(This is the complete Fountain Pen FAQ, mostly unchanged – except for removal of some incredibly arcane ephemera and the notations about possibly non-existent web addresses – since its publication in 2003. I’m considering a significant update – a lot has happened in 11 years – but the updates will probably occur over time.)
Fountain Pen FAQ (FP-FAQ)
Burton H. Janz, email@example.com
Issue 4 – Midwinter, 2003
This is the unofficially official Fountain Pen Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document. Ballpoints, roller balls, and mechanical pencils are not discussed in this document, since I am much more interested in the mechanics and tuning of fountain pens than I am in replacing a ballpoint or rollerball refill. If you want a FAQ on non-fountain pens, then, by all means, write one!
There’s much new information in here, the FAQ has been completely reformatted, and much rewriting has been done. It is becoming more of complete reference for pens, not just a place for newbies to visit. And, more links to additional reference information has been added – some of these new links are valuable to “newbies” and “pros” alike.
There are also other changes and additions which go beyond plain editing. I hope that all of these changes make the document easier to read, and make the information just that much more accurate.
If you find that there is something of timeless interest that is not in the FAQ, please E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will seriously consider putting it in. The FAQ should be a living, growing document, and my intention it to see that it does indeed keep growing.
There are, unfortunately, no pictures in this document… yet. Expect them in the next version, to be released fairly soon. Meanwhile, pointers to sites with pictures appear throughout this document. Feel free to go to those sites and check out their information as well.
Unfortunately, the text version that is posted to the net will not contain these pictures. Sorry.
Briefly, future versions of the FAQ will contain sections on nib regrinding, pen repairs (like, how to remove and replace nibs and feeds on some kinds of pens), and other pen maintenance issues.
I think that “newbies” should have these answers at their fingertips without having to buy anything other than the tools, and “pros” should have a quick reference available to them to remind them of the simple stuff. So, my goal will be simple: to answer questions. And, as always, I will point you, the reader, to additional information.
Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, and “True Beliefs”.
There is indeed a lot of FUD about fountain pens, especially on the internet. There are lessons to be learned about what is rumor and what isn’t, what works and what doesn’t, and whom to believe… and whom not to believe. I’ll try to help, but you have to help too… by not being too naive.
A pen is a pen is a pen (with apologies to Gertrude Stein). It isn’t a life-and-death thing. It’s just a pen. If someone tells you that it’s more valuable than your car, don’t believe it. If someone tells you that ink X is better than ink Y, don’t believe it – until you actually use the ink. If someone tells you that pen A is better than pen B, remember that he/she found it a better pen, and after trying it you may absolutely hate it.
Opinions expressed here are my own, or have been selected by me from articles in several news groups or discussion groups. Send me E-mail at email@example.com if you disagree and have a good reason to change my opinion. I’m flexible, and have been known to change my mind.
The FAQ is only a set of guidelines, not an authoritative text!
Newbies, take note!
You, the new pen collector, may find that your question isn’t answered here, or that the answer isn’t enough for you. It is up to you to take some initiative to find the answers. Yes, there are experts and purists who can answer your questions, but some of them get tired of answering the same questions over and over. That’s why this FAQ exists, and that’s why there is a list of links later on in this FAQ. They are there for you to use.
Just keep in mind that “anything worth doing is worth doing well”. Take some time, be patient, look around on the net, in books, and in magazines, and you’ll find the answers. Have patience – the purists had to start out as newbies once, too!
And, this is the last time I’ll use the term “newbie”. From now on, I’ll call you novices, which truly reflects who and what you are.
Purists, take note!
This FAQ is aimed specifically at novices, or others who are either new or are returning to fountain pen use. There will be parts of this FAQ that you may take exception to, especially when I give an abbreviated view of a subject, or when I provide an overly simple answer to a question, or when my experiences are at variances from your own. Have patience with these new fountain pen owners – they’ll learn over time, just as you and I did, and will eventually come to their own conclusions — which will be as right and as correct as yours.
If you find that one of the answers I give just isn’t right enough for you, send me E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll have a civilized, polite discussion. Having an argument over a simple concept makes us look quite silly — and it also might “turn off” a potential collector!.
If you find that the FAQ answers your questions, then I’m very happy. If you find it doesn’t, and you decide to ask your question “online”, please ask it in a polite, non-intimidating, and non-accusatory manner.
By the same token, if you answer a question “online”, please answer it in a polite, non-intimidating, and non-accusatory manner.
And, please, remember that we’re all fountain pen users – a very unusual breed of person in 2003. Let’s treat each other with respect.
What is a fountain pen?
A modern fountain pen is one of the simplest machines known to man (next to the wheel, of course). It uses the opposing forces of capillary action and surface tension to force a fluid to flow through a small hole. There are usually no moving parts in a fountain pen – they just aren’t necessary.
In science, this type of machine is called a “gravity pump”. It depends on gravity as well as capillary effect. However, fountain pens don’t only work right-side-up: they will also work upside down. Why? Again, capillary action. As long as ink is trapped in the feed, it will continue to be drawn along the ink channel toward the tip of the pen until the feed is empty. You may have to turn the pen nib-downward to fill the feed, however.
Why use a fountain pen?
Personally, I find that I tend to press a ballpoint pen down on the paper to get ink on the page. That makes my hand get tired and cramped. Moreover, the line that comes out of the pen doesn’t vary from letter to letter, and thus doesn’t seem to have any “personality” to it. It’s kind of sterile and empty.
A fountain pen, on the other hand, uses a nib which flexes and changes shape as you move the pen. This causes the written line to take different shape based on the pen’s movement. Upstrokes may look different than downstrokes, and the width of the line varies constantly throughout the writing.
Whatever is written seems to look more alive and to have more expression. And you can intentionally vary the width of the line by increasing or decreasing the pressure you put on the nib, thus increasing or decreasing the space between the tines of the nib, and thus increasing or decreasing the amount of ink placed on the page. You control the pen, rather than the pen controlling you.
In short, a fountain pen adds “personality” to what you write. That personality can convey information about what the author was feeling when the words were written. The effect is more subconscious and subtle than it is obvious. But I’ve noticed it, and others notice it when I give them a handwritten note.
Speaking of which, a note written with a fountain pen gives the writer the ability to use some expressive lines and flair that simply cannot be duplicated with a ballpoint.
Lastly, think about this: a fountain pen reflects the way we humans have been writing for hundreds, nay, thousands of years. Mankind has, for as long as we can remember, been using a semi-flexible nib as a means to deposit an ink (whether a modern dye-based ink, an older iron gall ink, or even animal blood) onto a semipermeable material. This written record has existed as long as man can remember – heck, the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with some sort of pen and ink!
When you use a fountain pen, you are using a time-proven method for record-keeping. Let’s put it this way: do you think that Benjamin Franklin would have used a Bic to sign the Declaration of Independence… even if there was such a thing?
What are the parts of a fountain pen?
The pen has several components which make up two main systems: the body, and the ink path. The body usually consists of the barrel, the section (the thing that the nib is mounted on/in), and the cap. The ink path consists of the ink reservoir and filling mechanism, the feed (the non-metallic thing the nib seems to be sitting on), and the nib itself.
Why are fountain pen nibs made of metal?
If fountain pen nibs were made of hard plastics or other materials, they might crack or split during use. If they were made of a material that is too soft, they would either wear out very quickly or be too easily mashed down and destroyed. So, metal is used to make the nib of a fountain pen.
Keep in mind that you’re dragging something on the surface of a piece of paper. Even though ink contains lubricants, it’s not like a ball bearing inside a case which is lubricated by the properties of the ink itself (ball point, or roller ball). So, the nib itself must be just a little bit flexible – to take account for bumps in the paper and defects in the surface of the table.
Fountain pen nibs are primarily made of either steel or either 14k or 18k gold. But, don’t worry: the steel used in modern fountain pens is mostly immune to corrosion: ink is, after all, water based, so pen manufacturers make nibs that will last through years of normal use.
What do the different nib sizes mean?
Nibs are rated several ways: the size of the nib itself, the size of the point (actually the width of the line it leaves), the orientation of the point, and the flexibility of the nib. The physical size and shape of the nib affect the nib’s flexibility and how well it writes.
