Haven’t done one of these in a while. A post about that most boring and yawn-inducing of subjects, a topic bound to alleviate even the most hardcore of insomniacs from their troubles…the fountain pen.
Many people see fountain pens in movies, in magazines, at other peoples’ houses, or somewhere out in public, in the hand of a fellow writing something down in a cafe, or at the office. Sooner or later, a few of these people will start thinking that they’d like a fountain pen of their own. Only…they don’t really know where to find one…
So, if you want a fountain pen, either as a special gift or as an everyday writing instrument, where and how do you go about looking for one? And, having found their secret lair, how do you infiltrate it and decide which pens are the best for you?
Fountain pens, by their very nature, are highly personal posessions. A Bic Cristal is no-more personal than a plastic coffee-cup and retains as much sentiment as a tissue-paper retains water. Fountain pens, on the other hand, can literally last for decades…and will certainly be around for a lot longer than any time that you’d be on this earth for.
With that in mind, selecting and buying a fountain pen is a bit like buying a car. It’s a slow, careful and involved process, a lesson in patience, attention to detail and product-knowledge.
What to Know
Before buying a fountain pen, you need to know a few things about yourself, first. Chief among these are:
- How will you use this pen? Is it an everyday writing-instrument? Is it a ceremonial thing, to be brought out at weddings to sign registries, cheques and wills?
- Have you used a fountain pen before? Yes? Then you might know a bit more about what will suit you. No? Then move on to…
- What’s your writing like? Big? Small? Cursive? Curly? Print? The size and style of your handwriting will determine what type of fountain pen is best for you. Unlike ballpoint pens, no two fountain pens are exactly alike, and picking one that fits your handwriting comfortably is an odessy like trying to find the Holy Grail.
- What is your budget? If you’re already used to fountain pens, you might like to spend a bit more to get a really nice one. But if you’re starting out, a cheaper fountain pen that you won’t cry over if you lose it, might be a better option. There seems to be a huge misconception these days that fountain pens are hideously expensive, starting at a million bucks and skyrocketing up from there. This is absolutely NOT true. Fountain pens can be found at any price, it’s just a matter of what you’re willing to pay and the quality you’re expecting.
Picking Your Pen
Having decided that you would seriously like to buy a fountain pen, the next hurdle is to decide on WHAT pen to buy. There are thousands of fountain pens out there which could start at $10, or could start at $10,000. What brand or pen-maker do you want to focus on? What is important to you? Weight? Style? Comfort? Ease-of-Use?
Things that will help you decide what pen is best for you, include…
- Style. Do you want an older pen? A newer one? Something a bit retro and 30s Art Deco, or something that just rolled off the production-line? Something that’s made of metal and all futuristic? Or something that looks like what your grandfather used, for that vintage touch?
- Weight. Fountain pens are made out of LOTS of materials. Steel, silver, gold, celluloid, plastic, casein, ebonite, wood…need I name more? The type of material used to make the body of the pen will affect its weight, and therefore, comfort. If you’re wanting to own a pen which you’ll use for regular writing, you might want to pick one that’s lighter. Instead of wood or metal, pick one made of rubber or plastic.
- Overall Size. Fountain pens can be as thin as a drinking-straw, and as thick as a salami. The overall girth and length of the instrument is important. If you’ve got bigger hands, a larger, chunkier pen like a Montblanc 149 might fit more comfortably. If your hands are smaller, a slimmer number such as a Waterman Phileas might be more comfortable.
Having decided on the general size and style that you want to go for, picking a good brand now becomes important. There are literally dozens of fountain pen manufacturers out there making pens of all styles and price-ranges. Some of the more well-known pen-makers include Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Visconti, Montblanc, Lamy, Rotring, Conklin and OMAS. You should take your time to sift through all the available options. Some pen-manufacturers only make really expensive pens, but others make pens of all price-ranges. If money is no object, look at everything you can find. If money is an object, limit your field to pen-manufacturers that produce pens at a variety of price-ranges.
