) when I bought it in 2017. It is retailing, today, for £900. The Pounds:Dollar exchange rate was 1:1.29 back then compared to 1:1.39 as of today. It wasn’t the exchange rate that sent these products from expensive but obtainable to laughably exorbitant.

Pros:

  • I mean, just look at it.
  • In the hand, it is quite comfortable to hold and well balanced. The proportions are very nice. It has all of the trappings of a fantastic pen, but. . .

Cons:

  • . . .for the price, YOL has alarmingly unacceptable quality assurance. For what I paid for this pen I was pretty disappointed. If I’d paid today’s MSRP I would have been outraged.

Alternatives:

If you are in the market for a pocket pen, get literally any other pocket pen. On the inexpensive side, consider:

  • Kaweco Sports and Liliputs are bombproof. Their nibs usually need some tinkering but Bock seems to bork cheaper nibs less often, for some reason.
  • PenBBS 471 is a great pocket pen.
  • I find the Luoshi 358B a charming pen, and they work well for the price. One can buff the paint off pretty easily if you aren’t into the cigarette look.
  • Sheaffer Balance Juniors are fantastic pens. I recommend this one if looking for a flexy pocket pen–just make sure you find one with a “Junior” nib as the rest are not flexible at all.
  • Pilot E95s. Easily one of the best sub-$150 pens out there–possibly in the top 10 of the sub-$300 category–pocket pen or not. At least in my opinion. Really any vintage Japanese pocket pen by Pilot, Sailor, or Platinum could also work. This style of pen is a bit larger than European-style pocket pens, but they follow the same general concept of being small when capped and bigger when uncapped.

High-end pocket pens are somewhat difficult to come by, but for a more premium pocket pen look for:

  • Aurora Optima Mini.
  • Montblanc 114 Mozart.
  • The now-discontinued Pelikan m300.
  • The now-discontinued Delta Dolce Vita Mini, but watch-out for that Bock nib.

If you are in the market for a Yard-O-Led, I recommend the Viceroy Standard over the Pocket because the cap is far more secure, but even the Viceroy Grand isn’t that high of a premium over the Pocket model. Personally I would have gotten the Viceroy Pocket ballpoint and used Uniball Jetstream D1 refills with it had I known that I’d dislike the fountain pen so much.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Pop-top.
    • Posts.
  • Nib:
    • *shudders*
    • Available in Fine and Medium. Maybe Broad, but after a cursory search I couldn’t find any for sale in Broad as of this writing.
  • Body:
    • Hand-chased sterling silver.
    • Shown the Victorian finish, also available in Barleycorn.
  • Filling System:
    • Officially Standard international short cartridge only.
    • Kaweco mini piston converters can be made to work but only hold a tiny bit of ink. Squeeze-type Kaweco converters did not work for me in this pen and created an inky mess.
    • I am willing to bet that one of these minuscule Templar Ink mini converters would work, too (no affiliation). I’ll update here if I’m ever enterprising enough to buy ridiculously small converters to try in a pen I don’t really care for that much.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 110mm
    • Uncapped: 95mm
    • Posted: 127mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 28g
    • Pen: 20g
    • Cap: 8g
  • Section Diameter:
    • 10mm
Top to bottom: Pocket, Standard, Grand, capped.
Top to bottom: Pocket, Standard, Grand, uncapped. The pen isn’t really big enough to be used like this.
Top to bottom: Pocket, Standard, Grand, posted.
With Kaweco Sport.
With Kaweco Sport.
With Kaweco Sport.

Pilot E95S

Edit: Public Service Announcement: Always check your pockets before doing laundry. In loving memory of Mat’s Pilot E95s, 2017-2021. RIP, my sweet prince.

Update: It’s back from the dead but it was a huge PITA; basically a complete restoration. The nib was bent up and not attached to the pen. Ink and scuffs everywhere. It was a nightmare, but now IT LIVES. Don’t put your pens through the laundry.

Pilot is among my favorite pen makers. They’re by the far the largest of the Japanese pen companies and have a massive selection of writing instruments for any taste or budget, ranging from a few dollars to tens of thousands of dollars in their Namiki line.

The E95s, or Elite 95, is an underrated gem.

It’s modeled after the Japanese pocket pens of the 1960’s, which were designed to be short when capped and full sized when posted. They usually had semi-hooded or inset nibs, appealing to the streamlined, futuristic tastes of the time. Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum all made pens in this style, as did other now-defunct or obscure companies like Morison. I’m sure that other companies made pens in this style as well.

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The E95 feels like a standard-sized pen that was designed to be smaller when stowed, unlike other pocket pens that are either intentionally small and designed to be larger when in use or are merely scaled-down variants of bigger pens. It’s not nearly as compact because of this but it’s more comfortable in use, at least to me.