However, nibs are typically rated by their tip size, and tips are produced in several sizes: extra fine, fine, medium, and broad. There are, of course, additional variations in each manufacturer’s product line, but those are the general sizes available almost everywhere. Be careful on tip sizes: one pen manufacturer’s “fine” tip may leave a narrower or wider line than the “fine” tip from a different manufacturer. For that matter, two pens from the same manufacturer with the same tip size might leave considerably different looking lines!
For example, a fine tip may leave a line no wider than a single hair, and a medium tip might leave a line as wide as, maybe 5 of those same hairs. A broad might leave a line as wide as 20 of those hairs. You get the idea: extra fine is a smaller line than fine, broad is wider than medium, etc. Some of us call a broad nib a “paint brush” because of the width it leaves.
Then, there are “italic” nibs. These are nibs whose tips are ground mostly flat across the tip. They are wonderful for calligraphy, or for writing signatures: horizontal lines are much narrower than vertical lines. You’ve seen that kind of writing. Imagine using your own pen to do it.
Stub nibs are different from italic nibs in one basic way: the edge of the point. Italic nibs are ground to be straight across the tip, and to have sharp corners. The sharpness of the corners contributes to the calligraphic line that the nib lays on the page. Stub nibs are basically the same as italic nibs, except that the corners are much more rounded, thus making them write smoother on the page, but with a much less calligraphic line.
Keep in mind that the nib size measurement reflects the width of the line that the tip leaves on the paper. The shape of the nib also varies slightly to provide either more support and a wider set of tines for broader tips or less support and a narrower set of tines for the finer tips.
Generally, the smaller the tip, the scratchier the nib. Look at it this way: the smaller the tip, the easier it is for the tines to “catch” on the individual fibers in the paper. As the tip gets larger, it “catches” less and less on each of the fibers.
Why do fountain pen nibs seem flexible?
In truth, some nibs are more flexible than others. Some modern examples of pens with more flexible nibs are the Pelikan 800 or some larger Omas pens. The Waterman Carene and Parker Inflection have relatively inflexible nibs. Then, there are other “vintage” pens with extremely flexible nibs, like the Eversharp Skyline or some early Watermans. Flexibility can rank from “wet noodle” to “horseshoe nail”, and both of these descriptions are quite appropriate.
Some opinions have it that flexible nibs haven’t been made in years, and that only collectible (or “vintage”) pens have flexible nibs. Since nibs aren’t made out of concrete, there will always be some degree of variation among brands, and even different amounts of flexibility among the same size nib in the same family of pen. Personally, I found differences between different brand-new Montblanc 146 fine point nibs when testing the pen for a possible purchase.
By the way, as well as owning several older “wet noodle” fountain pens (Eversharp Skyline, Waterman 52v, etc), I currently own and use a Namiki Falcon with a true flex nib – and this pen was manufactured in 2002.
What is a true “flex” nib?
When a nib has “flex”, it means that the tines of the nib will tend to move outward when pressure is applied while the pen writes. This causes the space between the tines to widen and thus lay down more ink, causing the line width of the pen to vary based on the pressure applied to the nib. Hence, flex nibs are wonderful at adding expressiveness to the actual writing being done.
Nibs which are “springy” have a certain amount of “bounce”, but the tines do not flex outward when downward pressure is applied.
The Namiki Falcon is a good example of a modern “flex” nib. I also own Eversharp Skylines with flex nibs, as well as a Waterman 52 (which is pretty close to a `wet noodle”).
Can I use a fountain pen in an airplane?
There is a rumor that all fountain pens leak in airplanes due the air pressure changes. The theory is that air expands when planes gain altitude, and that extra air in a pen’s ink path may tend to force ink out the nib, so you should travel with pens that are either completely full or completely empty. At least, that’s the theory.
I used to travel by air a lot (actually, much more than I wanted to – sometimes 2-3 trips a month), and always had a fountain pen in my shirt pocket. I have traveled with a Visconti Copernicus, Parker Duofold Centennial, Pelikan 800, Sheaffer Balance, Stipula I Castoni, and others, and without exception, none of these pens has ever leaked in my pocket whether completely full or partly empty. Those that I have kept in my luggage or carry-on have never leaked either. Maybe I live a charmed life!
I recently gave my brother a Rotring Initial. This pen is advertised as being designed for use on an airplane. He has used it on several trips, and said that it does indeed work properly while in flight.
Play it safe. Put your pens into a zip lock bag and carry them in your briefcase or carry-on. Keep your pocket pen in a cigar tube. And always keep your pocket pens nib up. You should be fine.
Who makes fountain pen ink?
Ink is made by almost all of the “reputable” pen companies. By that I mean that Waterman, Parker, Sheaffer, Omas, Cartier, Aurora and so forth distribute their own inks. Some may distribute ink made by others (Cross, for instance, sells Pelikan ink in Cross bottles).
There are also other companies who make ink without actually distributing pens. Herbin, for instance, isn’t known for fountain pens but is known for ink and dipping nibs, and has some of the prettiest colors around. And, a company named Private Reserve is also shipping just ink (I like their Lake Placid Blue).
Can I use any fountain pen ink in my pen?
Provided the ink is labeled as “fountain pen ink”, you can use it in your pen. But, remember, it has to be labeled “fountain pen ink”. If it isn’t labeled “fountain pen ink”, it will probably cause you some grief: from clogging up the feed to causing damage to internal seals.
India ink is not fountain pen ink! Using India ink in a drawing pen (like a Rapidograph) is perfectly ok. But, don’t use it in a fountain pen, unless you want to have a premature experience with nib and section disassembly!
Also keep in mind that all true fountain pen inks are water soluble. If it isn’t water soluble, don’t even consider using it in your pen.
Can I use Brand X ink in a Brand Y pen?
The short and simple answer is “yes”.
The urban legend goes like this: “Last year a (pen newbie) friend of mine in DC wanted to get some ink to send to me here in Oklahoma. She went to the Union Station branch of Washington Pen, and was talking to the clerk about inks. He sends her into a panic, telling her not to use Sheaffer inks in a non-Sheaffer pen because they ‘eat up’ the insides of your pens!”
This is absolute baloney. As a matter of fact, I personally use Sheaffer and Waterman ink in all of my pens, from Omas to Pelikan, to Montblanc, to… Sheaffer and Waterman!
There are, of course, some properties of ink which will tend to stain the inside of a piston-filler or a converter, or might be so heavily pigmented that the feed will tend to clog. There have been discussions about which ink is better or worse for use in a particular pen, which ink tends to be free-flowing, which ink seems to stain, and which ink tends to cause the nib to “hesitate” when writing.
Many rumors have been spread about Parker Penman ink, especially the Black. Again, I have used this ink quite successfully in some pens, but have had problems with it in others. Other rumors have been spread about Omas inks. And again, I have used both Omas Black and Omas Blue in Sheaffer and Parker pens with no problems whatsoever. Don’t worry about Parker Penman: it’s currently out of production anyway.
The only caveat is that you must use fountain pen ink in your fountain pen. No other kind of ink should be used, as it can permanently damage your pen… possibly beyond repair. Also remember that fountain pen ink is always water soluble, and is always water-based. There’s plenty of different types and colors of fountain pen ink out there – probably more than you can possibly use in a lifetime… unless you test inks like Greg Clark!
Above all, NEVER USE INDIA INK IN A FOUNTAIN PEN! India ink will really clog up your pen’s feed, making the cleanup either difficult or impossible. You have been warned.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the ink should make you feel good when you use it. Remember: higher end fountain pens have nibs, feeds, and sections that are hand assembled and hand fitted. This means that they all differ. What works well in one person’s pen might not work well in yours. So, experiment and find an ink that fits your needs.
Oh, and if the ink you use stains your pen, contact the pen’s manufacturer!
I don’t like the ink colors available. Can I mix my own?
Absolutely, and some really creative ink colors have been posted to the net. If you have a favorite, submit it for inclusion in the FAQ by e-mail to email@example.com:
(I don’t know if these email addresses are still correct as of October 2014, so I didn’t “link” them. You’ll have to hand-type them into your email program.)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Dr. David Isaacson)
Take Turquoise (whether Pelikan, Waterman, or Sheaffer equivalents) and mix in some black Sheaffer Skrip. Trial and error works. Get a dark blue-green.
