Saturday, October 08, 2011

Fountain of couth...

I was going to write a post about the protests in New York, but after my first draft grew to thousands of words, I thought instead I would blog some fluff and work on the more serious piece during my holiday.

So ... pens.

From left, Waterman, Old Workhorse, Keepsake, Cheapo, and New Workhorse

There's something intriguing and romantic about a fountain pen. They conjure up a bygone era, of writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway yukking it up in the Cafe Select on the rive gauche, or the stalwart businessman of Chicago, signing documents in real ink, while the typewriters clacked out in the background. I see fountain pens differently. I see them as a necessary modern tool for writing, just like the computer or the ubiquitous paper. For me, they are a guilty pleasure, and very much in step with the new push towards sustainability.

I have been writing with fountain pens for decades now, and the pleasure I get from it is often the difference between sitting down to write, or sitting down to snack and watch television. I have had numerous forgettable pens, and currently have a repertoire of some that I use often, and others that I use rarely, but love.

If you're interested in taking up writing with a fountain pen, you'll find many benefits. First, because they have a mechanism for pulling ink into the well themselves, and few moving parts, they can last for decades with very little waste. Any that I have broken it has usually been through my own stupidity, ie. dropping on the nib on the floor or cracking the casing, or stripping the threads where it screws together by mistreating them.

The fountain pens I use cost anywhere above $30, the most expensive is a Waterman that cost me in the range of $150. In two years I have spent $40 on a new pen (which was technically unnecessary), and two bottles of ink at about $5 apiece. There is no waste to go to landfill. The ink bottle and lid are glass and plastic respectively, and can be recycled. In that time period I wrote many successive drafts of a novel, letters, notes, and drawings.

Compare that to the disposable UniBall roller gels that, over the same time period, I used for my official work notes. (I use both because the ink in disposables is permanent and does not wash out when it gets wet.) In that time, I have filled five books of notes for work, using up six packages at roughly twelve pens each, or about 72 pens worth nearly $50. Every single one of those pens will end up in a landfill, as they can't be recycled.

Another benefit, which I hadn't anticipated, is that the more writing I had to do with the disposables, the more my wrist hurt. I haven't had the results back about my possible nerve damage, but in nearly thirty years of writing with fountain pens, I had no problems, and in the two years since I started writing with rollerballs, I have been put in so much pain that I had to learn to write with my other hand.

Why? It is in the mechanics of the pen itself. A rollerball up close is like a squished tube of very thin metal, like a cake decorators tube, with a ball bearing in the tip. It requires a certain pressure on the ball to create the friction to spin the ball, where the ink then is drawn along the ball surface onto the page as it rolls. More pressure equals more stress on the hand and wrist.

A fountain pen is a completely different mechanism. Up close, it is like a metal ball that is cut in half, pressed from the same heart or triangle shaped flat metal plate that makes up the nib. A channel is cut through the nib, up into the pen, and that's where the liquid ink runs. The ink is actually drawn through capillary action through the channel and into the ball, where, with minimal pressure, it is deposited on the page, wet, and takes a few seconds to dry. It actually writes better with less pressure, and, thus, less stress on the hand and wrist.

Inexpensive, environmentally responsible and ergonomic. Hooked? Here's what to look for:

Without being able to try out pens, it's hard to decide which is right for you. The weight, the nib, and the colour, size, and feel, are all personal choices, but if it's your first you'll want a starter pen that gets the job done without anything frilly or expensive. Try to buy a pen with a metal shaft, as it will last much longer. The ones with plastic casing, like the Cross I have, tend to strip the threads when they are under any sidelong pressure (for example, if left in your pocket and sat on ... ask me how I know) Also, a stainless steel nib will last longer and be more durable than an electroplated nib. For a first pen, until you know what you like for weight and writing style, go with a less expensive pen. They will be easier to part with if you decide its not for you.

