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Fountain Pens for Everyday: Join Me in a Writing Revolution

March 7th, 2011 · 48 Comments ·

Last year I was carrying around a couple of gift cards for the University of Washington Bookstore I’d received after doing authorly engagements there.  Instead of adding to the pile of books in my study that constantly threatens to swallow me whole, I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do:  take myself down to their “fine writing instruments” counter, and choose a fountain pen.  I selected a nice basic pen, a Parker Sonnet, because it fit my small hand, my aesthetic taste, and my $100 budget.  At first I used it just for “correspondence”–thank yous and cards, little letters, and other pretty things.  But I do lots of longhand writing in my life:  a diary, “morning pages,” first drafts for book chapters, daily notes in Claire’s school lunch, notes to myself, a planning calendar, grocery lists…Why, when I loved writing with my beautiful, flowing new fountain pen, wasn’t I using it for everything?

My Parker Sonnet is simple blue lacquer with silver trim, and a fine nib.

Now I do, and I am not exaggerating when I say it is one of my favorite life-changes that I have ever made.  One evening, while making notes for a new chapter, I remarked to Tom across the room,  “I LOVE my fountain pen!  Why aren’t we all using them?”  “Um,” he answered, “Because we’re not all nerds.”  Tom is a cutie-pie, but I have come to believe that using a fountain pen for everyday writing is something that should not just be for pen enthusiasts, or for special occasions, but for all of us, everyday.  Using a refillable pen, with bottled ink, should be normal.  Here’s why:

1.  Fountain pens create far less waste than standard pens. Think of the river of disposable pens that follows all of us through the whole of our lives, and their cardboard/plastic packaging.  And their import packaging and travel.  Refills for pens are also overpackaged tubes of plastic destined for the landfill.  A good pen will last a lifetime, and is elegantly refillable from a recyclable glass bottle of ink.

2.  Ink for fountain pens leaves a glistening flow across the page that is beautiful and inspiring, and it comes in every gorgeous color you can imagine.  Like many, I am partial to Noodler’s Inks, created in the USA by a wonderfully eccentric ink-maker named Nathan. Start with one of Noodler’s many standard colors with the catfish on the bottle, as some of their other formulations are a bit fussy.  My personal color has become Noodler’s Sequoia Green, but I also love their Nightshade, and in my sketching diary I use their standard Brown.  Noodler’s ink comes in 3 ounce bottles that are filled to the brim (I can’t imagine ever getting to the bottom of one) and cost about $12.

I keep this little trio of favorite Noodler's colors in a tray on my desk.

3.  Writing with a fountain pen makes our writing look more beautiful. I find myself adding little flourishes at the ends of words, and sketches in the corners of pages, almost without my willing it.

There is a layer of earthen-moss color to this ink that doesn't come across in the photo. I love it.

4.  You won’t lose your fountain pen. Trust me.

5.  Using and filling a fountain pen is easy.  The first time or two I filled mine, it seemed like a  major undertaking, and my fingers were covered with blobs of green ink.  Now it is nothing–takes seconds, no mess, hardly a thought.  I very much enjoy it, actually–uncapping the pretty, shining ink bottle, a little moment of meditation in the middle of my day.

6.  The flow of ink helps us think. OK, this one is a little woo-woo, and I don’t know exactly how it works, but the smooth flow of ink from a fountain somehow links to my brain, and I find myself writing more, and possibly even better thoughts and words.

7.  It’s fun. Having a fountain pen and ink bottle just makes me happy, bringing more delight and beauty to my everyday life.

A couple thoughts on pen acquisition:

Economics: In this economy, it is difficult to recommend dropping $100 or more on a pen.  You can shop for vintage pens, often at a very good price, comb the drawers of your grandparents for old pens, and just generally keep your eyes out.  That said, it is absolutely true that a nicely priced pen will pay for itself rather early in its lifetime, and spending some time trying the many pens at a shop will insure that you find a pen and nib that fits your unique hand and needs. There are also some “budget” pens that work tolerably well.  Noodler’s makes a serviceable, basic pen with a built-in piston-fill mechanism for under $20; and people swear by their Lamy Safaris, under $35 (designed by a German architect, they are a bit industrial for my tastes, but work great…if you get one, make sure to get the converter also, which will make it refillable–sold seperately, about $5).  These pens do not offer the satisfying heft, or extra-smooth writing experience of a better pen, but they write well enough, can introduce us to the joy of “real” inks, and make a nice scritchy sound on the page, very much like Charlotte Bronte’s quill nib as she penned Villette.