Military Olive Green
Sheaffer Green plus Sheaffer Black.
email@example.com (Michael AuYeung)
“Herbin” Sunflower Yellow
1ml yellow to 0.3ml orange, both are Herbin inks. May add less (closer to 0.2ml) orange if result is too orange to be yellow.
“Waterman” Crimson Red
1.2ml of Encre Rouge with 0.2ml Encre Noir with a touch (<= 0.1ml) of Encre Bleu Effacable. All Waterman Inks.
1ml Skrip King’s gold with 1ml Skrip Red (guaranteed to melt your eyes:-)
I made a nice purple using one part Herbin Rose Cyclamen to 3 parts Herbin Azure Blue.
What is the shelf life of ink?
Rumor says that you should rotate your fountain pen ink every 6 months to 1 year. This is another urban legend, and is completely false. As long as the bottle stays tightly capped when not in use, the ink inside can remain usable for a very long time. Months at least. Probably years. The only enemy to stored ink is evaporation, and a tightly capped glass bottle prevents that.
Some heavily pigmented inks may look a bit muddy after a time on the shelf. Gently mix the pigment back into the ink by swirling it around in the bottle while the bottle is capped. Don’t shake it about… it isn’t necessary.
And, Greg Clark (author of “Fountain Pen Inks – A Sampler”) adds, “I would suggest adding (avoiding – ed.) sunlight. Don’t store bottles of ink for a long time in bright light or for any time on a sunny window ledge. The dyes fade – badly in some cases, like with turquoise inks.”
If the ink seems a bit thick, use an eyedropper and add a drop of plain water to the ink. Swish it about, then fill a pen with it and try it. If it seems ok, you’ve fixed your problem. It really is that simple.
How do I fill my fountain pen?
By dipping it into ink, of course! In truth, there are many methods of filling fountain pens, but you have to know what kind of pen you have in order to know how to fill it.
Some pens use a disposable ink cartridge. Those pens may also be equipped with a “converter”, a small cartridge-like container which uses a piston to draw ink up inside it. Kind of like a small syringe: ink is drawn up into the converter when the knob at the end is turned.
Other pens use a built-in ink container which is also not part of the barrel. In these pens, a rubber “sac” is depressed by a lever or some other method. When the air is forced out of the sac, the nib is placed in the ink and the lever is released. The sac then returns to its normal shape as ink is sucked up into it.
Some pens are “piston fillers”. In these pens, the body of the pen is used just like a “converter”. These pens usually have a knob at the end of the barrel which, when turned, either pushes the piston toward the nib or away from the nib. Of course, pushing the piston toward the nib will force ink out, and toward the end of the barrel will suck ink in.
Some pens use buttons, or a rod, or some other method to force ink out of the chamber. In all cases, one direction is used for flushing, and the other is used for filling.
What refill or converter fits my pen?
(This section contributed to the FAQ by Frank Dubiel)
First, try one made by the company that made the pen. Or call the company (names and phone numbers are in the FAQ, too).
Parker refills vary little, and most Parker pens will use the same refills. Waterman does vary when it comes to older pens. Sheaffer varies in ballpoints, but in cartridges there are only a few “slim” cartridges that vary from the standard style used in all Sheaffers. Cross uses a special fountain pen cartridge, although many companies make ballpoint refills for Cross.
Most European pens (Montblanc, Pelikan, and countless others) use what is called a standard “European” cartridge or converter. Most of these can be cross fitted among literally hundreds of pen brands made today. With the exception of Parker, Waterman, Cross, Sheaffer, and some pens made in Japan, its a safe bet that 80% of all fountain pens made today use the standard “European” cartridge or converters.
However, with converters (all brands) there may be minor variations that could affect the fit in the barrel. Parker, for example, has sold some pens with slender barrels that will not accept some Parker converters slighter fatter than their cartridges. The same with Sheaffer, which has sold some pens with short barrels than may not accept some Sheaffer converters longer than a Sheaffer cartridge. So one must usually try a “hands on” fit to be sure.
How should I clean my fountain pen?
Use the exact same process you use to fill the pen with ink, but use water instead. Plain, cool, clear tap water. No additives are necessary. Continue to flush the pen with water until the water runs clear.
It isn’t necessary to do this at a sink. I have an old pickle jar that I washed out very well and filled with plain tap water (we have a filter on the kitchen sink tap). I dip the nib/feed fully into the water and exercise the plunger a few times until the water runs mostly clear.
Don’t use hot water! Some pens are made of materials which wils deform in hot water, making the pens good candidates for the “circular bin”. Don’t use chemical cleaners either.You don’t have to be a fanatic about cleaning, either. Ink is basically just plain water with dye in it. It’s still ok for there to be a “hint” of colore in the rinse water, as long as the water runs fairly clear.
Remember: just plain, clear, cool tap water.
Who makes fountain pens?
Fountain pens are made by a number of companies, some big, some small. There are even one-person shops that specialize in making pens. Some companies make their own pens. Some make pens for others. And, still others have pens made for them under contract.
Here’s a list of major manufacturers in business today, and their addresses for in-warranty repairs:
City, State, Zip
Phone / eMail
21306 Gault St.
Canoga Park CA 91303
114 Old Country Rd., Suite 300
Mineola NY 11501
Bossert & Erhard
1275 Busch Parkway
Buffalo Grove IL 60089
19 W. 24 St.
New York NY 10010
100 Niantic Ave.
Providence RI 02907
1 Albion Rd.
Lincoln RI 02865
21306 Gault St.
Canoga Park CA 91303
108 Corporate Park Dr.
White Plains NY 10604
21900 Plummer St.
Chatsworth CA 91311
9240 W. Belmont Ave.
Franklin Park IL 60131
75 Claremont Rd.
711 Yucca St.
Boulder City NV 89005
22815 S. Frampton Ave.
Torrance CA 90501
56 Riverside Ave.
Riverside CT 06878
600 S. Livingston Ave.
Livingston NJ 07309
4700 Wissahickon Ave.
124 W.I.C. Building
Philadelphia PA 19144
1275 Busch Parkway
Buffalo Grove IL 60089
1302 Clarkson Center, Suite 106
St. Louis MO 63011
252 Brodhead Road, Suite 500
Bethlehem PA 18017
1 Hollywood Ave., Suite 15B
Hohokus NJ 07423
60 Commerce Drive
Trumbull CT 06611
966 South Springfield Ave
Springfield NJ 07081
2200 Foster Ave., PO Box 5100
Janesville WI 53545
1 River Road
Leeds MA 01053
110 Beech Lake Court
Roswell Ga 30076
117 E. Main St.
Richardson TX 75081
100 North St.
Bloomsbury NJ 08804
21306 Gault St.
Canoga Park CA 91303
1414 N. Harper
Los Angeles CA 90046
301 Avenue H.
Fort Madison IA 52627
117 E. Main St.
Richardson TX 75081
2000 Newpoint Place Pkwy
Lawrenceville GA 30043
200-2C Route 17 South
Lodi NJ 07644
1335 Blue Hills Ave.
Bloomfield CT 06002
Waterford c/o Tekera Group
800 Avenida El Caso, Unit B
Camarillo CA 93012
2200 Foster Ave., PO Box 5100
Janesville WI 53545
21306 Gault St.
Canoga Park CA 91303
Merrit 7 Corporate Park
Norwalk CT 06851
Where can I buy a fountain pen?
Fountain pens are sold in stores ranging from huge office supply warehouses to small family-owned businesses. I’m not going to list `em all here, nor will I get in the business of recommending one company over another.
Many of these companies sell via the internet, or have a presence on the net with their store’s phone number. Check out the section on links later in the FAQ.
The one thing you will find is a general lack of MontBlanc presence on the Internet. MontBlanc has an official “no promotion/sales on the Internet” policy. But, those same companies will quote you a price over the phone and allow you to purchase the pen via mailorder.
Here are some places where I have purchased fountain pens and have received superb service. Some other names here were submitted by other people who have also had good experiences. There are more, but these are some of the best:
Fountain Pen Hospital
The Colorado Pen Company
Artlite Office Supply
How do I buy a fountain pen (a primer on buying)?
