Fountain pen users are often avid practitioners of the art of letter writing. British website The Browser offers an interview with literary biographer Jonathan Keates, who reflects on the importance of letter writing in history and literature...
Scratchy is Fine (or Extra-Fine)
As I consider the history of fountain pens nibs, I am struck by the major change that has occurred in tipping sizes. Fountain pen nibs were first inspired by dip pen nibs, which in turn were conceptual copies of feather quills. Most all of these were very fine, allowing for many words on one dip. But they made noise on the paper and gave the writer some feedback in the form of scratch. When the pen-that-holds-ink, i.e. the fountain pen, was invented, people no longer had to dip, so a greater range of tip sizes became more common, including broad and stub points. Still, paper was a scarce and valued commodity. But the broader nibs tended to be smoother.
One hundred years later, the fine nibs of the earlier age have all but disappeared in western cultures. However, they are still favored in parts of Asia, especially Japan, where the designation of a fine nib is much the same as it was in the 1940’s in the US. They also offer extra-fine points that are not found at all in US and European made nibs. Beyond that, a couple companies offer XXF nibs (extra-extra fine) and UF (Ultra-fine) as well as something called the Saibi-Togi nib, which has a needlepoint tip. Of course, these nibs are not as smooth as the Extra-Fine tips offered in the west, but they are much finer, making fines right down to hair-line points.
These tips are great for marginalia, for filling in small spaces, and for those who like to draw hair-line cross-hatch. So while European manufacturers may have abandoned the true extra fine for now, it is good to know that this tradition is being carried forward by the best of the Asian pen companies...
Fountain Pen Vent Holes Serve More Than One Function
This is a Leroy Fairchild dip pen nib star-shaped vent hole, probably from around 1880.
Waterman's keyhole-shaped vent hole from ca. 1930
Mabie Todd Artist's Pen New York with crescent-shaped vent hole ca. 1900
Waterman's #4 heart-shaped vent hole from the 1920's
In many ways, the vent hole is the most recognizable feature of a nib. Over the years, several different cut-outs have been used, including the "tear drop," round hole, and those seen above. Besides the obvious venting, which sends air back to the reservoir to replace the ink that is consumed during writing, the vent hole serves another important purpose.
When a nib flexes, and when the tines bend up to open to allow a greater line width, at the end of the slit there is great stress on the metal. Gold is tough, but may not be tough enough to stand this stress without cracking. In the pictures above on the left, you will see small cracks coming out of the vent holes. These cracks sometimes extend, compromising the integrity of the nib. The keyhole vent was abandoned by Waterman's in the 1930's, in part because it compromised some of their nibs.
As experience has shown, there are both better and worse shapes for vent holes. Those with no sharp concave corners are much superior. Ideal is the round hole, but it is not very interesting. The heart-shape is even better. This is where engineering and emotion meet. For not only does it minimize cracking, but people grow very attached to their pens and nibs. What better way to express this affection than a heart?
Some of the Best Japanese Fountain Pens
Every day I look at ten to twenty fountain pens either for repair, customization, or just for set up and testing for a specific customer.
I find that there are some that stand out for me. My preferences are toward simpler designs, but that is not to say dumb or cheap designs. Fountain pen design has been seriously considered for at least a century and a quarter. And there are standout pens being made today. Each one fits into an area of performance, size, materials, and price that all come together to make a great choice.
At the top of my list right now, with a few exceptions, are the Japanese made pens. The companies Sailor, Pilot/Namiki, and Nakaya/Platinum are producing excellent and flawless fountain pens.
The Sailor Realo, a recently introduced piston filled pen, is remarkable in many ways. The nibs are consistent with Sailor's excellent quality control, although why they need to make 21K nibs when 14K does just fine is only a matter of "carat envy," as far as I can see. The piston filling system is excellent and holds considerable ink (1.5ml). The fit and finish is as good as on a major German brand whose pens sell for twice the price. Sailor cartridge/converter models, such as the Sapporo and regular Pro Gear are an even better bargain.
The Pilot Custom 823 also ranks at the top. Using a plunger-vacuum filling 2.2 ml system, you will have writer’s cramp before the pen is empty. The balance is terrific, and the semi-transparent models show just how much ink is left in the barrel. It is available only in fine, medium, and broad tip sizes.
Speaking of transparent pens, the Platinum Motosu shows the color and remaining supply of ink through a clear barrel. It has a patented inner cap sealing system that does not let the nib dry out for a very long time. The limitation is the nib tip sizes, fine, medium and broad. So if you want a specialty nib, you will have to go to a Sailor or if you are looking for standard nibs out side of the FMB range, look at Nakaya.
A special favorite of mine is the Nakaya fountain pen. I especially like the Decapod, Neo Standard, and Deskpen models. All of them share amazing Urushi lacquer over hard rubber caps and barrels. These are finishes that have been improved upon for the past 400 years, and it shows. The colors seem to come from within, and the surfaces are hard and durable beyond lacquer pens produced in Europe, which are usually lacquer over brass and prone to chipping.
