A Beginners guide to buying fountain pens
This is a huge topic and not completely straightforward. Anthony Newman of the website UK Fountain Pens has written an outstanding page on the topic of building a fountain pen collection – it can be accessed HERE. I Just to reassure you, I am not sponsored or funded (except by my own income!) and have no commercial interests, links or ties; therefore if I suggest a pen or supplier, its based simply on my own experience and preferences.
Before you go diving in, its worth setting yourself some ground rules:
1. RESTRAINT: Start your journey with one inexpensive but decent pen and live with it for a few weeks or even months.
You’ll want to get a feel for what you like about this pen, and more importantly what you dislike; understanding this will guide you towards your next purchase and help you to understand your style preferences. Ignore this advice at your peril: a lot of money can be wasted on great pens that you really didn’t think through properly!
2. INK MATTERS: Now you have that elusive first pen, spend some money on a cartridge converter for that pen and a bottle of good quality ink. A cartridge converter allows you to use any ink you fancy, but stick with a quality brand – Waterman, Parker Quink, Diamine, Edelstein are all excellent inks and not expensive.
3. PAPER MATTERS TOO: So, you have a shiny new pen, so fabulous new ink. Go you! Now you need some decent paper too. Cheap paper will ruin your experience and put you off. Oxford Campus A4 is really cheap and great for fountain pens, but you could really push the boat out and get a £5 Rhodia notebook of some kind too. Get advice – its a big topic area!
4. PRACTICE, PRACTICE PRACTICE: Now you’re set to go – what to write about? Take notes in meetings, write shopping lists, journal, sketch, write letters to family and friends – it doesn’t matter, but use that first pen at every chance you get: until you know what it feels like, how it behaves on different papers and at different angles, different pressures and speeds: get to now it, get to know yourself. That way you’ll make better decisions later!
5. NEVER SPEND MORE THAN YOU CAN AFFORD: Many a person has blown their budget on a £500 Montblanc, only to realise they don’t like fountain pens for some reason (really!) and the pen lies dormant in a draw forever more. Don’t make this mistake; spend what you can afford & no more and avoid a huge splash with your first pen, unless you have had a lot of advice and independent advice.
Your first fountain pen
So, you’re ready for that first (or maybe second) pen. You’ve read the ground rules and now you need to know: which pen? The world of fountain pens is incredibly crowded with 100’s of pens calling for your attention, and at the time of writing, COVID-19 measures now making it difficult to test things out. Here follow a few sensible options.
First up: keep it simple; avoid complex filling mechanisms, unusual nib grinds and for most people, probably steer clear of vintage pens. If starting out, go for a medium or a fine nib and there is no need for gold – you as likely as not won’t notice or appreciate the difference in the experience, and your wallet will thank you!
As far as I see it there are 2 broad choices and to some extent it comes down to money and style, even at this (hopefully) inexpensive stage.
Option 1- Go East:
Brands such as Jinhao, Wingsun and Hongdian all sell perfectly decent pens often for under £5 – via Amazon or Aliexpress. I’d add to this list, for a few pounds more, PenBBS to the list too. Suggestions in this category could include:
Jinhao 75 or x450
Wingsun 3003 or 3008
All are great pens for tiny money and will keep you going for a while. They tend to have good steel nibs and can be used, abused and then passed on / given away / thrown away if the time comes. These are all easily available online will barely dent your wallet and give you a strong starting point. You can also deliberately take these pens apart and rebuild to learn the “anatomy” of a fountain pen – useful when starting out. Beware if going this route of the many “fake” branded pens out there: Lamy, Parker, Waterman, Montblanc and more are all often copied and rarely equalled at the lost price point!
If you prefer to buy from the UK, take a look at PurePens who have Jinhao, or Cult Pens . Both also sell TWSBI – who make outstanding pens, albeit at higher price point of around £20-30. The ECO range in particular are (almost literally) bombproof, come with truly excellent steel nibs, hold a ton of ink and are fully user serviceable; although priced in starter pen category, these pens are a staple of many a collection and come in a great array of colours & nib choices.
Finally, you would be well advised to look at entry level models from Pilot & Platinium. These Japanese brands have long heritage, make precision pens that last well and guarantee a great writing experience. Platinum Preppy or Prefonte can both be had in a range of colours for under £10 and will serve you well as daily writers although you are more limited on choices of nib width. For slightly more money, a Pilot MR Metropolitan will likely outlive you and is a great pen for a (relatively) low cost.