Keep in mind that fountain pens have been around for over a hundred years. There are lots of defunct pen-manufacturers with perfectly functional vintage and antique pens still floating around the market. Some of these older pen-makers include such notables as Wahl-Eversharp, Mabie-Todd, Onoto and Morrison. And there are also hundreds of discontinued pen-models made by hundreds of well-established companies that are still available for purchase. How about a Parker Duofold from the 1920s? A 1950s Parker ’51’? A Sheaffer Balance from the 1930s? A Waterman Ideal from the 1910s? If you want a more vintage pen, keep an eye out for stuff like that.
Where to Buy?
You’ve figured out the brand, size, style, nib-type and the hundred and one other little tiddly things that you should know about fountain pens before buying one, and now you want to know…where the hell do I find one of these things?
First up, a stationery shop or a news-agent is not your best bet as a hunting-ground. Like it or hate it, fountain pens have drifted into the sort of “Novelty” area of desk accessories in the last thirty or forty years, and most news-agencies and stationery-shops are unlikely to stock fountain pens. If they do, they won’t be the really nice ones that you want, they’ll be the cheap, disposable kind. This might still be useful to you, however, if you’re thinking of getting a simple fountain pen just to give a trial-run before looking into pens more seriously.
The most obvious place to go to is a pen-shop or a large-sized stationery or office-supplies store. Places like Staples or OfficeWorks or any of those big, aircraft-hangar-sized stationery & office-supply shops may have a pretty decent selection of mid-priced and cheap fountain pens from a variety of manufacturers. It’s in places like this that you’re also likely to find the cheaper pen-models made by established manufacturers like Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman.
Pen shops are the top place to go. A good pen shop should be brightly lit with nice, easily-visible display-cases with the pen-brands clearly signposted all over the place. Head in and start browsing. Pen shops are also handy places to buy notebooks, diaries, ink and some general stationery-products such as sealing-wax, calligraphy-sets, envelopes and address-books.
Feel free to speak to the staff at the pen-shop. Any good pen-seller worth his salt, will be knowledgeable about the various brands and models of pens that he sells and will be able to help you make an informed choice on what you want.
Like I said before, buying a fountain pen is much like buying a car; you don’t just go out and buy it sight unseen and hand untouched. A good pen-shop should allow you to pick out a selection of fountain pens and perform what is known as a ‘dip-test’. A dip-test means that the clerk or shopkeeper will give you a notepad and a bottle of ink for you to dip and write with the fountain pens that you’re interested in. This is important as it allows you to see exactly how the pen performs. In some shops, there are even specific ‘sample’ pens placed aside, deliberately for this purpose.
If, for any reason, the shopkeeper or clerk won’t allow you to try a ‘dip-test’…move on to something else. Don’t waste your time arguing, just remember that the guy behind the counter just talked himself out of a potential sale. You wouldn’t buy a car without driving it first, and neither should you buy a fountain pen without first seeing how it writes.
Pen-shops are non-existent! They’re staffed by idiots! The prices send you to the hospital suffering from heart-failure! The local office-supply shop is staffed by clueless teenagers who wouldn’t know the up-side of a pen if you stabbed them in the eye with it! Damn it!…Now what?
Ironically, there are dozens of places online where you can buy fountain pens! The most obvious places to start are on pen-company websites, but there are also the smaller, independent pen-maker websites that you can visit. Some people (called pen-turners) manufacture their own, custom-made pens using a variety of materials and sell them online. If you’re looking for something unique, try there.
I mentioned vintage pens earlier. These pens can be up to a hundred years old. How is it that they still work today? This is made possible by the dedication and skill of the dozen or so expert pen-repairers in the world. Fountain pen repair and restoration is a niche market, but there is a solid community of these folks who accept, repair and re-sell fountain pens. Some of these repairers sell fountain pens via their websites, whether they be vintage models or brand-new pens. Buying from people like this will ensure that you’re dealing with professionals who know their product and that what you’re buying will actually work when you fill it with ink.
Lastly but not least…the electronic flea-market. eBay.
Buying fountain pens on eBay is an experience, to say the least. While you can find some amazing things there, keep in mind a few tricks and traps which can snare you and leave you crying in the corner. First, buy from sellers with a good reputation. Some pen-repairers have eBay accounts where they sell their restored vintage fountain pens. If you want peace of mind, deal with these folks. Some people are pen-collectors who want to sell some of their collection because it’s getting too big. As with any collecting niche, fellow collectors hate being ripped off, so you’re likely to get some very honest answers here to any questions you ask.
