Choosing a Fountain Pen

Let's look at things to consider when purchasing a fountain pen for yourself.

Where to Buy?

You have quite a few options here: retail, online, and auction.

Retail pen shopping

Probably the nicest in terms of customer service, as you can actually see, hold, and even write with the pen before buying. However, high-end pen shops aren't all that common even in major cities, so your choices are pretty limited. Also, you will often be paying full retail price, which can be significantly higher than pens purchased by other means.

Online shopping

You can buy pens online from a goodly number of very reputable dealers. Obviously you won't be able to actually hold and play with the pen before purchase, but the reputable dealers generally have fairly liberal return policies. This is good if you have a very good idea of what you want and do not need to try out the pen first. The main advantage over retail shopping are the lower prices and sometimes the wider selection.

Online auction

Probably the riskiest way to buy pens. There are a large number of sketchy dealers on the auction sites, so be careful who you deal with and be sure to do your research. For vintage pens, this will probably be your only feasible option anyway.

Budget

Budget is one of the big factors, obviously. As fountain pens are in the luxury market, prices for new pens are considerably higher than what you'd expect if you're used to disposable Bics. There may be some initial sticker shock involved.

In the really cheap category (less than $10) you find various "school pens." Unremarkable and not fancy looking, but many of them write quite well. You usually see these at office supply stores or university bookstores in hang cards.

In the inexpensive category (less than $40) you have many nicer pens. Some of these look decently fancy and nice-ish. Office supply stores, luggage stores, and some gift shops will carry these. There are some great daily-user pens in this category; you won't break the bank if you lose them (as long as you don't do it too often) but the pens are still quite nice.

Lots of fun stuff can be had in the midrange category (less than $120). The fittings and finish is usually much nicer, you may get a built-in filling system, and you start seeing gold nibs. Definitely nice pens, but we're starting to spend some good cash here.

The expensive pens are, well, expensive. Some of these are wonderful pens, and they look and feel expensive. Top features all around. Quality does not necessarily improve as you spend more, though, and going beyond $400 or so is pretty crazy unless you are collecting.

Finally, I note that the economics of the vintage market are completely different, and plain vanilla vintage pens cost considerably less than their modern counterparts. Good vintage pens can be had for less than $40 in restored condition; you rarely see anything go over $100 unless it is an especially collectible pen.

If you've never used a fountain pen before, I would advise not spending too much. For the most part, writing quality tops out in the low to midrange, and spending more only buys you additional aesthetic fanciness and not functionality. You don't want to drop $500 only to find that you don't like the pen.

Brands

You'd be pretty safe sticking with the major brand names, but the major brand names aren't always well known to the general public. Historically the industry has been dominated by a small number of firms, and many of these are still around today. You'll see names like Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Pelikan, Mont Blanc, OMAS, Aurora, Lamy, and the like at high end pen retailers. There are also a number of newer small companies like Conway Stewart and Bexley that are mostly known only to the enthusiast community.

In the specific case of Mont Blanc, I'd be careful about purchasing from anywhere overseas or anywhere even slightly sketchy. There are zillions of counterfeit Mont Blancs out there, and while they are usually poor quality and easy to spot by a trained eye, you don't want to be taken in by it. This is where staying to reputable dealers help. And if the price you are getting for a new "Mont Blanc" is too good to be true, it probably is.

I would recommend against pens marketed under designer names (Tommy Hilfiger, etc). These pens are usually not as functional as pens made by actual pen companies (weird balance, fragile finishes, etc) and surprisingly for "designer" accessories, are usually bland pieces of heavy brass or steel with some boring designer logo designs. They are very poor examples of usable fine pens and barely warrant that title.

Nib

Nibs are offered in a variety of different line widths. Most lines will have the usual Fine, Medium, and Broad. You will also often see Extra Fine and Double Broad.

Unfortunately, there is very little standardization among manufacturers with regards to nib sizes, so Medium might not mean what you think it means. In my experience, modern manufacturers tennd to make them as follows:

(thinnest lines)
Anything from Asia
Sheaffer
Parker
Pelikan
Waterman
(thickest lines)

For example, a typical Sheaffer medium writes like a Waterman fine. The only way to really know is through hands-on experience.

You might also consider a more specialized nib, such as a stub or italic. Read all about nibs to understand what is involved.

In modern pens, the choice between stainless steel and gold is largely aesthetic; it has no impact on actual writing performance. Go for the gold if you don't think gold-plated steel is fancy enough for you. For vintage pens, most steel nibs are hopelessly corroded, so gold nibs are pretty standard (except for higher-quality alloy like Sheaffer's Palladium-Silver and Pelikan's Chromium-Nickel).

