Latest Update: Just correcting a typo.
Thanks to our bosses-to-be at Cult Pens, we are in a rather lucky position – being able to revew both the Pilot Capless (Vanishing Point to Americans), and the new Pilot Capless Decimo, which has just been released in the UK. Cult Pens have the first official stocks in the UK, and one of the first batch is right here to be reviewed.
We’re talking about two pens here – the Pilot Capless, and the Pilot Capless Decimo. I’ll just refer to them as Capless and Decimo to keep things shorter, but the Decimo is also a Capless. Because they’re both quite similar, I’ll cover them together for the most part, but where they differ, I’ll try my best to describe how.
What Are They?
Retractable fountain pens. With other fountain pens, you have a cap, which you either pull off or unscrew. Some people put the cap on the end of the barrel when writing (called posting it), others keep it in their other hand, or pop it down somewhere (Sam posts, I don’t). If you’re using a pen on and off for a while, removing and replacing the cap can start to get annoying, and if you don’t post it, it’s easy to forget what you’ve done with it, or end up with it knocked on the floor.
The Capless pens get around that by using a retracting mechanism, like a ballpoint. Because the nib has to be kept away from the air, though, there is also a little sprung ‘door’ that opens as you push the button, allowing the nib to side out.
I never saw removing a cap as being a problem, but when I stood leaning on the wall to sign for a package one day, with the cap of my Sheaffer Saratoga Snorkel in my hand, I found afterwards that I’d leaned on the cap, and made a set of gouges into the plastic. It was about then that I started to see the point of the Capless pens.
The Capless range has been around since the 1960s, though they have been improved and changed over the years. The Decimo is a thinner and lighter version of the Capless, but it still wouldn’t really count as thin or light relative to most other pens. I think the best way to see it is that the Decimo is the ‘normal’ size. The Capless is thicker and heavier, like an oversized version.
Pilot had a bit of a problem when designing the Capless. The reason fountain pens have the clip on the caps is because they really should be carried with the nib pointing upwards. So, if you’re going to take away the cap, but still have a clip, the clip needs to go at the same place your fingers need to go. The result is a pen that kind of looks the wrong way round. The nib pops out near the clip, with the button for retracting it at the other end. Because the whole insides slide up and down when operated, they are also rather thick pens.
With all the odd limitations they had to work with, Pilot have done a very nice job of the styling – they are definitely modern pens, and unusual looking pens, but very pretty. Looks are always a subjective thing, and I’m sure you’re drawing your own conclusions from the photos, but the finish is every bit as beautiful as it looks. The shiny parts are all very shiny, and the finish of the barrel had a subtle sparkle to it. If you’re really only into vintage-style pens, they may have no appeal to you, but if you didn’t have some interest in modern pens, you’d have stopped reading a while back, wouldn’t you?
Both pens came in very nice presentation boxes…
As far as looks go, there isn’t a huge amount in it. The difference in width and weight are quite noticeable when you’re holding the pen, but doesn’t make a big difference to the looks. The biggest difference in looks is that the Decimo is much more about straight lines, the Capless has more curves. The Decimo is a supermodel – the Capless is more of a ‘glamour’ model. Even after a couple of days, I’m not sure which I prefer – the lines of the Decimo are more elegant, somehow, but the curves of the Capless really do suit it.
You don’t often see them from this angle, which is kind of fortunate – from this end, they have a face like a guppy…
Another difference worth noting is the choice of finishes. In the UK, the standard Capless is available with gold or rhodium trim, each in several colours, and in Carbonesque and Raden finishes. Carbonesque is made to look like carbon fibre – it’s still a pattern hidden under a layer of laquer, so it doesn’t feel like carbon fibre, but looks pretty. Raden is the top-of-the-line finish – ten layers of Urushi laquer, hand applied, with tiny fragments of abalone shell set into it, in all different colours. The Decimo is only available in blue, grey or white. Ours is white, and it’s really quite startlingly different – not like any other pen I’ve seen – it’s a slightly creamy, pearly white, and as with the silver Capless, the white Decimo is a textured surface with layers of laquer over the top.
