I love fountain pens, and I now do most of my writing with them. Typing this blog post almost feels strange. There is something special about writing with a pen. I won’t go into that, but if you doubt this assertion, please watch Jake Weidman discuss the issue. By the way, fountain pen users generally do not strive to become anywhere near the penman Weidman is. We just enjoy it. The other way to test this hypothesis is to try fountain pens on your own.

When I returned to using fountain pens in 2012 I made a mistake of purchasing over a dozen cheap Chinese pens. You can buy really cheap pens on eBay for literally pennies and they are shipped free. Generally these pens suck, to put it bluntly. I have only found one Chinese pen I’ve liked that still works. The rest sit in a Mason jar waiting for a reclamation project — other users have shoved quality nibs into them with positive results.

A certain amount of knowledge is needed to begin using pens, and again, I am not going to give any advice. But there are many easy resources out there. There are a couple of forums, but the one I usually visit is Fountain Pen Network. It has everything you need to get started and more. Don’t be concerned if it’s overwhelming. Education in this world is easy, and really, what can go wrong with a pen and a bottle of ink?

YouTube is also full of reviewers and advice givers. Search away, but if I might, I will recommend following Stephen Bre Brown simply because I like him, he’s honest, somewhat funny, cool in a pseudo-European-hipster sort of way, and he has learned by trying. And he likes swords.

Now for some recommendations:

If you want to spend next to nothing, buy a Jinhao 599A. I’ve bought three of them, one for my wife, one for my friend Neil, and one for me. All three have been running for almost three months without a hitch. Clean, fine lines, no scratching, and virtually no risk at US$1.38 each. They do not fill the easiest (the Chinese converters really are substandard), they will probably fail within months, but they will give you a taste of fountain pens for the price of a half-sized large coffee. I am currently enjoying mine. It is a little dry, but that’s fine for my note taking. I prefer wetter pens for writing prose and poetry, but I only learned that by trial and error. The Jinhao 599A gives you some trial with very little error

The main issue with pen are their nib. Nibs come in various sizes and shapes, and there is no one standard. It’s like trying to but a pair of shoes. Size 11 in Nikes is not the same as size 11 in Clarkes. Stephen suggests picking a nib size based on your writing. Increase the size until the loop in the lowercase e disappears. That’s your size. Maybe. Trial and error will eventually sort it out. I recommend buying both medium and fine-nibbed 599As. The mediums seem costlier, but again, it’s still low risk. I have not found any 599A broad-nibbed pens.

Next steps. Perhaps you don’t want to start el-cheapo. Perhaps you want a real pen. I have to advise you to go slow and carefully. At the end of this post I will append some of my pens and my opinions of them. Pen selection also depends on your needs. Do you mark tests and papers? Do you write longhand letters or prose? Do you scribble poetry on parchment? Do you want to try calligraphy? Do you want to draw pictures? I take notes in my journals, write notes to myself about work and my writing, and I write poetry and prose. Fancy, shmansie  stuff is not for me; though I do love a more flexible nib with a nice, shading ink when I write creatively. Really, it can help the page sing!

If you want to step it up a notch, I recommend getting a Lamy Safari with one or more extra nibs. Nib swapping is not for the feint of heart (yes, I have ruined fine pens) but Lamy makes it easy with this pen. It is robust, has some flex, and is a workhorse you will use for years. My wife loves hers the best of all her pens, and I am growing more fond of mine.

Inks. Half the fun of using fountain pens is trying new inks, but the learning curve on ink might be even steeper than on pens. What colors do you like? What wetness do you prefer? Saturation? Shading? Bleeding? Feathering? Drying time? Honestly, I feel like I’ve just started learning about inks. But here are some of my recommendations for the noob.

Parker Quink Black. You need a black ink; trust me! Many love this ink and many hate it. It is not the blackest ink, has some shading qualities, and is fairly wet. It is a reliable ink that will tell you much about your own preferences. I had given my bottle away because I didn’t like it; I tried some blacks and greys; realized Quink had the qualities I was looking for; bought a bottle for CDN$9, and now love it.

Sheaffer Blue. This is another inexpensive, reliable ink. You can use it for just about any writing, and it won’t disappoint you. You may not be thrilled, but again, it’s a workhorse that will help you learn what you do and don’t want in an ink.

Pick any blue-black. Many hate Quink but I really like it. It is not inspiring in any way, but it always works and is maintenance-free.

Maintenance-free. Some inks are troublesome, and sometimes it’s not the brand but the bottle. Most users love Sheaffer Red, a standard marking ink. Mine dries like cement in my pens. Shaking has helped some, but I am ready to toss mine, maybe in the snow to fake a stabbing or some emergency. Might be fun. Grin. I am afraid to buy another bottle, but I probably will in my next order.

Try some of these cheaper options before investing in better inks. Seriously, there’s not rush. This is a lifelong passion; inks will arrive; you will fall in love with many. My current stash totals 27 inks, and I plan on upping that to 30 soon. I have just about one bottle per pen.

Some of my pens and who I think might want them.

Parker Sonnet. These are currently my go-to pens, and I have four of them. One I hate. The hated one is medium-nibbed that writes like a broad. I don’t know why, but this newer Sonnet’s nib is chunkier than my older M nib. I bought all four on eBay and I lucked out. It’s much preferable to spend $40 to $65 on an auction than $125 to $200 or more retail. If you’re a business person and want something sharp for the office, the Sonnet is the ticket.

Sheaffer open-nibbed pens (Sheaffer Sagaris and cartridge pens). These pens can write great, but I have found they all loosen over time and the nib gets out of line. This causes scratchiness and maintenance issues. You have to learn to disassemble the pen, clean and straighten it, and reassemble it perfectly. Over time the wobbliness grows and eventually the pen becomes a relic. Yes, you will get lots of words (I love how my Sagaris writes when tuned), but life is limited. This is my experience and others may state I don’t know what I’m talking about, but this is my experience. Cartidge pens can be bought cheaply, was my first pen years ago, but the nibs, if not already wobbly, will be. Though my 1950’s pen is holding up strong.

Sheaffer embedded nibs. I don’t know the proper term for these nibs, but the Sheaffer Targa is one fine pen. There are other models with this style of nib I haven’t yet tried. The nib will not get out of line and will be a workhorse. Very smooth, very enjoyable, but not extremely flexible. You can only buy them used, and the prices tend to run high. They are big, heavy pens and chances are they will not fit your hand. There is also a thin version, which I love, but fitting your hand is problematic, and finding cartridges and converters can be pricier than the pens. I recommend buying a steel-nibbed, standard version on eBay before trying for a pricier version. I paid $24 for mine and I love it.

Parker 45. These are pretty basic school pens, but some have gold nibs. I found the gold does nothing for the writing. I also found the medium nibs too broad and not as responsive to angle variation. These pens have little line variation, but are great writers and markers. They can be picked up fairly cheaply, and many write like butter.

Pens I want to try:

  • TWSBI Diamond 580
  • Pilot Falcon
  • Parker 51
  • Pelikan ???

If I haven’t covered what you want, go to FPN and find it 😉