How to Buy Your First Vintage Fountain Pen

I just listened to the latest Pen Addict Podcast, where a listener asked for tips on buying their first vintage fountain pen. I have well over 100 vintage fountain pens, and I’ve been buying vintage fountain pens since the early 2000s, so I decided to take the time and write a guide to buying your first vintage fountain pens (for the sake of this guide vintage fountain pens are those made before the ’70s).
  1. First, set a budget. Vintage pens are no different than modern pens in this respect, but somehow vintage fountain pen buying guides tend to skip this step. You can get great vintage fountain pens for under $50 and well over $500. Pick a number you’re comfortable with, and stick to it, no matter what.
  2. Decide why do you want a vintage pen:
    1. Flex – You’re looking to add line variation to your writing or drawing. Apart from dip pens, vintage fountain pens are the cheapest way to get that desirable flex. No modern fountain pen, despite any manufacturer promises, offers the line variation of a vintage flex fountain pen, and the premium you pay for a bit of springiness in modern nibs is painfully high. Vintage fountain pens also offer flex “combos,” such as italic flex, needlepoint flex, etc. And if you’re considering the Noodler’s fountain pen lineup, I recommend going dip pen instead. They require less fiddling and are more reliable.
    2. Gold/Specialty Nib – You want to get into gold nibs as cheaply as possible, or you want non-standard nib configurations (a fountain pen that works on carbon copy paper, perchance?). You can get fantastic gold and crazy nibs on vintage fountain pens for much, much less than certain manufacturers ask for a generic steel nib pen with a colourful plastic body.
    3. Looks – You can find a vintage fountain pen that utterly matches your style, whether it’s an understated elegant pen, a stunning showstopper one, or an out of this world wacky wildcard pen. Did I mention also that these lookers will likely cost you much less than any modern equivalent?
    4. History – You’re looking for something with a past, with a story. It can be something that’s passed down the family, a treasured pen found in an estate sale and begging to be researched, or a bold attempt by a brazen small company to create something completely new.
    5. Quirkiness – Things were wild in the heyday of the fountain pen, and you want  a piece of that. Retractable and adjustable nibs, crazy filling mechanisms, pens made out of strange materials: works of genius and madness that call out to you.
    6. Collectable Value – This is the first thing people think about when they hear about vintage fountain pens, and there’s a reason it’s the last on my list. If this is what interests you, I highly recommend walking away before you even start. This isn’t a money making venture. There are no great deals or finds to be made. All the good ones have been taken long before you, and are now passing from hand to hand, available only to people in the know. If you get into vintage pens for another reason and then decide you want to collect a few of the same kind, maybe nab one that’s a bit hard to get – fine. Otherwise, you’re getting into a losing game.

