Desert Island Pens: my controversial top 5

I struggle with a top-5 list of pens. Even more than you’re supposed to.

It’s a crisis of definition, really. A top-5 for who? A student with a £20 budget just starting out is in a very different position to a wealthy retiree who loves vintage Italian pens.

And how do I productively compare a twenty-quid Al-Star against a £400 Pelikan M1000? Would I end up just listing my five most expensive pens because they’re the “best”?

So here’s my approach. I’m going to try to list out the five pens I’d pack into my Nock Sinclair for an extended trip. Pens that I’d want to use for journalling and letters, for quick notes, for taking out on rough-and-tumble days touristing, for large ink capacities, for stylish postcards. They should function as a team. That will — I hope — inject a bit of variety into the list.

I’m working on a couple of subconscious principles here, too:

  • Most importantly, I’m treating myself to pricier pens. Let’s live a little: no point limiting ourselves to £1 Jinhaos just because you don’t have to worry about losing them. You don’t need me to urge you to buy a Jinhao or Wing Sung — if you’re curious, just do it.
  • I’m leaving out vintage pens, custom pens and custom nibs. There’s simply too much variety. My experience with some Canadian-built 1937 double-extra-mega-super-flex Wahl Decoband eclipse edition in neon lime green is unlikely to match yours.
  • But also: get a grip. It’s a list. I’m not going to lose sleep over making it perfect. Nobody else cares about pens as much as we do, and sometimes it’s important to remember that the world won’t end if you pack the wrong pen on your trip, or even drop some cash on the wrong pen. Learn a lesson, sell it and move on.

So here goes, in no particular order. Let’s see if there are any surprises…

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1. Platinum 3776 Ultra Extra Fine — £70 (imported)–£110

At first blush, this is a pretty odd choice for me. I would not call myself a Platinum fanboy, and I don’t particularly like the way the 3776 looks. But, as I’ve opined in the past, there’s just something about the 3776 that punches above its distinctly modest price once you have it in your hand.

The nib is gorgeous and great, the proportions are wonderful, and it never dries out when capped. My UEF is spectacular: really fine, obviously, but surprisingly smooth, so you can not only write an entire letter on a postage stamp, but also scribble quickly if you need to. And because it’s so fine, a converter fill lasts forever. Great for conferences and long meetings, as well as for annotating printouts on crappy paper.

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Alternative choice: Obviously, other sizes of the 3776 spring to mind, or similar entry-level Japanese gold-nibbed pens like the Pilot 91 or Sailor Pro Gear Slim. But the 3776 has a bigger and finer nib than its rivals, and in my opinion nothing matches it at the price. Even in the UK you can get a UEF for £99 delivered from Cult Pens. If you really want a needlepoint, you can get a steel TWSBI or Kaweco nib ground by FPnibs and end up with something like a UEF Eco for about £50 all-in or an Al-Sport for about £75 — but as good as Pablo is, my Platinum UEF is smoother than his XXF, and finer too.

2. Lamy 2000 — £90 (sale)–£140

Nothing else looks like the Lamy 2000, or feels like it. The wonderful textured Makrolon, the seamless transition to the piston knob and steel section. Practical slip cap, smooth and wet gold nib. I doubt it’s as bulletproof as it seems, but it feels reliable enough to take out into the city as one’s only back-pocket pen for quick yet comfortable notes.

The 2000 is probably not the best pen I own, but it’s probably the only pen I’d say that everyone should try at least once. And as other pens come and go, the 2000 sits in my Block untroubled by fears of being sold.

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Alternative choice: Tactile Turn Gist. Like the 2000, it’s flat-ended and tapered, although it’s a bit shorter. The Gist is available in a similar polycarbonate, but I’ve got the all-brass version. The clip is strong and the whole thing is bulletproof. Fitted with a Ti nib it’s similarly wet on paper.

