Quantifying greatness: going deep down the rabbit hole

A while back I made an attempt at a scoring methodology for pens. It was a way for me to take a bottom-up, step-by-step approach to working out what I liked and disliked about the pens I owned, and to see whether the cumulative total resulted in a ranking that actually reflected my gut preferences.

I was the first to say it wasn’t a perfect approach, but I still find it interesting. In fact, I wanted to explore in more detail the many considerations that lie behind a single score. Take “practicality”, for example. What makes a Conid Kingsize a 3/3 for practicality in my original model? Are there any elements of practicality that it does badly? Are there any pens that approach practicality a different way? Can I possibly document a list of all the things that a practical pen should do or be?

I had a go. Below are the factors I identified.

A few notes:

  • Most score a binary 1 or 0; they’re yes-no answers. Some I’ve given a 0.5 to. More granularity than that seemed crazier than even this project would justify.
  • There are a lot of factors, particularly for “practicality”, and they’re all weighted evenly (at the moment, anyway).
  • Some of them won’t matter to everyone. If you don’t post, or don’t like clips (and that’s me, by the way), tough luck — I’m counting those features.
  • And some of them are most definitely subjective, even when you don’t think they are. Obviously “is it pretty” is subjective, but “is it easy to clean” is also a subjective factor.

Anyway, here goes.

Practicality

Here I’m looking for anything that makes the pen easy to live with.

  1. Readily portable (size and weight): Does it fit in a standard pocket, pen slot or pen sleeve? Does it weigh you down like a brick?
  2. View ink level: A nice ink window or demonstrator scores a 1. A converter where you have to unscrew the barrel to check gets a 0.5. A mystery filler gets 0.
  3. Doesn’t come unscrewed: If the cap or section sometimes loosens in a pocket, 0.
  4. Functional clip: Does it do the job?
  5. Can be disassembled: Sometimes pistons need greasing and pens need a proper clean. Most fail this one.
  6. Replaceable nibs: Aurora, Pelikan, Conid intend for their nibs to be replaced and swapped. Useful for personalisation, grinding and replacing bent nibs.
  7. Cap easy to remove: A pull cap or quick threads really help in daily use. 1 mark for slip caps, hooksafe and anything <1.5 turns. 0.5 for anything <2 turns. 0 marks for more.
  8. Easy to clean: This is a factor of replaceable nibs, access to filling mechanism, ease of disassembly, but also experience. For example, my Sheaffer NEVER runs clear.
  9. Doesn’t dry out: With the cap on, how long until it hard starts?
  10. Large ink capacity: The bigger the capacity, the more practical.
  11. Can post if needed: I never post, but it’s nice to have the option.
  12. Won’t roll when capped: Any chance of losing it off the side of a table?
  13. Won’t roll when uncapped: This is super rare, but important!
  14. Easy to fill from any bottle: If the nib is really long or the section really wide, many ink bottles simply won’t fit.
  15. Sealable for travel: Leaking is a subjective thing — most pens will shed some ink if you juggle with them — but some leak more than others. Handy to be able to seal the pen off.

The Conid Kingsize gets a score of 13/15, which isn’t hugely surprising. And the Nakaya Long Cigar — huge, clipless, impossible to disassemble, delicate, prone to rolling — scores at the bottom with 5.

Aesthetics (design and build)

This is where the arguments and subjectivity really set in, but again I’m trying to boil it down to component factors that are as clear and objective as possible.

