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Shopping for new pens

In the mood to buy a new pen? Great! It's a nice little indulgence that doesn't make you fat, endanger your health, or expose you to lawsuits or criminal prosecution (although it can drain your bank balance rather precipitously sometimes).

People often ask me, "what pen should I buy," or even "should I buy a so-and-so model pen?" It's hard for me to advise them, since buying a pen is really a personal matter, more so perhaps even than buying underwear (since there are far fewer kinds of underwear on the market than there are pens). However, I can give you some tips that may make the shopping more pleasant and productive.

I'll be naming a lot of brand names here, but please understand that these don't represent endorsements or recommendations. You can also get an idea of the new pen market, and what I think of examples therefrom, by looking through my pen gallery.

How much to spend

Quality new fountain pens can be had for less than $50 (much less than that, in many cases). The upper limit on price is—well, there really isn't an upper limit, as I've seen new pens selling well into the upper four figures, and you could get a custom-made pen for even more than that if you were so inclined.

If this is to be your first fountain pen purchase, I'd advise not going for really expensive examples; if the pen doesn't work well for you, or if it gets lost, you could ending up feeling badly about the whole thing. Fortunately, there is now a veritable glut of distinctive, quality pens selling at $150 or less, many with gold points and exotic plastics, so there's lots to choose from. If you really want to drop big bucks, consider buying a couple of moderately priced pens rather than one really expensive one. This will give you twice the enjoyment. As you build a collection later, you can then indulge yourself in the really high-ticket items.

Brand names

It is a good idea to search out a good brand name, but not for the reasons you might think (e.g., snob appeal). You want to look at brands that are well established in the fountain pen business, and many of these are unknown to the public at large. Montblanc is pretty famous, as are Parker and Sheaffer, but there are also a number of other firms that have been plying their trade for decades in relative obscurity to those not familiar with the writing-instrument or luxury-goods markets (e.g., OMAS, Lamy, Pelikan). There are also a number of newer firms which have nevertheless demonstrated a grasp of how to make good pens in the old style (e.g., Bexley, or the recently-revived Conway Stewart brand). Here, it's good to ask your dealer or a knowledgeable collector to give you the vitae of a company; a firm that's been around for a long time, or that depends exclusively on pen sales (as opposed to fashions, tableware, watches, etc.), is more likely to make practical and reliable instruments.

Often, you'll see relatively inexpensive pens marketed under the name of some famous designer. You should be rather wary of these. Typically, they are made by others under contract, and may not even have been designed by Yves St. Cardin or Hugo Hilfiger or whomever. If they were designed in-house, they may well be far less practical than stylish; they may be oddly shaped, made of heavy brass, or may have finishes that won't hold up under use. And, even though they might be cheap, they'd be far cheaper without the designer logo. There are some exceptions to the famous-designer syndrome, however: Dunhill, Cartier, and duPont are examples of firms more famous for their other products (lighters, watches, jewelry, etc.) that nevertheless can boast a long and successful career in the pen business. The Swiss-based couturier Daniel Hechter also has lent his name to a line of inexpensive but practical and innovative pens.

Size and weight

Horses for courses, as the English say, and this accounts for the varied sizes and weights of pens on the market. Here, it's strictly a matter of personal preference, and this is where a trip to your local fine-pen retailer can be of great value, but I can give some pointers that may be of use.

As a novice fountain pen user, I once thought that weight was a sign of quality construction. Now, I appreciate that the opposite is true; a pen should not be so heavy as to make writing a tiring experience (particularly given the relative delicacy required for fountain-pen writing). Anyone can make a pen out of a piece of brass pipe (and many do), but it takes a knowledgeable and attentive manufacturer to design a pen that is distinctive and functional, but also very light in weight. I'd point to the OMAS 360, the largest pen in my collection, as an example of pens that are unbelievably light in weight, and a great joy to write with.

Larger pens don't always hold more ink. In fact, they very seldom do. For example, the Waterman Edson is a mighty big pen, but it uses the same cartridges and converters found throughout the rest of the Waterman lineup, so the Edson's write-out isn't likely to be any longer than, say, the Phileas' (for about 95% less money). In fact, two of the most volumetrically efficient pens in history, the Parker 51 and the Sheaffer Snorkel, actually run smaller than average on the outside.

Materials

It's downright laughable to see the lengths that some luxury penmakers will go to avoid using the word "plastic" in their advertising. I have more to say elsewhere on the subject of plastic, but for now I'd advise you not to turn up your nose at plastic pens. Plastic is an ideal material for penmaking, because it is lightweight, durable, and colorful.

