(Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part guest series written by Tyler Dahl, a fountain pen restorer with an extensive knowledge of these classic writing instruments.
Part I covered the reasons for wanting a fountain pen, and the pros and cons of choosing vintage or modern pens. Part II continues with more detailed criteria for selecting a pen.)
Wow! There are so many choices! Can you explain them to me?
For me, a fountain pen must look aesthetically pleasing if it’s going to get anywhere near my “to-buy” list. I have a feeling that this is important to most of us. Form over function – yes, but I still want a pen that I enjoy looking at and handling. To best show you some different styles, I’ll go over the basics, and include lots of pictures! :)
A classic pen, to me anyway, is a pen that shows a design that is not flashy, but not plain. It’s classy! Much like a fine suit, a classic pen is just the right thing for those who love formal, but not stiff.
Here is a personal favorite of mine. This pen is far beyond the price range we’re looking at in this article, but it’s the perfect example of a classically designed fountain pen. Shown below is a Pelikan M805 - Produced by a company founded in the early 1840’s, known as the Pelikan Pen Company. This pen however, is a modern pen, being produced in the last few years. Everything about this pen – the lovely pinstripes, the subtle trim, the beautiful nib – it’s a true perfectionist’s outcome of the word “classy.”
Here is another classic-looking beauty. This one however, is a vintage pen. This particular model is a Parker Vacumatic, in the “Major” size. The color is Azure blue, and this one sports a very rare BB stub nib (more on nibs later). This pen has the same classic elegance the above pen, but you can tell it’s vintage, from certain features. There is simply a “thing” about vintage pens that set them apart.
Next up – “cool” pens:
For all you guys reading this article – here is your type of pen! “Cool” pens, as defined by me, are fountain pens that are just plain cool. Best example of course is a picture:
This here is a Pilot Vanishing Point, in the matte black color. This is a pen that I own myself, and is one of my favorites. Though not cheap, this is certainly a viable option for a beginner’s pen, if you can afford it. If you really like this one, I’ve got a whole review of it here. This pen just screams “I’m cool”! And it’s the truth. Everything about the sleek lines, matte texture, and stylized clip – it all looks like something that Batman might use, if he had a fountain pen (maybe he does…).
This is one area where vintage pens are the winner every time. If you love that retro-awesome look, take a gander at this pen!
This pen here is an Esterbrook – an extremely popular brand of vintage fountain pens. This pen will be shown below, as it is one of my top recommendations for vintage pens! Coming in a variety of colors and sizes, the Esterbrook J series is one awesome looking pen. The pen below is a red Esterbrook, full sized model. They come in green, blue, copper, grey, and black as well!
These pens are usually very simple clean. They are very understated, but at the same time, they stand out in their own special way.
This here is a Pelikan M205 – all white, rhodium trim (silver colored as opposed to gold colored). Many people tend to think of white pens as “ladies only” pens, but I disagree. I love white pens, though I will say that are prone to staining, which is a disadvantage.
The pen below could also classify as cool, but it is such a perfect example of a modern pen, that I think it needs to be here.
This is the Lamy 2000 – a personal favorite of mine (reviewed here!). This pen is a beautiful clash of design, and function. It’s a utility pen that looks like a piece of modern art. Very cool.
A strange category, I know. :)
I call any pen that is just abnormal, a “weird” pen. Here’s a prime example of one, being one of my favorite pens as well.
The TWSBI Diamond 540 (and 530). This pen is called a demonstrator. This means that it’s made of clear plastic, and is built in such a way that the internal components can be clearly seen. I really love demonstrator pens, but some people just don’t. I all comes down to a matter of personal preference.
Now that we’ve covered some of the different types of pen designs out there, you will hopefully be able to better choose a pen that you like. It’s a tough choice, but just remember: feel free to experiment! Buy a pen, try it out, and sell or trade it later on. That’s why I highly recommend joining a community, like the Fountain Pen Network, were you can trade, and buy/sell with other FP enthusiasts.
This is very important to some people, so I thought I’d go over it real quick.
Some people find certain pens very uncomfortable due to their size. This is once again matter of personal preference. I have always been the type who can use pretty much any sized pen, so long as it’s within the normal range (not XXXS or XXXL).
Here’s a quick comparison sot of some relatively common pens.
We have here, from left to right:
- Pelikan M800. I consider this a large pen, but not quite oversize. It’s very heavy though.
- TWSBI Diamond 540. This pen is almost the exact same size as the Pelikan M800, but it’s much lighter.
- Pilot Black Matte Vanishing Point is very long when the button is included, but since you wouldn’t want to rest your hand there, it drops down to the size of the next pen:
- Pelikan M200. This pen is a small pen. I think the size is very nice, but some people with large hands may find it to hard to use.
- Namiki Falcon. This is kind of a mid-range pen. Not big, not small. Pretty much right in the middle.
Another thing to consider for size is the thickness of the grip-section, simply referred to as the “section” by most of us. A Pelikan M800 has a very thick grip section, as does the Pilot Vanishing Point. The Pelikan M200 and Namiki Falcon both have much thinner sections.
