Friday, 26 April 2013

Old Stuff Better Than New Stuff: Pens

Mightier than the sword, mightier than the biro
A pair of Pelikan piston-filling fountain pens
Today's "old stuff is better than new stuff" topic is pens. Oh, how exciting I hear you say! Stationery paraphernalia, yay!

I would understand your sarcasm if I was talking about ballpoint pens, sharpies and 2B pencils, but I will be gushing about fountain pens.

(Note: I have no affiliation with any products or manufacturers mentioned.)

Why fountain pens?

Fountain pens are fantastic writing instruments. Writing becomes a pleasure that is anticipated rather than a chore to be avoided.

In the past I had tried various ballpoint pens, gel pens, mechanical pencils and rollerballs and all of them left me cold. I had lots to write but found the physical process tedious, tiring and, at times, terrifying.

A nest of Pelikan m200 pens, with a cuckoo m205
in the middle
With ballpoint pens, including the gels, the writer has to physically drag an obstinate pen (thanks Frank W. Dormer for the phrase!) across the page. This takes great physical effort when writing longer than a few minutes.

Herculean efforts are not needed when using a good fountain pen. The pen sings to you and you heed her call. You want her. She wants you to hold her, to cradle her gently. Together, you skate gracefully across the pages leaving a sweet inky trail as a testament to your love.

Apart from the uholy love affair, there are practical considerations. Fountain pens are better for the environment than disposable pens. Countless billions of biros wind up in land fill every year. Precious energy and nasty plastics are consumed to manufacture their replacements.

Fountain pens are quite economical. There is a slight outlay to purchase the pen, and a bottle of ink, but a bottle will last a very long time.

Line variation
Writing with a fountain pen is a joy. After using one for a while, you start to notice things like line variation and shading. Broader and more flexible nibs allow for greater line variation. Line variation is very pleasing to the eye and makes reading your writing back a delight.

There is also a vibrant online community who are crackerjack nut-cases for fountain pens. Despite their unhealthy obsession with pens and inks, these kind and diligent folk are a treasure trove of information about every pen and ink ever produced. By tapping into their expertise, you can save a lot of money by honing your purchasing decisions against their experiences.

Why not?

Fountain pens aren't as easy as disposable pens. That's not to say that they are difficult. Not at all!

When a biro is finished, it is discarded and a new one is usually at hand to replace it. Biros are clean and easy to use and they take no special care or ongoing maintenance. You can be rough a reckless with a biro because they are sturdy. And you won't be concerned if you break it because it cost a few dollars at most. You can buy a large box of them for a fistful of Francs.

Samples of different inks
Fountain pens need to be refilled when the ink runs out. It's a simple procedure and quite painless. But there is the potential for mess and staining.

Fountain pens need to be nursed a little. If you drop a fountain pen on its nib, it may be irreparably damaged. I have a pen made in "Western Germany" that has been retired due to a damaged nib. I loved that I could write with a pen made in a country that no longer exists.

Occasionally you will need to flush your pen to remove any old ink from the feed. It is a simple procedure but not one that is required of biros. Flushing is also a good idea before changing to a different ink or storing a pen away if is going unused for a period.

Fountain pens are also considered a luxury item. You can always find one at any price bracket your wallet aspires to. As such, there is an outlay cost, according to your economic station. Nicer pens are targets for office thieves. There are many tales of woe where a fountain pen owner has had a pen go missing from their cubicle.

Got Ink?

An army of inks invaded my drawer.
Fountain pens need ink. When introduced to ink, an otherwise sane person starts hoarding little bottles of colored water in desk drawers; pairs inks to pens; plans and re-plans ink rosters; and dreams of the perfect blue that is always just out of reach.

A lot of modern pens will take an ink cartridge. These can be practical but they will end up in landfill and they limit your choice of ink to a particular manufacturer. Fortunately, most pens come with a converter that allows bottled inks to be used in them.

