Late last year I set out to survey the fountain pen community about all aspects of their relationship with fountain pens. This post starts to dig in to the incredibly rich data set that resulted.
I’m excited about this data, because as far as I know it’s the only large-scale, quantitative survey of fountain pen enthusiasts out there — and almost certainly the only one that is freely available to you, dear reader.
There’s a lot to unpack, so consider this part one of at least two posts. And if you find the insights interesting, please consider donating: I spent actual money on survey software as well as plenty of my own time to create the survey and write up the findings.
Who answered the survey?
I can’t emphasise this enough: the quality of any survey depends on the quality of the respondents, and how well they represent the overall population you’re analysing. My survey had 1,240 respondents in late November 2020. So the data is of large scale and relatively recent.
Respondents came from Facebook (I posted on the Fountain Pens UK Facebook group, which has 2,600 members), Instagram (my 3,000-ish followers) and Reddit Fountain Pens (185,000 followers) as well as the regular traffic to this blog. This is important to note, for a few reasons: it’s a self-selecting sample of people who go to penthusiast haunts on the internet. But since the questions were about how enthusiasts behave, that’s not a problem (for example, we’re not asking what percentage of the overall population uses fountain pens).
The country breakdown is not surprising given the name of this blog and the language I write in: it’s dominated by English-speaking countries. Folks from 57 different countries participated; here are the top eight. You can see that USA and UK led the way pretty clearly. (Interestingly, the general traffic to my blog is more diverse than the respondents to the survey).
I asked a couple of demographic questions, which are part of the methodology but are actually quite interesting in their own right, and in the analysis below I dig in to some of the data cuts they allow (for example, how different are the youngest group of enthusiasts from the oldest?).
Aside from the under-21 category, respondents pretty evenly represented every age group. It’s worth noting that I promoted the survey first on the Facebook group and the respondents skewed much older. I promoted to Instagram next and the average age dropped; finally I promoted on Reddit and the age dropped further. So: you might be excited that those aged 21-30 represented a full quarter of respondents, or you might be cautious that the distribution depended entirely on where I sourced respondents, with a lot of folks coming from the younger user groups found on Reddit and Insta.
Note that I did not ask people to report their gender. But I did ask them to share their names if they wanted a chance at winning a giveaway; most people filled it in. Looking at the distribution of first names, I see a skew towards male names.
Thanks to ‘sasquatch z’, ‘faggot isthename’, ‘sorry’ and ‘iwont tellya’ in particular for taking the research seriously…
Figuring it was interesting given the topic at hand, I also took the liberty of asking respondents to share their handedness, and, well, that turned out pretty representative of the wider population. Looks like we lefties account for the normal 11% here, too.
So, moving on to the actual questions, what did we learn? Let’s step through the questions in order and see what leaps out.
We have a lot of new enthusiasts
Nearly half (46%) of respondents have been fountain pen enthusiasts for three years or less. This, frankly, surprised me a little bit, and there are a few potential explanations:
- We have had a huge influx of newbies to the hobby since I’ve been publishing this blog (which started January 2017), reflecting a ‘boom’ in interest in stationery
- There’s no boom, but people ‘grow out’ of the hobby after several years and stop visiting enthusiast websites where they’d see surveys like this one, so the overall community online skews towards less experienced folks
- The respondent base skews towards younger people who naturally haven’t had that much time to build up years in hobbies. (I’m not convinced by this one: in this survey remember that 25% of the respondents are over 50, so they’ve had plenty of time to rack up years of penthusiasm.)
Regardless of the cause, I have some confidence that this result dispels the myth that the pen hobby is a ‘closed shop’ that alienates newbies. Apparently, we’re welcoming enough that 567 newbies felt confident enough to fill out this survey about their hobby.
It’s about the experience
I got right to the point with question two: why do you like pens? There’s a scary moment in any survey design where you are terrified that the options you’ve provided won’t match the respondents’ feelings, and you’ll end up with tons of people picking ‘other’. That wasn’t the case here. Even though respondents were allowed to pick multiple options, only 5.8% of people chose ‘other’ as one of their choices.
