On Selecting a Writing Instrument
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On Selecting a Writing Instrument

Iím a geek, and I freely admit it. I like pens. Iíve owned and used just about every kind of pen and pencil that is available on the market (not all brands and models, you understand; just all types). I can waste hours wandering through an art or office supply store, looking at all their pens, or surfing the internet doing just the same thing. I like fine pens, too; had I the money, I could be pleased to spend $500 on a single pen. So I think about pens, and I have thoughts and opinions on pens, and I thought, "Well, since itís such an obsession of mine, why not share what I know and think about pens with the world?" Hence this article.

Considerations

If you spend hardly any time at all with a pen in your hand, writing on paper, this article is not for you. I enjoy writing at the keyboard, but I also take pleasure in putting my pen to a piece of paper when composing my thoughts. If you share this enjoyment, and want more satisfaction from the experience, I invite you to continue.

A large number of factors will affect what makes a pen best for you, including your handwriting style and size, your grip, your hand size, your budget, whether you make duplicates, what you write on, where you write, and where you carry and/or keep your pen.

Cost

Fine pens are not really tools so much as they are jewelry that's useful. If you spend a lot on jewelry, it's hardly odd to have a jewel of a pen. Certainly they can be as costly or as cheap as any other jewelry is, including rings, earrings, bracelets, studs, tie bars, necklaces, cuff links, watches, and so on. Good and attractive pens are available in all price ranges, from costume jewelry ($10 or so) to fine jewelry ($5,000+).

If you worry about losing a pen, consider how often you lose your other jewelry. Granted, you take your pen out of your pocket and put it back as you use it, which you don't do so often with other jewelry. And you might lend your pen, which you'd never do with your rings. But if you loan a fine pen, particularly one with a cap, you can keep the cap in your hand, and the pen will almost surely come back to you. And unlike inexpensive disposable pens, you keep track of a fine pen, because it is personal to you, rather than being common property.

Buy within your budget. While I might like to have a pen the price of a house payment, I can't currently afford one, so I don't. But you may find you have more options than you thought, when you investigate the market.

Hand

Consider how you like to write. Do you print or write cursive? The smaller you write, the finer point you will want. Conversely, the faster you write, the broader you will want your point -- a broad point will lay the ink down faster. I write fast and fairly messy, and I favor a light hand and a lightweight pen. I find it is much less tiring and painful to write for long periods of time if the pen has only to barely touch the paper to lay down a line. You may prefer a strong grip and to press hard as you lay out block letters. You would be served better by a different kind of pen than I. But think about how you like to write, and how each of the following attributes of a pen or pencil would affect your writing experience.

Weight

Think carefully about how heavy a pen you wish to deal with, and shop accordingly. Fine pens are made from resin, celluloid, carbon fiber, acrylic, wood, ABS plastic, aluminum, brass, gold, sterling silver, and stainless steel, among other things. I find that a light pen goes well with a light touch, and so favor resin, celluloid, and ABS. If you favor a strong grip, a heavier pen may be more comfortable. And if youíre trained in use of the kubotan, you may well favor the weight and sturdiness of a brass or steel barreled pen, which can easily be used in the exact same way. I prefer a very light grip and a very light pen, such as Lamy, Pelikan, Sheaffer Balance II, and Omas.

Girth

I prefer a fairly thick pen, thicker than a disposable ballpoint or rollerball, but smaller in diameter than my wedding band. My wife favors skinny pens, like the Cross Century (which is the one you see in all those executive desk sets). Pens with comfort grips are increasingly popular. The most significant product for increased comfort was the Sensa line. Triangular grips, such as on the inexpensive Sanford PhD pen and pencil and the very pricey Omas 360 collection, are also gaining popularity. Aftermarket pen grips with a sharp triangular cross section have been around for decades, and are dirt cheap. You might use one to find out how well you think youíd like a pen with a triangular grip. Itís been my experience that human fingers and thumb donít quite line up on a regular triangle, and so most triangular grip pens are quite rounded.

Length

Shorter pens, such as the Cross Ion and Fisher Bullet are easier to carry, but a pen that doesn't reach the web between your thumb and forefinger is going to be much harder to control than one that does. You may find pens that are longer to be more comfortable or. Consider also how and where you'll carry the pen. Will it be clipped or loose? Do you plan to put it into a shirt pocket, jacket pocket, pants pocket, wallet, checkbook, planner, PDA, or perhaps on a lanyard around your neck?

