Recently I have been taking stock of my fountain pen accumulation. This involved getting them all together and listing them on a spreadsheet, a sure sign of having too many pens.
They included twelve Lamy Safaris and AL-stars. I am not even a particular fan of these pens. What was I thinking?
But then as I looked, their stories came back to me, one by one. The charcoal Safari was my first. It was an impulse buy in Rymans in Golders Green when my wife had sent me to buy Sellotape. She was busy making a photo display for our church. I used that pen a lot.
Then the pink one was bought in Marlow, a pretty town on the River Thames. We had gone for a day trip with Joey, a Chinese student who was visiting us at the time. I tried unsuccessfully to enthuse her in fountain pens.
I bought the red one in a traditional fountain pen shop on another day trip, to Oxford. An aunt had sent me a cheque for my birthday to buy myself something pen-related. A Safari seemed just the thing. The helpful lady in the shop offered me a choice of nib too, in silver or black. I chose black. (At the moment, this nib has been borrowed by my Lamy Studio, whose own nib was ruined when it fell off a table).
The Lamy Vista, (Safari demonstrator version) was bought in the summer of 2014. I remember showing it to my brother when we met up to see the Eagles at London’s O2 Arena, in the final stages of the History tour. It was one of the most fabulous concerts I had ever seen, more poignant now as it included the late Glenn Frey, who passed away in 2016. My brother and his partner had generously bought me the ticket as a surprise.
I remember buying the black Safari in Harrods’ stationery department, from a pen cup rather than in the usual blister pack. It was probably my intention to use this with black ink. A black pen always looks smart.
I was thrilled to find the limited edition Dark Lilac Safari, when eventually it appeared in our local shops. I had been waiting for it to arrive. This was a great colour and so was the matching ink.
Similarly, the limited edition Petrol was a thrilling find, when it arrived in our shops quite some time after news of the colour had first appeared on the internet. I much enjoyed the matching ink colour, a dark teal with lovely shading.
The yellow Safari is still my favourite of the Safari colours. I was on the way home from Hampstead after an annual cardio check-up at the hospital. I popped in to have a look around Rymans and treated myself to the Safari “for being good.”
Turning to my AL-stars, the black was my first. I remember being excited to discover that an aluminium version existed and enjoying the touch of the cool aluminium body. I had this pen with me during a short stay in Tetbury, in the Cotswolds in May 2013 where we had been for a wedding. I found a stationery shop there with a display in the window of the same black AL-star as mine. Naturally I took a photograph of it.
The Ocean blue AL-star was bought in Rymans Golders Green and has been featured in this blog before (here). The nib was particularly smooth.
The colour name is not to be confused with the lighter, Pacific blue version, which I ordered from Cult Pens and which came with a pack of cartridges in the lovely bright Lamy turquoise.
Finally, the rather unusual colour called Charged Green was another impulse buy, probably because the price was reduced. It was not a colour that appealed to me really but I decided to give it a go. However the accompanying cartridges were too light a shade to be useful.
I did not set out to be a pen collector. I think the fact that I passed up all the other colours of the Safari and AL-star and the LX models too, proves that I am not a collector. But as I get older, I am realising that it is not so much the merits of a pen in our ownership that make it important to us, but the associations that the pen has for us. I have shared mine here, not because they are particularly significant but to prompt you to reflect on what associations your pens have for you. Whether we see ourselves as collectors of pens or not, we are traveling through life collecting memories.
Recently I was asked in an email, what fountain pen I would recommend for a beginner. She mentioned that she had traditional taste, enjoyed good quality and style and wished to start with a cheaper pen, costing no more than say 20 to 30 euros. She wished to use it with a Leuchtturm 1917 notebook. “Is it possible to get a good quality pen for that price?”, she asked.
Happily, the answer to the last question is yes. There are numerous fountain pens on the market in this price bracket, from a wide range of brands and with a host of different attributes.