I carry this inexpensive Noodler's pen in my satchel with my diary/sketchbook. I like the fine nib for this purpose. The pen is filled with brown ink, softer than black, and lending a nice old-fashioned look to my scribbles.

Pens as Gifts: A fountain pen makes a wonderful, symbolic gift.  But because pens are so personal–the feel in the hand, the width of the nib, the way a pen writes on a person’s favorite paper–I highly recommend giving a gift card to the pen shop, or a handmade “Outing for Lunch and Trip to the Fine Writing Counter” coupon, so your loved one can choose the pen that best suits her.

Make sure your pen either comes with a converter for refilling with liquid inks, or that one is available for it.  Some cheaper pens will only take disposable cartridges, which to my mind defeats the whole purpose.

Less waste, more joy in daily life, more beauty in the world.  There is very little reason to use a “normal” pen, almost ever.  Let’s switch. Find a pen that feels right, fall in love with an ink color, make it yours.  I hope you’ll join me in this writing revolution, and carry your friends and loved ones along.

waste reduction, writing

48 Comments so far ↓

  • Jesse

    Thanks for this, just the impetus I need to finally invest in a good writing implement. I find myself writing several times a day these days and am refining my hand. I think it’s time to refine my pen as well!

    Does the U Book Store have a good selection of starter fountains?

    • lyanda

      Jesse, The U Bookstore is a great place to start. They are nice, helpful, and knowldgeable, and have a decent selection. Plus they are a local indie shop and we heart them.

  • Craig

    Excellent ecological take on what appears to an instrument that most folks have never enjoyed using or maybe even heard of. Now I don’t feel so bad about faithfully using my 40 plus year old mechanical pencils.

    • lyanda

      Thanks, Craig. Yes, I love wooden pencils (Thoreau was a pencil-maker!), but they are made of virgin wood, and an ecological nightmare. The “eco” ones are super expensive, and still pose quandaries. A nice mechanical pencil used over many years is a good option, as you say (40 years old! Wow!). I found a giant box of wooden pencils at a yard sale for about a quarter–we’ve been using those for years, and still have about 100 left.

  • andrea

    You’ve inspired me! As a user of Moleskines and all sorts of writing implements for my drawing it actually hasn’t occurred to me to use a fountain pen as my “everyday pen”. (And since I have a few beautiful feathers maybe I should go all the way and use a quill pen! :)

  • ann copeland

    You do not need to visit your grandparents’ drawers, only your nerdy in-laws desks for pens and wooden pencils.
    Also: Lest you be tempted to mourn loss of inkwells in grade school desks, know that the tale of pigtail dipped in the inkwell of the boy who sat behind you in fifth grade is no myth–& no fun.
    AC

  • The Velvet Bulldog

    I love that you’re adding flourishes and decoration to your writing. My parents both had beautiful handwriting and I have been refining my own penmanship for years. Because I still feel it’s important to send hand-written birthday and thank you cards, I think it’s also important that these be written as beautifully as I can. Perhaps I’ll play with fountain pens as well to make them even more special. Thanks for this idea and inspiration.

  • Karen

    I love that what you are saying about fountain pens, can also be about using the beautiful heirlooms we have all inherited. I never hesitate to use the bone china tea pot for the girls’ tea or the silver sugar bowl, and for any holiday, the fancy china is out, even if it is mismatched. Why hide these beautiful pieces in our cupboards because they are “good”? If something is broken during use, it was done being well loved and purposed, not because a storage box was dropped. The tools we use daily can make out lives better, why not use the most beautiful ones we can.

  • David Laskin

    Wonderful post. I have a favorite pen (not fountain but still very special) — this pen is so special that I cannot write if I don’t have it nearby. Once Kate accidentally grabbed it and took it to her office — and it felt into any abyss of legal junk on her desk. I called in alarm and she extracted it. Now I hide my favorite pen and only use it to sign book contracts and thank you notes. Nice to know it’s there but way too important to leave out and exposed to theft. Maybe I will replace it with a fountain pen!