Those 73 people left a variety of comments, covering topics as distinct as:
- Writing comfort and ergonomics — there were references to tendonitis and chronic pain
- Craftsmanship, design and engineering
- The choice of nib variety
- The use of simpler analogue tools in a digital world, and how they slow you down
- Creating a family heirloom for the future
- The international community
- Uniqueness and how they let you stand out from the crowd of biros that other people want to use
- The fun of maintaining and repairing vintage pens
- Making the best of their handwriting
- How good they are for art, sketching and drawing
- The simple fact that they grew up with fountain pens and never learned any different
I have to say, reading all these comments was great fun and made me feel really fond of this wonderful group of people.
However: the clear winner from the given options was ‘writing experience’, picked by 92% of respondents. And boy, I could write a blog about that alone. In one sense it’s no surprise: the delightful gliding feeling of a well-tuned nib is often what hooks newbies who have previously only used ballpoints.
But if the writing experience is so important:
- Why do so few pen brands differentiate on that experience, instead using generic nibs from Bock and JoWo?
- Why do we bloggers have so little formal vocabulary for discussing that experience, beyond vague words like smooth, toothy, bouncy, wet?
- How are people supposed to try that unexpectedly good experience when we’re all buying online?
Aesthetics, well, that makes sense. And then, aha, ink variety comes in third. My gut feel is that this is a very modern answer: I remember just a few years ago when there was a tiny fraction of the ink choice we have now. No super shaders, no super sheeners, no shimmer inks, no pastels or muddy colours. We may have ink — and Inkstagram — to thank for the resurgence of our hobby.
I cut this question by the answers to question 1, and indeed those that had been in the hobby for less than a year were much more likely to choose the variety of inks as what attracted them to fountain pens.
Looking at respondents as a whole, ‘sustainability’ scored much higher than cynical old me expected. We make a lot out of the ability to refill our fountain pens, use them for decades, and avoid the plastic waste of disposable Bics. Me personally, I think of the huge boxes that pens come in, and the fact that I have bought many fountain pens and many glass bottles of ink, and I think I’m kidding myself if I say I’m being environmentally friendly.
And bringing up the end of the list?
The history, the huge range to collect, and status — these options were much less popular. They go further to undermining that stereotype of the pen collector, who buys Montblancs that stay uninked, and nerds out over vintage brands with other beard-wearers. I recall the interview with Joe Kershaw saying that he doesn’t see collectors being a thing, that people are more likely to have one pen and thirty inks — and apparently the data bears that out.
How active is this community?
We talk a lot about how vibrant and active our community of enthusiasts is. There’s so much going on! Letter-writing competitions, classes, events, meetups, not to mention all the specialists products you can explore. I asked respondents if they had ever done nine of these things — you can read the list yourself. But right now, don’t look at the words, look at the heat map.
Most respondents hadn’t done any of these nine things, with just a few exceptions. Let’s talk about those exception first.
Visiting a pen shop. 55% of respondents said they had visited a proper pen shop at least a few times. That’s awesome! I’ve probably only been a dozen times, and I actively go out of my way to visit pen shops. Cut this answer to show just newbies, those that have been in the hobby less than a year, and it’s still an impressive 18% (and remember that I did this survey in November when half of the previous 12 months were in lockdown…).
The flipside is that around half of enthusiasts have never been in a proper pen shop, or only once. Does this reflect how few pen shops there are out there nowadays? Are newbies intimidated by the thought of stepping in the door? Or do we find that we get all the advice and information we need online now?
Having a problem with pen quality control. 50.5% of respondents say that they have had a problem with the quality control of a new pen at least ‘a few times’ or ‘regularly’. Less than a quarter of respondents said they’d never had a QC problem. For enthusiasts, at least, this looks like a real issue. In other words, I’m not crazy to keep bringing it up in my reviews. Is this acceptable? Not to me it isn’t.
