When the lovely Pen and Paper asked if I would write a blog about my favourite pen(s) I realised picking just one or even a few to concentrate on would be an almost impossible task. I am a calligrapher and I teach handwriting so, over the years, I have collected the odd pen. I also enjoy restoring vintage pens – adding to my collection – so picking one or two for a blog post …. I struggled.
So instead of picking a pen straight away I thought I would go through some of the elements of a pen and talk about the various options and try to establish what I like in a pen to build up what my favourite pen could be. Everyone is different, luckily the range of fountain pens available is large enough to ensure everyone can find a pen suitable for their hand.
Colour – ink
One of the first questions young writers ask about a pen is “What colour is it?” There are too many black and blue biros out there, so when I ask them what colour would they like their pen to write and fill the pen with a colour they choose I know I’m right to be working with fountain pens. With fountain pens the range of ink colours available is extensive – Diamine, made in Liverpool, make 100 colours of fountain pen ink – if you can’t find a fountain pen ink colour you like you aren’t looking hard enough.
Personally, I’m currently enjoying a drop of Diamine Merlot.
Colour of the pen body.
Various Fountain Pens
L-R Dip pen with Brause Rose Nib, Mabie Todd Swan Chaterlaine (circa 1895-1900), Mabie Todd Swan 1500 (1916), Mabie Todd Swan Self Filler 1 (c.1920), Waterman 52 (c.1920s), Waterman Red Ripple (1923), Conway Stewart 84, Conway Stewart 226, Conway Stewart Dinkie (all 1940s), Lamy Al-Star, Pilot Capless, Sailor Sapporo, Pilot Falcon, Visconti Rembrandt, TWSBI Diamond 540, Conway Stewart Wellington in Bronze Whirl, Pelikan Script 1.0mm.
In the early days of the fountain pen, over a century ago, the material of choice for most pens was black hard rubber. As it’s name suggests, most pens were black. Many were plain, others were trimmed with gold bands or overlays, but the body of the pen tended to be black. In the years after the Great War pens became more colourful with the introduction of celluloid and other colourful materials. Nowadays fountain pens are made from resins, plastics, metal and can be any colour.
I try to bring a little colour into my day by choosing colourful swirling resins (Conway Stewart are masters of this – Bronze Whirl – the large blue pen to the right in the picture – is a stunning example) or something with a bit of shine like a Lamy Al-Star – the Ruby Red is very vivid and a personal favourite from recent years.
Conway Stuart vs. Lamy Al Star
Conway Stewart Dinkie vs Lamy Al-Star.
The perfect pen for one person may be hard to hold for another – a small handed person will generally find a slim, light-weight pen easier to use than a chunky, relatively heavy pen; a large handed person will generally find a slim pen hard to grip, and a short pen is uncomfortable to hold. The only way to know if a pen will fit your hand is to try it out. A few manufacturers make special pens for children (Lamy ABC and Pelikan Griffix spring to mind) – these are very useful for training young hands to hold their pens correctly.
I’m nearly six-foot tall and could hardly be described as dainty so I much prefer a chunky, substantial pen to a slim pen.
Fountain Pen Nibs
Pelikan Script (slightly moulded grip), Pilot Capless (taper with no ring to stop fingers slipping onto the nib), Visconti Rembrandt (taper with raised ring), Lamy Al-Star (moulded grip), Conway Stewart (taper with raised ring).
The section of a pen – the area you grip the pen – needs to feel comfortable otherwise you won’t use the pen very often. Most fountain pens have smooth section, gently tapering towards the nib and with a slightly raised ring to stop your fingers slipping onto the inky nib. Others have a moulded grip section to encourage your fingers into the best writing position (for example the Lamy Safari/Al-Star ranges) or are simply tapered (for example the Lamy Studio and 2000 ranges).
I don’t mind the moulded grip style section – most of them work well with my way of holding the pen – but I prefer a normal section with a raised area to stop my fingers slipping onto the nib.
Fountain Pens with Converters
Visconti Rembrant with cartridge, Sailor Sapporo with converter, TWSBI Diamond 540 piston fill, Conway Stewart Marlborough Eye dropper, Conway Stewart 84 lever fill (similar to a modern squeeze converter).
The ink capacity of fountain pens varies enormously. From pens which can only take the short, international standard cartridge to piston fillers (where part of the body of the pen fills with ink) and eye-dropper fill pens (where the whole body of the pen is filled with ink) ink capacity varies from less than a millilitre of ink to three to four millilitres of ink or even more.
A large ink capacity is very useful for work, school or exam situations but is less important for casual writing or if you like to change ink colour often (which I do.)
