Saturday, July 08, 2006


Seeing a post over at Simon's blog titled "A Fetish of Sorts", I got slightly intrigued -- what possible fetishes could that mild-mannered Canadian have? It turns out that he's not talking about anything so bizarre as, say, certain forms of workwear. He really likes pens!

Well, I like pens myself. In fact, I've just this week returned to writing longhand, having started a new short story using one of my Levenger fountain pens. (The "Gotham" model, which I adore.) I love my fountain pens, and I own nearly twenty of them, by manufacturers such as Levenger, Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, and Pelikan. The tactile sensation of writing with a fountain pen is just wonderful -- it's this combination of a pleasant scratching and gliding of the tip of the nib that's really beguiling. Plus, there's the wonderful elegance of the device, the way the two tines of the nib spread apart just enough to leave a line of wet ink behind.

And really, fountain pens are so much better looking than "normal" pens. Even the cheapest regular fountain pens look nifty, and of course, the higher-end ones that can run for hundreds of dollars leave the realm of "writing instruments" and enter the realm of "jewelry". (Check out the offerings at Omas, for example. Look at some of their limited edition pens.)

The best metaphor I've heard for a fountain pen is that it's basically a brush, consisting of just two bristles (possibly three, if you're using a music nib) that are made of metal. Once you get that image, writing with a fountain pen just falls into place: you're not pushing the pen across the page, but rather you're using a brush to paint the words onto the page. I wish I could remember where I read that.

Fountain pens aren't exactly cheap, of course, and even the cheapest ones that are worth buying will be around thirty bucks or so. But I have fountain pens that I bought eight years ago for such amounts, and not only do they still work, but they are likely to continue working for decades more. It turns out that pens are like hand tools (a more recent obsession of mine): yes, you can buy cheap adjustable pliers for seven or eight bucks, and then replace them in a few years when they break, or you can buy a good pair for twenty-five bucks and never replace them. The hand-tool metaphor also offers a solution to people who worry about other folks "borrowing" their fountain pens and never returning them: simply don't lend them out. If you've ever seen the expression of utter disdain in the eye of a mechanic when you've asked him if you can borrow one of his Mac tools for a bit, you get the drift. Just being on the receiving end of that look is usually enough to have a person retreating and muttering, "Uhh...never mind...I'll just go to Target and buy a Stanley wrench or something...we need some more bed sheets anyway...sorry to bother you...."

(For those who still worry about such things, some solutions: first, keep a crappy pen in your pocket that you don't particularly mind not having returned; or, if someone asks to use your pen, give them the pen but not the cap. This little trick usually works wonders. Plus, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if you actually hand someone your fountain pen, they'll take one look at the nib and stammer about how they don't know how to write with one of these.)

Simon does have the difficulty of being left-handed, which raises certain questions of grip. A wet line of ink is OK for righties, since the wrist precedes the line, but for lefties, it can be a problem. This is why lots of left-handed people tend to write with their wrists noticeably more elevated than righties: they don't want to drag their wrists across what they've just written, causing smudges.

He also points out that the ink from the disposable fountain pen he tried bled and feathered through the page. That, also, is a problem for fountain pens of all stripes: because they use real liquid ink, as opposed to the gel inks or other varieties of thick, pressurized inks found in ballpoints, and because they tend to dispense more ink than roller balls which also deal with real liquid ink, fountain pens can't really be used on lesser grades of paper without these things happening. The problem isn't so much the ink in such cases as the paper. Fountain pens should really be used on finer paper than one will typically find in, say, school notebooks and the like. You need thicker, heavier paper for good fountain pen use. I tend to not buy any paper less than 22-pound.

The "thicker paper for fountain pens" rule isn't totally binding, I should note. I have a blank-book type of journal that has very thick pages, and still the ink from my fountain pens tends to spread a bit when I write in it. This is because the paper is noticeably more porous when examined with a magnifying glass. The same applies to certain kinds of card stock: my fountain pens write wonderfully on most index cards, but on other kinds of cards, again, the ink spreads. The culprit here seems to be the degree to which the fibrous content of the card stock is visible. For fountain pen usage, the smoother the paper the better the ink will hold its line and not spread.

Oh, and there's one area of modern pen usage where fountain pens are nearly useless: filling out duplicate or triplicate forms. Fountain pens are not intended for being pressed into the page, which is necessary for such forms. Don't even attempt it, folks. Pressing down on the nib of a fountain pen is never a good idea. This is a good reason to keep store-bought rollerballs or gel-ink pens around. (I like Uniballs and Parker Jotters, for these purposes.)

And for God's sake, if you're using ink cartridges to fill your fountain pens, do not try to start the flow of ink to the nib by tapping the point on the paper! Please oh please! Hold the pen in your hand in the writing position, and then strike your pen-hand wrist against your other wrist, while striking the pen itself against nothing at all. The sudden jolts will help in getting the ink to flow from the cartridges. And better yet, to avoid this problem entirely, don't use cartridges at all. Get a piston-fill converter (in fact, most fountain pens should come with these already) and fill your fountain pens from good old bottled ink. Generally you won't be able to find bottled ink at big office superstores like Staples, but good art supply stores will have the stuff available, because calligraphers use it.

But you know what the coolest thing about a fountain pen is? If you get a good one and use it for years, over time the point will slightly wear down in a way that is unique to your grip on the pen. The pen will get to know you, so much so that after a long enough time, someone else attempting to use your pen will find that it just might skip or leave a poor line, when you've never once had a problem with it. That's something that will never happen with a Uniball or a Parker Jotter or, should you be unfortunate enough to have to use them, a Papermate or a Bic!


LC Scotty said...

There are lots of things that have that old time charm and grace, and that conform themselves to their owners.

For example, a nice pipe. A decent pipe will run about 50 bucks, but you can spend thousands. Depending on your smoking habits (say Latakia or Cavendish) the pipe will take on different flavors. Meerschaums will change color in a one of a kind fashion based on the owners habits.

Simon said...

I ended up grabbing a fairly nice Lamy Studio fountain pen with a fin tip and a spare extra-fine just so I can feel the difference. I'm now looking for excuses to write stuff down and think I may have found the final outlet for the fetish, of sorts.

Anonymous said...

Hey, a fellow Gotham fan! I used to have the Gotham Rollerball but it broke repeatedly and I had to send it back to Levenger. They stopped carrying them.

You wouldn't happen to own the Rollerball too, would you?

I want to ask you a favor. There's a guy on e-bay selling a Levenger rollerball, but he's not sure if it is a Gotham. Could you send me a pic of your fountain pen, so I can compare them? I think it's the same pen, but I don't want to pay $50 and find out it isn't. My addy: Thanks very much!

(Yes, I know this is crazy...)

Anonymous said...

There's a new invention that made its debut in New Jersey. It's called SmudgeGuard and it was made by a lefty mom for her lefty son to combat smudges. My mom bought one for me for xmas and I love it! It's a simple idea, but it's brilliant! I just love it. Here's the inventor's news article:

Check out the website at