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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fountain Pen Q & A!

This is not our normal Artist's Journal Workshop post, and we have one of our readers to thank for that!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Regular Reader Chris Fitzgerald asked some terrific questions about fountain pens, and since we've had a number of recent posts about several types, I decided to include the conversation here.  I asked fellow ink-pen posters Nina Johansson and Laure Ferlita for input...and here's what we all came up with.

Chris wrote:
I am a fountain pen newbie. Oh, I own a lovely Rotring artists pen set which is probably as we speak ruined because the constant cleaning required to keep it from seizing up just wore me out. (And it was very scratchy) So I set aside ink pens. And frankly I could never find cartridges for it in a color I liked anyway.

Now I'm tempted by the new Noodler pen. It's cheap, and it sounds like a beginner could learn with it.
But as I read about pens on the blog and FB I realized that all the pen terminology is waaay over my head. I was reading Nina's blog recently, and she talked about lovely vintage pens and their various good and bad points. 

So let's say I buy a Noodlers and get comfortable. I want to buy something pricier at some point. Do they COME with certain nibs or do you have to ask for a nib that's good for drawing. And which nib might that be?  I see calligraphy nibs, nibs with letter designations. I have NO idea what all this means.How do you evaluate a pen? I realize it's highly personal depending on your "touch". 

What is the world is a "wet noodle" that Nina referred to, and how do you decide if that's what you want? 

How pricey would rehabbing an old pen really be? Nina thought it was worth it for her, but I look at prices on Ebay and wonder. 
So I guess I am requesting a post with some basic pen facts and terms laid out for the newbie. Can you do that?

And indeed we could, and did!  Read on...


My first response...
Here are some of the pens we've explored here...

Hi Chris and thanks for the great questions!  

I’d definitely recommend trying the Noodler’s if you want a variable line, but I also love the lightweight, fine-point little Carbon pen I recommended earlier, which takes cartridges.  

I ended up getting three of these and cutting the long handle off to fit the way I work...the cap wouldn't stay on that long, skinny end, anyway...

The calligraphy pens/nibs take some getting used to, especially as some nibs are just straight across and some have a bend like the one Laure did the video on.  I’ve used both, for different purposes.
On the far right you can see marks made by my antique Waterman pen I had rehabbed...and a comparison with newer pens!

I’ve had a couple of antique pens rehabbed here in the US, and it has cost about $40 each…not cheap, but it DID make them like new, mostly.  Your mileage may vary, it depends on where you have them fixed.  This is a lovely lady who works with a local pen shop in Crown Center, in midtown Kansas City.  (Read on to find out about Nina's antique pen rehabs.) Unfortunately some of the vintage pens on eBay go for WAY too much to make that practical! 

Waterman Phileas Pen, with ink converter to fill with whatever ink you want...
I love the dependable new Waterman Phileas pens, if you can find one fairly inexpensively on eBay.  I got one new in the box for $9.99 once (YAY), but another one cost me $40, and I’ve seen them for $70+…shopping around is definitely worth it!  It’s NOT very flexible, but it’s a workhorse.  

The TWSBI pen I also found on eBay is a workhorse...a bit heavy for me, but very smooth and sturdy.  I just leave the cap off while working!  (I don't see one of these particular pens on their site at the moment...I believe it's called a Diamond.)

Lamy Safari or Vista (that’s their clear model) pens aren’t flexible either, but very dependable and affordable.  I like the black nib, it’s smoother than the silver/steel one.  You can find these at JetPens.com, Amazon, eBay or all over the place...

You do normally have to buy a pen with the nib you want, extra fine (if they offer it), fine, medium, broad or calligraphy.


Nina responded with some terrific answers...

Good questions indeed, and a good idea to make a post about it! And I think you covered most of it in your answers, but I´ll add some too. The terminology questions are good, I don´t think most people know what all those words mean...

-do fountain pens come with a certain nib or can you change them into the nib you want? 

Of the models I have tried, only Lamy Safari (and it´s cousins using the same nibs) has a nib you can change yourself. Good if you drop it and break the nib, or if you just want to change the width.

Others come with a nib you can´t change. As for old pens, only a repair could possibly fix a broken nib or change it into something else (as was the case with my old Wahl-Eversharp). 

There are some possibilities to customize nibs, though, but they do cost. The place where I bought my new Pilot Namiki-Falcon, www.nibs.com, can customize the nibs on some of the pens they sell. That doesn´t mean they change the nib, they just treat it so it gets flexier or thinner or more like a calligraphy nib, or... whatever it is that you want.

-what is a 'wet noodle'?
A fountain pen that is super flexible and quite easy to flex, and thus reacts to every change in pressure that you make with your hand. Not for people with shaky hands, perhaps. ;)

-how do you know if you want a wet noodle or a steadier nib?
Hm... yes, that IS a matter of personal taste. I´m a newbie too with flexible nibs, but I guess the best thing is to try the pen before buying it, if possible. Doodle some on a paper. I love the flexible nibs I´ve tried, but they do take some getting used to - especially the easily flexing ones.

