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14 March, 2015

OT: The design space of fountain pens

Met Stephen Hill at GDC this year, he casually mentioned that I should write an article about pens. Well Stephen maybe I WILL.

I try to live a reasonable life, but there are two things I do posses in more quantities I should: writing and photographic equipment. I would say that I collect them, but I don't keep these as a collector would, I actually use them with little regard, so I'm more just a compulsive buyer, I guess. 

But with much wasted money comes experience, or something.

- Why fountain pens

Calligraphy, duh! Line variation and reasons. Seriously though, they are different, and really it's a matter of taste... The feeling is different, they require less pressure, the ink is different... But nowadays rollerballs and gel pens have so many tips and technologies it's hard to compare. 
Also, on a purely utilitarian scale, I believe nothing can win a simple 0.5mm mechanical pencil...

Me writing this article.
Pen is a Namiki Vanishing Point ExtraFine
Notebook is a Midori Spiral Ring

So for the most part it is a personal choice, a matter of taste. I like them, they are elegant weapons for a more civilized age, and you might too. 
Now, without further ado, let's delve into this guide on how to start spending way too much money on pens.

- Nibs

First and foremost a fountain pen is about its nib. There are two main axes of nib selection: shape and material.

For shape, most pen brands will make three sizes of round tips: fine, medium and broad. Fancier brands might expand to extra fine, extra (or ultra or double) broad and maybe even ultra extra fine (sometimes also called needlepoint or accounting nib).

The catch here is that for the most part, these names carry little meaning. Especially on the finer scale the differences can be huge, traditionally Japanese nibs are finer, but some Japanese brands don't follow the rule.

A needlepoint nib (disassembled for repair), hand ground (Franklin-Christoph)

Italic, slab, oblique, cursive nibs are all variations of non round nibs, they produce a finer line in certain directions and a bolder one in others. Italic and slab are cut straight, with the italic being sharper (more difference between writing directions), crisper and harder to use. The oblique nib is cut at an angle. All these come in different sizes, usually specified as millimeters of their wider angle. Very wide stub nibs are also called "music" and often have more than a single ink slit, to keep the ink flowing. Lastly, "zoom" nibs, much rarer, have different weights at different angles.

Selection of Lamy steel nibs

More exotic nibs can be trickier to use and usually require better pens to work well. Bolder nibs lay down more ink, and thus stress the pen's ability of keeping a good, constant flow. Finer nibs are easier to break or misalign, they are harder to make and to make so they write smoothly. Very sharp italic nibs somewhat inherit the worst traits of both.

Consider also that broader nibs will use more ink (deplete faster), the ink will require more time to dry and can bleed more, but many people do like them better for fine writing as the properties of the ink (shading variation, sheen, color) show more with a wetter and more varied line.

Ink shading from an Italic nib
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In terms of materials, there are really only two options: steel and gold. Both can then be plated in different materials (rhodium, ruthenium, pink gold, two-tone and so on) but that is only an aesthetic matter.

The functional difference between steel and gold is that the latter is softer, more flexible, thus it writes more smoothly and with more line variation. Steel is more durable and better for heavy handed writers.
Somewhat confusingly, both materials can be used to make flex and semi-flex nibs, which are thinner and specifically made to give lots of line variation. They are quite hard to use and suited mostly for calligraphy.

A Piltot/Namiki Falcon flex pen
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Most pens have interchangeable nibs, and buying nibs alone is usually much cheaper than buying a full pen.

- Pen body

A big part in the choice of a pen is taken by its aesthetic, which is I guess entirely a matter of taste so I won't discuss it.

There are though a few functional considerations to keep in mind. Ergonomy of course is a big one. Bigger pens tend to be more comfortable but of course, less easy to carry around. Heavier pens might not be great for longer writing sessions, and balance can make a lot of difference.
For the most part, you'll have to try and see what fits you best. Remember to try any given pen with and without the cap posted, the balance will change significantly, with some pens designed to be posted while some others don't post very well.

The Franklin-Christoph 40 pocket need to be used with its cap posted,
it's way to short otherwise. Screw-on cap, clipless, can be converted to eyedropper

The filling mechanism and ink reservoir is also important. Most pens nowadays use plastic cartridges, most being "international standard". 
The second most widespread mechanism is the piston filler, which is quite convenient and usually has chambers that can carry more ink than a cartridge, but it won't allow you to carry spare ink as easily.

Now, you really will want to use bottled ink in your fountain pens, both because it's cheaper and it comes in a much wider selection, but having a cartridge pen won't stop you. Most of them can be fitted with "converters", special cartridges with a piston to suck ink from a bottle, and you can always refill a cartridge with a syringe (which I actually find less messy than dipping the nib in the bottle to refill).
Also, many (but not all) will work well as "eyedroppers", filling the cartridge chamber directly with ink (without a cartridge installed) and sealing it (a bit of with silicone grease on the screw)

There are other minor things to notice. As most pens are round, having a cap with a clip allows them not to roll, which might be something to consider even if you don't need to clip your pen to a notebook.

Nakaya "dorsal fin" model, an asymmetric design made to not roll even w/o a clip
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The cap design and closing mechanism also matter, actually more than it might seem. Not only certain caps fit better posted than others, but certain designs are more prone to sucking some ink out every time you uncap. Screw on caps are less prone to this, but certain screws can be annoying to feel on the barrel of the pen, depending on how you hold it.

- Ink

A big reason to use fountain pens is that they allow to play with different inks. It might be actually a much more reasonable idea to collect and play with inks, than it is with different fountain pens.

