Tag Archives: pens

Another geek post: fountain pens

Not too long ago, I made mention of my love for the traditional woodcase pencil. There was a brief period of time in which I contemplated (somewhat seriously) giving up on ink altogether, except in the most necessary places (such as legal documents). Well, that never happened. Instead, I’m starting to use ink in a new/old way. I’m starting to love fountain pens more and more.

(Dixie rolled her eyes when she saw that I was writing about pens. But she can’t say anything, because she once learned all of Gloria Gaither’s “schpiels” and dressed up as her for halloween.)

It all begins with this pen (but see below…):


This is a Parker 51 “Special”. My dad got this pen in the late 50s or early 60s and used it when he was in Bible college. This pen has great sentimental value to me for that reason alone. I inherited my obsession with writing instruments from my dad. I inherited a love for the Parker Jotter from him and, as a result, my love for the Parker brand in general.

It turns out that the Parker 51, and to a lesser degree to cheaper 51 “Special”, is a pen highly sought after by collectors. 51s in good condition will sell for hundreds of dollars. It has been dubbed “the best pen ever made”, for a combination of reasons: design, durability, smoothness of writing. I’m not looking to sell this pen, but it adds to its mystique.

It works very well after all these years. One of the inner parts (breather tube) needs to be replaced (though it doesn’t prevent it from functioning). It’s a bit scratchy, due to misaligned tines in the nib, which I’ve been trying to fix, but it’s generally a fine writing instrument.

My dad gave me this fountain pen maybe 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until the last year or so that I began to appreciate writing with it. Somewhere in the last couple of years something clicked and I began looking into fountain pens more. I checked ebay for another 51 — something without sentimental value that I could comfortably take with me out and about in the world. There are lots of 51s out there, but unfortunately they don’t seem to sell for any less than $50 on ebay (and generally sell for much more), and I’m not prepared to pay that much.

The Parker Frontier, which is now unfortunately no longer in production, is in some respects quite similar to the Parker 51. Its cap and barrel have a similar look. The grip and nib are different. But still, a fine writing pen, and for $12-$15 not too expensive (though they’re no longer in production). I bought this one as my take anywhere pen:


I then got it in my head that I would like something less breakable than this relatively cheap plastic pen. I found a matte-black metal Parker Frontier on ebay. It was from a seller in India (top-rated seller). For several reasons, I suspect strongly that it’s a fake, but I can’t be sure. Either way, it is a disappointingly hit-and-miss writer:


I started to do some reading on fountain pen forums (yes! fountain pen forums!) about inexpensive fountain pens that write well. What I discovered there was the Lamy Safari:


It’s a German-made pen. My understanding is that it’s made for young people learning to write: it has a formed barrel and a stiff nib for the novice to learn proper writing technique and fountain pen handling. However, it’s a very popular fountain pen among enthusiasts. German engineering!

I was pleased enough with the matte-black fine-point Safari I purchased that I bought a red one as a backup and a blue one for Dixie! It writes smoothly and comfortably and is my main writing pen.

The Lamy isn’t exactly a cheap pen, of course. $15-20 a pop is not what I would call a throwaway pen. But it’s well built and will last a lifetime if I treat it well.

Then I purchased a cheap Japanese Pilot 78g:


It writes very well for an $8 pen, although I made the mistake of purchasing it with a fine nib. Western nibs are often too broad, so that I will buy one nib finer than I think I want (e.g. fine instead of medium), but Japanese fine nibs are too fine.

Apparently there is quite an industry of “homage” pens in China. They’re not exactly fakes, because they keep their own brand name on their pens, even though they are imitations of other brands. $10 bought me this Jinhao 159, a knockoff of a Montblanc pen that sells for hundreds of dollars:


It is perhaps my smoothest writer, but it’s MUCH too broad for a medium nib. Apparently Chinese fountain pen nibs, contrary to those of their Japanese neighbours, are broader than normal.

I recently discovered that there is an homage to the Parker 51 made by Hero. The Hero 616 is an almost exact replica of the 51 and can be purchased for as little as $5 apiece. And apparently if you get an authentic Hero 616, they are quite pleasant to write with. I say “authentic” because apparently even a fake $5 pen is being faked in China. A fake of an homage to a pen!

I said above that it all started with the Parker 51, but the first fountain pen I saw as a child (that I can remember) was an old orange fountain pen in my dad’s office. I seem to recall him saying that it was his dad’s or his grandfather’s and that he wasn’t sure if it still worked or not. I didn’t know what it was until the last couple of years when I started reading up on fountain pens. Turns out that it was a Parker Duofold, another legendary pen in the Parker line. I didn’t think it was around anymore, but my mom found it among dad’s effects:


She sent it to me. It’s a Parker Duofold, Jr., which is a stubby version of the Duofold. I think it dates from the 1920s or 1930s. It belonged to my great-grandfather on my father’s side, who was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland. It has “A. v. d. SLUIJS Dz.” engraved on the side. That’s pretty cool!

The ink sac was completely dried out and brittle (new one almost on order), but everything else *looks* to be in working order. Unfortunately, I may have done some permanent damage to the orange finish. I had put all of the parts in very hot tap water in order to clean out the old ink. Apparently you’re not supposed to do that with old fountain pens in particular. The black ends, made of a kind of rubber, turned brown, and the the orange barrel and cap now have a bit of a white haze, which I hope can be polished off.

And just the other day I bought this Noodler’s Ink Standard Flex Nib pen:

Noodler's Ink Standard Flex Nib

It’s interesting because it has a piston ink converter. It sucks ink directly into the front of the barrel by twisting the back of the barrel. I’m having some issues with the ink “feathering” (too much ink flow?), but these pens are apparently made to tinker with, so hopefully I can fix that.

