Why Use a Fountain Pen


Why do you use fountain pens?

Almost invariably, when one of my colleagues asks to borrow my pen and I present them with some monstrosity that looks to them as expensive, and fragile, as a Ming vase, I get asked this question. This is my story.


I'm extremely left-handed. No one else in my family is, and I'm not sure if I really am, but I do everything with my left hand. This is mostly due to necessity. At birth, my right shoulder was mangled and the nerves mostly destroyed. In adulthood, my right arm is thin and withered, the arm of a starvation victim with no muscle tone to speak of. So being a righty was never an option. So I'm a lefty.

Lefties do not have easy lives. Nor long ones either, apparently. The average lefty has a significantly shorter life expectancy than a righty. No one knows why. It's curious that insurance companies do not ask about handedness and set life insurance rates accordingly, but, thankfully for my sake, they don't. One of the difficulties you discover at a young age is "silver hand." As one matures, silver hand turns into blue or black hand. By this, I mean that, over the course of writing various things in school, my hand rubbed against the writing so much that, by the end of the day, the side of my hand was, quite literally, the silver-gray color of graphite. As I graduated from pencil to (ball point) pen, the color changed to blue or black. Blue or black hand are, in fact, worse than silver hand because, in the course of transferring from paper to hand, the ink remaining on the paper had a bad habit of smudging.

Thus, I was branded, at a young age, as messy. If only I could write neatly, maybe my papers would be more readable. But asking a left-handed "hooker" to avoid smudging while writing is a bit like asking a tiger to stop having so darned many stripes. You can ask, but it won't happen. I got C's in handwriting. Teachers routinely wrote notes complaining about neatness, or lack thereof. My papers became like crime scenes after the FBI dusted for fingerprints. In effect, my papers were like biometric devices, identifying me from the distinctive whorls of the side of my hand. In high school, I had to take a class in drafting. I dreaded it. Neatness counted for everything. Not only was pencil the required medium, but soft pencil, 2B, was called for to make nice dark lines. Or, in my case, nice dark smudges on the top and sides of all my figures. I had a perfect report card up to the fourth quarter of the year, when I had drafting. I got all A's then too, with one exception, drafting, which produced a heart-breaking C. If neatness was going to count for success in life, I was screwed.

Student Pens

I searched for solutions and discovered my mother's collection of fountain pens from the 1950s, mostly badly maintained Esterbrooks. Maybe these held the solution to my problem. They didn't. Much as I love vintage pens today, badly maintained student pens from the 1950s were manifestly not a good experience. Blue hand was gone, replaced with ink globs, pants explosions (quite embarrassing to an already awkward teen), and other such mishaps. Weirdly though, I still liked them. I liked the lever fill mechanism. I took apart one of her pens in an attempt to "fix" it. I learned a lot about how these pens worked, about the precise mechanics inside the barrel. The "fixed" pen never worked again though. Maybe there are better versions, I wondered.


For some reason, I've always been fascinated with the technology of school and writing supplies. I remember when Mead debuted the "Trapper" system of folders. Pretty low tech in retrospect but a revelation at the time. More revolutionary were erasable ballpoint pens, a Paper Mate innovation. Despite blue hand, I preferred writing in pen, but made mistakes. Surely, these were the answer. They weren't. I believe that lefty overwriters who lived a bad life have their own special layer of hell. In this layer, they are forced to endlessly write using these pens on glossy greeting card paper, taunted by the prospect that, if they can ever produce a "clean" note of greeting, they will be freed. Of course, such a task is entirely impossible, consigning them to the hell of using these things for all eternity.

Fountain pens represented the pinnacle of school/writing supplies technology in my mind. It was eminently clear how ballpoint pens worked. There was a ball, it picked up ink, and rolled it onto the paper. Roller balls obviously operated on the same principle, but fountain pens seemed to operate according to the principle of...magic perhaps? I conjectured that gravity played a role, but, if so, why didn't all that watery ink come spilling, all at once, onto the page. The mystery only added to the appeal.

