Years ago, while working in politics, the personal power of handwritten correspondence was impressed upon me. Like most people my age, I had never really bothered with writing by hand – not when I could type 100+ words per minute (yes, really). The act of writing out even a postcard made my fingers cramp and my shoulder ache.
Something about it stuck with me, though. The way that a handwritten note was almost instantly memorable; the reactions people had to the thoughtfulness of a letter over an e-mail. I bought some nice Crane & Co. stationery for a little extra “oomph” when I wanted or needed it. Then (as some of you may recall) a friend led me to Bibliographica journals, and that was another step up in my treatment of the written word.
While I was raving about my new journal to everybody I knew, my buddy Torvic said, rather offhandedly, “I’m surprised you don’t use fountain pens.” That was two years ago; now, 9 pens, 10 bottles of ink, I think seven Bibliographica journals (two mine, the rest gifts for friends/family), one wax seal, and countless stationery/notebooks/journals later – not to mention my ceaseless babbling about this newfound
obsession hobby – I wonder if he regrets opening that door.
One thing I quickly discovered is that there is an enormous and (to me at least) surprisingly active community of similar fountain pen fanatics around the world. I suppose this is true of any new hobby – once you start looking, you realize it’s everywhere. Ink reviews, pen reviews, paper reviews. Reviews of THIS ink in THOSE pens on THAT paper, or THAT ink in THIS pen in THOSE journals. Lingo and definitions (do you know what feathering, wet noodles, bleeding, nib creep, superflex, ebonite feeds, stubs, and converters all mean? I do!) It’s all out there. Rather than overwhelming, I found it fascinating.
By the way, I owe a huge shout-out and debt of gratitude at this point to the incomparable Stephen Brown, whose YouTube channel and depth of fountain pen expertise has been an endlessly reliable source of excellent information, and to the Goulet Pen Company, a family-owned small business who have provided a wonderful personal touch to any investment I’ve made in the hobby and also given me loads of info through their founder Brian’s “Ink Nouveau” blog. Thanks, Stephen, and thanks, (Brian) Goulet!
After some research, I started with the pen that many new FP hobbyists start with: a Lamy Safari [actually, I remembered that my FIRST pen was in fact a Lamy Logo, followed rapidly by a Safari]. These [the Safaris] are relatively inexpensive pens, about $20 to $30. I know that probably sounds like a lot if you’re used to writing with a 2-cent Bic, but considering that many fountain pens cost THOUSANDS of dollars, this is pretty cheap. Safaris are built like tanks (out of the same plastic used to make Lego), they break down completely for cleaning and maintenance, and you can swap the nibs. That means you can have one pen and write in different line sizes, from extra-fine hairlines to huge 1.9mm “italics” (many pens, you’re stuck with the nib size you get when you buy it). You can also get a special insert for Safaris called a converter, so that you can use bottled inks – and once you do that, the fun of fountain pens starts to really open up.
There are, and I’m not exaggerating, hundreds of fountain pen inks. One particularly prolific company based in Massachusetts, called Noodlers, makes well over a hundred just in their own brand, and there are dozens of brands.*
When you start with inks, you discover that colors aren’t what you thought they were. For instance, it turns out that blue is not necessarily blue. I have three blue inks, and they run the gamut from a dark, almost denim blue (Noodlers Ottoman Azure), to a slightly violet lighter blue (J. Herbin Eclat de Saphir, the first bottled ink I purchased), to Iroshizuku “kon-peki,” which is a sort of topaz. There are violet-blues, green-blues, “true” blues, and blue-blacks (and by the way, black isn’t necessarily black, either). There are greens, purples, yellows, oranges, greys, reds, pinks, green-blacks. There are “luxury” inks (Iroshizuku, the ink you see in the picture below, is a very pricey ink: I received this bottle as a gift) and more utilitarian inks (Waterman “Serenity Blue,” formerly called Florida Blue, is a rock-solid benchmark ink, for example; or Parker Quink). There are even controversial inks: the aforementioned Noodlers produces an especially vibrant and robust blue called Baystate Blue that can practically set off fistfights in the FP community.
Inks have different properties, too – you’ll hear FP fanatics talk about how an ink “behaves.” How easily an ink flows makes a big difference in whether it writes very “dry,” or more “wet” (how much ink goes down with a stroke of the pen). Some dry quickly on the page, others take ages. There are quick-dry inks, lubricating inks, waterproof inks, tamper-resistant inks, fluorescent inks, and, yes, invisible inks. Some inks are more “saturated” – that is, they contain more particles of pigment than others, which can lead to problems if the ink dries out and you end up with a clogged pen. Reds are notably saturated, and my favorite ink of all – J. Herbin “1670 Rouge Hematite” – is pretty gunky. But this is a sensational blood red ink with a greenish gold sheen that is simply, indescribably, spectacular: you have to see it for yourself, in person, to appreciate it. It also comes in a very kickass bottle.
