Pen design red flags: seeing the bigger picture

I have moaned about a lot of pen design features over the years (eg this) that I have later softened on.

It turns out that, for the right pen, I’m not actually bothered by metal sections. For example, the Montegrappa Extra does just fine, as does the Montblanc Martelé. The right section shape, pen balance and a nib that flows without pressure make this a non-issue.

Metal section. No problem.

Nor am I so put off by big barrel-to-section stepdowns, as long as the section is good. So for example the Nakaya 17mm Cigar or ASC Gladiatore Medio, or the Scribo. All have the step a long way back from the nib. The Montblanc M? Not so much.

A big stepdown isn’t a problem if the section is long enough.

I’ve made my peace with mystery fillers, which I seem to have eight of now. As long as the pen holds a good amount of ink, or if you carry multiple pens or work from home often, which I do even in normal times, it’s no big deal.

How much ink is inside? Who knows.

I used to say I hated gold trim. Now? With the right colour pen, I’m OK with gold trim and even rose gold, though I would still have said I much preferred silver. But pens like my arco bronze ASC just wouldn’t look right with silver trim.

A pen like the Medici looks great with rose gold.

I used to be really big on pens that are easy to clean out. I still have great praise for Pelikan and Aurora with their screw-out nib units, as well as the gloriously field-strippable TWSBI Eco.

There are many like it, but this one (seven) is mine.

But I now have several pens — including my beloved Montblancs — that have zero user-serviceability, and apparently I’ve made peace with that, although it certainly makes me cautious about my choice of inks. Flushing a sealed unit is no fun.

You ever tried flushing a Sheaffer inlaid nib?

And though I am still biased to self-fillers and gold nibs I have seven converter fillers and three steel nibs sat in front of me today. Masuyama and Pilot can work wonders with any material, and converters are generally easy to clean and replace.

Nothing wrong with a converter every now and then.

I guess I have mellowed in my old age.

But there are still a few features or design decisions that I just won’t tolerate.

Stiff pull caps

Pull caps appeal because of their convenience. What could be more intuitive or rapid than a cap you just pull off? Well, it turns out that it’s very hard to get a cap mechanism to be just grippy enough so that the cap doesn’t come off accidentally, without being so grippy that you have to take care not to flick ink across the room. For me, it’s easier and quieter to just unscrew a cap than to mask a ‘pop!’ sound in a meeting. What’s more, I generally find a screw cap easier to remove one-handed. The only slip caps I still have in my collection are the Lamy 2000 and Pilot Murex, but others, like the Karas Vertex, Visconti Van Gogh and Montblanc M do this well too through a variety of mechanisms.

But the irritation of stiff or loud pull caps has helped banished three Sheaffers, the Waterman Carene and the Pilot Silvern from my collection.

Pop goes the weasel. And the Carene.

In fact, the only thing that bugs me more is caps that work loose on their own, like the Karas Ink.

The Murex got the pull cap right.

Long threads

When I reach a pause in my writing, I cap my pen immediately to prevent drying out or accidental damage. It’s deeply ingrained habit. And when I want to start writing, for example in a meeting or interview, I don’t want a five-second delay before I put pen to paper. Yet some caps are threaded so that it takes three or even five full rotations to unscrew the cap. This is simply ridiculous. It’s why I abandoned the otherwise perfect Onoto, fun Opus88, and, more recently, Clyde. Two and a half turns is where I draw the line.

No excuse for this many threads.

Back-heavy balance

Despite having normal-sized man hands, I have never posted my pens and I cannot understand why anyone would want that much weight swinging around above your hand, dragging your nib in every direction. Yet some manufacturers decide that, even unposted, their pens should be long and have a full metal piston knob or trim at the end of the barrel.

I can never ignore this weight, and it’s why I sold the Visconti Opera Master and Graf Pen of the Year. Even smaller pens are not immune. I sold my Montblanc Petit Prince Legrand mostly because the metal piston knob was annoying me.

The back end of the Opera Master is actually in a different time zone.