Shorter pens can be made longer by putting the cap on the end of the pen ("posting"). Some manufacturers count on this to give their pens length. Some people will tell you that you must post your caps, while there are some pens (like the Rotring LeVel) which cannot be posted. I will tell you the truth -- you may post or not post as you please. But if you post, post gently. Too fast or too hard, and you may damage the cap and/or the barrel.

Appearance and Finish

This is the most obvious and personal consideration when buying a pen. Select a color and finish that appeal to you. Fine plastic pens are made from hard rubber, celluloid, resin (which keeps the fine pen retailers from having to say "plastic"), ABS (extremely durable), or acrylic (also known as Lucite and Plexiglass). Hard rubber isn't available in a wide array of colors, and is subject to warping. Celluloid pens are very attractive, having a translucent, almost jewel-like appearance. The color runs true all the way through a celluloid pen. However, antique celluloid is very flammable, and it's not particularly durable. Its primary selling points are appearance and nostalgia. Acrylic pens are less likely to take color from ink than celluloid, and can be had in some really dazzling finishes. The Lamy Safari is a nice pen made of ABS. It's nearly indestructable, but the charcoal-colored one has a rhino-hide finish reminiscent of your monitor, which becomes unpleasant in very short order. Most plastic pens can be scratched, and the caps can be cracked with enough abuse. In all honesty, the advantages of one or another plastic is essentially personal preference.

Metal-bodied pens are usually made of brass, though sterling silver, aluminum, and stainless steel are also used. A metal-bodied pen, especially if it has a laquered finish, is subject to scratching. If you fret about this sort of thing, get a leather traveling pen case in which to keep it. The durability of a metal-bodied pen is a function of its weight.

Convenience

Will it write the first time, every time? How important is that, compared to smoothness, speed, and so on? How often will you need to refill it? How much of a chore will that be? What are the chances it will leak? What are the chances it will break or be damaged? How much will any of it matter?

My preference is for a fountain pen, and I dislike for them to leak, and I prefer that they hold a lot of ink. This has led me to favor Pelikans and Omases, which have an integral piston fill mechanism. I consider the integral piston fill less likely to leak than a converter, and I am sure it holds more ink.

The ultimate in leakproofness and write-out, however, is the Fisher Space Pen, followed by the Parker ball point refill. The other end of the spectrum is usually a converter or a Mont Blanc, unless you plan to use a dip pen. It's not that Mont Blanc pens don't hold a lot of ink, because they do. But they also go through it at an amazing rate. Also, I will never forget the time I went into a Mont Blanc boutique and tried Meisterstucks in just about every nib available, and came out with four or five different colors of ink on my hands.

Ink

In spite of all the types of pens, there are actually only three kinds of ink that you're likely to use. These are ballpoint ink, water-based ink, and gel ink. Ballpoint ink is a thick paste that is melted by the turning of the ball, but it actually moves through the point by capillary action. It dries quite quickly. Colored ballpoints use dyes for color, but black ballpoint ink uses carbon black. All of the dyes in ballpoint ink can be dissolved without affecting any printing on the paper you're writing on (like the background of your checks), but carbon black cannot be dissolved or bleached. Also, most of the colored dyes are not very lightfast, and will fade with time. The lesson here is not to use colored ballpoints for checks, just in case some forger gets hold of them.

Water-based ink is used in fountain pens, roller ball pens, and most porous-point pens that are used for writing. It does poorly on coated paper and glossy surfaces that do not readily absorb it, and it takes longer to dry than ballpoint ink. All water based ink except for india ink is colored with dyes. India ink is colored with very finely ground carbon black and has shellac mixed in it, which will clog a fountain pen. Most water-based inks are resistant to tampering, but this can vary. Many blue inks can be treated with chemicals that render them transparent. Most other water-based inks can only be removed with bleach. If you bleach the writing off of a check, you will also bleach the background off of it, which will be obvious. However, many water-based inks are not very lightfast. This is particularly true of fountain pen inks. Some will be more lightfast than others, and Parker's blue and black roller ball inks are very lightfast indeed -- I once left samples in my window for several months. The black stayed black, and the blue turned blue-black.