Not all plastics are equal, of course, and so here are some points for you to consider:

Many fine pens are made of lacquered (or epoxy-coated) brass tube. A properly-designed pen will use a very small-gauge brass to keep the weight down. Many of the finishes on such pens are prone to scratch or chip, so be careful. Other metal bodied pens may have gold plating; the thinner the plate, the greater the likelihood that it will rub off altogether during use. It's often hard to find out exactly how much gold a manufacturer uses, since few makers bother to use hallmarks anymore (at least not on their barrels and caps), but you can assume that any gold colored pen that costs less than the average car payment is likely to have pretty thin plating. Silver pens (like the Parker 75 sterling) do tend to tarnish, but they're often designed so that the tarnishing gives a nice "antique" patina to the pen. A satin or brushed finish on a metal pen (like the Montblanc Noblesse) is a bit more serviceable than a glossy finish, which will very easily get to looking dull or dirty with fingerprints.

While we're talking materials, we should mention gold. More expensive pens usually have solid gold points, while less expensive ones use stainless steel (possibly gold plated). Just to complicate matters, the latest trend in expensive pens is to plate the gold points in some sort of silvery precious metal like rhodium. While a steel point is an obvious cost compromise, it need not be a functional one. Steel points can be just as flexible and durable (or even more so) than gold ones. See my page on pen construction for more info.

Points

When you buy a new pen, you often have your choice of points. This is a choice to be considered carefully, particularly if this is to be your first pen. While most people seem to be attracted by big signature nibs (like broads or obliques), these nibs are much more difficult to use properly than mediums and fines: you must hold them precisely right, or the written line will skip (i.e., there will be spots with no ink). I'd strongly advise you to try out the pen (by dipping it) before you buy it to make sure you can live with the point. If, after you buy, you decide that you simply can't abide the point you picked, you can often contact the dealer or distributor for a point swap.

If you have no idea what to pick, go with a medium; it will offer a good written line without too much balky behavior.

Pelikan makes perhaps the widest assortment of points of any fountain pen maker today, even in its less-expensive steel-pointed pens like the model 200. Here, I'm making fair use of an image from Pelikan's picture database to show you what the range looks like:

Pelikan nib chart (current issue)

Starting from the top left, we have EF (extra fine), F (fine), M (medium), B (broad), BB (double broad), and BBB (triple broad); these are what might be called "ball nibs" since they are roughly spherical in shape (or at least very round). The oblique nibs (OM, OB, OBB, and O3B) are ground slightly flat, slanting off down to the left as you look dead-on at the point with nibs up; these will provide a bit more shading which is most evident here when you compare the M and the OM. For some reason, the writing samples in this chart show an unusual degree of shading in the conventional (non-oblique) points, much more than I'd expect from a real pen.

So, you want a flexible point? I'm sure you probably do, but I have to warn you that points on most modern pens run the gamut from hard-as-a-nail to slightly less so. Despite the hype from manufacturers (and less-enlightened retailers), penmakers simply don't make the kinds of thin, supple points now that they did back before 1920 or so, even amid all the renewed interest in vintage pens. I suspect that there are two valid reasons for this:

And so, if a really flexy point is what you seek, I'd advise you to go vintage, and seek out pens made before 1925 (there are more of them that you might think, often very modestly priced).

Of course, "not flexible" does not mean "bad;" even many pens of the early era were known for fairly hard points (e.g., Sheaffers and Parker Duofolds), and many makers offered special rigid "manifolding" points for those who had to write through carbon paper. Here, the thing to do is try out some pens at a show or at your local shop, and put aside the hype about flexibility for the moment; you may find that a modern pen, with its hard point, will suit you just fine.

Another alternative to buying one pen with one point is to buy one of the so-called "calligraphy sets" from makers like Sheaffer and Parker; these offer swappable points in various italic grades. Or, you can try the unusual Sailor Calligraphy Pen, which boasts a nib capable of writing anywhere from extra-fine to ridiculously broad (or, you could go for its more expensive sibling, the Sailor Zoom nib).

Fillers

Most pens in the under-$150 segment of the market are cartridge/converter fillers. Such pens are easy to make and can perform well (although I personally find them somewhat less interesting, technically speaking, than piston or sac pens). Very small pens may not have room for anything other than a single short standard International (Montblanc-type) cartridge, so converters are out. If you do buy a pen that can use a converter, I'd advise you to use it; bottle-filling is much less expensive than cartridges, and a wider selection of inks is available in bottle form. Plus, bottle filling helps keep the feed clear since you get to flush it out each time you fill.

You can pick from an ever increasing number of new sac fill pens (based on the old button, lever, or even crescent systems) these days, although these are usually on the pricier side of the market.

Piston fillers, like the Pelikan 400, are the most popular alternative to cartridge/converter fillers. These are fine performers with large ink capacities, but they do have the drawback of being more difficult (more tedious, really) to clean out than a cartridge/converter or sac pen.

