Fountain pens are one of those status symbols that used to be impressive but no longer are. While you should never hand your client a Bic pen with the top chewed off, it is likely you do not feel the need to toss a $400 pen at them just so that they will think you are a rich, established attorney. (You probably have other ways to make them think you are a rich, established attorney.)
The truth is, fountain pens can seem deliberately anachronistic, like showing up to a client meeting in steampunk garb. (Do not do that. Ever.) However, just because fountain pens are no longer the signifier of success they once were does not mean you should avoid writing with one.
Here are some fountain pens to consider if you are just starting out and do not want to find out that you dropped Beyonce-concert-ticket-levels of money on something you don’t actually like.1 Here, we cover some low-cost pens and some very low-cost pens.
$1 – $10 a.k.a. “Practically Disposable”
These are the true starter pens. They are plastic and look like any other pen you would buy at Staples. They aren’t meant to be the best pen (or the best-looking pen) you will ever own. They are, however, all reliable writers and a good intro to using fountain pens. Best of all, you won’t be filled with regret if you spend $5 or $7 and end up hating the entire fountain pen experience.
If you have never tried a fountain pen (or associate fountain pens with having them explode all over your good shirt when you try to fill them), the Platinum Preppy is for you. At $5 or under, it comes in seven colors and two nib sizes. Japanese fountain pens like the Preppy tend to have even finer nibs than their American or German counterparts, so the extra-fine version writes extremely thin and is excellent for tasks like editing documents. It is also a workhorse of a pen. In fountain pen speak, this means that it doesn’t skip and will start writing right when you pick it up. Additionally, it will not require you to scribble a few lines, lick the nib (yes, people often do that), or yell at it to start. You can refill the Preppy with Platinum’s proprietary ink cartridges, but at $5 you also won’t care if you lose it — or if you hate it.
Another Japanese import, the Pilot Petit1, is tiny enough to stash in a pocket. You can pick one up for about $6 or pick up a pack of eight different colors for $31. The small size of the Petit1 might deter larger-handed folks from using it, but for most people, it is a decent size for jotting quick notes. Between this and the Preppy, I have found the Preppy a bit more reliable in terms of consistently starting up, but not so much that I would deter anyone from this pen.
You will note that I have not recommended the Pilot Varsity.There are two reasons for this:
- Varsitys often have wildly inconsistent flow, which means you will get thick blobby lines alternating with thin scratchy lines. No one’s writing looks good when it is a mix of globs and scratches.
- A pack of three for $8.40 does not make them that much cheaper than trying out a Platinum Preppy.
The main problem with these low-budget fountain pens is that they look like what they are: cheap plastic pens. They write more smoothly than their plastic ballpoint counterparts, but they do not look elegant. Their small size adds to the general feeling of being more like a toy or a novelty than a writing instrument you would use every day, even though the Preppy is definitely comfortable enough to use every day. If you decide you want something that looks a bit more grown-up, you will end up above the $10 mark.
$11 – $50 a.k.a. “Just A Bit More Than A Nice Rollerball”
After spending some time with one of the practically disposable pens, you may want something that looks a bit more adult, writes with a bit more expressiveness, or offers you a choice of nibs. These are the pens that you buy if you are comfortable spending a bit more. If you usually just use the pens you steal from the office supply closet, you might balk at spending $30 or so. But these fountain pens will last close to forever — as long as you remember to clean them.
If you ask a fountain pen person to recommend a “beginner” fountain pen, the Lamy Safari will likely come up for good reason. You can get one for as little as $19 or splurge and get one of the aluminum versions or the limited edition colors for about double that price. No matter what, you will get a pen that is nearly indestructible. Mine has fallen onto the floor of my car and been stomped on for an entire trip, and only the clip was a bit worse for wear. The pen also comes in a variety of nib sizes to suit most writing styles. You can even pick up a version with an italic nib. Italic nibs are not for everyone, but if you get comfortable with the chisel-cut nibs, you can end up with writing that looks much more elegant. Plus, no one steals an italic nib pen from you; they will find it weird and scratchy to write with if they do not hold it at the proper angle.
The Safari is refillable via cartridges, or you can buy a converter and use bottled ink. Using bottled ink is far more economical and environmentally conscious, but some people find it tedious to deal with the relative messiness of bottled ink. Also, once you start using bottled ink, you are well on the way to becoming one of “those people” who uses fountain pens all the time.
The biggest downside to the Safari is the grip. It is ergonomically designed, beveled so that you will hold your pen in the proper triangular grip.2 This is fine if you have a naturally correct grip, but if you grip the pen like you are trying to throttle the life out of it, like I do, or you tend to place your hand particularly high or low on the grip section, you might find this problematic.
Clocking in at $13, the Metropolitan is even cheaper than the Safari and has a more forgiving grip. Where the Safari is classic overbuilt German engineering distilled into pen form, the Metropolitan looks a lot more like what we tend to think of when we think of a “nice” pen. You can get it in shiny silver or gold or a stealthy matte black. If you buy it from Amazon, you will get both cartridges and a converter if you decide to go the bottled ink route.
With a choice between a fine or a medium nib, the Metropolitan is a reliable writer but nothing special. You won’t feel amazed as the pen glides over the page or get line variation. But it will work without fuss and look handsome in your briefcase, purse, or portfolio.
Think of the Kaweco Sport as a more sophisticated version of the Pilot Petit1. Like the Petit1, it is small enough to stash anywhere, but it looks a lot nicer. The faceted cap, in particular, adds a bit of glamor and uniqueness to a pen that otherwise might be unremarkable. You can get the sport in a variety of different colors and materials. The standard one, like the one pictured above, is available for around $25, but you can also find much pricier versions in materials like raw aluminum.
Regardless of material, all versions of the Kaweco are pretty hardy, which makes them a favorite for every day carry (EDC) type of people that want to have some nearly indestructible writing instrument on hand.
The Kaweco uses short “international” cartridges. International refers to the most widely available types of ink cartridges. You can get a converter for the Kaweco, but it is ridiculously tiny, given the size of the pen, and you will likely find it makes the most sense just to use the cartridges, particularly given that you can get those types of cartridges in almost any shade you desire.
In our next article, we will discuss what happens when you realize you are ready to spend more money on a fancier pen, and with apologies to your pocketbook, we will cover fountain pens that cost anywhere from $50 to several thousand dollars.
- 2015-05-27. Originally published.
- 2015-06-14. Updated with index and fixed headline error.
Featured image: “fountain pen nib and flowing colorful ink” from Shutterstock.
This guide refers only to new and relatively widely available pens. Collecting and using vintage fountain pens is enjoyable and can even be economical, but given the near-infinite amount and types of vintage pens available, it would be impossible to categorize them efficiently. ↩
Remember those triangle things you might have had on your pencil in elementary school? Pretty much exactly like that. ↩
Read the next post in this series: "Fountain Pens for the Obsessed."