Then there are people who are clueless about what they’re selling. This can be a gold-mine, or it can be a minefield. Some sellers genuinely have absolutely no bloody idea what they’re selling…they just want to get rid of it! You can get some nice bargains here, but be sure to check the descriptions and photos for any signs of damage. Be mindful of…
– Bent, cracked, or otherwise broken nibs.
– Bent filling-levers. This is a sign that someone tried to force the filling-mechanism on a lever-filler. This pen will need to be re-sacced before use.
– Missing parts.
– General quality and condition.
– Operational condition. Does the pen fill and write properly?
Some sellers *know* what they’re selling…and WILL try to rip you off. Best to stay away from folks like this, but if you really want what they’re selling, be mindful of various phrases that might jump out at you. In fact, any person on eBay may use these phrases, and it’s best to know what hidden meaning they contain…
“Fills with water”
That’s nice. But I need a pen, not a teapot. Does it fill with INK? And does it WRITE? Just because a pen fills with water and empties with water is no guarantee that it will work properly. Only ink and a writing-sample will tell you that.
Seller: I’ve NEVER seen one of these before. Don’t let this fool you. Just because it’s advertised as ‘rare’ doesn’t mean it IS rare. If every pen in the world was ‘rare’, you’d never own one.
“Value $500/$1000/$25000. For you? $50″
The pen might be perfectly legitimate, but don’t be fooled. Unless it’s encrusted with diamonds and gold…no fountain pen is worth that kind of money. The ONLY time there might be exceptions to this rule are with limited edition or particularly old pens (when I mean old, I mean at least 90 years).
“12/14/18kt gold nib”.
Most honest pen-sellers or clueless sellers will mention this fact as a matter of common courtesy and habit. Nothing wrong with that. You want to know what you’re buying, and they’re telling you.
Where it becomes a problem is when an unscrupulous seller tells you that the nib is 14kt gold and demands a ‘Buy it Now’ price of $2,500. Gold is expensive, yes…but it’s not THAT expensive. Truth be told, the amount of gold in a nib is worth $15…MAX. Don’t be dragged in by this. They want you to think that this is REALLY SPECIAL…it isn’t. MILLIONS of fountain pens have 14kt gold nibs and it has absolutely NO affect on the value.
Perhaps not by you, the seller, but if it’s a second-hand pen, take for granted that it has been used and that it *may* need some professional attention.
Be careful of sellers who are trying to rip you off by selling FAKE fountain pens. Montblanc is HIGHLY prone to this. Keep a few things in mind…
- Montblanc nibs are 14 or 18kt gold. They do NOT say “IPG” (“Iridium Point, Germany”) on the nibs and they are NOT made of steel. The nibs are 14 or 18kt SOLID GOLD, not gold-plate-on-steel.
- The Montblanc Star should be PERFECTLY centered on the top of the cap. If it isn’t…fake.
- The pen (If fairly new) should have a serial-number electronically engraved onto the clip-band. If not…fake.
- The pretty swirling patterns found on Montblanc nibs is mechanically pressed, not engraved by hand. If the patterning is off-center or rough in appearance or in any way suspicious…fake.
- The word ‘PIX’ should be stamped on the UNDERSIDE of the pocket-clip. If you don’t see a photo proving this fact…advance cautiously. This could be an older pen without this authenticity safeguard on it, or it could be a fake.
- Montblanc pens may have ‘Germany’, ‘Made in Germany’, ‘W. Germany’ or ‘Made in W. Germany’ on them. Older pens up to the early 1990s will have the latter two markings, more modern pens will have the former two. ‘W. Germany’ is WEST GERMANY, where Montblanc was located, before the reunification of Germany after the collapse of the USSR. Some fraudsters will try and trick you and type in stuff like “Made in Gormany” on their boxes and hope you won’t notice (I have seen this, you’d be amazed how stupid people will think you are).