Ideally, before making recommendations, I would find out a little more such as her previous experience of fountain pens, how she holds her pens, her writing size and style, whether she has any preferences as between brands, materials (plastic or metal), filling systems and the pen’s size and weight, and so on.
In the absence of such information to narrow down the field, I made a number of assumptions and the following can be general advice only and is based upon my own experience, likes and dislikes.
From the mention of the Leuchtturm notebook, I assume that the pen may be used for journaling but may also be enjoyed for letter writing, occasional notes and other general tasks: in short, a general purpose pen.
Also, the suggestion of “starting with a cheaper pen”, implies that she wishes to try an entry-level pen first and then later progress to the next level. This is sensible to ensure that she likes using a fountain pen before investing too much money and secondly, to spend some time with a beginner’s pen and so appreciate the improvements when moving on.
A beginner’s pen will have a stainless steel nib. I suggest a medium nib to start with (assuming average sized handwriting). As for filling systems, the pens in the following selection are almost all cartridge-converter pens. That is, they are filled by inserting a plastic cartridge of ink but can also be adapted for filling from a bottle, by inserting a “converter,” typically an ink reservoir with a twist mechanism for drawing up ink.
Cartridges are quick, clean and convenient for refilling on the go. The downside is that it is generally more expensive to buy ink in cartridges, (especially if the pen accepts only its own branded cartridges, as with Lamy and Cross for example). There is also the plastic waste. Bottled ink gives the benefit of being available from a variety of brands and in a huge number of colours.
The one other filling system represented in my list, is the piston filler (TWSBI Eco) which draws ink directly into the barrel and can be filled only from a bottle.
If possible, it is best to visit a shop to see the pen before buying but this is not always practical, not least because of the current lockdown and so buying online may be the only option.
With all these caveats in mind, here is my personal selection, in no particular order, with a few thoughts on each:-
Perhaps the most obvious choice, the Lamy Safari is widely available, in a range of colours with new special edition colours coming out every year. These are tough, plastic pens with quick, snap-on caps and are a decent size even for larger hands. Thanks to state of the art engineering, good quality control and testing, the nibs are well finished and write smoothly, straight out of the box. Replacement nibs are available in various widths and are easy and inexpensive to replace. The pens cost around £18.00 in the UK
The downside for some is that the grip section has two facets, pushing you to adopt a symmetrical grip between finger and thumb, centred above the nib which is not so comfortable if you prefer to rotate your nib inwards as you write (as I do). This puts some pen enthusiasts off, although most whom I know, probably own or have owned at least one. Also you are restricted to Lamy cartridges. A Lamy converter can be bought separately.
An aluminium version of the pen, in a range of colours, is available at around £25.00.
Cross Bailey Light
This new pen from Cross appeared in 2019, as a plastic version of the popular, heavier lacquered metal Cross Bailey. This is a cartridge-converter pen, taking Cross proprietary cartridges or else a Cross converter (the push-fit version, model 8751). It is a simple, traditional style pen of a good, medium size and proportions. The plastic cap can be “posted” (pushed on the back of the pen) for added length and weight. This looks a more adult pen than the Safari, having no facets on the grip. The pens are sold in sealed packs, with medium nibs. These offer a firm writing experience, good for note-taking and faster writing. Personally I try to pick out pens with nib tines with a slight glimpse of daylight between them, which mean good ink flow and effortless fast writing.
The downside is that Cross cartridges are rather expensive. But with the pen costing £20.00 in the UK plus a converter for £7.00, you are still under £30.00 in our currency. I am a big fan of these pens finding them very comfortable and reliable.
This is another fairly traditional syle pen, perhaps rather under-rated here and certainly less prevalent in the shops than Lamy and Cross brands. However, this pen has a delightful smooth, steel nib. If bought online, from Cult Pens for example, there is a choice of nib in extra fine, fine, medium and broad widths. I have only tried the medium nibs but imagine that a broad would be silky smooth. The pen features a rubber ergonomic grip with subtle, smooth edged facets for your thumb and forefinger to rest on. At around £15.00 these are excellent value. They also have the advantage of accepting standard international cartridges, which are readily available from numerous brands and in a vast array of colours.
