Sunday, 4 January 2015

Fountain pens - where to start?

One thing I've learned from hanging about on Fountain Pen Network and other forums is that people come into the world of fountain pens via all kinds of different routes. Some rediscover a once much loved pen - often a Waterman Laureat or a Pelikan school pen - and start enjoying writing with it so much they want more. Others inherit a lovely pen and want to restore it... and they get hooked. Others are already addicts to gel pens or calligraphy pens and then move on to the stronger hallucinatory drugs of urushi and maki-e...

So there is no one place to get started. And there is no one 'perfect' collection, though there are some truly eminent collections out there (and I'll do a post with some links later on this month, once I've restored a few new Merlins who have joined my collection).

Still, here are some suggestions for those getting into the world of fountain pens.

  • Cheap, easy 'learner' pens. You may outgrow these, but you can acquire them for pocket money. Jinhao, Duke and Wing Sung are good Chinese pens. They can be heavy, the lacquer finishes can flake off with time, and nib quality is patchy, so check up a good ebay seller on FPN. If you fancy acquiring some basic nibmeister skills they are a useful way to go. You might also consider Dollar pens, available on eBay - I have had good luck with mine.
  • Cheap, easy and reliable 'learner' pens. The Japanese are tremendously good at making good cheap pens - Pilot and Platinum both have cheap and commonly available pens, starting with the incredible bargain of the disposable Pilot v-Pen. I have about twenty and they all worked first time, really nicely - and if you want to, and are up to a bit of fiddly DIY, they can be refilled. I like the Waterman Kultur, still available for ten euros in French supermarkets, with its big steel nib and art deco looks, and the Pelikano junior. Only issue - many of these pens come in only fine or medium nibs.
  • Lamy Safari - a 'learner' pen that's also a collectible and a design classic. Because of the triangular grip section it's a bit of a love-it-hate-it pen, but it has the huge advantage of a very wide range of nibs that can be easily swapped, and which are cheap to buy separately. So if you are interested in calligraphy or want to try out broader nibs, this is a great route to take. Another cheapish pen with a wide range of nibs available, and because of its pocket size also a love-or-hate pen, is the Kaweco Sport - I have seven so in my case, it's love. In both cases, too, you can step up from the entry-level pens to mid-range pens in the same range and which use the same nibs (eg Lamy Al-Star, Kaweco Sport Classic, or Kaweco Sport Art - though the latter, sadly, is being discontinued).
  • Go the vintage route. All the modern cheaper pens have steel nibs. Take a risk on vintage and you can get a gold nibbed pen for very little. My favourite is the Parker 45 - a very common pen at flea markets as it was made for a long time and was a common school pen. It has a screw-in swappable nib, sometimes steel ('octanium' in Parker-speak) but just as often gold, and I have eleven for which I've never paid more than three quid each. The great advantage - they take standard cartridges or converter, and I've never had to do more than just soak them to remove dried ink and occasionally use a bit of micromesh to address some cosmetic issues. They are reliable, they write well, and they are very collectible, particularly the brighter colours (I'm on the lookout for Matador Red, Orange and Pink).
  • Another vintage pen that's fairly common and cheap and has super nibs is the rather small Parker Slimfold. No one seems to collect these, for some reason. Unless you have big hands, they are really lovely pens, with an aerometric squeeze filler that is usually in decent condition, so there's not much that can go wrong.
  • Not quite 'vintage' as it's 1980s, but often available second-hand for relatively little is the Waterman Laureat, a nice, heavy, generously sized pen with decent, reliable nibs and its own little fan club. (Waterman nibs for many of its pens are interchangeable, though they were not designed to be swappable, so this is a bit trickier than swapping Parker 45 or Lamy Safari nibs - none the less, it's something beginners can do without fear, so if you come across one with a broken nib, all is not lost.)
Or you can go my route. Which was, for about a year, to buy almost every darn fountain pen I saw at a car boot sale or in a junk shop. So during that year I managed to find, for less than five quid each, a First Year Parker 51, an early black hard rubber Onoto plunger filler, an Osmia Supra Minor, a couple of Parker Lucky Curve Duofolds and a Waterman 52. I also acquired a lot of Stypens, unbranded celluloid pens, Platignums and assorted rubbish, plus some pens I just don't like very much any more. I learned a lot, I got lucky a few times, and I have a repair backlog that's going to stop me being bored any time soon.

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