  1. Distinctive: If you’re a pen person, can you distinguish the brand and ideally the pen just by glancing at it? Or could it be any one of the anonymous, vaguely pen-shaped plastic things out there? I’d argue that most people would recognise the Parker arrow clip, the Lamy 2000 looks like nothing else, Montegrappa is known for its fat cap bands, Visconti has its bridge clip, Nakaya is known for urushi. I found that pretty much all of my pens are by distinctive brands.
  2. Proportional: Does the pen look “right”? Is the nib undersized, the cap too short, the clip too prominent?
  3. Execution: Does anything stand out as clunky or poorly thought through? How well is everything finished? How well does it fit together? The ideal is the seamless piston knob from the Lamy 2000.
  4. Interesting materials: I don’t want to see a rack of smooth plastic pens in my pen tray. Does the pen use any interesting materials or finishes? Whether it’s titanium, sterling silver, wood or urushi, it counts. Just colourful resin alone is 0.5. So here the texture on the Montblanc Geometry, the urushi Japanese pens, the chasing on the Onoto, all score a 1. The Medici with its acrosilk and the lava-based Homo Sapiens also score 1.
  5. Beautiful colour or pattern: Extra points for beauty and visual interest.
  6. Nib design: The look of a nib matters to me. How is the shape, the application of gold and rhodium, the etching? Is it beautiful, is it distinctive, does it have a unique breather hole? Half a mark for the Lamy 2000’s streamlined hooded nib. Full marks for the inlaid Sheaffer, moon-breath Viscontis, ace-of-spades Duofold, and gem-adorned Geometry.
  7. Nib size: I like big nibs and I cannot lie. 1 mark for anything bigger than a #6. 0.5 marks for a #6. 0 marks for anything smaller.
  8. No cheap corners cut: I really notice when manufacturers leave casting lines, rough threads, sharp edges, unfinished internal surfaces, printed logos and so on. How solid does the pen feel? Is it built to last?
  9. Quality plating or solid metals: Are the cap band and finials made from solid metal, plated metal, or plated plastic? Are the piston knob threads plastic or metal? Is any detail stamped or engraved? I prefer clips that are solid metal, ideally machined, but certainly solid. Folded metal just won’t do.
  10. In-house nib: Personal preference, but I prefer as much of my pens to be made in-house as possible. Full in-house scores 1 point. Outsourced to spec 0.5. Off the shelf Bock or JoWo 0. I count the Visconti palladium nibs as 1 because nobody else has palladium and the crescent breather hole. Same for Montegrappa’s Extra: it’s outsourced, but not a standard size or shape. A cut ebonite feed shows attention to detail above cast plastic.
  11. Interesting filling mechanism: I want to see innovation and uniqueness in every part of a pen. A generic converter inside may be practical, but it’s not art. Half a mark for a conventional piston filler.
  12. Classic design: Some pens you don’t keep around for innovation, but because they’re an instantly recognisable and defining design in the market. Think Lamy 2000, Montblanc 149, Kaweco Sport, Onoto (THE pen); the Graf trumpet cap, the original Homo Sapiens,  the Sheaffer white dot.
  13. Handmade: Onoto employs a silversmith. Grafs are hand-assembled. Nakayas involve months of painstaking work. Conids are made bespoke. That matters to me.

Montegrappa’s The Sea scores top with 11/13, with its sterling silver trim, beautiful celluloid, huge unique nib with ebonite feed, and distinctive well-proportioned design. The rather plain and utilitarian Opus 88 Demonstrator ranks at the bottom with 4.5/13.

Comfort

  1. Blunt or no threads: One of the biggest pains in the hand is caused by cap threads. A nice, smooth grip is what I’m looking for.
  2. Long section: If there are threads (or indeed steps up to the barrel), they should be out of the way.
  3. Broad section: A narrow grip causes me cramp.
  4. Not too heavy: Light pens make me grip tighter to stop them skittering all over the place, but heavy pens are tiring to move, and that’s worse.
  5. Non-slippy texture: I actually don’t tend to find many pens slippery, even with metal sections. But when one strikes, you know it.
  6. Writes with no pressure: It’s amazing the difference in comfort when a pen writes as soon as it touches the page. You relax. I want to track that here.
  7. Good balance: One of the things that annoys me most is feeling a weight at the top of the pen swinging around as I write. It forces me to grip tighter to compensate.

The Namiki Urushi 20, Conid Kingsize and Sheaffer Legacy Heritage score joint top here with a full 7/7. A few pens rank bottom with 4/7, like the Kaweco Sport and Pelikan M805, but I have a high bar for comfort so pens don’t last long in my collection if they don’t perform well.

