Ask The Desk: The Great Beginner Fountain Pen Debate

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Loyal reader Randy posed this question to me this week following my post about the Kaweco Limited Edition Eyedropper 1910 and wanted to know what my recommendations would be for a first-time fountain pen user:

I bet I can tell which fountain pen recommendation you would debate with His Bradness. My guess is that you’d go with a Kaweco Sport over the Safari for beginners. In the my last year of following pen blogs, this comparison has taken on the qualities of the Microsoft/Apple argument; the pen world seems to be divided between Kaweco and Safari camps. (Alas, I am in the latter; the Kaweco is just too small for my hands.) I can’t see much argument with the TWSBI 580. I own a 540, and I can’t imagine a better pen in the $50 range. I got my TWSBI for $40, and it’s a dream. I don’t know enough to comment on Brad’s  Expert category, other than to say I’ve never heard a bad word about the Vanishing Point. I wonder, though, how this category is defined. (Does it include, for example, vintage and luxury pens that are valued for criteria other than performance.) It would seem to me that there would have to be a price limit. I’m thinking that if I pay $500 for a pen, it had better cure all that ails me.

In recommending fountain pens to first time users, I try to keep my recommendations to pens in the $25 to $50 range. I don’t think the super-budget fountain pens like the Platinum Preppy, Zebra V301 and Pilot Varsity are best for new fountain pen users because these low end pens do not have consistent quality control. My reaction to the Varsity is as much a result of poor quality control as my general preference to fine nib pens and the same can be said for my positive reactions to the Platinum Preppy and Zebra V301 — I got lucky.

So, what do I recommend?

Entry Level Fountain Pen Showdown

From top to bottom: Kaweco Sport Classic 1930 Guilloch, TWSBI Mini, Pilot Prera, TWSBI 540 (now 580) and Lamy AL-Star

European Pens (or at least nibs):

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ll know that I have a personal bias towards the Kaweco Sport Classic  line (available from JetPens for $23.50-$26.50). Its about the same length as a Fisher Space Pen so it easily fits in a pocket and can be posted to roughly a full-length pen size. I find the Kaweco gold-tone nibs to be of excellent quality — smooth writers out of the package every time I buy one (and I have three at the moment). The nibs are available in EF, F, M, B and BB. The Sport line is lightweight plastic, though, so they are not heavy, substantial-feeling pens. I tend to recommend these pens to women as anyone with larger hands (men especially) do not find this design comfortable for longer writing sessions.  The downside to the Kaweco Sport line is that they are cartridge only. To a newbie to fountain pens, this is not a big deal though. Kaweco offers about eight colors in the standard European short cartridges. Additionally, cartridges can be purchased from J. Herbin, Pelikan, Montegrappa, Caran D’Ache, Diamine, Rotring, Tombow, Waterman, and others.

If someone wants a fountain pen because they really want to use bottled inks, then I would recommend a pen with a converter option like a Lamy Safari, Vista  or AL-Sport (about $28, $30 and $38.50 respectively at JetPens). The Safari is colored plastic, the Vista is the demonstrator clear and the AL-Star is an aluminum body with a matte metallic sheen. Entry-level Lamy pens are available with a wide-array of nib sizes from EF to calligraphy italics though, for a first-time purchase, I tend to recommend a standard writing nib and save the calligraphy nib for the second pen once you have gotten used to using a fountain pen. The great thing about the Lamy is how easy it is to swap out nibs so if you find that a nib is too fine or too broad, for about $11 you can try a different nib or turn your Safari into a calligraphy italic nib. As a lefty, I find the pre-molded grip area awkward which is why I don’t start with the Lamy in my recommendations. If you are left-handed, the Lamy molded grip may require that you adapt your writing angle but it might not. In order to purchase a Lamy with a smooth grip area, the prices get above the entry-level point. If you are right-handed, then the Lamy Safari or AL-Sport should be an easy first fountain pen and the price is right. BUT Lamy requires a Lamy-specific ink cartridge or a converter for bottled ink. A converter will add a few dollars to the purchase.

Another option for bottled ink lovers is the TWSBI Diamond 540/580 or Mini (from $50 to $55 from Goulet Pens). These are good pens but are definitely at the top end of the price range along with the Pilot Prera. Both the 580 and the Mini are piston filler only and both hold substantial amounts of ink. The exterior finishes are minimal with black plastic and clear demonstrator being the extent of the options available at them moment. Its lots of fun and supremely helpful to be able to see how much ink is left in the reservoir but its very much the Model T school of colors. The TWSBI pens write smoothly right out of the box and nib units can be swapped out if you decide you prefer a wider or thinner nib ($20-$23 from Goulet as well). Once you get the hang of using the piston filler, the TWSBIs are super-easy to refill and clean. My lilliputian hands prefer the Mini over the 540/580 but I often recommend it for its large ink capacity and for those looking for a bigger, weightier pen.

