Friday, 16 December 2016

Fountain pens: where to start. 3. Inking it up

Fountain pen ink used to be really easy to get in any stationer's. Nowadays, it's trickier. You may have to go online to get what you want, or find one of those rare bricks-and-mortar pen shops, though some department stores still carry a narrow choice of big brand inks (Waterman, Parker, Cross).

Your first decision is going to be: bottled ink or cartridges? There are pros and cons to both.
  • Cartridges are a great way to go for the beginner. No mess, just slot them into your pen. Most pens will take an international standard cartridge (but do check, just in case). They're easy to carry in a handbag or pocket. Cons? Relatively expensive, and not always available in the widest range of colours.
  • Converters offer more options. You can use a wider range of inks. Bottled ink will turn out cheaper per millilitre than ink in cartridges. But you need to carry a bottle with you, and there's always a risk of it leaking (or breaking, if it's made of glass). Plus refilling is impossible if you're in a moving car, on a train, or likely to be jostled by kids or pets. If you do refill from an ink bottle remember to put the lid back on! (That's the voice of experience, that is.)
Other things you need to know about inking up your fountain pen.
  • No, you don't have to use only Pelikan ink in a Pelikan pen, or Parker ink in a Parker. You can use any ink you darn well like..
  • Except... Avoid calligraphy inks and Indian ink, as these will clog up your pen. They're made for dip nibs, which you can clean much more easily. Don't use Rotring technical pen drawing ink, either.
  • Red and purple are probably the worst colours for staining. If you've bought a transparent pen, you may need to clean it quite meticulously after using a dark red.
  • Some inks have a reputation as being 'wet' or 'dry'. 'Dry' doesn't mean they're not liquid, but refers to their flow characteristics - they will tend not to flow as readily as 'wet' inks. It's all to do with the balance between the dyes and the lubricants used. Pelikan inks tend to be 'dry', and some Herbin inks write dry, too. Waterman blue is a good well-behaved ink while most Noodlers inks are on the 'wet' side.
  • Remember that an ink can behave differently depending on the size of nib you're using and the kind of paper you're writing on. Before you give up on an ink, try a different combination of nib and paper and see if it behaves itself.
 By the way, cartridges can be reused by filling them from the bottle using a syringe with a blunted needle - so if you were given a pen that didn't have a converter in it, you can still use bottled ink if you're careful.

Fountain pens: where to start - 2. Recent 'vintage' pens

There are various definitions of the word 'vintage', particularly if you look on ebay. If you are still getting started in fountain pens it's possibly not time to start thinking about a Waterman Patrician or a Parker Snake, but it could be time to consider some pens of the past fifty or so years that are still widely available and represent solid value.

Secondhand pens can be found through ebay or through sellers on FPGeeks or Fountain Pen Network, as well as 'in the wild'. If you're lucky you can find NIB - 'new in box', perhaps coming from the inventory of stationers and pen shops that have closed.

These are all cartridge-converter pens. C/c is the prevailing modern system and pretty easy to get used to, not any more difficult than putting a refill in a ballpoint or rollerball. If you've been terrified by the sight of instruction booklets showing how to fill a Vacumatic or eyedropper pen, this is a lot more user-friendly. (Personally, I love piston-fillers, but if you are starting out, and particularly if you take a pen to work or travel with one, it's nice to have the choice of using mess-free cartridges as well as being able to fill with bottled ink.)

I could quite easily have mentioned the Waterman Kultur and Phileas here, as the Phileas has been discontinued and many versions of the Kultur seem not to be available any more. There's a definite fancy for these pens and sometimes you see them at crazy prices; on the other hand I got a super golden metallic effect Kultur for two quid, and free postage, a couple of years ago.

Waterman Laureat is another lovely pen that you can find relatively easily - a bit up-market from the Kultur. It's a 1980s pen with a tubular design, in various lacquer colours and with a surprisingly comfortable ribbed section. Laureat nibs are quite fat and wet and enjoyable to use. As with the Kultur, prices vary, but you can sometimes snap up a bargain. Do look closely at the lacquer, as it's impossible to repair if it gets chipped.

Waterman Laureats and another (spot the odd man out!)

The Parker 45 was born in 1960 and was so successful that Parker carried on making it until 2007. It was intended to be a decent affordable pen and that's just what it delivered. Additionally, it offered screw-in nib units, allowing a wide choice of nibs to be made available. The 45 came in many different finishes, including the 'flighter' (stainless steel), solid colour with steel cap, solid colour with plastic cap, and patterned metal finishes - the latter are now very collectable, so if you see one at a bargain price, nab it! Inevitably, the pen that turns up most often is the basic black. I love the 45 - just give the nib section a good soak, to get rid of dried ink, and when you think it's clean, stick a cartridge in, and it will probably write first time. I find the plastic bodied pen a little light, and I'm glad I managed to get two flighters, which just have a better feel in the hand.

Some 45s come with gold nibs. And sometimes you can find them for nearly nothing in your local junk shop.

The Pelikano comes in various versions but the one I love is the P460 which came out between 2003 and 2009. It's a fairly fat tubular pen in translucent plastic, with a metal cap and big fat arched plastic clip, and comes in vibrant colours including pink, orange, bright red, purple, and Unusually, the black version is the one you hardly ever see! It was intended as a school pen and has a gently textured section to keep your fingers from sliding, and while it may not have the good looks of the Laureat I think it's a charming little pen with attitude.