No Nonsense

In high school, I discovered Sheaffer "No Nonsense" fountain pens. I liked that they were fat, like crayons, and came in nice colors. I also liked that, unlike my mother's Esterbrooks, they didn't leak or explode. But best of all, they were the cure for blue hand! Here's a secret:

Fountain pen ink dries faster than ballpoint ink (and about the same speed as rollerball).

This was a revelation. To many people, it still is. When I tell my colleagues that I use fountain pens because they are neater than other ways of writing, I get funny looks. How can that be? But think about it: The gel that keeps ballpoint ink (or gel ink for that matter) from drying out inside its little tube also keeps it from drying quickly when put on paper. Water, which is, to a first approximation, what fountain pen ink is, dries faster. I loved my No Nonsense pens and still have two of them, a red and a green one.

Curse You Sheaffer

It is said that today we live in the golden age of fountain pens. It's true, to some degree. The Chinese pen market and the internet has made these items more readily available, at more price points, in more varieties, than ever before. But there have, sadly, been casualties along the way. I often wonder why companies take successful products and ruin them. Actually, this part isn't all that surprising. Companies, like people, make mistakes. What I really mean is why companies take successful products, ruin them, and then fail to unruin them. Coke illustrates the rare case where a company admits its mistake. New Coke was a disaster, Coke recognized it, and they restored the old product. Sheaffer and Parker, however, offer the more common outcome. Many consider the Parker 51 the pinnacle of fountain pen technology. And indeed, it is an amazing pen. My 51, which I proudly restored to its former greatness, replacing a mashed nib, a petrified converter, and a lost cap jewel, is one of the most reliable pens I own. After vacationing in England one summer, I realized that I forgot to empty my 51 before leaving. On returning to my office, I uncapped it to survey the damage. There wasn't any and, in fact, the pen wrote without missing a beat. Few new pens can boast the same performance. But Parker tinkered, dumping the 51 for the 75 and its flawed capillary ink intake. They tinkered some more, eventually producing the very nice Sonnet, with its curious, spongy nib. And they tinkered still more, cheapening the Sonnet to a $60 flighter with an uninspired and unreliable steel nib and indifferent feed. And they tinkered still more, producing the ghastly "5th mode" rollerball with purely ornamental nib. The result is a company that is a shadow of its former self, the Pabst Blue Ribbon of fountain pens, a once premium brand now thought of more as a tarted up value pen with an historic name than anything that actually works well. (In fairness, the Duofold is an exception. It is a very nice pen.)

Why did they do this? Why not admit defeat with the 75 and restore the 51? Why not do so now, trading on nostalgia in the way the Duofold has? The answer, I think, is hubris. How can a company admit that, for the past 40 years (!!), they've screwed up? Of course, a "company" admits nothing, rather it is the people running the company doing the admitting. Which makes the whole thing more inexplicable for these people change from year to year. I have no answer to this question. It's an interesting puzzle, and one not merely confined to fountain pens.

[Another ghastly move: Parker also made the incomparable Vacumatic, whose heyday was in the 40s. Vacs are treasured even today. Parker's attempt to recapture this former glory: Rebrand and reshape their pedestrian, and rather awful, Parker Urban under the Vac name. This, in my view, is sacrilege, a desperate move by a company (or division to be more precise) that is entirely lost.]

But back to our story. The No Nonsense suffered the same fate. Sheaffer still sells a version of it, now called the Viewpoint. But it has lost much that was good about the No Nonsense. Mostly, the Viewpoint suffers from an excessive cheapness problem, almost to a laughable degree. It gets its name because, in contrast to the No Nonsense, the Viewpoint has a large oval cut into the body, supposedly to offer a view of the ink level. But it's an absurdly large and unpleasant view. As everyone knows, the only real information one needs about ink levels are when they are low enough to possibly run out. This means a window located close to the feed, and relatively small. The tiny windows in Pelikan, Montblanc, Aurora, and others represent the usual, and sensible solution. The Viewpoint, however, fails utterly. First, the "viewpoint" is far away from the feed, so, in fact, offers little guidance for the actionable question of when the ink will run out. Worse yet, the plastic is cut crudely, so the "viewpoint" offers an unpleasant tactile experience in addition to being useless. Finally, it ruins the simple, clean lines of the No Nonsense. Other cost cutting measures include the removal of cap bands and all other forms of ornamentation. The Lamy Safari, the ultimate utilitarian writing instrument, look positively luxurious compared to the Viewpoint.