Role

How you intend to use the pen also affects your choices. The following are common pen roles:

Daily User
A daily-user pen is a pen that you intend to carry wherever you go. It should be able to take a fair amount of abuse (being dropped, thrown into pockets or bags with keys and other objects, etc) without great concern for breaking and write extremely reliably. It should also not be overly expensive.
Nice Pen
A good writing pen that is pretty enough for most social occasions without breaking the budget or being all black-tie. It should write like a daily-user and be quite attractive, although you will not be using it under abusive conditions (windsurfing, kayaking, etc). Most reasonable fine pens fall into this category.
Business/Social
An expensive pen is part of the standard wardrobe in some professions, like Law. A pen in this role must look and be expensive, suitable for impressing clients and potential business partners. Brand names and relatively conservative styling dominate. Since it will be used mostly for signatures and not extended writing, certain practical considerations can be sacrificed for impressive aesthetics.

The role influences the choice of materials and the price range greatly. A daily user cannot be too expensive, and durable plastic and stainless steel are preferred materials (lacquer over brass chips too easily). A nice pen can be pricier and very attractive but not limited to more conservative finishes and designs. An expensive business pen places a greater emphasis on brand name.

Size

The pen should be a size appropriate for the intended use and for your hand. Women tend to have smaller hands than men and will be more comfortable with a smaller pen, while men with large hands may prefer an oversized pen. More specialized roles, such as a purse pen or organizer pen, may also influence size.

Be aware that the really small pens may limit your filling options. The very thin Sheaffer Targa slim, for example, uses the relatively hard to find Sheaffer slim cartridges instead of the normal cartridges and does not accept the normal Sheaffer converter. The Waterman Ici et La (the first run, at least) is too small to accept a converter, so it must use standard short cartridges.

Cartridges or Bottled Ink

Most modern fountain pens accept some type of convenient disposable ink cartridge, which makes filling clean and convenient. Most modern and virtually all vintage fountain pens can be made to accept ink from a bottle. Decide what type of filling mechanism is most appropriate for your needs.

Cartridges are extremely convenient and clean. When the pen runs dry, remove the existing cartridge and insert a new one. Cartridges come in a few standard shapes and sizes and are reasonably priced.

Bottled ink is somewhat less convenient, especially if you are traveling. However, bottled ink is available in a much broader array of colors and is significantly cheaper by volume. For most pens, it is slightly messier in that you usually wipe the nib and section with a tissue after filling, and should you ever spill a bottle of ink, disaster ensues. The typical bottle-ink-only pen also contains a much larger ink capacity than a cartridge pen, allowing you to write longer before refilling. There are many different filling mechanisms, each with advantages and disadvantages.

Most modern cartridge pens (except for very small pens or the occasional odd model) can be fitted with a device called a converter. This device is shaped like a large cartridge and occupies the same slot, but contains a filling mechanism allowing you to use the pen as if it had its own filling mechanism. A cartridge/converter pen can offer "the best of both worlds" by giving you a choice between cartridges or bottled ink as the situation dictates.

Vintage or Modern

When selecting a pen, you should consider both modern current-production pens and used "vintage" fountain pens. They have both their advantages and disadvantages.

Vintage

Before the rise of the ballpoint pen, the fountain pen was the primary implement for all daily writing. As a result, vintage pens were designed first and foremost to work reliably. The fact that many of these pens, decades or even a century old, are still perfectly servicable and usable speaks much about the quality and engineering of the old pens.

The durability of quality vintage pens goes beyond just the body and mechanics. Instead of gold plate, gold fill is used for most of the trim, which is far more durable and resistant to wear. For the nibs, 14 karat gold was the norm, for corrosion resistance, instead of plated steel or 18 karat gold (which is much mushier) that is common today.

Since most vintage pens predate the widespread use of cartridges, they must use bottled ink. Vintage pens come in a numerous array of filling mechanisms of varying degrees of reliability and functionality.

Vintage pens are also typically not as attractive as modern pens from an aesthetic standpoint. While there are certainly many stunning vintage pens (the Sheaffer Jade Green Radite Balance, Parker Snake, and Waterman 0552 come to mind), most vintage pens have a more utilitarian look. To a non-collector, a Parker Mandarin Duofold (worth thousands in mint condition) doesn't look significantly better than a modern $2.50 plastic drugstore pen. The excellent Sheaffer Valiant TM looks very ho-hum in styling. While most vintage pens are at least passably attractive and charming, they usually don't wow non pen people as well as the more extravagant modern pens.