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  • Katie B

    Lyanda, thank you for this post! It is thought-provoking and inspiring. Thank you for reminding us that the “things” we surround ourselves with daily often have wasteful implications. And that choosing to buy things we can reuse are more fun (and meaningful!) Especially because we will have more meaningful relationships with the things we can keep for years, not the things that we will just throw away. I have a silver “Sensa” pen that my grandma gave me for my 8th grade graduation. Now, 10 years later, it still occupies a prominent place on my desk and is one of my most prized possessions. I will have to go out and buy my Sensa pen a fountain pen-pal!

    I have been reading your blog (and books!) for quite some time now and have truly enjoyed reading your musings of simple pleasures in everyday life. Your writing is beautiful, your lessons are heartfelt, and the photographs make your writing sparkle. Thank you!

  • lyanda

    Thanks for the wonderful comments, everyone.

    Andrea–Let us know if you try a quill pen. With all the chicken feathers lying about, I’ve been thinking about it for fun. There is an adorable video about medieval quill pen-making from the English Heritage folks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1wyYh97LDk Now I know where the word “penknife” comes from.
    I hope everyone will check out Andrea’s artwork on her website–lovely!

    Ann–Don’t worry, even I think that inkpots on school desks is probably taking things too far. But you sound like you’re speaking from experience about the pigtails? Dear me!

    Velvet Bulldog–Thanks for your comment. Yes, I believe strongly in the continued importance of handwritten missives. How rare to think of making our penmanship more beautiful. Let us know if you have any tips for us in this regard.

    Karen–Lovely comment, and I completely agree. I’ll be inviting myself over for tea soon.

    David–Your cherished pen in the abyss! So glad you recovered it, and yes–a fountain pen!

    Katie–My goodness, thank you for the kind comments. Very much appreciated. I like the new meaning of “pen-pal.”

  • Mike Zeiner

    Count another nerd in Kansas Tom. I love my fountain pen though I am unable to use it for everything. I should acquire another more substantial one perhaps.
    Mike z

  • Sharyn Dimmick

    Yay for this suggestion! I am a writer who writes primarily with a fountain pen (I keep a single ballpoint for check carbons). I am also a person who cleans up the beaches in Berkeley and who deplores plastic waste. I am all for encouraging everyone to get a fountain pen. I grew up using cheap Shaeffer cartridge pens, which my Dad used too, but they don’t make them anymore.

    Besides cost, I think the most important consideration is how the converter works. Ask to try them.

    Tell friends and family to get you a fountain pen for your next gift occasion — or a gift certificate to your favorite stationer.

    Sharyn

  • Norman

    A very nice article Lyanda! I’ve spread it among my customers and on Facebook and Twitter. :-)

  • Kara

    I have been thinking of this post ever since I first read it the other day. Today at work I was imagining writing out detention slips with a fancy fountain pen… and I’m sold! I can’t wait to pick one out. Maybe one for work and one for home?

  • Sharyn Dimmick

    I just bought the Lamy pen for $49 including tax and converter. I haven’t tried it yet, but it is cheaper than any other fountain pen I have since Shaeffer stopped making cartridge pens. I could have gotten a slightly cheaper model, but I coveted the metallic platinum/lavender finish.

    • lyanda

      Norman–Thank you.

      Kara–What a perfect use for a fountain pen, hadn’t thought of that one!

      Sharyn–Yes, the metallic is a nice option, and just $12 or so more, I think? These pens look a bit large to some folks, but trying them out I found the writing grip is quite narrow (that is, the same as any typical fountain pen) and easy to handle. Let us know how you like it!

  • Myra

    Using a electronic device is good for the environment. NO PAPER!

    • Mindy

      Myra, electronic devices use, well, electricity, which has its own huge environmental cost. Recently, I read an article about the unbelievable amount of energy used by people’s digital photo devices that rotate the photos in a frame, especially if left on all the time. Sure, the photos aren’t on paper, but the cost is still there, just more “hidden”. The article pointed out that the average household used to have at most 2 or 3 appliances that were plugged in all the time. That has multiplied exponentially.