Writing

I took a slightly different tack with these factors, allowing for different styles of nib to score. These measures are all based on writing on Tomoe River paper with a range of inks from Montblanc, Birmingham, Edelstein, Akkerman, Sailor, Iroshizuku and so on.

  1. Generous flow: Perhaps the most important factor for me.
  2. Smooth or slight feedback: I don’t like a scratchy nib on the whole.
  3. Precise and controlled: Does the nib feel like I can put a line exactly where I need it?
  4. Stubbish or swordlike: Is the tipping interestingly shaped, or is it just a blob?
  5. Flex or bounce: Do I get a cushioned ride and some expressiveness?
  6. No sweet spot: Is the nib tolerant of different writing angles and positions?
  7. No skipping, hard-starting or baby’s bottom: Is the nib well tuned?
  8. No squeaking or singing: I hate noisy nibs, with the exception of a bit of pencil-sound.

Top with 7/8 is the Conid Kingsize with it’s fine Ti nib, which is wet, precise and cushioned all at once. The Namiki Urushi comes in second. At the bottom is the Desiderata Soubriquet Nemosine 0.6mm stub, with 4/8. It falls down with a slight sweetspot, some hard starting after sitting for a while, and a slightly less than wet flow. But with all the pens currently in my collection, I’m being picky. If I don’t like a nib, I don’t keep that pen.

Scoring and everything else

Each of these four groupings has different numbers of component factors. To balance them out I normalised each pen’s score in each category to be out of 10. That gives a maximum score of 40. Because I’m God in this simulation, I also added a score out of 5 for frequency of use, reflecting ineffable factors that make a pen “the one to grab”. I added a score out of 2 for rarity, and a score out of 3 for sentimental value. This means I’m keeping some of the non-performance factors from my original scoring model, but they’re not weighted so highly this time.

The end result is a maximum score of 50. It’s a tight race, so I kept the scores to 1 decimal place throughout, and the leaderboard looks like this:

Conid Kingsize Titanium Flattop 41.0
Namiki Urushi 20 40.8
Onoto prototype 38.3
Visconti London Fog 36.5
Montegrappa Extra The Sea 35.2
Visconti Medici 34.4
Visconti Homo Sapiens 34.4
Nakaya Decapod 33.4
Desiderata Soubriquet Cocobolo Mk2 33.3
Visconti Opera Master River Thames at Midday 33.2
Desiderata Soubriquet Cocobolo 33.2
Lamy 2000 33.2
Montblanc 1912 33.1
Sheaffer Legacy Heritage Brushed Gold 31.7
Pelikan M805 Ocean Swirl 31.6
Graf von Faber Castell Classic Pernambucco 31.6
Lamy 2000 Stainless Steel 31.6
Nakaya Long Cigar 31.3
Conid Bulkfiller Regular 30.8
Montblanc 149 Platinum 30.7
Montblanc Geometry 28.7
Scribo 28.4
Kaweco Art Sport Alabaster 28.1
Parker Duofold Centennial Big Red 26.9
Opus 88 Demonstrator 24.6

18 pens scored within 10 points, so it’s a pretty close race. Basically no pen scored less than half marks.

(I expect there are some spreadsheet errors, but what the hell, this isn’t a life-or-death matter).

Checking for survivor bias

Naturally I’ve only scored pens that I have in front of me right now, therefore I’m pre-selecting pens that have survived my rounds of culling. Maybe that’s why the lowest score on my list is just under 50%. But I wanted to see how things would shake out with some other pens that I have used over the years. So I picked these four:

Faber-Castell Ondoro graphite 20.8
Namisu Nexus 24.6
Diplomat Aero 17.5
Montblanc Rouge et Noir 29.9

The Ondoro was a mistake for me. I never got on with the facets on its body and its tiny section, and the aesthetics with the big shiny plastic cap didn’t do much for me.

The Namisu Nexus I used for a long time. It’s a looker, made from solid Ti, and the included nib performed fine, but it had some sharp ridges, improved in later version.