For the price there is little to say against this pen. It is a good size, light in weight and the cap can be posted if desired but this makes it rather too long at 17.5cm.
The Nexx seems to be rather overlooked here, being over-shadowed by the ubiquitous Safari. However, it is a tough workhorse pen. It has the same nib as the Safari and AL-Star, but features a wider, rubber grip and an aluminium barrel which blends gradually from being cylindrical to a rounded triangular shape at the end. It has a tough plastic cap in a variety of bold colours. Again, like the Safari, it will need Lamy cartridges or the appropriate Lamy converter. The price here is around £19.00, similar to a Safari.
The downside of this pen for me is that the rubber grip makes it slightly harder to make small adjustments to the angle of rotation of the pen as you write: you need to lift the pen off your fingers before you can twist it in your hands. Secondly, there is an unusual clash of materials, as between the plastic cap, rubber grip section and aluminium barrel. This, plus the unusual shape of the barrel makes for an interesting tactile experience. Personally, I am not keen on rubber grips or triangular barrels and yet inexplicably, taken as a whole I am impressed by the pen. I have had mine for only a few months. It could not be described as traditional in style.
The Perkeo is another cartridge-converter pen, in a range of colour options and an All Black in tough plastic and multi faceted cap and barrel. The grip does have some facets for your finger positions but it is not rubber and these are less obtrusive than on the Lamy Safari. Personally I grip the pen higher than the facets and so they do not interfere with my grip. The pen is a good size, whether posted or not. I enjoy the Kaweco nibs which are slightly softer than the Lamy Safari nibs. The pens are sold in clear plastic packs with either a medium or fine nib. I have bought quite a few of these in both widths. The medium nibs are great for general use but I also like the fine nib version to use with black ink which is very precise with a pleasant feedback. The pens cost around £16.00 here. They take standard international cartridges and are supplied with four blue cartridges of the lovely vibrant Kaweco blue.
The downside perhaps is that the pen is not traditional in style and looks like a whiteboard marker pen. There is no pocket clip. Also, the build quality can be a bit variable and some people have had complaints with the nibs. Aside from such quality control issues I think they are great value and provided you get a good one, the writing experience can be delightful.
My final suggestion is different from all the above in that it is a “piston filler” (bottle only) pen, which means a much larger ink capacity than any cartridge. Secondly, it is a “demonstrator” pen meaning that it is made of a clear plastic so that you can see the nib and feed and filling mechanism. Once filled, you can also see the ink sloshing around. Nibs are available in a range of widths. The pens start from around £28.00 here increasing for some of the different colour options. It is also the only pen in this selection with a screw on cap.
TWSBI pens are appreciated by enthusiasts, not only for their quality and value but also because they can be disassembled for cleaning. TWSBI supplies its pens with a wrench to unscrew the piston. The nib and feed can be pulled out and are “friction fit” for ease of changing, cleaning or maintenance, although none of this is strictly necessary if you prefer not to tinker with it. TWSBI even supplies each pen with a small container of silicone grease to lubricate the piston.
There are numerous other pens that I could have included but have left out to keep the list managable. As it is, I have already stretched the brief rather beyond the traditional. Any pen enthusiast would have his own opinions and this is clearly subjective and tastes differ.
I have not included Parker pens at this price level. A Parker Vector is well within the budget but rather too slender in my view and not one of my favourites. Many people might recommend the Pilot Metropolitan as a starter pen, also within budget, but I do not find them very comfortable and the nibs are very fine. Then there are Chinese pens such as the Wing Sung 601 or the Wing Sung 699, both well inside this price range and of traditional design but although great value, I think that they are not everyone’s idea of a beginner’s pen.
