I am constantly amazed at the talent and wisdom in the Instagram community – and love featuring some of that here on the blog. There’s a lot going on in my life offline, so you will see another guest next week as I get my shit together in real life. Heidi is my go-to for fountain pen advice – and as more and more bullet journalists get into the world of these beautiful writing instruments, Heidi pulled together her list of pens for the newbie. Enjoy!
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How to Get Started in Fountain Pens
The best way to get started in fountain pens (FP) is to buy your first fountain pen, but it’s a little bit intimidating – and that’s OK!
When I first got interested in fountain pens, I was paralyzed by all the options. I was scratching my head as I browsed through pages from FP retailers, or scrolling through some superfine insta feeds, or having a heart attack over the price of some high end solid gold business.
If you’re the kind of person that likes to dive in head first, here are some good popular recommendations for your first pen.
- Pilot Metropolitan – $15
My biggest recommendation for a budget friendly beginner fountain pen is the Pilot Metropolitan.
My first one was a gold Pilot Metropolitan in a fine (F) nib. When I picked it up, after a 2-day long love-hate relationship with a Lamy Safari (more in a sec), I knew right then that fountain pens and I were about to embark on a love affair.
These have the writing performance of the much more expensive pen, very smooth and I’ve never had any issues with flow (of ink out of the nib). I’ve owned a total of 5 of these little guys. When I first bought these they were only available classic phone colours of black, gold, and silver. In the last year, they’ve come out with the Retro Pop collection – so now there’s a colour for everyone. I personally love the turquoise. The metal body also make these pens very durable.
Jessica’s note: since the barrel is completely round, it makes this pen GREAT for left-handed folks too!
Similar to the Pilot Metropolitan is its cuter cousin, the Pilot Kakuno – $13.50. There are lovely pastel options and who can resist this nib that smiles and winks? It uses the exact same nib as the Pilot Metropolitan (except for the face) so the performance is the same, but since it was designed to teach school children how to write so, it has a triangular grip. Some (perhaps right-handed) people will find this more comfortable than the Pilot Metropolitan which features a ‘step’ from the body to the grip section.
Both of these pens are a ‘cartridge-converter’ pens. This means you have the option of using a ‘converter’ which is a detachable piston to suck up bottled ink, or you can buy cartridges to pop in on the go. The inconvenient part is that these use Pilot proprietary brand cartridges and converters. This means that the cartridge options are limited to the colours produced by Pilot, if you like cartridges.
- Lamy Safari – $30
The fantastic thing about Lamy Safaris is that they come in all sorts of colours and can match anyone’s aesthetic. I’m not always a fan of the shiny toy plastic look, but the good thing is they also come out with some fine looking matte finishes. The 2016 dark lilac was an auto buy for me because of its matte purple body and black nib.
As I mentioned above, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this pen. I love the smooth nib and the flow of ink (it’s not dumping ink, but it’s not stingy either). I find its body a bit thick for my small hands. The triangular grip is far more pronounced than on the Kakuno, though it serves the same purpose of teaching ‘proper’ grip. However, it may also be uncomfortable due to your grip.
I like the interchangeability of the nibs. You can slide them right off – no yanking involved. This is great for a beginner since you can pick up extra nibs for a couple of bucks to figure out the best size for your preference and use. They even have an italic nib which write a thin line horizontally and a thin line vertically.
Being a light plastic, it’s also very durable and can withstand some rough handling. This, like the Pilot Metropolitan, is a cartridge-converter. It also uses proprietary cartridges and converters like the Pilot so you face the same colour limitations. These are more widely available than the Pilot Metropolitan. I’ve seen these at many local art shops, so they may be a good choice if you are uncomfortable ordering online.
An honourable mention, that I cannot officially recommend because I’ve never used one is a TWSBI ECO. I own 2 of TWSBI’s slightly more expensive pens that I absolutely love however and based on other reviews this one does not stray far from that mold. Apart from the $29 price tag, of course.
The TWSBI ECO is the only pen at this price range you can get that is not a cartridge-converter. This pen is what we would call a ‘piston filler’. This means the mechanism to suck ink from bottles is built right into the pen – you twist the finial (back end) of the pen to fill. If you want to jump straight into bottled ink, this is the perfect choice. It has a massive ink capacity too, so if you write a lot in a single day, this may be a better choice than a cartridge converter because you won’t have to worry about carrying back up.
There are plenty of pens that are even cheaper than those I listed above, like the Chinese brand Jinhao, for example. There is also the Platinum Preppy, which you can get for about $3. I found these nibs to write pretty well, though I’ve had some flow issues with a couple, so it may be hit or miss. These are great minimal investment items if you want to see if you even like writing with fountain pens.
