Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Must have accessories: What pen to have? - part 2

Choosing A Fountain Pen

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 informed choice.
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 £50.
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 short pocket.
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 - the nib.
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 makes.
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.