My E95 is the black version and it is made from plastic with some metal components inside that do not affect the pen’s balance. The cap is a soft metal, lacquered black on my model. The burgundy model has a brushed appearance, but I do not have that one to compare. The clip is spring-loaded and works well. The cap is somewhat hard to describe: it is a pseudo-clutch-type mechanism that stays tight whether the pen is capped or posted. In any case, it’s unique, effective, and satisfying to use.

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The 14 carat gold nib is inset, which I personally like but not everyone does. It comes in extra fine, fine, and medium; mine is a fine. The nib is stiff enough to be a practical and a smooth writer but isn’t so stiff as to feel lifeless. It was a flawless performer out of the box with a lovely balance of wetness, smoothness, and feedback. The line produced by this fine nib is about what one would expect out of a Pilot–a bit finer than an equivalent German nib, but not a needle point.

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E95 writing is line 5.

The soft metal cap is easily dented, so I don’t consider this a hard-use pocket pen like a Kaweco Sport or similar. This pen uses Pilot’s proprietary cartridge/converter system and the only converter that officially fits is the Pilot Con-40. The converter rattles, has a low capacity, and the pen’s design makes it impossible to check your ink level while it’s installed. I hope Pilot re-visits their small pen converter, but for the time being it will allow the pen to fill from a bottle. The now discontinued Con-20 also fits. Pilot’s cartridges work perfectly in this pen and would be my choice if this were going to be my one and only everyday pen due to their better capacity and Pilot’s high quality ink. Pilot cartridges are becoming increasingly available at office supply stores and they allow one to monitor the ink level in this pen while holding up well to refill and reuse. Edit: Pilot is now selling the Con-B, which is the old “cleaning converter” that comes with the Parallel, MR line, and probably a few others. It is perfectly adequate for this pen and would be my preference in lieu of the Con-40, although both do what they’re supposed to. Anyone with a latex allergy would need to avoid the Con-B, though.

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Cannot check ink level when filled with the Con-40. All that’s visible here is the operating knob and threads of the piston.

The E95s retails in the United States for $136–which is a very attractive price in the competitive sub-$200 category. Anyone looking for a “step-up” pen should strongly consider this pen.

Pros:

  • Clever design.
  • Light and well balanced.
  • Fits in a shirt pocket but isn’t too small in use.
  • Flawless performance.
  • Great value.

Cons:

  • The Con-40 is trash, so a user would have to live with it or use cartridges.
  • Edit: Or get a Con-B. Or source an old Con-20, but those are going for 10x more than the Con-B right now.
  • Not as robust as some pocket pens. This should be considered a “shirt pocket” pen, not a “jeans pocket” pen.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Postable aluminum sliding cap with spring-loaded clip.
  • Nib:
    • 14k inset fine.
    • Also available in extra fine and medium.
  • Body:
    • Polished black resin.
    • Also available in burgundy.
  • Filling system:
    • Pilot Con-40 or cartridge.
    • Con-40 capacity is 0.4mL by my calculations.
    • Cartridge capacity is around 1.1mL.
    • The discontinued Con-20 works in the pen, as does the “cleaning converter” that comes with some Pilot pens. edit: AKA the Con-B, now available for sale.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 121mm
    • Uncapped: 114mm
    • Posted: 149mm
  • Weight:
    • Total: 15g
    • Pen: 10g
    • Cap: 5g
  • Section diameter: 9-12mm.
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e95_pg1
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Sheaffer Balance Junior

I’ve been reviewing full-sized and oversized pens  for the most part, but I decided to break it up with this sweet pocket pen.

The Balance Junior was one of Sheaffer’s lower-tiered, non-white dot pens, but it’s largely made from the same materials as the larger Balance pens–14k nibs, the same celluloid, and so on. This one doesn’t have gold-plated trim, but otherwise there isn’t much difference between this and a white dot Balance, except the size. Sheaffer made Balances from 1929 until the early 1940’s; Sheaffer didn’t introduce the Marine Green striated celluloid until 1937, so this pen is at least that old (more Sheaffer balance information can be found on Richard Binder’s Website.)

DSC_0181
Trying to capture the depth of the celluloid.

Unlike larger Balances, the Junior can be found with the Junior nib–a beautiful, semi-flex nib. Typically, vintage 14k nibs from Sheaffer are extremely rigid; the Junior was available with these rigid nibs too, but the Junior nib is anything but. Perhaps it’s not as flexible as a full-flex vintage nib, but I doubt that any modern flex nib can outperform this nib and feed.

DSC_0171
Tiny nib with a lot of character. Also shown is the visulated section that helps keep track of the pen’s ink level.

