A Pen for Your Thoughts

FOR EVERYONE WHO has a frequent need to write in, say, brown ink over grease and at subzero temperatures, or in fine-point green while upside down and underwater, or in orange on a surface whose temperature is above the boiling point, there is really only one choice: the Fisher Space Pen, available with any of twelve colors of ink and in eleven styles, which usually cost from $2.98 to $75. For everyone who needs to write in brown ink over grease while upside down, and do it opulently, the choice would be the patented, pressurized Fisher Space Pen cartridge, which also fits Parker pens, in a Parker eighteen-karat solid-gold ball-point, for $1,750. The rest of us have more decisions to make with respect to fine writing instruments—that is, ones to keep, and keep proudly, rather than use up and throw out. There are now four kinds of pen for general use—fountain, ballpoint, porous-point, and roller-ball — plus mechanical pencils and combination instruments. These come from perhaps twenty manufacturers, in hundreds of styles. The Fisher ball-point and the Parker gold pen are near the end points of the price spectrum.

Choosing writing instruments is not the maze of specs and ratings that buying stereo components or even electric kitchen appliances is. No major manufacturer’s product is particularly trouble-prone, according to people who repair pens, including George Salustro, of the Bromfield Pen Shop, in Boston, who wouldn’t be shy about saying so if one was. Salustro and others say that all makes and styles come in for repairs— and that they show up mostly after their owners have dropped them on their points.

Your local pen store is surely the best place to begin shopping, but you are not limited to the selection you find there, because encyclopedic retail pen catalogues exist. In person or when looking at photographs, try to match pen size to hand size, and choose a fine point for a small hand, a medium point for a larger hand. LET’S GO OVER the four kinds of pens and the other kinds of instruments. Fountain pens and ball-points have been with us, respectively, for just over a hundred years and just short of fifty. Perhaps all that needs to be said about ball-points is that everyone uses them and no one loves them. Everyone admires fountain pens, it seems, but not everyone finds them practical. They need to be used frequently, to prevent the ink from drying and clogging the works, and they require more cleaning and more-frequent filling than other pens. And fountain pens have a reputation for leaking on airplanes—in some cases deserved, in others not. (If you travel a lot and have a beloved pen that has failed the test, you might try using ink cartridges and putting in a new one before boarding a plane.) And then, fountain pens turn up at the repair shop more often than other pens, both because their points, being especially heavy, have a predisposition to hit the ground first, and because “a lot of people have forgotten how to use fountain pens,” as George Salustro puts it. That is, sometimes a person who has trouble cleaning or filling a fountain pen decides that the pen must be broken.

Do these demands and quirks strike you as endearing? If so, you’re not alone: retailers say that fountain pens are selling better than ever. Potential buyers should be aware that solid-gold nibs are springier and write more smoothly than gold-plated ones. Gold-plated steel (the plating improves the nib’s resistance to corrosion by the acids in the ink) should be your first choice only if you bear down very heavily when you write and thus are likely to bend a gold nib so hard that ink stops flowing. Fourteen-karat gold is standard in good-quality fountain pens, though eighteen-karat is also common and a person who writes with a light hand may prefer it. All the fountain pens named in this article have fourteenor eighteen-karat gold nibs, which typically are available in four sizes, from extrafine to broad. Yet another choice a fountain-pen buyer must make has to do with filling method. “Piston” fill, common in German pens, means that the pen fills only from an ink bottle; this is the more old-fashioned and economical method. The “cartridge/converter” system, standard everywhere except Germany, is designed primarily for use with ink cartridges but also allows the pen to be filled directly from the bottle; this is the more flexible and convenient method.

The remaining two kinds of pens are new enough to be thought of as innovations but old enough to have caught on. Porous-point pens and rolling-ball pens first appeared as inexpensive throwaways. By now, more than twenty years later for porous points and nearly twenty for rolling-balls, each idea has been pretty thoroughly worked out and has acquired a following, and numerous permanent models exist. “Porous-point” is the generic name for a group that includes felt-tips, nylon-tips, and newand-multisvllabic-tips. These pens share with fountain pens the advantage that they use fluid rather than viscous ink and thus write more smoothly and calligraphically than ball-points, but their soft points wear out—either eventually or promptly, depending on how heavily you bear down when you write. Since porous-points cannot make carbons, and dry out if they’re left uncapped, they’re hardly an improvement over good old-fashioned fountain pens.

Roller-ball pens also write fluidly, and they are as convenient as ball-points: they do make carbons, don’t dry out readily, and need little special care. They seem the natural choice for a person who doesn’t write enough to want a fountain pen. They also seem suited to a person who does write a lot but wants simplicity. Even someone who uses a fountain pen may want a backup that will make carbons. Everyone should at least try a roller-ball.