“Pen functions/writes well / Working Condition”
This will generally mean that once you’ve got the pen with you, it should work right away. If doubtful, ask the seller to post a writing-sample or ask him/her how well the pen fills and empties with ink.
As fountain pens are rather something of a niche market, some online pen-sellers may use specific jargon (slang) that you may not be familiar with. Here’s a few of the more common terms.
“BCHR/BHR”. Black (Chased) Hard Rubber. A pen made of Hard Rubber (ebonite) which may or may not have ‘chasing’ on it. Chasing is heat-pressed patterning on the cap and barrel of the pen. Pens of this kind were manufactured from the very earliest days of fountain pens up to the mid 1920s. SOME modern pen-makers (such as Conklin and Bexley) still make pens this way.
Similarily, there is also “RCHR/RHR”, which is Red (Chased) Hard Rubber. Same concept, different colour.
Flex/Flexy/Flexible/Semi-flex/Wet Noodle. Some pen-sellers will use these terms to describe nibs. Flexible-nibbed pens were very popular from the 1880s to the 1930s. It means that the nib will flex (bend) according to the amount of pressure placed on the writing-point. This produces lines of varying thicknesses. Thin (light pressure) or broad (heavy pressure). If you do calligraphy, you might like a pen like this. Flex-nibbed pens are NOT for beginners as they can take a bit of getting used to.
NOS/NIB. New Old Stock and New In Box. This means pens which were once new, but which were never sold commercially and which should still have all their papers and boxes with them. If you’re after particularly nice pens, keep an eye out for those acronyms.
Wet/Dry. A seller’s description might say that a pen writes ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. This relates to amount of ink that the nib lays on the paper. A ‘wet’ pen lays down a liberal amount of ink that may take some time to dry. A ‘dry’ pen lays down ink sparingly, which will mean it dries quicker. If you’re a left-handed writer, a dry-writing pen might be best.
Sprung. A seller selling an imperfect pen might use this term to describe the nib or the clip. A nib or a clip that has been ‘sprung’ is one that has been bent out of its original position. This IS repairable, so don’t freak out!
Sac/Bladder. From about 1900 until the 1950s, the majority of fountain pens filled with rubber or plastic ink-sacs (also called bladders). Over time, these can wear out, ossify (harden up) or simply just lose their elasticity due to overuse. Sacs in this condition must be replaced, fortunately, it’s a relatively simple job that any pen-restorer will be able to do.
Buying Pens at Flea-Markets
No pen shops, prices too high, unhelpful staff, no places nearby to buy pens, can’t buy pens online because you promised your wife/husband/parents that you wouldn’t or you can’t because your cards are maxed out. What now?
If you have one nearby, visit a flea-market, also called a trash-and-treasure market, a bric-a-brac market or a car-boot sale. The folks at places like this often just have a whole heap of junk at home that they want to get rid of or have collections of things that they want to trim down. You can find some amazing bargains here, if you know where, when and how to look. Here are some guidelines about searching for pens at flea-markets.
Turn up EARLY
‘The Early Bird Gets the Worm’ might be a tired and worn-out saying, but in this case…important. Collectors of ANYTHING, from stamps to records to CDs to…fountain pens…swarm around flea-markets like bees around honey. If you expect to find anything of quality and value at the flea-market, you MUST arrive early. If the market opens at six o’clock in the morning and you stroll in casually at nine…go and have breakfast, because you’ve missed the boat. Hardcore treasure-hunters will arrive before the sun’s up to scour through everything like a Victorian mudlark on the River Thames at low tide. Arriving early at the market means that you get FIRST PICK of any and all pens that are to be found there that day.
Bring along a few tools to help make your pen-hunting easier. Essentials include cash in small denominations, a jeweller’s loupe or a magnifying-glass, a small notepad and a bottle of fountain pen ink. If you’re arriving early and it’s dark…bring a decent flashlight/torch along with you as well.
The Hunt is On…
It’s six in the morning, it’s cold enough to freeze the nads off a brass monkey, you’ve got a hundred bucks in $5 notes, a magnifying glass strong enough to read microfilm and a flashlight powerful enough to fry eggs on. What now?