    P1010319
    Ugly no name lever filler with phenomenal gold wet noodle nib and feed, in utter user-grade condition. Bought for $30. 
  3. Your next move depends on what you chose in the last step:
    • Flex – Get thee to a vendor. Writing samples on the internet are lovely, and they’re a great way to shop for inks. Vintage flex needs to be held in hand and tested. Go to a pen show or a vendor and specifically ask for pens with a flex nib. Then ask to dip them, and try writing with them. Be very gentle at first, until you figure out how the nib works. The magic of vintage flex isn’t so much the nibs themselves, it’s the feeds. A good vintage wet noodle can keep the ink flow going even when you’re writing in giant poster letters. A modern pen’s feed will give up and you’ll end up with railroading. Things to remember:
      • A vintage flex nib may look wonky (dropping, slightly wavy). Ignore that – the test is in the writing. If the vendor won’t allow you to dip test, say thank you politely and walk away.
      • You’re interested in the nib, not the pen. Ask if the filling mechanism works (99% of the time vintage flex are lever fillers), and check the body for cracks. That’s it. It can be a black chased hard rubber (BCHR) Waterman brown with discolouration, brassing, and 3 different personalizations, it shouldn’t matter. You’re there for the nib, and the uglier the pen, the cheaper it’s likely to be. Vendors used to not even repair these ugly ducklings until recently, when the interest in vintage flex spiked and people figured out that you can get a wet noodle for $30.
      • The maker doesn’t matter. Waterman made great vintage flex nibs, but people know that, so you’re going to pay a premium for it. Some of my best flex nib pens are from no-name small manufacturers, and I got them all for a song. Waterman is great, just don’t get locked in to looking only at them. Test the nib and let it speak to you.
      • If you want to be extra sure that the pen works, ask the vendor to fill the pen for you once you’ve completed the purchase but before you’ve left the table. Just don’t forget to empty the pen out if you’re going on an airplane later on.
      • Never touch a pen, especially not a flex nib pen, without talking to the vendor first.
P1010317
Ugly no name Italian pen with personalization, bought for the phenomenal flex italic nib. Bought for £25
    • Gold/Speciality Nib – Much of what applies to flex nibs applies to these types of nibs. Unlike with flex nibs, online shopping for vintage gold/specialty nib pens is an option, but going to to a pen show or a vendor and try them out is still the best and safest approach. Don’t buy for the pen’s looks or condition (beyond checking that it works and there are no visible cracks), but for how it feels to write with this nib. Things to remember:
      • Great vintage pens with gold nibs are very common. If the price for a pen is high, you’re not paying for the nib, you’re paying for something else. Walk away.
      • If you just want your first gold vintage fountain pen, I recommend the Parker 51. You can get a great one for well under $100 (often under $50 if the body’s been personalized), so long as you aren’t fixated on one of the rare colours or an early year. Focus on aeromatics, in Black, Navy Grey, Burgundy, Forest Green, Midnight Blue, Teal Blue with a lustraloy cap. You pay a premium for special colours, caps in gold and sterling silver, red band vacumatic filling systems, and the cap condition. If the cap is dinged or lost its frosting, or if the pen is personalized, you can get it for a song. The Parker 51 nibs are PHENOMENAL. There’s absolutely nothing like them, and they make your writing look great. This is a large part of their appeal. The nibs aren’t graded, and most of them are in the fine-to-medium range. Just make sure there’s plenty of tipping material when you buy the pen (try out the pen and feel if it’s scratchy/look at the tip/ask to see a close up of it when buying online). The Parker51 website and the Parker forum on the Fountain Pen Network are a great place to learn more about these pens.
      • Speciality nibs are harder to find, so focus on two companies: Esterbrook or Pelikan. Both made great pens with a wide variety of interesting nibs, and both can be had relatively cheaply. These pens were also built like tanks, so they’re very likely to be in great working condition when you buy them, just be sure to ask. If you’re in Europe, Pelikans will be cheaper for you to acquire, and if you’re in the US Esterbrook is your friend. These are also pens that you can buy online relatively safely. Start with the Fountain Pen Network Esterbrook/Pelikan forums (FPN is still the #1 resource for vintage fountain pens), Esterbrook.net or the Pelikan’s Perch to educate yourself and purchase pens. I’ve purchased great vintage Pelikans from Berlin Collectibles, but again, I’d recommend trying the pen in person before going to the online shopping route. Esterbrook is going to be significantly cheaper than Pelikan, and you can buy one pen body (I recommend the J) and several nib units. But Pelikan has phenomenal OB, OBBB, OBBBBB… nibs that Esterbrook just never made.
P1010318
Esterbrook J double jewel (i.e. super common) with a 9556 nib. Bought for $16.5
P1010310
Pelikan 140 with a flexible OM gold nib. Piston filler, bought for 120 euros.
    • Looks – this is probably the hardest one to give recommendations for, except go to a pen show and look around to see what catches your eye, but there is one thing worth noting. If there’s a particular design you like but it’s beyond your budget, look for “knock offs” made in the same era. Smaller makers made great pens “inspired” by more expensive ones made by the big manufacturers. You can get a Parker Vacumatic Golden Web look alike for $50-$80, gold nib and all, and only you’ll know that it’s a lever filler made by a no-name Italian maker and not the real deal (don’t sell it as such, though).
  • P1010309
    Waterman, bought for the crazy look and the superflex nib. Notice how the nib looks dented.
    • History – tell friends and family that you’re into fountain pens, and you’ll likely be inundated with old pens that they’ve found in the back of desk drawers. Most of them will be ruined, but you may get grandpa’s Parker 51, or grandma’s Esterbrook nurse pen, you never know. If it’s something from the family, I recommend investing in having it professionally repaired and restored if the history aspect interests you. Otherwise, this category of purchase requires dedicated research. I’d check the Fountain Pen Network, and go on from there. If you like to know that your pen had a past, skip stickered pens and go for personalized ones and you’ll also save a lot of money.
    • Quirkiness –  this is the most fun category. Go to a pen show or vendor and ask if they’ve got anything strange. A pen with a weird body design/colour. A pen with a strange filling mechanism. Something wild engineering attempt to make the pen leak proof. The prices here can vary a lot, depending on whether the pen works or not, and if you plan on restoring one of these and they have a strange nib or filling mechanism take into account that it will add a lot to the price, and not every restorer will take the job. I wouldn’t start with one of those.
    • Collectable Value – don’t. If you really, really want to, go to the relevant Fountain Pen Network forum and check what everybody’s wild about. Don’t go by what eBay sellers call “rare,” and remember that not everything that’s rare is desirable.
P1010308.jpg
One of these is a user grade black Parker 51, and the other is a plum Parker 51. Would you pay well over 4 times the price of one for the other?
How to Buy Your First Vintage Fountain Pen