Mechanical pencils have always been convenient, because they don’t require sharpening, but they have become greatly more sophisticated in recent years. This is partly because lead manufacturers have improved and diversified their product. Not many years ago the standard lead thickness was 1.1 millimeters. Now the most usual thickness is 0.5 mm, though leads as plump as 1.18 mm and as slim as 0.2 mm, and pencils to hold them, also exist. Today’s 0.5 mm leads come in six colors and, in black, ten hardnesses (a range equivalent to Nos. 1, 2, and 3 plus seven other pencils). Also, the mechanisms for advancing the leads have become simpler to use. A feature called automatic advance, which most manufacturers offer, enables you to get a regulated amount of lead out of the pencil by clicking a button. FaberCastell’s Tk-Matic pencils ($25 and $35) go this feature one better, advancing the lead for you as you write. A problem that continues to dog virtually all mechanical pencils is their erasers, which are tiny and perched too precariously to let you erase with abandon.

Overlapping these various categories are “convertible” pens from S. T. Dupont, which take either ball-point or porous-point cartridges; Cartier “convertible” pens, Cross Selectip pens, and Sheaffer “dual system” pens, which take either porous-point or roller-ball cartridges; MontBlanc Quickpens, which take ball-point, porous-point, or rollerball cartridges; and Lamy Twin Pens, Zebra pen/pencils, and the Fisher Triple Action Space Pen, which take ball-point cartridges and 0.5 mm pencil leads at the same time (the Fisher is “triple” by virtue of writing in both black and red ink as well as pencil).

AESTHETICALLY, WRITING instruments seem to divide into three families, which might be called the tycoons, the well-bred family, and the high-tech family. Most manufacturers treat fountain pens as the rich relations— the pencils and so on match them, and not the other way around. Thus they’re the ones to focus on first when making decisions.

The archetypal tycoon instrument is stubby and sturdy, comes in solid colors tending toward black, and is heavy on the gold trim. Perhaps the archetypal manufacturer in this style is MontBlanc, of Germany. MontBlanc bears the further distinction of offering the world’s most expensive pen, the eighteen-karat solid-gold Diplomat, at $6,500. This piston-fill fountain pen, the black-plastic version of it ($250), and the somewhat smaller Classic ($200) suit big hands. In the same series MontBlanc also produces the 144 fountain pen ($150), which takes cartridges or fills from the bottle. Its still-hefty diameter is comparable to those of the series’s

ball-point pen and 0.7 mm mechanical pencil ($85 each). Pelikan, another German firm, produces less-expensive fountain pens, ball-points, and 0.7 mm pencils in a broader range of colors.

Most instruments from most manufacturers, except German ones, belong to the well-bred family, whose members are slimmer and more elegant, and come in a variety of finishes, primarily lacquer and metal. Probably the most beautiful lacquers are those from Waterman (in the Gentleman and Executive series) and S. T. Dupont, with Cartier as a runner-up. Waterman, though it began in New York and was named after Lewis Edson Waterman, the American inventor of the fountain pen, is now a French firm (these days even Parker manufactures its better-quality instruments in France). Waterman recently came out with a fountain pen and a ball-point in wood ($400 and $225). Also, a company named Reform makes a graceful fountain pen from briarwood, with an eighteen-karat nib ($250); unfortunately, there are no matching companion instruments. Cross has a relative bargain for those who like the feel and the idea of solid gold: a fourteen-karat fountain pen for $800 and a ball-point and a pencil for $500 apiece. An absolute bargain is available from Sheaffer, and George Salustro swears by it: the Triumph 550 fountain pen, with a fourteen-karat nib, at about $36.

Intermarriages between the tycoons and the well-breds have produced the Parker 75 series (Salustro’s all-around favorite); the Sheaffer Connaisseur 810 series, whose fountain pen is offered with a choice of fine or medium nib only; Italian Omas pens; and the Waterman Le Man series. Waterman’s top-of-the-line Le Man 100 fountain pen ($225) offers a choice of seven sizes of eighteen-karat gold nib; to match it there are a ballpoint, a porous-point, and a 0.7 mm pencil.

Although many of these companies offer a few streamlined, modern-looking designs, mostly in the lower price brackets, the German firm Lamy leads the way to the high-tech aesthetic. Besides innovative designs, Lamy offers some unusual kinds of writing instruments, including three-color and four-color ballpoints ($45) and the Twin Pen pen-andpencil combination ($40), in various finishes. Lamy is also notable for manufacturing a full range of instruments, including the Ink Writer rollingball pen and both 0.5 mm and 0.7 mm pencils, in most styles. High-tech aesthetics also come from Ferrari, which offers racy-looking fountain pens, ballpoints, and roller-balls, but no pencils. And there’s Fisher, with its Space Pens, Triple Action and otherwise, and a pencil to match one of them.

All of the writing instruments described above are available by mail from The International Pen Shop at Arthur Brown and Bro., Inc., 2 West 46th Street, New York, New York 10036, (212) 575-5555, or Fahrnev’s Pens, Inc., 8329 Old Marlboro Pike, P13, Upper Marlboro, Maryland 20772, (301) 5686552. Fahrney’s offers discounts on some MontBlanc pens and runs special offers for some other lines. Both companies do engraving and make repairs.