Writing is a dying art that many of us still enjoy. Personally, I love the act of putting thoughts to paper with a pen, and I feel that doing so helps me remember details better. The last time many of us wrote all the time was in school, and honestly, the tools we used then were terrible. No. 2 pencils and cheap, plastic Bic pens provide some of the worst experiences for writing possible.
A few things can make all of the difference and significantly increase your enjoyment of writing. The first and most important is what you write with. My preferred tool is the fountain pen.
A Fountain of Difference
What makes fountain pens different, and presumably, so much better? First, the experience of holding and using a nice, well-crafted pen can’t be understated. It’s a simple, nice pleasure to use a great tool, and fountain pens can be some of the best writing tools made. Often you find aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, or other quality materials with exquisite details on the accents and small touches.
Second, fountain pens are much easier to write with. The capillary action that draws ink through the nib as you write requires very little pressure, making it much easier to write.
Third, fountain pen ink comes in every color imaginable, which can make a page truly come alive after years of writing with the same blues and blacks from ballpoints.
One of the things that makes fountain pens such higher quality is that they are more expensive. Since people pay more, the manufacturers give you a better product. How much more? Well, it depends. There are some fantastic fountain pens for as little as $3, and a nice Mont Blanc will run over $500. This is certainly going to run you quite a bit more than cheap office store ballpoints, which can run $0.10 or less apiece.
With that price tag, you might rightly worry, “Won’t I just lose it, though?” Honestly, I find myself losing my nice fountain pens a lot less often than cheap pens. In the back of my mind, I know that if I paid $30 for this pen, I tend to keep track of it a little better. I can think of exactly one nice pen I’ve lost in the many years since I’ve started using fountain pens.
Buying and Understanding Fountain Pens
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge and upgrade your writing, all of the options can be a little overwhelming! With ballpoints and gel pens, you are typically limited to whatever your local office supply store would have in stock.
The first thing to get used to with fountain pens is that you probably will not be able to just pop down to the local Staples and find anything worth buying (with one exception: the Pilot Varsity). For local options, you may be lucky enough to have a pen store near you (some malls have them). But, for many of us, we have to stick to online sales and catalogs.
I’ll mention two stores that I personally shop at. First is gouletpens.com. In addition to good prices and a great selection, the owners put up a lot of wonderful video reviews and tutorials for the fountain pen enthusiast, covering everything from new inks to fountain pen maintenance. Second is jetpens.com. They specialize in importing pens from Asian markets, and tend to have a fine selection and free shipping for orders over $25.
Now that you have some idea of where to buy these things, let’s talk about the kinds of fountain pens you might encounter.
At the lowest end of the price spectrum, there are a bunch of disposable and near-disposable fountain pens. These tend to use some of the cheapest parts and are (for the most part) not worth the extra dollars over a ballpoint or gel pen. Once you get above $10 or so, you can start to find good quality, reusable fountain pens.
When I say reusable, there are typically two options. The first is you can use a cartridge pen — that is, a fountain pen that takes ink refills, much like ballpoint and gel ink pens. The biggest differences from their cheaper counterparts are that you don’t replace the nib with a fountain pen cartridge, and the fountain pen cartridge uses real, liquid ink (ballpoint “ink” is really more like oil). The cartridges typically come in several standard colors (always blue and black), and some manufacturers have many more to choose from.
With cartridge pens, you can also often use a cartridge converter, which is essentially a refillable cartridge, to allow you to use bottled ink. What difference does it make? Well, bottled ink is slightly cheaper. But, most importantly, bottled ink is where you get the largest selection of colors; companies like Noodler’s Ink and Diamine have an incredible number of inks available.
Older pens and more expensive modern pens (say, over $200) typically don’t allow cartridges and can only be filled directly with bottled ink (through mechanisms like “piston-filling” or “vacuum-filling”). Cartridges are easier to handle and less messy than working with bottled ink, so are often a good choice for people new to fountain pens who are getting a feel for things before diving in.
Inexpensive — But Great — Pen Upgrades
I’ve given a lot of information above, but what are some bottom lines? What should you buy?
If you just want to see what all the fuss is about, I highly recommend the Pilot Varsity. It’s a $3 disposable fountain pen available from your local office supply store and comes in a few ink colors. Surprisingly for that price, it’s an amazing pen; I find it writes smoother than many of the more expensive pens I own. However, you should avoid pretty much every other cheap fountain pen as pretty much all but the Varsity are not worth it.
If you decide that you like this, then another set of fun, cheap pens to play with are the Pilot Petit1s. At about $4 each, these won’t break the bank, and they come in a much wider variety of translucent body colors, as well as matching inks. These are miniature fountain pens that are small and light and easy to carry in your pocket or purse and are delightfully fun. Even better, they’re refillable through relatively inexpensive cartridges.
For about $15–20, you can start looking at some of the steel-nibbed pens by Sailor or Pilot. For instance, the Sailor HighAce Neo pen has great reviews, and usually retails for about $17.
For just a little bit more, between $20 and $30, you can start looking into the Lamy Safari line of pens. These plastic-bodied pens have great nibs and write incredibly well, and they are available in many colors to suit your palette. I find the Safari to be a little light, and I go with the slightly more expensive Lamy Al-Star, which is essentially a Safari with an aluminum body. This adds a little more heft to the pen and the price tag — these tend to go for about $35–40.
One word of caution: When looking at pens on the lower end of the price spectrum, watch out for nibs that are marked with “Iridium Point Germany.” These indicate that the tipping material was purchased from Germany, but are often indicative of cheap, low-quality Chinese- and Indian-manufactured nibs rather than high-quality German nibs. While there are some nice nibs out there that are stamped with this as well, it’s normally best to avoid those words when looking for inexpensive pens.
A Pen Worth the Splurge
You’ve decided you love fountain pens, and maybe you’ve been enjoying your Lamy Safari or other similar quality pen. What other ones are worth considering?
Honestly, once you start getting into $50 and above, the pens start to become pretty high quality and it’s really a matter of personal preference for what you want. I’ll mention one.
My favorite pen for last few years is the Pilot Vanishing Point. The most important part is that it is a clicky pen; the nib retracts instead of having a cap. This delights me incredibly. It has a good heft to it, and it has an 18K gold nib, which gives it a softer, smoother writing style than the less expensive steel nibs. For about $140, it’s not crazy expensive. Plus, did I mention clicky?
All photos courtesy of author except lead photo churl.