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).

3 thoughts on “Another geek post: fountain pens

  1. Linea

    So where do you get the ink? And is it the kind that you draw up from a bottle (like I used when I learned to write with ink) or those small cartridges?

    Your post brought back memories. Can’t say I miss the mess of my old fountain pens though. My fingers used to be ink stained always.

  2. Marc

    Hi Linea. All of these are set up to draw ink from a bottle. I don’t like fussing with cartridges and I think in the long run they’re more expensive. Some of them came with cartridges, but once they were emptied I put in converters to use bottled ink.

    I found a great stationery store in Edmonton last week that has a great selection of inks. Previously I had just been buying Parker inks at Staples. Now I have easy access to different brands and colours.

    And now Madeline is interested, too! (But she’s a lefty, which may make keeping her hands clean that much more tricky!)

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