Gel ink is a recent innovation. It takes a little while to dry, but once it does, it is completely and absolutely indelible. Gel ink is waterproof and lightfast, and is also usually acid-free, making it the ink of choice for archival use. Gel ink is also available in a huge variety of colors, and nearly everyone can find one or more that suits them.

If you are particularly worried that somebody may tamper with your writing, you should seek out either archival gel ink, or Noodler's line of cellulose-reactive bottled ink. These inks are completely water-soluble, but form a permanent chemical bond with cellulose, such as paper, linen, or cotton.

Types

Writing instruments come in a variety of types. I know of ballpoint pens, pencils, porous-point pens, technical pens, roller ball pens, gel roller pens, and fountain pens. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and I discuss them below.

Ballpoints

Ballpoint pens are the most common, most convenient, and least expensive of all pens. Ballpoint pens use a thick paste ink which is melted by the turning of the ball and then laid down on the paper. Decent performance with little skipping and blobbing can be had from basic Papermate and Bic stick pens bought at large office supply warehouses for a dollar a dozen or less. Extremely cheap no-name dollar store pens will skip, blob, and fade more, and will also feel much scratchier. Pilot's Better Ball Point Pens do actually seem to blob less, but in my experience, they skip as much as others. And colored ballpoints seem to be rather prone to fading, especially novelty colors, as are found in Pentech Retractobrites.

All stick pens and many inexpensive retractable ballpoints (such as the Bics and Pilots) use an open-ended plastic or metal tube to hold the ink. Unfortunately, ink expands when hot and contracts when cold, just like everything else. The process will leave bubbles in the paste ink that will not go away, and render the pen unreliable or worthless. This concern does not generally arise with refills that are closed, such as Parker, Pelikan, Cross, Fisher, Sheaffer, Zebra, PaperMate, and many others.

Refillable ballpoints typically use either a pushbutton or a twist action to extend and retract the point. Very few refillable ballpoints have caps. Common refills are made by or interchangeable with those made by Cross (which is only used in twist-action pens), Parker (Rotring, Pelikan and MontBlanc are all interchangeable), Sheaffer, Pilot, PaperMate (kings of the $5 and under retractable pens), Bic, and Fisher (the Zebra F refill is interchangeable). Eversharp makes "universal" refills, but that mainly means they can be used in Bics, PaperMates, and extra-cheap pens made by no-name manufacturers, once they are cut to length.

A ballpoint pen's performance will depend entirely on the refill inside it. A $4 Parker Jotter ballpoint will have the exact same point and refill as a Parker Duofold Mosaic ballpoint ($200) and thus the same writing characteristics. The grip will feel different, but the point will be the same.

I have used the Parker pen, and I like it very much (for a ballpoint). It's quite smooth in medium point, though it does leave blobs at times. Parker uses a textured tungsten carbide ball, rather than the inexpensive smooth steel ball bearings found in lower quality pens. As a result, it is less prone to skipping. The Fisher Space Pen is probably the best ballpoint and most reliable pen there is, period. It will write on greasy paper, photographs, upside down, and at 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C). The ink does not freeze, rarely skips, and blobs no more than any other. The refill comes with an adapter that allows it to fit Parkers. In fact, it is because of this that Boyd Willat chose it for his Sensa pen when he set out to create the most comfortable writing instrument in the world.

Ink

Black ballpoint ink is colored with pure carbon, which cannot be dissolved and will stay black no matter what. Other colors of ballpoint use various dyes, and can be washed out of documents, such as checks, without affecting the printing. Do not use colored ballpoints to write checks, or you may get one back and find that the only thing on it that you wrote is the signature. Furthermore, most colored inks are quite a bit more prone to fading than blacks and blues. Erasable ballpoint ink dries very slowly; this is what makes it erasable. Unfortunately, it also makes it very smudgeable. Again, do not use it for checks.

Summary

Ballpoint pens are inexpensive, reliable, long-lasting, and able to make good copies. Those with pressurized refills can also write upside down, on greasy paper or photos, and never freeze. On the downside, they are inexpressive, require more effort than most other pens, and write more slowly as a result. Many leave skips and blobs in your writing. Open-tube ballpoints are rather heat-sensitive, and heat can make them leak

Pencils

Pencils use sticks made of a composite of graphite and clay to write. As you write, the material rubs off onto the paper. They do not actually use lead to write. They come in two types -- wooden and mechanical. So-called wood pencils are made not only with wood, but also plastic and recycled paper to hold the lead. They are usually very cheap, and these days they come with an amazing array of graphics. You can shape the point if you so desire, but, to be honest, most people like a fairly sharp point. As a result, you usually have to have or carry a pencil sharpener. Furthermore, they are subject to breakage.

Colored pencils are almost universally wooden, as well. Their leads are a variety of colored plastics or waxes. Some are water-soluble, so that they can be used for water colors. Some draftsmen also favor wooden drafting pencils made by Staedtler-Mars or Faber-Castell, which are available in hardnesses from 6H to 5B, and non-reproducing blue.

Mechanical pencils come in about three types -- gravity feed, twist, and pushbutton. Gravity fed pencils hold 2mm leads and are typically only used by draftsmen and artists. These 2mm leads are found only in drafting and art supply stores, and come in an immense variety of hardnesses -- from 6H (so hard it's almost invisible, and nigh impossible to erase, but it lasts forever) to 5B (so soft a point only lasts through a foot of line, and very easy to smudge), along with specialized film leads and even non-reproducing blue. These pencils typically require the use of a pointer, which is a sharpener that's only good for those 2mm leads and costs at least $6.

Makers of fine pens, such as Pelikan, Cross, and Sensa usually prefer twist mechanisms for their pencils. Pencils sold to draftsmen (including most Faber-Castell, Pentel and Staedtler-Mars mechanical pencils) have pushbutton mechanisms. Some have the button on the side, near your thumb, and others have them on the end, where the eraser goes. I prefer the end-mounted pushbutton mechanism; I feel it is better for people who write a lot. Draftsmen use pencils almost continuously, and the pencils that are made for them all use pushbuttons, and most of them are end-mounted.

Most mechanical pencils are available with a variety of leads, in 0.3mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm, and 0.9mm widths, though I have seen a few which are sold only in 1.3 mm width. Again, the larger your writing, the wider your line should be. Finer leads will be somewhat scratchier. I prefer a 0.7 mm lead for writing (and the Count von Faber-Castell agrees with me), but the most common is 0.5mm. Naturally, the 0.5mm size has the largest variety of leads, with the broadest range of hardnesses, the most colors, and the widest availability.

A caveat for those who will carry mechanical pencils: they have very strong and very sharp points, especially the metal-pointed ones meant for drafting. Be careful what pockets you put them in, as even those with sliding retractable sleeves can stab you but good. There are a few where the entire point and mechanism retracts (the only brand I remember is Niji and I haven't seen one in a long time), but I've had some retract on me while writing, when the clip rolled against my knuckle, which can be very disconcerting. Also, the point will come out if the button on the end is pushed. The Pentel Sharp Kerry (0.5mm only, $20 list) has a cap which becomes the pushbutton mechanism when posted on the end of the pencil. It is completely safe for pocket carry and makes a decent kubotan as well.

The main reason most prefer a pencil to a pen is because it can be erased. I find that white plastic erasers such as Staedtler-Mars erasers and the Pentel Clic eraser are much superior to pink and green rubber erasers or kneadable erasers. The main reason for this is because the rubber and kneadable erasers have crushed pumice in them. I have watched computer repairmen use such erasers to clean corrosion off of contacts. Pencils with larger erasers are probably better than those with very small erasers - those on the Sheaffer Logo and the Pentel Twist-Erase pencils are much larger and less prone to tear the paper than the tiny green erasers found in Pentel Sharp drafting pencils.

Porous Point Pens

Porous point pens, also known as soft-point pens, fiber tipped or felt-tipped pens and markers, use a liquid ink, either water-based or sometimes using petroleum distillates as the solvent. The ink is delivered to the medium through a piece of wool felt or a synthetic equivalent. They need to be kept capped, or the ink will dry. Most water-based ink can only be removed from documents with bleach, but this will show the alteration, as the bleach will also remove any colors printed. It must also be kept dry, or it will run. I am not aware of any writing porous-point pens that use a petroleum-based ink. Water-based inks perform poorly on glossy or coated surfaces.

Few fine pen makers make fiber-point refills. The Fountain Pentel Tradio uses a plastic tip reminiscent of a fountain pen, with porous fibers replacing the quill. Waterman, Lamy, Levenger, and S. T. DuPont are the only makers of fine pens I know of that make fiber-tip refills, which typically fit the same pens as their rollerballs.

