Are we pen-compatible?

When you’re reading a review about a pen you’re considering buying, it helps to know whether the reviewer shares your perspectives and values, and whether they use pens the same way you do. (This is one of the reasons why I like Hand Over That Pen — you get three very different takes in one).

That’s not to say you won’t learn something useful from any reviewer’s thoughts, but it helps to know where they’re coming from, what design features they’re looking for, what they ignore, and their biases, both conscious and unconscious.

In other words, you need to know whether the reviewer is pen-compatible with you.

So consider this my (longwinded) fountain pen dating profile. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and documenting the tastes and habits that drive my opinions, and I hope it helps you get the most from my reviews!

How I write

I’m a left-hander. Most of the time I’m an overwriter. This has made me write with a very light touch in order to prevent the nib digging into the page, so I can’t abide pens that force me to press to get ink to flow. I like pens to write wet, and be fairly smooth. I enjoy both bouncy and firm nibs, but being an overwriter I don’t get the benefit of flex.

Even though I’m a lefty, my grip is far from the nib and my overwriting style helps me to keep my smudging hand a long way from where the ink gets laid down. Therefore I don’t tend to have a problem with slow-drying inks, but if an ink is really slow-drying, I notice colour transfer to my hand. That bugs me and it’s why I so rarely use Colorverse and Noodlers inks any more.

I write at different angles depending on the pen, situation, and comfort. Sometimes quite low, sometimes nearly vertical. I don’t particularly look out for a narrow ‘sweet spot’ when reviewing a pen, because I can easily adapt my grip.

I never post my pens. I hold the cap in my right hand and use it to press the page flat, to avoid transferring skin oils to the paper with my fingertips. I am not overly protective of my pens, but I believe that posting pens causes unnecessary scratches. If a pen is too small to use without posting, I generally won’t use it at all. So when I’m reviewing I do check if a pen posts, but only in passing.

I write in cursive, in different sizes depending on the pen and paper available. I journal, I write the occasional letter, and I do a lot of meeting notes and “thinking on paper” at work. In general, when writing, I tend to write in short bursts. I get paranoid about my pens drying out so I never leave them uncapped, and certainly never lay them down on a desk uncapped. I have never dropped a pen on its nib.

Me as a pen owner

I think of myself as a user, not a collector. I avoid duplicate pens (for example, buying multiple versions of a pen in different colours), and every pen I own gets inked and written with. I expect each new pen to bring something new to my collection, whether it’s a new filling mechanism, nib material, grind, or manufacturer. If I find I’m not using a pen and have no compelling reason to keep it, I’ll sell it. But my pen hoard is growing and I see myself acquiring and keeping pens because of their aesthetics and their scarcity as much as their function. So the needle has moved a little towards ‘collector’.

I always have at least half a dozen pens inked and have at least three with me whenever I leave the house. I get bored easily and like rotating pens (and inks). As a result, while I appreciate a large ink capacity and other features that make a pen ideal as “single pen carry”, they’re not personally important to me.

I store the pens I’m carrying in a case. I extremely rarely use clips, and I never have my pens touching. To that end, durability is not a huge factor for me, and I won’t ding a pen for being clipless.

Ink and paper

Unless I’m reviewing or experimenting, I pretty much only ever use Tomoe River paper, and all my reviews are based on that. I can’t abide Rhodia, or any other paper that feels heavily coated and squeaky-smooth. At the other end of the spectrum, highly textured paper freaks me out — I worry it’s stressing my nibs — and hyper-absorbent paper tends to be prone to feathering and bleedthrough, which bugs me. So I pretty much stick to Tomoe.

A5 is my size of choice, and I prefer soft-cover, lay-flat notebooks. I used to strongly prefer dotted or grid paper, but I’ll happily use anything now, including blank.

In terms of inks, I have more than 160 bottles and I’m gradually learning what I like. I find it hard to get on with green, brown or black inks, and I default to blues from turquoise to blue-black. I keep trying to like red, orange and purple inks. Because I use big-nibbed pens with integrated filling mechanisms, I get annoyed by short bottles with narrow necks.

I value flow and shading most highly of the four main special properties of inks. Since getting my fill of Emerald of Chivor, I’ve avoided shimmer inks completely, and I find ‘sheen monster’ inks have started to bore me. An ink has to be pretty special in terms of colour and flow for me to tolerate smudging and other bad behaviour. I find myself turning to manufacturers like Herbin, Montblanc and Birmingham/de Atramentis more and more because they’re safe and well-behaved.

I own hardly any cartridges.

Pen, nib and manufacturer preferences

To me, the nib is the most important thing about a pen. I love everything from extra-fine to broad nibs, and some special grinds like italics and architects, and I use them for different purposes, from journalling to marking up documents — as described above, I always have multiple pens with me and pick the right one for the job.

On the whole I think the bigger the nib, the better, and I still prefer gold over steel for snobbery reasons. I have a strong bias towards in-house nibs, or at least I like there to be an even match in terms of nib vs the rest of the pen: if an expensive, artisan pen with loads of creativity poured into the resin and build whacks a generic unbranded JoWo nib unit on the end, I feel disappointed.

I like my trim silver in colour (rhodium, palladium, etc) but I’m not totally averse to a little gold or black if it fits with the design.

I’ve moved away from the “black pen club” and I now have a range of demonstrators, coloured plastics and metals in my collection, but I still have a fairly conservative taste: I won’t cross the line between attractive and gaudy.

I prefer pens I can dismantle, and I’m particularly grateful for screw-out nib units like Pelikan, and removable pistons like TWSBI. I am a careful cleaner and don’t like to think I’m leaving old ink or water residue in my pens.