I prefer a bigger section to grip on, as it’s more comfortable for me. Chances are though, if you’re not picky, you won’t have too many problems. :)
This is a very important consideration in choosing the right pen. The nib is the part of the pen that actually touches the paper, and makes the words (or lines if you like to draw). Without a good nib, any fountain pen (even the nicest one), is worthless, except for use as a decoration.
I’ll try to keep this is short, but easy to understand. First I’ll cover nib sizes:
It’s important to pick the right size of nib for yourself. You don’t want to end up writing with something so big that you can’t read your own cursive, and you don’t want a line so small that you can’t see it. This is purely personal preference again, so I will just show you the options, and give you my personal suggestions.
All companies will offer you the choice of a F, M, or B nib. That would be “fine”, “medium”, and “broad”. Some companies even offer XF, XXF, BB, and BBB options. We won’t get into those, because honestly, I think they’re a bad choice for a new FP user.
Sadly, there is not “standard” for sizing nibs. This means that one companies F might be close to another companies medium. Generally speaking, Japanese made nibs tend to run a size smaller, and German nibs tend to run a size bigger.
Going off of what is approximately average, here’s what I recommend:
Fine nibs: If you like using
.05mm 0.5mm lead in your mechanical pencil, and you love those nice ballpoints with the “ultra-fine” tips, I would recommend a fine nib for you.
Medium nibs: If you like using
.07mm 0.7mm lead, and normal “bic ink sticks”, you’ll probably love a medium nib.
Broad nibs: Do you like the soft line of those thicker HB pencils? Perhaps you like to write with a Sharpie “ultra-fine” marker? A B nib is very close to these, and will probably be very satisfactory to you.
Once again, this boils down to a personal choice. I will say this – if you’re unsure, go with the smaller size. If you pick one to small, at least you can use it while you decide what to do. If you get a nib to big, you may not be able to even write with it.
There are many different “types” of nibs that I simply won’t go into in this article. These are things to discover for yourself as you learn more about fountain pens. For a good starting point, read my extensive nib article here. This will jump start you on all the basics of nibs, and a little beyond.
Many pens offer luxurious 14k and 18k nibs. Most inexpensive pens offer steel nibs. There is much discussion on gold being better than steel, however you can take my word for it – a steel nib, if properly tuned, can write just as good, if not better than any gold nib.
Yet another important aspect of selecting a new fountain pen: You need to select a filling system that you like. Loading up your pen with ink can become a chore if you have a filling system that requires re-filling often, is difficult to use, or is unreliable.
For the sake of time, I will cover the most common filling systems. These are the ones you will see first, and will run into most often.
A c/c filler is short for a cartridge/converter filling system. This is the most common filling system of all, especially with pens under $100.00. A c/c filler is a pen that is equipped to take a cartridge, or a converter. A cartridge is a small plastic tube filled with ink. Once the ink is gone, you toss it. A converter however, is for use with bottled ink, and uses a small piston mechanism to draw ink into the pen. It is reusable until the mechanism wears out.
- A c/c filler is convenient because you can keep a few spare cartridges in your bag or purse. Then if you run out of ink, you can refill on the go.
- Easy to replace if it ever becomes damaged, and new ones are only $5.00 or so.
- Holds very little ink, in most cases.
- They’re just not very “fun” to use.
A piston filler is like a giant version of a c/c filler. Instead of being a converting unit that is installed into the pen, a piston is built into the pen. Piston fillers are known for reliability, and massive ink capacity. Pistons do need to be serviced every once in a while, but this is something that you can usually do yourself.
- Holds lots of ink! This is very important to me.
- Very reliable.
- Piston fillers are very fun to operate and use.
- They don’t wear out under normal use.
- They need to be serviced every once in a while.
- If you like to change ink-colors often, you may not like the huge capacity.
Most commonly seen on vintage pens, lever fillers use an internal reservoir (made of latex, called a “sac”) to hold ink within the pen. Lever fillers are classic, iconic, and are very easy to use. They hold a moderate amount of ink, and last for a very long time.
- Fun and easy to operate.
- Last for a pretty long time before wearing out, and need no service along the way.
- It’s a classic!
- They do eventually wear out, in about 30-50 years if properly taken care of. Replacement can be done at home, if you’re adventurous and want to invest in some inexpensive tools. Otherwise, one can get them restored for around $25.00 - $30.00.
- Unlike modern plastics, they do not take abuse well. The internal latex sac can be destroyed if ink is left to dry out in it for months without use.
An eyedropper pen is one that fills by using a syringe, or eyedropper to shoot ink straight into the pen barrel. These fillers hold the most ink of any kind, but they present some minor annoying problems.
- Holds TONS of ink!
- No maintenance, no mechanics, never wears out.
- Can be inconsistent when it comes to ink flow.
- They can blob/drip ink onto the page during writing. High end ones may have an air-valve to prevent this, but most of those are in the $300.00+ range. :)
Okay, I think that has basic filling systems covered. Ready to move on? Good, so am I. :) There are dozens more filling systems out there, but I simply can’t cover them all.
Ultimately, what you get is what you like. If you want an eyedropper-filler, and you don’t care if it has some minor problems, then go for it! I am just making suggestions, and giving you the info you need to make a purchase that you’ll enjoy. :)
Be picky, be selective, have fun!
Coming up tomorrow in Part III, Tyler makes some suggestions on the best pens for first-time buyers.
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.
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