Getting into Fountain Pens: Your First Pen and Ink

Getting into fountain pens can be a bit of a hurdle. Most people are probably a bit leery about spending a good bit of money on one pen when they can get a box of 24 Bic Crystal ballpoints for half the price. There are a ton of suggestions on getting into the hobby, but here’s my recommendations.

To start, you will need a pen and ink. Many pens come with a cartridge or two of ink right out of the box, but that won’t last you very long. You can either A. continue buying expensive cartridges or B. buy a bottle of ink. Obviously, B is the ideal choice.

This brings me to my first recommendation: buy a bottle of 4.5oz Noodler’s Ink. It’s a weird recommendation to suggest such a big bottle, but hear me out. Nathan Tardiff packs in a free eyedropper pen with a lot of his 4.5oz bottles. They aren’t the smoothest things in the world, but for $19 USD, you get enough ink to last you a lifetime and your first pen. Plus, if you decide that fountain pens aren’t for you, then you can easily use the ink to refill rollerball cartridges or buy a rollerball specifically designed to accept fountain pen ink. The J. Herbin Refillable Rollerball and the Kaweco Sport Inkball are all rollerballs that accept fountain pen ink directly. This is the recommendation that got me into fountain pens and is probably one of the most underrated, budget friendly recommendations.

Another budget option is to look to China and India. Both countries produce incredibly cheap fountain pens. Fountain Pen Revolution and ASA Pens in India have offerings that start at around $3-6. Most of the cheap pens are eyedropper fill, but there are a few cartridge/converter pens in the mix. China is another alternative. Big names like Hero and Jinhao are pretty solid choices. If you’re willing to use AliExpress, both companies have cartridge/converter models starting at $1 USD. The one big caveat with Chinese and Indian pens is that the quality control is terrible. There is big chance the nib won’t be very smooth and it will need some tuning to get right. If you are willing to experiment, buying a few of these pens and trying your hand at tuning right out of the gate might not be a bad idea.

A disposable fountain pen is another solid entry point into Fountain Pens. The Pilot Varsity and the Platinum Preppy are the two options here. Both pens are pretty smooth out of the box and only cost a few dollars each. The Platinum Preppy also comes in Japanese extra fine, which is a great way to experiment with these incredibly fine nibbed pens at a reasonable price. While the Pilot Varsity can’t be refilled without a lot of hassle, the Platinum Preppy can be converted to a eye dropper fill or take Platinum cartridge/converters without issue. However, the plastic used in the Preppy tends to be quite brittle and has a tendency to crack over time.

Now to the popular, but more expensive option: buying an entry level pen from a higher end manufacturer. These pens undergo more vigorous quality control before they leave the factory and will likely be a much smoother experience from the get go. These pens are also usually marketed towards students, so their looks may not always be appropriate for a professional setting. On the other hand, these pens also tend to be built to survive an incredible amount of abuse.

The two most popular options are the Lamy Safari and the Pilot Metropolitan. The Lamy Safari is the more expensive of the pair, clocking in around the $29 USD mark. It’s plastic and built to survive being driven over with a car and still keep writing. This pen has been the starter pen for many years now.

In the last five or so years, Pilot has released a compelling alternative with their Pilot Metropolitan. It’s $15 USD and built with a brass body that would look great in a professional setting. The nib is incredibly smooth. The best part is that the Metropolitan comes with a squeeze converter right out of the box, so no need to refill cartridges or buy a converter for bottled ink. Because of its price and quality, the Pilot Metropolitan has surpassed the Lamy Safari as the most commonly recommended beginner’s pen

For a few dollars more than a Lamy Safari, TWSBI has waded into the entry level pen market with a very intriguing piston filler called the TWSBI ECO. These pens are reported to have less issues with cracking compared to its more expensive older brother, the Diamond 580. The TWSBI ECO is earning itself a lot of fans for its quality and its price.

A lesser known alternative is the Pelikano from Pelikan. At $16 USD, these are chunky plastic student pens that come in a variety of kid friendly colours. Pelikan has a excellent reputation when it comes to putting out smooth nibs.

When it comes to nib size, I recommend a medium nib from Japanese manufacturers like Platinum and Pilot or a fine nib from anyone one else as Japanese nibs tend to run one size small. Western fine is a good balance for smoothness and performance with poor quality paper. I personally find Western medium nibs to bleed and feather a bit too much on cheap paper purchased in bulk.

Ink is a surprisingly less difficult choice versus pens. Unless there is a colour you’re absolutely dying for, I highly recommend Noodler’s Ink Black as the standard starter ink. If you are left handed and tend to smear, the Bernake line of quick dry inks from Noodler’s Ink dries almost instantly at the cost of feathering. If you know you’ll be using a steady stream of dismally poor quality paper, Noodler’s Ink X-Feather barely feathers even on toilet paper, though it takes a while to dry.

Of course, Noodler’s Ink is difficult to find outside of North America. For those without cheap access to Noodler’s, I highly recommend Waterman Serenity Blue. It is an incredibly well behaved, if not slightly boring blue ink. It’s a little more expensive than Noodler’s or Diamine per ml, but it’s a common choice for nib meisters as a test ink because of its well behaved properties. If you’re looking for something cheaper, most of Diamine’s offerings very well behaved and incredibly cheap. Personally, I would avoid Diamine Majestic Blue though. It may be pretty, but it dries slow and feathers like crazy on cheap paper.

Once you really start diving into the fountain pen hobby, I highly recommend putting together your own fountain pen tool kit. It will help you maintain your pens and maybe even tune them yourself. The best part is you can go as bare bones or as extensive as you want.

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