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