My own preference, would be for the Cross Bailey Light with medium nib and converter which is a good, traditional pen of quality and style. Although having said that, everybody should have at least one Lamy Safari, preferably yellow.
This weekend has seen some more inky goings-on which, taken on their own, might not be blog-worthy but together seem worth sharing in a round-up.
I am still delighted with the Cleo Skribent, piston filler fountain pen, four weeks in. I can genuinely say that I feel happy every time I remember it. The first fill, with Aurora Blue was still not quite finished when I ordered a bottle of Monteverde Napa Burgundy and decided to flush the remains of the blue, to have an ink change.
While flushing the pen, I decided to try removing the nib and feed. I had not yet found any guidance on doing this and was anxious not to cause any damage. I found that they are friction fit and came out very easily, when gripped together in tissue paper and pulled out straight. It is great to be able to rinse a nib and feed or remove the nib for any minor adjustments. To replace them, you just need to line up the nib and feed correctly, holding the nib on top of the feed centrally and with the right length of tines protruding beyond the end of the feed and then gently rotate them in the grip section until you locate the right way to push them back in.
Whilst the pen was empty, I dipped it in three different inks to see how they would each look from the fine (more like extra fine) nib of the Cleo Skribent. I tried Pelikan Edelstein Tanzanite, Waterman Harmonious Green and then Diamine Conway Stewart Tavy, which is one of my favourite blue-black inks. I tried these on three different papers in turn. The Tavy gave a slightly bluer shade than the Tanzanite.
I then had the idea of seeing whether any of my pens had nibs which were interchangeable with the Cleo Skribent. The nib looked to be about the same size as the nib on a Kaweco Sport, a Cross Apogee or a Monteverde Artista Crystal. All of these are friction fit and are removed just by a careful pull of the nib and feed together, taking care not to damage the delicate feed. The nib on the Cross Apogee is 18k gold with a silver-coloured plating. However, once removed from the pens, the nibs of the Cross Apogee and the Kaweco Sport were both shorter than that of the Cleo Skribent.
The nib on the Monteverde Artista Crystal appears to be same length as the Cleo Skribent and so I think it would be possible to use that in the Cleo, if I wanted a Medium nib option. However, for now, I kept to the Cleo’s own nib.
On Friday, I received an exciting package from Cult Pens, including the Monteverde Napa Burgundy ink that I had ordered. It came in a 90ml bottle and boasts a special formula, which they call ITF (Ink Treatment Formula). This, it is claimed, “drastically improves ink-flow quality, extends cap-off time, lubricates and protects the ink-feeding systems from corrosion and clogging and improves ink-drying time on papers.”
Whilst this all sounds very commendable, I soon found that the colour when paired with the very fine nib of the Cleo Skribent, looked a rather pale pinky-brown rather than the rich dark burgundy red that I had hoped for. I will try it in a pen with a broader and wetter nib but meanwhile decided to flush it from the Cleo.
Furthermore, I did a very quick swab test comparison of the Monteverde Napa Burgundy with a Mont Blanc Burgundy and found that they appear pretty much the same colour. Others may conduct a proper and thorough comparison but to my eyes there is little to distinguish them in terms of colour on the page and if I was shown a sample of only one of them, I would be hard put to say which one it was. Of course, the other qualities listed above should also be evaluated and not only the colour. Anyway, happiness was soon restored once I refilled the Cleo, with the Tavy ink that I had sampled earlier.
On Saturday, I spent the day at a church in Flackwell Heath, Buckinghamshire, hearing first hand about all the excellent work of a UK registered charity, Jubilee Society of Mongolia. The talk was hosted by the church which has supported the organisation since it was founded. Two Mongolian ladies from the organisation had come over to give a presentation, celebrating its 15th anniversary.
After hearing about all the very important and valuable work that the charity is doing in Mongolia, it seems rather shallow to tell you only that I took notes all day, using a Sheaffer Sagaris in the morning and then the Cleo Skribent in the afternoon. Both pens were excellent for note-taking and did not dry out if uncapped for a while.