The white finish, only available on the Decimo…
The silver finish on the standard Capless…
The parts all fit together well, and the retracting mechanism just works. I expected the retracting thing to be a real point of interest – the most exciting part of the pen. The excitement of it wears off surprisingly quickly, though. By the end of the first day, it was just the way of getting the pen open. Quick, and slick, but no excitement there any more.
Fortunately, once its party trick wears thin, it remains a useful feature, and there is plenty more to like about the Capless and Decimo.
You have to unscrew the barrel to get at the actual pen part. The nib, feed and converter (or cartridge) are all in one piece, that can be removed from the barrel. In fact, you need to remove it for filling.
This leads to one handy feature of the Capless pens – these nib units are all interchangeable. You can pop the whole unit out of a Decimo, and swap it for one from a standard Capless. You can buy a pen with a medium nib, and later buy a fine nib unit to swap over. There are other fountain pens where you can swap the nibs around, but not many where it’s so easy, or where the nib units are so easily available. In the US, Richard Binder even sells custom ground nib units – off the shelf stubs and italics, and flex nibs ground to your own preferences.
OK, so the clicky mechanism got old fairly quickly – is there enough left to the Capless pens to still love them after the clickiness loses its excitement?
Both pens are comfortable and well balanced to hold. The retracting mechanism is quick and easy to use, and takes away the question of what to do with the cap.
Some people have trouble with the clips. They don’t get in the way for me, but if you grip the pen in an unusual way, so there isn’t space for a clip between your fingers, directly above the top of the nib, you might have problems. Most people don’t have any trouble with it, but some do – especially left handed people. Try holding an existing pen with the clip between your fingers, and see how it would line up – you can probably tell if it will get in your way.
Here’s the reason this pen is still so great, when the retractable mechanism gets boring – the nib is a joy to use. They’re much more flexible than almost any modern pen I’ve used. Probably not to the extent that vintage flex fans would even call ‘semi-flex’, but it’s enough to make writing feel slightly cushioned when you’re writing heavily, and enough that you can widen the line with a bit of pressure.
Left with the nib out, the ink seems to dry a bit quickly, and sometimes doesn’t start until the second stroke, but that’s less of a problem when putting the nib away is so quick and easy.
When you’re actually writing, the nib is smooth, responsive, and has a lovely feel to it. I’ve heard that these can be on the dry side, but both of the nib units we have are fairly wet.
One situation that seems to cause the Capless pens more trouble than most is when they’re held at a very shallow angle. I don’t mean by this that if you hold it quite low when writing, but when sitting up in bed making notes, with the pen almost horizontal, it can skip occasionally. Again, it doesn’t usually take much to get it going again, but most fountain pens won’t have any problem, as long as they’re pointing slightly downhill.
Both of the problems mentioned here probably have a common cause. The feed for this pen has to fit into a very narrow gap, so the nib unit can slide back and forth, and the nib and end of the feed can fit through the hole when retracting. Because of the narrow feed, there isn’t a lot of ink held right next to the nib itself. If you write with the pen pointing slightly upwards, there isn’t enough ink in the nib end of the feed to keep flowing for long, and if the pen is sitting uncapped, there isn’t as much ink there to keep the nib wet for long enough. Neither of these problems are likely to get in your way often, though, and the narrow feed is the price you have to pay for the retracting mechanism.
It’s often said the Japanese pens have thinner nibs than American or European pens, so if you like a medium, you should order a fine, and if you like a fine nib, you should order a medium. That doesn’t seem to hold with the Capless. The pens we have are both medium nibs, and they write with a fairly standard medium line, certainly not a fine.
This has been discussed a couple of times on The Fountain Pen Network. In this discussion, Dillon says that the US nibs are different to the ones supplied in Japan – Pilot are sending out different nib units to match the market. User PinarelloOnly has posted a set of comparison photos, showing medium and fine Capless nibs against some other pens (VP is the Capless – they are sold as Vanishing Point in the US).