Really…it’s up to luck. First thing’s first. Don’t expect to find anything. Let’s face it…chances are, you may go there every weekend for a month and find nothing, so never get too excited. Secondly, know where and how to look.
Don’t waste your time with stalls or tables at the market which have absolutely nothing to do with pens. Unless of course, you’re looking for a new copy of Dante’s “Inferno” as well as a nice pen. Move quickly from stall to stall and scan everything carefully. Keep an eye out for display-cases, big boxes of crap and tables covered with all kinds of nicknacks. Pens are TINY things and they can hide almost ANYWHERE.
Time must be taken to find them. Knowing the likely places to search is important. Due to their size, people selling pens are likely to put them in glass-lidded display-cases so that they’re easily visible, but they may be buried or obscured by those cheap Mickey Mouse wristwatches, that 1912 Waltham pocket-watch or the collection of raunchy, 1890s postcards. Once you’ve found those display-cases, boxes, stands or cabinets, take your time to examine them thoroughly. The pen of your dreams might be hiding underneath the stack of Playboy magazines next to the shoebox of junk thoughtfully laid on the seller’s table.
Having found a stall or table that sells pens, remain calm and self-controlled. A hint of excitement and the price is likely to shoot up, or it’ll never come down when you want to try and haggle. It’s always best to ask the seller if you can handle his offerings, as some people can be a mite nervous of shoppers snatching stuff and running off with it or breaking it. Once you have the pen in your hands, check for a few things…
- Brand. Is the pen-name one that you recognise? If you want a quality pen with a good reputation, pick one with a reputable brand such as Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Conway-Stewart, Morrison, Wahl, Wahl-Eversharp, Conklin, etc. These were the “First Tier” pens (pens of best quality). Below them were brands such as “Mentmore” which produced mid-ranged “second tier’ pens and then there are ‘third tier’ pens such as Platignum and Summit.
- Quality. Check for damage. Loose cap-rings, bent or loose clips, missing clips, cracks, dings, bite-marks, chips, abrasions, fading, banana-ing (where the pen is bent like a banana), oliving (on BCHR pens where the sun has leeched the black from the pen, leaving it olive green) and any other imperfections.
- Nib. Check the nib for cracks. Make sure the tines of the nib are aligned and that the tipping is whole and intact. A bent nib IS REPAIRABLE, so don’t throw it out if it is. An untipped nib can be re-tipped. A pen with a tine missing *may* be salvagable if the right nib can be found for it (but here, you’re really skating on thin ice). Cheaper pens will have simple, steel nibs. Steer clear of these. There’s a reason nibs were made of gold…they don’t rust. Nibs made of stainless steel, however, are safe to buy.
- Check the filling-system. Chances are, pens that you find at flea-markets are the ones that have been in grandpa’s desk for fifty years. And grandpa died fifty years ago, so nobody’s touched them since then. In most cases, the filling-system will need to be serviced. If the rest of the pen is in good condition, buy it and then send it to a pen-restorer to fix the filler-system.
You’ve found a nice pen. It’s what you want, it’s in good condition (or it may need a bit of fixing) and you want to buy it. You attract the stallholder’s attention and indicate the pen.
Two things can happen here.
One: The price is reasonable, you knock it down a bit, or you pay the full amount, and walk off with the pen. Everybody wins.
Two: The price is massive, by this I mean $150 for a non-functioning 1920s Waterman. There are two main reasons for this high price. AGE and…GOLD.
People frequently believe that because something is really old, it’s automatically incredibly valuable. It isn’t. If it was literally a one-of-a-kind and a hundred years old…then yes. But if it’s one in a million and it’s a hundred years old…no. Rarity makes value, not age.
Similiarly, if the pen-nib is gold, this may prompt the seller to jack up the price. Again, this is unjustified, as I explained earlier, the gold counts for a miniscule amount of the pen’s already rather diminutive value. IF the pen was WORKING and in MINT condition (or at least very good condition), then a high price might be understandable, but if not, then as a rule, don’t bother paying more than $50 for any pen you find at a flea-market. It’s not worth it, otherwise.
Well, that just about wraps it up. Hopefully this guide will help you in finding and selecting your very first fountain pen.