Sharp edges

No part of a pen that touches your hand during writing should be sharp, be it trim, section lip, body facet, barrel step-down or, most commonly, cap threads. I shouldn’t have to be careful about exactly how I hold my pens just to avoid a spiky bit. This is why I sold my Nettuno and Karas Ink.

I’LL CUT YOU

Nibs that won’t write

This is not so much a design decision as a QC issue, but I’ll mention it anyway. Still all too often I get a pen that barely writes from the factory. The stub in my Nettuno and the Bock nib in my Clyde are just two examples where the writing experience was simply unacceptable. But there are others, from Aurora, Diplomat, even Pilot.

For me, there is one simple test: does the pen write a clear line in every direction under its own weight alone? I prefer wet pens generally, but I have several dry writers for certain occasions. This is not about wet or dry. It’s about tines that are so tight that the pen won’t write without pressure, or tipping that’s so scratchy, slits so off-centre, such that the pen cuts paper or won’t write at all.

Drying out

Again, this is not a design decision, but it is certainly the consequence of design. Some brands never dry out: Montblanc or Pelikan, for example. I’ve never had a Visconti dry out, or a Japanese pen, that I can recall. But my Oldwins, Montegrappa Extra, ASC, and Graf Intuition have all shown concentrated ink or hard starting after just hours sat capped. Few things irritate me as much. I have had some success sealing gaps around clips, but some pens are beyond fixing. And that’s when I sell them.

Look at the big picture

After reading back over what I’ve written, I guess what I’m saying is that there are few absolutes, and few cases where a design choice can be considered in isolation. I’m fine with a metal section, if the rest of the design (eg balance) doesn’t make the pen slippery. I’m fine with a slip cap, if it works silently and without Herculean strength.

What I’m not fine with is the outcomes of poor design choices and poor execution: pens that are sharp and unbalanced in the hand, or that write so badly you need to press hard to make a line (which will make even the most ergonomic of pens uncomfortable in a matter of minutes). Caps that are a chore to remove, or seal so poorly the pen dries out. I am deeply intolerant of these effects, and they spoil my enjoyment of otherwise wonderful pens.

However: if you’ve come up with a design or choice of materials that looks crazy, that looks like it won’t be comfortable, I’ve learned to give you the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it works: look at the Kasama Ultem for one example of a pen that should be really uncomfortable but sits supernaturally well in the hand. And sometimes it doesn’t. But when there’s a failure of experience, it’s rarely due to a single design decision alone (such as a metal section). It’s the combination of factors that causes the problem.

What bugs you about pen designs, and what have you learned to get along with?

12 thoughts on “Pen design red flags: seeing the bigger picture

  1. Ah the Waterman Carene. Where the cap seals so well it creates a vacuum and is not only hard to pull off, but if you do too quickly (without breaking the seal first) draws ink out on to the grip – learnt that the hard way.

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  2. An interesting read, thankyou! I am 100% with you on the overly tight snap caps. I have a Cross Bailey medalist which is both impossible to grip and too tight to separate the cap from the barrel. Awful. And on a very cheap Maped pen, presumably targeted at school children, the cap was so tight that I hurt the tendons in my thumb.
    I still dislike most metal sections as I make unintended strokes in my writing due to the pen slipping in my hand. But if I can hold the pen higher up, past the metal section and around the barrel it is fine.This needs more length though and so posting must be possible. Occasionally if the cap does not post I go borrowing a cap that will!
    I am not bothered about long cap threads. My Italix Captain’s Commission has these but it is no bother to me at all, at the beginning and end of a writing session.
    I dislike sharp steps (eg Caran d’Ache Dumas), skinny sections and pens which are too short.
    A successful pen is one without any annoying features to irritate you.
    Of course, nibs which do not write well or which hard start badly are a big turn off. But a good nib can make it worth putting up with a host of other faults. I hold pens further back from the nib but still dislike back-heavy pens.
    I think you and I could talk on this topic all day!

