The Perfect Pen
Fountain pens have always served as the quintessential combination of beauty, tradition, and dexterity. But did you know they’re also tools of environmental consciousness? Join our tour of the fountain pen’s history, infinite varieties, and remarkable powers. With tips for shopping and maintenance.
By TIM REDMOND
Thirty-two years ago, when I was a young writer struggling to pay the rent and eat, I walked into an art supply store in San Francisco and put down $120 for a pen.
My friends thought I was nuts: that was, literally, half a month’s rent, a month’s groceries. A pack of ten ballpoint pens went for a buck; what on Earth was I thinking?
But since 1985, that dark-red Montblanc with the 14-karat gold nib has filled at least 3,000 reporter’s notebooks, 1,000 or so legal pads, and written more than 1,900 checks. It has helped me interview hundreds of politicians and community leaders. It’s taken the notes for this story.
If my math is correct, my favorite fountain pen has cost me $3.75 a year — and it writes better today than it ever did. Unlike the 1.6 billion plastic ballpoints that wind up getting tossed in the trash every year in the US, this pen will never wind up in a landfill. (The throw-away pens that do, I might add, create roughly 16 million pounds of plastic, most of which never degrade in a landfill. And that’s just in the United States.)
If I wanted to, I could easily sell my old pen for $1,000. It’s the best deal I ever made.
IT’S ALL IN THE NIB
Nothing writes like a fountain pen. Not fancy new liquid-ink rollerballs or expensive ballpoints, not Flair or marker pens. When it comes to the hand-written word, the old technology (very old—some accounts say there were fountain pens in the early middle ages, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings show a design for a fountain pen) is far superior to anything the modern world has ever given us.
In the world of the rich, which I do not inhabit, expensive fountain pens can become almost a type of jewelry, to be worn and seen more than used. Some ads even refer to brand-name pens as “writing instruments,” the same way that a BMW is not a car but a “driving machine. ” Mont Blanc, for example, is now marketed as more of a lifestyle company, selling $3,500 watches and $1,600 briefcases.
But for those of us who use fountain pens every day, and collect them for their beauty as well as their usefulness, a pen is a tool: It takes ink from a reservoir and transfers it to paper—but it does so in a way that makes the most ordinary actions, like taking notes, a lot more fun . 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.
If you fear that your handwriting isn’t good enough to enjoy a fountain pen’s attributes, take heart: over time, the right pen can improve your handwriting, gradually teaching your fingers to form smoother, more elegant curves.
When it comes to performance, the serious pen user ignores a beautiful body and focuses on the face – that is, the quality and style of the pen’s tip, or “nib.”
Starting off to find a fountain pen can be confusing. There are so many, with such huge variations 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.
These prices are largely dictated by the materials used for a pen’s body. Most are made of resin or plastic; some are laced with precious metals, typically gold or silver, and studded with jewels; and some, such as today’s high-end pens from Japan, are covered in intricate, hand-lacquered designs. As alluring as these aesthetics might be, they are essentially costumes. When it comes to performance, the serious pen user ignores a beautiful body and focuses on the face—that is, the quality and style of the pen’s 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.
“70 MANUAL OPERATIONS”
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 in Arkansas, 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. The same goes for Brian Anderson, a vintage pen specialist and collector, and the founder of Anderson Pens in Wisconsin. “The golden age of fountain pens,” he says, “was the 1920s and 1930s.”
I know claims like these smack of nostalgia, but there is a reason that Aguilar and Anderson feel 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, training, tools, materials, machinery, stages of manufacturing, and subtle improvements.
“Making a nib for a good vintage pen required up to 70 manual operations,” Aguilar says. No wonder modern pens have never equaled what a vintage fountain pen can do to a piece of paper.
THE ENGINEER AND THE SAILOR
As you might imagine, keeping those vintage pens in working order is no small task. For a taste of what’s involved, take a look at ‘The Pen Shaper,” a short documentary in the sideabar 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. The engineer was so impressed with the pen– and perhaps, the sailor–that he started a new company to make pens.) 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.).
For many fountain pen lovers, the sine qua non of the genre is a vintage model with a flexible gold nib. The nib’s flexibility allows the tines to spread out, according to the pressure a writer applies: More pressure and the tines open up, which dumps more ink and thus widens the line; as the pressure lessens the tines contract, leaving a very fine line. When an extremely flexible nib (often called “a wet noodle”) is in the hands of a skilled calligrapher, the line variation can be extreme—and gorgeous—as can be seen in Aguilar’s writing sample.
Ironically, this ultra-sophisticated form of writing derives from the pen’s very humble beginnings. The first pens in wide use were feather quills, which are by nature soft. When the ends of those quills were whittled and split to form a nib, voila: a perfect (albeit primitive) wet noodle. As pen-makers developed the nib from quill to metal (more durable, greater capacity to hold ink), a whole new class of calligraphy was born. The most widely used version, popularized in the mid-1800s by an American bookkeeper named Platt Rogers Spencer, came to be known as Spencerian script, which grew out of the elegant English art of engraved writing called Copperplate.
This is essentially the form you see in Aguilar’s writing sample to the right. However, for many calligraphers, Spencerian principles have served as a pathway to their own styles—the fun flourishes shown in the remarkable video to the right being one example. A warning: this video starts slowly but stay with it. You’ll soon realize why this four minutes of footage has gotten nearly 8 million viewers. Additional experiments with this art form go well beyond lettering.
One of today’s great flex-nib calligraphers happens to be a young American named Jake Weidmann, who is one of only 14 people, and the world’s youngest, given the title “Master Penman” by IAMPETH, a calligraphy association based in Webster, N.Y. Like all of his peers, Weidmann does not stoop to using a fountain pen. Instead he uses an old-fashioned dip pen, and even makes the pen bodies himself. If you’re up for some serious eye candy, check out the links to Weidmann’s work below.