Something else to remember is to get one with a suction reservoir. The Cross I bought recently did not come with one, and finding the reservoirs afterwards is like searching for hen's teeth. It is better to ensure that they have them already, because otherwise you have a pen that requires you constantly buy the ink refill cartridges that are pen-specific, rather than just bottles of ink. (also negating the environmental responsibility as noted above)

Cartridges from Cross (top), Waterman, and Sheaffer (bottom)
The next thing is the nib. If you like a thicker line, you'll want a Medium, thinner, a Fine. Any other sizes of nib will be harder to find outside of the specialty writing shops, which, themselves are becoming harder to find.

As you can see, dropping pens on their nibs is their kryptonite, and I have done it many times, owing to the circumstances under which I write. That is, all the time, wherever I am. I have lost several pens to clumsiness, the majority to setting it on a flat surface and forgetting that they roll. Since the nib is heavy when they are near empty, that's what hits the floor first.

It is hard to see in this blurry pic, but this is the repaired Waterman nib.
When a nib gets bent, the channel and the halves of this ball on the nib don't match up perfectly any more, and you get it either giving too much ink (the channel is too wide) or dragging fibres off the page, (one half of the ball is lower than the other and the sharp edge is scraping fibres off) I got very lucky with this Waterman, but it is no longer my primary writing pen.

My pen repertoire.

The old workhorse.

I have always loved Shaeffer pens. I have had a succession of three, the first of which was sadly lost in a cafe in Montreal years ago, and was quickly replaced by the first one you see here. This one was about $60 in 1999, owing to the electroplated nib, and is still very useable, though its line has widened from being dropped on the nib several times.

I also had another Shaeffer that I bought around the same time, a red one that was less elegant, with no frilly anything, but cost about $20. I fill with red ink and still, after 12 years, use it for editing my writing.

The new workhorse

I replaced the brown Sheaffer with an all-stainless version of the same pen. This $30 version, with a stainless nib, has withstood nearly five years of my abuse. It is looking its age. I wouldn't trade it for any other pen. It's my old faithful, and though not pretty, it gets the job done year after year after year.

The elegant showoff.

This Waterman is a $150 mid-range pen, which is a wonderful writing tool. I love it. I also dropped this one on its nib many years ago, and quickly used tiny tools to bend the nib back to its (somewhat) original position, so that it writes still very nicely. Have I mentioned that I love this pen?

If I was to buy a very expensive pen (and they go as expensive as one is willing to pay), then I believe it would be a Waterman, just based on the fantastic craftsmanship of this little pen. I think I would go for their Fine nib, though, instead of this one, which is a Medium. I like the thinner lines of a Fine, but not so small (and therefore cloggy) of an Extra Fine.

The cheapo.

Caught without a pen the other day, I went into a Staples and bought a "cheap" Cross pen. It was about $40, and that pricetag is I think more due to the Staples markup than to Cross themselves. It was a bit of a rip-off. It writes nice, being that it has a Fine nib, but the casing is plastic, it didn't come with a suction well, and it just feels, well, cheap. It looked great in the box (buyer beware), and was okay in a fix, but infinitely inferior even to the $30 Shaeffer that I bought many years ago. It will not last as long as that one, I can guarantee.

The unused keepsake.

I inherited this Cross pen from my Aunt Chris, who lived in Duncan BC, and first got me into writing. When I was about twelve years old, she bought me a blank journal, and wrote in fountain pen in the front cover a little dedication about how she likes to write. I still have that journal to this day, and even though this is not the same pen as she had thirty years ago, it was hers. She passed away from Cancer in 2001, and this was what she left me. I have not written with it, as nibs most often are worked down by their writers to be unusable by anyone else. She was hard on pens like I am, and so all I have done with it is wash it and dry it so that the ink didn't corrode it inside. I don't have the heart to do anything else with it.

That's that! Here's hoping there's a lot more interest in these types of pens, because I would hate to see them go the way of the typewriter.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

A teaser chapter for my current novel is now up!
Seven Gates

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
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