Let’s assume you’ve asked this question with the intent of purchasing a pen to use, not as an investment. I’ll discuss some of the basic things that I do when I look for a pen that I intend to use on a day- by-day basis, and I’ll concentrate on the basics. Most of what I’ll discuss here works just as well for both new and vintage pens
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll work this as a tutorial rather than as a documentary, and keep it simple so you can my approach as easily at your local Staples/OfficeMax as at a “real” pen shop (like Fountain Pen Hospital, Bromfield, Joon, etc.). The idea here is to get you comfortable with the concept of shopping for a pen.
Shopping for a pen? Well, do you buy shoes without trying them on? Without lacing them up? Sight unseen from a closed box? Why, then, would you do the same with a pen? Shopping for that “perfect pen” should be a fun experience, and you’ll probably enjoy it once you relax and actually do it.
First, some things to bring with you to a pen shop. I usually bring a small vial of water, in case the proprietor doesn’t want me to “dip” the pen (more on that later). That way, you can examine the filling mechanism without contaminating the ink path with a colored fluid. Yes, some shops might object to this – simply explain that it’s plain water, and you’d be happy to use theirs, and that you’re just checking the ink filling mechanism for leaks and such. Many store owners won’t have a problem with water, but some will.
Next, bring a 3x or better magnifying glass (I prefer 8x or better) and a light source. If the shop has good lighting or a window with good sun, that should be enough. The loupe (technical name for the magnifying glass) should be easy for you to use with one hand, leaving you with a completely free hand to examine the pen.
Bring a sample of the paper that you intend to use on a day-to-day basis. I use a Day-Timer, and I’ve found that their note paper is quite good for test purposes. It is very smooth and has few fibers that will get caught in an extra-fine nib. It isn’t great quality paper, but it’s very good for testing a pen.
I don’t believe that copier paper is good for testing, because it is far too absorbent and tends to cause the pen to “feather” when writing. Others may disagree, but I’d suggest bringing a good quality paper – the same one you’ll use for your normal everyday use – for testing pens.
Lastly, keep in mind that different inks have different formulations, and that different inks work differently on different papers. Yeah, it’s a real trick finding a good combination of ink and paper…
First, find a pen that fits within your budget. Yes, it’s nice to play around with the expensive pens, but find one that you can afford first. Concentrate on it for now – you can always play later. Also, if you pick the expensive pen first, spend all of your available time playing with it, and never buy anything, you might annoy the shop owner, and that’s someone you want on your good side, just in case.
Look around the shop. Check out the different pen designs, styles, manufacturers, colors, materials, and prices. Some shops will post the price of pens, and others will make you ask. But, you’re a pretty intelligent person – you can probably tell which pens are more expensive and which are less expensive by where the pens are displayed. For instance, a Montblanc in that special kiosk is probably more expensive than that Lamy in the ordinary glass display case over there.
Once you’ve decided on at least 3 pens, it’s time to begin.
Specifying the pen to look at
Once you’ve obtained the attention of the salesperson (politely, of course), indicate which pens you’d like to examine. Start with medium nibs – you can always go smaller or larger, and pen stores almost always have medium nibs in stock (it’s the right-hand oblique super flexible nibs that tend to be harder to find in-stock right there in the store).
The salesperson will probably lead you to a table or counter top and bring the pen(s) over to you. Don’t be afraid to ask about the price, discounts, and sales warranties provided by the shop. Most better pen shops will be glad to price the pen(s) for you right there, and will also be happy to help you with the pen(s) after the sale.
Examining the pen
Take one pen in your hand as if you would be writing with it but don’t uncap it just yet. Does the weight feel right? Is it too light? Too heavy? Do you like the color contrast against your hand? Does the shape please you now that you’re holding it? Does it feel comfortable in your hand? Does it “feel” like it’s well made?
Ok, let’s say that you feel good about the pen.
Now, uncap the pen and place the cap down (gently – it isn’t your pen… yet!) Again, test the weight and balance of the pen. Does it feel ok? Do you like the design of the nib and section? If the cap screws on, are your fingers on the threads when you write? Wave your hand in the air as if you were writing. Does the pen feel balanced?
Pick up the cap and gently (GENTLY!!!) “post” the cap onto the barrel (put the cap on the end of the barrel). Does the weight and balance of the pen feel the same? Better? Worse?
Ok, so now you like the balance of the pen, either with or without the cap posted on the end of the barrel.
Look closely at the pen, starting with the nib. Is the tine separation (that crack on the shiny thing) centered above the feed (the black thing that the shiny thing seems to be attached to)? Do you like the design of the nib? Is the filling mechanism satisfactory? When you unscrew the barrel to look at the converter, do pieces of plastic fall out? Does the section unscrew cleanly, easily, and smoothly? Does the converter look new and clean? Does the material smell funny?
To dip or not to dip?
In general, the better “real” pen stores will allow you to test a pen by “dipping”. What is dipping? It’s exactly what it sounds like: the salesperson will dip the nib into some ink and hand you the pen to test. You can then try writing with the pen. This will allow you to actually feel what that pen feels like when you try it. Write a few sentences with it. Test the nib’s flexibility. Write with different hand pressures. Feel the nib. See whether the weight of the pen feels right in your hand.
Then, be brave, gather up your courage, and ask, “May I dip this?” It’s possible (and very probable) that the sales person will say “Sure!” and reach for a bottle of ink. The ink that is used varies from store to store, so don’t be afraid to ask for Sheaffer if they hand you a bottle of Omas.
I’ve even dipped at Staples. They need to have it explained to them, but every Staples (and OfficeMax) that I’ve gone to has been happy to get a bottle of ink and allow me to dip a pen. I actually got one of my better (and cheaper) Waterman pens that way. The OfficeMax salesperson was totally lost (I’m sure that I’m the first person that ever did this in front of her), but let me dip it by myself.
Either you or the sales person will dip the nib partway into the bottle of ink. This will provide the nib and feed with just enough ink to do some writing. Remember, surface tension and capillary action will cause the ink to be “sucked up” into the feed without your doing anything.
Now, gently… very gently… try a few strokes on the paper, either the store’s test pad or your own paper. Write a few words. I use a ribbon-sweep looping line (kind of like connected “figure 8’s”) to see how the nib flexes in different directions. Then, I’ll print the name of the pen, the name of the store, and other things. I typically write my comments about the pen with the pen, because I might not buy that pen but I might want to remember what I thought about it. Of course, I take the test paper with me when I leave.
Write some more with the pen. Don’t get wild with it. Just use it the way you would use it every day. After you’ve written a bit, cap the pen and hold it in your hand. Then, uncap it and write some more. See how it would feel to actually use the pen on a day-to-day basis.
You may need some more ink for this testing. Ask!!! Don’t just shove the pen into the ink. The sales person doesn’t know you… yet. Be polite, and try writing some more. If the nib is a bit scratchy, ask the sales person if you can dip a different pen. There might just be another one out that you might be able to try.
Finally, ask the salesperson if you could rinse out the pen. If you get the OK, swish the pen around in a small glass of water (not your vial) without using the converter to pump ink in and out of the pen. Otherwise, watch the sales person rinse out the pen. It’ll give you a good idea how they respect their merchandise before the sale (and that’s always a good indicator of how they’ve respected the merchandise before you walked in the door).
Think about how the pen felt when you wrote with it, and remember that the pen that you are testing may behave very differently from a brand new one that comes out of the box and has never been “inked” in any way. So, if you like the pen you are dipping, and it feels right, and the store will give you a full warranty and exchange if you find a defect, buy that one. I have, more often than not, purchased the pen that I have dipped rather than a new one from the shelf. After all, I’m going to write with it anyway, so at least I know how it writes before I buy it.
A closer look
Ok, so you’ve given the pen a quick once-over and you like what you see. You’ve had a chance to dip it and like the way it writes. Now is the time to give the pen a really close look.
Take the loupe and examine the tip of the nib itself. Check for a misshapen iridium tip – not one that is symmetrically oval, or has some other clean geometrical shape. Look for iridium which is deformed or wrongly shaped on the tip, or for the tip of one tine to be larger than the other, or for burrs along the crevice between the tines. Spend your time and really examine the nib — the more time you spend now, the less time (and trouble) you may have later.