Here’s where you pay for all that clicky convenience. If you use cartridges, the Capless pens are no harder to fill than any other – push the cartridge into the nib unit. You do have to pop a metal cover over the cartridge, to take the strain of the springs, but it’s still quick and easy. If you use bottled ink and the supplied converter, though, it’s a bit of a pain. I think it’s worth it, but if you hate filling pens at the best of times, it might be a deal-breaker for you.
First of all, you don’t fill the pen, you fill the nib unit. Unscrew the pen, and take the nib unit out for filling. It’s then a fairly standard screw-action piston converter, but with a couple of tricks to watch for…
- The feed unit has an opening that’s quite a long way back from the nib. Filling from a tall Noodler’s bottle isn’t a problem (unless it’s down to about a third full, as ours is), but with a 30ml Pelikan bottle I had full of my own mix, this opening was out of the ink until the bottle was almost completely full. Even when almost full, I have to prop the bottle up at an angle to make filling easier. I keep a chamois leather handy, which works well for holding the bottle at any angle I need. In the photo above, you can see the nibs wrap around the almost-black feed. You need to submerge the nib in ink all the way up to the round metal part.
- The piston doesn’t travel the full length of the converter, so it never gets a really full fill. The trick to this seems to be…
- Fill as full as it goes.
- Hold the unit nib-upwards, and tap it gently. The air bubble should vanish from the bit you can see, so now all the air is at the top of the converter, next to the feed.
- Gently and slowly work the piston down (or up, as you’re now holding it), watching the hole at the top of the feed. You probably want to have plenty of tissue handy, and don’t do this part over a valuable antique rug, or that only copy of your quarterly report.
- As soon as ink appears in the hole, and before it starts dripping out, stop.
- Wind back a tiny bit, then give the unit a couple of taps to settle the ink.
- Try winding forward again. If the ink appears back at the hole at about the same point, you may have gone far enough, and got rid of all the air. Until you get used to how far you need to go, wind back and forth a few times, giving it a few taps. Sometimes, you actually have to push ink out until it’s almost ready to drip everywhere, then bubbles come through the ink, getting a bit more of the air out of the converter.
- Once you’re reasonably sure the ink that’s appearing in the hole is the top of the real ink, not just the top of a bubble, you’ve got rid of all the air in the converter.
- Now, turn it over again, and put it straight back into the ink, and wind the piston all the way back up.
- If you’ve got it right, holding the nib unit down, tap the converter a couple of times, and the bit of clear converter you can see should stay full of ink – there shouldn’t be any air to fill it any more.
- Once you’ve done it, you probably want to wind down enough to let a couple of drops back into the bottle, then wind back up – this makes sure there’s a little bit of air pressure to hold the ink in place, so it doesn’t drip. This step doesn’t matter too much if you’re about to do a good chunk of writing straight away, but if you’re giong to pocket the pen, it’s quite important to make sure it won’t drip.
That long explanation makes the process sound worse than it is – it’s not really much more difficult than most converters, but it’s a bit of an extra hassle.
When I finally got to try both of these pens out side-by-side, I was hoping for some sort of insight beyond the fact that the Capless is thicker and heavier than the Decimo. Unfortunately, that really is the biggest difference. Even the Decimo, though, is on the thicker side of average – about the same as a Parker 51, for example, or a Lamy AL-star. The full Capless is only slightly thicker, and about half as heavy again, but the difference is quite noticeable in the hand. If you usually buy pens on the thicker side, and still wish they were a bit thicker, the Capless will fill your need and your hand well.
I usually like light pens, but the weight in the Capless is mostly towards the nib end, which feels good to me – I only object to the weight when it’s towards the top.
The other difference really comes down to the clips. The Capless clip is relatively tall, and narrows at the point where your fingers grip, just above the shiny metal part behind the nib. The Decimo clip is much shorter, and flattens more than it narrows where your fingers are supposed to grip, and the flattened part is a bit lower down, closer to the nib. I find I have to stay a little further back for the sake of a good grip. If I slip forward to the metal part, the angle is too steep, and my fingers start to slide down every couple of sentences. Fortunately, because the clip is a bit flatter, it doesn’t matter so much how far up the clip your fingers rest.
