Buying a ballpoint is easy. So is buying a gel pen or a rollerball. Buying a fountain pen takes a bit more thought and effort, and seems like it will be more expensive. If, however, you care about what you use to write or draw, a fountain pen can make a difference.
Why a Fountain Pen?
A fountain pen has some real advantages over other types of pens…
- No Pressure Needed: With a ballpoint, you need to press down on the paper with a little force to make the little ball turn. Gel pens skip if you don’t keep some pressure going. This makes writing take more effort, and can lead to RSI problems just like a bad keyboard. A fountain pen will usually flow ink with just the weight of the pen – you don’t need to be pushing down at all.
- Looks: Fountain pens can look nice, and using one certainly can make people think differently about you. If you like people to see you as being quite traditional, the right fountain pen can do that. Something a bit less traditional could help you come across as quirky or odd – it’s up to you to decide if that’s a good or bad thing 😉
- Costs: Yes, a good fountain pen can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are some good ones around for quite low prices. If you use a converter, bottled ink will work out far cheaper than buying refills for a ballpoint, or using disposable gel pens.
- Feel: A fountain pen can feel wonderfully smooth to write or draw with.
What Do You Want?
The first thing to do is to think a bit about what you’re actually after. Do you want something fairly traditional-looking, or something more modern? Is plastic ok, or do you really only like metal?
If this is to be your first fountain pen, you may not have too much idea of what you actually want, and it’s probably best to get something fairly cheap to start with, so you can get a feel for a fountain pen, and decide if you like it enough to want something better. In that case, you’ll need to watch out – there are plenty of bad fountain pens around, and they’ll only serve to convince you that fountain pens aren’t for you at all.
If you’ve already had one or more fountain pens, and you’re looking for something a little better as an upgrade, you probably have a few ideas about what you want already.
First, we’ll look at some ideas for cheap pens to start out with, then some of your options for upgrades.
Cheap Starter Pen
I’ll get straight to the point here – I think the Lamy Safari is probably about the best you can get for the money. If you don’t mind the plastic body and slightly over-sized cap, it writes really nicely, and gives you an immediate feel for the good things about a fountain pen. Lamy ink is reasonably cheap in cartridges, and is quite good stuff too. The Safari doesn’t come with a converter, but you can order one online from a number of places, and they’re pretty cheap. If you get on with the looks and the light weight of the Safari, you may never need to look for an upgrade at all.
If you really aren’t keen on the looks of the Safari, or you really want to start out with something even cheaper, you can’t go too far wrong with the cheaper end of Parker’s range. We have a Frontier, and it’s a nice enough pen. Plenty of fountain pen fans use a Vector as an everyday pen. The cheapest ones often don’t come with a converter, but as with the Lamy, they’re cheap enough to buy. Until you get the converter, you may be stuck with Parker’s Quink, but it’s not bad ink. A little watery, and the black is a bit on the blue side of black, but it works well enough.
Oh, and if you really want the cheapest introduction to fountain pens? Just pick up a Pilot V4. They’re disposable, and very cheap, and although they’re certainly not a good fountain pen, they do give you some of the feel for what a fountain pen is like to use – the ink flow is nice and smooth, and the nib is surprisingly good.
Both Lamy and Parker make more expensive pens too, so both of those options remain for upgrades. If you take a liking to the simple designs of Lamy, the Lamy 2000 is a wonderful pen, one which I’ve spent plenty of time admiring from afar. My favourite pen of those I own is now a new Parker 45, which has the smoothest nib.
Sam likes a heavier pen, and the Sheaffer Prelude suits her well – another lovely smooth writer, and good value.
Many fountain pen fans say that Pelikan make the best pens in the world – from the M200 up to the M1000, you just pick the one that’s the right size for you.
If you still love the old ‘ballpoint’ idea of clicking a button to get to the pen, rather than taking off a cap, have a look at Pilot’s Namiki Vanishing Point pens. Yes, the same people who make the cheap gel pens also make some of the most respected fountain pens anywhere, and the only ones I’m aware of with push-button operation. These are another favourite for day-to-day use.
New or Vintage
Another option to consider is picking up an old vintage pen. Some of the best fountain pens were made a long time ago (from the 1940s until perhaps the 1970s) and there are plenty still working just fine. Old Sheaffer and Parker pens can be perfectly reliable, and may well be nicer to write with than any modern pen. As with a second hand car, this method takes a little more risk, and you’ll probably want to do a bit more research, but the rewards can be great.
I haven’t bought a vintage pen yet, but I’d love to own an old Sheaffer snorkel, or a Parker 51.
Almost all modern pens come ready to take cartridges, and all but the cheapest usually have a converter supplied, which allows you to fill the pen by dipping it in ink and operating a piston. Cartridges are the easiest way of getting ink into your pen, but you’ll only have access to a limited range of inks, and it’s an expensive way to buy. Most fountain pen fans use bottled ink. It’s much cheaper, but may not work out that way once you’ve bought twenty different bottles that you want to try out, because you can’t decide what colour you really want 😉
My personal favourite is Noodler’s Eternal Black – it’s one of a very few fountain pen inks to be waterproof, and it’s a very solid black.
Peilikan pens and the Lamy 2000 are piston-fillers. They can only use bottled ink. Personally, I’d prefer this, as I never use cartridges anyway, and it gives those pens a much bigger capacity for ink. If you hate refilling, but like using bottled ink, a 2000 or a Pelikan could be ideal.
With vintage pens, you’ll find that many of them only take bottled ink, and there are a lot of different filling methods around.
If you want a nib with a bit of flex to it, for variable lines, you’ll probably be best looking at vintage pens. Find a good dealer to get some advice from. Almost all modern nibs are quite firm. Usually, gold nibs will flex a bit more than steel, but there’s something to look out for with that: steel nibs are very often gold-plated, whilst gold nibs are often plated with a silver metal. The nib is often the part that lets down a very cheap fountain pen, and sometimes the part that lets down an expensive one too.
OK, so there’s a bit to think about with fountain pens, but don’t be put off. If you don’t like the sound of researching, and don’t want to spend much just to find out what you like and what you don’t, just grab a Pilot V4 next time you’re in the stationer’s, and come back for a re-read if you find you like it. If you like the idea, and want to have a go, try a Safari or a cheap Parker.
Fountain pens can change how you feel about writing.