basic fountain pens 1: beginner’s guide

Wella - a friend from college who turned 27 some weeks ago (*wink*) - asked me to write an introduction to fountain pens as she is thinking of getting into them as well. While I don’t feel qualified to write a definitive and comprehensive beginner’s guide about this interesting and complex topic, I can at least share my personal experiences.

To begin with, as a writer and aesthete of sorts, I’ve always been fascinated by things that make marks on paper - all sorts of writing instruments, typewriters, brushes, seals and rubber stamps – and the things that make the marks – ink, paint, seal paste, and so on.

Over the years, I became more interested in vintage and antique things over modern things because of the historical  and aesthetic aspects. I find a fountain pen with its gleaming, pointed nib more visually appealing than a ballpoint pen, and found my interest concentrating on FPs.

Fountain Pens in the Philippines

However, in the Philippines, where I live, there isn’t much of a fountain pen culture. According to older folks who are now in their mid-50′s and older, usage of FPs was prevalent in schools until they were in high school, when ballpoints became cheaper and more readily available.

A 62-year old friend of mine told me of he and his elementary schoolmates stabbing the nibs of their Parkers and Sheaffers into their desks when they were bored. They eagerly embraced BP use later on as FPs, he said, “leaked, and my mom would get mad when I’d come home with ink stains all over my uniform.” (Apparently he never figured out that if he didn’t have the habit of stabbing his pen nibs into desks, perhaps his pens wouldn’t leak.)

FPs were also de riguer in some Philippine law schools and in some accountancy programs until perhaps fifteen years ago, though there are still a few law schools today, like Far Eastern University, that recommend FPs to their students.

Still, in the mainstream, few Filipinos have even heard of FPs, much less used them. I first learned of FPs as a child through reading and movies; I don’t recall actually seeing an FP being used by anyone in my family.

In college, I finally got myself an inexpensive Parker Jotter from National Bookstore. All I did was go to the pen section, browse, and get something I could afford.

But it wasn’t until a couple of years back that my interest really grew, when the choices of affordable FP brands available in readily accessible malls and chain bookstore expanded. Fully Booked began carrying Inoxcrom pens; they were made of plastic with steel nibs, and had colorful and attractive graphics.

The pink pens are Inoxcrom from the Jordi Labanda line; the red FP is a Pilot 78G and one of the best starter pens ever, available online for about $12. All three have steel nibs.

Enter the power of the Internet. After blogging about the demise of one of my early Inoxcrom Jordi Labandas, I received an email from University of the Philippines professor Dr. Butch Dalisay inviting me to a gathering of FP collectors at his home, the first such meeting ever.

Upon meeting other collectors, I was exposed to more brands, kinds of nibs, modern and vintage pens, and a wide assortment of ink. The more I learned about FPs, the more I wanted to collect, and because of my newfound knowledge, I was able to discover what I really wanted, which are vintage pens, mainly 1930s Sheaffers and Parkers; pens with flexible nibs, whether vintage or modern; and Japanese pens.

DSC_8426

Vintage Sheaffer Balances. All are from the 1930s except the red Tuckaway in the center. I love ’30s pens for their Art Deco design, flexible and responsive nibs, and lovely celluloid barrels.

Fountain Pen Facts

You need to know that:

1. FPs differ from BPs in that they have nibs. The nibs come in a wide variety of types. Referring to the width of the line they lay down, there are the extra-fine (EF or XF), fine (F), medium (M), and broad (B) nibs. Some brands such as Pelikan carry double-broad and triple-broad nibs. The nibs of Japanese brands such as Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum tend to be ”one size smaller” – their M is a Western F, their XF a Western XXF, and so on.

Nibs come in gold, steel, and other metal alloys and are generally pointed in shape and have a ball of iridium on the tip for strength. But there are other shapes. Stubs are nibs with the iridium gone because the shape of the tip is flat across. Italics are pretty much the same but with sharper edges; they are used mainly for calligraphy. Obliques are cut at an angle.

Nibs may also differ as to whether they are flexible, semi-flexible, or firm. Modern nibs are usually very firm – “nails”, in collector parlance – since users most likely will have grown up as members of the BP generation. Some modern nibs are flexible – pens from Nakaya and Danitrio, and Pilot’s Falcon nib come to mind.

Semi-flex nibs give a bit of line variation – examples are the Pelikan M1000 and the Sailor Professional Gear -  but the best results in that regard may be had from true flex nibs. Many vintage pens, especially those from the ’40s and earlier, have flexible nibs because they were often made of 14K gold, and gold nibs tend to be more flexible than steel. In addition, antique pens were designed to flex to accommodate use of the Spencerian and Copperplate styles of handwriting.

