Finding balance in the second half of life

Fountain Pen Fetish

In Fulfillment on April 5, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I have been on a bender, a toot. I’ve been carousing stationers online and off, and have returned, a bit drunken and debauched to write about it. My newest fetish — fountain pens. I am so in love, in fact, and so thoroughly, that I feel the need to proselytize, with all the obnoxious energy of a new convert.

Let’s see if I can even be convincing, because, of course, there are very good reasons fountain pens fell out of fashion when new pen inventions came along. Inky fingers. Fussiness. Fountain pens require bathing and feeding. We have long lost the talent for encouraging our writing tools to work. But the reward, I have found, completely overshadows the effort. Writing with a fountain pen is a wholly separate writing experience.

Sometimes progress isn’t.

With the rise of the easy-to-use, easy-t0-care-for ballpoint pen, and then the disposable ballpoint, we have come to think of writing utensils as trash almost as soon as we pick them up. In the States alone, nearly 6 billion pens go into landfills every year. Plastics and metals alltogether in unrecoverable comingling. That number is a rough estimate that doesn’t even factor in the 2 billion pens that are even now clogging up the drawers in your kitchen.

Writing with ballpoints requires pressure and a firm grip. It might seem like a very little bit of pressure, and slight grip, but this static use of your muscles over long periods of time, hurts. If you are arthritic, that pressure is impossible to sustain for more than a signature here or there.

Fountain pens flow. They are all about achieving and controling the flow of ink as it meets paper. The experience of having and using them becomes something of a game. Something to think about. Lots of people simply won’t want to spend time thinking about their tools. Pencil users, for instance, claim to be avoiding the whole question.


New fountain pen users are very much on the scene. These are people who are come to these pens in droves through the art-journal craze, and the moleskine craze, and through cartooning, and because their favorite writer uses one.

How are they finding their way? Well, even as we in the Americas turned our backs on the old fountain pen, round about around the middle of the last century, our European and Asian family did not. They have continued to use them, to invent and reinvent them. In the United States, where I live, there is a healthy and entirely entertaining fountain pen holdout community participating in the worldwide Fountain Pen discussion where enthusiasts, and craftpersons and mad scientists keep the flame from guttering out completely in this part of the world.

My own path began with an illness that makes it hard for me to stare for too long at a computer screen. I am learning to write again with ink and paper, and when that happens, my ink (Noodlers Beaver) and paper (Miquelrius Graph notebook) and pen (Lamy — so far almost any Lamy) became very important. Procrastinating, the boon and bane of any writer, is easy to rationalize when you are procrastinating in search of the perfect points of what Fountain Pen people call The Trifecta of fountain pen happiness:

The Pen.

The Ink.

The Paper.

Change out any one of these elements, and the writing experience changes utterly. So you can see, can’t you, how finding your own Trifecta can take time, experimentation, consideration, and can be affected by purpose and mood, and change by season, or moon phase, or whim. Every fountain pen person you meet has her own preferences for pen smoothness or scratch, for paper silkiness or tooth, for ink characteristics too many to finish a nice parallel construction here.

Your Pen(s).

When you decide to dip into this well, you soon find tribes of users. Pen tribes take many forms. There are the gold-nib people and the steel-nib people. The vintage flex people and the Waterman-only-please-even-if-it-writes-like-a-toenail people. You can find incredibly inexpensive pens from China that work quite well straight out of the box for less than $10US, and a following for these instruments. You can find people who will happily pay thousands for pens that have to be babied and fussed over to deliver a single reliable line, but are limited-edition collectors’ items. Happy collectors abound.

Are you an obsessive hunter of a line so fine you’d use a single-bristle brush to get it? Look to Japan, where you will be ceaselessly reminded, when you fall for these pens, that a single Kanji character can take as many as 20 pen strokes to render. Of course they know how to make a fine-fine, so-fine fountain pen nib, and the ink to deliver it.

No? You like  a line that is indelibly present, would take 200 generations to fade out, and can be got entirely fuss-free? The Germans still hand fountain pens to their children, and have engineered them into child-proof ease of use.

But just let’s say you have pulled out Granddad’s set. Have cleaned and inked every pen you can find, and can’t find a pen body (the look, the weight, the grip) that makes you perfectly happy, or if you did find the perfect pen body, you hated the line and feel of its nib.

Enter the nib-meister. These folks are the farriers of this world, replacing nibs, mending feed systems, rebuilding or refurbishing your vintage and new pens, or maybe grinding your boring old medium nib into flights of italic fancy, or left-handed friendliness or…. Well it’s kind of between you and your nib-meister, really. Think of these pen groomers as a cross between a priest and a valet for pen nuts. They come to understand you and your needs and preferences, and help to keep you and your instruments working and happy.

