How do I buy a fountain pen (a primer on buying)?
FAQ 20.0 - 20.6 by Burt Janz
  Article # 238 Article Type: FAQ


20.0 How do I buy a fountain pen (a primer on buying)?

Let's assume you've asked this question with the intent of purchasing a pen to use, not as an investment. I'll discuss some of the basic things that I do when I look for a pen that I intend to use on a day- by-day basis, and I'll concentrate on the basics. Most of what I'll discuss here works just as well for both new and vintage pens

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll work this as a tutorial rather than as a documentary, and keep it simple so you can my approach as easily at your local Staples/OfficeMax as at a "real" pen shop (like Fountain Pen Hospital, Bromfield, Joon, etc.). The idea here is to get you comfortable with the concept of shopping for a pen.

Shopping for a pen? Well, do you buy shoes without trying them on? Without lacing them up? Sight unseen from a closed box? Why, then, would you do the same with a pen? Shopping for that "perfect pen" should be a fun experience, and you'll probably enjoy it once you relax and actually do it.

First, some things to bring with you to a pen shop. I usually bring a small vial of water, in case the proprietor doesn't want me to "dip" the pen (more on that later). That way, you can examine the filling mechanism without contaminating the ink path with a colored fluid. Yes, some shops might object to this - simply explain that it's plain water, and you'd be happy to use theirs, and that you're just checking the ink filling mechanism for leaks and such. Many store owners won't have a problem with water, but some will.

Next, bring a 3x or better magnifying glass (I prefer 8x or better) and a light source. If the shop has good lighting or a window with good sun, that should be enough. The loupe (technical name for the magnifying glass) should be easy for you to use with one hand, leaving you with a completely free hand to examine the pen.

Bring a sample of the paper that you intend to use on a day-to-day basis. I use a Day-Timer, and I've found that their note paper is quite good for test purposes. It is very smooth and has few fibers that will get caught in an extra-fine nib. It isn't great quality paper, but it's very good for testing a pen.

I don't believe that copier paper is good for testing, because it is far too absorbent and tends to cause the pen to "feather" when writing. Others may disagree, but I'd suggest bringing a good quality paper - the same one you'll use for your normal everyday use - for testing pens.

Lastly, keep in mind that different inks have different formulations, and that different inks work differently on different papers. Yeah, it's a real trick finding a good combination of ink and paper...

20.1 Choices, choices...

First, find a pen that fits within your budget. Yes, it's nice to play around with the expensive pens, but find one that you can afford first. Concentrate on it for now - you can always play later. Also, if you pick the expensive pen first, spend all of your available time playing with it, and never buy anything, you might annoy the shop owner, and that's someone you want on your good side, just in case.

Look around the shop. Check out the different pen designs, styles, manufacturers, colors, materials, and prices. Some shops will post the price of pens, and others will make you ask. But, you're a pretty intelligent person - you can probably tell which pens are more expensive and which are less expensive by where the pens are displayed. For instance, a Montblanc in that special kiosk is probably more expensive than that Lamy in the ordinary glass display case over there.

Once you've decided on at least 3 pens, it's time to begin.

20.2 Specifying the pen to look at

Once you've obtained the attention of the salesperson (politely, of course), indicate which pens you'd like to examine. Start with medium nibs - you can always go smaller or larger, and pen stores almost always have medium nibs in stock (it's the right-hand oblique super flexible nibs that tend to be harder to find in-stock right there in the store).

The salesperson will probably lead you to a table or counter top and bring the pen(s) over to you. Don't be afraid to ask about the price, discounts, and sales warranties provided by the shop. Most better pen shops will be glad to price the pen(s) for you right there, and will also be happy to help you with the pen(s) after the sale.

20.3 Examining the pen

Take one pen in your hand as if you would be writing with it but don't uncap it just yet. Does the weight feel right? Is it too light? Too heavy? Do you like the color contrast against your hand? Does the shape please you now that you're holding it? Does it feel comfortable in your hand? Does it "feel" like it's well made?

