Friday, 16 December 2016

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.

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