The Diplomat Aero I had was not a good fit for me. Although the design was pretty, the nib took a lot of work to get writing (I scored it as out of the box) and I found the section really slippery. So a score of 35%.

The Montblanc Rouge et Noir had the most fabulous EF nib, and that along with comfort pulls its score up ahead of a few other pens in my keepers list. No wonder I keep regretting selling it.

Worth doing?

I ended up scoring each pen on 43 sub-factors, in four categories, plus three additional scores. 46 different ratings for each pen. And I’m not sure I totally agree with the way the ranking fell, or that the scoring method ends up superior to the simplified version I created earlier in the year.

What is of value is spending time thinking through the different factors, because they’re essentially what I consider when I write my reviews. The only difference is that I take the results and weight them: how factors relate to each other, whether an individual factor is important given the intended usage of the pen (eg the Kaweco Sport is not big and comfortable, but that’s because it’s a pocket pen), or the price. This results in a much more nuanced and (arguably) fairer judgement.

Still, a fun exercise. I do love mucking about in spreadsheets.

5 thoughts on “Quantifying greatness: going deep down the rabbit hole

  1. I am exhausted reading this list! What an effort! But I think you have captured as many of the attributes of a pen as one can reasonably think of. Or more to the point, they are the ones that matter to you.

    I see several possible unintended consequences of your summation math. First, since you weight each category the same (10 points) but they each have different numbers of attributes to assess, you make individual attributes in one category more, or less, valuable than those in other categories. For example, a category with only 7 attributes (Comfort) makes the relative value of each attribute 1.43 points (10/7). In contrast, a category with 15 attributes (Practicality) makes each one worth only .67 points (10/15), which is less than half Are the relative values of each Practicality or Aesthetic attribute only half as important as each of the seven in Comfort? Maybe so, maybe not.

    Second, since you give each attribute only one point within a category, its importance relative to the others is not weighted. You point out that generous flow is the most important Comfort attribute to you, yet it is worth the same one point value as the other six.

    Third, are the four categories each truly of equal value? If it is all, ultimately, about the writing experience, is Writing really equal to Aesthetics? Maybe just a bit more important? For me, I would sooner tolerate a wonderfully writing pen that isn’t all that beautiful over one that writes like a stick but is very sexy.

    If the goal of all this introspective pen gazing is to create a way to compare one pen in toto to another, then perhaps it would be worth deciding which attributes are most important to you and valuing them higher, creating perhaps three tiers of points. This is the same way one weights an Oscar pool, for example, giving more points to picking best picture than best costume design (unless you are a costume designer). And then just add all the attribute points without pre-bundling them in equal-value categories. I think if you did the math that way you might find some re-ordering in a way that more accurately reflects the weighted cumulative importance in each pen- specific to what matters to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s always my goal to exhaust my readers 😂. You make a good point and it’s one I was aware of but just couldn’t tackle. It was hard enough trying to catalogue all the things I look for, and to judge 25+ pens on each of those factors, let alone weight them (or apply a price weighting). But I have the groundwork laid — I’ll experiment! Thanks for making it to the end 😄

      Like

  2. You have done a lot of work on this thoughtful post, bordering on bean plating! It deserves re-reading. It is a unique exercise.
    Whilst there may be some issues about weighting of attributes and comparing of attributes it does at least focus the mind on what attributes there are and demonstrates the variety to be found in fountain pens. Perhaps that is why we like and need so many of them!
    I recall from studying jurisprudence, that the idea of seeking perfection implies that you are comparing the object with an ideal, measuring something against the perfect version which does not exist. Especially when you factor in multiple and conflicting attributes. One big issue is cost. An otherwise great pen loses points for costing over £1,000 for example.

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    • You make a couple of very good points, particularly about the variety of possible attributes and how that may drive a collection. I think it certainly drives mine!

      Like

  3. Wow. I am exhausted. But you’ve come up with a truly extensive list of features. I usually judge pens by whether they catch my eye because of their color/design, then by how nicely they write. I only ask that a pen be beautiful and write very, very well. Of course, all this is subjective. But that’s part of the fun, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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