I’m almost ready to give up on ballpoint pens altogether, except for the fact that they are very convenient when on the go and for the fact of my ongoing love affair with the Parker Jotter. My dad always had one in his pocket. As a child at church, when it was time for the sermon, I would turn to dad and whisper, “Do you have a pen?” He always did. He’d pull a Parker Jotter from his shirt or suit pocket, click the pen “on” and hand it to me. I’ve purchased and been given a number of these over the course of my life:

Parker Jotters

The one on the far right with the green barrel is commemorates Parker’s 125th anniversary. Just purchased that one a month or so ago. Next to it is a newer “luxury” Jotter. (Both are stainless steel.) It seems like Parker is moving more towards the luxury pen market. I don’t like that very much myself, but perhaps it makes business sense in a market flooded with cheap but well-functioning pens. Next to that (black barrel) is a standard Parker Jotter, followed by two newer models (light blue barrels) with a rounded “clicker” (one was a gift from my aunt and uncle in England, the second time in my life they’ve given me a Jotter!), and then a couple more older models.

And since I’ve plunged right in, why not throw in two additionally “special” pens:

Bic Clic pen from the Monterey Inn Resort

This doesn’t look all that special. A Bic Clic pen from a hotel. Except that it’s from the “resort” (I use the term VERY loosely) we stayed at for part of our honeymoon. Each evening I would pocket the pen on the nightstand, which would then be replaced by another the following morning. There are several of these floating around our house, but I’ve kept this one set aside.

An Assman pen

This is “The Assman Pen”. You remember Dick Assman? He was a Regina gas station owner made famous (for his name) by David Letterman in the mid-90s. I purchased this pen at his gas station in Regina at that time (the Wikipedia article says it was the Victoria Square Mall, but I’m pretty sure it was the Golden Mile Centre). I’m not sure why I’ve been carrying this one around — largely unused — all these years. I guess it’s just one of those things.

And there are other pens, too. But I won’t bore you with those (I assume if you read this far you weren’t entirely bored by this post).

The Pencil

I inherited a love for stationery from my dad; I’ve made no secret of that over the years.  I’ve had an affinity for writing instruments–ballpoint pens, in particular–since I was a young boy.  My dad instilled in me a love for the Parker Jotter, a fine ballpoint if ever there was one.  As a schoolboy, I favoured the classic Bic–sometimes straying into Papermate territory, but always returning to the Bic.

Over the years, I accumulated quite the collection of both “fine” refillable pens (Parker, Cross, Schaeffer, etc.) and cheap disposables.  I was always in search of the perfect pen, but that journey always brought me back to the Parker Jotter and the Bic.

In recent years, I have begun to recognize the pointlessness of collecting–in fact, I realized I had a deep distaste for accumulation, which (ironically) was vexed by my concommitant compulsion to buy more pens.  So I worked at losing that habit.  But I’m not stationery sober.

As I write this, I anxiously await the arrival of a box of 12 ForestChoice #2 unpainted Incense-cedar pencils, which I purchased online.  Apparently they write like (almost) no other pencil.  Where did this new compulsion come from?  I’ve always liked pencils.  My handwriting is noticably better with a pencil than a ballpoint pen (fountain pens are nice, but I find they need to be positioned awkwardly to write) and there was just something about a plain old pencil…so simple, so earthy, so malleable.  But people didn’t write with pencils–certainly not in professional and academic settings, or so I thought.

I’ve dabbled in the pencil world–trying out and liking very much the classic Dixon Ticonderoga and the Mirado (which I recently discovered has a wax-infused core for smoothness!).  But what sparked this?  I confess: I think it was Murray, band manager (Flight of the Conchords), who always has a Ticonderoga in hand for band meetings (“Brett?”  “Present.”  “Jemaine?”  “Present.”  “Murray?  Present.”)  That got me thinking again about the pencil as a primary writing instrument.  And then I read somewhere about pencils and pads being given out for high-profile executive meetings and that sealed the deal.  Who cares if a pencil can be erased?  Why does the pen get all the prestige? It’s a legitimate primary writing tool, folks!

So I eagerly await the unasssumingly packaged set of 12 #2 unpainted Incense-cedar graphite pencils by ForestChoice.

And in the meantime, I’ve also ordered (don’t tell Dixie) a package of six Palomino pencils, which are also, apparently, quite something.  They are crafted in Japan by a renowned pencil maker.  So they say.

And also in the meantime, 14 reasons (woodcase) pencils are awesome:

1. They are natural — wood and graphite.  Can’t get more natural than that.  Pens: plastics, inks, chemicals, etc.

2. They are simple.  Wood + graphite = pencil.  Well, technically, just graphite stick = pencil.

3. They are erasable.  I know there are erasable pens, but how many people do you know who use them?  They must not work well.

4. It ages with you.  What I mean is, you can see a pencil age in a way that the draining ink in a clear-barrelled pen does not allow.  The pencil gets shorter, the print on the sides wears out, it gets covered in teeth marks, etc.

5. Pencils are somewhat edible.

6. No surprise empties.  You’re not likely to pick up a pencil to write something only to discover its out of lead (unless it’s mechanical).  This will happen with a pen, all the time.

7. Pencils don’t dry up.  If you can see graphite, it will write.  Not so with ink.

8. Pencils make that delightful scratching noise as you write.

9. Better handwriting

10. I can use a pencil to underline and mark books in good conscience.  I cannot use a pen.

11. A pencil will not leave a stain in your pocket.

12. A pencil is, arguably, more environmentally friendly (largely made of natural products–I can toss a pencil and feel no worse about it than if I was tossing a branch and some rocks).

13. Any pencil will write upside down.

And, finally, some pencil-related blogs: