Onoto’s new plunger filler is a blast from the past — for a price

I’ll start with my conclusion: the new Onoto plunger filler is not the best or most practical Onoto for most people. But if you love the brand and its history, that may not matter to you at all.

Bear with me for a history lesson

I’ve never really done history lessons on this blog — I’m more interested in what’s on my desk right now. Fortunately, Onoto has done the hard work for me:

The first Onoto – Sweetser’s original plunger-filler fountain pen guaranteed not to leak – was manufactured by the Thomas De La Rue and Company Limited in London in 1905.

The Onoto Valveless was introduced in 1915, the Onoto ink pencil in 1921, the Onoto Safety ‘Receder’ and Onoto metal-cased pencils in 1922 and the first Onoto lever-filler in 1923. Various styles of Onoto lever-fillers, ink pencils and ballpens were available until the mid-1950s.

But the plunger-filling Onoto remained the mainstay of the range and gradually developed from the original black chased vulcanite model of 1905 into the stylish marbled plastic Onotos of the late 1940s.

So the original Onoto pens were plunger fillers, certainly not the cartridge-converters you get today (not least because neither cartridges nor converters had been invented in 1905).

This is important to note, because it puts the new Onoto plunger design in context. My take is that Onoto is not pursuing this change in design for innovation, or function, or manufacturing efficiency. It’s a bid to get closer to the traditional Onoto that powers its brand and business forward even today.

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But what actually is it?

Introducing the new Onoto plunger filler

What I have in my hands today is a prototype pen (although it feels close to a production model) that has an integrated vacuum-based plunger filling mechanism.

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P for prototype

(Note that this is different from the removable plunger unit that Onoto has been selling for a while as a £250 upgrade to many of its pens.)

The mechanism works very similarly to the Pilot 823, Visconti Power Filler, and so on. Unscrew the end cap and pull to expose a long rod from the back of the pen. Insert the nib into ink. Press the plunger down into the pen to create a vacuum behind the rod seal, which is then breached as the barrel widens, and ink rushes in to fill the pen. Screw the end cap back on, wipe the nib and you’re good to go.

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A true vac filler!

Adapting to the plunger filler has changed the design of the Onoto Magna in a few small but noticeable ways. The barrel of the pen is no longer seamless; there’s a gold band marking where the end cap unscrews from the body.

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One ring to rule them all

The pen itself is longer and somewhat heavier.

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It’s this much longer…

But it’s still more or less the Onoto Magna I reviewed and loved back in March, although my prototype here is in black chased resin with gold trim.

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Gold this time. Classic. It’s plated silver.

Does it work? Yes.

The plunger filler works well, and I got a fill on my first try. The filler knob was a little stiff in first use, but I put that down to prototype assembly.

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A quick screw is all it takes…

I opted for a broad gold nib with my review sample, and it is sweet, a little stubbish, and with very consistent flow. No complaints there. One important difference from many of the other vac fillers out there is that the plunger here doesn’t seal off the nib and feed from the ink tank when fully screwed down, so there’s no faffing about unscrewing the end cap before you start writing.

In short, if you want a modern pen that’s as close as possible to the traditional Onotos, this pen takes you one step closer. I like it a lot.

There’s a “but” coming…

There are, however, a few practical concerns that might steer you towards the standard Onoto range.

The plunger filler has no ink window, which means you can’t check how much ink you have left. Although the capacity is a very healthy 2ml, I’m not a fan of “mystery fillers”. I can live with it, but when the basic Magna lets you unscrew the barrel for a peek at the converter, this feels like a step back. And to me the Onotos have always been pens for serious writers to rely on — the fear of running dry is therefore a big deal.

The pen is also not user serviceable in any way. That normally wouldn’t be a problem for me, but I’ve seen how difficult it is to get a proper clean of a vac filling mechanism in my experience with Visconti and Pilot. If you like to change ink colours, expect some contamination. And if you need to lubricate the plunger seal — you are out of luck. Your warranty will be void if you disassemble the Onoto plunger filler.

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Not user serviceable.

One thing I was surprised to see is that the plunger rod is made of plastic. This is a good thing because it’s light and won’t corrode, but it’s a thin piece that’s around four inches long, that has to take twisting torque during unscrewing, as well as tension followed by compression during the vac cycle. That’s a lot of different forces acting on it, over years of service. I can easily see the combination of fatigued parts plus a careless filling motion resulting in a snapped rod and a return for service. Note that Visconti and Pilot use steel or titanium rods in their vac fillers.

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A plastic rod? PEEK it is.

I asked Onoto about this, and they assured me that I’m worrying about nothing. The plastic is PEEK, an extremely robust material that should last. We’ll see.

And lastly, I think price is a factor here. This is an area that I’ve talked about with some other pen addicts a lot. The conversation normally goes like this: I rave about how great my Onoto Magna is, they ask how much it cost, I tell them it costs £540 with a gold nib, and they balk: you’re looking at a fairly small plastic cartridge converter pen, albeit one that’s very well built and uses sterling silver components.

In this situation, it’s hard to factor in the value you get from brand, UK manufacture, awesome packaging, responsive support, and all those intangibles. Only the in-hand experience wins people over.

The plunger filler takes this issue further. It will come in at £800 or so with a gold nib, a £250 premium over a “normal” Onoto with gold nib. That’s more expensive than a Montblanc 149, much more expensive than a Pelikan M1000, and much more expensive than a Visconti Homo Sapiens, too.

For me as a pen enthusiast, I prefer pistons and vac fillers to cartridge converters, mainly because I hate my pens to be generic. An integral filler is an engineering feat, and to me one that has the potential to add practical benefits in terms of capacity and user experience. I’m willing to pay extra for it.

Not just a different filling mechanism — part of your custom Onoto

The way Onoto has engineered this design, I’m not convinced that it adds enough value to the pen to be worth a £250 premium on its own, just as a tickbox option when ordering. In fact, on the whole I think it makes for a less usable pen.

Onoto may have found a way around this, though. Much like Montegrappa has done, Onoto is launching a bespoke online pen configurator, with the internal plunger filler as just one custom option, alongside the C/C, external plunger filler, and in the future a piston filler. When you have the ability to commission a pen that’s just right for you in all respects, from colour to nib to filling mechanism, the price of individual components becomes less of a factor.

And so we’re back where I started: if the Onoto heritage appeals to you, you’ll want the plunger filler to faithfully recreate those pens of the past. And if you’re an enthusiast of the brand, the ability to commission a unique Onoto for you will be a real attraction (I’d certainly consider it!). But if you’re looking for an Onoto simply as a faithful daily writer, I would recommend you buy one of the stock cartridge converter versions.

6 thoughts on “Onoto’s new plunger filler is a blast from the past — for a price

  1. An interesting review, or preview I should say. I personally would worry about the non-metal plunger rod given the force that is needed, on my TWSBI Vac 700 for example. But a nice pen if the price is not an issue.

    Like

    • Reading this, I imagined the Onoto rep waving his hand like Obi-Wan Kenobi; “plastic is as good as metal.”

      I really appreciate all the content lately.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: UKFP Uncapped: 28th September 2019 | UK fountain pens

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