Fountain Pens: A Place to Start
[I've been looking for someone to write about fountain pens for a while, and I was pleased to see Danny Vinson slinging together some words on this very topic. Apparently, his lack of penmanship is offset by his appreciation for a fine writing utensil. Danny lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, so I can only assume his more emotional moments are spent by polishing his Esterbrooks to the tune of John Denver tunes. --DJ]
For years I wanted to write with a fountain pen. It always seemed to me like a more elegant way to get words onto paper, but I frankly didn't know where to start. Every time I checked out a pen shop, seeing prices in the hundreds of dollars (or more) kept me from doing much experimenting. I didn't think that the 'cheap' pens would be worth the money they cost, or write very well. So I played with dip-pens, the kind where you dip a steel nib into an ink bottle, write on paper until the line begins to thin, dip it in the ink again, and so forth. Fun, high potential for ink-stained fingers, though a little scratchy on the paper.
Then I found my grandfather's 60-year-old Esterbrook fountain pen a year ago, and my perspective on writing longhand changed. When I went to get it checked out and cleaned at Watch & Pen in Richmond, since it had been pretty well gummed-up by an unnamed 10-year-old quite a few years ago (ahem), they were having a sale. So, a few days later when I picked up the Esterbrook, I had a nice shiny Libelle fountain pen to go along with it. Why the Libelle? The shop guy recommended it as a good pen for the money, the price certainly seemed reasonable compared to the other pens they had, and it felt good when I tried it out - much smoother than I expected.
Note that last thing: I tried it out, along with some others, and decided I liked how it wrote on paper. Not everyone is close to a pen store, but I highly recommend trying a couple of pens to see how they feel, if at all possible. A more expensive pen isn't always better suited to the way you write. The weight of a pen can also vary a good bit, depending on what it's made of; resin and acrylic pens are fairly light, and pens with brass or stainless bodies can be a bit heavier. A pen can be fairly small and slender, or much larger and relatively plump, so it's important to see what feels best to your hand. Remember -- unless you're buying it as an investment, it needs to be something you can use comfortably.
Fountain pens have some basic parts: the nib, or tip, which is how the ink gets to the paper; the reservoir, which can be a cartridge, converter, or bladder; and the barrel and cap of the pen, which comprise the pen's body. Nibs are made of metal, usually steel or gold, and are most often found in fine, medium, and broad widths (Japanese pens tend to be more fine in all three widths).
When writing with a fountain pen, it's not necessary to press hard onto the paper, like you would with a ball-point. All that's required is a light contact with the paper, and ink is drawn through the nib by capillary action. Pressing too hard can damage the nib! A fountain pen's nib wears very slightly with use, so that it begins to conform to the style of the person writing with it, a process that takes quite a long time (so, go ahead an let a friend write a letter with yours). When I use my grandfather's pen, I can tell by how it feels when I have my hand in roughly the same position he used fifty years ago, when this pen was what he used every day.
In my year or so of using fountain pens, I've discovered a few things that work for me. Your experience may not be the same as mine, but perhaps these things could suggest a good starting point for exploration. Please note that I have no affiliation with these companies, just an appreciation for their products. There are lifetimes of innovation, creativity, and passion out there in the world of pens, a world I'm just beginning to understand.
Fountain pens are not designed to be disposable; with care, a good pen can last beyond the lifetime of the original purchaser, and individual components can often be replaced or repaired as they break or wear out. A single fountain pen can be less expensive in the long run than ballpoints or rollerball pens, since the ink supply is effectively limitless. You don't need to buy a new pen for every ink color, or for every purpose, but once you begin to write with them it's hard to resist getting another every now and again. Something to remember: fountain pens let ink flow out, and air flow in, without being messy in nearly all circumstances, but they should be carried and stored point upward (and never carried in a pants pocket) - significant changes in air pressure, as in an aircraft flight, or ascending or descending a mountain, can cause ink to seep out into the cap.
Libelle Carbon Fiber Fountain Pen - a relatively new pen, and not the easiest to find. Good quality, and I like the way it feels. It's only available in a medium point, but it works well in most situations. I use this pen daily for almost everything. The barrel is made of stainless steel, I believe, as is the nib, and the outside is a dark carbon fiber mesh. Mine was just over US$40.
Pilot Knight - a close friend and frequent correspondent purchased a Knight a few months ago and absolutely loves it. Reasonable price, stainless steel nib, very good quality for the money, about US$35 or so. This is a great introductory pen.
Old pens - it's easy to find older pens that have been rehabilitated at dealers such as Pendemonium. You can also look for bargains at local antique stores. Many pen shops either service older pens, or have someone who does it for them. Esterbrook, Parker, Waterman, Pelikan, and many other pens can have long lives if taken care of, and are not terribly expensive to rehabilitate. For the price of a decent new pen, I have a connection to my grandfather that will last for decades more.
