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

(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 continued with more detailed criteria for selecting a pen. In Part III, he offers specific suggestions for first-time pen buyers.)

What pens would you recommend for beginners?

There are thousands of different pens out there, and in such a dazzling array of styles and colors too. It’s mind boggling to try to browse through them, and find the right one. Lucky for you, I have some recommendations to help you find a suitable first pen! These are my top picks, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best, or everyone’s favorites. They are however, all very popular, and they’re all great pens. Let’s jump right in!

For modern pens:

TWSBI Diamond 540:

I love this pen. It’s my top pick for any new FP users – the first pen I always recommend. This pen has created a huge fan-base, due to the company's excellent service, and how awesome the pen is.

Details:

Price: $50.00

Filling system: Piston

Size: Medium/Large

Nib material: Steel

Let’s go over it’s pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Very inexpensive for what you get. Lots of value for dollar here!
  • Piston filler – holds lots of ink.
  • Cool design! I love demonstrators.
  • The company’s customer service is A++! They’re the nicest company I’ve ever dealt with. If something breaks on your pen, and it’s a manufacture defect, they’ll send you a new pen or part for free, without a moments hesitation.
  • Interchangeable nibs. Huge plus to me. Nib units screw in/out, with no mess, even when the pen is inked. The company gives you a case to hold the spare nib, so you can swap nibs on the go!

Cons:

  • You may hate the design. Some people do not like demonstrator pens…
  • Steel nib – not really a con to me though. I love my TWSBI nibs. :)
  • The nibs can be (rarely) hit or miss. I have heard mostly good reports, but just a few bad ones. Luckily, if it’s bad, you can get a free replacement, no questions asked!

Overall, I have yet to find a modern pen that even begins to compete with the 540's value for $. There is nothing quite like it!

Lamy Safari

German made, and built like an absolute tank, the Lamy Safari is a superb pen that can really take a beating. It comes in some wild colors, and it does look a bit goofy. However, if you have a rough job, you’re at school, or you have small children who love messing with your stuff, this may be your pen. It’s practically indestructible. :)

Details:

Price: $28.00!

Filling system: c/c (cartridge converter – comes with converter)

Size: Large, but lightweight

Nib material: Steel

Some ups and downs:

Pros:

  • Very inexpensive, period. :)
  • Practically indestructible. This thing is not built like a tank, it is a tank!
  • Has interchangeable nibs, though  they're not nearly as easy to swap as the TWSBI 540. The plus is that new nibs only cost about $11.00 - dirt cheap!

Cons:

  • The design is not very nice, to me personally. The matte black version looks a bit better, but some of the brighter colors look very “pre-school”, if you know what I mean.
  • c/c filler. Does not hold a lot of ink.

Overall it’s a great pen, and it just doesn’t break. If you’re rough on your stuff, the Lamy Safari will not be failing you.

Pilot Vanishing Point

One of my favorites in my collection. The Pilot Vanishing Point is a convenient pen, which is exactly what it’s designed for. It is one of the few pens that can be “operated” one-handed. There is no cap to this pen. Instead, it uses a clicking mechanism much like a ball-point, though it feels much smoother to operate.

Details:

Price: $130.00, give or take depending on the store.

Filling system: c/c (cartridge converter – comes with converter)

Size: Medium/Large

Nib material: 14k gold (with the exception of Limited Editions being 18k)

Pros:

  • Really amazing, and convenient pen.
  • Super fast for on the go writing.
  • Very sturdy pen – great for travel.

Cons:

  • You may hate the design. I love it. It's usually one or the other - no in between.
  • Does not hold a lot of ink. In fact it holds a very tiny amount compared to other c/c fillers.
  • Lacks the “elegance” of a traditional fountain pen.
  • It’s expensive for what you get. It’s worth it, but it’s not quite as much value as the TWSBI 540.

I really love this pen, and I highly recommend it. To me, it’s worth the price if you’ve got the money to spend.

For vintage pens:

Esterbrook J series:

One of my personal favorite vintage pens, Esterbrooks are what got me hooked on both vintage pens, and restoring them. :) Value for dollar, they’re amazing, and they come in such a variety, there’s one for everybody!