How I use my notebooks: Tournament of Books tracking

Most stationery blog posts focus on reviewing products and less on how people actually use all the paper, pens and inks that they buy. I thought I’d try to write a bit more about how I use my stuff, and not just on how cool is all the stuff I have.

This is my latest Field Notes, the Campfire Night. I use a binder clip to keep it closed as it bashes around in my backpack. Without the clip the pages get crumpled and torn after a few days of use. The clip used to be nice and copper coloured but now is just nice and worn silver.

Apart from my day to day to do lists, this notebook currently hosts my Tournament of Books trackers. There’s a list of books that are participating in the contest, divided per round. Those that I’ve read are marked off with blue pencil. This is for my personal use, so you’ll not see any Instagram level calligraphy here. I wasn’t planning to photograph this and blog about it when I created these.

This is where I’m logging who I think should win each round. When the tournament starts I’m going to log who actually won each round on the opposite page.

Since doing this challenge means reading 18 books in a very short period, I’m tracking my reading progress in this notebook as well as in my reading journal, just to make sure that I’m on track (I won’t finish reading these in time, as I’ve started too late, but my goal is to finish reading them all by mid April).

That’s it.

How I use my notebooks: Tournament of Books tracking

My Analogue Writing Tools

I wrote the first few chapters of my first novel longhand, with fountain pen on loose sheets of A4 tomoe river paper. As I realized that I would have to type everything into Scrivener before I could even start editing, the lazy programmer within me balked. It was fine doing this with quick drafts, but writing an entire novel longhand was not for me.

I still use pen, pencil and paper a lot in my writing though. I use a fountain pen (anything that doesn’t have a flex or novelty nib will do — from extra-fine to 1.1mm stubs) and loose sheets of A4 and A5 tomoe river paper to work on my outlines, for quick drafts, to test plot options out, or when I’m really, really stuck in my writing. A Field Notes Byline is constantly under my keyboard, horizontally. Yes, I know that the lines don’t go that way, but I ignore them. The form factor is perfect for that, and the ruling is pale enough for me to easily ignore it. I use a Blackwing 16.2 or 24 with it, to quickly capture any ideas that may come up during my writing, to remind myself where I was going with an idea or what I need to fix a previous place, to brainstorm names, etc. It serves as a scratch pad that allows me to maintain my writing flow and still remember things along the way.

Messy, messy handwriting, because getting things down on paper is more important to me then keeping them pretty. 

So, even if you do all your writing using Ulysses or Scrivener (hopefully not Word), I recommend that you incorporate some analogue tools in your process. You’re bound to find them useful, particularly when you’re stuck or you’ve dug yourself into a hole.

My Analogue Writing Tools

Moleskine Limited Edition Peanuts and How to Start a New Journal

I started a new journal this month, this time a Peanuts limited edition Moleskine. This is one of Moleskine’s best designed limited editions in recent years, because of the simplicity of the design and the limited palate choice (white, black and red). So first up, here are some pretty pictures, and then I’ll get into how I start a new journal.

That sleeve looks transparent, but is just perfectly aligned, that’s all. 
“Are you happy right now?” “I guess so..”
Gramma knows best.
No Problem
Only the best end papers in any Moleskine edition to date.
The back end paper is a sweet and a little heartbreaking – like the best Peanuts strips.
Bonk! Stickers galore.
Red detail on the famous back pocket.
Build your own Snoopy’s doghouse from the B-Side of the sleeve. 

So this is definitely a top 10 edition for me, both because I love Peanuts so much, and because it is such a well-designed notebook.

Now to how I actually start a new journal:

I’ve noticed that the hardest part of journaling for me is when I’m just getting started with a new notebook. Blank pages are scary and discouraging, and at that point I’ve invested so much time and effort in my old notebook that I really don’t feel like moving to a new one. Like Charlie Brown says, “Goodbyes always make my throat hurt… I need more hellos”.

The trick is to get the new journal started well before you actually “move into” it, so that by the time you start using it full-time it’s already an old friend.

