Why Nothing Writes Like a Fountain Pen
October 7, 2017
By TIM REDMOND
A good fountain pen requires virtually no pressure—it just glides across the page. And the ink, which now comes in myriad colors, goes beyond creating letters. It seems to almost decorate a piece of paper.
Starting off to find a fountain pen can be confusing. There are so many, with such a huge variation in price. I’ve got one perfectly workable pen I bought for $20, but you can easily spend $500 or more on a garden-variety brand-name pen these days, and some pens go for much, much more. I’ve seen an Aurora pen with 200 diamonds on the market for $1.47 million.
As alluring as these aesthetics might be, they are essentially costumes. When it comes to performance, a serious pen user ignores a pen’s fancy body and focuses on the quality and style of its tip, or “nib.” For this tiny part, the variety and complexities that have developed over the centuries are almost endless—and a subject of equally endless fascination and debate among pen lovers.
In simple terms, fountain pens fall into two broad categories: new pens and “vintage” pens. By most aficionados’ standards, anything made after 1960 is considered modern. As sleek and highly designed as many modern fountain pens are, pen experts largely agree that the highest performance pens ever made are the older ones. Mauricio Aguilar—a serious pen collector who also restores vintage pens and teaches people how to write with them—told me that he has seen very few pens manufactured in the past 50 years that interest him.
I know a claim like that smacks of nostalgia, but there is a reason that Aguilar feels this way. With a great many age-old tools, the makers’ craft peaked at the end of their product’s reign as king of its class. For pens, this occurred in the mid-20th century, when fountain pens still faced no competition from cheap ball-points and roller-balls, to say nothing of computers and iPhones. Protected by their market dominance, pen makers could thus afford to invest in all kinds of experiments, tools, materials, machinery, manufacturing stages, training, and subtle improvements. That’s why no modern pen maker has ever equaled what a vintage fountain pen can do to a piece of paper.
In Craftsmanship’s Fall issue, which launches in mid-October, I will expand on this argument more fully. I’ll explore what different vintage pens can do, and why; and offer guides to buying and properly caring for a good fountain pen.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy Craftsmanship’s short documentary, below, on Michael Masuyama, an expert at fountain pen restoration.
As it happens, Masuyama got his start decades ago at Sailor, a top-notch Japanese pen and ink manufacturer that makes one of my favorite pens. (The company got its name from its start, in 1911, when a British sailor in Hiroshima met a Japanese engineer and gave him a fountain pen.) My Sailor was made with what the company calls its “music” nib, because the two tines that form its nib are wide but sharp. While a true music nib contains three tines, even this pen, when manipulated by a skilled writer, will easily form those little flags that turn into music (quarter notes, halves, full notes, etc.).
As you will see from the other Sailor pens Masuyama works on in this documentary, and those in the accompanying photos, there is a whole new world in store for those with curious fingers.
All photos courtesy of Mauricio Aguilar © www.VintagePen.net
© 2023 Tim Redmond. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.