Yay For The Fountain Pen!

This one’s from Gordon, who goes further back in history than I do.

“Why do I love fountain pens?” The short answer is “just because I do” but there’s more to it than that. As kids we were restricted to pencils. That felt like a severe deprivation. Writing in ink was what adults did. Ballpoints (or Biros as they were called back then, regardless of who made them) were still pretty unreliable and dip pens were a form of torture indulged in by sadistic teachers. The fountain pen was an object of aspiration.

Of course I have used ballpoints; there were years and jobs were it was mandatory. I didn’t like them – they skipped if you didn’t apply enough pressure which led to a painful hand. It wasn’t helped by the near-vertical angle they demanded. One job I had in more recent years turned that on its head. As a registrar of births, deaths and marriages anything other than a fountain pen was forbidden. I enjoyed that and took great care to ensure my ledgers were as well-written and presentable as possible. In the early 2000s registration was computerised but thankfully I had moved on by then.

Like everyone else I have my favourite pens, but almost any fountain pen is preferable to the alternatives. If it’s properly adjusted it takes only the lightest touch to work its magic. Whereas a ballpoint is a ballpoint is a ballpoint, fountain pens, especially older ones, have an individuality of their own. No two Waterman 52s or Conway Stewart 286s write quite the same.

I’m retired now and I rarely have to write any more. I choose to do so often, however, especially with the various “new to me” pens that come my way. What kind of line will it lay? How will it feel in the hand? How will my writing look with it?

There are many alternatives to the fountain pen nowadays – everything from the gel pen to the PC. Doubtless they all have their uses but they are a poor second choice for me.

British Pens

It was suggested recently in a comment that Stephens Leverfils and Conway Stewart pens resemble each other closely enough to have been made by the same manufacturer. It’s not so, of course. Conway Stewart made their pens in-house and Langs made those pens for Stephens who actually manufactured nothing but ink themselves.

It’s understandable that one might see a resemblance as most British-made pens of the 30s and 40s follow a pattern. In very general terms, they have a straight-sided or gently tapered barrel, a screw-on cap with a threaded clip screw holding the clip in place, a hard rubber section even if the rest of the pen is celluloid, and they are all roughly the same size. Though there are exceptions, they mostly conform to the Standard British Pen™ design. American pens of the period differ from each other much more and the products of the major manufacturers are much easier to identify at a glance – think of Sheaffer’s streamlined pens, Waterman’s ripple hard rubber, Parker’s glorious red Duofolds and Wahl-Eversharp’s rosewood hard rubber, and later, the Skyline.

So how do you tell British pens apart at a glance? Well, in many cases you can’t. You have to pick them up and have a good look at them. Langs pens and many Mentmores are quite similar. The De La Rue lever-fillers aren’t all that different. Sometimes you have to look at the writing on the barrel or the nib to be sure, bearing in mind that some reviewers install whatever and then they had to hand when replacing damaged one.

I like that many British pens of the period resemble each other quite closely. It makes you keep your perceptions of photographs or actual pens sharp. Many sellers don’t know pens all that well and they will ascribe it by the first bit of writing they see. We are the experts (or we think we are) and it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t buy a pig in a poke.

Parker 51 Thoughts


Here I am, hanging out in the hospital dining room while Gordon has dialysis. I’m seated at a nice big table. It would be ideal for restoration work if I’d brought my tools and a handful of pens, but I suspect that the staff might not view that activity with approval.

If I can’t work at least I can write. I can’t really deal with specific pens here but perhaps some more general remarks might be acceptable.

I had a comment the other day about a post I had written on the subject of the Parker 51. Though the comment was just advice on the history of the pen, I read between the lines that the writer did not entirely approve of some of the things I had said about the Parker 51. Let me set the record straight. Though I am not a fan of the Parker 51, I fully recognize that it is one of the finest fountain pens ever made. Given the length of its production run and the immense number of pens made, it would be only a fool who did not recognise its worth and influence on the development of other fountain pens.

My objection to the Parker 51 and other covered-nib pens is purely personal. They don’t work well for me for several reasons. Unlike other types of nib, I have to consciously study the tip of the pen to ensure that I am holding it the right way. That might seem a very minor complaint but it has to be done every time I pick up the pen or resume writing after an interruption. Though you can find the occasional stub or oblique (particularly among Newhaven-made 51s), most covered-nib pens give no line variation. Therein, I think, lies some part of their present popularity; they suit writers who have grown up using ballpoints. Though I don’t entirely dismiss firm points with no line variation, they’re not my favourite type of pen. A little line variation enhances otherwise dull handwriting.

Finally, I don’t understand hiding beautifully crafted nibs away. A large part of my early attraction to fountain pens was just that: the sight of a gold nib gliding across the paper, perhaps flexing a little and laying the best line I could achieve.

So that’s the story. I’m not saying that the Parker 51 is faulty in any way. I’m just saying that it isn’t for me. We all have our preferences. I know at least one person who dislikes Conway Stewarts, despite their excellent nibs, attractive colours and huge range of models. Others actively dislike cartridge pens while some avoid lever- and button-fillers. That’s one of the things that is so wonderful about our hobby: the huge variety which provides something for all tastes.