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Over the past several years of spending far too much time and money on stationery, I’ve learned a thing or two — about mistakes I make over and over, about what I like and why, and what I would do differently given the chance to start again.
If you’re just starting out in the hobby, or hell, even if you’re as deep as I am, here’s the advice I’d give.
1. Pen brands have personalities
Some you’ll get along with, some you won’t.
A manufacturer’s ethos could align with yours in all kinds of ways. Smooth nibs or feedbacky? Wet or dry? Piston or C/C? Big or small? Designed to post or not? Generally, the same kinds of design decisions are made right across the portfolio, so if you don’t get on with one pen from a brand, you probably won’t get on with the rest, either. That was a big ‘aha’ moment for me, although it sounds stupid.
Probably the best example in my case was Pilot. Over the years I’ve had a 912, a 91, another 91, a 92, a Myu, an 823 and another 823, a Vanishing Point, a Fermo, and now a vintage Vanishing Point. Oh, and a Prera that I bought for my partner. If I’m honest with myself, the only one that I really got on with was the 912, with its FA nib, and the Fermo’s F in a close second. The 823 left me cold. Pretty much every Pilot nib I’ve used has been (to me) a dry writer, and the pens generally feel clinical and not particularly comfortable — although I know that other people love them, and I appreciate the quality and consistency of what Pilot produces.
I guess I should just admit that I’m not a Pilot guy. If I’d realised that earlier, I’d have saved myself a lot of money — money that I could have spent on Viscontis and Montblancs, which speak to me much more.
2. Make up your own mind
We’re a very chatty community, and it’s easy to feel like you have a complete and rounded opinion on a topic just from the sheer volume of information you read about a pen or ink on the internet. I’ve bought (or avoided) plenty of pens and inks simply based on reviews by other bloggers.
The risk of this is that we develop a herd mentality: we feel a peer pressure to agree with each other. When the enthusiastically reviewed ink arrives, we condition ourselves to feel positive about it ourselves. It’s very difficult to take a step back and build our own opinion of a product, but it’s important to do so.
Following on from the last point, this is what happened to me with the Pilot 823. Everyone loves the 823. When I didn’t get on with it the first time, I figured that the problem was me, and actually bought a second!
Same thing happened with the Conid Minimalistica. The love for Conid in the community is so rabid that I really had to stop and think before I realised that the pen wasn’t for me. I was close to feeling that I was wrong, that the product was great and I just had to get used to it. That simply wasn’t true for me.
3. Stay off the limited edition bandwagon
This is the hardest lesson to learn when your inbox and Instagram feed is bombarded with the latest and greatest. Manufacturers have honed their limited-edition marketing to a fine art, and I’m often hit with severe FOMO anxiety as a result. I’ve figured out that this is not healthy for me. I need to take a deep breath and figure out whether I just want to be one of the lucky few to score, or if that new limited edition will really make my enjoyment that much greater.
Combine the urgency of a new limited edition release with the herd mentality I discussed in point 2, and the lack of knowledge of which brands suit you that I discussed in point 1 — you have a recipe for disaster. I STILL find myself clicking on the latest Sailor Pro Gear limited edition, even though I have had first-hand experience with Sailor and know that they’re not right for me!
4. Bad nibs happen to good pens
Some of my favourite pens have started out their relationship with me by giving me a terrible writing experience. They’ve arrived with duff nibs from the manufacturer, and that’s soured my opinion of the whole pen.
I’ve written at length before about my feelings on this topic — I wish manufacturers would be better at QC, and retailers too. BUT: I’ve tried to mellow a little and realise that bad nibs happen to good pens, and the situation can be salvaged. Often the fix takes a matter of minutes, and even if you can’t sort it out with a brass shim and some micromesh, a good retailer will make a nib swap a painless affair.
Don’t throw away a chance at a great pen based on the nib alone.
5. Remember the writing triangle
The writing experience is about more than just the pen and its nib. The ink and paper are equally important: together, they form what I call the writing triangle.
Understanding this has a few implications. When you’re buying a new pen, or a new ink, you might be unhappy with your first experience. Try a different ink in that new pen! Or, try that new ink in a different nib! See if that makes the experience any better.
For me, I use Tomoe River paper almost exclusively, so I always test new pens and inks against that paper — it simplifies things for me, because I know how that paper behaves. But it does mean that when I’m trying out pens in stores or at pen shows, the experience won’t be the same as at home.
6. If you don’t use it, sell it
So you’ve made a few mistakes with points 1, 2 and 3. You’ve tweaked and massaged your nibs as in point 4. You’ve given the pens a good try with other inks and paper as advised in point 5. And now you have a load of pens that, deep down, you know ain’t right for you.
A lot of the time I’ve hung on to a pen because I felt I should like it, or because it was pretty, or because I was waiting for just the right ink for it, or because I’d sunk a lot of money into it, or whatever.
