5 May 2014

fountain pens, part 1: the pen

To my great surprise, there was actual interest in my previous post in praise of fountain pens! And comments, too! This fills me with so much joy that I've decided to write a bit more about this wonderful topic. I'll be splitting my babbling over three posts: one will be an overall look at fountain pens, one on inks, and a final one about associated accessories and resources.

Please note that the advice below derives from my own experience and observations; I'm by no means an expert, so results may vary!

As funny as this sounds, fountain pens have a personality all their own. Ballpoint pens? Not so much. You form a relationship with your fountain pen that's completely unique. But for the magic to happen, there has to be a certain amount of compatibility between the user and the pen. It's entirely possible that a fountain pen that someone else finds wonderful will "refuse" to write for you. (It happened with the gorgeous gold-plated fountain pen my parents gave me as a graduation present. It was a high quality, beautifully crafted object, but even after multiple cleanings, inkings and tests, I simply couldn't get it to write. A family friend took it home and instantly fell in love with how smooth it wrote for her — so it found a new home.)

So where should you start? Although it sounds very shallow, I believe most people's first criterion when choosing a fountain pen is the way it looks, and for the most part this has been true in my case. After all, you'll be spending many years to come with your pen, so it makes sense that it should be pleasing to your eye. (Let's leave the utilitarian approach to ballpoint users, shall we?) And of course, if you think your fountain pen is beautiful, you'll probably want to use it more often.

But there are less frivolous aspects to selecting a fountain pen.

The size of your hands and your personal preferences will influence the dimensions and weight (and therefore material) you should look for. Do you have tiny hands or large paws? Would you rather hold a substantial, heavy pen or one that's light as a feather? If there's a stationery shop near you that sells fountain pens, ask to try them out so that you can form an idea of what you like best. Some online shops indicate the weight and dimensions of their pens, which is a useful way to compare various models.

The way in which you hold your pen can lead you NOT to choose a certain model. While most pen grips have a round section, a few (like on the Lamy Safari pictured below) are moulded in a triangular shape that's suited to the classic "tripod" grip. If you hold your pen differently than this, know that a triangular grip may be uncomfortable for you.

Fountain pens can be problematic for left-handers, since they write by pushing the nib across the paper rather pulling it like right-handers. A few companies (such as Lamy) make special left-handed nibs, although they're not easy to find. Being right-handed, I have no experience with these issues, but there are plenty of resources online; a search for "fountain pen" and "left-handed" will direct you to many informative articles.

Once you've decided on a model, you'll have to select a nib size. Personally, I love fine nibs, but if your handwriting is large and bold, then a wider nib may be better suited. My advice would be to start with a fine nib and use it for a while, then see if you'd prefer a narrower (extra-fine) or wider (medium, broad or even double broad) nib. There are also what are called "italic" nibs. Although they're not for everyday use, these 1.1mm, 1.5mm or 1.9mm wide nibs allow you to add a calligraphic element to your writing, for example when addressing an envelope. You should note that not all of these nib sizes are available for all pens.

If you're unfamiliar with fountain pens and are unsure whether or not you'll enjoy using one, it wouldn't make sense to invest in a costly model. You can start with an inexpensive pen and cartridges (1 cartridge is usually included with the fountain pen). Later on, once you've become accustomed to your pen, you can switch to bottled ink, which is far less expensive and opens up a whole world of colours and features. For this, you'll need a converter — a little pump that sits in place of a cartridge inside the pen's body — that may or may not have come with the pen when you purchased it. In a pinch, it's even possible to use a syringe with a large-gauge needle to refill your cartridge. (Don't be alarmed, this is perfectly normal among fountain pen users!) It's important to know that certain fountain pen manufacturers have proprietary cartridges and converters, i.e. only their specific cartridges or converter will fit their fountain pens.

Now for a few "starter pen" suggestions...

(NOTE: These are only pens I've used myself and can therefore recommend personally; I'm sure there are plenty more excellent choices out there!)

Platinum Preppy
Comes with 1 cartridge; converter sold separately.
Only available with a medium nib, but it's a "Japanese medium," which is equivalent to a fine.
This is a very cheap and rather fragile fountain pen; if you sit or step on it, odds are it will crack. Writes fairly smoothly in my experience. I only use mine for red ink, which tends to be difficult to clean out. Sold in a few different accent colours.