Ok, let's say that you feel good about the pen.
Now, uncap the pen and place the cap down (gently - it isn't your pen... yet!) Again, test the weight and balance of the pen. Does it feel ok? Do you like the design of the nib and section? If the cap screws on, are your fingers on the threads when you write? Wave your hand in the air as if you were writing. Does the pen feel balanced?

Pick up the cap and gently (GENTLY!!!) "post" the cap onto the barrel (put the cap on the end of the barrel). Does the weight and balance of the pen feel the same? Better? Worse?

Ok, so now you like the balance of the pen, either with or without the cap posted on the end of the barrel.

Look closely at the pen, starting with the nib. Is the tine separation (that crack on the shiny thing) centered above the feed (the black thing that the shiny thing seems to be attached to)? Do you like the design of the nib? Is the filling mechanism satisfactory? When you unscrew the barrel to look at the converter, do pieces of plastic fall out? Does the section unscrew cleanly, easily, and smoothly? Does the converter look new and clean? Does the material smell funny?

20.4 To dip or not to dip?

In general, the better "real" pen stores will allow you to test a pen by "dipping". What is dipping? It's exactly what it sounds like: the salesperson will dip the nib into some ink and hand you the pen to test. You can then try writing with the pen. This will allow you to actually feel what that pen feels like when you try it. Write a few sentences with it. Test the nib's flexibility. Write with different hand pressures. Feel the nib. See whether the weight of the pen feels right in your hand.

Then, be brave, gather up your courage, and ask, "May I dip this?" It's possible (and very probable) that the sales person will say "Sure!" and reach for a bottle of ink. The ink that is used varies from store to store, so don't be afraid to ask for Sheaffer if they hand you a bottle of Omas.

I've even dipped at Staples. They need to have it explained to them, but every Staples (and OfficeMax) that I've gone to has been happy to get a bottle of ink and allow me to dip a pen. I actually got one of my better (and cheaper) Waterman pens that way. The OfficeMax salesperson was totally lost (I'm sure that I'm the first person that ever did this in front of her), but let me dip it by myself.

Either you or the sales person will dip the nib partway into the bottle of ink. This will provide the nib and feed with just enough ink to do some writing. Remember, surface tension and capillary action will cause the ink to be "sucked up" into the feed without your doing anything.

Now, gently... very gently... try a few strokes on the paper, either the store's test pad or your own paper. Write a few words. I use a ribbon-sweep looping line (kind of like connected "figure 8's") to see how the nib flexes in different directions. Then, I'll print the name of the pen, the name of the store, and other things. I typically write my comments about the pen with the pen, because I might not buy that pen but I might want to remember what I thought about it. Of course, I take the test paper with me when I leave.

Write some more with the pen. Don't get wild with it. Just use it the way you would use it every day. After you've written a bit, cap the pen and hold it in your hand. Then, uncap it and write some more. See how it would feel to actually use the pen on a day-to-day basis.

You may need some more ink for this testing. Ask!!! Don't just shove the pen into the ink. The sales person doesn't know you... yet. Be polite, and try writing some more. If the nib is a bit scratchy, ask the sales person if you can dip a different pen. There might just be another one out that you might be able to try.

Finally, ask the salesperson if you could rinse out the pen. If you get the OK, swish the pen around in a small glass of water (not your vial) without using the converter to pump ink in and out of the pen. Otherwise, watch the sales person rinse out the pen. It'll give you a good idea how they respect their merchandise before the sale (and that's always a good indicator of how they've respected the merchandise before you walked in the door).

Think about how the pen felt when you wrote with it, and remember that the pen that you are testing may behave very differently from a brand new one that comes out of the box and has never been "inked" in any way. So, if you like the pen you are dipping, and it feels right, and the store will give you a full warranty and exchange if you find a defect, buy that one. I have, more often than not, purchased the pen that I have dipped rather than a new one from the shelf. After all, I'm going to write with it anyway, so at least I know how it writes before I buy it.

20.5 A closer look

Ok, so you've given the pen a quick once-over and you like what you see. You've had a chance to dip it and like the way it writes. Now is the time to give the pen a really close look.