Details:

Price: $40.00 depending on where you buy it from. This is assuming it is restored to full working order.

Filling system: Lever filler.

Size: Small, medium, or large depending on which model you get.

Nib material: Steel.

Pros:

  • Comes in a huge variety of sizes and colors. Three sizes, six colors. Lot’s to choose from!
  • Lever fillers are classic, and fun.
  • Interchangeable nibs. The replacements are very cheap (approx. $10.00 for most, with the exception of rare ones), so you can have a huge variety of nibs to pick from.
  • Lever fillers are very easy to flush clean. This makes routine maintenance a bit easier and faster.

Cons:

  • It’s vintage, so naturally it’s not “super” sturdy. It is strong enough to withstand perfectly normal use though.
  • The nibs can be rather hit or miss. I recommend buying one from a restorer, who tests all the nibs before selling them. That’ll ensure you get a good one.

Overall, this is one of my top choices for anyone looking for a less-expensive vintage pen. They’re really fun! I more than highly recommend these.

Sheaffer Snorkel

A true classic. These pens are amazingly complex, and yet fun to use, and easy too. The filling system is pneumatic, utilizing air pressure via a plunger to compress an internal sac. The pen sucks ink through a tiny tube, called the “snorkel tube”. This makes it so that you never need to wipe your pen off after filling. Very nice!

Details:

Price: $60.00 depending on where you buy it from. This is assuming it is restored to full working order.

Filling system: Snorkel/pneumatic.

Size: Medium.

Nib material: 14k gold, or steel, depending on the model.

Pros:

  • Amazingly fun filling system.
  • Mess free filling.
  • Interesting/unique design.
  • Comes in many colors and models

Cons:

  • Though reliable when properly restored, it does require more maintenance than some pens to keep in good working condition.
  • It’s not a “tank”. I’d call it sturdy, but not abuse-ready.
  • The filling tube always looks so fragile to me! Luckily it's retracted into the pen during use, so the chances of hurting are practically none.

Overall, I really love the entire Sheaffer snorkel “family” of pens. They’re fun, quirky, and really good writers (most of the time). Highly recommended if you’re willing to pay for one.

Parker 51

The face of reliable vintage pens – The Parker 51 is iconic, and is one of the best vintage pens ever made. I dare to say it is the best vintage pen ever made. I will keep to the Aerometric filling system for this article. The Vacumatic filling 51’s are great, but I much prefer the aeros, especially for beginners.

 

Details:

Price: $80.00 depending on where you buy it from. This is assuming it is restored to full working order.

Filling system: Aerometric

Size: Medium.

Nib material: 14k gold in most cases (there are some “octanium alloy” nibs out there).

Pros:

  • It just never fails. Once properly restored, they’re as reliable as a fountain pen can be.
  • They look cool!
  • They can take a beating, and then some. For a vintage pen, it doesn’t get any more rock-solid than this.

Cons:

  • It doesn’t exactly look like a fountain pen. I’ve had it mistaken for a ball-point on multiple occasions.
  • Nibs can be really bad if you buy one un-restored. Stick to good/trusted re-sellers and restorers.

Overall, there is not a vintage pen I recommend more highly than the Parker 51. If I had to bet money on a pen being reliable and good, my thoughts will always go to this one. If you can afford the cash, I urge you to buy one. :)

Where can I get one?

The last and final section of this series. Now that you've (hopefully) picked out a pen you like, you're probably ready to buy it! The question is: where on earth do you get one? Well, there are lots of places to shop. some are good, some great, and others are not worth looking at. I'll go over my favorites here, as well as the ones to avoid.

Recommended:

Probably my favorite online retailer of pen and ink stuff. They've got a huge selection, good prices, and amazing customer service. The owners of the business (Brian and Rachel + "the team") are young, energetic, and fun people to deal with. Highly recommended. :)

There is a marketplace section, where great deals can be had on new and old pens, vintage and modern - there's a little bit (well, a lot actually) of everything! I have gotten the best deals on the FPN marketplace, and the forums are a great place to be too if you like to chat pens. :)

NOTE: You must have an account to sell on FPN. There a few other minor requirements. You can read the rules here.