The perfect fountain pen for you will depend on your use case. Even though the pens I talked about are very popular, the mileage may vary with each one. So here’s some questions to get you thinking about how you use your pens and what characteristics you should look for.
Things to Consider When Buying Fountain Pens
What line width do you like to write with?
In mechanical pencil terms, are you a 0.3mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm, or 1mm?
If you like a super super fine line in the 0.3mm to 0.5mm range, I suggest looking at Japanese brands like Pilot, Platinum, or Sailor for their fine or even extra fine nib.
The ‘grind’, or how they cut the metal tip of the nibs, is a lot finer than on nibs produced in western companies such as Lamy. The general rule (though it’s not 100% of the time) is Japanese nib are one size smaller than western nib. So a fine Japanese nib would be an extra-fine German nib. Once you get into the broad or even medium nibs, these differences get less pronounced/nonexistant.
You can see the difference in this image above, the F nib in the Pilot is significantly finer than the F nib in the Pelikan right underneath it.
How is your handwriting?
A broader nib will hide wobbly lines and smooth out some messiness in handwriting if you write very large. It may also make your writing illegible because the lines are too thick to distinguish. On the other hand, if you have very small handwriting, much finer nibs will make your writing more legible.
How much maintenance and cleaning are you willing to do? Do you want to mess with filling a pen with a bottle of ink?
Getting a pen in which you can just pop in a cartridge whenever you run out is very convenient. I really recommend doing this when you first start out so you can hit the ground running. You can think about cleaning and filling once you’re more comfortable. All of the pens I recommended above can be used with a cartridge. Most pens in the 0-$100 range will use cartridges. The exception is the TWSBI brand which all have a built in piston.
If you solely use cartridges, over time, you’ll start to notice downside is limited availability of colours and price efficiency over time. If you have a pen that uses a ‘stand international’ cartridge, you’ll have more options than with a pen that uses proprietary cartridges, but less than ink bottles. Ink companies like Diamine produces standard international cartridges, but they only put their most popular colours in cartridge from. Pen companies usually limit themselves to standard blue, black, red.
Buying cartridges also add up in price over time. Whereas 1 bottle of ink can last me months for $12-$15, 1 package of 6 cartridges cost around $5 and I can go through around a cartridge every 1-2 weeks. Furthermore, it creates a lot of garbage.
Once you move on from cartridges, there is almost an unlimited amount of ink bottle options to choose from. This was so, so liberating for me especially because I had been stuck with the typical black, blue, green, red options from the typically Staples. We’re not talking just different colours here; we’re talking every shade in between. Actually, please don’t ask me how many shades of blue I own.
And even if you are stuck using ‘office friendly’ colours, there’s still plenty of options that expresses your personality without being highlighter bright. I personally love a brown.
The best way to get into bottled ink is to buy samples. Most specialty fountain pen store like Goulet Pens and Anderson Pens will sell decants from a full bottle usually around 2-3mL in size. These are good for 2 or 3 fills depending on the capacity of your pen. This is an awesome way to try out different shades and see if you like the flow of the ink before you commit to a full bottle.
On the other hand, refilling a pen with ink can be messy business and if you want to change colours, you’ll have to do some extra cleaning steps. However, it’s never a bad idea to regularly clean your pens even if you use cartridges. This can make the ink flow better because over time friction from writing can result in some debris being picked up into the nib, especially if you apply a lot of pressure in writing.
3 How do you grip your pen? What angle do you hold your pen at? Are you left handed?
If you have an odd grip like me, sometimes the design of the grip section can make a pen uncomfortable to hold. For example, the Lamy Safari’s triangular grip. It’s intended to teach the proper tripod grip, but if you can’t adapt to holding your pen that may it may not be the right pen for you.
I also like to hold my pens a little bit low down (closer to the nib), so pens with a very long/large nibs don’t work for me because I always get my hands inky when I accidentally touch the nib. My favourite pen that allows me to hold the pen further down is the Pilot Vanishing Point. It has an absolutely miniscule nib which retracts from the body. This is also a pretty expensive pen though, so may not be for you if you’re just looking at your first pen.
Japanese nibs are made for writing Japanese characters, which uses a much higher angle (closer to upright) than the roman alphabet (45 degree angle). This is important because writing with the pen at the optimal angle for the nib grind will maximize the ink flow out of the pen. Many ballpoint users may actually up an upright angle as well because of the pressure necessary to write with them. In this case Japanese nibs may be better.
If you’re left handed, these molded grips may seriously get in the way as well, particularly if you write ‘over hand’ or ‘hook handed’. Goulet Pens has a great post and video explaining the considerations for left handed users.
