Please enjoy the original writing, Christian travel journal, and photography by a hapa haole named Gail Rhea.

Original Writing & Photography

by Gail Rhea

 

 

 

HOW TO BUY A FOUNTAIN PEN

 

What do you look for when shopping for a fountain pen? First of all, you have to determine the purpose. Are you buying the pen for extensive writing or only as a signature pen? Is your writing small and cramped or sprawling? Shorter or thinner pens are usually more comfortable for smaller hands and longer or thicker pens are typically more comfortable for larger hands. In any case, the pen needs to feel good in your writing grip, comfortable and well-balanced.

If you've never used a fountain pen before, you may prefer to get a pen that costs less than $5 like a Platinum Preppy (fine nib only), a Pilot Petit1 (fine nib only), a disposable Pilot Varsity (medium nib only), or a disposable Pilot Vpen (fine nib only) to try out for a while. If you like it, you'll eventually want to move up to a costlier pen. That's where this guide comes in.

I recommend your buying at least one each of the Preppy, Petit1, and Varsity for comparison purposes. Since they're all lightweight pens, there won't be a significant difference in weight. Look, instead, for the difference in nib width, grip, and balance. Because these are all Japanese pens, keep in mind when you go shopping for a costlier pen that American and Western European nibs will generally be about a half-size larger. So, if you like the Japanese fine nibs, you'll probably prefer an extra fine nib on a Western pen. If you like the Varsity's medium nib and want to buy a Western pen, look for a fine nib.

As you write, notice if the ridge on the Petit1 bothers your fingers as you grip the pen because other pens may have similar ridges or screw threads that may also bother you if they’re located in the same place.

Between the Petit1 and the longer pens, the length difference, both with the caps posted on the end of the barrel as you write and with the caps unposted, either held in your other hand or laying on the desk or table, may be significant enough to affect the balance as you write.

So, now you're ready to buy a more expensive pen.

 

Take a few sheets of your favorite paper(s) to the pen or office supply store and ask to see a pen that's caught your eye and is priced within your means. Handle it, hold it in the writing position, feel its balance and check its heft. Does the cap snap on with a confident click or are there screw threads in a place that will cause them to dig into your fingers? Does the pen flare out just above the nib in such a manner that it bothers your grip? If you need the pen for extensive writing, a lightweight pen, like plastic or resin, will allow you to write pages more without your hand cramping up than would a heavy pen. If you want a pen only for signatures or short letters, the additional weight of a heavy pen, like metal, probably won't make that much of a difference. 

How much ink do you need it to hold between refills? In general, eyedropper pens hold more ink than piston-fillers which hold more ink than cartridges which hold more ink than converters, but cartridges are easier to pop on in the middle of the day when you're out and about away from the ink bottle in your desk at the office or at home. 

What was that? An ink bottle at work? How long does a refill last, anyway?

Well, most people fill their pens at home, but some like to do it at work, too. How often they refill depends on how much they use it and what size nib they have. A fine nib uses less ink than a medium nib and much less than a broad nib.

What else about the nib? 

For your first purchase, it's best to get a regular writing nib and wait until you have more experience writing with a fountain pen before getting a specialized nib like an italic or stub. If your writing is small or closely spaced, your best choice is an extra-fine or fine nib. If your writing is large or sprawls, you might be happier with a medium or broad nib. Bear in mind that nib widths vary from pen to pen even within the same line and that Japanese/Asian nibs are typically as much as a half size narrower than those made by U.S./Western European manufacturers. For a comparison among Namiki/Pilot (Japanese), Omas (Italian), Pelikan (German), and Sailor (Japanese) nibs: http://www.nibs.com/Tipping%20Sizes%20page.htm or http://tinyurl.com/rwky

If you write with your left hand, a fountain pen may not work for you if your hand goes over your writing and smears the ink before it has a chance to dry. If that's not the case, a reverse or right-foot oblique nib (as you look down at the top of the nib, the top edge of the tines will be cut at an angle that matches the top line of the toes on your right foot -- a left-foot oblique nib will match the angle of your toes on your left foot) may be better than a standard nib although you'd probably be limited to a medium width unless you have one custom ground.

Some who are used to the feel of ballpoint pens are happy with a nib so stiff that you could use it on 4-part forms while others immediately become entranced by springy nibs that "give" while you write. 

Do you like a line with consistent width or a line with a width that varies as you write? If the former, you'll want a rigid nib and it's several of these made in stainless steel that are suitable for multi-part forms. If the latter, you'll want a nib that's flexible like the Namiki Falcon, semi-flexible like some Pelikans and Parker Sonnets, or in between like a Nakaya. After you gain some experience, you may decide to go for a superflex nib, also known as a "wet noodle." These are available in some vintage pens such as Conklin, Parker, and Waterman and learning to write with one can be quite a challenge.

Now, you're ready to try out the pen. The pen store will have one with ink for demonstration purposes or will dip one for you or allow you to dip it yourself. If you're allowed to dip it yourself, immerse the nib into the bottle of ink for a second or two and remove it, removing the excess ink by drawing the feed (the dark part underneath the nib) gently against the inside of the bottle. (If you're doing this at an office supply store, you might have to explain to the clerk that you'll need to dip the pen in order to see how it writes in which case, you might want to take along a small jar with plain water to rinse off the nib after you try it. If you’re not allowed to dip the pen, ensure that the return policy permits you to return it if dissatisfied for any reason or go to another store.) Then, write on the paper you brought with you trying it both with the cap off and with the cap posted on the end of the barrel. Unlike a ballpoint, a good fountain pen will lay down a nice line without your adding any more pressure to the weight of the pen by itself.

(Why did you bring your own paper? In the total fountain pen experience, three components make a significant difference: pen, ink, and paper. You supply your own paper because you won't be using the store's paper after you leave.) 

Go ahead, if the pen feels good, fill up a page or two to see how it feels for longer sessions. If the pen doesn't meet your expectations, try another. You might want to try one or two others anyway just to compare, to make sure of the one you're planning to buy. 

When you're ready to buy, dip and test the pen you'll actually be taking home with you because there may be a slight difference in the nib width and you don't want to be unpleasantly surprised when you get home.

You'll also need to buy a bottle of ink or a pack of cartridges. In general, it'll be better for you to start off with Parker Quink, Sheaffer Skrip, or Waterman black or blue ink or a bottle of Noodler's black if the store has it to sell. Pelikan ink is also a good, economical ink. Don't buy a bottle of Cross ink unless you like to spend extra money because Cross ink is made by Pelikan. If you didn't notice, ask what kind of ink the store used with the demo pen because a different brand or color of ink is likely to affect the writing characteristics. If it wasn't Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Pelikan, or Noodler's Black, either buy the brand that the store used if you like the color or ask to dip your pen in the other ink you want to buy to ensure your new pen will continue to write the way you like.

Lastly, find out of what your pen is made so you can care for it appropriately.

Voila! Your fountain pen purchase complete, you're ready to go home, fill your pen, and start writing.

 

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