One of the things I enjoy most about this hobby is just how varied it is. There’s so much to try, and every new pen or nib or ink you experience helps you get closer to understanding your individual likes and dislikes. A voyage of discovery, if you will.
There are a million things to try, but I believe there are certain ‘landmark’ experiences that will give you the big picture of what’s out there — so the next time someone on a forum uses words like ‘feedback’ or ‘flex’, you’ll have your own perspective and context to bring.
This is my attempt at mapping out those landmark experiences. These are the things that opened up a new interest for me, helped me appreciate the craft, or just as helpfully, showed me something that really wasn’t right for me. I believe if you try them out yourself, you’ll find it interesting and learn something along the way, too.
1. Go big or go home
Many beginners start with medium or fine nibs. That’s partly because they’re practical, but also because it’s the manufacturer’s default. In fact, most manufacturers now don’t even offer nibs other than F, M or B. It’s easy to stay with the happy medium (pun intended).
But if you’re brave, there is a wonderful world of double and triple broads, 1.3mm stubs and music nibs out there that give a completely different writing experience.
Some people use wide nibs like this every day; others only for cards and headings and signatures. You might find you don’t see any practical use for them at all for the kinds of writing you do; in my experience, they’re great for getting the most from inks, and for varying your writing.
Where to start? You can buy stubs for TWSBI and JoWo fit pens relatively cheaply, and some manufacturers like Visconti, Aurora and Montblanc offer stubs, italics and double broad fitted from the factory. Go wild, at least once.
2. Sharpen up with a crisp italic
Most modern pens have ball-shaped tipping: they write the same width of line in every direction. This is smooth and easy to use, but it can be dull. Branch out into trying a proper crisp or cursive italic and you’ll get a very different experience and result.
What’s an italic nib? Look at the nib end-on and instead of a ball you’ll see a rectangle. The tip is wide, but not high. So when you write a downstroke it’ll be a thick line, and when you write a sidestroke it’ll be narrow. Simples.
Writing with an italic isn’t always easy — it will show up any rotation in your grip, and because of the shape of the tip, it can catch on paper and feel scratchy. But the expressive line variation it brings to your handwriting can be addictive, and you may find yourself going for sharper and more specialised italics to get the maximum line variation.
Italics don’t always have to be wide, and some of my favourites have been italics made from fine and medium nibs. But you’ll naturally see more line variation with wider italics.
3. Streamline your collection with an integrated nib
Most fountain pen nibs look similar and follow the same basic construction. Cylindrical section. Swoopy nib and feed sticking out from the end. You know, the same pattern you’ll see on nearly any pen, whether it’s a US pen from 1940 or a Chinese pen from today.
That convention and expectation hasn’t stopped manufacturers experimenting over the past hundred years. For instance, Sheaffer is best known for its inlaid nibs, and Parker’s most revered pen, the 51, had an almost completely enclosed nib.
But the most creative attempt in my view is the fully integrated nib, pioneered by Parker, but perfected by Pilot in its Myu and Murex pens.
As you can see, the party trick is simple: the nib is actually part of the section. Same piece of metal. Seamless.
These slim stainless steel beauties are now a few decades old and hard to get hold of at a reasonable price, but for me they’re a true milestone in the hobby that everyone needs to try. They’re also great little note-takers with crisp fine nibs, that can really fill a hole in your collection.
If the truly integrated nib isn’t right for you, there’s a halfway house that’s quite accessible: hooded nibs. For me, the epitome of the breed is the Lamy 2000. It’s a classic for a reason, and is one of the few pens that’s instantly recognisable. A Bauhaus design icon.
4. Get wet and wild
People chuck around the words ‘wet writer’ and ‘gusher’ without really understanding what the term means. A truly wet pen is something else: it floats on the page, and the line it lays is so heavy it is 3D; it actually protrudes above the paper, held in a curve by the ink’s surface tension. Your inks will never have looked so saturated. Properties like shading, sheen and haloing will be accentuated. Equally, your sub-par paper will never be so tortured.
Personally, I love wet pens. I don’t mind the longer drying time, and since I only use good paper (Tomoe) I don’t worry about feathering and bleeding.
So where do you get a wet pen? Germany is a candidate; my Pelikans and Montblancs have all been fairly generous in terms of flow. If you want a really wet writer, the consistently best place to look is Italy. But be cautious about which brands you pick. In my experience, Visconti and Delta actually aren’t consistently that wet, and Aurora certainly isn’t, but brands like Scribo, ASC and Omas are.
If your budgets don’t stretch as high as Italian exotica, most pens can be modified to write much wetter by a professional nibmeister, or even a confident amateur. It’s nothing to do with gold or steel, or F versus B nibs. The principles are simple: widen the tine gap with a brass shim, and widen the feed’s ink channel with a razor blade. More ink will flow to the page. Boom.
5. Learn to take the rough with the smooth
Some pens are scratchy, and feel horrid on paper. That leads many of us to look for nibs that are as smooth as possible, polished to metaphors of melted butter and glass. But smooth isn’t the only ideal of perfection. There is a third way: it’s called feedback, or tooth. A nib can be engineered to have a texture that gives it a consistently non-smooth feeling on the page, whether that’s some drag or the audible sound of a pencil. Many people find nibs with feedback to be easier to control or just more pleasant than a nib that’s overly smooth. And let me make this clear: feedback is absolutely not the same as a nib being scratchy.