Limited editions

Collectors value scarcity, and are willing to pay more for pens that don't exist in large numbers. Time and usage sees to it that most older pens become scarce, but what about new pens? Penmakers have come up with a solution to this "problem:" the "Limited Edition" pen, or the "LE" as most collectors call them.

Pen makers have always issued one-offs or limited models, and exotic hand-finished pens have been an art form in Japan for many decades, but the practice of numbered commemorative pieces really got going sometime in the 1970s (with Parker's various special models of the 75), and began to mushroom in the 1980s. Today, the field is dominated largely by upscale manufacturers in Germany and Italy (with occasional participation by the UK and even the US).

The usual LE pen is made in a single run of deliberately-limited numbers; the pen's "serial number" is often engraved somewhere on its surface. Most LEs are commemoratives of one sort or another, celebrating famous personalities, events, or places. Some manufacturers offer entire related series of LEs (like Montblanc's "Artist Series"), and still others seem to subsist almost exclusively on LEs. These pens range from subtle to unusual to downright tacky. Prices also run the gamut from less than $100 to thousands, although most fall into the range from $500 to $1500 or so.

The collecting of LEs has evolved into a sort of sub-cult within the pen collecting hobby; may folks go to incredible lengths to acquire certain serial numbers within an edition, while others will keep their prizes wrapped up in the little plastic baggies and never use them lest they should lose their value (this seems a shame to me).

Although I do own a couple of bona-fide LE pens, and I can certainly understand their attraction, I am quite skeptical when it comes to the ballyhoo that surrounds their promotion. Still, if you like them, you should by all means get 'em. Just keep a couple of points in mind:

Warranties and after-sale service

Let's face it — it is really rather insane (from a practical point of view) to spend upwards of $100 on a pen when you can get a perfectly serviceable disposable ballpoint down at the drug store for less than $10. One advantage of spending all that money, however, is that you do tend to get better after-sale service. Most fine-pen makers offer warranties on their products, and some of these are lifetime warranties (some of these are even transferable to subsequent owners). If you experience a problem with your pen, such as unprovoked cracking, many manufacturers will gladly repair or exchange the pen at little or no cost to you. Even if they do hit you with a "nuisance charge," it is likely to be far less than the cost of the parts and labor required for the repair. Such manufacturers find to be it in their interest to lose a bit of money on the occasional repair or replacement in exchange for maintaining brand loyalty and a good reputation among buyers.

If you need warranty service, the first place to turn is to the retailer that sold you the pen; they may either accept the pen for you, or may tell you where you can send it (typically to a distributor in your country). You should also hang onto the paperwork that came with your pen, as it will include information on how to send your pen in for repair.

Where to buy

I have several friends in the online pen sales business, and there's no doubt that for price and selection online buying is tough to beat. Plus, they have the connections to make a vast selection of pens from many exotic sources readily available in markets that are otherwise not well served by traditional retailers.

That said, however, I would also like to put in a word for the old-fashioned "brick and mortar" retailer. In a store, you can see the pens in person (which can give you a surprise—pleasant or otherwise—if you've only seen catalog or web photographs), and you can try them out before you buy. Plus, many of the better dealers emphasize service, and can do minor adjustments, nib swaps, and other lagniappes. If you have such a store in your area, consider stopping by to see what they have.

If you do shop in a regular store, you have the option of trying the pens out. A reputable dealer will in fact encourage you to do so. You can actually dip a fountain pen in a bottle of ink and write a couple of lines, which will give you a fair idea of how well the pen will work when filled. The pen is easily cleaned after such testing, so the dealer should not mind. In fact, if the dealer won't let you test out the pen, it's probably a sign that you should shop elsewhere. When you do find a pen that writes nicely, I'd suggest that you get that specific pen, rather than a "new" one in a sealed package, since you know that it works well. In short, my advice would be to "try before you buy, and buy the one you try."

Finally, before we move along to online dealers, here's an extra tip: if there's a pen show held near you, consider attending. The admission charge for weekend shoppers is usually quite small, and inside you'll find many new-pen sellers who often use shows to clear overstock merchandise, or to offer other significant bargains. In fact, some of the largest DC-area pen retailers usually set up outside the sales floor at the annual D.C. pen show, so you can visit them without even having to buy a ticket.

Ironically, the online society has actually been a bit of a shot in the arm to the fountain pen trade, as many plugged-in folk seek a more traditional and distinctive means of written expression than the latest PDA. However much small storefront dealers and bigshot luxury-goods distributors may resent it, online purchasing of pens is here to stay. In fact, many small dealers now supplement their local shop sales with websites that give them literally global reach. Many online dealers go far out of their way to provide good personalized customer service, helping to make up for the relative lack of personal interaction involved in web sales. If you do decide to purchase online, consider the following points when selecting a dealer:

You can go to my links page to find references to selected online dealers. Good hunting!