The reality is that — especially when you have 20+ other pens — if you have a pen gathering dust today, it will still be sat gathering dust in a year’s time.
Listen to your gut. You might as well free up the space, both mental and physical, that it’s taking up, and use the money to buy something that brings you more joy. Let bygones be bygones.
7. Look after your pens!
Following from point 6 above, I’ve sold more than three-quarters of the pens I’ve ever bought. Luckily, I learned to keep the boxes fairly early on — which helps resale price, and makes shipping easier. What I should have done earlier on is put them up in the loft in a container, instead of having them filling up my home office!
I also keep my pens in cases that cushion the pens and keep them separate from each other. I use safe inks, and flush pens that are sat unused for long periods. All of this means I can be confident that, when I sell a pen, it’s in good condition.
8. Sometimes it’s good to take a chance
Wow, these first 7 points sound like a real downer, don’t they? The path to success isn’t all filled with ‘no’. Sometimes I’ve gone out on a limb and bought a pen or an ink that I really thought I wouldn’t like: a hot pink ink (Graf Electric, Lamy Vibrant), a 1.5mm italic (Pelikan IB), an all-metal pen (Montblanc Geometry), or a skinny pen (Graf Classic).
There’s so much possibility out there that it would be a shame to stick to just what you already know you like. Often I surprise myself with how much fun I have straying away from my usual preferences. And even if you find you’ve pushed your boundaries too far, you can at least know you’ve learned something along the way.
A good low-risk way to branch out from your comfort zone is to attend your local pen meet, or use a service like Pensharing.
9. Buy used with confidence
As a community of hobbyists we’re always trying new things. And not all of those new things will stick. Which means we have a vibrant second-hand economy, on Instagram (shout out to @virtualpenshow), on Facebook, on FPN and FPgeeks, and a thousand other places (yes, even eBay). When you’re looking for a new fix, don’t go straight to the shops — dive in to that second-hand economy. I’ve bought dozens and dozens of pens from other pen addicts, and I can hardly think of an instance when I’ve had a problem. Buying used naturally saves you some money, gives you access to models you can no longer buy new, and helps other community members out.
10. Support the small makers
Fountain pens are a fairly small industry as it goes, and most of the brands we deal with on a daily basis are hardly multinational giants. But every industry benefits from innovation and diversity, as well as heritage, and I’ve watched plenty of companies of all kinds — including much-loved names like Conway Stewart, Omas and Delta — go under.
If we love something, we should support it with our investment. That’s why I’m proud to buy from Leonardo, Scribo and Onoto, as well as the smaller specialist retailers facing Amazon’s pressure, and the craft makers of notebooks and accessories (like Nock) that cater to our specialist needs. I avoid buying from Amazon, and I make an effort to share my positive experiences with the community to help small businesses grow.
11. “Too many inks” is a bigger problem than “too many pens”
I now have 179 inks in my Col-o-Ring. The bottles weigh at least 50 KG and take up three drawers in my office. Although I’ve probably spent over £2,000 on them in total, they’re not worth very much individually, and they’re fragile, heavy and therefore costly to ship — which means I will struggle to sell them. They’re all 90% full and are in perfectly good order, and most of them are nice inks, so I don’t want to just throw them away. But even if I stop buying ink today, it will take me my whole life to use them up.
In other words, I’ve created a really tough situation for myself. And it’s snuck up on me. Inks are cheap, there are millions of them out there, and individually they take up so little space. I’ve been ruthless about keeping my pen collection small, but my real problem is my ink hoard.
If I was starting from scratch today? I’d use samples and buy small bottles. I’d avoid the sheen-monster inks that smudge for me. I’d think about whether I really need 50 blues.
12. Track your behaviour
I keep a vaguely up-to-date spreadsheet of which pens and inks I own, and at the bottom of each day’s journal entry I write in which pen and ink I used. But I wish I’d tracked data about my behaviour much more comprehensively, so I could challenge my own assumptions, manage my habits, and understand how my preferences are evolving.
I wish I’d tracked exactly what I’d bought and sold, when and for how much; which pens I had inked, and for how long; how often I used each one. That kind of data is impossible to piece together after the fact. And it might make it a lot less painful to sell a pen if I could look back through my records and prove to myself that I hadn’t written with it in 18 months.
13. Don’t try to compete
And let me leave you with this: there will always be people on Instagram with neater BuJos, prettier journals, fancier handwriting, more pens, more expensive pens, rarer pens, more followers, or just more knowledge. I spent a long time trying to write flex because I felt like I should. I also felt bad about my own collection and handwriting, rather than just enjoying and improving at my own pace. This is a hobby, not a race. If you’re buying £5 school pens and writing on Tesco paper and having a blast, more power to you. You’re just as much a pen addict as me. And we’re all in this together.