The Goldilocks pen

I’ve been writing using a fountain pen for nearly twenty five years. I long ago passed the point where I could use a regular ballpoint pen; when my fountain pen is not near at hand and all that’s available is a cheap Bic I find it very difficult to write. The flow of ink and slide of the nib over paper is just not the same.

Now, my handwriting has never been what you would call elegant. Some would even call it illegible. But with a ballpoint pen I almost can’t form the letters; I feel like a schoolchild learning to write with a crayon.

A challenge with fountain pens is getting the right one. And most of them aren’t cheap, so experimenting isn’t to be done lightly. Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of pens, some of which I like better than others, of course, and none of which I have found to be the perfect pen for me.

I started with a Montblanc 146, their standard pen. I choose a Montblanc as it was pretty much the pen to have at the time, and the 146 because I couldn’t afford the larger 149. Plus the model 149 (referred to by a friend and fellow fountain pen lover as the “stogie” because it resembles a cigar in size) was a bit too big, or so I thought at the time. I used the Montblanc every day for a few years until I could afford another pen, and gave it up because the nib was much too stiff; it felt like writing with a nail.

My next pen was a Dupont Olympio in red Chinese lacquer. I’ve used this pen more than any others over the years; it’s my normal every day pen. I don’t care much for the colour, but I love the smooth lacquer finish and was sold on the brass construction — it’s got a nice heft to it, and built more solidly than most pens which are plastic. Plus the nib is just the right stiffness for me and the size fits my hand well, though it could be just a bit larger.

It’s the size of the hand that has troubled me so much. Just as trying to find a bicycle that fits me (see an earlier post), getting something to fit my large hand is difficult. But you can  go too big too, as I found out later.

My next purchase, in hopes of finding something Goldilocks “just right”, was a Pelikan 1000. The thing I like most about this pen is the color: green, my favourite colour. The hand size is quite close to correct, but the nib is very soft; I tend to put a bit too much pressure on the nib when writing, and with this nib I get too much flex. I’m almost afraid that I’ll damage the nib by writing with it. I’ve hardly used this pen at all, which is a shame as it’s a very nice pen.

Finally, I’ve had my eye on a Delta Dolce Vita Oversize for a few years. I tried it at the pen shop and found the nib to be just right in stiffness. I mentioned this pen to my fiance C. who, sweetie that she is, bought one for me for my birthday last year, the first time that anyone has ever bought pen for me. (She’s such a dear.) The nib is a bit wide for my writing, though, so I’m going to grind it down just a touch — a delicate operation, but one that can give good results if you’re careful. The hand size is just a touch large as well; I use the pen a lot for writing checks and short notes, but for longer writing sessions such as taking notes in a meeting at work I tend to prefer the Dupont.

None of these pens are cheap; most run about four or five hundred dollars. So again, experimenting must be done slowly, and a trip to a pen shop to try them out before purchasing is much preferable to buying online. (And please, when you decide to buy, buy it from the pen shop that spent their time helping you, even if you can save a few bucks online.)

A much cheaper alternative is one that I used as an everyday pen for several years: a cheap plastic Lamy Safari.For about thirty five bucks you get a rugged, comfortable pen that writes nearly as well as the nicer ones that cost a few hundred. (That’s the industry’s dirty little secret — just like a cheap Timex keeping better time than a luxury watch costing thousands.) The difference is that nib on the cheap Lamy will die after just a year or so, while the nicer pens, with proper care, will last a lifetime. Plus you get better construction, a more balanced feel, and the privilege of showing off your nice pen to co-workers. But for a first time fountain pen user, or to just give them a try, this is the way to go.

When you’re going to look for a pen, here’s what you want to look for: First, the stiffness of the nib (the part that touches the paper). How stiff or soft is it? How does it feel when you write with it? If you’re new to fountain pens it may take a while for your hand to develop a light touch; you don’t have to press down as you do with a ball point pen. The nib should respond to your hand while pushing back slightly. You should get a tactile feedback that you don’t get with a cheap pen.

Second, how wide is the nib? If your writing is small (tiny letters!) like mine then you’re going to need a Fine (F) or Very Fine (VF) nib; otherwise a Medium (M) may work well. Try them all at the pen shop.

Next, does the pen fit your hand? Most manufacturers make pens in various sizes, but not all models are available in more than a single size. If you have large hands you may not have many to choose from, but if you’re average then, just as anything else in life, things are made just for you. Many models are available as well for small hands.

And finally, how do you like to put ink into (i.e. fill) the pen? The traditional fountain pen filled from a bottle via the nib; you stuck the nib in a bottle and either flipped a lever or screwed the pen top to suck ink into a reservoir inside the pen. Elegant, but a bit messy, and you risk splashing ink on your clothing. A much cleaner alternative is ink-filled cartridges; when one runs out, unscrew the body of the pen to remove the empty cartridge, drop in a new one, and screw the pen back together. No mess, and it’s easy to carry spares with you. The downside is that the cartridges never hold much ink so run out quickly.

In addition to using a fountain pen for your everyday writing instrument, you may also be interested in collecting them. Fountain pens were the usual writing instrument for most people for probably a hundred years before the ballpoint pen was invented, so there’s a lot of antique pens out there to collect. Or you could go for the new ones; some pen manufacturers make limited editions of hundreds (rather than the usual tens of thousands) that become collector’s items — with prices to match. You can easily spend multiple thousands of dollars on these if you wish.

But not me. Although I have a number of pens in my desk that could be considered somewhat expensive, I’ve bought them slowly over time in my quest for the perfect pen for me to use. I’m not sure that I’m there yet; I like all of my pens, but they all have their pros and cons. I still haven’t found that Goldilocks “just right”.


About pininforthefjords

I'm pinin' for the fjords. That's all.
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