Finally, unless you are seeking a highly collectible pen, vintage pens are usually cheaper than their modern counterparts. Most user-grade pens will sell for far less than their (inflation-adjusted) original prices and for writing quality easily match any modern pen. A high quality vintage pen in working condition can be had easily in the $20-$50 range, while only the most basic entry level modern pens can be had for anything close.

Modern

Modern pens also offer a number of practical advantages over their vintage counterparts. Most are cartridge/converter, which gives you a choice. Eliminating the fill mechanism as an integral part of the pen simplifies the design and makes repairs easy or unnecessary (since there are no moving parts to break).

However, the economics of the modern fine pen market is significantly different from that of yesteryear. The basic writing needs of most people are completely satisfied by the inexpensive disposable ballpoint. Most fountain pens are sold these days as luxury items, as fine accessories to complement expensive watches and Italian suits. There is thus a proportionally greater emphasis on the pen's role as "power jewelry" rather than a utilitarian writing instrument. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many high-end modern pens are not as reliable as their vintage counterparts.

Because of the position of the modern fountain pen as a fashion accessory, modern pens tend to be priced higher than their vintage counterparts, even after adjusting for inflation. However, most of the major pen companies still produce low-end fountain pens, many of which are excellent writers and a very good value.

Suggested Starting Pens

Still don't know what to look for? Try some of these:

Prices are typical retail prices for modern pens, or the typical eBay price for a common model in user-grade condition for a vintage pen.

Modern

Sheaffer Cartridge Pens (NoNonsense, Viewpoint, Award, Javelin, etc)

Sheaffer makes a number of inexpensive cartridge pens in the $5-20 range. They are good for trying out fountain pens without investing any significant amount of money. Some of these also come in calligraphy versions, which is useful if you know broad pen lettering.

Parker Frontier

This pen looks nicer than it costs (usually $20) and is a very durable daily-user pen. A good step up from the cheap looking plastic cartridge pens.

Waterman Phileas

The most expensive-looking $30 daily user pen on the market. Very fancy looking (some may consider it a bit overdone) and very reliable. The Phileas has appreciated in value over the last decade and current (2010) prices are in the $50-60 range. Still a good deal at that price, but I can't help shake off the memory of the more affordable days...

Parker Sonnet

A very nice and well-balanced pen. This is one of the more upscale pens for a beginner; it would also make a very nice gift. Prices vary from $60-150 depending on nib and finish; the 18k nibs and sterling silver bodies cost more. The 18k nibs have slight flexibility. Some people have raised QC concerns with this pen, but mine are mostly fine.

Pelikan M200

Another "nice" pen, with perhaps the best modern steel nib, both smooth and semi-flexible. An extremely lightweight pen. Piston fill only. Usually about $60-80, and easily one of the best writing pens available today at any price.

Vintage

Esterbrook J series

Esterbrook made zillions of these in the 40s and 50s, and good examples can be had in the $20 range. They are very common and very easy to find. They are made of a nice shimmering pearlescent plastic in a variety of colors and are lever fillers.

The coolest feature of Esterbrook pens are the interchangable nibs. The nib screws out of the section and can be interchanged with other nibs. Esterbrook made over 30 different nibs for these pens, with wildly different writing characteristics. There are nibs designed for accounting (1550), shorthand (1555), fine penmanship (2048, 9128), signatures (2314M, 9314, etc), and so on. Your one pen can have as many personalities as you have nibs.

They are also pretty much the easiest vintage pen to repair and are very solidly constructed, making them ideal for beginning repairmen to practice on.

Sheaffer Imperials

There are numerous variants of the Imperial, with Touchdown or cartridge fill and steel or 14k gold nibs. Lower end and vintage Imperials can generally be had for $30 and up. A very nice inlaid nib pen, although the simple styling makes it look less impressive than it should be.

Sheaffer Triumph nib pens

Sheaffer made loads of pens in the 40s and 50s with the large 14k conical "Triumph" nib. Most of these pens were built like tanks and are extremely durable. Get a Touchdown or Snorkel filling version (unrestored examples of plunger filling Triumphs almost always require expensive professional restoration). These make good user-grade pens for everyday use and good examples can be had for a little over $30 unrestored, more for a restored pen.

Parker 21/51

The budget-priced alternative to the venerable Parker 51 also makes a great daily-user pen. Working examples can be easily found for $20. You could also go for the Parker 51 Aerometric (about $40-60), which is one of the great classic pens and are almost always in working condition.

Parker 45

The original "convertible" pen, the Parker 45 is a very reliable workhorse pen. The entire pen is very modular in design; parts from a 60s vintage Parker 45 are interchangable with a vintage 90s pen.