How to buy a fountain pen without screwing up

This is not a guide to choosing a fountain pen. There are plenty of those out there, several of them on this site.

No: this is a guide to actually buying a fountain pen, from the moment you’ve decided on which pen you think you want, to the moment you happily lay it in your pen tray, satisfied that all is well.

Following the steps below won’t guarantee that you’ll have a perfect purchase experience and end up with a pen you love. But they’ll hopefully stop you from losing money and time unnecessarily.

Of course, if you’re buying a Platinum Preppy, these steps may be overkill. But if you’re stretching your budget to a new grail pen, you want all the protection you can get.

Step 1: Confirm your pen choice

The biggest risk when buying a pen is not being scammed or getting a total and unfixable dud. No, the biggest risk is simply buying the wrong one, a pen you don’t much like.

It sounds stupid, but you want to minimise the risk that you’ve got your heart set on a pen that you won’t actually enjoy when it arrives.

Here’s roughly how I do it.

  1. Read all the reviews by trusted pen bloggers. Think about what normally bugs you about a pen (eg too big, too small, too heavy) and see if any of the reviewers mention it. Ask a question in the comments if you need to.
  2. Inspect the pen as best you can. Search for photos on Google Image Search, Reddit and Instagram. Particularly look for real-world photos and size comparisons, as well as macro photos.
  3. Make it real. Draw out its size on paper, or compare it against a pen you’ve already got. You could even find a pen of comparable weight.
  4. Decide on the right nib size. Not all manufacturers have the same standards, so find a nib size comparison for that model and brand if one is available. Remember that ink and paper make a lot of different to line width.
  5. See if you can try it in person. There’s no substitute for actually getting hands on with a pen. You might find that the balance is off, or an edge hits right where your thumb sits. Three options:
    1. Try it at a B&M shop, if you’re lucky enough to have one near you.
    2. Find a friend or pen club that has one they can let you try.
    3. Rent it from Pensharing.

Step 2: Choose the right retailer

So you’re sure you’ve found the right pen. Now, where to buy it from?

I’m assuming here you want a new pen. If you’re buying used there are pen shows (including Virtualpenshow), eBay, forums and sales held by bloggers like me.

First, Google the name of the product to find your shortlist of retailers, both offline and online. Don’t forget alternate product names, such as Pilot Capless vs Vanishing Point. And at this point certainly don’t exclude retailers from other countries. I know lots of buyers in the US save a fortune buying Pelikan from Cultpens; some of my keenest deals have come from Iguanasell in Spain.

Then start your narrowing down process. Here are the questions I ask:

  1. Do they have the model I want in stock? Check alternate nib sizes — you may be able to arrange a nib swap. If you’re hungry for the pen, you may be happier paying £20 more to get it now, instead of waiting for the cut-price retailer to get more stock in.
  2. Are you supporting a small business? Or one whose information helped you make your choice? It’s worth paying a premium to keep the good guys in business.
  3. Does the retailer have a good reputation? It’s easy to find through a review service (eg TrustPilot) or a quick Google. The retailer should have stuff like a support phone number, physical address and active social media with real human interaction — otherwise alarm bells will be ringing for me.
  4. Is the retailer an authorised dealer? Grey-market retailers offer low prices but likely no warranty and potentially bare-minimum customer service.
  5. Can they test the nib for you? This doesn’t always help, but an expert retailer will often be able to check QC and even adjust or grind the nib to your preference before shipping.
  6. What’s the returns policy? Especially for pens that have been inked.

Step 3: Manage your costs

So you’re hitting the ‘buy’ button. The price you saw on the product page isn’t necessarily what you’ll end up paying. Here’s what to think about.

