Pen Review: Newton Pens Sumpter
Material: Ebonite & Celluloid
Nib: Steel Oblique Broad
Filling System: Standard International Cartridge/Converter
Length (Capped): 149mm
Length (Uncapped): 134.6mm
Length (Posted): 173.5mm
Section Diameter: 12.4mm
Barrel Max Diameter: 14.4mm
Cap Max Diameter: 16.5mm
Weight, Uncapped (with ink and/or converter): 16g
Weight, Capped (with ink and/or converter): 28g
I started learning to play the piano when I was four years old. Our piano was an old Starr upright from the mid-1920s—a mahogany giant. It had been a player piano at one point in its long life, but somewhere along the way, the player guts had been removed. Its finish was darkened and crackled from decades of humidity and life in the house of a cigar chain smoker. The keys of the piano were covered with real ivory fading to worn yellow, veins of lighter and darker color running the length of the keys, and terminating chipped, uneven ends. It was an old beast, it weighed a blue ton, and it could fill the room with cacophonous sound. And it held its tuning about as well as you’d imagine (I.e., not well at all.)
As a child, I spent countless hours in front of that piano, perched on a hard, wooden bench—sometimes by choice, sometimes by parental dictate. The piano was placed along one of the walls of an open space in our house connecting the sunroom and dining room. The sun room of our 1914 victorian-transitioning-to-arts and crafts home was a beautiful room with three walls full of mullioned windows. Beneath the window sill, the walls were painted a deep, forest green, which offset the honey-colored oak hardwood floors and the white painted trim of the seemingly endless windows. I have fond memories (and some a bit less fond) of the Michigan winter sun on my back through the sunroom windows as I scaled up and down the octaves or worked on intricate fingerings of the latest Chopin or Bach I had been assigned.
Both the piano and the house of my youth have moved on in the world. We moved from the house the day after I graduated from high school, and the piano didn’t come with us. (I was the only one in the family who played, and I would be leaving home for college in a few short months.) These days, I live across the country. My oak floors are natural colored, and the walls in my house are a builder’s taupe. I don’t have walls of mullioned windows. My piano is a small, modern, shiny black instrument. But when I sit down to play, even these twenty years later, I am transported back to that time and place: ivory keys and dark green walls, and the sound of Clementi sonatas.
I first became aware of Shawn Newton’s pen on Instagram. At the time, Shawn was a high school art teacher in Arkansas, and his pens were (and still are) quite well-regarded. Shawn ran a monthly raffle of a custom-made pen, using postcards of his students’ art as “tickets” and putting the proceeds of the raffle toward college scholarships for those students. Then in 2015, Shawn announced that he would be retiring from teaching, and was going to become a full-time custom penmaker. I enjoyed watching Shawn’s pens roll through my Instagram feed, but one day, he posted a picture that stopped me in my tracks: a large cigar-shaped pen made of ivory celluloid and dark green ripple ebonite. It was as if he had plucked my sense memory of those hours and days and years at the piano in my childhood home and put them into a single pen. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of saving up my pen money for the DC show, and I couldn’t buy it although I was sorely tempted.
August rolled around, and before I knew it, I found myself wandering the floor of the DC Pen Show. And, who should I spy, right there in the lobby, but Mr. Shawn Newton. And he had the “Piano Practice” pen sitting out for the world to see. I went over, looked at the pen, chatted with Shawn for a bit, but I still didn’t buy it. “Don’t buy the first pen you think you want!” everyone said. “Walk around the show completely before you make your first purchases!” So, not knowing any better, I did. And I found myself walking by Shawn’s table three or four more times that first day, each time debating internally whether or not I should buy the Piano Practice pen. It was pricy at $400 and I wasn’t sure I was ready to blow that large of a chunk of my budget so early in the show. But by the time that lunch rolled around, I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t own that pen. So back I went to make it mine.
The Sumpter (the model shape of my Piano Practice pen) is a chunky, cigar-shaped pen with a large (read: long) cap. The cap takes up just shy of half the length of the pen when capped. Made of high-quality green ripple ebonite, the cap has a blunt, rounded finial that holds a silver clip in place. The clip of this pen has a lovely shape, but I have found the metal (sterling silver?) quite soft; it can be deformed with a bit of pressure.I have had to bend it back into shape a couple of times. In profile, the cap looks very mid-century modern to me, like a green ebonite Airstream trailer.