      I love this article. I hate throwing pens in the garbage, but I also have no intention of carrying expensive electronic devices everywhere. These devices quickly become obsolete, and the toxic components they contain make disposal of them extremely hazardous.

      There are now renewable sources for paper. Recycled paper is an option, as well as paper made from fast-growing bamboo.

      We all need to do our best to minimize our impacts. Those choices are not always a obvious as they seem.

      • lyanda

        Myra and Mindy–thanks for the discussion. Like most of us, I use both electronics and paper/pen in my writing/communication life. I suspect there is no single way to do things “right,” and we all have to navigate our choices with as much grace as we can manage. I do feel that beauty and artfulness is a meaningful part of any engaged life. Some can find that in technology, but for me it will always include the movement of a pen across paper (chosen, as much as possible, with sustainablity in mind!).

  • Mindy

    I love this idea of writing with fountain pens. I have never owned one, but I will put it on my wish list. I shared this article with friends, and also shared it on FB. Thanks.

  • Dr. T. David Gordon

    Wonderful thoughts, and I also own a Parker Sonnet. Now I can really get you in trouble with hubby by recommending, for all the same reasons, shaving with an old double-edge safety razor such as the Gillette 1904 (now marketed by Merkur in Germany). No plastic goes to the landfill; the refills are about 1/10 the cost, the shave is closer and smoother, and it only takes a little more skill and a little more time. Sometimes older technologies are better. Best wishes.

  • Myra

    Mindy,
    You think it doesn’t cost anything to the environment to make those recycled papers? And what about those bottles of ink in the picture? Electronic devices don’t need to become obsolete if we’re not so greedy to get our hands on the next big thing.
    If someone wants to use a pricey fountain pen, why don’t they just express that instead of claiming it’s good for the environment.

  • Lynn

    You’ve started something… To my great delight I still have my mother’s old fountain pen, probably from the 1940′s, and it still works. It is in fact my favorite now. Once I get some Noodler’s Ink instead of the cheap, icky stuff I found somewhere in the house, it will be even more of a pleasure. It’s almost as if the pen holds memories of my mother and by writing I can learn her stories. It has also inspired me to return to the art of letter writing, which is another art form slipping away in our digital age. I’d love to write you a letter and ‘thank you’ if you’d share your address with another scribbler.

  • Sutirtha De

    Excellent insight … I hope a lot of people get inspired from this…. In fact I have been collecting fountain pens for over a decade starting with used ones and my current favorite is a sailor with an 18 carat nib….
    I also have some 5 – 6 sheaffer pens some 5 lamy 3 calligraphy dip pens and the addiction is increasing every day …. now waiting to get hold of a Conway Stewart … Classic British handmade fountain pens ….

    And with all this my handwriting improves every day …. Even today. .. ( I just turned 36 this month ;) ……. )

  • Estivalia

    wonderful post! Here’s my 2 cents, disposable cartridges CAN be filled :) (with a little bit of patience and a syringe) I do it all the time with my pens.

    Sometimes a brand won’t carry converters, but you can fit others’. Like I do with my INOXCROM fountain pen (spanish, cheap but trusty, great introductory pens) in which I use a Pilot converter and it fits like a charm.

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  • Karin with an Eye

    I love this post. I still have my Esterbrook pen that I carried in high school (the 1950′s). They had inter-changeable pen tips – from narrow to wide. I wrote all my class notes with it. I carried the pen and a bottle of ink in my purse. Needless to say, my purse was stained with blue ink.
    You’ve inspired me to go back to using pen and ink. I bought a beauty in a Portland shop a few years ago, but then never used it. Reading posts on filling the cartridges – think I can start with that.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Marsha W

    Hmm, I love my pens. I write so elegantly when I am using them. Plus I feel so smart and witty, silly me. But I do love them.
    Marsha

  • Alexander Caine

    I jumped on the “everything has to be digital” bandwagon awhile back but am going back to journaling and note taking with my fountain pen.

    Ideas just flow better…for me at least.

  • Kaylene S

    I received a beautiful fountain pen from a student and fell in love with it. Alas, I need ink. Your site was a great help to get me moving in the right direction.

  • Mark Kirschner

    Great article, Lyanda. I can’t believe I’m just NOW finding it (followed the link from you holiday gift guide).

