So many pens. How does one decide which to get?
The constant barrage of new releases, limited editions, special collaborations, and new pen designs can feel overwhelming (and draining for your bank account). With a virtually endless parade of the bright and shiny, how does the seasoned pen enthusiast choose?
Using my 15+ years of experience working for a pen retailer and feedback gathered from pen enthusiasts over the years, I present a simple rating system that evaluates pens on six criteria.
Please note: It’s a work in progress. I’d love to get more feedback to make this even more useful for pen lovers to find pens they’ll enjoy using.
One of the key differences that separates the common Bic Stic ballpoint from a limited edition Montegrappa is the unique quality of the pen. It’s mass-produced pens versus bespoke, handmade creations.
On one end of the uniqueness range, there are the low-cost pens that are the staple in many daily carries. The pens are identical from batch to batch and year to year. Common pens will usually have a limited range of nib sizes and an adaptable international cartridge or converter filling system.
Extraordinary pens, on the other hand, are uniquely identifiable and can differ from pen to pen. For the most hand-tailored experience, there are bespoke writing instruments from smaller pen makers. Hand-painted pens made with urushi and raden also rate highly with collectors for the painstaking amount of manual work that goes into each piece. Specialty nib grinds and unusual filling mechanisms are also marks of distinction.
“Uniqueness” Range Examples:
- Common: Lamy Safari, Kaweco Sport, Platinum Preppy, TWSBI Eco, Pilot Varsity
- Extraordinary: Namiki Emperor Goldfish, Pelikan Souveran 1000 Maki-e, Lamy 2000 in any color besides black or stainless steel, Retro 51 limited editions
Ease of Use
A pen is a tool we use for writing. While you might be falling in love with the amazing design, if the pen is cumbersome to use, it isn’t serving its true purpose.
For a pen to be “easy to use,” it should have a simple filling mechanism (plugging in an international ink cartridge is easiest), good ergonomic design, and perform well right out of the box.
A fountain pen can achieve a reputation for being difficult in many different ways. It’s like the Anna Karenina principle of pens. All easy-to-use pens share the same characteristics and each difficult pen is challenging in a unique way.
Take the Platinum Curidas, for example. While it is convenient in that the retractable mechanism is quick and easy to deploy, disassembling the pen to refill it is far more difficult (and potentially hazardous to your pen) than a standard cartridge/converter pen that isn’t retractable.
Other aspects that make a pen more difficult to use: grip sections with sharp threads, nibs with a reputation for being finicky, filling systems that are almost impossible to get completely clean, and caps that take more than 2 rotations to open the pen.
“Ease of Use” Range Examples:
- Hard: Platinum Curidas, Noodler’s Ahab,
- Easy: Pilot Vanishing Point, Kaweco Sport, Lamy Safari
Feel in Hand
It’s easy to fall in love with a pen’s “looks.” Most pen enthusiasts are guilty of buying a pen or two thanks to some beauty shots seen on Instagram. But, pens are meant to be held and used to write, sometimes at great length. So, a pen’s “feel” matters just as much as how it looks.
For a pen to have a “great feel in hand,” you need to consider your hand. Does your hand fatigue while writing with heavier pens? Do you have big or small hands? Do you prefer narrow or thick grip sections?
“Feel in Hand” Range Examples:
- Small and Light: Kaweco Liliput, Esterbrook JR
- Big and Heavy: Namiki Emperor, Pelikan M1000, Montblanc 149
In the last decade or so, fountain pens have exploded in a variety of styles, colors, materials, and designs. Now, more than ever, one can find a pen that fits perfectly with their personal taste, matching with basically any wardrobe.
On the spectrum of “pen style,” there’s the conservative style - unassuming, traditional, and reinforcing the aesthetic set by vintage pens of the early 20th Century. Then, there’s what I term “opulent” - avant-garde, colorful, and unusual. There isn’t anything beneficial or advantageous, it’s all about what you feel more drawn to.
“Style” Range Examples:
- Conservative: Parker Sonnet, Montblanc 146, Sailor 1911
- Opulent: Any Benu pen, Montegrappa limited editions, Pelikan Maki-e
This is where the rubber meets the road, or, where the nib meets the paper. A nib’s writing ability is arguably more important than its looks. If you savor the tactile experience of writing, nib performance is top of mind when shopping for a new pen.
A nib’s writing experience is difficult to describe and quickly evaluate, especially since the same fountain pen usually ranges in several nib sizes. The finer nib grades tend to have more feedback (that scritchy-scratchy feeling on paper) while nibs with more tipping material (think medium, broad, and double broad) tend to feel smoother, almost like writing on glass.
Some writers prefer a hint of tactile feedback. Others want their nibs to glide across the page. There isn’t a right or wrong answer here. Just like with the other criteria we focused on, this grading scale is meant to gauge whether the pen will be a good fit for your preferences.
An important distinction about “scratchy” fountain pen nibs: Sometimes, a nib might feel scratchy due to a misalignment of the tines. That’s not what the scale is referring to here. The Sailor 1911 has a reputation for “pencil-like” feedback that, for some, feels scratchy. This isn’t a one-off occurrence. This is how Sailor nibs usually behave.
“Writing Experience” Range Examples:
- Scratchy: Platinum 3776 Century, Sailor 1911
- Butter Smooth: Pelikan M800, Lamy 2000
Last, and one of the most important dimensions to evaluate a new pen purchase, is value for your money. Fountain pens range in price from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars. You’ll want to get the most pen for your hard-earned cash.
Just because a pen is expensive, doesn’t mean you are getting more quality and higher performance. There’s a point of diminishing returns where the extra dollars go toward things like brand appeal, marketing, and licensing - not toward the actual pen materials and artisanship.
There are multiple factors when considering a pen’s value. First, there there are the material components. What is the pen made of? Is the nib made of stainless steel or gold? What kind of filling system does it use? Then, consider the company that produces the pen and how it is made. Is the pen mass made using injection molding? Or, is the pen turned on a lathe and hand-finished and tested by an expert artisan? Last, take account of the pen’s availability. Is it a limited edition or a common model available every day? If it’s a limited edition, how many pieces are available?
Compare the pen you are evaluating against others with a similar build. For example, there are plenty of solid acrylic fountain pens that use a stainless steel Jowo nib. Depending on the manufacturer, you could be paying somewhere between $70 to $500 for these components.
Ultimately, value, like beauty, is in the eye of the person willing to exchange money for the pen. There are less tangible factors - like brand value, perceived scarcity, and design theme - that one has to consider.
“Value” Range Examples:
- Low: Esterbrook Estie Oversized, Waterman Man 140 Limited Edition
- High: TWSBI Eco, Nahvalur Original Plus
If you could evaluate your current pens on these six criteria, how would they rate? Would you say you have a preference for certain types of pens? Could you spot trends in size, writing experience, and style? How helpful would it be for you to know these characteristics of a pen during the shopping journey?
Is there anything you’d like to add or change to these criteria? Please feel free to let me know what you think!