I don’t really write with flex pens but this one is very enjoyable. It takes zero effort to flex, snaps back quickly, and the feed keeps up well. It’s perfect for adding a little bit of a flair to writing, but I wouldn’t push it too hard.DSC_0165

That said, a nib this flexible isn’t really all that great for everyday writing unless using a light touch. The pen is very tiny, too, so I don’t like it for long writing sessions. Someone with a smaller hand and delicate touch could make it work.

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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport

The street price for this pen is $50-$100, depending on the material, filling system, nib, and condition of the pen, so someone in the market for a self-filling, high-quality pocket pen could do a heck of a lot worse. However, pens that fill with sacs–like lever fillers–are more sensitive to jostling, temperature, and pressure changes so it should still be carried in a secure way, not rattling around in a purse or jeans pocket.

DSC_0174
Made in the U.S.A in Fort Madison, Iowa.

Pros:

  • Stunning materials.
  • Basically affordable and still around.
  • Pocket-sized, self-filling pen with an ink window (technically a “visulated” section, but functionally similar).
  • Wonderful nibs.
  • Holds more ink than a typical cartridge only pocket pen.
  • Vintage Americana.

Cons:

  • It is small. That might be a pro, depending on the writer.
  • The youngest of these pens have been around since World War II, so they’ll come with vintage pen “quirks”.
  • Lever fillers suck to clean and pens that fill with sacs are more likely to burp/splatter/do weird stuff in response to vigorous movement, temperature changes, or air pressure changes.

Specs:

  • Cap:
    • Screw cap.
    • 1.25 turns to remove.
    • Postable.
  • Nib:
    • 14K Sheaffer Junior; EF/F Semi-Flex.
    • They were also made with rigid two-tone 14k Lifetime nibs and Sheaffer #3 nibs, almost always in fine or sometimes medium.
  • Filling System:
    • Lever filler with visulated section.
    • Ink Capacity: 0.8mL.
    • Vacuum fillers were an option on later pens. These are harder to restore than lever fillers and have a higher price tag.
  • Length:
    • Capped: 123mm.
    • Uncapped: 117mm.
    • Posted: 143mm.
  • Weight:
    • Total: 11g.
    • Cap: 4g.
    • Pen: 7g.
  • Section diameter:
    • 8-9.1mm.
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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport
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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport
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Size comparison with Safari and Kaweco Sport

Kaweco Sport

The Kaweco Sport is another pen that there isn’t really anything else that I can say that hasn’t already been said. It is a ubiquitous beginner-level pen and sort-of the quintessential modern pocket pen. There is already a lot of information about it floating around. My red Ice Sport was my second pen, so for the sake of staying in chronological order, here we go.

There are dozens of finishes for this pen–demonstrators, plastic or metal, gold trim or not, whatever one could want. Typically, the pen comes with a steel nib in sizes ranging from extra fine to double broad, but one can find all the nib sizes in 14k gold–in plain gold, rhodium-plated, and two-tone finishes–and stub/calligraphy nibs from 1.1mm to 2.3mm and a double nib that makes two lines at once. Several different types of removable clips, two types of converters, and the option to convert the pen into an eyedropper make the Sport a very customizable pen, although it’s all extra because the pen only comes with a blue cartridge.

2sports_pouch

I wear a large size glove and I can write with the Sport for a long time, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. The pens really were meant for quick notes, and for that they work well. I have a thing for matching sets, so I eventually got an Ice Sport ballpoint to go with my fountain pen, and it works as it should. The Kaweco double pen pouch makes a compact package for on-the-go writing activities, and the plastic pens are sturdy enough to handle whatever is thrown at them. My red Sport has been camping, kayaking, and hiking and has never had a problem except it likes to burp ink if I use the squeeze converter or convert the pen to eyedropper fill, so I don’t do that.

2sports_open_closed
Open and Closed. A spring from a cheap clicky ballpoint can be used to prevent the cartridge from getting dislodged.

As far as the writing experience goes, Kaweco has a reputation for questionable nib QC. All my Sports wrote too dry out of the box, which is an easy enough fix but annoying, especially for beginner-tier pens, but they wrote. Frankly, I blame Bock–the OEM nib manufacturer for Kaweco and a bunch of other brands. I’ve had many pens with Bock nibs in them and none of them were good out of the box. Some of them simply didn’t write without extensive work on my part or professional nibmeister modification. I would advise potential buyers to proceed with caution in that regard.

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Inks: Iroshizuku Fuyu-Gaki on top, Pelikan Blue Black on bottom. The double broad is slightly stubby and very smooth.

I do, however, like my Kaweco Sports. They are cool, durable, compact, and very customizable pens.sports