    I’ve got an old Parker that was my grandfather’s. I’d love to use it, but I don’t know if it’s a cartridge or refillable pen, or how to open it up to find out. I’m too afraid to break it!

    I used a disposable fountain pen for a while when I was in college. Imagine a Bic Stic pen with a fountain pen nib. Liked using it, but hated that it was disposable.

    I don’t suppose you know of a stationer or vendor in Seattle who would be able to help me out?

    • lyanda

      Hi Mark. It would be so great to get your grandfather’s pen up and running. The best place that I know of in Seattle for all-things-pen is World Lux, downtown. It’s funny, because it’s in a very fancy-schmancy place, but the people are super nice, knowledgeable, and helpful, and also they have by far the most amazing collection of inks in the greater area. Prices are comparable. I don’t know if they do repairs, but I am sure they could look at your pen, tell you about it, and let you know what it needs. http://www.worldlux.com/cgi-bin/navigate.cgi?file=aboutus

      • Mark Kirschner

        I did some research and the pen is a 1930′s Parker Doufold Senior in Jade Green.

        In researching about restoration, I found an instructables lesson on self maintenance and minor repair of fountain pens. The author recommends placing the pen, nib down, in a glass with a bit of water in the bottom to loosen any dried ink in the nib, and longer to leech up into the ink reservoir if necessary.

        Well, five minutes in a bit of water and the water had a nice blue tint to it, and I had a working fountain pen….until this morning when it stopped flowing. Out of ink! Now, I’ll get (probably next month) to find out if the feed/fill mechanism is still in working order.

        I’m going to get this one working. I’m also starting to switch over to re-usable pens and pencils. No more disposable, ink-filled plastic tubes!

  • Angel Flores

    T^T my parker is acting up. . .

  • Graeme

    Didn’t realise while writing my own ‘morning pages’ with my trusty Agatha Luiz de la Prada Imacrom fountain pen how much writing with a fountain pen was growing on me until I mislaid it for a day, thinking I had lost it for good!
    Now I know how much a part of the creative process it really is, I have taken to drawing with it in my current Moleskine sketchbook. Such a pleasant flow to the line! Now you’ve got me thinking of a Parker Sonnet, I like the look of it, but it had better be fabulous to be better than my Imacrom!

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  • Anton Ninno

    Come join our Facebook group for folks who love the Pilot Varsity fountain pen! We’ve now got about 150 members around the planet. The Varsity is the world’s cheapest, and arguably the best, fountain pen. Yes, you CAN refill them with Noodler’s ink. And no, we don’t sell them. We just like writing and drawing with a Varsity.

    Pilot Varsity Fountain Pens
    https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/197623255226/

    • lyanda

      Of course I’ll join your group. But you have to tell me how to refill the Pilot Varsity with my beloved Noodler’s.

  • Richard Liu

    Thanks so much!!! i’m arguing with a friend about why fountain pens are better than ballpoint pens, and he thinks ballpoint pens are better!!!! “winning isn’t enough, you have to make them cry”

  • Li-na

    Hello! I absolutely love fountain pens. Ive been trying to find one that I can use everyday, but I write in cursive ( i write pretty small and thin as i prefer fine point pens. Actually i think my wriitng is smiliar to the picture with the noodler pen, except mine is in cursive). I really want to find a fountain pen that will work well with my writing so that i can use it as an everyday thing. Do you have any suggestions?

    By the way, what kind of noodler pen ( the one in the top picture with the brown ink) do you have?

    Thankyou so much for the post! ! enjoyed reading it!

    • lyanda

      Hi Li-na, sorry to take so long in responding to your question. I unhesitatingly recommend the Lamy Safari for an inexpensive everyday option. I need to update this post to reflect my opinion that while I still love Noodler’s ink, the fountain pen they sell is leaky and not worth even the little money it costs. Lamy is wonderful. Hope that helps.

    • Chris

      You might want to try the Hero 266 or Hero 616 fountain pens, you can get them in 10 packs for US$14 or less. The Hero 616 is much like the Parker 51 from 1941. The Hero 266 has a nice thin metal barrel, it’s a good all around shirt pocket pen. Both are considered Fine Point, although the 616 is a hooded design with less ink flow than the 266. At those prices try both. . . Cheers.

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