Flex nibs have also stirred up controversy. Just for starters, Anderson notes, the pen-collecting community can’t even agree on what qualifies as a flex nib, or how to define its different varieties. But the primary debate seems to be around which is better—vintage or new?
Terry Wiederlight, who manages New York City’s Fountain Pen Hospital, founded by his grandfather in 1946, sits on the pro-modern side. While his shop carries a wide variety of both new and old pens, including many with flexible nibs, and Wiederlight has been impressed by at least a few modern versions (he mentioned Aurora pens in particular). In fact, if he were shopping for a pen with a flex nib, Wiederlight says, he’d buy a modern one before a vintage pen.
Anderson, like many pen aficionados, stands on the other side, sticking with the oldies, even though almost all of his business now is in new pens. “It’s difficult to recreate the nibs that were made at the turn of the last century,” he says. “There are some good ones today—the Pilot 912 is one—but if you ask me if I think the older pens are better, I would say 110 percent yes.” As proof, Anderson points out that “all the real artists who do Copperplate use vintage dip pens.”
Not surprisingly, a more mixed opinion comes from John Mottishaw, who is one of the pen world’s most respected dealers and repair experts. Mottishaw runs Classic Fountain Pens, a small shop in Los Angeles that sells mostly new pens, including some of today’s finest (most of which come from Japan). He also customizes nibs to suit the tastes of the most discerning scribblers. “Some of those vintage pens are spectacular,” Mottishaw says, but he’s also seen some from that era that he considered terrible. “They were handmade,” he says, “and that was the way it went.” Translation: buyer beware.
Mottishaw has an interesting theory for why flex nibs went out of style. After the turn of the century, more people started traveling by rail, with its famously bumpy rides. “People used to use fountain pens to write letters,” he said. “If you are on a train, you don’t want a flexible nib.”
CHOOSING A PEN
Now that you’ve had a taste of the fountain pen’s myriad possibilities, I will bet you won’t be able to resist trying one for yourself. If and when that time comes, here’s one devoted scribbler’s guide to buying, using, and maintaining a fountain pen, based on interviews with experts but also on my years of good and bad experiences.
I’m tempted to say that if you’re already a fountain pen lover, you can skip this section, but actually: No. Whether you’re looking for your first pen or another for your collection, it’s helpful to remember that buying a fountain pen isn’t like buying a nice watch. It’s more like shopping for a car: There are good deals, bad deals, and, says Aguilar, “an awful lot of bad information out there.”
Let’s start with ebay, which is both the best and worst thing ever to happen to fountain pen lovers. I’ve found amazing deals on ebay as well as pens that had bent or damaged nibs, requiring an argument with the seller over whether I damaged it or it arrived that way. (This is why pen enthusiasts refer to ebay purchases as finding a pen “in the wild.”) Again, it’s like shopping for a used car: it’s difficult to buy a used pen without either trying it out or going to a respected, reputable dealer who has no problem with returns.
If you haven’t had much experience and you want a nice modern pen, the best thing to do, Aguilar advises, “is go to a pen store.” These days, the best place to start is usually an art-supply outlet. But whatever you do, don’t buy a pen you haven’t held in your hand, dipped in ink, and tested on paper. Any legit store will let you do that.
Pen nibs come in dozens of different shapes and sizes, from extra fine to various degrees of bold. These definitions are little more than guidelines, since nib measurements vary from country to country and brand to brand; what some call fine is closer to medium, some mediums are pretty bold, and bold is a wide, wide range. For those intrigued by calligraphy but hesitant to attempt the challenges of Spencerian script, there are also italic nibs, including “stub” italic—less severe than standard italic, and thus a smoother writer.
Inexpensive pens tend to come with stainless steel nibs, which are often just fine for ordinary writing. If you’re tempted by some of the higher-end new pens with gold nibs, be careful. While these pens are usually beautiful, their nibs don’t have the resilience and responsiveness of the gold in the old nibs, which was forged and hammered—not rolled or plated over another metal as is done with today’s gold nibs. And they don’t adjust to your hand in the same way. I once tried a pen made out of lava, with an (allegedly) Iridium nib, but it was astronomically expensive and didn’t write that well. So, if you’re serious, vintage gold is the safer way to go.
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PEN
The main downside of a fountain pens is that it’s fragile—drop one on a hard floor and the body is likely to crack; if it lands point-down, the nib can be fatally damaged. But with a little care and maintenance, they can last—literally—for centuries.
I have old pens and new pens, and none of them has ever written the way I wanted when I first took it out of the box. That’s the amazing thing about fountain pens—over time, they adapt to your hand. So when you first start using a pen, be patient: It takes a while for the two of you to get used to each other.
If you’ve been writing for a few months and you still aren’t happy, don’t despair: There are experts around who can adjust the nib and customize it for whatever use you want. Repairing pen nibs is high art and requires a tremendous amount of skill; don’t try it at home.
Basic care, however, can easily be done at your own desk. For simple tips, please see the sidebar article, “Basic Pen Care: Tips, Tools, and Techniques—even for making your own ink!”
I still say the classic Montblanc is the best pen I’ve ever used, but a lot of collectors find the newer versions to be less finely made. Aguilar won’t pick a favorite, but told me that nobody has ever made a pen as good as the classic Parker 51. I have an inexpensive Pelikan that I bought new and never liked until I took the nib apart and put it back together; now I use it almost every day.
As you can see, half the fun of fountain pens is trying them out. They never lose value, so hold onto whatever you buy for a while and you can almost always sell a good pen for more than what you paid. That makes it a rare tool, indeed.
© 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.