Working from home these last eight months, my desk has become a big pile of pens. When I used to go in to the office I was selective about which pens I’d load up into my pen cases and carry back and forth with me; it was more pens than I ever needed, but they were tucked away discreetly in pen cases and stowed in my briefcase. Since setting up shop indefinitely in my home office, though, my pen collection has slowly creeped out onto my desk, where I can enjoy it more frequently. This has lead me to seek out different pen holders and stands. One of the brands that I’ve turned to is Good Made Better, whose claim to fame is their “Penwell” models, which are designed to hold firmly to the cap of your pen, allowing you to rest your pen in its cap when not in use to avoid drying out, but easily lift your pen in and out for intermittent use during the day. I have both their Classic and Traveler models, and I’m happy to share my thoughts on them with you. (and keep reading until the end to check out the future of Penwells, which has just launched on Kickstarter.)
The Penwell Classic model has a striking shape. Made to resemble a classic inkwell, Dan Keller, the man behind Good Made Better, first brought this product to market in 2017. The design has evolved over time (early models used an internal clip to hold the pen cap firmly, but this was later replaced with improved tapered foam inserts of different sizes), and Dan has experimented with different materials and finishes, but the classic look has remained the same.
The particular Classic model that I own was the first limited edition model, released for the 2018 Baltimore pen show. I did not actually purchase it at the show, as I had only budgeted for pens, not accessories, and I regretted that for the next two years. Early during my 2020 quarantine I decided I had nothing to lose in emailing Dan to see if there were any leftover units laying around. To my amazement it turned out that Dan still had a few, and he put them up for sale in response to my inquiry. I bought one right away and it has been on my desk ever since.
This particular Penwell is made of painted wood, with a pattern inspired by the Calvert family banner, which is better known as the background of the Baltimore City flag, or two quadrants of the Maryland state flag. The Calvert banner was also the flag flown by Marylanders sympathetic to the Union during the US Civil War. As a lifelong Marylander, and as a Baltimore resident for the better part of the last decade, I am proud to show this design off on my desk. We love our flag here in Maryland. My only “complaint” is that the design faces away from me while the Penwell is in use, so I can’t appreciate it while I’m writing. That may be part of the reason that Dan moved away from special edition graphics in later limited editions, and instead turned to unique materials or interesting finishes applied uniformly over the Penwell.
Between the two different size inserts, the majority of my pen collection is compatible with the Penwell Classic. The standard insert has enough of a taper to hold slimmer pens as well, like the rOtring 600, and the XL insert is wide enough for thicker caps like a Montegrappa Fortuna, or the chunky cap of the Red Dragon Pen featured below. You might have trouble shoving the cap of a rOtring Core in there, but there’s always going to be outliers.
In order to keep the Penwell in one spot on your desk, which is important in order to use it as designed to hold your pen cap, the bottom of the Penwell features a micro-suction tape. This tape can be cleaned if you need to remove it and move it around, and Good Made Better sells replacement tape if you ever need. One draw-back of the Classic design is that the foam insert is removed and swapped through the bottom of the Penwell, meaning that if you need to switch between the standard and XL inserts you have to lift the pen well up from your desk and change it out, which contributes to the micro-suction tape losing stickiness over time.
The Penwell Traveler was launched as a Kickstarter project in 2018. The design this time was less romantic and more utilitarian, with the curves of the Classic swapped out for hard angles and straight lines. The Traveler has three big features going for it: it is portable, it has a reversible foam insert, and it is adjustable.
Portability is the main selling point of the Traveler; it’s right there in the name. The Penwell Traveler ships with a carrying case, and also includes a plastic cover to place on the micro-suction pad in transit, to protect the pad and keep it clean. The carrying case is nice and compact, and I’ve taken my Traveler with me on trips even when I wasn’t sure if I’d have a chance to set it up at all, just because I knew it would barely take up any space.
The reversible foam insert is a nice touch for the Traveler. While it isn’t capable of holding pens quite as big as the XL insert on the Classic, it is still capable of holding most pens between the two sides. There is also an optional XS insert that can be purchased separately to hold even narrower implements, like the Apple Pencil. The foam insert on the Traveler comes out of the top of the Penwell, unlike the Classic. Whereas it’s easiest to push it out from the bottom, the fact that it comes out through the top makes it possible to swap the insert around without having to lift the micro-suction pad off your desk.
The adjustable angle of the Penwell Traveler is the type of thing you didn’t know you wanted until you had it. The standard fixed angle on the Classic model works great, but the ability to adjust the angle, both for personal comfort and for spatial constraints, or any other concerns you may have, is a very nice option.
While the Classic and Traveler have been the two most prominent models of Penwells, Good Made Better has experimented with a variety of other shapes. There is the Solo Pen Stand, designed to hold your pen upright by the base rather than gripping the cap. There have been a variety of prototype shapes, usually more minimalist in aesthetic in order to show off their materials, and exploring different angles and different numbers of pens. There have also been some Traveler prototypes that hold two or even three pens, each at their own independently adjustable angle. And now, as of the time that I’m writing this, a new Kickstarter campaign has just launched for the Penwell Craftsman.
One of the concerns that many people have with the Penwell models that I’ve been using is that they are incredibly light-weight. The Classic weighs in at 1.33 oz. with the standard foam insert, and the Traveler weighs only 1.225 oz. Thanks to the well engineered design angles, there isn’t much risk of the Penwell tipping over, but because these are designed for you to take your pen in and out of with abandon, the micro-suction tape on the bottom is doing a lot of work to keep the Penwell from sliding around your desk. There is a 16.4 oz brass Penwell Classic available for those who want a weightier option, but the new Penwell Craftsman is designed to be the heavyweight of the Penwell lineup. Weighing in at 10 oz. for the concrete standard model, or a whopping 20 oz. for the deluxe model that adds a brass plate to the bottom, the Craftsman is designed to work without having to adhere to your desk surface. I don’t have one handy to compare, but based on my experience with prior Penwell models I’m excited for it, and I’ve already backed the campaign personally for a Penwell Craftsman Deluxe in blue. I’m excited to put the Craftsman to use once it arrives, and I look forward to seeing what else Dan and Good Made Better bring to market in the future, as they continue to experiment and innovate.
The products reviewed in this review were purchased directly from Good Made Better at full retail price or through a public Kickstarter campaign. Good Made Better provided Penquisition with an additional Classic foam insert at zero charge for purposes of comparison.