Fountain Pens 102

A year ago, I wrote an introduction to fountain pens, followed, sort of, by a a review of my most-used pen in November.

Today, then, Fountain Pens 102: What parts of a pen actually matter?

98% of pen reviews on the internet seem to concentrate on the same two aspects: aesthetics, and cachet. That’s great if you’re a snobbish pen-fondling lawyer trying to impress your fellow partners at work, I suppose – “I say, darling, doesn’t the luxurious precious resin on my new Starwalker nicely complement the texture of this Armani suit?” – but absolutely irrelevant if you care about functional tools meant to be written with. “Insert_Pen_Manufacturer_Here have a rich tradition of crafstmanship stretching back generations…” So? Kraft have been making “Macaroni and Cheese” / “Kraft Dinner” since 1937, but that doesn’t mean it’s great… or even good.

Anyway, what most reviews – and most pen users – overlook is that there are really just three parts to a pen that actually matter – and two of ’em you normally don’t even see.

The Nib

The nib – that which transfers the ink to the paper – is probably the most important part of a fountain pen, full stop. Yet it’s one that most people, even “pen fanciers”, seem curiously ambivalent about. As long as it’s big and shiny and the preferred size (fine/medium/broad/whatever), most people are happy. The nib is where most of the quasi-mystical “writing experience” comes from, and they tend to be pretty uniform among manufacturers – i.e. all Rotring pens use pretty much the same nib, as do most Lamy pens, et cetera. A $20 Rotring doesn’t write any differently than a $200 Rotring.

You can chase larger and prettier and more-expensive Pelikans, to take one example, but since most of their (modern) nibs are interchangeable, you’re not getting any different a writing experience for your extra money. If you happen to like Pelikan’s idea of what a nib should be, more power to you. If you’re not happy with your M200, buying an M400 isn’t going to magically change your life.

On the other hand, if you try a $30 Waterman Phileas, and decide you like how it writes, but hate the cheap plastic look of the thing, a different (modern) Waterman should provide a (near-)identical experience, in (hopefully) a more-attractive package.

This is why it’s worth trying a lot of cheap pens from various manufacturers; you might discover you really like the way the ultra(!)-rigid “Triumph” nibs on some vintage Sheaffer pens write, or the way that Jinhao’s hooded nibs perform.

The Feed

The nib is important, to be sure; there’s a reason there are dozens of people out there who make a living adjusting and tweaking and customizing fountain-pen nibs, after all. Less obviously important is the nib’s perpetual partner, the feed. Whereas the nib is what transfers ink to paper, the feed – the (usually) black bit underneath the nib – is what transfers ink to the nib. A good, well-designed feed does this consistently and reliably; a bad one… much less so.

The early development of feeds was a matter of trial-and-error; later development had some staggeringly complicated science involved. That’s really worth emphasizing – there’s some real hardcore science that goes into the design of a well-made pen feed. Regrettably, a lot of pen companies today aren’t as interested in this as they should be, so they are with some alarming frequency producing things that should probably properly be called “feed-shaped objects”, designed more with aesthetics or ease-of-manufacturing in mind than functionality or performance.

This is one of the oft-overlooked benefits of vintage pens, even lower-end ones; they work – and work reliably – because the people who made them knew what they were doing, and actually intended them to be used. (On a pen designed more to be seen than written with, boring things like feed construction are evidently less important.)

Regrettably, there isn’t a lot you can do about the feed on a pen; they aren’t really interchangeable or replaceable. What the manufacturer gives you is what you’re stuck with. Misshapen lumps of injection-moulded styrene; love ’em or leave ’em.

The (Blind) Cap

The nib and feed are the essence of a fountain pen; they are what make it, in fact, a fountain pen, and their importance is fairly obvious once you think about it for a little while.

What’s the third most-important part of a pen, after the nib and feed? Some people might guess “the filling system”. Many pen reviewers might say “the marque” or “the aesthetics”. For my money, however, it’s… the cap.

More specifically, the blind cap. What’s that? It’s the functional bit, inside the more obvious cap, that should form a seal against the body or section of the pen when the cap is on, preventing the ink from evaporating and the pen from “drying out” and clogging. Again, back in an era when pens were functional writing instruments, this was considered important, and was something that most companies managed to get right.

Today, a shocking number of pens don’t have airtight caps/blind caps, for one of two reasons. One is probably a mix of apathy, ignorance, and incompetence; maybe they tried to make an airtight cap, but loose tolerances screwed things up… or maybe they just had no idea what they were doing. (Sadly common on no-name pen-shaped-objects designed in China for export, I’m afraid.) Some companies, regrettably, make caps that aren’t airtight on purpose.

Why? Lawyers, or so I’m told. Apparently a pen cap is theoretically a choking hazard. Put a hole or two in it, and it’s… less of one, I guess. Reduced liability, and whatnot. Thing is, you can put these holes in the cap in such a way that the blind cap still does what it’s supposed to… except this is viewed as unsightly, because they’re plainly visible. So, you hide the hole under the clip, or at the very tip of the cap, or in both places, and you appease the designers and the lawyers, but have compromised the function of the blind cap and produced an ill-conceived (alleged) pen that dries out alarmingly quickly. Sometimes you can seal these gaps with glue, or wax; sometimes you just have to suffer… or pick a different pen.

That’s it. Those are the only parts of a pen that really matter – getting ink onto the paper (the nib), getting ink to the nib (the feed), and keeping the ink from evaporating while it’s in the pen (the blind cap). Everything else is ergonomics, or aesthetics… or fluff.

Published in: Geekiness, History | on January 28th, 2011| No Comments »

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