DSC_8440

Two of my favorite flexy pens – a Moore vest pen, and a Sheaffer black hard rubber ringtop, meant to be worn by ladies around their neck on a chain. Notice the line variation with the Sheaffer.

2. FPs, unlike BPs, are refillable with ink from a bottle. For green advocates, they are a better choice as they are not disposable. Modern fill systems use a cartridge - a plastic tube pre-filled with ink is snapped inside the pen – or converter - also a plastic tube but with a twister-thingy that allows you to draw ink up through the nib. A converter is better since it is re-used over and over, but a cartridge can also be refilled using a syringe. Vintage pens have a variety of filling systems ranging from lever-fill, button-fill, etc. Stick to c/c (cartridge-converter) pens at the start for less mess.

Collecting Fountain Pens

If you would like to start a collection of fountain pens, you might want to:

1. Ask friends or family for their old fountain pens. Chances are there are pens gathering dust in some drawer or box somewhere, and your relatives and friends will only be too glad to pass them on to you.

2. Check out the fountain pens for sale at office supply stores. In the Philippines, try:

a) National Bookstore for the Parker Jotter, Vector, and other models that might catch your fancy. They also carry Aurora, Waterman, Inoxcrom, Cross, and Rotring. Inoxcrom make the most affordable kinds – plastic cartridge-fill pens suitable for children, or for anyone looking for a sturdy daily road warrior.

b) Luis Pen Store is the only fountain pen store in the country. Established in the late 1940s, it’s still near its original location on Escolta Avenue, Manila, near Sta. Cruz Church. There you’ll find NOS Parkers, Sheaffers, and Pilots from the ’70s, as well as newer models of those brands and Cross and Mont Blanc. They also do FP repair, do engraving, and sell Parker Quink ink.

c) Office Warehouse has cheap and fun Schneiders – the Zippi and other models.

d) Fully Booked carries Inoxcrom.

e) Office supplies stores in Recto, near the university belt, carry NOS (new old stock) Pilot Japanese pens from the ’70s – terrific buys for their reliability and beauty, and the antique factor as well. You might also find Lamy pens.

Try checking fountain pen sellers online for modern pens, and eBay for vintage pens.

DSC_8430

Three 1940s Parker Vacumatics with their pretty striped celluloid barrels; a Parker 51, iconic for its hooded nib; a Parker 45; a (restored) Parker 75 Milleraies, the pen that started my collection; a Parkette; a red Esterbrook; and a gold Wahl set of refillable pencil and fountain pen.

3. Research online about fountain pens and join collectors’ forums. Wiki has this informative article on fountain pens. Check out Fountain Pen Network and join the Fountain Pen Network Philippines Yahoo! groups. For more information and pictures, visit Leigh Reyes’ blog, My Life as a Verb; Thomas Overfield’s Bleubug; and Dr. Butch Dalisay’s Pinoy Penman.

Getting Started

Getting started is easy. Just go to your favorite pen place and get the pen that you like best that you can afford.

I’d suggest you start with something inexpensive  – say, a cartridge-fill Parker Jotter or Vector with a steel nib – to get used to the nib and the way it lays ink on paper, which is different from the way you’d use a BP. FPs need very little pressure to lay a dark line (this is assuming you are using dark ink), whereas for BPs, you have to press hard to achieve  a darker line, making FPs terrific for writing for extended periods. In addition, FPs don’t score the back and succeeding pages of your notebook, unlike BPs.

You also need to find out what width of nib you prefer – F, M, or B? Get an inexpensive one of each kind, or try them out in the store first before buying. Testing an FP is done by “dipping” – dip the nib for a few seconds in ink, and doodle on paper.

DSC_8427

A Lady Sheaffer from the ’70s; various Pilots, including a Pilot E Script pen, a Pilot 77 from Luis Store in Escolta, a teal Pilot from Recto, and a red Pilot 78G from Shanghai; an orange Sailor Professional Gear Colors; and Japanese long-shorts from the ’70s – a Sailor, a Pilot, and a Platinum.

Don’t forget to buy bottled ink! Available in Manila are Parker Quink, Waterman, and Aurora inks (at National Bookstore). Online, look for J. Herbin, Private Reserve, Noodler’s, Diamine, Caran d’Ache, and Pilot, especially their Iroshizuku line.