-expensive to 'rehab' an old pen?
about $70 for me for each pen. Plus the new nib on the Wahl-Eversharp - vintage gold nibs don´t come for free... Totally worth it for me, since I found the pens in a box so I didn´t pay anything for them. :)

That´s about it. Looking forward to the post!



And here are Laure's answers...

I too have wondered about some of the terms bandied about and what I did to begin educating myself was to join The Fountain Pen Network. I did/do a lot of lurking, and a whole lot of reading. Make no mistake, these are mostly serious pen collectors with few visual artists among the crowd, but the knowledge you can gain is worthwhile. It may save you from making a costly mistake down the road. 

There are different forums on pen brand, ink, general writing instruments and whatnot. They're usually pretty tolerant of newbies' questions as well. Opinions and passions run deep over there, so I find it best to read along rather than get into the discussions.

Another educational site is Richard Binder's web site. He has a fairly extensive glossary of terms used with Fountain Pens.

Re: Rotring Pens - the set I have (ancient) had/has a whetstone as part of the set. The nibs have to be "smoothed" from time to time. Not sure why, but it is necessary to smooth them for them to work well. 

For someone just starting out with thoughts of buying a fountain pen, I'd ask the following questions:
- Do you draw in ink now?
- If so, what tool do you use most? Think about what you like best about it and what you'd like to be different.
- Using a fountain pen of any type takes a certain amount of "dedication" or else you wind up with a useless instrument. 

There are many inconveniences to using a fountain pen. Are you willing to put up with having to use it on a very regular basis, flush it often (depending on the ink used), refill as needed and put up with its temperament? Make no mistake, all fountain pens have a personality! Are you willing to find ways of traveling, as well as storing, with the pen nib upright so it doesn't clog? Do you travel with your pens and sketchbook? How will you transport ink if you don't use cartridges? Are you willing to put up with a few leaks and inky fingers from time to time? In other words, how much inconvenience are you willing to put up with for a great tool?

I think it's very important to understand how you sketch and how you will use the pen before leaping into the fray. If time is an issue, fountain pens may not be the way to go—that take time. If travel is required, again, FPs may not be the way to go as they do leak and can be messy. If you don't really use pen in your work that much, don't like the inconvenience or area irregular sketcher/drawer, grab a Micron or a Copic marker and save yourself the headache and expense.

If you want to have a go, I think starting out with a Noodler's Fountain Pen is a great way to go. It's more fun than the "nails" (a nib with NO flex what so ever) in most modern day pens. Lamy is another great pen company with lower priced but good quality pens without flex nibs. Some Hero (another brand) have flex to the nibs and are an inexpensive pen. You can find them on eBay. Read the descriptions carefully.

One last comment on buying pens....they "holy grail" of pens for those with more of an artistic want to their needs is a "wet noodle." A nib that lays down the finest of lines and the thickest of lines with the slightest of pressure. It does it consistently and the ink laid on the paper is consistent rather than going from light to dark. These nibs are from yesteryear and are usually quite expensive.....even if you purchase one, are you likely to take it with you to go sketch on location where you run the chance of dropping (thereby damaging) or losing the pen or are you housebound with the pen to keep it safe? (Once again, it's great to know yourself, your work habits, how often you drop things, lose things before purchasing an expensive pen.)

Re; Ink....There are a number of companies offering more ink samples than you will know what to do with....again, I think it's key to know how you will sketch/draw/write before buying samples. What's your favorite color, do you want to watercolor over it, do you want to do grayscale work, do you like old sepia tone looks, etc. As for beginning, I'd start with a waterproof and a non-waterproof ink in either black, gray or brown. After some experimenting, I'd look around to see what else I might like.

The reason for the caution on the inks is because all inks do NOT behave the same in every pen! Some inks will make a pen "dry" and hard to write with while another ink in the same pen will cause no problems with dryness. There are inks that are "wetter," and flow better, but again, this depends to a great degree on the pen in use. (Example: I have Noodler's Lexington Gray....the first pen I put it into, the ink came out very wet and so it dried very dark. Almost black. I blamed the ink and decided I didn't like it. Then I put it into a second pen and what do you know, it was gray! The second pen is "drier" so I don't get as much ink on the page and it dries lighter.)

~ L


  1. Thank you sooooo much for this post. I have had questions too and this article definitely helps.

  2. Glad to help, Susan! And glad I finally got it up!

  3. About vintage pens with interesting nibs, especially in the US, I'd suggest to keep an eye out for Esterbrook pens.
    They come in various colours and usually you can find them for well under 20$ at flea-markets and charity shops.
    I think of them as the Lamy Safari of the '40s.
    What is great about them is that they have quite a wide range of interchangeable nibs that you just screw on the pen, obviously the price of the nib varies based on the condition and kind as flex nibs are usually more expensive (up to about 25$).
    They are lever-fills, so they usually need a simple sac replacement which doesn't cost much (and if they charge too much look elsewhere!).