The barrel of the pen is made of a gorgeous ivory celluloid that reminds me forcefully of the keys on my old piano, shot through with veins of lighter and darker amber, much like the grain of real ivory. The celluloid of the barrel is sandwiched between to smaller pieces of the same green ebonite of the cap. The ebonite finial comes to a much more tapered terminus than the cap, which helps the uncapped pen feel a bit more streamlined.
Under the cap, which takes one and a quarter turns to remove, is a long green section with a slightly concave profile. I love this section and wish more penmakers would make long sections. It is long enough that I can actually hold the pen on the section while still keeping the pen at a good writing angle. No holding the threads for me!
Speaking of threads, the threads cut into this pen are as smooth and precise as any I have ever seen. In fact, across the board, I find the fit and finish of this pen to be nothing short of miraculous. The seams between the material joins are flawless. If I close my eyes, I can’t feel them. The threads are perfect. The polish job is just as perfect. Shawn’s pens are so well-made that you would be hard-pressed to tell they weren’t turned on a very expensive CNC lathe.
The Sumpter is, like many of Shawn’s pens, a cartridge/converter pen that can utilize standard international carts or converters in either short or long. It can also be converted to an eyedropper. Normally, I would be hesitant to eyedropper a pen made out of such light-colored celluloid, but it appears that the celluloid portion of this pen is actually a binde—a sleeve of material that slips over an internal base of ebonite. (Looking inside the pen barrel, all you see is the ebonite.) As a result, you shouldn’t have to worry about discoloring the celluloid by highly saturated inks if you decide you wanted to use this pen as an eyedropper.
The nib on this Sumpter is, like many custom pens, a standard #6 nib steel unit…probably Jowo. Shawn has had his logo engraved on the nib face for a bit of extra decoration. (I believe he has shifted recently to a new logo.) Shawn does make a wide variety of nibs available on his pens, including 18k nibs. He has even manufactured a couple of his own 14k nibs. He adjusts and even grinds nibs to the customer specifications, and does a really spectacular job of it. When I purchased my Piano Practice pen, it came with a truly perfect steel nib—smooth as silk and extra juicy. But as he watched me test the pen at his table in DC he asked if I ever used oblique nibs, as it looked like my grip and my tendency to rotate the pen would benefit from the oblique grind. He was right; oblique is one of my favorite nib grinds. So, after the show, he sent me an oblique nib to try and if I liked it, I could send the medium back.
It is not hyperbole to say that Shawn’s oblique nib grind is, hands down, the best I have ever used. That includes obliques from major manufacturers like Pelikan, vintage obliques, and custom grinds from some of the most well-known nibmeisters in the U.S. It is smooth while still having sharp, defined corners. It was ground to the perfect angle and is likewise perfectly tuned. The man knows his nibs. I may, at some point, replace the steel nib with an 18k oblique broad for the added nib softness, but thus far, I have been thrilled with the steel nibs.
In the hand, this pen is quite comfortable. It can be posted, but the pen posts by friction alone, and I’d be concerned about eventually cracking the cap lip or leaving marks on the barrel celluloid. Also, when posted, the pen starts to feel a bit long for my taste. Unposted, it sits nicely in the hand, and the long section means I can hold the pen on the section, not the threads. If I were to make any changes to the fit in the hand, it would probably be to increase the concavity of the section a bit more, but that’s being quite nitpicky.
Every custom pen maker’s work has a signature, a “feel”, that helps make it unique. Shawn Newton’s art background has combined with truly stellar craftsmanship in his pens. His bold color combinations and materials just work, although at first glance you might not think they would. Matched with designs that are more contemporary and unique than many you might see from other makers, Newton pens do rather stand apart from the crowd. They may not always be everyone’s cup of tea, but I can tell you this much: I love my big green and white Piano Practice pen.
For more information about Newton Pens models, pricing, and materials, and to see other examples of Shawn’s work, head over to http://newtonpens.com