Porous point pens are turned to a huge variety of purposes, and they are usually available in an astounding array of colors. There are those used for general writing (such as the Papermate Flair and Pilot Razor Point pens). Almost all highlighting pens are porous point, as are dry-erase markers. There are several brands made with chisel points, for calligraphy (Itoya and Sanford leap to mind). Laundry markers and permanent magic markers are made for writing on all surfaces. And art markers and paint pens come in mind-boggling arrays of colors, as many or more as you'll find in a giant box of Crayolas.

Porous point pens are one of two kinds I know of that have an expressive line; that is, one that changes width with pressure. They typically are no smoother than a mid-grade ballpoint, though this will vary quite a bit from brand to brand. I suggest you try each that interests you to see what you think. They are unsuited to making carbons, and the points on many of them will break down and fray if they are used with too heavy a hand.

Technical Pens

Technical pens, also known as stylographs and ink pencils, are made for the professional draftsman. Typically available in sizes ranging from 0000 (four-aught) to six, they are designed to put a variety of inks down on paper or drafting film in lines of perfectly consistent width. They are identical in function to the pens used in plotters, which hold them exactly vertical, which is how they are meant to be used. They are drafting tools, and they look like tools. Rarely is any attempt ever made to make them attractive.

The technical penís point consists of a tube of varying inside diameter, a weight at the top, and a wire attached to the bottom of the weight that sticks out of the point. When you touch the point to the paper, the wire lifts the weight, which allows the ink to flow. The finer the point, the more the wire sticks out of it and (naturally) the scratchier it feels. They arenít my preference, but I have a sister who used them to write and draw in her journals for many many years. These pens are unsuited to making duplicates or a heavy hand. Too much pressure will bend the tube, making the pen worthless, and a replacement nib may cost as much as $13.

The ink supply for a Koh-I-Noor plotter pen is kept in a small tube that is open at one end. It is filled with either a syringe or a small ink bottle which has a spout that fits into it. This is held onto the back end of the section with a retaining ring. To change it into a technical pen, another retaining ring screws onto the barrel of the pen, holding the section in place. And the nib screws into the inkfeed, and must be attached and removed with a small wrench. Rotring uses a disposable cartridge for ink.

Cleaning essentially involves taking the entire thing down to its smallest component pieces and soaking them for several hours in a glass of water. Ink solvents and an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner may speed the process. Refilling requires removing the section from the barrel and the ink supply from the section, then squirting the ink into the ink supply and then screwing it back into the section, which is then screwed back into the barrel.

Inks

Technical pens are very reliable when they are kept clean, and work well with a great many inks. All fountain pen inks, all drafting inks, and all watercolor inks are safe for use in technical pens. Film ink is designed for use on transparencies, and can be used to write or draw on nearly any hard, non-porous plastic surface. Iíve used it to ink the numbers on my dice. Technical pens will be ruined by any ink containing solids or shellac.

Summary

Technical pens typically cost $25 each for Koh-I-Noor Rapidograhs and $15 each for Rotring Rapidoliners. The Koh-I-Noor will be cheaper in the long run because bottled ink is cheaper than ink cartridges. There are disposable technical pens as well, but they usually run $6, which makes them no bargain. The advantages of technical pens are the multiple ink colors (including film inks, watercolor inks and washes), their extreme reliability, their very light touch, and their perfect consistency of line. The disadvantages are that they will leak if they are not reassembled tightly, they require quite a bit of cleaning, their unexpressive line, and the fact that they are the most inconvenient to refill, period.

Roller Ball Pens

Roller ball pens were invented in Japan. The first I ever heard of was the Pentel Rolling Writer, introduced in the US around 1980. I hadn't been paying attention because Parker had started selling roller balls in 1975. Roller ball pens use a liquid, water-based ink and a rolling ball to transfer the ink from the refill to the paper. This allows for a much smoother feel than a ballpoint, where the ink must be melted by the turning of the ball point. In addition to the smoother feel, they offer a faster write, and a lighter touch than a ballpoint. Most use a capillary inkfeed system similar to a fountain pen's, though a few (most notably Pentel) still use a fiber wick.

Roller balls are made by just about everybody these days. They vary in price from the very inexpensive Bic and Sanford disposables, to gorgeous Parkers, Namikis, and Omases (amongst others) running hundreds or thousands of dollars. Each manufacturer makes its own refills, though there are several which are compatible with each other. I am currently using Sanford disposables, which have an unpleasant tendency to skip when I write too fast. My favorite disposables are made by Pilot -- the Vball and Precise V7. And the Parker roller balls (which I used in their now defunct Vector line, since replaced by the rubber-gripped Reflex line) have some of the most lightfast inks I have ever seen.