3. Pelikan M1000 — £330–£380

Sometimes you just want to hit the written word with everything you’ve got: huge pen, huge nib, tremendous ink flow, even some flex. For the love letter, the big contract, the tearful journal entry, turn to the ocean liner of pens, the Pelikan M1000. It’s by far the most expensive pen on this list, but in my opinion worth every penny.

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Alternative choice: For the stately German style, the Pelikan M805 is a good substitute, and arguably more practical than the M1000, not to mention cheaper — but the nib is stiff. For a bold, flexy line, the Pilot 912 FA is the best I’ve got right now, but lacks the presence of the Pelikans. Only the M1000 gives you the size and flex.

4. Sailor Pro Gear — £150 (imported)–£216

I love my Pro Gear. In the hand and on the page it feels like nothing else: short, agile, with that pencil-like feel. Beautiful two-tone nib. Attention to detail in all the right places. I’ve got a medium nib, which runs notably finer than the medium in the Lamy 2000 and the fine in the M1000. So it’s a good all-rounder without the extreme XXF of the 3776.

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Alternative choice: Again, the Pilot 912 comes to mind. Its style and quality are very similar to the Pro Gear, right down to the double cap bands and the identical-length nib. Of course the writing experience is very different, even discounting the Falcon’s unique properties. Pilot and Sailor nibs are chalk and cheese.

5. Kaweco Al Sport — £55+ depending on finish

Kaweco nibs have quite possibly the worst quality control in the industry (I’ll pause for a moment while I don my flame-proof suit). But I just adore the Al Sport, and not only because it’s trivial to swap the nib unit for one that works. I’ve got the silver satin-finish, and it’s flawless. The octagonal cap is both practical and fun to fiddle with. Thanks to the plastic liner to the cap, it’s one of the few pens I post without worrying about scratches. As a pocket pen, I can forgive the tiny nib and tiny ink capacity.

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Alternative choice: I’m immediately discounting the Kaweco Liliput, which is too diminutive to be practical — I liked it and its EF nib, but ultimately sold mine. The TWSBI Vac Mini is also small, posts securely and has a faceted cap and barrel, but it feels like quite the opposite sort of pen to the Kaweco, being made of plastic and with a large-capacity, complex vac filling mechanism.

Notable omissions/runners up

Small Pilots: I still enjoy my Pilot 91 and 92, but they didn’t make the cut here. While I have owned more Pilot pens than any other brand, the Lamy and Pelikan are better big piston-fillers, and the Platinum has a bigger nib. Sorry guys.

TWSBI Eco: At £28 I think the Eco is the best starter pen you can buy. Unlike Kaweco and Lamy nibs, I have had flawless experience with four TWSBI nibs. The Eco is built like a tank and has a unique writing feel. I own two. The only reason I leave it off here is because, as much as I love it and all its quirky charms, it’s fucking ugly. And I’ve already got two piston-fillers on the list.

Pilot Vanishing Point: It’s taken me years to come to terms with the fact that I don’t like the Vanishing Point. Its bulbous style, propensity to leak, tiny nib, heavy metal body, small capacity — they go against the principles I’ve been building up in my mind. I know I’m going against the grain here, but I wouldn’t put a VP in my top 20, let alone my top 5. (Note: I still really want one of the original faceted VPs).

Lamy Al-Star/Safari: Don’t get me wrong: these are good, fun pens to collect and to experiment with. The Z50 nibs are easy to swap and come in all kinds of sizes. The barrels come in a million colours. They’re pretty cheap. But I don’t greatly get on with the grip or the design, and the writing experience is dull. Even compared to other cheap-ish pens, they don’t make the cut for me. I sold my Al-Star and gave away my Nexx.

Will it all change?

Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be receiving a Namisu Ixion, Pilot 823 FA and Pilot Myu. Given that the 823 is a grail pen for many, and the Myu is a near-perfect pocket pen, I may be rash in publishing this list now…

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