Why did Sheaffer do this? Cost-cutting presumably, but why not rectify the mistake? Like Parker, Sheaffer is another company that is lost.


Pilot, in particular, has done a good business by stressing ergonomics in writing instruments. Their Dr. Grip line sells at a considerable premium compared to other pens and pencils for the simple reason that it offers a reliable, and more pleasant, writing experience. Despite the rise of laptops, tablets, and so on, people still have occasion to write using old-fashioned pen and pencil. For all their virtues, it is simply easier and more convenient to make a grocery list on a pad of paper than on a tablet. Apart from blue hand, another key reason to use fountain pens is ergonomic--with the right one, they are the ultimate writing experience. In part, this is a function of the form factor of the pens themselves, which come in a bewildering array of varieties. One can choose just the right mix of heft, diameter, balance, and so on to make writing effortless. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, which affects all my joints, large and small. Ergonomics really matters when joints are delicate and subject to pain.

There's another aspect to this as well. A large part of writing fatigue comes from pressure. To make a mark with a pencil or ballpoint requires the application of pressure. Indeed, artists rely on the subtle response of line to pressure in producing pencil or charcoal pieces. Fountain pens require no pressure whatsoever. Operating on the capillary principle, the ink wants to move from nib to paper. Indeed, I've had pens so responsive that I could hold them slightly above the paper and still write perfectly well, literally writing on air. when reviewing pens, people often describe the feeling as "writing on glass" or "satiny smooth." Such exclamations of delight are not mere puffery. Fountain pen writing is different, fundamentally different, from pencil or ballpoint. (The difference from a high-end rollerball is there too, but much less.)


I used to always buy cheap sunglasses. Many people do, apparently, to judge from the ready availability of these products in the ubiquitous sunglass carousels that appear in drugstores and supermarkets. I reasoned that, by buying cheap, I wouldn't have to worry about losing or breaking the glasses. And lose or break them I did. Cheap sunglasses are cheap for a reason. Production is not robust, the optics not high quality.

But losing is a different matter. One can, in principle, just as easily lose something expensive as something cheap. But it doesn't work out that way. Little attention is paid to cheap items and, as a consequence, they readily get forgotten, left behind, misplaced. Pens fall into the same category. I constantly hear the refrain that fountain pens are not the way to go since pens are too readily lost, and such losses would be much regretted if they were expensive. But this is a false argument on two grounds. First, perfectly good (but not great) fountain pens can be had for the same price as a Dr. Grip. My favorite right now is the Pilot Petit, a wonderfully compact pen offering a wide range of delightful ink colors. These pens cost all of $3 (from Jetpens) and offer a great, and utterly reliable, experience. For a little more, one can have a Pilot Plumix or Penmanship, outstanding full-sized fountain pens. If these are too down-market in their looks, a perfectly profession Pilot Metropolitan or 78g can be had for $10-15. (Pilot is a brilliant company, in my view, producing some of the best "cheap" writing available, as well as exquisitely beautiful works of art with their Namiki line.

Second, and more important, a more expensive pen won't be forgotten for the same reason that one's wallet or keys are not so lightly misplaced and left behind as a lowly Bic Crystal (quite a decent ballpoint for the price, much better than Paper Mate and miles better than Caliber and other off-brand.) People with Ray Bans don't forget them or crush them or otherwise abuse them in the way that supermarket sunglasses are. The same holds true with pens. In our increasingly environmentally conscious world, isn't it better to have something good and lasting than something disposable that will clog up a landfill until the next millenium?


So that's my pitch. As I've gotten older, I've discovered the virtue of using the right equipment for the job. I first discovered this when I started playing tennis as a kid. I had a cheap wooden racquet and was pretty good. Eventually, I invested in an aluminum Prince oversize, the state of the art at the time. My skills the day after buying the racquet were no better than they were the day before, but my game was vastly improved. While performance in sports makes this point obvious, it's true elsewhere as well. Having a high quality writing instrument need not be a huge investment or require any great practice to learn the "technique" of using a fountain pen. But it is a game-changer.