Columns > Published on July 19th, 2019

Fountain Pens: Useful Tools or Hipster Affectation?

I’m a curious person, which leads to trouble when it comes to the simple parts of life, like picking out a pen.

You really can’t get into trouble with a simple Bic. Sure, they’re unromantic, and they come in packs of like a billion, and the ink smells weird. But the mascot is adorable, considering his head is a ballpoint soaked in ink and he’s dressed like Angus Young. You lose a Bic, eh, who gives a damn? If you go by any office in America, any bank, anyplace where they’ve figured out it’s cheaper to lose pens than it is to chain them down, you can find a replacement.

But like I said, I’m curious. So I bought some fountain pens.

Fountain pens sort of seem like hipster bullshit, to be honest. But if we’re being complete in our honesty, hipster bullshit is to thank for the fact that just about every American city has a fantastic burger. Hipster bullshit means I can get a cup of coffee that wasn’t made 7 hours ago in most American cities. Okay, I don’t need them to precisely measure the temperature of the water and pour it through a porcelain cone, but if that’s the price to pay for something that doesn’t taste like it was warmed up in a dead dog's anus and strained through a cigarette filter, so be it.

Point being, sometimes hipster bullshit thrives for a reason.

My curiosity led me to get 4 fountain pens, test them out, and keep a little journal of the experience. Which I present to you here.

Day One, Pen One: Going Metro

The Pilot Metropolitan is your basic bitch of fountain pens. As features and uses go, it’s sort of the standard, but maybe in the way that Domino’s is the standard for pizza: It’s not the best, but it certainly looks and feels like what you’d get if you took everyone’s concept of pizza-ness and created a pizza out of it.

The Metropolitan doesn’t start off well. It doesn’t really fit in the fancy plastic coffin they shipped it in. Seriously, the damn thing looks like something they’d use for a space burial in Star Trek.

I manage to toss out the coffin before anyone sees it, which is good because I have a reputation to maintain. And that reputation does not involve having individual cases for pens.

Of course, I threw out the coffin before I checked for instructions, which is why I have to watch an instructional video just to figure out how to make the pen write. This is also not a win.

To make this pen work, you can’t just take off the lid. You take the pen apart, remove this weird rubber thing, which feels like what’s probably inside a squid. It’s apparently a converter that allows you to put your own ink in. If, you know, you want to fool around with a glass bottle of ink? Which maybe has a feather resting in it? I know that I shouldn’t be throwing stones from my vantage on this one, but c’mon. How much of your life do you want to spend doing this crap?

I load in the provided ink cartridge, which is a plastic straw full of ink, and almost definitely going to murder a sea turtle at some point. I feel bad about that, but then again I guess your typical ballpoint is a plastic straw with another plastic straw inside, so maybe I’m doing the world a favor here. Let’s say that’s what’s happening.

Then? Nothing. I can’t get the pen to write. I shake it. Then squeeze the ink cartridge gingerly, hoping the ink doesn’t explode on me.

After some fooling around and trying a bunch of different shakes and squeezes, something works, and the pen writes. I have to say I felt like I’d won a small battle. Maybe this is the appeal of these things. Maybe that’s why we have artisanal pickle shops and other bullshit, because while eating pickles is good, it’s a little easy anymore to just buy ‘em from that Vlasic stork man. Maybe it’s time to return to the days when a pickle meant something!

I like the way this one writes. It’s smooth, it’s simple. It’s weighty in my hand. I already feel like a twee weakling because I take the cap off the back of the pen to lighten it up a little while I write. I’m not kidding.

Maybe this is the beauty of a fountain pen: you have to work for it. Put in an effort. Maybe that’s the charm.

Day Two, Pen Two: On Safari

The Lamy Safari  is apparently a good all-arounder, a good pen to start out with. Armed with my knowledge of the Pilot Metropolitan, the Safari was pretty easy to get loaded and writing. It had an empty space instead of a gizmo to remove. Plus, I was wearing my thick-rimmed glasses at the time. Which was weird because I swear the frames were less square and thick the night before...

The writing was okay, although a little scratchy. Maybe if you have some tactile thing where you love to feel the paper grain under the tip of your pen, this is your thing. 

The Safari looks a little plastic-y. For such a classy writing instrument, it just looks cheap to me somehow. Like a prop from an 80’s movie where they wanted to have a futuristic-looking pen. A movie made in a time before we knew that pens themselves would signal we weren’t in the future.

I have a sudden desire to write “aesthetically displeasing” instead of “a little plastic-y” while I’m holding the Safari. It's like the hipster part of my brain is waking up. But it passes after I take a handful of Rolaids. I’m sure I’m fine.

I try to change the nib on the Safari. The only nibs I knew of before this were those Twizzlers nibs, the ones where it’s like a tiny Twizzler, and also it tastes different. Somewhere between a standard and a Pull ‘n Peel?

A nib, it turns out, is a pen tip.

The Fine nib slid off the Safari, and I slid a Medium nib on. I thought maybe the medium would be less scratchy, more fluid.