And as you become more enamoured of using FPs, you’ll also need to look for “fountain-pen friendly paper”. (Fully Booked has a nice assortment of Moleskine, Paper Blanks, Grand Luxe, and Miquelrius. For local brands, Corona and Cattleya are great – smooth paper, won’t snag your nib, no ink feathering.) Happy hunting!

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40 Comments on basic fountain pens 1: beginner’s guide

  1. TAO
    29 March 2009 at 2:07 pm (3181 days ago)

    That’s a great primer on fountain pens! Good observations and advice of which 90% of is applicable to any country. Such practical information would certainly have helped me when I started collecting pens in the Cretaceous period! I’m not sure my blog is all that informative since it doesn’t have the huge backlog of information as the others, but thanks for the plug!

  2. Jenny
    30 March 2009 at 2:34 am (3180 days ago)

    Thanks, TAO! Your kind words are much appreciated. :)

  3. Raffy
    30 March 2009 at 3:38 pm (3180 days ago)

    Oh how I love your Tucky:)

  4. Caloy
    31 March 2009 at 4:22 am (3179 days ago)

    Jenny,

    Fantastic piece… Very good writing….

  5. Jenny
    31 March 2009 at 7:54 am (3179 days ago)

    @ Raffy: yes, the Tucky is cute. Sheaffer used to make cute pens.

    @ Caloy: thanks very much! :)

  6. Kurt
    31 March 2009 at 8:55 am (3179 days ago)

    This should be published! (If it has, then it should be published AGAIN)

    Superb writing Jenny!

  7. wella
    7 April 2009 at 12:43 am (3172 days ago)

    Jenny, I really appreciate the primer. You’ve gotten me excited about purchasing my first REAL fountain pen. (The one I bought in college at National Book Store for fifty pesos was a fountain pen, but…) Sadly, the stationary store in my part of town closed down due to the bad economy and I’ll have to make a trip to San Francisco, but I’m looking forward to making a day of it.

    Please also post more photos of handwriting samples with the pens and their description. It’s a very cool way of seeing what different nibs can do. I already know I’m a medium. :-)

  8. Brian
    8 April 2009 at 1:45 am (3171 days ago)

    Excellent article, and awesome website.

    I have been “into” FPs for five or so years, but have just within the past year discovered flex nibs. Although I only have two vintage eyedroppers, I love writing with flex nibs, and it has almost ruined my appreciation for all my other “nails”!

    Here’s a sample of my writing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOQ30FlIHyU

    Between your blog, Leigh Reyes’ blog, and Antonios Z’s, I am one happy camper!

  9. Jenny
    8 April 2009 at 4:27 am (3171 days ago)

    @Kurt: thanks much! :)

    @Wella: glad you liked the article, I wrote it for you. ((hugs)) For handwriting samples, the best place you can go to is my friend Leigh Reyes’ blog, http://leighreyes.com/blog. I acquired several pens from her and she has taught me nearly everything I know about FPs, besides providing inspiration for collecting and calligraphy. :) Do let me know when you buy a pen! :)

    @Brian: thanks for your kind words. Love your writing sample, thanks for sending the link! :)

  10. Peter
    18 April 2009 at 11:31 pm (3160 days ago)

    Great beginners guide, very good writing. It’s always great to see articles encouraging fountain pen use. I’ve been using and collecting fountain pens for nearly 20 years and always recommend them to anyone willing to listen to me.

    Keep up the great articles.

  11. Macky
    24 May 2009 at 1:34 am (3125 days ago)

    Very nice piece (I meant the article but the pens are very nice too)jenny. Just chanced upon the blog while googling.
    Best regards, Macky

  12. Nestor
    9 June 2009 at 9:56 am (3109 days ago)

    Very nice article Jenny. BTW – how do you like the Sailor Professional Gear? Is this the same size as say the Pelikan m800? I’m asking these questions because I’m thinking of making another (irrational) purchase.

    Cheers – nestor

  13. piliPENas
    2 September 2009 at 11:58 pm (3023 days ago)

    hi jenny,
    a nice and inspirational article for a start up FP collectors.
    keep it up
    cheers

  14. Risa
    26 November 2009 at 12:24 pm (2939 days ago)

    Hi Jenny,

    I hooked up to your blog in my search for fountain pen information on the net. I was really floored that: (1) there is a fountain pen collector’s group in the Philippines (!); (2) there is a whole myriad of stuff out there in terms of ink and nibs (ooohhh, those inks are divine! I only ever knew about Quink); (3) last but not the least, there is this perfect suberb instrument called a flexible music nib.