Take the loupe and examine the tip of the nib itself. Check for a misshapen iridium tip - not one that is symmetrically oval, or has some other clean geometrical shape. Look for iridium which is deformed or wrongly shaped on the tip, or for the tip of one tine to be larger than the other, or for burrs along the crevice between the tines. Spend your time and really examine the nib -- the more time you spend now, the less time (and trouble) you may have later.

I have seen horrible burrs and poorly tipped pens in the best pen shops. The sales persons are not at fault - the manufacturers are. Some new pens are so badly manufactured that you actually have to spend time fixing them before you can use them for the first time! Yes, I've been there. Why? I really wanted the pens!

If you're happy with the nib, work your way behind the nib and examine the feed. Use the loupe and plenty of light, and reflect light off the feed. If it really shines, it's plastic. If it seems to be dully reflective, it may be ebonite.

Ebonite is the "feed of champions", and is generally regarded as the best material for transporting ink from the sac (or other reservoir) to the nib. Ink flows evenly across the surface, and tends to lay flat on it. As a chemist friend of mine put it, ebonite has "more tooth" than pure plastic, and hence has more places for a thin liquid to settle. It's simply a property of the material itself.

Plastic feeds may have a coating on them which attempts to assist ink flow. These coatings help mitigate the problem with pure plastic feeds: ink simply doesn't flow evenly across untreated plastic. It's a basic property of the material: ever notice how water tends to "bead up" on a plastic surface more readily than it does on a rubber surface? Same thing: ebonite is rubber with sulfur added. I've evaluated (and even own) pens with plastic feeds which feed ink improperly or unevenly into the nib. I tend to stay away from plastic and look for ebonite in higher-end pens.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

If you aren't sure which material the feed is made from, ask the sales person.

Look at the lip of the cap. Are there any stress cracks? If the pen is made of plastic, are the injection mold marks still there, or were they cleaned off? Is the pen's body round (if it is supposed to be), or does it seem to be off-round? If the pen is made of metal, is there any "brassing" of the components, or is there any tarnish on the silver?

After a thorough physical exam (which you probably wouldn't pass), you're finally satisfied that this pen meets your specifications.

20.6 Making the purchase

Ok, so now you've examined one pen. Go through the same exercises for the other pen(s) you have your eyes on. Spend the same amount of time on every pen, since every pen you finally purchase will be going through the same abuse as every other pen you already own.

Eventually you'll narrow down your selection to one or two pens. Now is the time to ask the sales person if you can fill the pen with water to check the feed for leaks. It's quite possible that you'll get a "no" answer. If you do, ask what the store will do for you if there is a leak in the feed path. The better pen stores will swap the pen for you,. but others will tell you to send it back to the manufacturer for repair. It's your choice. If you really, really like the pen and are willing to take the risk of sending it back via mule-train to Upper Lower Slobovia for repair, go ahead and make the purchase. Me? I'd rather not buy a pen at a store that doesn't stand behind its merchandise. Pens are expensive enough - I'd rather not take that risk on top of the purchase.

However, there appears to be one consistent policy: once inked, few stores will actually refund your money. That's why they allow dipping: it's a way for the buyer to test the writing capability of the pen without contaminating the rest of the ink path with ink. The better stores will swap out the entire section for you, but you'll still own the pen. But, you wanted that pen anyway, so you'll probably be OK with that - I am.

Finally, get a good ink to take home with you. I used to use Sheaffer Black for almost everything, but lately I've been using Waterman blue-black. Along with your pen, buy a bottle (or two) of good ink to use. If you want to experiment with different colors, go ahead.

If you don't find the color you want, mixing some colors together to "cook your own" shouldn't hurt a thing. Just be careful about it: not all manufacturers make inks that mix with other manufacturers inks. When you do your mixing, use a clean bottle and let the mixture sit for a day or so. If the mixture looks very odd or doesn't "feel right", it's safe to assume that you shouldn't use it in your pen.

Have fun with your new pen! Go forth and write!

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