Your Ink.

When you do find your pen, you have to feed it.

Cartridges of ink make ink changes painless, and are always a great way to begin your fountain pen life. Cartridges allow you to adopt a fountain pen without getting fussy about inks by taking the ink manufactured for the pen and providing a mess-free method for refill.

Cartridges are, however, an expensive way to buy ink. Particularly if you write a great deal. But pens that take cartridges almost always also take converters. These are cartridges fitted with a piston mechanism for filling and refilling a pen without disposing of cartridges.

There are pens designed without cartridges, made to be filled from ink bottles. These might have bladders or barrels that are squeezed or levered for refilling. And there is a craze these days for hacking pens with o-rings and tweezers and patience, so you can fill the entire pen body with ink, using an eyedropper.

When you fall in love with inks other than those made by your pen company, consider yourself lost in this world. Ink is the wine of fountain pen existence: the choices endless, the qualities vary by the batch, the presentations often precious, the prices wildly differing. And as with wine, the price is not a reliable sign of quality. You have ink that shades, as my Noodlers Beaver does, and ink that lays down a serious, dead-weight color. (J. Herbin Perle Noir is just perfect for charts, graphs, nihilists, and industrial and graphic designers ever in search of a blacker black.) There are scented inks and inks for people who live in sub-freezing climates and want to use their pens in that fishing shanty/writing sheds. There are inks only visible under black light, and inks that won’t smudge on thermal paper or plastic. There are inks for glass and dry-erase boards. Recipes for making your own inks from iron gall and pokeberry abound.

Many ink collectors are in it not so much for performance characteristics as for the vast and rich colors offered. Fountain pen inks come in in many shades, and some are designed especially so that you can mix your own shades. The ink boards wax rhapsodic about these colors which stand on paper in vivid and moving tonalities that cannot be duplicated by any other substance.

The most important newbie lesson is that art inks — india inks, carbon inks, and dip-pen/calligraphy inks — are dangerous for your fountain pen. These inks have ingredients or additives that can corrode at worst, irretrievably clog at best, a fountain pen. A few nano-carbon inks have been developed that give artists the pigment-based inks they want for fountain pen use. But their performance has been uneven inside pens. People who want to use them for artwork do best to use inexpensive fountain pens with these inks, or pens with nibs that can be replaced without too much expense.  I use my Lamy Safari pen with Platinum Carbon ink for sketching that may receive water color later on. The Lamy nibs can be replaced easily without any expertise required, and the pen is light and groovy. Really a great first pen for anyone.

A single bottle of ink can feed even a prolific writer’s pen for years. Finding your preferred ink would be a wasteful act if it weren’t for ink vendors like the Goulet Pen Company and Pear Tree Pens. The Goulets themselves are great representatives of the fountain pen resurgence, offering a humongous selection of inks, very reasonably priced pens, sumptuous papers, and all the instruction a new pen user could use in media newly minted people love.

They have worked hard to develop color swatches of inks, and sell 2ml vials for sampling, enough ink to write dozens of journal pages, certainly enough to know how you feel about it before springing for an entire bottle, which will last… a long time. How long depends on your writing and drawing life.

Your Paper.

Your ballpoint ink, and much of your disposable-pen ink, congeals on top of most paper. That’s what it was engineered to do. The ballpont pen is built to lay down one amount of ink in a consistent line, and that ink to dry quickly in place without moving about at all.

Fountain pens work just a little differently, and very differently from one another, putting down ink in different ways depending on your nib’s design, your ink, the pressure you use when you write, your handwriting style, the weather, the altitude.  Some pen-and-ink combinations are very wet, putting down a thick line. And some run dry, scratching quill-like along the page. These nuances can be enhanced or arrested by the nature of the paper you choose to use.

Paper, the third point of the trifecta, is easily as complicated as the first two. Maybe moreso, because paper changes with occasion. Your journal is not your stationery is not your school essay is not your quarterly report or legal brief or thank you note or baby announcement.

Papers you like for all of these purposes can be inexpensive, absorbent, pulpy, or they can be highly bleached, or made of recycled fabrics or plastics. Some papers don’t play nicely with some inks, causing the ink to feather, and fray, or take too, too long to dry. Paper can be sized to deliver silk-smooth surface that holds ink above its surface, making it easier to use both sides of the paper, or made without additives to absorb inks and watercolors deep into its fabric.  Paper can be pressed to provide the tooth and consistency of old linen, or include the pulp or elements or petals or seeds of the plants used in its making. And, of course, papers may serve archival purposes, specially formulated without the acid content that will eat paper alive over time.