Fountain Pen Nibs
From 12 o’clock clockwise: Pilot Falcon soft fine, Pelikan Script 1.0mm, Visconti Rembrandt fine elastic, Lamy broad, Conway Stewart Italic Broad, Waterman Red Ripple medium wet noodle, Visconti Rembrandt 1.5mm italic, Sailor Sapporo Fine.
Without question the nib is the most important part of the pen. No mater what the rest of the pen is like, if the nib doesn’t deliver the ink to the page the pen is useless. Many people stick with a medium nib – it is the standard nib width but it may not be right for everyone. Nib widths range from “needlepoint” (approximately 0.1mm line) through to calligraphy nibs 2-3mm wide (if you include the fun Pilot Parallel Pen you can get nibs up to 6mm wide). Nibs can be standard round point or italic nibs (where the downstroke is wide and the side stroke is narrow). “Oblique” is another type of nib where the “sweet spot” at an angle to the slit of the nib, either 15 or 30 degrees and either left or right footed (look at your toes!)
First things first – 1) there is no need to press down with a fountain pen, you just need to guide the nib across the page; and, 2) there is no such thing as a left-handed pen.
Round point nibs, as the name suggests, have a rounded tip to the nib and as long as you have the tip to the paper it doesn’t matter at what angle you hold the pen. Italic nibs have a broad downstroke and a finer cross-stroke. A crisp italic has sharp, square edges and requires a slow and considered hand to use; a cursive italic (such as the Lamy 1.1mm, 1.5mm an 1.9mm nibs) has slightly rounded edges to make the nib easier to use; a stub italic nib is even more rounded and easier to use, it will still have a broader downstroke than cross-stroke but the difference will be less than with a crisp italic. Oblique nibs, as mentioned above, are cut at either 15 or 30 degrees and can be useful for those who rotate their pen in use, whether left or right handed.
Nibs can also be firm, springy, semi-flexible or fully flexible. Most modern pens have a firm or springy nib with some notable exceptions. A firm nib has little or no give in it even when you press when you write; a springy nib has some bounce and reacts to pressure. The semi-flexible modern nibs – the Pilot Falcon and Platinum soft-fine – give line variation when you press on the nib, but you need to be careful not to push the nib too far, if you go past the natural elasticity of the metal of the nib there is no return and the nib will need replacing. Some vintage pens have a fully flexible nib – with gentle pressure the two tines of the nib separate and the line produced widens. If you hear the term “wet-noodle” this is flexible nib which reacts with the gentlest of pressure. These vintage nibs are much in demand, and need a very gentle hand to avoid damaging the nib beyond repair.
So – my favourite nib? This is very difficult. For work I need to use flexible nibs and crisp italics, but for general writing what nib do I use? I have a lot of extra-fine nibs and a fair collection of reasonably narrow (1 to 1.5mm wide) cursive italic nibs. If I were to pick a pen to write a letter, either personal or professional, I would, without hesitation, pick a cursive italic around 1mm in width.
It would appear that my favourite pen should be a fountain pen with a colourful body, it will be fairly large bodied and have a cursive italic nib. The grip and ink capacity don’t bother me overly.
Visconti Rembrandt and Lamy Al Star Fountain Pens
Lamy Al-Star Ruby Red with 1.1mm italic and Visconti Rembrandt with 1.5mm italic.
Maybe a Lamy Al-Star or a Visconti Rembrandt, I have both in my pen collection and enjoy using them.
But, no, neither of these pens is my favourite pen.
A black hard rubber pen from The Great War, currently 97 years old, it saw the trenches of The Somme, it returned with it’s owner and has been passed down through the years. I can only imagine what it wrote during World War One, the horrors it penned; the hope of the 20s and early 30s and the fear as war again took hold of our country in 1939; the love it has written of, the exams it has passed, the condolence it has offered, the joys it has reported. It is a simple pen, a Mabie Todd Swan eye-dropper filling 1500 with an under and over feed and a fine flexible nib. Plain black hard rubber, no clip or gold bands, plenty of teeth marks and it has its fair share of scratches – this pen has told the story of many lives, it is a part of those stories, it is a part of my family, that is what makes it my favourite pen.
Mabie Todd Swan 1500 Fountain Pen
Mabie Todd Swan 1500.
If you are looking to buy a fountain pen today – remember they last a long, long time, they will stay with you and will write your story and that of your children’s children and beyond. Make a good choice because in 100 years one of your descendants may be sitting in front of some unimaginable new fangled technology sharing the story of a small, relatively insignificant item thinking of all the love, joy and sacrifice endured by those who made their life possible.
What’s your favourite pen and why? Comment below.
This is a guest post written by fountain pen lover and blogger @PensPaperToo. They also offer handwriting instruction to people of all ages.