Fine Nib Japanese Pens:

If a beginner fountain pen user’s preference is for super-extra-fine nibs, I am more apt to recommend one of the Japanese entry level pens, Sailor Clear Candy or High Ace Pilot (each $16.50 and available with a Japanese fine nib. The Sailor Desk Pen is a great option for its extra-fine line but not everyone wants to carry a long desk pen with a fleshy-colored cap or keep their pen on their desk in a base. My final recommendation in the fine nib category is the Pilot Prera ($49.50-$58 on JetPens and $56 on Goulet Pens). The Prera exceeds my top end cost by just a hair but if what someone wants is a super-fine line in a good quality pen, the Prera is one of the best options.

Another great option would be a Pilot Metropolitan (currently selling for $14.50 on JetPens, $18 on Goulet Pens), despite the blah response it recently received on the Pen Addict podcast. While I can see how someone who has used many comparable fountain pens and much higher-end pens might not be wow-ed by the Metropolitan, its simple good looks, good performance and great price make is a great first purchase option. The Metropolitan comes with a aeromatic squeeze converter that is definitely not recommended for a newbie. They are iffy to fill and can be a little messy. It will accept either a Pilot cartridge or it will need a CON-50 converter (available for $8.25 from JetPens) which are both much easier to use.

Find out what others have to say:

JetPens has a great Guide to Buying a Fountain Pen which offers a different but equally valid point of view. Goulet Pens does a great video for the Pilot Metropolitan which includes his other beginner recommendations. And of course, Brad has his own opinions about the best fountain pens too. You’ll notice its a pretty similar list albeit in a slightly different order.

10 Comments on Ask The Desk: The Great Beginner Fountain Pen Debate

  1. Eli
    April 16, 2013 at 9:07 am (2 years ago)

    Yawn. This has been debated and discussed ad nauseum for years over at the fountainpennetwork. Do a search there and have all your questions answered ten times over. Plus get detailed reviews of every pen imaginable, new and vintage. Read. Buy something that strikes your fancy in your price range. Use it and decide for yourself. Every pen is a matter of individual taste. If you don’t like it, or get bored with it (and you will), just sell it on fpn and buy something else.

    You also left out Waterman Phileas.

    Reply
      • Dee Pittman
        October 28, 2014 at 12:33 am (2 months ago)

        Can you tell me where is the best place to find out the value of calligraphy pens? I have a collection of some that look very old. One has EBERHARD PAPPER , LOOKS LIKE 1331, ONE HAS 77 F FABER ECHO, ONE HAS ESTTERLROCK 32, etc. I have about 10 different types. I sure would appreciate on what book or web page you recommend as I really do not know pens. Thank you
        Dee Pittman
        Cside3@aol.com

        Reply
    • lilardie
      April 20, 2013 at 4:29 pm (2 years ago)

      Wow Eli- why so rude? If you know so much, where’s the link to your blog? I am new to the fountain pen community, and Ana has given excellent advice and has shared numerous resources. The last thing I expected to see was a snide remark from someone… usually everyone here is polite – even in their critiques.

      Thanks Ana, for another well written post. I have tried all but the TWSBI, and now that you, Myke and Brad calmed my anxiety over the filling mechanism, the Mini will be my next purchase. I actually bought a Visconti Rembrandt this week, and it is a thing of beauty… it is orange and I paired it with De Atramentis Coffee ink (which really smells like coffee… mmm) :)

      Reply
  2. Randy Schwartz
    April 16, 2013 at 2:38 pm (2 years ago)

    What is old hat to the long-time follower might be a trove of wisdom to a new or would-be user. This post is comprehensive, clear, well-reasoned, and objective. Nicely done, if I do say so myself.

    Reply
    • The Well-Appointed Desk
      April 16, 2013 at 2:51 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks for instigating this post, Randy. These are questions people often ask me in person or by email that I had never really collected into a post for the blog so thanks for the kickstart!

      Reply
      • Randy Schwartz
        April 16, 2013 at 3:13 pm (2 years ago)

        I’m starting to hear these questions a lot, too, so I thought I would ask the expert. I doubt any of the typical questioners are going to research the issue thoroughly on various Web sites. If they knew of these sites, they would not, I think, be asking for concise and informed advice. Just saying.

        Reply
        • The Well-Appointed Desk
          April 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm (2 years ago)

          Expert? I’m just a well-researched novice myself. I’m flattered, just the same.

          Reply
  3. Brian Draghi
    April 20, 2013 at 10:19 am (2 years ago)

    I definitely recommend the Sailor Highace Neo as a starter fountain pen. The performance and great value make it a ideal pen for beginners without having to commit to anything too serious.

    Reply
  4. Dick Davies
    April 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm (2 years ago)

    I run five Pelikan Futuras, love the bold colors and the Pelikan ink transport system. Uses international cartridges, long cartridges or converters.

    Reply

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