I started to get into fountain pens about five years or six ago, but I certainly wasn’t a stranger to them. When I was a teen, my dad gave me one of his fountain pens, which I believe was a Sheaffer. This was back in the ’90s when the internet was not as image driven as it is today and when e-commerce was in its infancy. I don’t even remember if I searched fountain pens online then. I used my dad’s pen off and on and didn’t venture into bottled ink. I didn’t stick with fountain pens because I didn’t have a lot of options about where to buy ink or explore, and sometimes I would get frustrated with inky fingers. I did like writing with the pen though, the smoothness and the way that the ink flowed onto the page was much better than writing with a ballpoint or even a gel pen and taking notes was more pleasant. The ink from the cartridge was always more bold than with other pens. But back then, I didn’t have resources about quality paper or all of the information about inks, and I grew up in suburbia, where there were a lot of big box office supply stories instead of boutique pen and stationery stores.
Fast forward to the age of social media and the e-commerce sites of today, and now there are so many options and so much information at your fingertips. When I revisited fountain pens, I started out with a red Lamy Safari. The sturdy Safari works out well for folks who are right handed and have a traditional grip. I know that some people complain about the triangle grip that’s designed to encourage proper pen holding, but it works for me. I forget what size nib I had on it originally, possibly a medium. Then I tried a cute Chinese pocket pen that I no longer have or remember which brand it was. I bought that one on eBay. I was simply drawn to it’s size and the material, which was something that caught the light nicely. Then I slowly came back into using fountain pens. Initially, I went through a box of Lamy ink cartridges and then bought a bottle of Noodler’s black because I liked the idea of a waterproof ink and sort of stuck with that for a year or so. And I added a Lamy Al-Star to my collection, which I lost at work somewhere and then another white Lamy Safari with an extra fine nib. The nice things about starting with a Lamy Safari is that you can swap out the nibs. The red Safari now has a 1.1 italic nib on it.
When I discovered all of the fountain pen info on YouTube, on blogs, and on Instagram, my interest increased. With everything being so image driven, how could it not? I added an ivory Pilot Prera to my small collection and then a steel nib Sailor Clear Candy (a cheaper special edition pen that looked like it was possibly marketed to school children in Japan). I wasn’t really satisfied. I didn’t like the Prera, even though it felt good in hand. I eventually messed the Prera up cleaning it by using some solvent that is not designed for fountain pens (at least I didn’t do this on an expensive pen). The Sailor Clear Candy was smooth, but it still felt like a cheap pen. During this phase, I also purchased a Pilot Plumix, which has a 1.0 stub. This is a fun pen that gives you a glimpse of what a stub nib is like, but still feels cheap.
Then I was drawn to TWSBI because of how you can see the ink and the inner workings of the pen. I figured I would skip the ECO and get a 580. I ordered this pen directly from Marc Bacas, aka Nibgrinder, with a medium nib that was ground to a stub. The custom grind, plus the adjusted ink flow, was a game changer for me. At this point, I could see why people would spend the extra money on nib tuning and custom grinding.
Shortly after purchasing the TWSBI 580, I bought an Edison Pearlette in Sonoran Sunset from Indy-Pen-Dance with a Daily Italic grind, which is a more forgiving italic that is intended to work for folks who like to print or who have a combo print/cursive style of writing. I like this pen too, but was still intrigued by gold nibs. The first fountain pen that I used from my dad was most likely a gold nib, but I hadn’t purchased one of my own yet.
Sometime after purchasing the Edison Pearlette with the custom grind, I bought a Pilot Vanishing Point with an extra fine gold nib. I don’t really discriminate between fine and broader italics. I like having a variety of pens to use. I enjoyed the Vanishing Point, but it has always had flow issues, so right now it’s being tuned by a Gena at Custom Nib Studio.
My lesson is this: if you get a fountain pen and you really like the experience, don’t buy a lot of lower end pens, save your money and make the jump to a nicer pen. At this point, I do prefer gold nibs. They have a softer feel when the nib touches the paper. If you are able to, go to a pen show (unfortunately not possible during the pandemic) or a local shop that sells fountain pens so you can hold one of the pens you are interested in. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of fountain pen stores, but if you are in a city or near one, you might have one nearby.
A few years ago, I attended the LA Pen show, and I was able to try some pens that I would eventually like in my collection but haven’t purchased yet. Pen shows really are your best bet for seeing what’s out there.
I would rather have fewer pens and have a small collection that I really love and use than to have a bunch of pens that are all very similar. The jump from a cheaper pen in the $50 range to something like a Platinum 3776 that has a gold nib with a custom grind, around $200-225, isn’t too much if you watch your budget. Pens that are nicer than the lower end steel nib options with gold nibs include the Pilot Vanishing Point, the Platinum 3776, and Sailor Pro Gear (I prefer the Pro Gear size to the Pro Gear Slim). These three are available for about $140 – $250, sometimes you can find them cheaper on eBay from Asian sellers. The Pro Gear is the most expensive of those three, and it’s probably my favorite of that bunch. I love the way it feels in hand and like the flat top w/ the anchor finial.
Instead of buying a bunch of cheaper pens, buy a few nice notebooks. Rhodia is one that I have had a lot of luck with, but there are also nice notepads at Daiso or any store that sells Japanese stationery. And don’t be afraid to sample inks. Buy some ink samples and play with different colors and brands of ink.
There are a lot of good lists about where to start with fountain pens, especially if you are looking to buy a first one under $50. Brad at Pen Addict has “Top 5 Fountain Pens Under $50.” The Well Appointed Desk has the “Top Ten Most Recommended Fountain Pens.” The Gentleman Stationer has a “Best Pens” Recommendations for 2020. You can also do a search for ‘mid-level’ or ‘mid tier’ fountain pens and there will be lots of options to explore.
So my biggest piece of advice for fountain pen newbies is to start slow and save your money. You are going to see more expensive pens that catch your eye and if you end up impulse shopping at the lower end, it will be harder for you to get something that you really, really want. I realize that there are some people who are perfectly happy using a Lamy Safari or a Platinum Preppy and want all the colors, and that’s fine too. But if you do get to try something in the next tier and you enjoy that experience, you might be kicking yourself for buying so many lower end pens.