I have seen horrible burrs and poorly tipped pens in the best pen shops. The sales persons are not at fault – the manufacturers are. Some new pens are so badly manufactured that you actually have to spend time fixing them before you can use them for the first time! Yes, I’ve been there. Why? I really wanted the pens!
If you’re happy with the nib, work your way behind the nib and examine the feed. Use the loupe and plenty of light, and reflect light off the feed. If it really shines, it’s plastic. If it seems to be dully reflective, it may be ebonite.
Ebonite is the “feed of champions”, and is generally regarded as the best material for transporting ink from the sac (or other reservoir) to the nib. Ink flows evenly across the surface, and tends to lay flat on it. As a chemist friend of mine put it, ebonite has “more tooth” than pure plastic, and hence has more places for a thin liquid to settle. It’s simply a property of the material itself.
Plastic feeds may have a coating on them which attempts to assist ink flow. These coatings help mitigate the problem with pure plastic feeds: ink simply doesn’t flow evenly across untreated plastic. It’s a basic property of the material: ever notice how water tends to “bead up” on a plastic surface more readily than it does on a rubber surface? Same thing: ebonite is rubber with sulfur added. I’ve evaluated (and even own) pens with plastic feeds which feed ink improperly or unevenly into the nib. I tend to stay away from plastic and look for ebonite in higher-end pens.
Of course, your mileage may vary.
If you aren’t sure which material the feed is made from, ask the sales person.
Look at the lip of the cap. Are there any stress cracks? If the pen is made of plastic, are the injection mold marks still there, or were they cleaned off? Is the pen’s body round (if it is supposed to be), or does it seem to be off-round? If the pen is made of metal, is there any “brassing” of the components, or is there any tarnish on the silver?
After a thorough physical exam (which you probably wouldn’t pass), you’re finally satisfied that this pen meets your specifications.
Making the purchase
Ok, so now you’ve examined one pen. Go through the same exercises for the other pen(s) you have your eyes on. Spend the same amount of time on every pen, since every pen you finally purchase will be going through the same abuse as every other pen you already own.
Eventually you’ll narrow down your selection to one or two pens. Now is the time to ask the sales person if you can fill the pen with water to check the feed for leaks. It’s quite possible that you’ll get a “no” answer. If you do, ask what the store will do for you if there is a leak in the feed path. The better pen stores will swap the pen for you,. but others will tell you to send it back to the manufacturer for repair. It’s your choice. If you really, really like the pen and are willing to take the risk of sending it back via mule-train to Upper Lower Slobovia for repair, go ahead and make the purchase. Me? I’d rather not buy a pen at a store that doesn’t stand behind its merchandise. Pens are expensive enough – I’d rather not take that risk on top of the purchase.
However, there appears to be one consistent policy: once inked, few stores will actually refund your money. That’s why they allow dipping: it’s a way for the buyer to test the writing capability of the pen without contaminating the rest of the ink path with ink. The better stores will swap out the entire section for you, but you’ll still own the pen. But, you wanted that pen anyway, so you’ll probably be OK with that – I am.
Finally, get a good ink to take home with you. I used to use Sheaffer Black for almost everything, but lately I’ve been using Waterman blue-black. Along with your pen, buy a bottle (or two) of good ink to use. If you want to experiment with different colors, go ahead.
If you don’t find the color you want, mixing some colors together to “cook your own” shouldn’t hurt a thing. Just be careful about it: not all manufacturers make inks that mix with other manufacturers inks. When you do your mixing, use a clean bottle and let the mixture sit for a day or so. If the mixture looks very odd or doesn’t “feel right”, it’s safe to assume that you shouldn’t use it in your pen.
Have fun with your new pen! Go forth and write!
Are Brand X pens better than Brand Y pens?
It depends on whether you like Brand X pens, or whether you own or owned a Brand Y pen and had a bad experience. Some pens just aren’t well made, and many modern pen companies have a serious problem with quality control.
Is MontBlanc really the best pen? Is Pelikan? Well, some people have used modern MontBlanc pens and have experienced breakages, failures, etc. not normally associated with any other pens in this price range. Others have not, and find that the pens work just fine. Some have had problems with Pelikan nibs. Others haven’t.
It’s just a matter of opinion. Heck, I own both Pelikan and MontBlanc, and find that, besides from having a different “feel”, both write well on the exact same kind of paper.
How long does it take a pen to “break in”?
This is a major “old wive’s tale”. Pens simply don’t “break in” or “wear in”. Think about it: you’re expecting a ball of iridium, a material chosen for its hardness, to wear down when rubbed against paper during normal use.
If iridium wore down during the “first few weeks” of use (as I have been personally told by at least 3 Montblanc reps – go ahead, sue me!), it would mean that the iridium ball would wear out within the first year of use! Those same Montblanc reps claimed I’d get “years of use” out of the pen.
No, pens do not “break in”. The user gets “broken in” to the pen’s foibles and oddities. The user finds a comfortable way to hold the pen, a different ink with different lubricant properties, or simply adjusts to the “feel” of the pen.
If you don’t like the way the pen “feels” when you bring it home, consider sending it back to the manufacturer for a different nib, or to a pen nib expert like John Mottishaw (www.nibs.com) for regrinding. A guy named Jerry Trafford used to do this too, but he seems to have disappeared. Of course, this type of work will void the warranty and not be cheap, but the result might well be a pen that writes exactly as you would like it to.
My new pen skips! Why? Can it be fixed?
No new out-of-the-box pen should skip or be hesitant when writing. Unfortunately, some do. And, as has been noted several times in the news group, there are limits to what can be done to stop a pen from skipping.
There are various opinions as to what to do and how to stop it, but they almost always end in some requirement that the nib or feed be adjusted or worked on in some other way.
When I purchase a pen which skips (usually on the beginning of the first downstroke), I first try flushing the pen out with ink several times. I keep a few bottles of Quink on hand just for that purpose. Since I will be using ink in the pen (not Formula 409 or dish washing soap), I flush the pen with ink twice and then just sit it on a table with cap on for 5 minutes or so. I repeat this exercise two or three times. Then I flush the pen with water and fill it with my “current favorite” ink (which is, at the moment, Waterman blue-black… but that will probably change this month back to some shade of blue).
Is there anything I can do about it?
Here are some other useful tips from the net (if the attribution is wrong, tell me immediately at firstname.lastname@example.org )
Arthur Twydle – Tuning a Fountain Pen
Several contributors made reference to the page at http://220.127.116.11/index.html where there appears to be a wealth of information on nib tuning.
email@example.com (Xander Craig)
Before even starting to write, wash all new pens thoroughly with clean, cold water, and all used pens with cold water and a drop of dishwashing detergent. Dry with a cloth on the outside and numerous piston inhales and exhales, followed by a good shake, for the inside. Ink the pen, fully expel the ink, re-ink the pen and expel three drops. Holding the pen upright, turn the piston or converter to its fullest inhale position. Clean the nib with a good rag that won’t leave bits of fiber or paper behind (no toilet paper or kleenex). Check that touching the pen to a piece of paper towel will emit a spot. Use the pen regularly on good paper with a high cotton content (not cheap xerox or legal pads) for three days. If flow is poor, exhale the ink thoroughly, clean as above, and re-fill with a different brand of ink.
I’ll offer another little trick which seemed to help sometimes (although it could be a placebo effect). I have heard discussed a number of places that “writing” (while roling the nib back and forth evenly over the galls surface) with a new pen on an ink bottle can somtimes smooth the writing experience of a new pen which writes unexpectedly roughly. My understanding is that the ink bottle effectively acts as ultrafine sand paper. My understanding as well is that a nib that is badly screwed up will not benefit from such a treatment, but at east such a treament falls under the “do no harm” heading that I think we would want to bear in mind for all such tricks.
firstname.lastname@example.org (Herman Berliss)
Frank, please correct me if I’m wrong, but it was my understanding that from time to time during the process of making a nib, metal particles are not always completely removed, and cutting oil may be left behind. This may cause a brand new fountain pen to skip, and in this case using an ultrasonic cleaner should take care of the problem.
email@example.com (Frank Dubiel)
On some hard rubber feeds there may be oils if the feed was cut in a milling machine, but I’ve never seen this problem except on some extremely cheaply made Chinese pens, and in a few hours the ink washes any oil away. Although sometimes with rubber it may take a week or so for the feed to thoroughly get “wet.” All rubber feeds are cleaned at the factory before installing in a pen and are or should be treated in a wetting bath to perform instantly.