My vote: its personal, but for me the extra price of a TWSBI is totally worth it and they are just incredibly reliable, with great nibs, huge piston filler capacity and a fantastic range of colours. If my budget was really limited, then a Jinhao or a Platinum Preppy would be my first choice.
Option 2 – Go West:
In the European / US market, there are fewer very cheap pens available, however there there is usually a little more quality control than some of the Chinese brand pens out there. In this category you’re looking at £15 upwards typically. Most pens in this category will be well made, with good choices of different styles, colours, sizes and shapes – probably even a little more variety than in the Asia-Pacific ranges. As a result, these pens are the heart of many a collection and lots of people simply swear by and even have quite a fanatical following, collecting every colour and style of certain ranges! In some ways, I think that as a result, these are “better” options than some of the Chinese pens mentioned above; choose wisely and the pens in the list below will likely never leave your collection and will serve you loyally for years to come! The go to brands for most would include: Lamy, Parker & Kaweco, though an honourable mention would also go to Faber-Castell who make really great steel nib pens. Suggestions in this category could include:
Lamy Safari or AL Star – which have a huge following, a massive range of colours and fantastically smooth nibs.
Kaweco Sport – these are small and compact, but again a huge range and wonderful nibs from EF to BB.
Parker Jotter or Vector – classic school pens virtually indestructible. Perhaps less flamboyant than the two options above.
My Vote: Its a close call, but some don’t like the style of the Lamy section with its triangular grip… I am one of them, so for me it’d be a Kaweco Sport every time – lovely nibs, and pocket size!
So there you go. Thats my thoughts on your first pen. Jinhao, TWSBI, Lamy or Kaweco – you should have some good options here to get you started at every budget and taste. Of course it goes without saying, remember that when you receive your new pen, to get the basics right: don’t press hard on the nib and don’t grip tight; it should not be needed and will damage the pen, as well as prevent you from getting the best out of your lovely new acquisition! Always take care when putting the pen down on a flat surface… the anguish of your first damaged nib from a pen rolling off the table is long remembered! Finally, if you’re not using it for a few minutes, put the cap back on, and if not using it for week, then give it a good clean and flush through so it doesn’t gunk up. But ideally, make friends with your pen – use it every day, as often as you can until you have a great feel for it!
OK. Maybe you’ve followed my advice and had that one good starter pen for a few weeks or months, probably you’ve ignored most of it and have a bunch of pens and feel a bit confused! My best piece of advice now is:
DO NOT BUY AN EXPENSIVE PEN…YET!
Instead, explore different inks and and maybe try a couple more less expensive pens of different styles.
Perhaps try a Jinhao if you started with a Lamy or vice – versa: give yourself some range to really understand what you like and enjoy using. Maybe try a different nib size too – again some nibs work for some and not others – I don’t especially enjoy broad nibs for example as my handwriting typically falls on the small size so is lost in a B or BB nib.
As before – spend time with new pen and nib combos and only then consider more expensive pens. As you get to know your tastes & style, you’ll inevitably want to do some homework as well – go to a pen meet local to you, go to a Pen Show, go on Fountain Pen Network, FPGeeks, one of the myriad Facebook groups, Instagram and so on, and get advice and ideas.
And always if you’re going for a significant purchase, try before you buy. If you can’t make it to a face to face shop, have a look at www.pensharing.com where you can rent any one of thousands of pens ranging from ultra-expensive to super cheap to get a feel for what you like!
A few other thoughts that I have learned as I go along:
- Its OK not to like a brand that everyone raves about. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like a specific pen or brand as people are so varied in their preferences, ways they hold pens, what they write for, hand size etc. With social media bombarding us its easy to fall for the hype and end up with pens you spend big money on and never use. For example at the extreme end, I own a £2000 ASC Bologna Arco Extra in Verde with 18kt Magiflex nib. A gloriously made pen, that is too big, too heavy and too pretentious for me, and now I am struggling to sell it! I feel for the hype when some folks posted about this pen on Instagram, committed crazy money to the purchase and now hardly use it – it just isn’t right for me, in the end!
- Always keep the boxes, packaging and receipts for your pens, in good condition – they help protect the value of your pens when you come to sell some (which inevitably you will).
- Be ruthless about selling pens. There’s no point in keeping a pen you never reach for. Let someone else enjoy it! This can also fund your next exciting purchase – which we all know is coming!
- Finally; have fun & never spend above your means. A £500 pen is a wonderful thing, but not if you have to max out a credit card that you can’t pay off. But mostly, have fun on this journey and make it your own!
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to get in touch with me via my “Work with Me” page in the top menu.
Last Update: Oct 2021