Why Fountain Pens?

Why would you want to use or collect fountain pens?

Why Use Fountain Pens?

There are several reasons to use fountain pens instead of or in addition to the usual ballpoints and rollers.

They are nifty

They are extremely nifty. Aesthetically, a fountain pen typically looks much better than a ballpoint, probably because of that nice shiny nib. Perhaps the only pens with greater geek value are the Rapidograph technical pens, but those aren't very good for general writing. A definite win in the aesthetics department.

They are comfortable

No doubt you have noticed that in order to get a ballpoint to write nicely, you must put a fair amount of pressure on the point and hold it at a relatively steep angle. In extended writing, this is somewhat uncomfortable, leading to the development of rubberized ergonomic grips and all sorts of things to make ballpoint writing less tiring.

In contrast, a fountain pen writes at a relatively shallow angle with virtually no pressure on the point. This makes it much less tiring to write with a fountain pen for extended periods. It also tends to encourage you to hold the pen properly (like you were taught in school) as the pen writes best that way. In fact, many fountain pens write poorly when held at sharp vertical angles. For better or worse, they enforce &qout;good penmanship."

In fairness, though, modern rollerballs and gel ink pens also offer a very pleasant (albeit different) writing experience and some (especially those with poor handwriting grips) may prefer those. The main thing is to avoid ballpoints...

The writing looks better

First, ballpoints use an oil paste ink while fountain pens and rollers use a water based liquid ink. The colors in liquid ink are more consistent, vibrant, and well-defined. The difference in quality is easily apparent at first glance.

Separating fountain pens from rollerballs and gel ink is somewhat tricker, as rollers and gel pens also produce a vibrant line. The key is that rollers and gel pens produce a very even line in all directions, while a fountain pen is more sensitive to the writing angle and pressure. This produces a subtle but noticable difference in the writing. It's a pity that this is largely lost in my normally awful handwriting.

A flexible nib fountain pen can produce results that cannot be duplicated with a roller or gel pen (or most modern firm-nib pens, for that matter). See my discussion on nibs to see how a fountain pen nib adds character and style to handwriting. However, as a matter of practicality, non-calligraphers will not be able to use this to its fullest.

They are less expensive than you might think

We're not talking about competing with Bic here; that isn't really possible with any sort of fine pen. However, the picture does look better when you compare them to rollerballs and gel pens.

Granted, a fountain pen's up-front cost is much higher than other pens; a nice starter one could run to $40 or so. That buys you a couple hundred Bics. However, rollerballs are considerably more expensive, usually $2-4 and up for a refill. A bottle of fountain pen ink is around $6-8 and is good for dozens and dozens of fill-ups. Over time, bottled ink is vastly cheaper than rollerball or gel refills.

When we look at it that way, the long-term cost of a fountain pen is a good deal cheaper than rollerballs or gel pens as long as you're using bottled ink. That makes them the more economical option as long as you are careful not to be bitten by the collecting bug...

If you're going to throw money at a pen, it may as well be a fountain pen

If you are just looking for something cheap that puts ink on paper, it's pretty hard to beat the good old disposable Bic stick. Even if you went through one Bic a week it would easily take 20-40 years for that to add up to the cost of a nice fountain pen (assuming you don't lose the fountain pen). If you can go a month without losing or using up your Bic, you'll be dead before you match the cost of a nice fountain pen.

Ballpoints seem to dominate the current "graduation present" market, and you can get ballpoints that range from a few tens to low hundreds of dollars (it seems that everyone and their brother gets a Cross pen for graduation). The thing with ballpoints (and rollers) is that the ink and writing point come in a single disposable unit, and that the writing performance of the pen is dependent only on the refill being used. That is, the only difference between a cheap ballpoint and an expensive ballpoint is how pretty they are, since all parts of the pen actually involved in writing are contained in the refill. The "nice pen" is in fact merely a refill holder for whatever refill you are using. This, I suppose, makes it harder to justify spending much money on a ballpoint when the only part that really makes a difference is the refill. An expensive ballpoint is functional jewelry, plain and simple.

In contrast, a fountain pen carries with it all the relevant parts; the only thing you need to add is ink. The writing characteristics of the pen are actually affected by the permanent parts of the pen itself. This makes it easier to argue for a qualitative difference between pens.

I should point out that there are fountain pens in the sub-$30 range that write reliably and smoothly, so much of the cost in a high-end pen goes into making it prettier. Still, you'd be hard pressed to find an inexpensive modern pen that can match high-end Pelikan or Parker for writing performance.

Why Collect Fountain Pens?

While there may be reasons for an individual to own one or maybe two fountain pens, why should anyone collect them? After all, any reasonable individual will agree that a hundred pens is far more pens than anyone will ever need. But such a collection is small by collector standards. Why collect fountain pens, as opposed to other things?

Functional

Unlike most collectibles, you can actually use the pens in your collection. While you might not need a fancy pen, everyone needs a pen from time to time, and a pen collector will often happily press vintage pens into service to be used as, well, pens.

This is a critical difference between the pen collecting community and other collector communities. Most other collectibles cannot be used in daily life or have no inherent use. Old coins and stamps generally cannot be used. Japanese swords, collectible as they may be, really shouldn't be used in real life.

While it is true that most major penmakers produce "Limited Edition" pens from time to time for the sole purpose of being collected, it is only a small (if splashy) fraction of the collecting market. Even today, pens are generally designed with usability in mind before collectability.

Sense of History

There is some serious cool factor in using a 100 year old pen to write. If there are any time periods in the last century or so that you are nostalgic for, or you just like the retro look, you can find functioning period fountain pens. Functioning fountain pens are like antique furniture, a living, usable piece of history.

Shiny Objects

They do look darned pretty, and that's enough for us magpies.