Bought and used vintage pens. And now let’s talk about vintage pens. I regularly get questions about vintage pens: why I don’t review them, why I don’t buy them, and indeed quite a few people commented when I posted this survey wondering why I didn’t ask more questions about vintage pens. Well, only 13% of respondents say they have regularly bought vintage pens, with a further 28% having dabbled (that’s the category I fall into). 44% have never.
But take a look at those that have been in the hobby the longest. Yep, much more likely to have bought vintage pens — and been to pen shops, for that matter.
Does this reflect the fact that older people are more likely to use vintage pens, and more likely to have been in the hobby for longer? Or as you spend more years in the hobby, do you start exploring new avenues, like vintage, as your confidence grows?
The real standout of this chart, and the whole-population chart above, is just how many of the activities even the most seasoned hobbyists haven’t done.
Most people don’t go to pen shows or pen meets. That’s right: three quarters of enthusiasts have never been to a pen show. They don’t use nibmeisters or work with custom makers. And this isn’t limited to activities that depend on physical access: most hobbyists don’t use mail subscription boxes or participate in the activities like Inktober that circulate on social networks. If you lurk on Instagram or read the blogs, it seems that everyone goes to pen shows and gets custom grinds done and shares their inktober prompts. But that’s not the story of the silent majority.
The question we need to ask ourselves is whether these activities are important to the health of the hobby. Do we need pen shows to attract new enthusiasts and help us deepen our knowledge or discover new brands? Do we need shared activities like inktober or letter-writing months?
A gateway hobby? Nope
In question four I hoped to be clever and find some connection between a love of pens and other hobbies. After all, I see hashtags like #writelightslice, I see people often posting pics of pens and watches together. I assume that an interest in aesthetics and engineering will span product categories. But…
I was wrong. Aside from reading, no more than an eighth of respondents said they were into watches, photography, vinyl or other analogue pursuits. And actually, isn’t it crazy that, of all us writers, less than a quarter of us are interested in reading?!
Banish the devil sticks
I often half-joke about ‘devil sticks’ — ballpoints and rollerballs — and how I practically never use them. I can’t understand why brands offer pen sets including a pencil and ballpoint along with the fountain pen… who buys those?! It’s a well known trope in our community that we love fountain pens so much we won’t use anything else. But is it actually true?
Kinda. 75% of respondents say that either ‘never’ or ‘only when they have to’ use ballpoints. There’s a clear peak in the responses around ‘only when I have to’, which I believe indicates that it’s unavoidable to use ballpoints sometimes, for instance signing the backs of credit cards or when a form requires it.
Rollerballs don’t serve the same purpose as a ballpoint, they’re more of a direct competitor to fountain pens, so we see both more respondents saying ‘never’ (19%), and more people saying ‘yes, but less often than my fountain pens’ (29%).
Pencils very clearly serve a distinct purpose, so most people said they use them. Here I’m in the definite minority: I use pencils so infrequently that it might as well be never.
And what about us Southpaws, cursed with the smudged left hand of doom? Turns out there’s little difference. Still, 75% avoid using ballpoints.
Pens ain’t toys
What do people use their pens for? Another blow here for the stereotype of the collector who keeps pens uninked for display or appreciation. 83% of respondents said they used their pens for work (or for college, I guess), by far the most popular option.
(Note that people were allowed multiple votes so the percentages in the chart below are misleading — they reflect the percentage of the 4,084 total votes, not the number of respondents).
Next came journalling, picked by 71% of respondents. And you can see the rest of the options tailed off, picked by half or less of the respondents.
I’m not sure whether I’m surprised by this answer or not. Personally, it reflects me perfectly. I use my pens to write for work and to journal, every day; I write letters once in a blue moon, vaguely attempt planning and list-writing, and that’s it. But I guess if you went by the popular Instagram channels you might think that planning, lettering and art were much more popular than they are.
Interestingly, the ranking of activities remained the same even when I looked at those who were into fountain pens for the writing experience, or those who were in it for the pretty ink colours; and those who had been in the hobby for 1-3 years versus 7 or more years. These are universal rankings.