    Thanks for the intro!

  15. Munch
    28 November 2009 at 1:48 am (2937 days ago)

    Hi!!! I really enjoyed your article. :] I was wondering if you know a specific shop that sold Lamy FP’s ? I’m new to the world of fountain pens and I’ve read very positive reviews on the Lamy. But what kind of FP would you suggest that I buy?

  16. Diane
    26 February 2010 at 3:48 pm (2847 days ago)

    Hi! I find your blog an easy read for those who want to start using fountain pens.

    I have a question. What is a good semi-flex fountain pen here in Manila and where can I obtain it? How much is the price range.

    I really do hope you can answer my question.

    I got the Inoxcrom Agatha Ruiz Dela Prada just to get a feel of writing using with an FP. But I do feel that they are stiff. (I’m a bit used to felt tip pens so that may be a reason)

    I really hope to obtain a semi flex first before I jump flexi all the way.

    Thanks

  17. Arnie
    4 March 2010 at 12:05 pm (2841 days ago)

    Gives me a warm feeling to know that there are still FP-oriented people about, even in the Philippines.
    I have a question you may have an answer to. I’ve received a NOS Chinese-made button filler, and everything on it is near-pristine except for some brassing on the clip and a disintegrated sac. I found (by dipping) that it has a wonderful steel nib, so it’s well worth the effort of changing the sac at least.
    Luis Pen Store didn’t have the spare parts for “such an old style pen” according to the lady there, and maybe she was having a bad day, so my first visit there was a bit disappointing.
    So my question is, is there somewhere to get ink sacs here in the Philippines, or a place that can repair button-fillers? I’ve managed to remove the section so I thought I’d replace the sac myself, IF I had a replacement sac.
    Thank you very much!

  18. acg
    6 March 2010 at 3:20 am (2839 days ago)

    great informative article, very useful for a newbie collector like myself, thank you..

  19. Jenny
    7 March 2010 at 5:09 pm (2838 days ago)

    Risa, check out the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines Yahoo! Group. We have about 4-5 penmeets a year.

    PiliPENas – thanks! :)

    Munch, the only shop that I know of that sold Lamys here is Art Gallery at Glorietta 4. I’m not sure if they still have any stock left – FPN-P raided it last year and made off with the few Lamys on display (silver AL-Stars and Yellow Safaris). You could drop by and see if they still have something left. But your best chance is to buy online. This is a great site -> http://www.pengallery.com

    Arnie, my pen friends who do repairs buy their sacs (rubber and silicon) online. There are none to be obtained here in Pinas. Replacing a sac is a fairly simple procedure. Visit http://www.bleubug.com, there’s a post there on that. Or find other instructional videos on the ‘Net. Good luck!

    ACG, thanks, have fun!

  20. Miguel FdR
    18 April 2010 at 1:50 pm (2796 days ago)

    Thank you for this very informative article. I think your post will be my fourth and last incentive to finally buy an FP!

    1.) When I got the ’10 Starbucks Planner I only had a withering generic gel-BP to write my name on it. I asked my mom if she could get me a Mont Blanc for my birthday (much like the gold-tipped broken one in our study). She made quite a long pause before answering – I guess I wouldn’t hear from her about it again *lol*

    2.) Earlier this year I went to Binondo for the first time and I passed by the Luis Pen Store. I saw their display of Mont Blancs and it reminded me of said non-functional MB.

    3.) Riding the Toki in UPD, I saw this woman writing with a fun-looking FP (on her Starbucks Planner!)

    I think I’ll be going to National tomorrow to check out their wares :)

  21. Miguel FdR
    19 April 2010 at 12:02 pm (2795 days ago)

    National Bookstore Katipunan and Gateway don’t carry the Inoxcrom line (too out of the way to check out the display in Trinoma. I think they have a more comprehensive collection.) Fully Booked Gateway don’t have FPs either.

    I bought the most affordable available in National Gateway, a Parker Jotter (M) with Black Quink and converter, and so far I’m still familiarizing! (Doubly difficult too since I’m a lefty!)

  22. Jenny
    7 May 2010 at 6:00 am (2777 days ago)

    Miguel, glad you’re having fun with your new FP! My youngest daughter is a lefty too, but she didn’t have a hard time adjusting when she started using FPs when she was 10. :) Do join Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (FPN-P), search for it at Yahoo! Groups.

