Pens & Pencils

Shoot-out Review: 3 Cheap Fountain Pens, Part I - Pilot Vpen

Fountain Pens closedYes, I love fountain pens. I'd be happy as a lark if I could make a living out of testing a different one every day. Unfortunately, such is not the case and I have to make due with using what I can afford, usually "flea market specials" sent along by my friends for me to restore.

Well, not quite, it seems. I've recently come across three different fountain pens selling for between $3 and $9 USD. Obviously, these shouldn't be judged against the yardstick of $100-300 pens, but do they offer a good value for the money? Are they appropriate for fountain pen newbies? In this three-part series of reviews, I'll be examining (from left to right in the picture) the Parker Reflex, the Pilot Vpen and the Bic Select to see if they really are as good a deal as they seem.

My process was simple. First, I used each pen for a full day in a regular work setting, then wrote one page on three different papers: a pocket lined Moleskine, a cheap index card, and a Rhodia pad. Then I left the pen for a week and checked the flow and ink level when I returned to it. What felt good in the hand? What wrote well and consistently? What would I recommend to a fountain pen newcomer? Which pen comes out on top?

The Pilot Vpen (a.k.a., Varsity)

The pen in the middle in the picture above is a Pilot Vpen (which seems to be called the Varsity in the USA), and is a bit of the odd man out in this trio. Whereas the other two pens can use regular ink cartridges, the Vpen is non-refillable. This is a pity, since --although the pen does contain an ample amount of ink in its barrel-- I always feel a little sad about throwing away a perfectly good pen and adding to the world's landfills, just because of a lack of ink. (Note: some people have tried to refill theirs, with differing levels of success.)

What's your personal kit?

RenArt Moleskine+3x5In my post about my workplace gear, I noted that there had been a certain divergence between the gear I use in the office and the gear I use for my own personal and creative time. Essentially, the office gear is quite polished and uses a Circa system as a base, complete with fancy zip folio and plenty of DIYP forms, while my personal gear is far more... raw.

I've always maintained that structure is important when you have a lot to take on and keep organized, and having a well-built planner (whether digital or analogue) is key to that. But --although my home life does require some degree of organisation-- it's far less than the myriad projects I have to manage for work. In fact, some simple to-do lists and a calendar is about all I need, along with the occasional contact look-up. Thus, part of my kit is a few DiyP HipsterPDA Action cards and a month-view calendar. I copy down pertinent appointments and to-do items so that I can ferry them and sync with my other planner and online tools as needed.

A far bigger concern for me is creativity. Now, creativity comes in many forms, and that's one of the reasons why I created the DiyP Creative Pack, which is a separate pack in Classic and integrated into the HipsterPDA size pack. Having those prompts can help you manage plots, devise (and remember) characters, keep tabs on story props (like that elusive Holy Grail you keep losing), shuffle your storyboards (did Han shoot before or after?), and otherwise structure your ideas. So, part two of my kit: a selection of DiyP creative cards, which may vary according to the project I'm concentrating on.

Review: Cross Roadster Gel Pen

Cross Roadster, closed

In the past couple of years, I've become far more intimate with my writing tools. The act of putting words on paper has become more of a visceral experience, something that I look forward to doing (as opposed to something I'm forced to do). Given my semi-recent hobby of restoring vintage fountain pens, it isn't hard to guess that I'm usually found with a pen in hand that's more than six decades old, sporting a gold nib, and laying down a beautiful wet layer or Waterman's or Noodler's ink. Frankly, I've grown tired of most modern pen designs which are generally contrived to look like all others or to evoke Star Trek in some way. (Think of the recent crop of G2 lookalikes, for example.) Which is why I'm surprised to declare that one of the pens in my current stable is not a fountain pen at all, but a modern gel roller.

I should preface this by saying that not everybody enjoys writing with a wide-barreled pen. I certainly do, although many of my acquaintance think slimmer is better. I find that a wider pen allows me to write a little looser and doesn't require the firm hold that might aggravate carpal tunnel. Make no mistake: the Cross Roadster is definitely a fat pen, about as fat as most people could comfortably use.

I found the Roadster at my local Staples and fell in love with it right away. It's a thick, fairly stubby pen just under 4.5" long; however, with its cap posted it turns into a meaty 5.75". Vaguely bullet-shaped, with a long brushed chrome cap and a sturdy and beautifully-coloured barrel that's well-rounded at its base, it certainly has a look all its own.

Basic Fountain Pen Restoration, Part I

Parker ChallengerSo, you've discovered a cup'o'pens at the local flea market, and found that amidst all the cheap Bics and broken mechanical pencils are a few fountain pens. Sure, they're covered with grime, tarnish, and bent bits, perhaps there's a crack or two, but still -- they are fountain pens, a relic from a bygone age when people's worth was often determined by their words, and their words were defined by their pens. You roll them over, shake them a little, inspect the dirty tips. While they'll never sell for much on the market, you suspect that you might be able to get some decent daily writers out of the lot. But what's involved in that? After all, you don't have any fancy pen repair supplies, and don't have the first clue where to begin with restoration techniques.

Restoration, what a scary word. People think of houses, furniture, huge investments of time, effort, outside help, equipment. But despite the fact that some fountain pens can be quite expensive (thousands of dollars is not a rare price to pay), a little bit of skill and a modest investment of gear --much of which is probably already in your home-- can turn a junkyard pen into a writer's best friend, if not a family heirloom.

