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The Pleasures of Fountain Pens

As I write this, I am keenly aware that I live in a Golden Age—of fountain pens.  I’ve used fountain pens nearly exclusively since my days of making classroom notes in college.  Back in those days, it was the Shaeffer cartridge pens that sold for a dollar.  I refilled the cartridges from a bottle using a hypodermic syringe to save much-needed cash and wrote with them until the nibs—the writing end of the pen—wore out and broke off.

Since those early days, fountain pens were nearly eclipsed by ballpoint pens, at first the ever-present and evidently multi-functional BIC, then later by more sophisticated and capable models.  But fountain pens never entirely disappeared.  And they have now rebounded in astonishing variety and wide availability.

Today you will find many makers of fountain pens, offering an expanding and ever-changing range of models.  They’re produced in many countries, with Italy and Japan among the most prominent.  But high-quality pens are produced in England, France, Germany, and, yes, the United States.

An English Yard-O-Led Astoria Grand, one of many colors and designs of pens available today

The key to a good quality fountain pen is in the nib, the iconic pointed end that is what glides across the paper and applies the liquid ink in a smooth, continuous flow.  Nibs come in many sizes and shapes, from extra fine to Italic broad, though fine and medium nibs are the most popular.  My preference is for a medium, which fits my style of writing best.  The material from which nibs are made also varies.  The finest are made of gold, and these range from 14 karat to 24 karat in fineness; the higher the karat number, the smoother the writing experience that can be expected.  To hold down costs, though, many makers offer pens with steel nibs, sometimes rhodium coated to enhance smoothness.  Steel nibs tend to offer a stiffer feel than gold nibs, though even steel nibs vary greatly in quality and some rival golden ones in smoothness.

An Italian Stipula Etruria with an 18 karat nib

Pens come in a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns.  This, frankly, is one of their attractions—that one can choose a pen, or many pens, that suite one’s personality or the whims of the moment.

The cap of this Stipula Gladiator pen reflects the symbols of that trade

To be sure, writing with a fountain pen carries with it some liabilities.  Freshly applied ink can, if carelessly handled, smudge.  Fingers sometimes accumulate stains in blue or black or another hue.  Raindrops—or sneezes—can spot carefully drafted letters.

But the benefits of expressing oneself with a fountain pen far outweigh these minor inconveniences.  Fountain pens offer an unparalleled opportunity for expressive writing.  Consider first of all the experience of a pen gliding effortlessly across a page, the ink flowing smoothly, evenly, boldly.  For those whose hand forms clean and shapely letters, fountain pen writing can be elegant in a way no ballpoint pen or rollerball can ever hope to achieve.

An American made Wahl-Eversharp Skyline

And then there is ink, the lifeblood of fountain pen writing, that essential fluid that lays down letters that resolve into words and phrases.  Inks are as variable as their many makers and a large variety is available to sample and apply.  Black inks and shades of blue are perennial favorites, but they hardly stand alone.  One can find almost any color in various hues and degrees of saturation—more than enough to fit any personality or mood of the moment.

As for me, I perform all my writing, from daily journaling to creative writing to grocery lists and entries in my planner, with fountain pens.  I abhor the stiff, unresponsive feel of a ballpoint and I’ll only use one to fill out forms that require pressure to show through on underlying copies.  It’s true that I own a plentiful collection of pens to accommodate the varied uses to which I put them, my moods at any moment, and simply to assure that I always have a fully charged writing instrument at hand at all times.

An Italian Aurora Optima pen, featuring an Italic nib

I love writing with my fountain pens.  They make the process of writing enjoyable, so much so that I rite as often as I can make the chance.  This essay, for example, was first drafted in black with a fountain pen—in cursive, but don’t get me started on that sore subject. Nothing beats a good fountain pen.  If, like me, you’re a lover of letters, words, and phrases, you’ll surely like composing them with the fluidity a fountain pen offers.  If you haven’t yet experienced one, I recommend that you give it a try.  To find one, just search the web for fountain pens and you’ll find many dealers and a wide range of offerings.  If you do, you may just, like me, fall in love with them.

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