Nakaya pens take a standard Platinum converter or the range of Platinum cartridges. The converter/filler holds the usual amount of ink that most converters hold. The cartridges are the best out there with a stainless steel ball which gets pushed out of the way when the cartridge is fitted into the back of the gripping section. The ball seems to assure a consistent flow of ink. All Nakaya pens are available in a wide range of nib tip sizes, including a needlepoint that is capable of drawing blood and a true double-slit music nib, great as a juicy 1.2mm stub.
They produce a smooth consistent line and are great for flexible customization as well as re-cutting to various italic and oblique shapes. I am carrying a Decapod now and have flown with it on a half-dozen occasions without a problem (I always carry it in my shirt pocket and with the nib up). These pens were love at first sight for me. The weight, balance and tactile properties justify the extra cost of a hand-made, hand-finished pen.
The Adventure of the Moleskine Notebook
This Moleskine notebook had an unfortunate experience with the full wash cycle. I took it out, dried it and discovered that my notes are still readable. It speaks pretty well for the paper.
The Underrated Parker Vacumatic
A surprising trend has become noticeable lately in the pricing of vintage fountain pens. Parker Vacumatic pens, made in the 1930’s and 40’s, have been sliding in value on Ebay and other pen trading sites. I can only think this is because so many of them were made, and that because they were so well made, they are not scarce today.
These pens are almost indestructible. With proper care, the only internal problem that may develop after decades of use is the need for a new diaphragm. Sporting a fully exposed nib, a very stable celluloid barrel and cap, and a now-classic “Modern” design, these are truly great pens.
The clip and cap bands have a gold-filled surface, easily four times the thickness of the gold found in most gold-plated pen clips and bands made now. The Vac, as it is known today, was made available in four sizes and a number of pearlescent colors. Many feature a semi-transparent ink window that lets you know when to refill. And those refills are not needed very often—these pens hold more ink than most pens of that time, and much more than those made today.
The solid gold nibs were superbly crafted, though it can be difficult to find any now that are not either Fine or Extra Fine. But for someone who writes a lot, a fine nib will serve very well, laying down ink in legible marks, not filling in the center of e’s or a’s. All in all, and regardless of market fluctuations, there remain many reasons why the Parker Vac is one of the most admired pens ever made.
Nakaya Pens and Wabi-Sabi
Boarding the Whaletown Ferry to make my way to the Campbell River Airport on my way back to Los Angeles recently, I discovered that good fortune was with me. Two friends, one an environmental sculptor and inventor, and the other a writer and soon-to-be Buddhist priest, were also waiting on the ferry. Not only did they make room in their already full four-door for me, they also added to my understanding of what I love about Nakaya pens.
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese phrase that can be translated in many ways. The word Sabiru can mean rust or patina, as in surface decay. And while the word “decay” in our language has a negative connotation, in the case of Wabi-Sabi it is neutral or even positive. It also has the sense of "sober refinement.” The adjective wabi shii can mean lonely and proud. All of this was conveyed to me during a conversation about the pen that I was carrying - a Nakaya Decapod Aka-Tamenuri which I have been using for more than two years.
During that time, the rich red of the under-color has gradually become more prominent as the Urushi lacquer on the pen has matured. We discussed objects that become more treasured with careful wear - even the famous tea cups that once broken are repaired with a vein of gold to fill the break. They recommended the book, “In Praise of Shadows,” written by the Japanese author Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, which I am soon to read.
My preference for simple functional objects, objects that are aesthetically and functionally elegant, has led me to the Nakaya aesthetic. I much prefer beautiful clean surfaces to elaborate over-decoration. The pens that give me most pleasure gain in their beauty as time goes on, and will continue to function, given a little care and maintenance, because they have lightness, grace, and balance. This time of sitting in the car with my friends, waiting for the ferry to undock and sail, was a simple time of conversation and reflection. It is the simple things of all kinds that bring me contentment. -- John Mottishaw
Bexley Fountain Pens
Under the hood, Bexley fountain pens are all the same. They have one engine and drive train with known reliability. The range of fountain pen sizes covers the tastes of most writers. Those who prefer a finer line or one with some other characteristics are going to be happy with a further customization. (the stub tip can be easily converted into one with a great deal of line variation).
So then, the question with Bexley fountain pens becomes, what body style and material do I want? My preference is toward the Poseidon Magnum, because of the way it fits in my hand. As this is a big pen, others may prefer a smaller body. As to color, Bexley makes quite a range. I like simple colors: Black cap, single color barrel. But, the Roman saying goes, "There is no disputing taste." As with car colors, to each his own.
Revision 1-06-2011: Some Bexley pens now has a piston filler pen seen in the Corona model and based on the reception that this pen has received will continue making piston fillers. So all Bexley's are not the same "under the hood". JM