Roller balls do not often have a wide selection of ink colors. Black, blue, red, and green are typically all thatís available. The inks are water-based, so they do poorly on glossy and coated paper, and any writing must be kept dry. The point is strong enough to make multiple copies. Many of them must be kept capped, or the ink will dry on the point, though retractable roller balls are growing in popularity. In fact, when my brother's fiancee asked me about a pen for her wedding guest book, I suggested a Retro 51 capless roller ball desk pen in pearl white. Please note, though, if you put an uncapped or open roller ball in your pocket, it will leave a big stain. Otherwise they do not often leak.

As with ball points, most pen makers have their own roller ball refills, which are used for every refillable roller ball pen they make (for example, Parker uses the same refill for its inexpensive Reflex rollerballs and its pricey Duofolds). There are cases where a manufacturer will decide to use the standard refill of another, but this is not very common in my experience. Pentel has two varieties, one of which they claim has an expressive line. I have my doubts about this claim, though I must admit that Iíve not used the pen. Pilot and Levenger also have two varieties; one for retractable pens and one for the pens which are kept capped.

Roller balls are typically quite convenient. They are nearly as easy to refill, use, and carry as a ballpoint, though they wonít write as far, and they cost more to refill. They require a little more care (particularly because the ink is not waterproof), but provide a significantly better experience.

Gel Rollers

Gel ink technology is the latest to hit the market; itís been around for about four or five years. Gel ink is archival in quality. Once dry, it will never fade, smear, or wash out (with the possible exception of Pilotís erasable gel). The inkís pigment forms a permanent chemical bond with the paper, and most are acid-free. It can dry on the point of the pen, making the pen useless, so gel pens must be kept capped when not in use. Pilot, Sanford, and Parker have introduced capless gel refills in the last couple of years; they still dry out in a year or so. And unlike roller ball inks, gel ink cannot be bleached out of anything. Prior to the introduction of Noodler's Bulletproof inks, gel ink was the most indelible ink there around; I reccommend it for any application meant to last a lifetime or longer.

Everything thatís been said about the use and feel of roller balls also applies to gel ink pens, with the caveat that gel pens are a little more subject to blobbing than roller balls, and the ink takes longer to dry. Gel pens are available in an absolutely dazzling array of colors, including pastels and metallics not made for any other pen, except possibly some paint pens.

So far, I know that Sanford, Pilot, Cross, Levenger, and Parker make refills for gel pens. Pilot gel refills also go into their Namiki line of fine pens. Parker's gel roller refills are interchangeable with their ballpoints. Cross has a couple of pretty neat retractable gel rollers (the Ion in particular). All others that I know of are disposable. As with roller balls, I recommend you try them out to find which ones you like.

Fountain Pens

Fountain pens are my personal favorite. There is nothing to compare to a good fountain pen when it comes to smoothness, expressiveness of line, and overall writing experience. Fountain pens are the technological descendant of pens made from goose quills. The point, or nib, is typically gold or stainless steel, and shaped like a wedge with a split down the middle. Liquid, water-based ink is delivered to it through very fine capillary grooves.

Fountain pens are the most difficult and expensive of all pens to make, and a bad fountain pen is just about the worst of all pens. Good pens can be found in nearly all price levels, as can bad pens. Some Asian makers (Hero, Duke, Wality, Haolilai) provide school pens that retail for as little as $3. Parker makes refillable cartridge pens for as little as $10 (the Reflex again), and theyíre usually decent, if not great. Namiki makes laquered brass pens for as much as $6000. And MontBlanc makes ornate pieces of jewelry that you wouldn't want to hold for more than five minutes, with an inkfeed and a nib so that you can write with them, that they call pens, for as much as $25,000. Many manufacturers keep websites, as do lots and lots of retailers. Unfortunately, very few reproductions, either printed or on the web, can truly capture the beauty of a luxury fountain pen.

As Iím sure you know, fountain pens can be quite a pain. Some are scratchy, some leak, they donít write very far, theyíre delicate, they use water-based ink that writes poorly on several different kinds of paper, and theyíre usually more expensive than disposables. What makes such a pen worth buying or keeping?