Your life, your work, your job, your influence on society large or small, your need to be remembered for all eternity, your concern about the resources that go into your paper, so many decisions feed your choice of paper that may go well beyond trend or fashion.

I have not scratched the surface. I work in a design firm that regularly works with paper people. A really informed paper person makes a great advisor if you have particular paper needs. My own need for paper is actually kind of basic. I need a good writing paper in book form, and that book of paper needs to play nicely with the pens and inks I use to write for long, long stretches.

Highly-sized, graph-paper journals work for all of my projects — drawing, writing, and knitting. I have found three favorites that vary a lot by cost and performance, but all of them work with all of my pens. My best writing friend is the Miquelrius Graph Paper Leather-Look notebook, which I find easily at my local B&N, where I wait to buy a bunch using a sale coupon, then plant them in my lovely Oberon cover. Faithful, cheap, chubby, a skillion pages sewn together so they can flatten reasonably. But also, huge, unwieldy. Exacompta and Rhodia are the more sophisticated and expensive cousins. But I think too much of them to just write or draw willy nilly in their pages. These kinds of distinctions matter. If you have paid more for any of your tools than your budget really allows, you might not use them, and what good is that?

The Trifecta at work.

So. Trifecta in place after a long lot of research, I was writing again, long-hand, after spending the past 35 or so years at a keyboard. What a strange experience that is all by itself. Trying to do that with any old pen soon crippled my hand, which is almost useless toward the end of the day even without speeding along the pain with the wrong tools.

But with the right tools? Bliss.

In this moment, a Lamy Nexx M loaded with Noodlers Beaver, looping shades of cedar bark along the smooth graph pages. A fountain pen requires absolutely no pressure. You learn to write all over again, the way you learn to draw, using fluid movements that might emanate from your shoulder or elbow rather than your fingers or wrist. The writing seems to flow not from your hand or arm at all but straight from your mind to the ink as it lays itself down without any effort at all.

And that’s the attraction for so many writers. Despite all the attention you put into it, the fountain pen has a way of disappearing under your hand, allowing you to write without fatigue, for hours and hours.

It’s an added bonus that the result is often quite beautiful, offering a kind of presence that no amount of typing can really give you.

You can see, can’t you, that these writing instruments present the possibility of several kinds of obsession, if not addiction. And while the first hit is not free, it can be very, very cheap. Are you convinced to consider the possibility of such a device in your life? If so, I commend to you the Lamy Safari. For very little investment, it will give you a terrific first pen that could easily be the only pen you ever need.

Yeah, right.

  1. Thank you so very much for mentioning me here! Even though you consider yourself a ‘newbie’, this has to be one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive articles I’ve ever seen on the entire fountain pen experience. You covered everything, the whole ‘trifecta’ and how it all inter-relates.

    What Rachel and I have found is that though there are subsets of groups of enthusiasts within fine writing, we all share a common love and passion for whatever we enjoy most. I believe that what is causing the resurgence in pens is because they are impractical and unnecessary….to most. Because they are a bit of a hassle, people who are luke-warm about them will opt not to use them. The only ones who use them are the ones who are incredibly passionate and seek a greater experience from them. It’s the same as learning to play an instrument versus turning on the radio. Sure, you can still enjoy music on the radio, but if you put in the time and practice to learn to play an instrument, you can achieve a much more fulfilling experience from it.

    But what more can I add than what you wrote here? It’s a wonderful article and I thank you for sharing it. Your new found passion is precisely what motivates me to be involved in fountain pens every day. For as much as I love my pens, ink, and paper, what I love the most is getting to share it with others who have that same passion. And fountain pen enthusiasts are some of the most passionate people you’ll see anywhere!

  2. Alert readers from the Fountain Pen Network have been consulted and are combing through and offering corrections and correcting oversights in this piece. I am in their debt. And yes, it IS Farriers, not ferriers. But it’s interesting to look both words up. My education is never-ending.

  3. thanks for the article. If someone doesn’t understand a twelve year jones for a Cross Townsend Lapis Luzili fountain pen, they won’t be reading this! Enjoyed your piece and ordered a bottle of Kon-Peki Autumn Leave ink after watching Brian load the Namiki.

    My only remaining question, not really, but for now is: Is there a term other than fetish to describe the fascination, scintillation, nay, pure pleasure that arises with the purchase of pen and ink? Addiction? Not sure what the word is but I have it bad, too!

    David Thulstrup

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