It leaked. I’m sure I fucked up this procedure, but still, the pen leaked all over my hand, and after I cleaned it out, used a new ink cartridge, and started again, it still leaked all over the damn place. It’s a good thing this happened at home. Because nobody had to watch me re-enact the pen scene from Ernest Goes to Jail. Or be subject to my reference to Ernest Goes to Jail.

A pen can basically be useless in two ways. One, it doesn’t work. Two, it actively ruins other shit. The Safari is threatening to ruin other things. Including the tweed jacket and suspenders I’d apparently put on this morning. Weird...I don’t remember dressing like someone from Panic! At the Disco. Nor do I remember being someone who was willing to put the exclamation point in the middle of that band’s name. But somehow, these clothes just feel right today.

Day 3, Pen 3: Mount Muji

There’s a store I like called Muji. Home goods, basically. And clothes. A location recently opened up in downtown Portland, which is nice because your average Joe can go out for an all-organic cocktail, eat a $45 dollar hamburger, and then grab a few things. Including a fountain pen.

The Muji pen is all metal, which gives it a leg up over the others. It’s cool to the touch, literally. It’s a comforting feeling. The nib (look at me learn!) is also intricately designed. Which is pretty awesome if you’re ever in super boring meetings with only what's in your pocket for entertainment.

However, the part you hold is a little rough.

I found hand balm in my medicine cabinet today. I don’t know when this happened, but I must have subscribed to one of those services that send you boxes of hip men’s grooming products every month. I have lots of options for oiling my beard now, if I'm ever able to grow a beard that necessitates oiling, and I have a straight razor because I guess this is how old-timey men used to do it. I’m starting to understand why so many old photographs had soft focus. All the razor scars, everyone must’ve looked like Sam Neil from the end of Event Horizon.

The Muji pen, its rough barrel feels like it’s undoing the balm’s hard work. Other than that, it's pretty nice. This pen is all the things I'm not: Aesthetically pleasing, a pleasure to hold. Aluminum.

Day Four, Pen Four: Kaweco Sport

Just as a note, it’s good to have a go-to test phrase when you’re testing out a pen. I use “4. Itchy. Tasty.” It’s a Resident Evil thing that stuck with me for the last couple decades. It’s got the bonus goodness of being about the weirdest thing to see on a test pad in a stationary store.

The Kaweco Sport is an outlier. It’s tiny. It screws together when you put it away, which is nice because I’m terrified of ruining a pair of pants with these goddamn fountain pens.

It’s also got blue ink, which came standard. Seriously? In whose mind is blue the standard, or even preferred, ink color? I’m not a child, Kaweco.

The Kaweco is the scratchiest pen, and it doesn’t write too well when I drag my hand across the page and leave my human greases on the paper. That’s what I call my body’s oils. They’re natural, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. The AMOUNT of them is shameful, but the FACT of them is none of anyone's concern.

I couldn’t finish this entry with the Kaweco. Instead, I switched back to my manual typewriter. Which I carry around with me even though it’s a solid 20 lbs. It’s no biggie. The ride to the coffee shop, the shop I like because they purposely don’t have wifi, is only about 10 minutes on my bike, down from 12 after I took the brakes off (this really DOES speed things up!).

Itchy. Tasty. This is a great name for my new band where we play plastic instruments from the dollar store.


Of the four, if you want to try one, get the Pilot Metropolitan. It’s annoying to start off, you HAVE TO throw that coffin in the nearest garbage you can find, but it’s the one that worked the best. It writes nicely, it didn’t leak on me, and while I liked the Muji, eh, I'll stick to buying ballpoints and airplane slippers from that store.

Are fountain pens worth your time?

Fountain pens are good for sustained writing. If you have a problem while you’re drafting, if you stop and start a lot, a fountain pen might be a good idea. The ink dries up, just a little, if you wait too long between strokes. It could help you develop a little urgency, a need to keep the pen moving even if it's not doing much of value. 

They’re more expensive than a Bic, but if the fountain pen thing works for you, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a computer, it’s easier to carry around, and as a bonus, nobody will steal it from you the way they will a nice gel pen. Because they don’t want to fool around with it, and they will probably think it was a gift from your dead father.

There's something to it for the person who likes to customize their life. If you're the sort of person who likes to spend time fooling around with the operation of your phone as opposed to fooling around ON your phone, this might be for you. I'm told that, with time, fountain pen nibs change shape to conform to your writing style. So, the more you use it, the more it becomes a part of you. 

Is a fountain pen hipster bullshit? Sure. Did it turn me into hipster bullshit? For the purposes of this column, sure, but in real life? Naw.

Just be warned: Other writers will probably think you’re sort of like a person who goes on vacation and does the super-touristy shit. They’ll say, “He thinks he’s having fun, but he’s not.” They'll think you're a dilettante who does more fooling with pens than actual writing. They'll be convinced you're not as hardcore as them. 

Non-writers will think you’re a pompous asshole. If they notice your pen at all. 

But, hey, you should give it a shot and do what you want. If nothing else, it's an object lesson that writing isn't about being liked, whether we're talking the how or the what: Don't pick a pen because you want to be liked, and while you're at it, go ahead and forget about writing to be liked, too. 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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