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Fountain Pen vs. Gel Ink Pen
Measure for measure!
from the fountain pen of Robert Leone


This article was originally written for an all-ages pen pal 'zine called "Cool World," published quarterly. This will, I hope, explain the plain language I use in this article. It also explains the perspective of this article. I wasn't writing it exclusively for fountain pen users. I was writing it for pen pallers, who may be far more familiar with gel pens than with fountain pens.

Those with keen observational skills will note I forgot the Sheaffer "Cartridge" comes with two refills. Piston-filler and converter users who would like to conduct similar comparisons with their pens are advised the Sheaffer service people told me one of their cartridges contains about a milliliter (one ml, or one cubic centimeter) of ink. If you want subscription information for "Cool World," or have any questions about this article, please e-mail me, Robert Leone, at rleone@hotmail.com. I am also on the January 31st, 2001 snailmail list.

Cool World: Spotlight on Stationery
(Note: This article would not have been possible without the wisdom of my high
school chemistry teacher, Mr. Gault, who constantly said "Let the units work
the problem.")

Fountain Pen vs. Gel Ink Pen

I've long thought fountain pens were more economical and environmentally friendly than the new Gel ink pens. I wanted to prove this, so I ran a head-to-head pen test in October.

For my sample fountain pen I chose a Sheaffer "Cartridge" fountain pen. This pen is probably the most widely available fountain pen in the U.S. It's also inexpensive: I've seen them priced from $3.49 at a university student co-op to $4.79 (Long's Drugs). The "Cartridge" is currently made with a transparent body, which aids in checking ink levels. The refill cartridges are also widely available, as fountain pen cartridges go, with prices from $1.46 to $1.99 for a box of five cartridges.The gel ink pen for this text was a Sanford Uni-Gel Stick Pen. This refillable gel pen is priced at $1.49 in the Office Depot catalog. It too has a clear barrel. I chose this pen for several reasons: It is refillable and widely available.Refills are $2.89 for two. Long's Drugs didn't have the specific refill from Sanford for this pen, but DID have a two-refill pack from Eversharp, for $1.79, that could be converted to fit a wide range of refillable gel ink pens. I did not test these refills.Both pens used in this test had "medium" points or nibs.

The test: I was writing a letter to a pen pal who lives abroad. I used Eaton Air Mail Paper, monarch sized (7 1/4 " by 10 3/8 inch), both sides, with a very fine grid (14 lines every three inches) as a guide. I wrote one page with the Uni-Gel pen, one page with the Cartridge pen, then another page with the Uni-Gel and another page with the Cartridge.The refill in the Uni-Gel pen contains 90 mm of ink. Each page written decreased the Uni-Gel's ink level by 5 mm. Division indicates a refill from the Sanford Uni-Gel has eighteen test pages in it.The Cartridge pen's level declined by about 2 mm after the first page, and by 5 mm after both pages. The Sheaffer cartridge's ink space is 50 mm. Sheaffer cartridges usually have about 2 mm to 5 mm of empty space in them before they are installed. Assuming an average use of 2.5 mm for each test page, and subtractingthe UPPER range of the airspace in a fresh cartridge (5 mm) gives a yield of eighteen pages per cartridge.So, in terms of writing life, one Sheaffer Skrip Cartridge1 is equivalent to one Sanford Uni-Gel medium point refill. What about the ecological and economic comparison?

Ecology should come first! The Sheaffer cartridge, when empty, is a transparent plastic cylinder with a small hole at one end and a thin foam of ink on the inside. The Sanford Uni-Gel refill is an open-ended transparent plastic tube with one open end, a layer of clear gel that capped the 90 mm of ink, a solid plastic feed section and a metal point. Throwing the Sanford refill away involves more material, and more different kinds of material. Further, a friend reports success in reusing fountain pen cartridges, refilling them from a bottle! The Uni-Gel refill does not seem to be refillable.Now it's time for the economics. The cost of the ink for a test page from the fountain pen is $1.99 per refill pack divided by (18 pages per cartridge times 5 cartridges per refill pack). That comes to 2.2 cents per page. The price per page for the Uni-Gel refill is $2.89 per refill pack divided by (18 pages per refill times 2 refills per refill pack). That's 8 cents per page for the Uni-Gel.

It costs 5.8 cents less to write a page with the fountain pen than with the gel pen. However, the initial purchase price of the Sheaffer Cartridge fountain pen is higher. The "break even" point, where the real cost of writing with that fountain pen is as expensive as with the gel pen is ($4.79 per Sheaffer pen minus $1.49 per Sanford Uni-Gel Stick Pen) divided by (8 cents per page minus 2.2 cents per page). That's 57 pages.If you write lots of long letters, the Sheaffer Cartridge pen will save you money compared to the Sanford Uni-Gel Stick Pen.

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