Then there’s paper. Some paper is better than others for fountain pen use, and that’s when you start to learn and appreciate the difference between, say, Leuchtturm1917 pocket notebooks vs. Moleskine (spoiler alert: go for the Leuchtturm!) Some paper “bleeds” – the ink shows through on the back. Some “feathers” – the capillary action of the fibers in the paper draws the ink around and makes writing look fuzzy or blobby. Some is glassy smooth (a quality that is generally favored by fountain pen writers, and includes brands like Clairefontaine or Rhodia); some is quite textured (such as G. Lalo Verge de France, my go-to stationery for personal letters).
Of course, the pens themselves vary widely. Plastic, aluminum, rubber, cellulose, resin; new, vintage; prices that run from the $3 Platinum Preppy up to multi-thousand-dollar limited edition monstrosities…though when it comes to writing, the body of the pen tends to matter less than the nib, the thing that actually applies the ink to the page. And the nibs are all different, too – in line width, in material, in flexibility, in smoothness of writing; steel, gold, flex, “nails,” stubs, italics, obliques. My Lamy nibs tend to be a bit less smooth, for instance (though some writers prefer the feeling of a “toothy” nib on the page), whereas my Faber-Castell “e-motion” is a stunningly smooth writer.
Yes, it can all be a bit complex and overwhelming. But then, you hit just the right combination of factors and get a blissfully pleasant writing experience. The right ink, in the right pen, on the right paper. For me, recently, it happened when I put a sample I had of Noodlers Cactus Fruit Eel (a very punchy purple-pink which is “lubricated” to provide better ink flow) into my newest pen (a Kaweco Student) and wrote a note on some Clairefontaine Triomphe stationery. The combo was so buttery smooth that the pen practically floated across the page. I wanted to write, and write, and write.
The question, of course, is why bother with all the hassle. A disposable ballpoint is, frankly, an engineering marvel; gel pens and rollerballs are smoother than a Bic; and, truth be told, fountain pens can be kind of a pain in the ass. You have to clean them a lot, sometimes they just refuse to write (I have a Parker IM Premium that’s a definite problem child), you can run out of ink unexpectedly while out and about somewhere and be stuck with an expensive and useless lump.** So why do I like this?
Well, there are a few reasons. I don’t really have any other hobbies – ok, travel and photography, but I mean a hobby in the sense of a tactile habit. I find the finicky fiddly nature of the pens surprisingly engaging. I actually enjoy spending time breaking the pens down, cleaning them out, and inking them back up with a new color. I like the variety of colors and inks; I like the beauty of the pens themselves; I like the way it feels to write with one (yes, it does feel different than a Bic or a rollerball, and yes, it feels better). Yes, I admit, I like the slightly nostalgic affectation of writing with them. I like that they make me want to write. I can, and have, spent entire days at my desk with these things.
And mostly, it goes back to what started it all. Here’s something fun: write somebody a letter, a note, or a card. Doesn’t matter who. Doesn’t have to be on the most elegant stationery, or in a crazy ink color, or with a fountain pen. Doesn’t have to contain any profound depths of philosophical musings. Just get a nice blank card, or a plain piece of paper, jot down a few thoughts about your day, tell them you were thinking of them, and send it off. See what kind of reaction you get. Then never, ever, ever buy a Hallmark card ever again.
I love Facebook, and What’s App, and e-mail, and the 24/7 interconnectedness of modern life. Wouldn’t trade any of that for anything. But I do love the reaction people have these days to receiving “real” mail. It’s fantastic. Earlier this year I started corresponding with my grandfather, and in one of his letters he told me that he almost took a job in Spain back in the 1950s. Nobody in my family had ever known that. Never would have happened by e-mail.
And that’s really why I get such pleasure from this. It gives me something I enjoy spending time on, and from that I get the opportunity to bring some small joy to people I love. To me, that’s more than worth it.
*As a side note, I’m rather fond of Noodlers, in particular the aforementioned Ottoman Azure (blue), Apache Sunset (an ink that “shades,” that is appears lighter in some places and darker in others, rather gorgeously between a light sunny yellow and a deep autumn pumpkin), Black Swan in Australian Roses (another great shader running the gamut from reddish-purple-black), and Noodlers Black (…which is black, and the only black I own – tend not to care for black ink. Boring! But they’re sort of a necessity and this is a very good, waterproof one).
**One thing that I bet you’re thinking but which is more or less false: don’t they leak? No. Modern fountain pens don’t leak. Not even on planes. Seriously. And yes, of course there are exceptions (Noodlers makes some very inexpensive pens that I tried and absolutely hated which tended to leak all over me), but I’ve had Pilot disposable rollerballs leak all over me far more spectacularly, and with far more frequency, than any of my fountain pens.
[Stray observations: the title of this post is a line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI part I; I have no affiliation with any of the companies or brands mentioned here, just a happy customer; and if you would like a letter, by all means use the contact form on this website to send me your address. Just do me one favor: WRITE ME BACK! I bet I get one written reply for every 30 I send out. Kind of funny when you think about it]