Once I get to about 20 pages before the end of my current journal I select a new one, fill in my personal info, and start filling the first few pages with various project ideas/running and training plans/writing plans/home improvement plans. These are specifically things that I know that I’ll need to start updating and referencing before I start using the new journal, so that it’ll start filling up with meaningful content ahead of time. I also use the last pages of the journal to test new pens, jot notes for myself or just for various stamps. By the time I start using it, the notebook isn’t just randomly used or “wrecked”, but meaningfully mine. It’s already working for me, being my outboard brain and eye and heart. And it doesn’t take a lot — I was too preoccupied this time to notice that my old Star Wars Duel notebook was running out, so I started the Peanuts one in a rush, only a few days before I fully moved into it. All it took was a running plan and a list of things that I want to pack up and give to charity for me to easily transition into it, as if I was merely turning another page in my old notebook.

If you have trouble starting new notebooks, give this idea a try, it may help you out.

Moleskine Limited Edition Peanuts and How to Start a New Journal

My 2018 Journals

I managed to journal almost every day in 2018, a tremendous personal achievement considering the chaos that was the latter part of the year for me. I use Moleksine large lined limited edition notebooks for my journals and Ti Arto/Ti Arto EDC/Ti Pocket Pro with Uni-ball Signo 0.5mm refills (UMR-85).

The four notebooks I filled in 2018. I filled five notebooks in 2017.

Why do I use Moleskines when I have better quality notebooks (Rhodia, Tomoe River Paper notebooks, Leuchtterm, Baron Fig)? Because they’re notebooks that I want to use. I love their limited edition notebook designs. I used to use Baron Fig notebooks for my journals but I like the Moleskine format better and since I switched to journaling with gel ink pens instead of fountain pens, Rhodia and Tomoe River Paper notebooks are pointless. Moleskine notebooks were easier to obtain than Leuchtterm notebooks, and Baron Figs were slightly bigger, bulkier and with thicker paper, that I no longer needed.

The point is, garbage paper or not, Moleskine’s make me happy every time I open them, so that’s why I use them.

 

First two notebooks of 2018. I was journaling a lot more then, so each one contains two months of notes, bits and pieces that I glue in, plans and doodles.

Why don’t I use my fountain pens for journaling? I used to, during the first two months of journaling, and then I switched them out for my beloved UMR-85 and BIGiDESIGN Ti pens. I love my fountain pens, but they are not the best EDC pens, to say the least. A lot of them are expensive, most of them are vintage, and so unlike the Ti pens which I just toss into my bag or carry in my pocket, I baby them. I don’t want them to get damaged, I worry about them leaking after I carry them around in my bag (my consistently ink stained fingers attest to how often that has happened). I can’t use ballpoints (I hate them and they cause me severe RSI flareups), rollerballs like the Retro51 are almost as bad as fountain pens when it comes to leaking and being finicky about paper, so gel pens it is. The Uni-ball UMR-85 is an excellent gel refill, and the Ti pens are fantastic and can take everything you can throw at them, so I that’s what I use.

Last two notebooks of 2018. I managed to lose the Star Wars one on a plane, but I got it back, so I finished the year in it. 

I’ll make a post about my new journal for 2019 and how I start a new journal probably later this week. My posting schedule is a bit erratic lately, but I’m dealing with serious family health problems these past few months and so this blog has suffered somewhat, I’m afraid.

P.S. Say what you will about Moleskines, these notebooks can take a beating, I’ve carried and used these daily for eight months (four months each), and they are bulging and a tiny bit battered at the very edges, but otherwise like brand new.

My 2018 Journals

Beginner’s Tips to Watercolours, Part 1: How to Build Your First Palette

Watercolours are scary to work with, because unlike other drawing mediums (except ink washes), they have a mind of their own and don’t stay where you put them, and they don’t mix like other mediums, because of their transparency. There’s also a lot of very cheap, poor quality watercolours out there that the beginner may be tempted to buy, that will only be able to produce “grainy” or washed-out drawings. So, here’s how to build your first watercolour palette:

Which company should I choose?

Any company that has artist grade watercolours that has several series of paints, with different price points for each series, is a good choice. The key word is “artist” and not “student” grade, and that Cobalt Blue (expensive) should not cost the same as Yellow Ochre (cheap).