The simple fact is that they write better, especially when you get a good one (and Iíve gotten several good ones). They write more smoothly and with less effort, and the writing looks more expressive. A fountain pen will adapt to your hand the way a pair of shoes will adapt to your feet (one of the reasons not to lend them out). And the variety of inks available for fountain pens is pretty well dazzling (over 400 at last count).

There are three more considerations for a fountain pen than for other types. The first is how it is filled, the second is the inkfeed, and the third is the nib.

There are currently five different ways to put ink into a fountain pen. One is with cartridges. You buy plastic tubes filled with ink, take the section out of the barrel and snap them into the back of the section, and reassemble the pen. This is the most expensive way to buy ink. However, Iíve met people who refill their cartridges with bottled ink using syringes or very fine eyedroppers. A cartridge is unlikely to leak unless it is re-used this way too many times. As Iíve never done it, I donít know how many times is too many.

Different manufacturers make their cartridges differently. Many conform to the Cross/International standard, but Parker, Waterman, Pilot, and Sheaffer do not (at least, not always). Availability for some cartridges can be very limited.

The vast majority of fine fountain pens use cartridge converters. They are seated on the back of the section like a cartridge. Then you dip the point of the pen into ink and draw ink into the converter before reassembling the pen. This is potentially messy, and more so than with pens that have this sort of mechanism built in because the converter can leak or come loose. There are two types of converters available - piston action and inc sac. I prefer piston action, because by twisting the plunger drive, you can see how much ink youíve got and whether it has actually been drawn up into the converter. Both the piston action and the ink sac converters can develop leaks - the plungerís seal may go bad, as can the ink sac.

Converters allows the user to fill from the bottle or use cartridges at his preference. I personally dislike cartridges and converters for three reasons. First, they don't hold much ink. Second, I don't like having to take the pen apart to fill it. Third, I suspect them of being more prone to leaking than bottle-fill only pens. As always, bear in mind that these are personal reasons. They don't have to apply to you.

The most popular action for modern fountain pens that fill only from the bottle is the twist-action piston mechanism. You dip the nib into the bottle, turn the end of the pen to empty the ink supply, and turn it the other way to draw the ink back in. Several varieties of ink sac pens still remain on the market, but most are costly and marketed to the nostalgic. Others are inexpensive reproductions of classic Aerometric or Vacumatic fill pens. And some people convert their cartridge and converter pens in particular to eyedropper-filled pens, which work exactly like you'd think.

The inkfeed determines how fast the ink is laid out on the page, and to an extent, which inks work well in the pen. MontBlanc is known for being very generous with the ink, while Lamy inkfeeds are the much more restricted. (Be advised that my knowledge of inkfeeds is based on rumor, hearsay, and reputation, rather than experience in taking them apart and looking at them. The real experts will be found at pen shows and The Fountain Pen Network.)

Nib selection is the most difficult part of selecting a fine fountain pen. The harder you press when you write, the firmer a nib you will want. The stainless steel nib on the Waterman Phileas is strong enough to fill out three-copy forms. I've owned one, so I know. If you have a very light hand, you will likely prefer a flexible nib, such as those made by Pelikan and Omas, or the Feathertouch™ nib on the Sheaffer Balance II. Gold nibs generally provide the most flex, and some believe that 18kt gold nibs are smoother and more flexible than 14kt. However, smooth and flexible steel nibs can be found for under $30. I have experience of this with the Lamy Safari (smooth and very flexible), and testimonials of this with Hero pens from China (smooth -- no hooded nib pen is going to be very flexible).

Nib width is another consideration. Asian nibs are typically about 1/2 size smaller than a western nib of the same size (that is, an Asian nib sized Medium will be about midway between a Medium and a Fine for most western manufacturers). Furthermore, there are stub, oblique, and calligraphy nibs, all of which have a point with an edge shape rather than a ball tip. They will produce significantly wider downstrokes and narrower sidestrokes than ball-point nibs. Careful thought and experimentation should lead you to what works best for you. As always, bear in mind that the smaller and slower you write, the finer nib you will need.

Very few retailers are willing to let you write with a fountain pen before you buy it. This is because most buyers are reluctant to buy a pen with ink in the converter or the inkfeed. When you visit the pen shop, youíll be able to hold, fiddle with, balance, and write with their pens - as long as you donít ask to put ink into them. A few will keep loaded pens available to try; others may allow you to dip the point into a bottle of ink. But what you will learn at a pen store will be how the pen looks and how if feels in your hand.