I much prefer screw caps to slip or snap caps. The only slip cap I really like is the Lamy 2000. And I’m very sensitive to how many turns a pen takes to uncap — I mention this in every review. I always notice whether the threads run smooth and whether they’re sharp under the fingers.

I prefer self-fillers, such as piston and vac mechanisms, although I’m not as biased against converters as I was. It’s not a case of needing extra capacity or anything like that, more that, just like with the nibs, I prefer pens to be free of generic components.

I don’t have large hands, but I generally prefer larger pens, moreso in terms of width at the section and length of section than the overall barrel size (remember, I hold the pen far from the nib so I always notice short sections with sharp threads). However, I have a few very skinny pens in my collection (such as the Rouge et Noir and Graf Classic) and I get on just fine with them, because the rest of the design compensates. For example, both of those pens have very long sections.

I used to be biased against metal sections, but as long as the shape of the section and the balance of the pen is good, I find them OK now.

As of today, my collection is heavily skewed towards Germany and Italy, whereas a couple of years ago I mainly had Japanese pens. This is partly I think because European pens tend to be larger and heavier and feature integrated filling mechanisms, not to mention wetter and smoother nibs. It’s also because there are a lot of European pens available at my current per-pen “comfort budget”, while my gut feel puts most Japanese pens either cheaper than my usual spend or, for maki-e and urushi, more expensive.

Although I still buy, try out and review “cheap” pens, on a daily basis I pretty much don’t use any pens under 150 GBP, with most around 300–500 GBP. Although I understand the principle of diminishing returns, and that some cheap pens punch above their weight, I generally prefer my more expensive pens, and I also have a cognitive bias against leaving an expensive pen in the drawer in favour of a cheaper pen. So most of my cheaper pens get sold or given away, meaning my collection concentrates to an ever-higher average price point. That said, a pen has to be pretty special to make me lay down my hard-earned cash, and I do shop around for a good price.

To a degree I recognise that I am motivated by brand and prestige. I like owning Montblancs. But I am smart enough to realise that literally nobody will recognise a Visconti, Conid, Scribo, Graf or Aurora. In fact, probably the most recognisable pen I own is a Lamy Al-Star. A fancy pen is not a Ferrari.

I’ve used vintage pens over the years, but I like to be able to rely on my pens without worrying about fragile materials, worn threads, perished sacs or abused nibs. There are so many fantastic modern pens that I own no vintage pens and I don’t miss having any vintage pens in my collection.

I appreciate nice packaging. Manufacturers like Graf, Montblanc, Lamy and Pelikan put effort in to their higher-end pens and it makes the unboxing experience just that bit special. But I hardly ever mention packaging in my reviews because it’s not what you’re buying. I have a box of boxes in my loft, and another pile of boxes next to my desk. Boxes are a pain in the arse.

So: what do you think? Anything here surprise you? Anything missing? Let me know in the comments.


15 thoughts on “Are we pen-compatible?

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is a fascinating insight and also made me think where I stand on all of these points so I will pause and reflect. In general though, my likes are broader at the lower end and I have lots of inexpensive pens which I enjoy and use just as much if not more than my expensive ones (which for me still means anything over about £150.00). For example I am enjoying a Parker Reflex, Faber-Castell Grip, Lamy Studio (the black rubber grip one) and numerous Wing Sung pens, which can be great fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Quite a thorough self review! I am a recent reader of your blog and find your pen habits and preferences very similar to mine. I am also a lefty, though a life long side writer, and have recently started a regimen to train myself to be an under writer in order to eliminate the smudging, text hiding, binder straddling, and other annoying problems that come with writing with my hand behind the text. I’ve been using my Lamy 2000 for this exercise and it has been a workhorse pleasure.
    My only add to your review standards would be that many people, including me, use their pens for sketching as well as writing, so the value of indelible inks staying unaffected under a watercolor wash is important for some users. Platinum Carbon Black is my go-to ink for that purpose. Plus, sketching gives another dimension to the value of nib flexibility for line stroke variety.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, if you are really interested:

        Pen: Kaweco Supra. It might look like a useless pen, as it’s just an oversize Liliput which is still not big enough to be a full-size pen, but once you have hold the full (heavy) weight of this pen in your hand, removed the cap and looked at the comically big #6 nib in this pocket pen, you know why it got so many rave reviews.

        Pen II: Pelikan M815 Metal Striped. Take the perfect size of the M800 series, the near-perfect optics of the M805 Stresemann, add some substantial, but perfectly balanced weight and even better looking stripes, and you have the best M800 on the market. Conservative, but with a twist.

        Notebook cover: Roter Faden Taschenbegleiter in A5. Perfect notebook cover for soft-cover notebooks, genius clip system, allowing you to store, carry and remove all kinds of things.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You had my prejudices down on the Supra. I never understood what it was for. Guess I’ll take another look! The 815 is spot on, I was really impressed when I held one — although I am holding off more 800-sized pens because I find the sections a little short. I’ll check out the notebook cover! Thanks for taking the time to reply.


  3. Well done; I think a thoughtful piece like this should be a mandatory item for pen (or really any kind of gear) reviewers to leave on their websites. A well-written review will generally lay out why a particular feature is good or bad from the perspective of the reviewer, but biases and long-standing habits of the writer often go unaddressed. Something like this goes a long way in helping the reader make a fully informed decision about the virtues or shortcomings of a pen they haven’t had the chance to handle in person.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Anthony for sharing this. Very interesting and honest too. The thing which struck a chord was not posting your pens – neither do I – like you I hate the thought of scratching the barrel.


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