NO pen new or old should skip. Assuming the ink and paper are OK and the pen is otherwise adjusted properly and well “wet” which may take a week or so NO pen should ever skip. If its new and still skips on downstroke most likely the nib is improperly ground. I’ve covered this many times, here, in Da Book and on line. Probably half of all expensive (i.e Gold nib) pens have poorly ground nibs and many of these have the excessive roundness that causes skipping. Sometimes it can be fixed by regrinding, but more often the nib has to be changed.
firstname.lastname@example.org (Chuck Swisher)
Flush your new pen with a mixture of distilled water and dishwashing liquid (1:10 ratio). This will help remove any oils that might remain from manufacturing of the these components.
email@example.com (G Tillotson)
Gently pull a piece of mylar through the tines of the nib, switching the direction of the abrasive side on the second pass. (I’ve done this on a few nibs to remove strange burrs and get the flow going properly.)
My pen is very scratchy – what can I do about it?
First, check the nib tines for alignment. Get a high-power loupe (magnifying glass) of 8x or higher, so that when you look at the tip of the nib, the iridium pellet seems to be as big as a golf ball. Now, look at the nib straight-on: point the nib at the loupe so you’re looking directly at the ball. You should see two hemispheres, one on each tine. Do they seem to be unevenly aligned? If so, they’re out of alignment (hmmm… maybe that’s why they call it “tine alignment”!)
How do I adjust the tines?
Note: Before you try any of the next techniques, go down to your local Walgreen or CVS (or wherever fine drugs are sold) and get a disposable pen to practice with. Both Parker and Sheaffer make fountain pens that cost less than $10.00 each, and make good pens on which to practice your nib adjustment techniques. Remember: practice on “junkers” before you work on your favorite pen, `cuz, as always, there are no guarantees.
Using your fingernails, gently (GENTLY!!!) tweak the nib near its base (or as far down the split you can get) until the alignment seems better. Dip the pen and try it on a piece of paper. Better?
Or, you can try “rolling” the nib into alignment. Look at the bottom of the nib and you’ll see that the nib seems to extend past the feed just a tiny bit. Hold the pen upside down, and lay the nib flat on a flat piece of paper which is sitting on a piece of cardboard.
Begin rolling the nib back and forth gently, applying slight pressure, and lifting the pen gently, until you see that you’ve begun to lift the back of the nib off the paper (only slightly – the bottom of the nib should be only 2 or 3 sheets of paper in the air. Continue to roll the nib slowly back and forth. Finish rolling the pen on the side that seemed to be out of alignment.
If you’ve bent the nib, you’ve applied too much pressure. If not, you may find that the pen writes much better.
It is aligned, but is still scratchy. How can I “smooth” the nib?
Well, you’ll need some tools. Here’s the list of tools I have at my workbench:
2000 grit paper
nib disk (5000 grit or better)
multi-speed Dremel and polishing kit, polishing cloth
.001 and.002 feeler gauges
5x, 10x, and 15x loupes of various mounting methods
lots of ink (I use Sheaffer or Waterman blue while grinding)
plenty of courage and patience….
Start with a junk nib! This sequence can *DESTROY* the tip of a nib, so get yourself a *few* cheap “Iridium Nib – Germany”-tipped pens. They are fine for practice purposes, even though the tip may not really be Iridium.
Before you start, read this entire sequence before doing anything!
First, examine the nib using the loupe and make sure the tines are properly aligned all the way to the tip. The tip’s slit should be absolutely vertical, the bottom of the tip should be absolutely even (even the smallest offset can be felt), and the front (have to look down at it) should be level. Along with this, the nib should be set properly over the feed: misalignment causes ink misfeed.
Adjust the tines with your fingernail (gently!) until they’re as good as you can get ’em. Mostly, you’ll adjust one tine to the other. Feel free to dip, test, and rinse each time you adjust ’em. This sequence may just make the pen write well enough for you.
Not good enough? Ok. Carefully — very carefully — gently give the nib one stroke down the mylar sheet, holding the pen near horizontal and moving it to vertical while you stroke it. The goal here is to get a perfectly shaped “roundness” from the bottom of the tip to the front of the tip. A “sweet spot” is nice if you like it… but it means that you have to hold the pen perfectly. I go for a nicely rounded tip: no sweet spot, usable however I happen to hold it.
One stroke. Gently.
Examine the nib under the loupe again. You should see the slightest difference in the shape of the nib. Yes, it’ll be hard to see, and may be nothing more than a “dullness” on the tip where you rubbed it on the nib disk. That’s ok – that’s just what you want. Dip, test, and rinse.
Not satisfied? Do the rub and test again. And again. And again. Spend plenty of time on this step. Each rub will cause the nib to be a bit less scratchy, but also a bit less “buttery” on the paper. That’s ok. First we’ll treat the scratchiness.
Smooth enough? Scratch mostly gone? You happy so far? Ok.
Working from the top of the nib, take the.001 feeler gauge and carefully — carefully– slip it between the tines at the back (bottom) of the nib and slide it toward and through the tip. You may see a bunch of gunk cleaned out from the tip. This is good: you’re removing some of the abrasive and metal deposit left behind from the nib disk.
Now, this takes real courage: use the.002 gauge and gently “burnish” the gap between the tines at the tip. Don’t widen the gap! To burnish, you gently rub the feeler gauge back and forth between the tip very gently.
Dip, test, and rinse. How’s it feel? It may be a bit rougher now, mainly ‘cuz you may have brought a burr from between the tines to the outside. No problem. Try another rub on the nib disk – just one – and then clean again with the burnishing tools.
By now, the nib should be feeling much better on the paper. Now we’ll add the “butter”.
Something else first: Ink doesn’t travel well across a perfectly smooth piece of metal. Ink is mostly water, and will tend to “pool” in low points. If the tip is perfectly smooth, there won’t be any “tooth” for the ink to grab onto… and make the tip tend to skip on paper. So, in the next step, we don’t want the tip too polished. Leave a bit of “tooth” on the tip to assist in ink travel up the slit and to the tip.
Grab the Dremel. Load the polishing wheel with some compound and, using about 30% speed, gently touch the nib to the wheel so that the wheel is polishing from the back of the tip to the top – never across. One or two rubs… then dip and test again.
…and polish, dip, test……again and again…
Don’t overdo it.
Eventually you should have a nib that feels better.
Why do people collect fountain pens?
It’s just plain fun. Why do people collect anything? They have some aspect which interests the collector. Fountain pens have their own following, just as Hummel figurines have their own following. Although I’ve never seen someone write with a Hummel, I have seen collectors do more than just put their pens on a display shelf.
I have quite a few pens (and, no, I have no intention to reveal just how many, especially here!). They reside either in display cases or in their original packaging in a closet somewhere. I’m continually collecting more, both with and without packaging. When I see something that I particularly like, I may buy it. I sometimes return from a business trip with more pens than I left with, because I found some especially nice pens somewhere.
But why collect so MANY?
I enjoy the look and feel of different pens. Just as I don’t wear the same shoes day after day, I don’t use the same pen day after day. Sometimes I feel like using a Stipula. Sometimes a Parker. And, sometimes I even feel like using a MontBlanc. I usually carry one pen in my pocket, one in my Day Timer, and five in a roll-up in my briefcase. Why? Well, sometimes I change pens in the middle of the day, and I want to have alternatives with me.
Also, each pen has its own “personality”, and I find that, as the day goes on, sometimes I want to switch “personalities”. Of course, I switch pens at the same time.
Are fountain pens a good investment?
In short: no. Fountain pens are meant to be used, not to sit on a shelf somewhere, bereft of ink. Although the value of certain brands or models of fountain pens may increase over time, fountain pens generally don’t become worth their weight in gold. In fact, some fountain pens may decrease in value over time, although this happens rarely.
Those pens which increase significantly in value do so for a few limited reasons:
They have a value due to their “jewelry” content, e.g. gold, silver, and/or gems;
They have “historical” value, e.g. they are examples of the earliest pens made, such as “first edition” Watermans, etc.;
They are the few remaining examples of a notable company model.