Pilot Metropolitan
Comes with a converter and 1 cartridge.
Used to be only sold with a (Japanese) medium nib, but some with a fine nib are now becoming available.
Metal construction, feels substantial in the hand. Very smooth writer. Impressive quality for the cost (about C$20). Sold in a few different colours and patterns on the centre band. One of my favourites!

Lamy Safari / Lamy Vista / Lamy Al-Star
Comes with 1 cartridge; converter sold separately.
Three versions of the same pen: the Safari is made of plastic, the Vista of clear plastic (called a "demonstrator"), and the Al-Star of metal. Great quality. Nibs are available separately and very easy to change. Sold in a rainbow of colours.

TWSBI Diamond Mini
Piston filler, i.e. doesn't use cartridges or a converter; the body of the pen itself hold the ink.
Very small, but holds lots of ink. Very smooth writer. Nib units are available separately. Sold in black or demonstrator (clear). Also one of my favourites!


  1. I have arthritis in my right forefinger, so find pens that my hands can slide down on quite difficult. I need something to stop my hand before it gets to the nib, Online retailers don't always show the pen without the cap!

    1. Oh, that's not very convenient, is it? Perhaps Goulet Pens or JetPens can serve as a reference?

  2. Tu es une véritable fontaine de savoir quant aux plumes! (Oh, le jeu de mots poche... Il a poppé dans ma tête au moment où j'allais commencer à écrire, et j'ai juste pas pu m'empêcher de le faire! ;) Au moins, il reflète la vérité!)
    Merci pour ces détails et commentaires sur les plumes que tu aimes. Ça m'aidera quand viendra le temps de faire mon choix. Quoique... il y en a plusieurs qui semblent intéressantes; j'ai l'impression que ça doit être difficile de se limiter à une!

    Je n'ai tellement pas fait de recherche quand j'ai acheté celle d'Éric. J'ai regardé un peu, et quand j'ai vu que le modèle de mon stylo-bille Waterman existait aussi sous forme de plume, ça a été réglé, j'y suis allée pour ça (j'ai tout de même opté pour une couleur différente, qui allait mieux lui convenir, alors notre set n'est quand même pas trop "matchy-matchy"). Dans un sens, une chance que je n'ai pas fait de recherche et que je ne savais pas vraiment que c'était un truc très personnel et qu'il y avait un risque que mon choix fait semi au hasard puisse ne pas lui convenir: j'aurais été paralysée, incapable de choisir. On a eu de la chance: cette plume lui convient parfaitement. Je suis tentée de m'offrir éventuellement la même, histoire de me faire un set aussi (probablement une mauvaise raison), et parce que mon stylo-bille est tellement agréable en main (probablement une meilleure raison!). J'essaierai quand même la plume avant, puisque j'imagine bien que ce n'est pas du tout la même chose que mon stylo, même si le modèle est le même. Mais je commencerai peut-être par me procurer une de celles que tu suggères ici: comme il y en a qui sont plus abordables, je pourrais en profiter plus rapidement! Et quand j'aurai essayé la chose, il est bien possible que je ne puisse pas me limiter à une de toute façon...

    1. Hehe, c'est exactement le genre de jeu de mot que je ferais aussi, donc pas besoin de t'excuser!

      Ne crains rien, c'est tout à fait possible de choisir une plume un peu au hasard et de bien tomber! Mon anecdote illustre un scénario très rare. Je voulais surtout essayer de donner quelques pistes à ceux et celles qui ne savent pas trop par où commencer. Waterman est une marque de qualité renommée, donc ce ne serait pas du tout un mauvais choix, mais comme je n'en ai jamais utilisé, je ne peux pas lui donner ma recommandation personnelle... Si la taille et le poids de ton stylo-bille te conviennent et que la version «plume» a des caractéristiques similaires, ça devrait être parfait, et la transition en serait d'autant plus facile. Mais en attendant, tu peux en effet essayer un modèle moins coûteux, question de tremper le gros orteil avant de plonger!

      N'empêche, tu as bien raison : très difficile de se limiter à une seule plume; c'était mon intention à l'origine, et tu vois le résultat ;-)


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