Quick explanation: student grade pigments are low quality pigments whose only winning quality is that they’re cheap. Your time and work are worth more than that, trust me. Artist grade pigments are much higher quality, and since we live in a “post truth” world, don’t trust the label, check that there’s a price difference between different pigments. Certain pigments cost more, and the companies that use them want you to pay for that. Usually companies will have about 4 “series”, with 1 being the cheapest, and where you’ll find most of the browns, and series 4 being most expensive and where you’ll find most of the blues and some yellows and reds. Don’t fall into traps like “this is a Japanese maker,” or “these are hand made,”  — every good quality maker will have grades to their paints. It’s not a “Western” or “Big Company” thing — it’s economical common sense.

OK, artist grade and several, differently priced series, but really, which company should I choose?

It depends what you’re going for and where you live. If you live in the US, Daniel Smith is a good option, since they’re the most readily available. The problem is they come in tubes, which isn’t the most economical or convenient of ways to start working with watercolours. If you want to start with Daniel Smith you’ll either need to buy empty half-pans and fill them, waiting for a few days for them to set, or buy a plastic watercolour palette with wells, fill them and wait for them to set.

Winsor and Newton Professional half-pans are probably the best place to start, if you can get them (and they’re pretty widely available). These are excellent and affordable. Just avoid the Cotmans paints, which are their student grade ones. Make sure that there’s “professional” printed on the label. They are the goldilocks of watercolour pigments

Schmincke Horadam (not Academie) is what I use, and is the favourite of many watercolourists as it has the most vibrant pigments that are the easiest to lift and rework. They’re more expensive and difficult to obtain, and if you’re used to other pigments their vibrancy might scare you off at first. (BTW – Schmincke is pronounced shmin-keh, and not schminkee. It’s a German company).

Sennelier is even more difficult to find, and is the opposite of Schmincke, being more subdued and transparent. If you really want to get into glazing, these may be for you, otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend them.

White Nights watercolours are also good, a midway between W&N and Schmincke, but they’re difficult to find, particularly outside of sets.

Which should I pick: Half-Pans, Full-Pans or Tubes?

Half-pans.

Quick explanation: you’re starting out, so half-pans are the best, and should last you for a long, long time, since you use so little pigment in watercolour painting. This will also let you experiment with different pigments later on, maybe even switching companies without breaking the bank. When you get into “heavy” use, you can switch to full-pans, or tubes, which are the most economical of options, if you actually get to use them.

Which colours to choose?

Start with these: Lemon Yellow, Raw Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Sap Green, Alizarine Crimson, Payne’s Grey (blue tone).

Every company will have them, although their names may differ a bit.

Later on I’ll discuss how to understand pigment labels (so you can pick your own), and which ones to pick for different kinds of drawing, but with these you’ll be able to draw landscapes, portraits and still-life, and they’re all transparent pigments, which means they mix well and glaze well, without creating “muddy” effects.

Quick explanation: this is the standard, classic watercolour palette, except that I’ve switched a few pigments with others that mix better. That’s why there’s no Cadmium Yellow or Cadmium Red here. Payne’s Grey is God’s little gift to watercolourists — you’ll use it a lot for shading and mixing, and as an added bonus, except the Cobalt Blue, these are all series 1 and 2 paints, which make them cheap.

Beginner’s Tips to Watercolours, Part 1: How to Build Your First Palette

This week’s long run: how to run when you really don’t want to

My mom has some very serious health problems, and that (coupled with some travel) has  made me put my running on a two week haitus. Except for an “angry run” of 4k that turned into 6k, I haven’t been lacing up lately, and that’s not good.

Yesterday I put in a 4k, and as usual after a break, it was pretty rough. Not as rough as I knew this morning’s run would be. It was scheduled to be a 10k, but I dropped it to a 7k, knowing that all things considered even that would be a challenge. I would have to fight my lizard brain all the way through this one, so I would have to use all the tricks I had to get through it:

Trick #1: Remove all obstacles to getting out the door. For me that meant setting an alarm, setting out my workout clothes, and charging my headphones the night before.

Trick #2: Promise yourself something nice once you complete the run. For me it was breakfast at my favourite cafe.

Trick #3: Distraction, distraction, distraction. This is the most important thing, and why I chose a new route, and I saved my favourite podcast (Do By Friday) for this run.

Trick #4: Give yourself a break. I allowed myself to stop for breaks, so long as they were only for a few seconds, and I went right back to running again. I needed to decide this in advance so I wouldn’t feel bad about taking the breaks that I knew that I would need. The point was not to beat myself up for something that couldn’t be helped.

It worked, and I got rewarded with some pretty nifty new views:

Get out there and run. You can crush it, no matter what the little lizard says.

This week’s long run: how to run when you really don’t want to