Some may think that a 30 year old Parker or Sheaffer might have some significant value. In fact, some vintage pens that are 60 years old, but have been reconditioned, write far better than new pens! For instance, examples of Sheaffer Snorkel or Parker Vacumatic pens in very good condition sometimes sell for less than $100. There are those that cost far more, but a standard plastic barrel snorkel in completely usable condition can be had for as little as $15-$20.
Yes, that Snorkel sold for, say, $2 when it was new. But that was how many years ago? And how much inflation has occurred since then? What is that $2 worth in today’s dollars?
What about limited edition pens?
Same thing goes for limited editions. For instance, the Montblanc Edgar Allen Poe Limited Edition is “limited” to 17000 pens worldwide. This is a definition of “limited” that, frankly, I’m not familiar with. On the other hand, Omas issued the Israel 50 as a limited edition of 1948 pens (combined ball, roller, and fountain) worldwide. And Michel Perchin issues limited editions of 25 pens.
For that matter, I know someone who has the entire collection of Montblanc special editions made in the last 20 years. They’re in a safe, in their original packaging, still mint. He never even dipped them – he just bought them. I hate to tell him that finding someone to buy those pens as a single collection will be harder than finding water on the moon (it exists, but is very hard to find).
Of course, the fewer pens available, the more they cost. For instance, the Israel 50 lists at $1200 for a pen that is basically a sterling silver filigree over their vegetal resin. The pen may eventually be worth more than $1200, but the value of the pen will probably still be the same. Michel Perchin pens cost far more. Some “collectible” pens cost multiple thousands of dollars.
Frankly, a pen that costs thousands of dollars is a piece of jewelry. A good, serviceable pen can be had for “cheap money”, and those are actually more fun to use. After all, who wants to lose something worth thousands of dollars simply because they put it down on a desk somewhere and forgot about it? Yes, I was heartbroken when I misplaced my Parker 51, but there are plenty of `em out there, and I found a replacement relatively quickly.
If you want jewelry, buy jewelry. If you want a pen, buy a pen. A pen with too much jewelry is a piece of jewelry that writes, but which may not appreciate in value like that piece of jewelry over there. The one that doesn’t write, but has precious gems in it. The one that the salesman convinced you would be worth a mint in a few years. Yeah… I should be so lucky!
Why do people seem to hate Montblanc?
It’s probably due to changes in the way Montblanc makes pens. Over the years, Montblanc has changed the composition of the “precious resin” they use to make the pen. Recent materials from which the pens are made have made the body of the pen prone to cracks when subjected to anything from mild to moderate stress. Many of the stories come from people who dropped their pens, or did something else to them that stressed the pen body.
I have a couple of recent vintage MontBlanc (models newer than 1990), and all of them work just fine. `Course, I don’t go around dropping them…
Montblanc hasn’t done anything to reduce this perception — in fact, they’ve recently reinforced it somewhat with their formal announcement that their pens cannot be promoted or sold over the Internet. This keeps them “exclusive”… and what that kind of exclusiveness gets ya is beyond me.Aside from resin composition, Montblanc simply has a better marketing department than most other pen companies. They’ve spent a lot of money on “presence”: their pens are seen in ads for non-pen products, movies, tv shows, etc. The implication is that Montblanc is the “best you can buy”. Their pens are reasonable quality, but, for the same money you actually can get better pens (both new and vintage). It is this “snob appeal” that seems to have done the most damage to Montblanc’s reputation among pen owners.
Aside from that, Montblanc makes a good pen. If you have one and are satisfied with it, ignore the wars and just keep on writing.
What is a pen “rotation”?
After you’ve been addicted to using fountain pens for a while, you’ll find that there are a few pens that are your favorites. The problem is that you want to use them all, but you can’t carry them all in your pocket at the same time. Unless, of course, you’re happy being a geek… and you just happen to have a vinyl pocket protector handy.
So, what to do? How about using them in “round-robin” fashion, one at a time, for a few days at a time. That’s what a “rotation” is: the makes and models, total number of pens, and the time during which you use them.
For example, my rotation is about 4-5 days per pen. I make sure that when I change pens, I completely flush and refill all of the pens in my rotation with ink. This keeps the pen ink path clean, reduces (and practically eliminates) problems with clotting, cap-off time, and any other number of problems.
How can I tell when a pen was made?
(This section contributed to the FAQ by Frank Dubiel)
Usually its not possible to tell except to limit the date within several or more years. Most pens were sold as simple consumer goods, made in the largest quantity possible at the lowest cost. A pen model would continue in production until sales slumped or dies wore out.
When a die wore out, some variation or change might be made. If sales slumped, some design change of the basic model might be made, or the model simply discontinued. Occasionally, due to breakdowns in a machine, or a part not available from an outside supplier, any other part in the factory that fit would be used. No pen company would stop production or fail to ship pens if they ran out of a certain color jewel, clip, section or anything else. If something else was available that fit, it would be used to continue shipments.
In many cases its almost impossible to tell if a part is “original” or installed as a later replacement. However, value depends partly on a pen being what a collector expects and desires a pen to be, so a perfectly original pen with parts that don’t match that which is normally expected may have reduced value.
It was very rare for any company to use a photograph of a pen in their ads or catalogues before the late 1940s or 1950s. They used paintings by artists that would then be used for 10 or more years, often being altered or touched up in later printings to look more like what was being sold. A pen is best dated (and valued) by its actual parts and a basic knowledge of what models were sold in certain time frames. This is usually more accurate than looking for numbers or date codes on a pen. In most cases an attempt to date any pen to closer than 3-5 years is an exercise in frustration.
Pens are not coins. Well meaning charts written for pen dating by others often lead to confusion and do not take into account some of the basic concepts in this section.
Are vintage pens better than modern pens?
Depends again on what you want from a pen. Some vintage pens operate very well when restored. Their nibs have been worked smooth over a long period of time, so they sometimes make great writers. Pens like Parker Vacumatics and 51s and Sheaffer Snorkels and Touchdowns can be had for very good prices and write better than many modern pens. Of course, the more you spend, the better the pen you can get.
Some new pens are extremely well designed and work just fine, and will make a good additions to your collection. Modern Parker Duofolds and Pelikans M800s are extremely good writers with good warranty coverage. Conversely, there’s some overpriced junk out there with fancy names and prices, but which have “problematic” nibs and feeds. Again, you get what you pay for. Sometimes.
In short, if you can try a pen before you buy it, do so. If not, watch the news group for opinions and ask for some. Skip past the insults, flames, and opinion wars, and you’ll actually come up with some good information.
Can an old fountain pen be restored?
Oh, yes, it certainly can. John Mottishaw can repair your nib for you, and Nathan Tardif can repair your Sheaffer Snorkel. Hal Arnold can also repair and restore almost any pen. See the links for more information.
“Da Book” also describes many more things that can be done to restore an older “found this in my Aunt’s attic” fountain pen into a usable “vintage” pen. There are many sites on the net that will take your pen in for repair, send you the parts, or do both.
As Frank Dubiel would say, start with a cheap pen and do it yourself. Part of the fun of fountain pen collecting is performing the actual surgery on a fountain pen to restore the pen to good health. Sometimes, a well restored vintage pen will become more dependable than a new pen… and, sometimes not.
At any rate, the simplicity of fountain pen construction makes them easy to repair.
And, isn’t the point of any hobby to enjoy what the hobby has to offer?
Do I have to restore my fountain pen myself?
Well, it depends on how old the pen is and how adventurous you really feel.
I own several pens of recent manufacture… and some of them are truly pains in the lower hemisphere(s). I bought them because some of them are truly beautiful pens. Others are limited editions (ok, ok… so I buy “jewelry” too). Still others have intrinsic value that goes beyond their price (like one pen that I purchased simply to give to a friend. She’s addicted now, too).
The nice thing about vintage pens is that some of them are truly better pens than their modern counterparts. The bad thing is that they’re only available from collectors, and you have to either pay for the repairs or learn to repair them yourself (and, if you buy good quality vintage pens, you can be a bit afraid to touch them yourself).
