I can reel off a list of fifty things I look for when reviewing a pen, in several broad categories. I can also tell you about the big dealbreakers that separate a great pen from being a bad one. Plenty are immediately obvious from first unboxing or even from photos and spec sheets (sharp cap threads or poor balance, for example).
But, at least in my experience, just three quiet little factors ultimately dictate whether a pen is a quick fling or a lasting companion.
They’re the things you don’t find out on a dinner date, but only when you move in together.
You either don’t see these failings at first, or you’re blinded to them by the honeymoon period, you downplay them, or even find them endearing. But after a year they’re the things that really drive you crazy. The pen equivalents of leaving dirty dishes in the sink.
1: Drying out
Number one is whether the pen dries out when capped. I have come to realise that this is my single biggest irritation, and I just don’t see it discussed enough in the community. Surely I can’t be the only one to rotate through a dozen or more inked pens?
Some pens you can leave capped for weeks or months and they start writing instantly. Others write dark and smudge due to evaporation, or even won’t start at all without priming, coaxing or even flushing.
Whether it’s due to an air gap around the clip or some other factor, I don’t much care. All I know isn’t that drying out drives me crazy, and it’s made me sell pens that I otherwise really liked.
Although I try, it’s hard to catch this problem during the review process when you’re using the pen heavily and changing inks often. Only when it’s sat for in some cases a couple of weeks untouched does this irritation rear its head.
2: Unsatisfying writing experience
I’m not talking here about a bad nib that skips or scratches. That’s obvious from the first page of testing.
Here I’m talking something much more subtle. You know with some people conversation just flows, and with others it feels like… hard work? That, but for nibs.
Just as people’s differences make for interesting conversation, so it is with nibs. I don’t mind if it’s a razor sharp EF, gushing double broad or crisp italic, I want personality and variety.
What I don’t want is a nib that’s OK, but just that bit dry and draggy, or one with an intermittent irritation (dripping or going out of alignment, say, or showing ink starvation after half a page).
I could say the same thing about boring writers: when there are so many charismatic nibs out there, why should I waste writing time on something that leaves me cold?
When you’re reviewing or in the flush of the honeymoon period, the whole pen is a new experience and it’s easy to overlook an adequate nib as being steady and practical, or just needing the right ink or a bit of break-in to be transformed into something special. But when the shine has worn off, you start to notice a dull nib more and more.
I will often try to tweak the nib and feed to improve the situation, but ultimately I know I’ll probably leave the pen in the tray and choose a better writer every time.
3: Feeling of fragility
When I own a pen and write with it, I don’t want to have low-key anxiety about whether the barrel will stain, the clip come loose, the cap threads cross-thread, plating flake, piston bind, ink window or section leak, cap lip crack, trim come loose. My life is stressful enough without being worried about these kinds of niggles during writing or cleaning.
Writing should be fun and carefree. Just the early signs of any of these problems and my trust is gone. I’ll start to avoid carrying or using the pen, and ultimately sell it. I am not interested in tinkering or pen repair, or having fragile ‘shelf queens’ that I have to baby and only wheel out for special occasions — that’s why I’ve never been into vintage pens.
Of course, it’s not always easy to spot long-term problems or weaknesses during a short review period, no matter how thorough you are, but I have found that my experiences with one pen from a brand then colour my perception of others I try later.
Til death do us part?
I specifically call these three things out because they’re the things that are often unnoticed in the early romance with a pen, but they’re what end up governing how much enjoyment or frustration I get from a pen in the long haul of ownership, beyond the honeymoon period. If I sell a pen I’ve owned for a while, there’s a good chance it’s because the nib dries out, I don’t trust its robustness, or I’ve found the writing experience uninspiring.
Some of my pens manage to stick around despite having one or more of these characteristics — like my vaguely fragile-feeling ASC or my Montegrappa that dries out — but it takes an amazing pen to do so. To get back to the relationship metaphor, they’re the stereotypical supermodel girlfriend or boyfriend. An absolute diva, but you put up with it because theyre gorgeous.
To bring a pen into my life is easy — I will happily try it out and have some fun. But to live with it for years? I have much higher standards. How about you?