Also in that package from Cult Pens, as well as the burgundy ink, was my new Lamy AL-star in the Pacific Blue, special edition for 2017. I had not seen these in the shops yet. The colour and finish are very appealing. Cult Pens offers a choice of nibs, in Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, Broad and Left Handed. I was rather intrigued by this last option and telephoned to ask what it meant, before ordering. Was it an oblique nib? Or one which was adjusted to write wetter for lefties? And what nib width was it? I was told that it is simply a bit more rounded and forgiving for people to hold the pen at different angles. Being a leftie, I decided to try one. I also ordered a pack of the matching Pacific Blue cartridges.
I tried the new pen and ink as soon as they arrived. I love the colour of the pen and the ink. I thought the ink to be quite similar to Pilot Iroshizuku ama-iro. However on comparing them side by side, the Pacific Blue is clearly lighter than the Ama-iro.
As for the nib, I had close look at it under the loupe. It has the letters LH on. There is generous amount of tipping material and the nib was usable straight out of the box, but a little skippy. I suspect it just needed to wear in. However, being impatient to enjoy the new pen and ink, I swapped over the LH nib for a medium nib from one of my Safaris and this is now writing very nicely and is the nib used for the writing sample pictured.
With this new Pacific Blue AL-star to brighten my pen cups, I now have seventeen fountain pens currently inked and need to bring this down.
This week I have one day out on a continuing professional development course. I am looking forward to taking notes with the Cleo Skribent again and possibly the Lamy AL-star Pacific Blue for annotating the handouts.
I have begun to appreciate that a good ink is just as important as a good pen, in finding an optimum writing experience. It is great when you do find a combination of pen and ink that not only works, but enables both pen and ink to bring out the best in themselves and each other.
After reading great things about Sailor Kiwa-guro black pigment ink from other bloggers, I was excited to try it for myself and ordered a bottle from The Writing Desk.
This is said to be safe to use in fountain pens and has several useful attributes. First, it is largely waterproof. Secondly, it resists feathering, where other inks fail. Thirdly, it also resists bleeding and show-through.
As well as all this, it seems to be a clean and well-behaved ink, that does not leave a residue on the insides of the converter.
The bottle contains a plastic conical insert, which is filled by turning the bottle upside down and then righting it again, for ease of filling your pen when the ink level is low.
When you look at the ink in the open bottle and swill it around a little bit, it does not leave any trace on the plastic insert but keeps to itself, rather like mercury back in my school science class days.
I decided to try the ink first in my black Lamy AL-star. The matte-black barrel and cap, the black nib and black clip all pointed to this pen being a good choice.
The ink flow of the Lamy is known for being on the dry side and my medium nib is smooth and firm. Paired with the Sailor Kiwa-guro, the lubrication of the nib is wonderful, rather like the feel of a plastic spatula in a non-stick saucepan and with no skipping.
Naturally I was eager to try the ink for water resistance. I wrote a few lines and then immersed the paper in a basin of water. There was a very slight lift-off of ink but when removing the paper and allowing it to dry, the writing looked as good as new. This would be a great ink to use for addressing envelopes or any use where there is a risk of the paper getting wet.
My next test was to try the pen on an unused notebook, (a Paperchase Agenzio soft black, ruled notebook) that I had previously given up on, as being unusable with fountain pens.To my great delight, there was no bleeding with this ink. I recommend this ink if you have notebooks that you cannot use (for writing on both sides of the paper) with other inks.
As for feathering, I had tried a new black Sheaffer Sagaris recently with the supplied black Sheaffer Skrip cartridge and was surprised at how much this feathered on a reporter’s inexpensive spiral bound note book. This same paper had been good to use with a Lamy blue ink cartridge.
Sure enough, when trying the Kiwa-guro on this paper, there was no feathering. The lines remain very crisp, whereas the Skrip black ink has gone very woolly. Admittedly the Sheaffer Sagaris is a wetter writer than the AL-star so this is not a level playing field.