Collecting by the numbers
I was really, really interested to see the result of the next question: how many pens do you own?
Now isn’t this a fantastic, juicy chart? I can make so many guesses about what’s going on here. More than a third of respondents, 37%, have over 20 pens. There seems to be a cluster of folks in the (admittedly broader) 21-50 range, which is where I have sat for the past four years, and where I think a lot of the people I know on Instagram sit. This is a big enough selection to feel that you’ve got a lot of variety, but not so many that managing, organising and maintaining it becomes a chore. You can conceivably have every one of your pens inked when you have 25 of them.
17% of the total have more than 50 pens. I know a few of these folks too: people like Rupert Arzeian, who has a load of very inexpensive pens that he often picks up on impulse; but also folks like Penultimate Dave, who has trays of arco and rare Viscontis. Does 50+ pens mean you have to be the stereotypical Montblanc hoarder? Not necessarily. But it’s clear that there are folks out there who have lots of fountain pens.
Even more interesting perhaps is the neat peak over on the left of the chart. 37% of respondents have ten pens or fewer; more people sit in the 6-10 group than any other, and I wonder whether there’s a distinct group of ‘users’ here, folks that like to own a few decent pens but see them as tools more than objects to accumulate and appreciate. They’re probably not jumping on every limited edition and new release. 6-10 is a handful, it’s a small pen case, it’s not racks of neatly organised drawers.
A special shout-out to the 14 folks who have just one pen — I hope it’s a well-loved Montblanc 149 or Lamy 2000 or a beaten-up Pilot Capless that goes with you everywhere. And the one person who says they own no fountain pens at all? Welcome to the hobby, I guess?
Of course, we can dig a little deeper. Let’s look at how the number of pens changes as people spend more time in the hobby. I excluded the 78 who said they didn’t consider owning pens a hobby, because that answer gives no indication of time spent.
Newsflash: those that have been in the hobby for longer have more pens. You can see that in the heatmap, and it’s not a surprise. But still what stands out to me is the horizontal stripe at 6-10 pens, and the slightly less pronounced stripe at 21-50 pens. It takes seven years of hobbyism for the open-ended ‘more than 50’ answer to become the most popular (although that’s still less than one pen a month, folks — pick up the pace!). And actually it looks like people diverge into two camps as they get more experienced: they either go big (more than 20 pens) or they go small (10 pens or fewer, sometimes even one pen!). A story of refinement versus rampant addiction?!
And now the last question for this post: how many of these pens are actually inked and in regular use?
Let’s tackle ‘inked’ first. Who are you lunatics that don’t have all your pens inked?! Well, you can understand it when you look at the breakdown by number of pens owned.
It looks like when you get above even five pens most people don’t keep them all inked; get above ten and it’s not even most of them that you keep inked. Above 15 and it’s just a few that stay wet.
Contrast that against the chart of ‘how many of them do you regularly use’:
Here there’s a much more defiant stripe of green to the right, even as the number of pens in the collection grows. All the way up to 50 pens, ‘most’ are in use. Good on ya, folks.
The last of the three sub questions I won’t harp on, but 79% of respondents said they bought most or all of their fountain pens new. That adds more colour to the topic of vintage pens, of course (if the overall used number is low, then ‘vintage’ as a subset of that must be even lower), but it also raises interesting questions about the state of pen retail.
Pens don’t go obsolete, they don’t easily wear out, they don’t (much) go out of fashion, they’re easy to ship and sanitise, and actually they’re not easy to completely ruin: in other words, there’s no reason why they’re not the ideal object to buy and sell used. As an inveterate pen seller myself, I’ve never found it difficult to find people willing to buy second-hand pens from me, and I’ve bought my fair share of used pens too. But apparently that is dwarfed by the scale of purchases on the new market.
And that, folks, is it for part one. We are less than halfway through the data set, so take some time to digest and I’ll see you back here in a couple of weeks for some more analysis!