4 How much pressure do you use while writing?
Years of using ballpoints have taught me to use a super death grip and huge pressure when I write. Over time as I got out of the habit of using pen and paper it became increasingly uncomfortable to pick up a pen for longer than a short burst at a time. So when I started gravitating toward journaling, planning, and all of that analogue goodness, the biggest sell of a fountain pen was the feather light grip and pressure you needed to see ink flow onto the page.
In fact, the only nibs you should be pressing down on are specialized one which have ‘flexible’ nibs. They’re the ones you see in all of those handwriting videos.
These nibs along can be a whole other humongous post, but the long and short of it is, the nib tines spread apart with pressure and ‘flexing out’ to a thicker line. If you just want a nice pen to use with your bullet journal though, I’d suggest holding off on this one. It basically dumps ink down onto the page, and you’ll definitely need to pick up paper that is thick and coated enough to not bleed through the page or feather and spread across the page. And it takes some getting used to – it’s easy to be a bit too overenthusiastic and spread those tines too wide.
If you’re interested in ‘flex nibs’, the pen I’d suggest for beginners here is the Fountain Pen Revolution Indus or Jaipur. That’s the pen I used in the video above. It costs $20, is a piston filler, and is a great way of practicing calligraphy without spending too much money on a vintage flex nib pen. The difference is that it will take significantly more pressure than a vintage nib to get those tines to open up. There are also the Noodler’s Nib Creeper or Ahab, but I find these pens much more finicky and less reliable compared to the Fountain Pen Revolution pens.
5 What do you want to use your pen for?
Getting a fountain pen to use with your bullet journal will open a whole world of colour coding. I think the Pilot Metropolitan or Lamy Safari would both be great choices because all of the colours options allow you to match with the journal colours (Emerald Leuchtturm with a turquoise Metro anyone?). A Pilot Metro in a F nib will allow you to write small for your rapid logging, but the fine line allows you to create dramatic faux calligraphy looks by thickening lines.
I am an university student. Using a fountain pen to take lecture notes and study notes has made me more motivated because it gives me an excuse to use my pens. If you’re in the same position as I am, a piston filler like the TWSBI ECO may be a good idea so you don’t run out of ink in the middle of a 3 hour lecture. I’d suggest getting an extra fine nib with an ink like Noodler’s Black or Noodler’s Heart of Darkness. This is because you don’t want to be spending money getting fancy thick paper just for lecture notes. A broader nib or some more ‘wetter’ inks will cause your pen dumps ink onto the page and makes your note illegible when it bleeds and feathers everywhere. The two black inks I mentioned above work well for ‘cheap’ paper that is not coated and therefore will absorb ink rather than allow it to dry on top of the paper. These are also permanent inks which will save your life when that coffee spill happens.
For work, my favourite pen to use at work is my Pilot Vanishing Point. It’s retractable pen so it allows me to quickly click when someone comes by to ask me for something and I need to jot down a quick now. Great for meetings where you are not necessarily writing continuously, but need to be aware for any action items that come your way. If that’s out of your price range, anything with a cap that snaps off will be a great choice compared to a screwed on/threaded cap. All of the beginner pens I mentioned in the last section except the TWSBI ECO have a snap cap.
The basic message of this question though is to think about how these pens will fit into your existing system. Even though fountain pen can get a bit like art pieces, these are ultimately tools. If it doesn’t fit into your life and your system, it will not fulfill its purpose. end up being a shelf queen. (“YAAAAAS!” –Jessica)
There are a lot of things I didn’t get to cover actually in this post, even though I feel like I just dumped all sorts of information at you. If you want to go even deeper, there are so many more awesome parts of the fountain pen world.
My favourite thing is the beautiful way the right ink and paper react to one another.
The paper you use seriously changes how the ink looks on a page. I am using a specialty Japanese paper here that allows the ink to dry on top of the page rather than soak in. The result is when the light hits it just the right way, the blue ink turns red!
And here’s the thing, even though there’s almost too many options, all that variety is one of the best parts about fountain pens. There’s something out there for every budget and preference.
There are teeny pocket pens that fit just in your hand like the Kaweco Liliput.
There are fountain pens for someone that likes a clicky pen like the Vanishing Point:
There are fountain pens for someone who thinks $5 is too much for a pen and would be happy with the Jinhao 450.
Join the dark side, we have colourful hands. What fountain pens did you start with? What one are you thinking of getting now? Let me know in the comments!
Heidi Wang is a fourth year university student living in Ottawa, Canada. She’s a stationery addict, fountain pen lover, tea drinker, and knitter. She can be found at www.instagram.com/fourfiftytwo/ or over on her blog fourfiftytwo.ca