If you actually use the clip a lot for keeping the pen in your pocket, it’s also worth noting the the flatness of the Decimo clip comes at the expense of some usability – it won’t fit well over thick fabric, and even sits a bit high in a shirt pocket.
These are both very nice pens, very well made, and wonderfully responsive nibs. As I said, looks are subjective, but they look good to me, and they’re unusual enough to get a second look from people, which I like.
Comparing the size with some other pens – click the pic to see it in Flickr, with notes to tell you what all the pens are…
Worth the Money?
That’s a tricky one to answer – they are expensive pens. They are clearly better quality than any of the cheaper pens I’ve tried, but you can only decide for yourself if you really want to spend that much money on a pen. If you have the money to spare, and you do want to spend it on a pen, I think you could do a lot worse than these. The retractable mechanism does make a difference, but even without it, the quality of the nib, and the overall feel of the pen, is excellent.
That really is another tricky one. Considering the Decimo costs more than the standard Capless, the Capless would be my choice. If you find pens that thick uncomfortable to use, or just don’t want something so bulky, the Decimo is a great option, but if you like thick pens, and don’t mind the weight, I think the Capless is more comfortable to write with.
Anyone out there tried a Capless or Decimo? What did you think? Was the clip a problem for you? Do you use bottled ink, or cartridges?
Living With the Caplesses
After Two Weeks
We’ve had these pens for two weeks now, so how are they holding up to use? For me, very well indeed. I’ve used it as my main pen for the entire time. When doing a lot of writing (handwriting out my college work prior to typing it up), I found the Decimo to be very comfortable. I tried switching back over to my previous favourite, a vintage Parker 51, and soon realised that I wanted to switch back to the Capless because I enjoyed writing with it more. Which is very impressive, considering how good that 51 is. I’m still carrying the Capless all the time, and it’s almost the only pen I use.
The fact that it occasionally skips when writing in bed is a bit of an annoyance – I tend to go through my notes in bed, and scribble down more things as I’m thinking of them. So far, it’s not enough of a problem to bother picking up a different pen, or even just leaving one by the bed, but it can be a minor irritation at times. I just have to keep the pen angled down a little more than I naturally would. This problem also seems to happen less since switching over to Noodler’s Walnut ink, from our own mix of Quink Blue-Black and Noodler’s Eternal Black, so the ink you use might make this more or less of a problem – along with whether you sit around in bed writing with your fountain pen
Sam doesn’t get on as well with them as I do. She prefers very firm nibs, and the Capless has a bit more flex than she’s really comfortable with. It’s still out and used a fair bit, but it’s not the first pen she’ll reach for. See her thoughts in Fountain Pen Field Test.
After Almost Six Months
I still love these pens, and they still stand out for their quality, even after trying quite a few other good quality fountain pens. The nibs are still probably the best I’ve used anywhere.
However, neither of them is my main pen for daily use. I bought a Lamy 2000 a while after getting these, and the day-to-day experience with that is slightly better for me. I like capped pens, most of the time, so the retractable mechanism was never a great selling point for me. The Lamy holds more ink, and is easier and less fussy to fill, with its piston mechanism. It’s lighter, which suits me better, and the styling is very minimal – that won’t appeal to everyone, but I like it. If you ever want to use cartridges, the Lamy 2000 would be no good to you, and if you want a pen in anything other than plain matt black, it won’t appeal, but it’s a very nice pen.
The Capless Decimo is still my second favourite fountain pen, and would probably be a better buy than the Lamy for most people.
- Capless and Decimo Photo Set on Flickr, with lots more pics.
- Comparing Caplesses from Dan, posted on FPN – mainly looking at the Decimo and the new Fermo, but he mentions the standard Capless, and some older models too – a very useful post if you’re trying to choose.
- Getting Used to my VP – a post by goodguy on The Fountain Pen Network, with quite a few responses and tips. User HDoug mentions the ‘syringe’ filling technique, which is pretty much what I’ve described above.