The Pelikano - bright and jazzy
I bet someone will tell me there should be a Sheaffer in here somewhere. But I'm not much of an expert on Sheaffers and the one I do like, the Targa, is quite expensive. I hope one of my readers can make a recommendation!

Fountain pens: where to start - 1. New pens

Getting into the world of fountain pens is fraught with difficulty. The difficulty doesn't lie in locating a fountain pen - that's the easy bit. The difficulty is that if you get the wrong fountain pen, you'll probably say 'oh well, fountain pens are not for me', rather than get another, different one to see if you like it better. So here is a guide on what's available for the beginner - and particularly, each pen's vices and turn-offs, so you can easily see whether or not you're going to like it.

There are some wonderful bargains among Chinese and Indian pens, but I wouldn't advise beginners to take them. Quality control among Chinese pens can be hit and miss, and the 'misses' are frequently just horrible. With experience, you'll learn how to tinker with them - but it's like getting a vintage car to learn how to drive, not necessarily the best way to start. Indian pens are lovely (anyone who reads this blog knows that I love them), but don't always have great nibs, and often come as eyedroppers (trickier to fill, prone to blotting), so I'd suggest you get two or three other pens first before trying them out.

The Kaweco Sport is a great little pen - and 'little' is the right word; it's a pocket pen, with a cap that turns into the barrel when you use it. It comes with easy-to-swap nibs, so if you start with a fine and find out you want a 1.1mm stub, you can buy a new nib at relatively little cost. Lots of different colours and materials available - transparent, opaque, aluminium, even brass, though some of the metal finishes are more pricey and no longer belong in the budget category.   It's a robust little pen, that you can easily carry around in a trouser pocket or at the bottom of a handbag. I also like the flare of the section that holds your fingers in just the right place and stops them slipping on to the nib or too far up the pen. Turn-offs? Nibs can be dry and hard starting, and if you have big big hands, you may find it too small. And such small pens don't hold a lot of ink, either, plus the converters aren't really very good.
These are the 'art' sports, rather highly priced but just the same shape and size as the cheapie 'Ice' sports

The Lamy Safari is another great beginner pen, and it's very easy to find - most department stores and many graphics shops and art shops carry it, or its desk pen version the Lamy Joy. It's incredibly robust, like the Sport comes in plastic and aluminium versions (the Al-Star) and different colours, has a modernist design vibe, and has swappable nibs that you can easily purchase online at a low cost. There's a little ink window so you can see how much ink you've got. Turn-offs? Some people hate the triangular section, while others love it - it was designed to help get your fingers in the right grip for holding a fountain pen, so if you can tolerate it, it will help you get into good pen-holding habits. You'll know straight away if you like the look or not.
What Joy! simple but stylish pens with great calligraphy nibs

Japanese companies are terrifically good at entry-level fountain pens. The one I love is the disposable Pilot V-pen - incredibly cheap, and I have never had a bad one. They write quite wetly straight out of the box, and they are actually refillable, though it's a bit tricky and can be messy. Turn-off? Cheap plastic, and as for their looks, I think 'functional' is the word. Further up market with Pilot you might consider the Metropolitan (I'm not sure why it's called MR in the UK), a metal bodied pen available in various funky finishes including bright purple and with leopard skin and crocodile accents. A great writer, but with, for me, a major turn-off - a sharp step between the section and the barrel of the pen. I'd rather just buy more V-pens!

Sailor offers a number of entry-level pens, such as the Sailor Lecoule. If you looked at the Sport and Safari and thought "NSFW", this pen could be for you; it has a more conservative styling and comes in 'stone' colours such as lapis (blue) and garnet (red) as well as funkier combinations. As with most Japanese pens, the fine and medium nibs are a bit finer than many Western nibs. Platinum offers the Plaisir, another low priced Japanese pen that's a reliable starter.

Faber-Castell offers the Loom, with a metal body and plastic cap. I'm a big fan of Faber-Castell's nibs - they may look a bit odd, with no breather hole, but they write really well. The section has five textured rings on it to stop your fingers slipping, which is an understated but useful feature. Turn-offs? The caps can get loose after a while and no longer snap back on properly, which could mean ISPS (Inky Shirt Pocket Syndrome).

Now for two pens that don't often get mentioned. That may be because they're not easy to find outside their home markets in Europe, but I think they are lovely pens to get started with. First off, the Waterman Kultur. Waterman Phileas (an up-market version of the same model)  and Kultur can sell for silly prices on ebay, but French supermarkets still have the Kultur for ten euros or so. (All I can find online is the FNAC website which has it a little dearer.) It's a big pen, nice for those with larger hands or arthritis/RSI issues, and has a nice big nib, too (usually M or F), and I've found it super reliable and fun to use. I also like its slightly art deco styling.
A few of the different finishes available for the Waterman Kultur

And finally... the Pelikan Twist. It's almost like a 21st century update of the Bauhaus Safari to a funkier, Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry aesthetic. A delightful pen if you don't need to be conservative, with a similar grip to the Safari, and incredibly cheap.