(Editor's note: Tiger Pens also sells a number of new fountain pens, including Pilot, Lamy, Parker, OHTO, Waterman and Jinhao.)

There are quite a few folks who re-sell restored vintage pens, including myself. Here is a list of the ones I trust the most:

Well of course I trust myself! :P Each month I put up around 12 restored vintage (and some modern) pens for sale. All are in fully functional order, and are guaranteed for a year. I occasionally do sales too, (New Years day coming soon!).

As a fountain pen repairman myself, I greatly look up to Richard Binder. He is an icon of the FP world. He also lists a monthly tray of vintage restored pens. His prices are more on the premium side, but the pens he sells are certainly well worth it, coming from such a master restorer.

Ron Zorn is another restorer who I really look up to. He's been in the business for many years, and is nothing short of amazing. He has a sales page which is updated every so often with new restored pens. Again, prices are on the premium side, but his work is worth it.

Stores to avoid!

I don't want to name individual stores to avoid, so I'll just give you some rules/guidelines to go by:

  • If you're buying a vintage pen, make sure the restorer is trustworthy, and offers a good warranty. The three restorers shown above all offer 1 year warranties. I'd personally recommend nothing less, but if you're comfortable with a 3, or 6 month warranty, that might be an option. Just make sure it has one.
  • Make sure you're not paying for a "name". Buying directly from the manufacturer, or from a high-end retail store will just cost more for the name on the package. I like to buy used, but if you want new, seek out the lowest price, without compromising quality and customer service of course.

There is just one "store" I will specifically point out to avoid, for beginners. This doesn't apply to "seasoned" FP buyers.

Do not buy from eBay!

Let me say that one more time: Do NOT buy a pen (especially a vintage one) from eBay. You just don't know what you're getting. I've purchased dozens of pen that were "restored," only to find them in need of a complete (real) restore upon arrival.

Well, I think that's just about it! I've hopefully given you all the info you need to make a good, solid, wise, and enjoyable first-pen purchase. If you have any further questions, you can feel free to ask me anything at: tyler@tylerdahlpens.com.

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

7 thoughts on “First Time Buyer's Guide To Fountain Pens - Part III”

  • The Pen Warrior

    Tyler thanks very much for taking the time and trouble to write this guide. I have really enjoyed reading the series and I think it will be a great help to anyone who is thinking of buying a fountain pen for the first time.

    I also hope that more experienced fountain pen users will have read this, as there really is some excellent advice. I also thought that your recommendations were very interesting.

    Reply
  • Maja

    Hi Tyler--can't quibble with any of your choices, but I must say that eBay can be a great source of cheap vintage pens if they don't need restoration ....or if they are being sold as restored. Still, "Buyer Beware!" is good advice.....

    Reply
  • Andrew Sweet

    Thank you for the posting - really very helpful! I was wondering if you have an opinion on the TWSBI Mini in comparision with the 540 - they seem to be the same price here in the UK.

    Reply
  • barry

    Tyler Dahl – Fountain Pens.
    Sorry Tyler but I totally disagree about E bay pens. I was a novice buyer and started purchasing from E bay two years ago. I have paid a maximum of £200 for a large collection ranging from Sheaffer Snorkels to Parker Duofold. After replacing the odd seal, bladder and a quick buff. I have resold these pens for £450 back on E bay!
    After all you get what you pay for and there is always the returns option and your money back.
    Regards, Barry.
    I must congratulate Tiger Pens. Cheapest Lamy inks around.

    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
  • Glyn Potts

    Hello. Love your blog and your advice. Can I ask for advice? I have lots of fountain pens, mainly cross. I want to buy a Mont Blanc, however, is there a happy medium between cross and MB? Thanks. G

    Reply
  • The Pen Warrior

    Hi Glyn

    A lot of time buying a fountain pen is down to personal preference and these days it is difficult to try before you buy as there are very few bricks and morter pen stores left.

    You are probably better off posting this question on the Fountain Pen Network. where you should get a range of answers from people who use a wide variety of fountain pens on a daily basis. This would help you make a more informed choice.

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

    Reply
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