Splurge pen - Namiki Falcon. Yes, this rises into the ranks of 'expensive', barely, but has one of the best nibs on the market, regardless of price. It is semi-flexible, which means that it's possible to vary the line width as I write. It's also a humbling pen to use, since it does nothing to hide the many flaws in my penmanship. Recommended highly, but be patient with yourself as you and the pen get used to each other. They're a little over US$120 new, a good bit more at full retail. Also, Pelikan, Pilot (the same company as Namiki), and Sailor are companies that make fantastic pens for less than a couple hundred dollars.
Remember, cost is not always a good measure of quality, though it may indicate collectability. Beyond a certain point, the individual components aren't dramatically improved, but may represent a higher degree of craft in the finish or metalwork, or a limited production run of that particular model. Some pens are unique and take a great deal of time and specialized skill to make, and the higher price can often reflect the artistry and precision that goes into them. In the articles I've read, the Namiki Falcon is considered one of the best nibs on the market today, regardless of price, as is the Sailor 1911 model. Lamy, Pilot, Shaffer, and many others make great entry-level pens for less than US$20.
I use two types of paper most of the time. First, I seem to have at least one Moleskine in every bag I carry. The paper is lovely, smooth, and takes most inks very well. However, a very wet pen can be a problem, since it's a smooth and dense paper, and the ink won't dry immediately. Swisher Pens has some inks that are designed for just that purpose, though. Second, for notes, letters, and general correspondence, I've found that Crane's papers are simply great. They take ink well, without feathering, and dry in a reasonable amount of time. Not the most affordable stuff, but it's often the most appropriate.
There are a great many varieties of fine paper on the market now, bound in books, loose sheets, or bundled into notepads. Some paper notepads, such as the affordable Ampad Evidence Recycled, do very well with fountain pens, while some others don't. Greeting cards may or may not handle the line of a fountain pen well, depending on the humidity and the type of paper. Very rough, handmade, or glossy papers all can present difficulty with fountain pens, so be wary but willing to experiment.
One of the coolest aspects of a fountain pen, aside from the sheer pleasure in writing with one, is the mind-rending array of ink colors you can write with! Most larger manufacturers produce, or at least sell, inks with their own label, but there are far more colors and intensities out there for the adventurous. Some inks are designed to be completely permanent and unalterable, being highly resistant to all solvents or detergents once they've bonded to the paper, and are great choices for check-writing, legal documents, or anything that needs to be highly fraud-resistant.
Ink is stored inside a pen in a variety of ways, depending on when a pen was made. Cartridges, common for nearly all modern pens, are pre-filled ink tubes that are neat, easy to use, and available in a range of colors, usually available from the company that makes your pen. Some companies, like Private Reserve or J. Herbin, offer much more than just blue, black, or red. The convenient part is that you just snap a new one in place when the old one runs out, a handy thing when you're traveling and don't want to carry an ink bottle with you. Converters are similar in size to a cartridge, but are filled from an ink bottle by using either a plunger or squeeze-action mechanism to draw ink into the pen. Yes, you stick the nib into a bottle of ink, and draw ink into the converter after it's installed in the pen. Some older pens, like the Esterbrook I use, have a lever and a compressible rubber bladder to hold the ink (think about the squirty ink pens in old cartoons).
The refilling process isn't inherently messy, though taking a pen apart for cleaning can be, since you're washing ink from the nib and other internal components. It's important to clean your pen regularly to prevent clogging the nib or ink feeding mechanism, as recommended by your pen's manufacturer. I've been known to have blue fingertips after changing ink colors, but that seems to have diminished with practice - just loaded a holiday red ink into one of my pens, and didn't smear a single drop!
*Important Note* Not all inks are good for fountain pens, and may clog them or even cause damage. India inks, metallic inks, and other specialty colors can create a great deal of grief, and could possibly necessitate an expensive repair. Please be sure whether the ink you choose is designed for use in fountain pens.
My favorite inks, so far, are:
Noodler's Ink - I don't fully understand what magic Nathan Tardif and company put into their inks, but they make any pen that I've tried with them write a notch or two better. They're smooth, have great colors and a neutral pH, and just seem to flow better than the others I've tried. Noodler's makes inks that lubricate internal pen mechanisms for older pens, that are freeze-resistant to a level I never want to experience, or that are highly fraud-resistant. There are more colors than you can find in any crayon box, with better names as well. A small company, based in New England.
Private Reserve - I found that their inks, the few I've tried, have a great color intensity that only improves with age. Also neutral pH, for longevity. They make pre-loaded cartridges in many of their colors, and also sell an ink-mixing kit for getting your own bottled ink hue just right! Another small company, from Indiana.
Writing with a fountain pen is a different experience than using a ballpoint, gel, or anything else I've tried. There's a smoothness to the process when pen, ink, and paper all match well, and a sense of joy, at least for me, when a page of carefully-written words hold a beauty beyond the intention of the language. I've found that using a fountain pen has helped me write more clearly, closer to what I intended to say, than typing up an e-mail or a document in a word processor, perhaps by slowing everything down a bit. Digital words are relatively cheap, after all, whereas a pen on paper forces a certain craft, a refinement, of what's being committed to the page, one letter at a time.