The fundamentals of fixing pens are not out of reach for even bare beginners -- recognise that I've only been doing this for around a year, but thanks to great books like "Da Book" (Guide to Fountain Pen Repairs by Frank Dubiel) and numerous Fountain Pen Network forums, I've picked up enough basics to restore about 50 or 60 vintage pens and pencils. While I'm obviously not an expert, the purpose of these DIYPlanner articles is to share beginner's tips with you, perhaps whetting your appetite for something a little more advanced. Then Dubiel is certainly your next logical step.

Review: Blissfully Wrong - The Jinhao X450R Fountain Pen

Jinhao X450RSometimes I just love being wrong. So much so, I'll happily admit it in public.

After my post a couple weeks ago on Esterbrooks, Mak, an acquaintance of mine in Hong Kong wrote to tell me that there were plenty of quality fountain pens still selling brand new under the $20 mark. Now, given that the list price of the Lamy Safari is $30 USD and the inexpensive but highly-regarded Waterman Phileas is $60 USD (though they can often be found for about $20 and $30 without converters), I was hard pressed to think of a single example. Even in the eBay "roll the dice, take your chances" game of slugging through remnants of estate sales, it's hard to find something that isn't scratchy, leaky, sac-less, ugly or just plain broken. I expressed my skepticism, but my friend apparently lives in quite a different world, one where good deals are far more common than in the far north of Canada. The next thing I knew, Mak had procured a little $10 gift for me and sent it on a journey half-way around the world.

While I waited for it, I couldn't help but remember one of my first fountain pens. While that "Asia Wood Stunning Pen" cost about $8, the seller insisted that adding a few no-name ink cartridges bumped the shipping price from $10 to $22. When it finally arrived, the cheap cap wouldn't fit snug, the nib was misaligned and scratchy, the "jewel" atop was a dollop of hot glue, and the splinters skirting every corner sent me running for tweezers. Straight into the junk drawer it went.

But, oh, was this one a pleasant surprise.

Vintage Fountain Pens: Your Father's Esterbrook

Esterbrook AdNow, my father was a decidedly practical man, with little time for "fussin' around," and I suspect that --although he would have certainly used fountain pens during the 40's and early 50's-- he would have dropped them quickly and forever with the advent of the ballpoint pen. But ballpoints, like rollerballs, lack a certain history and mystique that even the cheapest and most utilitarian fountain pens possessed. These queer little objects, found beneath decades-old scraps at the bottom of drawers, or standing in broken crock-pots on basement shelves, have emerged from their dusty hiding places to pique buyers with a newfound appreciation for these old workhorses. And, in the year or so that I've been getting, restoring and researching fountain pens, I'm no longer surprised to hear pens compared to "your father's Esterbrook."

These ubiquitous and (some would say) beautiful fountain pens are inexpensive, plentiful, and offer some unique opportunities to D-I-Y'ers who would not only love to experiment with different nibs, but test the waters of vintage pens without taking out an extra mortgage.

Review: The Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen

Being a mere fountain pen acolyte, it's my understanding that part of what led to their resurgence during the 80's and 90's (having been driven underground for several decades by the convenience of the ball-point pen) was their potential bling factor. Well-to-do business people would stuff a $1500+ Mont Blanc pen in their Armani pockets in place of the passé hankerchief and people couldn't help but ooh and ahh at the amount of money that was undoubtedly paid for such a fashionable accroutrement. They were, in effect, jewelry, meant to be displayed but very rarely used.

True, there are a lot of beautiful pens out there, many costing several thousand dollars in special "limited editions" (of course they're limited -- how many $15,000 pens could you realistically expect to sell?), but they remain out of reach for us mere mortals who actually know the contents of their bank accounts. Not to worry, though: more than one fountain pen savant has whispered the industry's little secret to me. Up to $150, you pay for the nib; more, you pay for the sparkle. So, assuming you're not looking for something ostentatious, just a nice reliable daily writer that will last for many years, you're in luck. There's plenty of options that won't require an extra mortgage, ranging from the $25 Lamy Safari and the $40 Waterman Phileas up to the $150 pens from well-regarded manufacturers.

Case in point, the well-regarded bastion of functional anti-bling: the Lamy 2000.

Lamy 2000

Review: Lamy AL Star Fountain Pen

I'm not an expert on fountain pens by any stretch of the imagination, having received my first one about two years ago --an amazing and unexpected gift from Robert Lynch, an Aurora Style. Since then, however, I've certainly fallen under their spell. True, they're not always the most convenient, and I almost always have a little splatter of ink in the corners of my fingernails, but there's something about the way that they glide across the page trailing a fine wet line that glistens even in the dim light of my office. Or perhaps it's the throwback to a calmer, less hectic time when we had time to make words meaningful. So, too, the relaxing ritual of filling my pens with sundry types and colours of ink, even mixing my own concoctions, a past-time that merges my wild ambitions as artist, scientist and writer.

But the mystique of fountain pens can also be mystifying for the beginner. I know it was for me. A glance through various fountain pen websites will quickly bring into focus the highly regarded pens that cost thousands of dollars. Wandering through fountain pen listings and forums will baffle you with an arcane lexicon and conflicting statements about pens, nibs, inks, filling systems, pricing, collectability and custom grindings. Alas, these are barriers to entry for the poor newbie who wishes simply to buy a reliable and inexpensive pen that can be used as a daily writer without pain, confusion, financial ruin or the permanent soiling of one's carpet.

Lamy AL Star Silvergreen Fountain Pen

Enter the Lamy AL Star.