Many afficianados prefer antique pens, most of which used ink sacs of one type or another. Entering this market is not for the uninformed, nor for those who don't know what they want. As a general rule, antique pens have much more delicate and flexible nibs than modern pens, and are not as robust in terms of mechanism and sometimes materials. And many of them need repairs, which would probably be best handled by one of several pen restorers, customizers, and repairers on the Web.

Dip Pens

Most people do not consider dip pens for their daily use. The hazards of an open inkwell and dripping ink are obvious, as is the inconvenience of having to constantly dip and clean the pen. That said, they are still used for certain purposes. The three types that I am familiar with are steel dip pens, goose quills, and glass pens.

Steel Pens

Steel dip pens are cut from thin sheet metal and fitted to holders. There are two sizes of holders. The small holds crowquill and hawk quill pens, which have a circular cross section about 1/8" in diameter. They are used mostly for drawing, though some calligraphers will use them to add thin accent lines to various black face letters. The large holds most other steel dip pens, which fill about 90-120 degrees of arc in a circle with about 3/16" radius.

The dominant manufacturer of steel dip pens is Hunt/Speedball; they also publish what I consider to be the definitive guide to lettering by hand. Hunt calls the lettering pens brushes, and they make them in four shapes and five sizes. The shapes are square (A), circular (B), flat edge (C), and oval (D), and size varies from 0 (largest) to 4 (smallest).

I've tried my hand at calligraphy with fountain pens, dip pens, and chisel pointed felt tip pens, and in my experience, the dip pen yields the best results. I found that when using porous point pens, all too often I would raise one corner of the pen off the paper, and the fountain pens could not give me as narrow a line in the sidestroke as a Hunt C pen. Some of this may be due to my lack of skill, as my sister got excellent results with an inexpensive Sheaffer Viewpoint calligraphy fountain pen.

If you plan to buy dip pens for calligraphy, I urge you to go buy them individually at a good art or drafting supply store, and to inspect each before buying, as quality can be quite spotty. One Hunt calligraphy set I got had a C brush with seriously damaged tines in it. Ideally, if you hold the brush up to the light, you should not see light through the slits between the tines.

Goose Quills

Goose quills were the only pens available for many centuries, until the introduction of glass pens, and they remained the only affordable pens for centuries more. The only place I've seen them available is in the Fahrney's Pen catalog, which offers them as a nostalgia item (you can't reasonably call something so archaic a novelty).

Goose quills are narrow and thus hard to hold. They are scratchy and the tips will fray and wear quickly with use. Scribes used to have small knives (penknives) to sharpen their quills at need. They could be carved to preference as you went along, however. That, and their (formerly) low cost, were their only advantages. The only real reason to have them any more is for historical theatrical productions, or so people can see them on your desk and say, "Wow, you actually have some of those?"

Glass Pens

Glass pens were the original prestige pens. Originally developed by Venitian or Viennese glass blowers at a time when glass was more rare and costly than gold, they had numerous advantages over goose quill pens. Glass is very hard and does not wear quickly. They could be made a comfortable girth, and so were much more ergonomic. And the artisan making them could color them and shape them almost any way he pleased, making them very decorative.

The point of a glass pen is a spiral grooved rod of glass usually about 3/8" (4mm) in diameter. The end is stretched by the glassworker, making sure he doesn't smooth out the grooves, to a point about 1mm across and rounded, so that it does not cut the paper. The length of the point is generally about 1.5" (35-40mm) overall. They write about as far per dip as the typical steel dip pen. As for what the rest of the pen looks like, that's limited only by the artisan's time, skill, and imagination.

Glass pens are very robust. They can handle pretty much any ink; if you can dip it, you can write with it. They can be used with metallic flake inks that would destroy any fountain pen, steel dip pen, or technical pen, because they can be cleaned with very fine steel or bronze wool. This was the selling point that caused a minor resurgence in the mid 90s, when many of them were sold with bottles of metallic flake ink. The market for them collapsed when metallic gel ink pens were introduced. The gel pens were obviouly much easier to use and far less prone to mishaps. Unfortunately, I can't name anyone currently selling glass pens, though I'm fairly sure that Herbin is still making them.

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