I have used the black AL-star with Sailor Kiwa-guro at work for over a week now, for writing notes, forms and documents and signing letters and enjoy the silky feel of the nib gliding over the paper.
On the downside, I had hoped that it might be possible to go over the writing with a yellow highlighter pen without smudging but this was not entirely successful. There is an element of the ink that is not waterproof and which will smudge if you go over it with a highlighter pen even though the writing remains very dark. Some black ink will transfer to the felt tip of the highlighter. For this reason it is probably not suited to being used for drawing in conjunction with water colour paints, but then this is not its intended use.
The other downside is the price, at £21.60 for the 50ml bottle, making this a premium ink, but given its useful properties I have no regrets about the expense.
I have not yet tried it in any other pen. As a pigment ink, I still thought it best to keep it to one pen at a time which I then use regularly. However, it may well be that my concerns over ink drying out in the pen and being difficult to clean up, are unjustified. From my brief experience of this ink so far I am certainly tempted to try it in a different pen next time, particularly one of those which might benefit from a more lubricating ink.
Thank you to everyone for their suggestions and sympathy, with regard to my pen case dye-stained, yellow and pink Lamy Safaris (Pen cases: a cautionary tale, 5 January 2017). I have not yet found an antidote. I have not given up hope of restoring them but am yet to find an economical remedy.
Both the yellow and pink Safaris are still available to buy in my local shops and so it would be a quick and easy matter to throw some money at the problem and replace them both. But if I were to do that, would I then throw away the stained barrels and caps and forget them? I don’t think so. And even if I did, I suspect that I would remember them every time I looked at their replacements.
On reflection, I was particularly fond of the yellow one, but had never really taken to using the pink one. The yellow colour for the Safari is my all time favourite, just as the yellow colour suited the Saab 900 convertible. If I were to replace just one, it would be the yellow one.
Both of the pens are still usable with their black stained barrels and caps, at home at least. It seems wasteful to throw them away.
I pondered these things in my heart as I gazed at the Lamy rack today. Eventually however, I was won over by the idea of not trying to replace them but rather, of compensating myself with a shiny new Lamy AL-star in vibrant metallic blue, which had caught my wandering eye, a few pens along the row. I rather liked the idea of using it with Omas blue ink which seemed equally vibrant. So I went with the AL-star option.
A few doors away, is a nice coffee shop on the high street, where I then sat with a Regular Mocha and examined my new purchase. I guiltily entered it on my app database of fountain pens, not unaware that this was my first pen purchase of 2017 despite my resolution to ease back on the pen-buying, after the shock of 2016’s end of year tally.
Guilty thoughts aside, I unscrewed the barrel, popped in the supplied Lamy blue cartridge and pushed it home. I had a reporter’s ruled spiral notebook in my bag and was eager to try the pen. To my pleasure and delight, ink started to flow within a couple of touches of pen to paper and was one of the most silky smooth, new pen experiences in recent memory. The royal blue ink glistened under the bright spot-lamps in the coffee shop ceiling.
One of life’s pleasures, I think, is to sit in a coffee shop, watching the world go by in the busy high street outside the window and the comings and goings within, with a nice pen and notebook on the table before you.
I made the observation that the ink drying time was around the five second mark on that paper. I was very happy with the ink flow. Sometimes, these nibs are said to be on the dry side but mine seemed to be tuned to the optimum balance of lubrication, smoothness and drying times.
I also observed, when writing a few lines with my Sheaffer Sagaris, filled with Caran d’Ache Idyllic Blue, that the colour was not wildly dissimilar from the Lamy blue ink in the cartridge, which is also a very uplifting royal blue.
And so, with the upset of my disfigured Safaris behind me, a new chapter of blue AL-star ownership begins. And I have broken my 2017 pen fast already, even before the sun had set on the fourteenth day.