  1. How does shipping work? Which couriers does the shop use? How much does each option cost? How long will it take? Is the shipping trackable? Many times I’ve kicked myself for not paying the extra few quid for express shipping.
  2. Will you have to pay customs duties and taxes? If you’re ordering from the EU, you’re fine. But Japan, the USA, and many other major pen exporters are not in the EU, and that means you may be hit with 20% VAT and duty based on the total cost of your order including the shipping fee, plus a handling charge and a huge delay when your pen arrives. (Suddenly that expensive UK retailer doesn’t look so expensive). Note that FedEx delivers your parcel then sends you a bill — DHL, Parcelforce and others hold your parcel ransom until you’ve paid.
  3. Are there any offers on? Many retailers offer a discount code periodically via their newsletter or for new customers. Others have a discount code they use with bloggers. You’d be a fool to pay more than you need to, so it’s worth a quick Google before you check out.
  4. What’s the best exchange rate? If you’re ordering from abroad, the shop may charge you in their local currency. If you’re a big PayPal user like I am, PayPal defaults to converting the currency themselves. Don’t accept that conversion: use a decent credit card instead. You’ll get a better rate and it will cost you less. Note that many credit cards also charge a foreign transaction fee, so do your research first.

Step 4: Check your purchase

When you receive your order, it’s great to be excited and really enjoy the moment. But here are some things you should do to minimise risk if this is an expensive pen for you.

  1. Open the outer packaging carefully and don’t throw it away. You may need a box to return the pen in and the one in which it arrived is perfect!
  2. Check the main pen box for labels and make sure it accurately reflects what you ordered (eg colour, nib size).
  3. Take out the pen and give it a quick visual inspection. Does it look used or damaged? (Note that some ink residue may be a sign of a retailer checking the pen properly) Check everything by touch, too. Does anything not move that should move? Does anything move that shouldn’t move? Is anything egregiously out of alignment? Does anything rattle?
  4. Ask yourself: is it what I hoped for? Before you ink up the pen and hurt your chances of a free return, now’s the time to decide if this is the pen you wanted and expected, particularly if you didn’t have the chance to try it beforehand. Is it bigger or smaller than it looked in the pics? Do you hate the colour? Is the balance off? Are the threads sharp? Look yourself in the eye and be honest if you’ve made a mistake — it’ll save you money and stress to admit it now.
  5. Check the warranty card. If it’s meant to be stamped and dated, has it been?
  6. Look at the nib under a loupe. Do this before you ink the pen up. Is the nib free of scratches? Are the tines aligned and the same length? Does the tipping look OK? Is the slit cut evenly? Is the breather hole punched evenly? Is the nib aligned with the feed? Is any stamping or etching even? Is there a tine gap? You can check this in seconds and spot 90% of nib problems without even inking.
  7. Ink the pen with a familiar and not too costly ink. Familiar so you can check how the pen performs against a known benchmark; not too costly in case you need to flush it straight out again. Note that flushing can help a pen perform better, so if it’s not writing great after its first fill, don’t despair.
  8. Simulate use. Perform all the steps you expect to perform when owning and using the pen. Cap and uncap it. Work the piston. Remove the nib unit. Wiggle the sprung clip. Make sure nothing falls off.
  9. Keep the stuff. Carefully pack up the main box, manual, cartridges etc and pop them in the loft or at the back of a cupboard. It’ll make your life easier when/if you come to sell.

So there you go. Uh, 24 things you should do when buying a pen. Did I miss anything?

4 thoughts on “How to buy a fountain pen without screwing up

  1. Thank you, Anthony, for another thorough and very informative post! This is not a topic that’s addressed often in fountain pen blogs (at least in my reading), and it’s quite useful information! I appreciate you taking the time to gather and share your thoughts and advice — the pen community benefits from your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great list to reference before any pen purchase! Thanks for taking the time to think these through.

    I’d suggest testing a new pen on a variety of papers that you typically use once you have it inked up. I’ve had pens that feel great on some papers but scratchy on others, even though the nib looks fine under a loupe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Fountain Pen Quest Trail Log – June 28, 2020 | Fountain Pen Quest

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