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  3. Agree with so much of this article. Below are my main reasons why I sell pens:
    1. More than 2 turns to uncap. MB Homer is a good example, loved the design but uncapping didn’t work for me.
    2. Back weighted pens. Too many pens fit here. Just not comfortable using such pens.
    3. Drying out capped. GvFC platino wood. Loved using it for an year but drying out was ultimately too annoying.
    4. Dry nibs. I’m a left handed over-writer and dry nibs don’t work well for me.
    5. Glassy smooth nibs. I find I hard to control such nibs. Pilot medium & broad nibs are good examples. Giving Pilot another shot – 823 Fine coming soon!

    I’m sure there are a few more things that could dampen my experience but I’m more flexible on those. Metal section, slim pens, snap caps, no ink window, long pens and few more… All ok for the right pen.

    Good to see those articles coming! We should catch up sometime in Oxford or London.

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    • Gosh, we really are travelling a similar path! I agree with so much of your list and examples. The Homer works for me as a ceremonial pen, and bizarrely I can tolerate the long threads because I know they serve to align the pattern precisely. I like Pilot’s glassy smoothness, but I have come round to the joy of feedback (see my latest post!)

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  4. Thank you, thank you, and thank you for continuing your blog, Anthony. Even when the topic looks (at a cursory glance) like something of lesser interest to me, I’m always glad I’ve read it. I really enjoy and learn from your pen experience and insights, and appreciate your taking all of the time and effort involved in creating these posts.

    All the best to you,

    Susan

    Susan Jones Davis Blue Seahorse Studio

    I am collecting donations for Mary’s Place (http://www.marysplaceseattle.org/), an organization that empowers homeless women, children and families to reclaim their lives. If you are interested in helping out, they are always in need of hygiene products — soap, shampoo, wipes, deodorant, diapers, toothbrushes & toothpaste, lotion, etc., and socks & underwear (especially for kids). Financial contributions are also welcome. Please feel free to leave donations with me at any time for delivery to the shelter. If you would like a receipt for your taxes, just give me a list of your donations with your contact information. Thank you for your generosity!

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    • Well thank you for the thanks, Susan ☺️. I can’t promise I’m back for good on a regular basis, but I had a few ideas pop into my head and thought I’d get them out there. Glad you liked.

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  5. To this day I still do not understand the design decision behind long cap threads. How does five cap turns make the cap any more secure than 1.5 or 2? Do any of these designers use pens on a daily basis? I really like the look of some of the Opus 88 pens but the cap threads is a total deal killer and has put me off every buying any of their pens.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I totally agree on most of your points, especially pens that dry out while they’re capped. I also have one that’s a little more unusual: when pens lose their caps while stored. I have a couple of Pelikans that this happens to. If I hadn’t been watching, I could have lost the main part of a pen and been left with only a cap in a travelers notebook loop! I love Pelikans too much and have too many to give them up, so I just don’t hook them onto notebooks. Oh, another one that’s just me: I have very small hands, and large pens with #6 nibs are not comfortable for me. If a pen is too large, it seems to try to creep out of my hand; it feels like it’s trying to get away. And the #6 nib is too long; it puts my hand just a little too far above the paper for comfort. I know people with large hands have their problems; these are some of the problems I’ve had with small hands. Funny just how subjective fountain pen likes and dislikes can be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, the sneaky cap wiggle. The Karas Ink did that to me. Pelikans a little (especially the smaller ones) due to their very quick cap action. Luckily I use a case exclusively so it’s never been a big deal for me, but good shout!

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  7. Well, nail(s) on head, here, Anthony. And thanks for all the insights…

    Things which irritate me (unreasonably?) are: nibs which are dry or hesitant; metal sections (with some exceptions); big step down between barrel and section – I find them (aesthetically) rather displeasing (I keep looking at the Scribo Feel but…); sharp threads; too many cap turns (Opus88, grrr), over-slim sections; certain pull-off caps – I think that’s it. A lack of an ink window does not put me off (there were no such luxuries on my first pens), nor am I bothered by cap that won’t post (I rarely post). I like large nibs – unlike your lefty style, I’m an underwriter, keeping the paper fairly straight, so find the extra distance afforded me by a big nib (and also holding the section quite a long way back) helps me both see what I’m writing and avoid smudges…

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