The world of ink is intriguing and turns the fountain pen user into an amateur alchemist. Different inks have different properties: some are water poof, some are bleach proof, some are washable. Different inks behave differently: some feather on the page, some bleed through, some creep over the nib and drive pedants spare. Others are well behaved, flow freely and glide across the page.

Some inks are stunning. It is a true joy when you find a beautiful ink that is well behaved (no bleeding/feathering/creeping), has some degree of water fastness and won't fade years after striking the page.

Noodler's Ottoman Azure ink on
cheap supermarket paper
Ink is subject to trends, fashion and status. A reliable bottle of Parker ink will set you back about $9 for 50ml. It's like the Toyota Camry of inks: cheap, dependable, sold everywhere. Or you can pay four times that (or more!) for a bottle of Pilot Iroshizuku (which is some damn fine ink!)

When I said that using bottled ink is more economical in the long term, it was kind of a lie. As you can see, Sleepy Dad doesn't have just one bottle of ink. I am grasping weakly to an ink buying moratorium until such time as I finish a few of the existing bottles.

Getting Started

Taking the plunge with fountain pens can be quite daunting.

Cheap Chinese fountain pens...not worth
the pittance.
You can pay a few dollars on eBay for a cheap Chinese-made pen (tip: don't!) These pens look nice and some of them work, to a degree, but overall they are quite disappointing. They are fun for a few minutes, trying the different nibs, learning how to do repairs etc. They usually cost about $7, delivered, but I typically snag them for less than $2 a piece at auction.

If you just want a good writing pen, look elsewhere. I have a stack of Chinese cheapies and I'd trade them all for a single entry-level pen from a reputable supplier.

A good starting point is a Lamy Safari. The pens are well made and easy to use. they are robust and are highly configurable. You can use cartridges or converters in them and the nibs are easily changeable in case you decide to try a different nib width.

The retail price for a Safari is a bit much, in my opinion, but they can be had, new, from eBay retailers for less than $25, delivered, including the converter. A $9 bottle of Parker Quink ink from your newsagent will have you writing in no time. This is a bargain for an honest, reliable and fun pen. $25 may seem like a lot for a pen, but it really isn't. The real expense comes later when you delve deeper into the world of fountain pens. You just need to know when to stop, and then actually stop.

Blue Lamy Safari and a partially disassembled Lamy
Vista, with extra nibs,converter and cartridge.
The Safari, along with its competitors, are great little pens. But they don't embody the true experience of fountain pens.

The next step up will require a small cash outlay but a smart shopper will be able to find pens for less than 40% of the RRP. The types of pens in the next price bracket have better design, materials and construction. They may make use of precious metals for decoration or performance (e.g. a 14k or  18k gold nib).

I have a particular fondness for Pelikan piston-filling pens. These pens don't take cartridges and don't need a converter because they have an in-built piston that sucks bottled ink directly into the barrel through the nib. Not only is this clean and convenient, it means I can go longer between refills because the capacity of the piston filler is much greater than a cartridge.

The Pelikan nibs and feeds are also a delight. The writing experience is truly a pleasure whenever I pick up a Pelikan m200 or m205 (pictured wayyy above). Of course, if you are well endowed (financially) you may want to fly higher with a Pelikan m400, m800 or m1000 pen.

The Lamy 2000, a design classic?
Another favorite of mine is a design classic. There has been much written about the Lamy 2000 pen and its supposed Bauhaus stylings. It  was designed in 1966 and has barely changed since that time. Apparently it is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City!

But Sleepy Dad doesn't sip the Lamy 2000 aesthetic Kool-aid. Sure, it's a nice pen to look at, but it doesn't set my world on fire. What does set my world on fire is writing with this instrument. I find it hard to fault in the performance department.

The true beauty of a Lamy 2000 is its performance.
There are aspects to the Pelikan pens that I prefer over the Lamy 2000, but I wouldn't want to impose them on the Lamy because that would ruin what makes the Lamy special. Likewise, imposing some of the strengths of the Lamy onto a Pelikan would only weaken the venerable Pelikan.