Brands like Aurora, Sailor and Platinum design their nibs to have varying degrees of feedback, at least in some of their nib sizes (Sailor and Platinum B nibs, in my experience, feel quite smooth). A good place to start? Try a Sailor F or M, or an fine Aurora. But ideally try before you buy: feedback is an acquired taste.
6. Get your fill of unusual filling mechanisms
Cartridges, converters and pistons are all very well, but for me I love the engineering of more innovative filling mechanisms. Visconti has its vac power filler. ASC has a pneumatic filler. You can get lever fillers, pump fillers, eyedroppers, syringe fillers, bulb fillers and many others. The coolest, though, is Conid’s Bulkfiller. A marvel of engineering and efficiency. If you can get hold of one.
A popular first step in branching away from converters and pistons is Pilot’s 823, which follows the same principles as Visconti’s vac filler. Filling its demonstrator body is great fun.
7. Experience the craftsmanship of Urushi
You don’t have to be a nipponophile to appreciate the incredible craftsmanship that goes into the high-end pens from Namiki, Sailor and Platinum/Nakaya. Whether it’s maki-e, raden or urushi, the techniques are not only beautiful and intricate, but incredibly time-consuming, and within the capabilities of only a few people in the world. When you hold one you know you’re looking at something special.
Even seasoned pen addicts may never drop a few grand on some hand-painted maki-e or full raden beast, but many of us have tried urushi, and fallen in love. Urushi is a special kind of lacquer made from tree sap, built up in many polished layers over a base of ebonite or brass over the course of months. Urushi-coated pens have incredible depth of colour and tactility, as well as a surprising degree of durability — and considering the effort that goes into making them, they’re actually fairly affordable. You can pick up the most basic Nakaya for around £400 on a good day, and for that you’ll not only get the urushi body, but a well-tuned 14k gold nib, a classic design, and excellent resale value.
If your pen tray is filled with pretty acrylics, celluloids, metals and woods, urushi will give you something very different.
If you want the real wow factor of urushi without breaking the bank, check out the Nakaya Decapod. Its faceted finish shows the urushi off to its best.
8. Leave your Montblanc prejudice at the door
Montblanc is perhaps the best known premium fountain pen brand, and it’s a good thing it makes bags too, because boy does it come with a lot of baggage. Many pen addicts hate Montblanc, seeing it as an overpriced poseurs’ brand.
The truth is, those people are missing out on some great pens that are just as technically advanced and no more expensive than equivalent pens from Sailor, Aurora, Visconti or Graf.
Montblanc offers a dazzling array of pens ranging from just a few hundred pounds for the Starwalker up to tens of thousands for hand-made masterworks featuring precious metal overlays and intricate engravings. Montblanc is one of the few brands that still offers a comprehensive range of nibs, including bespoke nibs, and its warranty, nib exchange program and network of boutiques are all strong and reassuring reasons to buy.
The pens themselves, in my opinion, are classics. Pick up a basic 146 or 149 and you’ll find a great, well-tuned nib that doesn’t dry out, a large capacity piston filler with a smooth feel, solid build quality, a great clip, and no significant downsides. A 146 could happily be your only pen for the next 20 years.
So look past the snowcap, head to your online retailer of choice, or approach a dedicated Montblanc used dealer like Izods.ink. There’s a world of fine pens to dive into.
9. Try micro-writing with a needlepoint
I was going to suggest at this point trying a flex nib — but being honest, flex is such a huge trend that it’s probably on your radar already. Montblanc and Aurora offer factory flex nibs, and at the more affordable end of the spectrum there’s the Pilot FA nib and steel flex nibs from Conklin, Noodlers and others. There are also Titanium nibs that bring a whole new feel to flex (with a bit of feedback too, if you want to kill two birds with one stone). Flex is mainstream.
Needlepoints aren’t mainstream, and they’re incredible fun. I suggested trying big broad nibs at the start of this blog — now I’m suggesting the opposite. It’s a miracle of engineering that brands can create practical, reliable and even not-that-scratchy nibs that can write on a grain of rice, but here we are.
I’ve had extra fines from Sailor that wrote impressively fine. I’ve had Pablo at FPnibs grind an XXXF for me, which was even finer. But the nib that really leaps out at me is from Platinum, and you can get it on a 3776 for around a hundred quid. It’s called the Ultra Extra Fine (UEF), and it’s incredible. You can write your entire day’s to-do list on a postage stamp if you want to.
10. Get clicky with the Vanishing Point
It’s a rite of passage in the pen world to buy a Pilot Vanishing Point, and some people love them so much they never give them up.
For me, I’ve tried all kinds of retractable pens: Montblanc’s 1912, Lamy’s Dialog 3, and a host of Pilot’s, including two generations of Vanishing Point and the twisty Fermo. I love the concept.
Pilot’s “VP” (and its slimmer cousin, the Decimo) is by far the most popular, with its easy click mechanism and affordable pricing for a gold-nibbed pen. To me it’s an ugly pen with an uncomfortable clip, but I won’t argue that it’s a revolutionary product that every stationery lover should own at least once.
I’ll stop at 10 experiences for this bucket list, although I’ve got many more to add! What experiences or discoveries did you find made the most difference to your stationery worldview or your attitudes as a collector?