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First Time Buyer's Guide To Fountain Pens - Part I

(Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part guest series written by Tyler Dahl, a fountain pen restorer with an extensive knowledge of these classic writing instruments.)

Hello to all of you who are reading this article! My goal here today is to help you in picking out your first fountain pen! It’s a difficult decision, and selecting the right one can be difficult. There are so many options, and with all the great articles and reviews out there, it can be mind boggling to a beginner.

By the end of this series, you should be able to make a wise choice on selecting your first pen. If you’re having a hard time, you can always send me an email, and get a personal response to your questions. Though I am a bit busy with business sometimes, I always make time to talk pens with people, especially beginners.

As with all my reviews and articles, I’m going to provide you with a little list of what we’ll be covering here. By breaking this down into categories, you should have an easier time not getting lost during the read, and scanning through if you bookmark it for reference.

My personal writing style is very “conversational”. I hope you’ll enjoy it, cause I sure love writing it! The way I’m going to break up this into categories is by using questions, and answers. Here goes:

  • Part 1: Why would I want a fountain pen, and which is better for me, vintage or modern?
  • Part II: Wow! There are so many choices! Can you explain them to me?
  • Part III: What pens would you recommend for beginners?

Now, with that list in mind, the best place to begin is at the beginning, with question No. 1.

I’ll begin with a short list of the benefits of using and owning a fountain pen.

  •  They’re downright fun. This may sound like a lame reason, but it’s not. Writing can sometimes become a chore, and a burden. By using a writing instrument like a fountain pen, writing can become a joy!
  • They’re better for your hands. Ever gotten cramps from writing? Chances are you were using an “ink-stick”. This is the term which fountain pen owners use to denote a ball-point pen, usually of the “100 for $5.00) variety. A fountain pen is much better for long periods of writing, allowing the hand to relax, and write without becoming fatigued.
  • The personalization! Who doesn’t love a useful item, which is custom tailored to your hand? This is what makes fountain pens so much fun! There is SO much to customize with a fountain pen. Here’s some quick examples:
    • There are thousands (hundreds of thousands) of pens to choose from. LOTS of variety. There is something there for everyone.
    • Each pen can have a different type of nib, and a different filling system for drawing ink. For those of us mechanical geeks (like me), it’s really cool to pick out a pen with a complex ink drawing system.
    • Ink colors! There are at least over 1000 different colors of inks available, from a variety of brands. You can’t even begin to approach that with a ballpoint! Best of all, a single pen can use as many inks as you like, one at a time of course. This means that you can own only one pen, but you can have a stash of 20 inks (or more) to choose from, each time you re-fill.
  • Lastly (though there are many more reasons, I can’t give them all, for the sake of time), there is the nostalgia of using a fountain pen. Something sacred and wonderful about the “rituals” involved with caring for, and using it. Everything from filling it up, to cleaning it – it’s all special, and really keeps us close with our writing instrument. Sounds cheesy, but trust me, you’ll love it the first time you get to fill your fountain pen!

For me, a fountain pen is really just another tool. But it’s a special tool. One of the few tools that you can connect with, on a personal level. Though I consider myself a user, and not a collector, I still enjoy the intrinsic value of owning a fountain pen.

Indeed, in this modern day of smart phones, and super-techy gadgets, it is downright refreshing to have a delightful tool that never runs low on batteries, never has software crashes, and never gets outdated!

If you still don’t want a fountain pen now, I don’t know what to tell you! After all, what could you not love about a fountain pen? Sure, they require some light maintenance, and a little upkeep/devotion, but with a fountain pen, it’s fun to perform these tasks, not annoying. If you’ve decided that you do indeed want a fountain pen, read on for more information.

Vintage or Modern?

So, you’ve finally made the decision to buy a pen, right? Well now you’re probably looking at the dazzling array of different options available. There are hundreds of thousands of different pens on the market, and many of them have some extremely winning qualities. What you need to do is decide what you want for your fountain pen.

I group fountain pens into two main categories: vintage pens, and modern pens. There are ups and downs to both types of pens. I will explain here, the most important pros and cons of vintage and modern fountain pens:

Vintage fountain pens

Pros:

  •  You often times get more pen for your $ than with a modern fountain pen.
  • You get the added nostalgia of the pen being vintage .
  • A vintage pen has history behind it, each one has a unique story.
  • You might just prefer the retro style!

Cons:

  •  Vintage pens tend to be more fragile (not all of them) than their modern counterparts.
  • Vintage pens often need repair before they are functioning again. This is the same as restoring any antique when it has been out of use for a lengthy period of time. This is all dependent on where you buy your pen from. There are many reputable sellers of vintage pens who will guarantee them working for you. I will provide a list of places to purchase pens from at the end of this article.
  • You might dislike the certain filling systems that vintage pens use. I personally love them! They are a lot more unique than most modern filling systems. I’ll talk more on filling systems in just a minute here.

Modern fountain pens:

Pros:

  •  Modern pens are usually very sturdy, due to the new plastics we’ve invented recently. This is very important if you are a student, or work at a job where your pen will be subject to some light “abuse”.
  • Many people, including me, prefer some of the modern styled pens. Most particularly when you’re looking at a lower price range.
  • Modern fountain pens are guaranteed to work when you get them, unless of course you have a strange occurrence of a manufactures defect. Luckily most companies and retailers will replace your pen if it’s not working properly.
  • Most modern pens will last longer without the need to be re-furbished. Vintage pens need their internal components replaced every 15-20 years, or more depending the filling-system.