Inks have lots of different attributes, even colors are not so simple as many inks can "shade", show variation (even drastic) as the pen lays down more or less ink on the page (according to pressure and speed), they can have sheen and even pigment or other particles embedded (these though are often more dangerous to use and can clog a pen if not properly handled)

Inks can be even more interesting than pens!
The Pen Addict is a good review site

They can be more or less lubricated, certain inks can flow well even in lesser pens while certain others tend to be more dry. If your pen is already on the dry side, you don't want to couple it with a dry ink, and vice-versa. Large nibs tend to need more flow (as they lay down a bolder line) but it's not rare to need wetter inks in extra-fine nibs as well, as the tines there need to be so small that non-well lubricated inks can have problems flowing.

Different inks also have different drying times, and tendency to feather or bleed through paper. Good paper will also help absorb less, but that also means it can increase dry times. Low feathering is important especially when using lesser papers or in finer nibs (that won't look as fine with an ink that expands a lot on the paper).

In practice though the first and most important characteristic to consider for daily use and note taking is water resistance. Most inks are not, and even a drop of water cleaned up quickly will ruin your notes. So before looking at color and other characteristics you have to be conscious about water resistance and decide if you need it or not. 
Dry times (smudging...) for me haven't been a problem on the other hand, but if you are left handed that can actually be very important (and I'll try to use a more porous paper that absorbs ink fast).

It's not in general "safe" to mix different inks, albeit most of the time it won't cause havoc and you can easily clean your pen by just running it under cold water until it flushes clean. There are certain brands who make mixable inks, but it's rare.

- Some recommendations

I will make a sweeping statement and say that there is no better "starter" fountain pen than a Lamy Safari (or Vista, a so called "demonstrator" - transparent version). Its aesthetic might not please everybody, but it's by far the best "writer" for the price, and it comes in a ridiculously wide selection of interchangeable nibs (they even make some optimized for left-handed writing).

A fairly recent contender to this throne is the TWSBI 850 and Mini, really great pens made to be fully disassembled easily. The Mini is probably the best compact pen you can buy today, it's a piston filler so it still holds quite a lot of ink too!

If you look for a great very extra-fine nib pen, I haven't so far found anything that beats the Pilot/Namiki Vanishing Point 18k gold nib (a.k.a. Capless Decimo). Right now it's my favorite pen, it's not very cheap, that's the only reason I didn't recommend it as starter. It's also pretty and unique. Some don't love its clip, with some effort it could be removed.

A&G Spalding and Bros make surprisingly good, cheap pens (considering the brand doesn't have a big history). Kaweco is cheaper brand recently gaining traction, but I don't like so far their nibs flow, especially on small pens you want -very- easy writing nibs, as these are to begin with not the most comfortable pens and applying pressure is fatiguing on them.

On the more expensive side, I would say to stay away from Montblanc and the other luxury brands, they are good pens but you pay because they are fancy more than because they are great. If you have lots of money or you want to make a really great gift, I'd personally go with a Nakaya, handmade and customized to your taste...

Medium-tier brands that I love, other than the already mentioned Namiki/Pilot (which also makes super expensive maki-e models, by the way) are Sailor and Platinum, both of them make great nibs (and true "Japanese" extra-fine ones) but somewhat more boring conventional "cigar" shaped pens. 
Franklin-Christoph is American brand which makes really unique, hand turned and not very expensive pens, worth a look.

There are of course many, many other great brands, certain fancy brands do make more "understated" models in their line which might turn out to be great, and vintage, used pens are also incredibly interesting, but all these I'd say would be less easy to recommend as a "first" pen.

After you get a pen you'll need paper and ink. Rhodia makes some great, inexpensive paper, but there are really many great brands. Field notes is really nice as well if you like small notebooks. Tomoe River paper is quite unique as well, but more a "fine writing" paper, not for daily use (will take time to dry especially for broader nibs).

I personally prefer spiral bound, A5 notebooks because they are easier to use on the go, they open fully and are more rigid, can be held one handed.
And if you are like me you don't love to have ruled or gridded paper, Rhodia and many other brands make notebooks in plain sheets or with less conspicuous dots instead of lines.

Lastly, inks. For Black I'll go with Aurora or the Platinum Carbon Black Ink, both are very black with great flow. The latter is pigmented which is very rare (another pigment ink is Sailor's Kiwa-Guro, that I haven't tried yet) it's nicer but it can settle in your pen if not used often and should be cleaned after depleting to avoid clogging, better use it in a cheaper pen you have no problems taking the nib apart for cleaning (which is usually fairly easy...).

For colored ink it's much, much harder, there are so many great options. I don't love plain blue ink and I usually go with either darker or lighter shades, one of my current favorites is the Private Reserve Naples Blue.

Sometimes I carry a red or more colourful ink, often in a broader nib for highlighting and so on. I find that orange/brown colors pair better with both black and blue than most reds. Noodler's Apache Sunset.

Lastly, if you want something super fancy, nothing is fancier than Herbin's Stormy Grey and Rouge Hematite limited edition inks (if you can still find them).

Incidentally, J.Herbin, Private Reserve and Noodler's together with Diamine are also the brands that make the most variety when it comes to colored inks.

Amazing (but not the smoothest ink ever).
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love sailor - I have a sailor what you call today a demonstrator. My father bought it for me in 1968 in zanzibar where I was born and spent 10 years there.

Today I use a Pelikan broad nib.

For ink I have a montblanc purple colour amazing colour and I love the bottle. Private reserve and herbin are excellent too.