  23. fozzy
    13 September 2010 at 10:21 am (2648 days ago)

    thank you so much for your very informative post! i lost my fountain pens growing up and i’m trying to get back into calligraphy. i didn’t think calligraphy was alive here in Manila anymore!

  24. O.J.
    16 September 2010 at 9:48 pm (2644 days ago)

    Nice!
    By the way, where did you buy your pen case? I’m looking for one because I don’t want my pens getting scratched. Haha

  25. Jael
    18 September 2010 at 2:43 pm (2643 days ago)

    Very nice! My girlfriend is a collector of different kinds of pen. I was planning to give her a fountain pen in her coming birthday but I don’t have any idea where to buy one. In my search on FP’s I admit that I came to like them too. I was fascinated by their beauty. I searched for fountain pens in the net and I was also hooked up to them. Now, I have this feeling to start collecting FP’s. Thanks for your information I was really motivated to collect them. =)

  26. Dael Separa
    3 October 2010 at 2:35 pm (2628 days ago)

    Thank you for your primers.

    I’ve finally decided to get myself an FP and your posts nail the “beginner’s guide” feel, even for those of us making late discoveries as we hit the 30′s threshold.

    One question though: I have a terrible handwriting, will an FP-writing habit contribute towards improving it?

  27. JennyO
    7 October 2010 at 9:39 am (2624 days ago)

    Hi, Dael! Yes, your handwriting will improve at least a little bit. In my experience, because of the dissimilarities in grip, angle, motions, etc. between FP and BP use, you will necessarily be more mindful of how you write with FPs. :)

  28. JennyO
    7 October 2010 at 9:42 am (2624 days ago)

    Fozzy, I’m glad you joined FPN-P. Welcome!
    OJ, which pen case? I have several. If you’re asking about the 40-pen storage case, a friend bought it for me in Singapore.
    Jael, that’s good news! Enjoy collecting and using FPs!

  29. Dael Separa
    24 October 2010 at 2:03 pm (2607 days ago)

    Hello Everyone!

    National Bookstore at Trinoma carry the LAMY brands. I got my Black Safari there this morning. Costs PhP 1500, comes with a Blue T10 cartridge and a converter.

  30. walter
    10 February 2011 at 1:44 pm (2498 days ago)

    hi to all :)

    anybody interested with Platinum Fountain pen with 18k gold nib for 1970″s want to sell my pen, I have 2 of them, give a an offer…. :)

  31. Inigo
    12 April 2011 at 11:04 pm (2436 days ago)

    Hey any chance we can gather a group and exchange notes. Just hoping

  32. Speedmaster
    12 September 2011 at 8:15 am (2284 days ago)

    Nicely done!

  33. Jamie
    3 November 2011 at 1:00 am (2232 days ago)

    Because of this entry I was encouraged to buy my very own fountain pen! Woot!
    Thank you for writing such an informative blog! It really helped me a lot in convincing me to buy an FP and when it came to choosing what I would buy..:)

  34. JennyO
    3 November 2011 at 1:19 pm (2232 days ago)

    That’s good to hear, Jaimie! Enjoy your new fountain pen! :)

  35. George
    21 March 2012 at 12:09 pm (2093 days ago)

    you can get inoxcrom at fully booked there also are expensive ones in shangrila ther is a montblanc boutique i personnaly hate the ones from greenhills because they’ll break in one month

  36. VashTeusen
    5 May 2012 at 4:35 pm (2048 days ago)

    ive been using speedball (yes, for calligraphy) as a hobby. its a bit messy and i cant carry it around. i’d love a pen that is tough and can be carried around without the mess. and reasing your blog pointed me to the right direction. thanks a lot. ^_^

  37. jhoana
    12 February 2013 at 11:50 pm (1764 days ago)

    this is a really informative primer. where do you suggest i buy pre-filled cartridges? i have 3 inoxcrom fountain pens, the ones with the cartoon animal designs, all given to me as gifts. i am planning to buy another one for myself but i want to make sure first that i’ll be to buy those pre-filled cartridges before i invest in another fountain pen. thanks!

  38. JennyO
    15 February 2013 at 1:03 pm (1762 days ago)

    Pre-filled cartridges are available at National Book Store and Scribe Writing Instruments at Eastwood Mall.

  39. Princess
    2 April 2013 at 9:26 am (1716 days ago)

    That was so informative regarding fountain pens. I now know where to go and what to look in for the first fountain pen I’ll ever have. I’m thankful that I was able to stumble upon this article. :)

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