And this, in a nutshell, is one of my greatest joys with fountain pens. Two pens can beguile and enchant for reasons that are diametrically opposed, but you wouldn't want either of them to change. If I were to make an unholy mutant of a Pelikan m200 and Lamy 2000 pen, the result would be inferior to the two constituent pens.

Get into it!

As you can see, I believe the archaic fountain pen is far superior to the ubiquitous ballpoint pen. Not all technological advances are for the best, and with respects to writing instruments, I am thoroughly convinced that the old way is better than the new.

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  1. Have you noticed any change in your handwriting? I fear that a nice pen would be wasted on my error-prone scribble. But then, perhaps if I wrote by hand more often it would improve ...

  2. Yes. But the pens can only be partly credited. Their credit is for the desire to write better and having the right (or write) tool to do the job. It gives you room to improve into (potential).

    An analogy would be learning guitar. You can only achieve a low level of proficiency with a $50 instrument. You can go a lot further with a $5000 instrument.

    The actual grunt-work of figuring out why I wrote so badly, and how to improve it, was up to me - not the pens. Things like posture, letter formation, hand-wrist-shoulder technique were all analysed and lazily researched.

    Despite the new knowledge and skills, I still retained the ability to write poorly by default. :)

    I blame university for my poor writing. In first year, I changed my technique to minimise pen strokes and maximise horizontal speed. It was very efficient, but messy.

    Neat handwriting uses a lot more up-down movement for nice form.

  3. Found your blog via a shared Facebook post. Then saw this entry... Love it!

    I've been using fountain pens for a few years - got sucked into the addiction by a friend of mine. I recently bought a Lamy Safari Vista (the clear one) and it's been my daily writer for the last several months. Love it! My preferred pen, though, is my Pilot Vanishing Point with an EF nib. Just a pleasure to write with.

  4. Just stumbled across this blog, and enjoyed reading your comments. I have been collecting pens for years, and still going strong. I find no fault with the Chinese pens I buy on eBay. I must have about 15 now, and I think all are a very good value. If someone is just acquiring their first pen, and is shocked at paying $75 for a nice Parker after using cheap ball point pens, the Chinese pen is a good option. I have bought several for under $2 each, with free shipping from China.

    And if paying $8 for a bottle of ink has kept you from trying a fountain pen, years ago the label on a bottle of Mrs. Stewart's Laundry Blueing always suggested using it for ink. I recently bought a bottle, and it no longer suggests using as ink, but I am going to fill my most recent Chinese pen with it. (I remember in 1962 when I took a new job, I was surprised to find a quart bottle of Scheaffer's Skrip ink in the supply room. Not any more.)

    The fun thing with Chinese pens is the different hoods a lot of them have, to mimick the Parker 51. I have one Hero hooded point pen which is identical to a Parker 51, except it is much lighter in weight. And several with what appears to be a metal hood, remind me of the Eversharp Fifth Avenue I bought for college, because there was a waiting list for a Parker 51. On many, it is hard to tell plated plastic from metal.

    Pen collecting is a lot of fun, the only problem is the pen you decide you want to use is always the one where the ink has dried up, and you have to fill it before you can use it.

    1. Thanks for dropping by!

      The Parker 51 is an amazing instrument. I have a few and I can't gush highly enough about them for their role as workhorse pens. I had a ten pack of Hero 616s and the last time I used one was to break it open and steal the breather tube to repair a 51! (I like repairing 51s, they are a wonder of engineering).

      I prefer a bit of flex in my nibs which puts me at odds with the Chinese pens. But for some reason this doesn't apply to the 51 nails. Despite preferring a bit of flex, I would say that the 51 is the closest thing I have come across as the perfect workhorse pen.

      $75 for a good Parker does sound like madness to an outsider. As Nietzsche said: "It is not enough to prove something, one also has to seduce or elevate people to it."

      Isn't it funny how our concept of cheap and expensive for a pen changes after doing this hobby for a few years? Methinks we've been seduced. :)