by Peter Twydle
Many years ago, in the days
when we owned a chain of specialist pen shops, our policy was to let the
customer try as many different styles of pen and nib sizes they needed, in order
to find just the right pen for them. A fountain pen is, after all, a very
personal thing, being an extension of our own personality. In those days we
could send our staff on a course run by The Parker Pen Company to teach them the
correct way of selling a pen (a Parker - naturally). But times have changed.
These courses no longer run, and with the exception of the few specialist pen
shops still in existence, staff no longer have detailed knowledge of pens, nibs,
and how they should be matched to individual writing styles. The
situation is even more difficult now that pens are being sold on the internet
and by mail order, as you can no longer even get to see, let alone handle the
pen before buying.
If you are looking for a fountain pen to
use, either occasionally or on a regular basis, then the purpose of this article
is to point out the criteria you should consider in order to make a more
First - price. You can buy a fountain pen
anywhere from a few pounds up to thousands. The mentality that claims they
may as well use a cheap throw-away ball pen because the end result is the same
(and if you are reading this, then this obviously isn't you), may think twice
before driving a thousand miles in an old banger rather than a Daimler. Both will get
them there (probably) but one will do it with comfort and style.
With a fountain pen, the main difference in
price is a reflection of the quality of the nib. Up to about £50 (I'll stick
with GBP for the purposes of this article) nibs will be made of steel, which is
harder, less flexible than gold and not as durable, since gold does not corrode.
A gold-plated nib will take longer to corrode but will not be any more flexible.
Once you get towards £100 you are looking at 14ct or 18ct gold nibs - the best
there are. Above that, a £1000 pen will write no better than a £300 pen. The
difference then will be in either the casing, being made of precious metals like
gold and silver, or in the rarity value of the pen, such as a Special or Limited
Edition. This is not a criteria when considering a pen for use on a daily basis
when price is an issue. So, at today's prices you could buy a Parker Sonnet, for
example, at around £150, which is the same size, same ink capacity and has
the same nib as one at £90, the difference being in the finish of the body, in
this example silver as opposed to lacquer.
So, as a general rule of thumb - up to £50
for a steel-nib pen. £100 - £300 for a gold-nib pen, and anything
upwards from there for precious metals, Special and Limited Editions, and other
rarity value, as in vintage pens.
Second - size. The next consideration is the
actual size of the pen which, with the exception of Pelikan and Montblanc, does
not equate to ink capacity. A £200 Parker will hold the same amount of ink as a
I suppose it is a subjective matter as to
how large you want your pen to be. Theoretically, it should be related to the
size of your hand - big hand, big pen, small hand (ladies particularly) small
pen. This is the best yardstick to go by unless you have the opportunity to
handle many different sizes. In my own case I use a Pelikan M800 for signing
letters or if I want to impress, but I find it too tiring for the long haul and
use a standard 1950's Parker Duofold for writing articles such as this.
An average sized pen will measure about
5" with the cap on and about 5.5" with the cap posted as when writing.
(People who prefer to put the cap to one side when writing are probably using a
pen which is too heavy or too large for their hand). There are, of course, many variations on this,
such as the old Pelikan 100, which is normal size when posted but whose cap
comes almost halfway down the barrel when capped - ideal for clipping into a
Some of the lesser known makes are made in
unusual shapes and designs. This can often be a case of aesthetic appeal over
function - they look good but don't feel too comfortable in the hand. There are
exceptions of course, and once again it can be a subjective matter.
Third - ink capacity. If you do a lot of
writing this can be important, not so important if you only sign the occasional
letter. The big hitters in the capacity stakes are the plunger fillers, such as
Pelikan and Montblanc, which can hold more than twice the volume of ink of the
more common convertible filler/cartridge type, as could the old Parker
Vacumatics. Sheaffer pens, particularly the old snorkel models, have always been
notorious for low ink capacity. Even the large PFM only held an average amount.
Fourth - and probably the most important -
Nibs nowadays are not made as flexible as
they used to be. This is mainly because of the way we write these days. The
beautiful, flowing scripts of yesteryear have been replaced by the more curvaceous
(and characterless) lettering taught in schools. Also, the ball point has a lot
to answer for. I would not describe any modern pen as
having a flexible nib in the way of the old Swans and Watermans. Semi-flexible
is the most I would admit to.
Rigid nibs really came to the fore with the
advent of the Parker 51 and are particularly good for the heavy handed, who tend
to splay an open nib by exerting too much pressure. If you have a lighter touch
then the more traditional type of nib may add more character to your writing.
Most important of all is the nib point. This
is one area in which today's pens have definitely improved. Modern nibs are far
smoother than their vintage counterparts, but the
range of nib widths is not as great as in days gone by, being limited to only
fine and medium in some of the cheaper models. At the top end of the ranges you
can still find obliques, stubs, italics and extra broads, although these are
often only supplied to special order. It should also be noted that manufacturers
often have different ideas about point sizes. A Sheaffer stub, for example,
would be equivalent to a Parker italic, whose stub would be more like a Pelikan
double broad and so on. It is sometimes just not possible to get the nib you
want from the manufacturer you prefer.
The finest fountain pen nib is called
'needlepoint'. This is usually intended for small figure work and would be too
scratchy or not put enough ink to the paper for normal writing. The finest nib
for writing is 'extra fine' but even then only if you do not write too quickly.
After that come the two most popular points 'fine' and 'medium' followed by
'broad'. Some manufacturers continue with 'extra' or 'double broad' - even
'triple broad', but again, only at the top end of the market and mainly German
Oblique nibs in 'fine', 'medium' and 'broad'
are intended for wrtiters who habitually tilt their pen at
an angle, as they are cut away to the left.
The subject of oblique nibs is
one that causes a lot of misunderstanding when choosing a nib. The problem
arises because many writers on the subject have insisted on calling them
'left-handed' nibs. The truth of the matter is, it is not the hand you write
with that is important, but the angle at which you hold the nib to the paper.
When writing with a nib pen it is important that both points of the nib are flat
to the paper. If the nib is tilted so that only one point touches, then the nib
will skip when writing. Tilting the nib to left will therefore require a
left-hand oblique. Tilting it to the right (less common) will warrant a
right-oblique, but these are rarely found these days.
Writers who look to obliques to give
thick and thin strokes may be disappointed by Pelikan nibs, which are more
rounded, and would be better served by Sheaffer.
The table below should give you some idea of
the comparative nib widths, but keep in mind that individual widths can vary
from manufacturer to manufacturer. Better quality nibs are usually finished off
by hand, so even two medium nibs of the same make may not be identical.
So there you have it. Put the lot together,
throw in a little of your own personality and preference for design and colour,
and you should be able to select the perfect pen for yourself or, in the flowery
language of the pen brochures "a pen as individual as you are".