  4. Fountain pens are as individual as people - I am a fountain pen user/collector and a recent artist. My favorite pen for drawing is the Platinum Preppy with a fine nib. I also use a .35 Rapidograph if I'm doing very fine line work.

  5. I'll definitely watch for Esterbrooks, thank you! And Julie, I think that's the type pen Jet Pens recommended to me...is it a bit flex-y?

  6. No the Preppy is not flexible at all - but it is CHEAP - $3 - I used Platinum Carbon and Pigment Sepia ink which I don't want to put in a $300 FP. The fine nib is wonderful.

  7. Thanks, Julie, I'll have to try that. I understand their Plaisir pen is about the same except it has a cap designed to keep the ink from drying on the nib. It's metal, and $20 rather than $3///

  8. For those of you who like writing with a fountain pen, and sometimes travel by air..... do you empty the pen first and fill it on arrival? or carry it full of ink? P.S. I prefer to use ink from a bottle rather than cartridges ... but I'm trying to figure out how to best travel and fly with the pens.

  9. All of the mysteries of fountain pen use are slowly being revealed, thanks to all of you experienced penners (is that a word?). I'm eating all the information up, as apart from Rotring (which I'm not happy with anymore) I've never known quite where to start. Really, someone needs to write an extensive manual on using fountain pens! I have a question now--you've talked of the brands and types of pens, and the inks, but how about the paper? I'd like to know which brands and types of papers work well with most fountain pens. For instance, I just tried my new Noodler's Flex-tip on Rives BFK heavyweight tan paper, and it was awful, but on the lighter weight BFK it glided. What papers do you three penners like to use most with your pens?

  10. Oh, love this post! Thank you, girls!
    I'm a fountain pen lover also, I have a special fondness for the Lamy pens (just bought the aquamarine special edition for my collection at Goulet Pens - great guys BTW). I use Safaris since my 12, 13 years old and they are still in good shape by now (and I'm 30 now). I just think they look youthful, love how colorful they are, and that you can change the nibs easily (I also use mine for calligraphy so I have the three sizes of calligraphy nibs available), and that you can use it to everything, from sketches to calligraphy to everyday use, outdoor use, etc, since it will not break easily if you drop it by accident.

    Also have two Rotring surf bought on eBay (not a great pen), Pilot Parallel for calligraphy and a Parker Vector with medium nib that I bought on eBay just because it was cute. So I don't have expensive pens (yet), and I really like to try the best of the cheap options, like Platinum preppies that you can use with eyedropper inks like Noodler's Heart of Darkness. Preppies are very good, in my opinion. Also converted my Rotring surfs with the o-ring and silicone grease and it's good for day to day use.

    But I'm really in love now with a super cheap chinese pen that I found the other day, the ones like Hero pens, in the super cheap side (I paid R$ 12, about US$7. It has the finer nib I ever found, even finer than the Lamy EF nib and it's great for drawing! I just bought a cheap chinese ink bottle to use with it and it's amazing how the cheapest options I ever found are just the best for me at the moment for sketching.

    I'm waiting for the Noodler's flex be back in stock at Goulet pens, can't wait to try it. Love the tips I read about it.

    Didn't know the black nib of Lamy is smoother than the silver ones. Didn't perceive so much difference between them. My oldest Safaris came with them, I'll have to compare again.

    I strongly recommend the videos about Lamy, Noodler's flex and other tips by Brian Goulet at his blog http://www.inknouveau.com/. It's very useful! It has one about the nib changing of Lamy Safaris/Vistas and other models as well, how to clean the new pen, etc. I always learn something new there.

    I think Lamy Safari or Vista is a good and stylish way to start in the fountain pen world, since it's not expensive and will be a good companion for a long time. Don't forget to buy its converter, so you can use any ink you want. With time you go testing other brands and models.

    Maria, I think Moleskine paper is the worst to write with fountain pens, I always get feathering, with almost all the inks and pens I tried.
    I think the cheaper paper is better, for writing purposes. The kind of paper you use to print or that comes with cheap notebooks. People talk lots about the Rhodia papers, they are really good, but since they are not the cheapest option for me, I don't use it regularly.

    Usually I sketch with my FPs on my Hahnemuhle sketchbook. Great paper. I even play with watercolors on it with success. :)

  11. I'd throw in the recommendation of another inexpensive pen that takes both cartridges and a converter, and has the finest line of any inexpensive pen I've owned (including the Preppy) for $7.50 at jetpens but not flexible.



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