Cons:

  • Modern pens can have a tendency to not write well out of the box. This is not uncommon, but it’s not extremely common either. It is something that you should be aware of. Luckily if your pens has been purchased from a good re-seller, they will make sure that the nib has either been tested beforehand, or that they have a good return policy.
  • You may dislike the filling systems available for modern pens. Most of them in the lower price range will feature filing systems that just aren't as good as a vintage pen for the same price.

So now we’ve discussed the pros and cons of vintage and modern pens. In Part II, I am going to go into more detail on different aspects of them.

About the author:

Tyler Dahl is a young and enthusiastic fountain pen fanatic. The youngest professional pen-repairer currently out there, Tyler spends much of his time with inky hands, and broken pens.

He keeps plenty busy running his part time restoration business, and two different blogs: Tyler Dahl Fountain Pens, and The Repairer's Bench.

When he's not blogging or repairing pens, he's currently working on building a small house with his family in Tennessee, and helping run the family farm.

First Time Buyers Guide to Fountain Pens Part 1

First Time Buyers Guide to Fountain Pens Part 2

First Time Buyers Guide to Fountain Pens Part 3

6 thoughts on “First Time Buyer's Guide To Fountain Pens - Part I”

  • Fayre

    Great series, I look forward to the next instalments.
    I have a self-penned leaflet for my students discussing many of these points to help them chose the right pen - I am especially looking forward to Part Three, it is always interesting to see the recommendations of others, especially from a different country with different pens commonly available.

    Reply
  • The Pen Warrior

    Many thanks to Tyler for taking the time to write this great guide, the links to all three parts can be found here:

    http://blog.tigerpens.co.uk/first-time-buyers-guide-to-fountain-pens-part-i/

    http://blog.tigerpens.co.uk/first-time-buyers-guide-to-fountain-pens-part-ii/

    http://blog.tigerpens.co.uk/first-time-buyers-guide-to-fountain-pens-part-iii/

    Reply
  • Paul Trieu

    Hi
    I have read your articles and would like you to give me some personal opinions.
    I have a Parker #51 (pre-1946) Vacumatic with 16K gold filled cap; diamond on arrow clip and signle jewel.
    Someone has told me that Aeromatic filler for #51 is preferred and did not give me a good price for my cedar blue pen.
    Do you know where I can sell my pens to get good cash payment in the U.K.?
    I have also got a 45 with brushed steel can and one with 14K gold filled cap but I was told it only worth th same as the new Parker fountain pens one can buy in the shop which I can not accept.
    Any comments?
    Thank you.

    Reply
  • The Pen Warrior

    Hi Paul

    I think that your best bet would be to try the Fountain Pen Network

    http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/

    I am sure that you will get the best advice from somebody there.

    Reply
  • Hilary

    Great article, Tyler! As a fountain pen aficionado, I would like to say as well, that once you get used to using a fountain pen, you rarely stop at just one.

    One of the advantaged of going for a vintage/second-hand, is that the have their own personality. I love my second hand pens – I keep an eye out on ebay, and you can pick up some great bargains and do some experimentation without paying the full cost from new, but there are also truly duff ones, where it has been dropped and the nib straightened out again (but an unhappy nib that is scratchy and never writes true again), the ink flow doesn’t work properly or other major issues.

    I’ve come to love my vintage pens, but it makes it all the worse when it gets lost (mysteriously at work, somehow), or even worse dropped on the floor (always landing nib down, of course). I cherish my Shaeffer Imperial, and use it to write long letters to my 96-year old grandmother, but it’s too precious to me to leave the house!

    Modern pens. I love my £1.49 Crayola fountain pen (yes, seriously, it’s my new favourite), but won’t touch yard-of-lead, Caran D’Ache or Cross pens as I find them unbalanced and difficult to use. It’s worth visiting some big department stores or specialist pen shops, where you can handle and try out pens before buying and get a feel for them. It’s a very personal thing. I find size and balance a major issue – I have very small hands, so I like my Shaeffer Imperial (136mm) and Kaweco Sport (105mm) and use them uncapped (without putting the lid on the end). Barrel width and shape is something that I’m picky about, as is the amount of flex the nib has.

    I tend to keep the treasured vintage pens at home or in trusted places, and cheap modern ones in my normal place of work.

    Ink makes a huge difference. As tempting as it is to buy those bags of cheap cartridges, just don’t. I have had to clean and flush a batch of pens because it caused them to completely seize up, and had to throw two pens away because of it. Ink chemistry is a hugely complex area, and something that manufacturers have been working on and perfecting over centuries. Different inks effect pens in different ways. I like to write quite wet, so I’m going through a Diamine phase, who conveniently supply in 30ml bottles (£2.67 each), although I am awaiting a J Herbin (£5.90 for 30ml), and looking into Noodler’s as a treat (£10 for 90ml).

    I tend to have a supply of different colour inks in bottles, and use a blunt-end 5ml syringe to refill empty cartridges. Not only is this far cheaper, but opens up the amazing array of stunningly beautiful coloured inks. I have a small stash of good cartridges that I take with me for emergencies. I also find the standard/international cartridges have too little ink, so I bought large ones (70mm long, compared to standard 37mm) that again refill from bottles of ink. They won’t fit in all pens, and of course only good for pens that take international cartridges (not Shaeffer, Parker or Monte Verde).

    The fountain pen world is a huge, fascinating place or joy. If you are new to it, then give it a go. Vintage/modern, makes, nibs, filling systems and inks are all great areas to explore once you ignite your love of fountain pens.

    Reply
  • Barry

    Is it possible to stop the annoying social media icons following me down the page and obstructing the text? I would like to read this article however, I find these icons too frustrating to continue.

    Reply
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