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.
Having written about my Pelikan M400 vintage tortoise for three posts in a row last month, I thought today, for balance, I would celebrate a pen from the lower end of the price spectrum.
So, how would you like to see a pen that loads like a shotgun? I thought so. Take a look at the Bic EasyClic.
I first learned of these from one of Stephen Brown’s YouTube videos, in which he reviewed the red “Hello Kitty” version, giving it the same systematic treatment as he might give a Visconti. I was intrigued enough to seek one out and found them in our local Ryman stationer, sold in a blister pack, for just £3.99.
This is primarily a child’s pen, available in a range of colours and measuring about 12.7cm capped and 11.8 uncapped. It has matching, transparent coloured push-on cap, the plastic pocket clip of which looks rather fragile.
The section has two rubbery facets, left and right of centre, to aid grip. Between these, if you look closely, (I only spotted this today) is the Bic logo. The plastic barrel is in two parts, with a sliding section which you pull back using the ridged gripping areas and then tilt by about 30 degrees, to expose the cartridge holder. Inside this sliding section, there is a metal insert to hold a cartridge. You simply push in a standard international cartridge, push the narrow end into the metal collar and then tilt and push the holder back into place with an easy click which gives the pen its name. It is tempting to point it at the sky and shout “Pull!”
The nib is stainless steel with the Bic name and logo but no other markings. There is no breather hole. This is a butterfly nib with the tip formed by folding the ends of the tines back on each other, rather than having a pellet of tipping material. However, if the tines are level, the nib is capable of writing very smoothly.
Over the following few weeks, I amassed four more of these in other colours. On checking the nibs with a loupe, some needed slight adjustment to align the tines but this was easily accomplished. Two of my five models have TUNISIA on the barrel, while the other three have FRANCE.
The pen, being designed for a child’s hand, is short when uncapped. The cap can be placed on the back but does not post securely. As an adult with medium to large hands, and what with the tapering of the barrel, I found the pen too short to be comfortable for all but the briefest of notes.
However, after trying on a few different caps, I found that the cap of a Lamy Safari posts deeply and securely giving a posted length of 14cm and making this little pen much more comfortable and easier to control. The Safari cap also gives it more weight, without upsetting balance and stops the pen from rolling off a desk. So pleased was I at this simple discovery that I wrote to tell Stephen Brown, who said it was a cool suggestion. Of course, it does mean that you have an unused Lamy Safari and arguably you may have a better writing experience using the Safari which costs four times as much but that is not the point.
The pen weighs around 9.5 grams inked and uncapped, but posting a Lamy Safari cap brings this up to a comfortable 17 grams.
For disassembly, if desired, you can detach the section by pulling it hard, while holding the barrel firmly by the sides, (the non-sliding part) in the other hand. It snaps on and off. Beyond this I have not tried to remove the nib and feed from the section.
Mine have given various levels of success. I paired them up with matching coloured ink cartridges. The blue pen has the smoothest nib and this has been inked constantly. It is particularly impressive at starting immediately, even after a week or more without use. This is due to the cap forming a good airtight seal, with some rubber O rings on the section. You can easily slide open the barrel to check the remaining ink.
Clearly this pen will not appeal to those whose interest is only in higher end pens for serious grown ups. But if, like me, you do not discriminate on price or target age group and enjoy the merits of the pen, I think it is a fun pen and well worth a look. I like that it is a re-usable pen at this price and cheap to run on a bag of 50 cartridges for £2.00. For me the unusual loading mechanism alone is already worth the purchase price. And to find one which writes well with good flow and no hard starts at such a low price is great. If you are prepared to use better quality ink cartridges such as Diamine, Graf von Faber-Castell or Kaweco, this will improve the writing experience.
I do enjoy keeping an eye on what fountain pens are available, including school pens, in stationery shops and supermarkets both here and when travelling. It is great when you find a bargain which is also a good performer.
Having a number of fountain pens uninked at any one time, I was in need of a storage case. At the London Pen Show in October 2015, I bought a black, 24-pen zip case, which had elasticated slots for 12 pens on each side and a flap to separate the two sides when the case was closed.
The case was only £15.00, in a padded, leather-look, finish and appeared to be quite a good practical design. The zip extended for a few inches beyond the rim of the case, to facilitate opening it flat on a table and had a popper to fasten the zip down when in the closed position. It had no apparent brand name and so I cannot tell you who makes it or where it comes from. I liked it so much that I bought another identical one at the same show in October 2016.
All was well until yesterday when I took out a yellow Lamy Safari, thinking that I might ink it up and put it into use. I was shocked to find a stain on the back of the cap and barrel where it had been held tightly against the lining of the pen case. I took out a Pink Safari which had the same problem.
An old, white Sheaffer No Nonsense was also affected, to a lesser degree. Happily, the lacquered pens or metal finish pens such as a Lamy Logo were unaffected. It seems that just the light-coloured Lamy Safaris had suffered.
I tried rubbing the mark off with my thumb but this had no effect. I washed them in water with concentrated washing up liquid, scrubbing them with a soft brush but again this had no effect.
It appears that the stain has got deep into the material from which Safaris are made. Perhaps it is some sort of reaction between this material and the black dye used for the thin inner lining of the pen case.
I have since had a brief look for a remedy on Fountain Pen Network and found a thread where people had experienced staining to the chrome finish of pens, such as a Waterman Carene and reference was made to “chrome tanned leather”. Someone had success resolving that problem using a sort of polish. I do not think my pen case was leather and it seems to be a different problem.
I am writing this first in order to warn others against making the same mistake and secondly in the faint hope that someone might know of a solution, to lift this stain out. It is not the end of the world and the pens are still usable. But they are adorable pens and I am sorry not to have taken better care of them.