I am shocked at how long it’s taken me to write a review about an “under-$50” fountain pen. Sometimes, I think reviews about pens in this price range require the greatest attention because they are the pens that can make-or-break a fountain pen fan. Should someone purchase just the right fountain pen in this price range, they will most likely become a lifelong pen fan. However, if they get a dud, it could become the end of the interest in fountain pens altogether. Maybe that’s why I took so much time putting this review together.
The new Sailor Compass fountain pen ($39.20) is Sailor’s latest low-priced fountain pen. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between the Compass and the Shikiori fountain pen which appears to be a rebranding of the ProColor. There are higher end models of the Shikiori with gold nibs and Pro Gear styling so the product line is confusing, to say the least.
The Compass, on the Sailor’s official website for Japan or the UK (global), do not even list the Compass so, as I write this review, I have to wonder if Sailor will even continue with this particular pen line. Do you see why it’s taken so long to write this review? It’s still available in the US and I’ve had questions about it. So… onwards we go!
First, let’s discuss the features and packaging.
The Compass ships with a converter and two cartridges (nice touch, thank you!). The converter that shipped with my Olive Transparent had a green twist mechanism (color coordination, another bonus). I suspect that Sailor has attempted to match the converters to each Compass pen. It’s a nice touch.
The converter is in the pen in this photo (sorry, I got ahead of myself!). The pen and accessories come in a box, lined with foam and wrapped in a clear plastic sleeve. IMHO, the packaging is a bit excessive for a pen at this price point. It also meant that I’m left with non-recyclable materials (at least in my part of the world) — foam, plastic and coated board box. Sigh.
When placed next to a (from left to right) ProColor, the Compasss, a different model of ProColor and a Pro Gear Slim, it’s clear to see some aesthetic differences. The Compass more closely resembles the ProColor on the left than the one on the right. The black ProColor on the right looks much more like the new Shikiori models listed on Sailor’s web site with the wider cap band and metal trim around the point where the clip joins the cap at the top. The Compass and the clear ProColor both have less metal hardware on the exterior of the pen.
When looking at nibs (ignore the 21K nib on the clear ProColor. I upgraded it. This is not the stock nib AT ALL!), the two nibs in the center show the visual differences between the current Compass nib and the earlier ProColor steel nib. While the earlier ProColor nib was narrow, it looks like it was molded to be a lot more curved and there is more decoration pressed into the front of the nib.While the decoration doesn’t necessarily make the earlier ProColor a better nib, it certainly makes it appear that Sailor put more care into making it.
This all leads up to my initial writing tests with the Compass MF (medium fine) nib. I prefer nibs with a little tooth, a bit of feedback to them but this nib tested the limits for me. I had to continually turn and twist the nib in an effort to find a good writing angle that didn’t feel scratchy or that didn’t require excessive pressure to get ink on the page. In general, this is not my experience with the higher end Sailor pens. The lightest of touches will deposit ink on the page with most Sailor 14K and 21K nibs and that is how I prefer it. So struggling to ink on the paper — let’s just say, I was getting frustrated. I also realized it was unfair to compare a steel nib to $100+ gold nibs. But I know that Pilot Metropolitans and Preppy pens are far easier to use. My Platinum Carbon Desk Pens do not cause me this kind of difficulty either. None of these pens cost as much as the Compass so either I got a dud nib (it happens) or the Compass nibs are sub-par.
I got my loupe out and took a look. Now, I know that for a lot of the people buying a pen like this, doing something like this is beyond their experience of expertise but, after some debate, I decided it was worth doing. If someone new to pens buys a Compass and runs into this issue, can they fix this on their own? So, if you look at the photo above, the tines have a little bit of space between them near the breather hole but as you look closer to the tip, there’s less and less space between the tines. It basically chokes the flow of ink.
I did two things. I flossed the tines with a brass shim* and then I used my finger to gentle pull one tine forward just a bit. Using your fingers can sometimes be your best tools. Notice how now you can see the line between the tines all the way from the breather hole to the tip of the nib?
My second attempt after opening up the tines just that tiny bit made the actual act of writing much less of a chore. The nib was still a bit scratchy so the next step would be to attempt smoothing the nib on some micromesh but just getting the ink out of the pen made the pen usable and that’s huge.
When comparing the Compass to other fountain pens in the $50-and-under category, the competition is fierce. My instinct it to compare the Compass to its Japanese rivals: Pilot and Platinum first, but there are also many European makers in this category as well. The pens pictured above are not all the options in this price range but certainly represent a good range of plastic and aluminum barrel as well as a variety of price points.
Capped, the Compass is similar in length to the Hexo, Metropolitan and Preppy measuring approx. 5.25″ (133mm). Uncapped, the Compass is 4.3125″ (109.5mm). With converter filled, the Compass weighs 16gms capped or posted and 11gms uncapped. It’s a pretty light pen, but well balanced and not too big, even in my small hands.
Posted, the Compass is most similar in length to the Metropolitan at 5.75″ (146mm).
At $49MSRP ($39.20 retail), the Compass is up against Pilot and Platinum specifically in the under $50 Japanese fountain pens which is not somewhere that Sailor has really tried to compete much in the past. Pilot has dominated this market with the Pilot Metropolitan. Pilot also has their budget-friendly Varsity and more recently the Explorer. Platinum woos many with their budget Preppy, fancier Plaisir and more recently with the Prefounte and Procyon.
And when shopping for that “first big fountain pen” consumers aren’t likely to limit themselves to just Japanese brands so Faber-Castell, Lamy, Kaweco, Diplomat, TWSBI and Caran d’Ache all have legitimate candidates in this price range.
My experience with the Compass would need lead me to recommend that someone run out and buy one. Of course, I have a sample size of one and I could be the person who got the dud. I say this as the person who has the TWSBI curse. Ask me about it sometime. So, I would just say that, at the moment, it is not bumping any of other fountain pens off my “best pens under $50” list.
*Brass shims (0.002″ / 0.05 mm) can be purchased from hobby supply stores that specialize in model building and miniatures. Or try using a small piece of acetate from an old 35mm slide or negative.
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