I picked up a green Parker Vacumatic (reviewed below) at a pen shop. I know that I paid a bit more than I should have, but the pen was in terrific shape. I got home, filled it, and used it for a while. Then, I decided that I wanted to “tune” the nib (which is as stiff as a nail). I sent it off to Jerry Trafford, who did a marvelous job. He also polished it up and tweaked it a bit. I paid for the privilege, but it was worth the price. But, since I paid for it, I paid for the pen twice: once for the pen, and once for the repair.
On the other hand, although some newer pens can’t hold a candle to their vintage counterparts (the modern Duofolds are simply not as good as the vintage ones), the repairs can be done by the company, and usually are covered under warranty.
For example, a friend lent me his Parker Sonnet to look at. He was complaining about scratchiness, and that it seemed to “leak” everywhere. After flushing the pen out, I found two things wrong: the tines were very misaligned, as well as being poorly cut (by that, I mean that one tine was significantly wider at the tip than the other tine). The “leak” was caused by some barely visible hairline fracturing on the section just above the barrel. Parker sent him a new section with a new nib at no cost, and he’s a happy camper today.
I need an –x– part for an –x– pen.
(This section contributed to the FAQ by Frank Dubiel)
Easier said than done. Say you need a feed for a Vacumatic. There are well over 100 different feeds used in that pen. Then there are the endless obvious sizes and models of the pen made for many years.
However, even if one had two identical pens made the same year, or even (if it could be proven) the very same day at the factory, many basic parts, such as the section, feed, even the cap might not fit properly. Why? Most pens were hand made, one part at a time and then hand fitted together.
For example, there usually was not “one” feed used in a pen model. There was about 10 or more feeds each a few thousandths of an inch larger or smaller in diameter. The assembler would try a feed. If it was too loose, he would try a larger or smaller feed until it was just right. The section was then hand fitted to a cap that was usually matched and hand adjusted to an “inner cap.” These parts all interact in the way a cap screws on a pen. So a cap with a slightly different section or inner cap may not interchange with one from an identical pen model to another.
There are rather easy ways to make these parts fit–and that is all covered in “Da Book” (ordering instructions are in the section on “Books” elsewhere in this FAQ). Just don’t think its always as simple as asking for a part and then getting it for an easy fit.
Experienced collectors know this and may not sell parts since they know that beginners may return them as not being the right fit.
In short there is nothing more useful to a collector looking for parts than a good parts bin made up of otherwise damaged pens from which one can try various parts until one fits properly. Or, failing a parts bin, the collector must gain the knowledge and experience to hand fit, alter and adjust these parts to make them function as needed. Most of it is remarkably easy, using common sense, and some guidance from Da Book.
Are there any good books on fountain pens?
Yes, as a matter of fact, there are some great books on fountain pens. In fact, some of them were written by people who continue to contribute to news groups or discussion boards on a daily basis. Where possible, I’ll use the author’s description of the contents of the book.
There’s more books out there than you can shake a writing stick at. But, you best have a big coffee table: some of these books are very large, and look wonderful on that coffee table or above your writing desk. Go ahead… impress the heck out of visitors!
Fountain Pens – The Complete Guide to Repair and Restoration
“Da Book” is “Fountain Pens – The Complete Guide to Repair and Restoration”, by Frank Dubiel. The book, now in a newly revised edition, presents a wealth of information about fountain pens for both the novice and experienced user. It also describes practically everything you want to know about how many classic pens work, how to disassemble them, clean them, refurbish them, and care for them. The books covers 99% of all pens ever sold in the US market before 1970, plus many foreign and newer pens as well. Although a bit short on descriptions of some newer pens, the “theory of operation” of the pens described in this book can be applied to most modern pens. Frank sells this book directly, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (description by the author).
Fountain Pen Inks – A Sampler
Although it isn’t a “pen” book, Greg Clark’s “Fountain Pen Inks – A Sampler” contains an extensive list of inks available on the market presented both by their names and by samples of the inks themselves on the page. Running from blacks, through blues, to reds, and more colors than you thought existed for use in fountain pens, Greg’s book provides the reader a way to “use” the ink before you buy it. The book also goes into pH levels of inks (important if you care about whether you should use a highly acidic or alkaline ink in your pen), their fading properties in the sun, and the water resistance of some inks. Greg revamped the book again this year, and it now lists over 160 different inks. Contact Greg directly at email@example.com , or go to his page www.inksampler.com
Fountain Pens of the World
A HUGE book, and a major expense, is “Fountain Pens of the World”, by Andreas Lambrou. This puppy is almost 2 inches thick and weighs more than your car, but is probably the most detailed book in existence on vintage (and some modern) pens. Your wallet will hurt after the purchase, but you’ll never regret it.
A Passion for Pens
Haury and LaCroux have put together a wonderful book filled with full-color plates of pens, nibs, collections, and even reprints of some original advertisements. Lots of good information on pens, their care, and other stuff.
Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments
Sometimes called the “blue” book, this book by Fischler and Schneider is considered one of the bibles of the pen collecting world. Again, beautiful full-color plates of pens both vintage and modern.
Fountain Pens – History and Design
This book by Dragoni and Fischera is divided into two “sections”. The first section concentrates on the history of writing, pens, their design, and their use in recent history. The second section is a listing of some pens, both vintage and modern, listed both by manufacturer and pen. Some information about both the pen’s design and the manufacturer is listed in each “chapter”.
The Fountain Pen – A Collector’s Companion
If some of the books listed here are physically too big for you, Ewing’s book should fit both your bookshelf and your budget. Although it’s a small book just slightly larger than a standard edition paperback, it is published on very good paper with phenomenally good pictures. For its size, it contains a lot of good information about the companies that made (and still make) pens.
Pens & Writing Equipment – A Collector’s Guide
Marshall’s book probably has more pictures per page than most of the other books, and the pictures are amazingly detailed (the pictures of the Montblanc Demonstrator next to the Parker 51 Demonstrator on Page 51 are astounding!).
This book is valuable for one primary reason: it gives prices for vintage pens. These prices may not be completely accurate, and you may do better or worse in your search for a pen. However, they are a good guideline for those who are first building up their collection.
Are there any periodicals about pens?
The primary one is Pen World. I buy it at Barnes and Noble or at Border’s on a bimonthly basis. A subscription is available by writing directly to them at: P.O. Box 6037, Kingwood, TX 77325-6037 ( www.penworld.com ).
A second periodical, Pen Plus, was still being published in 2001, but was primarily aimed at the European market. With articles written in both German and English, this magazine was printed on good paper and published some very interesting articles on high-end pens. Contact the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course, you should also subscribe to The Pennant, the quarterly publication of the Pen Collectors of America, Inc. Contact them at email@example.com.
Are there any really good web pages on pens?
Yes, there are a lot of good web pages on the net. I have listed some of them here.
Note: The inclusion of any web site in this section does not mean that I endorse them or their products! It merely means that I’ve found useful information or photos there, and like to visit that site occasionally. There may be other sites that I have missed that you feel should be included here. E-mail me, and I may include them in the list. OK?
A few of my personal favorite non- or merely semi-commercial sites are:
David Nishimura’s Vintage Pen Web Site
Bill Acker’s Fountain Pen Page
Penoply – A Fountain Pen Web Site
Jim Gaston’s Fountain Pen Site
Here’s a few commercial sites to look at:
Fountain Pen Hospital
The Colorado Pen Company
Artlite Office Supply
Yet more sites of varied interests:
Bruce Marshall’s Page
Glenn Marcus Site
Chuck Swisher Pen Site
Pendemonium (Sam Fiorella’s Site)
Bittner Fine Stationary
The Pen Shop
Fountain Pen Inks (Greg Clark’s Page)
Reed & Barton
The Pen Sac Company
Kate Gladstone’s Handwriting Resource Site
And, of course, magazines and other resources:
Pen World Magazine
Stylophile’s Web Magazine
Pen Collectors of America
Ah, but what if you need PAPER?
Lewis Paper Place
Some people don’t have a web site but DO have an e-mail address:
Nathan Tardif – Parker Vacumatic repairs
People who repair pens:
Richard Binder’s Pen Page
John Mottishaw’s Nib Repair Site
Hal Arnold Pen Restoration Services, Ltd
Scaupaug’s Pen Repair Site