Tale of a Vandal Pen User: Reflections on Acquiring Pens

Esterbrook SJs

When I returned to writing with fountain pens, a personal factor in pen selection was (and continues to be) the weight of the pen. There were reasons for this relating to an old hand injury. Heavy pens fatigued my small writing hand. Moving beyond the use of disposable pens was difficult because most non-disposable pens in stores were hefty. Finding fountain pens in a store proved even more difficult.

The first fountain pens I bought were very small and lightweight:  an Esterbrook SJ and a Reform 1745. Both of these I bought after much reading and questioning via the Fountain Pen Network. The pens were a delightful find. I proceeded to do what many fountain pen converts do: pick up more inexpensive pens looking for the “one” pen to outdo all others.

Left to right: Pelikan 150, Pelikan 200, Reform 1745, Esterbrook SJ

While the Esterbrooks satisified the small and lightweight requirement, the levers on mine were always pinching my fingers and refilling with ink became something I did not look forward to. The Reform 1745 introduced me to piston filling pens, and of course, the next important pen selection criteria became lightweight piston pens. Piston pens generally were easy to operate and sucked up a lot of ink into the barrel.

The Reform 1745 is often compared to a Pelikan 150 or 200 fountain pen. This a bit like comparing Green Tomato Pie to Apple Pie. Both look like apple pies but only one has real apples and truly tastes like apple pie. Even so, I did not understand the comparison until I obtained a Pelikan 200. That pen transformed my writing experience because the nib glided across the page like a fountain pen should. (Note: When I eventually put a NOS nib on an Esterbrook, it too glided with ease. Darn those little levers!)

Among Pelikan pens I preferred vintage nibs over modern nibs and because of Pelikan’s very serious business-style design, only one Pelikan was, uh, really necessary. Beyond the Pelikan brand, finding lightweight piston pens did not prove easy. Especially affordable ones. Modern pens are more likely to be cartridge and/or converter filing pens. Pelikan, of course, lead me to the pen I really wanted all along, the Visconti Ragtime.

Converters and International Ink Cartridges

After the piston filling focus, I discovered eyedropper pens which can hold an enormous amount of ink. Having a pen that can write for a long time without needing re-inking also has a strong hold over my pen preference. An eyedropper pen seems like perfect simplicity with fewer parts to break down over time. What’s simpler than unscrewing the section and using an eyedropper to fill the barrel? (See “How to Fill an Eyedropper Pen” for more information.) And so it is possible to keep discovering and re-defining the criteria for pen selection on and on.

An Edison Huron used as an eyedropper pen

The remaining criteria in selecting pens is the mystery factor —the thing that makes me or you smile or feel good when picking the pen up and putting it to paper. While writing I want only to think about the writing, not the pen itself. Yet when coming up for air, it’s a plus when the pen makes you realize what a lovely instrument you’re holding. Even more than the weight of the pen, the pen’s aesthetic resonance remains deeply personal and individual.

Slowly I realize it is not c/c’s, pistons, levers or eyedroppers alone that make for a pleasing pen. A lightweight mystery-filling pen with a nib that flows consistently and smoothly across the page will do.

Earlier this year I defined my pen collection as Visconti Ragtimes and Wahl-Oxfords. Yet the defining was only helpful from a collecting standpoint. That is, for me, in declaring, “these are what I collect,” the declaration turns out not be not accurate or meaningful. I have two Wahl-Oxfords and no desire to expand. I am far from collecting every Ragtime style and color and no desire to do so. Not to forget my personal commitment contentment in having no more 20 fountain pens. (Having forcefully downsized to the current number of pens has me thinking that perhaps even fewer are desirable.) Surely such lack of desire must define me as a user of pens and not a pen collector. I have the greatest respect for those who do collect and maybe even more so for those who labor over restoration and preservation of vintage pens. Perhaps it is the quirk of being a storyteller that makes me far more interested in the history of vintage pen manufacturing than in having the pens themselves.

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11 thoughts on “Tale of a Vandal Pen User: Reflections on Acquiring Pens

  1. Excellent post! And lovely pic of those Esties, too.

    Have you tried a Lamy 2000? A lightweight, less expensive piston-filler (mine was about $100, but I’ve seen them for less at FPN).

    1. Yes, the Lamy 2000 is a very nice pen with legions of fans. This, though, is an example of a pen that does not sing to me personally. But I’ve learned not to use the word “never!”

  2. Really an insightful piece, Julie! You’re right, too; filling systems and aesthetics aside, the real test of a pen’s worth is what happens when you sit down to tell YOUR story. (Although I’d recommend giving a Vacumatic or a 51 a try for a lightweight and comfortable writer too!)

    1. Thanks for stopping by! The 51 doesn’t appeal (those hooded nibs!). The Vacumatic however will get scrutinized some day. And then there’s the Sheaffer Balance vac…

  3. I do like the way you think. It is important how a pen writes but it is also important how a pen looks and feels in my hand…hard to evaluate when you are buying over the net, like the namiki VP. When I saw this pen I had to have it. Although it writes nice it has an awkward feel when I hold it and the ink cartridges are small and run out too quickly. I dislike propriatory ink cartridges.
    I notice that you have a love for Visconti pens. are this your favorite pen? I would love to own a Homo Sapiens just for the name alone.
    The Pilot 823 custom speaks to me as does the Omas Ogvia Vision and the Sailor 911.
    Only time and the lottery seperates me from owning them.

    1. Jack: Yes, it’s difficult for those of us who rely upon the Internet for purchasing pens. I tried a friend’s VP once and was very impressed with the quality of the nib. Yet, like you indicate there are other considerations that prevent me from owning one of these pens. I love 1990’s Visconti…with the beautiful Italian celluloids and the pre-arch clips. I have not been drawn to the Homo Sapiens… I suspect that this pen requires an in person assessment. :)

  4. First of all let me correct my typo on my last comment.
    Of course I mean the Sailor 1911, not 911 as I stated. I would like to own one witha Nagahura togi nib. ( Dream on )
    I see what you mean now that I have done some research. The pre-arch Viscontis’ have way more appeal. Thanks for the reply.

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