A fountain pen update: A tour of starter pens

Pens from left to right: Platinum Preppy 03, Platinum Plaisir, Teranishi Guitar, Waterman Allure/Graduate, Sailor Hi-Ace Neo, Kaweco Sport (plastic and brass)

I’ve had an obsession with stationery since I was a wee lad, roaming the streets of the Lower Naugatuck Valley back in Connecticut. Any visit to a store like Kmart or Caldor involved spending many a minute in the stationery department, checking out pens and notebooks. I’d wander through the staid, stodgy “office supply” stores that still lined the main streets of these decaying towns, full of musty ledger books and “received” stamps, glimpses into a world becoming quickly irrelevant in the 1980’s. I’d rarely buy anything, as I only had cash for a candy bar and soda, the era where you could still do that for a buck. A few years later, when I was in seventh grade and flush with Christmas cash (I was then old enough that this became the “default” gift amongst relatives) I’d obsess over the pens at the local CVS, wanting to buy something as “luxe” as a Parker Jotter, but deciding against it. I’d only use these pens in school, where they’d get lost, stolen, or “borrowed” by my classmates. Nice stationery would have to wait for another time.

In the years that followed I still didn’t embrace nice stationery. I’d write letters, sure, and plenty of them. I was a zinester and this was the way you communicated. But I’d be writing notes on the backs of flyers and the like, usually with a tech pen like a Micron. I’d first use my tech pen for art, and when the felt tip wore down a bit, not good for holding a consistent line for drawing but perfectly fine for writing. Very economical, yes, but not exciting.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I decided to finally take a dive into the world of fountain pens. I’d use a few cheapie disposables, but they didn’t inspire much love. It wasn’t until I tried out a MUJI fountain pen that I saw the light, so to speak. I then followed that up with a classic Kaweco Sport. That was almost three years ago, and since then, I’ve bought more fountain pens.

For the most part, all the pens I’ve bought fall in the cheap, under $30 USD end of the spectrum. These are commonly referred to starter, beginner, or student pens. For many a fountain pen afficionado, this is just the entry point into their world. For some, “real” fountain pens don’t start until you get into the $100 or above category, and pens can get pretty expensive. (Not Rolex or Leica expensive, though.) I’m sure that a few of those types are giving me the side eye, wondering when I’m going to remove the training wheels, so to speak.

But I’ve been having fun with these starter pens. For one, they’re more fun to use than a Micron. And it’s a good taste test for if and when I decide to “graduate” to fancier pens. Most of the luxury pen brands make starter pens in the $30 or under category, and they work good–they wouldn’t make crappy pens, otherwise it might scare off people from trying their higher-end offerings.

Below is a round-up of the pens currently in my collection. All but one use ink cartridges or converters, and I stick with cartridges for the ease of use and travel. And after years as a “black ink only” person, it’s been fun to experiment with different colors. (There’s a good reason why fountain pen lovers have multiple pens!) All but one are Fine point nibs, which has become my preferred width–medium is just a little too wide for my tastes. The list goes from left to right in the corresponding photo above:

  • Platinum Preppy. This is the cheapest fountain pen I own, and at about $5 it definitely looks inexpensive. But the nib is where it’s at in this pen. I primarily use this as a drawing pen, as it lives in my sketch kit. The one big drawback to fountain pens is that most ink is not waterproof. But Platinum makes a lovely waterproof “Carbon” ink in black and blue, and I use the Carbon black ink exclusively in this pen. (Platinum offers the Carbon ink in bottle or cartridge. One negative is that Platinum cartridges are proprietary.) And my Platinum pocket brush pen can use the same cartridge, so I need to only bring one spare with me if I’m traveling. If you want to dip your toes in the fountain pen waters while spending about as much as a fancy cup of coffee, a Preppy is as good as a place to start as any.
  • Platinum Plaisir. This is basically a “dressed-up” version of the Preppy: same nib and feed, but a classier aluminum body and cap. This is used mostly as a desk pen, for when I want that black Carbon ink. (For those that want something slightly less fancy, but fancier than the Preppy, go for the plastic-body Prefounte.)
  • Teranishi Guitar. I just got this from St. Louis Art Supply, which seems to be the only stateside supplier of this pen. (And reviews are pretty much non-existent.) It’s a metal body with a nice matte finish. And this pen comes with a built-in converter, so I can use whatever bottled ink I want. (I’ve got it loaded with Teranishi Sky Blue ink.) The body is on the narrower side. I know a lot of fountain pen afficionados like thicker, heavier pens, but after writing with Microns for oh-so-long, bodies on the skinny side are fine in my book. The pen has a good weight to it, and it’s fun to use.
  • Waterman Allure/Graduate. Waterman is a storied fountain pen maker. Nowadays it’s known as a French luxury brand, but back in the day it was an American company, with manufacturing based in Seymour, Connecticut, one town north of Ansonia, where I grew up. (That CVS I mentioned above was less than a mile from the factory!) In the late 1950’s French pen maker Bic bought Waterman to get a foothold in the US market, as an established domestic company would make it easier for people to accept then-revolutionary ballpoint pens. Once Bic became popular here, the parent company discarded Waterman USA (the French subsidiary kept on doing business), moved operations down the river 1 to Milford, where its factory would pump out ballpoint pens, razors, and lighters for decades. This same factory would employ my dad from the time I was born until I was 12. This is a long-winded way to say that I have some personal history with this company. So finding a Waterman pen has been on my list. Someday I’ll get a vintage made-in-Seymour Waterman, but for now a budget French-made pen is OK. The Allure or Graduate is their most basic pen, sold in the Office Despot/Staples of the world, though I found mine for much cheaper on eBay. I like the slim aluminum body, and it writes well. Nothing exciting, but sometimes pens don’t have to be.
  • Sailor Hi-Ace Neo. Sailor is one of the big three Japanese fountain pen companies, the other two are Platinum and Pilot. Sailor is well-known for their higher end, pricey pens, but their entry level pens often get ignored. The Hi-Ace Neo reviews are pretty ho-hum, so I wasn’t expecting much from this pen. But it was under $10 so I took a chance. While the cap is metal, the body is plastic. It reminds me of the low-end “felt tip pens” you’d see at the art supply store, just to the left of the Microns and Pitt Artist Pens. But contrarian me finds this as part of the charm of this pen. It’s the only pen I have with an extra-fine nib and I like how it writes. And because it’s lightweight and inexpensive, it’s one of my “bang-about” pens I keep in my bag. (Unfortunately Sailor pens use proprietary cartridges, whereas most of the pens in my collection use standard International cartridges.)
  • Kaweco Sport. After being introduced to this German pen maker by the now-defunct Retro Snapper blog (it’s also worth mentioning that Shoot Film, Ride Steel also likes ’em), I got my first Kaweco Sport at the beginning of pandemic. The Sport is one of the best “travel” fountain pens because of its small portable size–just about four inches capped, five inches posted. The Kaweco Sport comes in a number of materials and colors, with nib widths from extra fine to double broad plus italic/stub. The plastic versions are lightweight yet feel substantial and balanced in hand. And they write remarkably well! This is my favorite fountain pen–I’ve bought three plastic versions and lost one. And for Christmas Emee gifted me the brass version, a very classy and solid pen, and the only pen I currently own that is over that $30 threshold.

As for where to buy fountain pens, I’ve gotten a lot of them via my current stationery and art supply source, Jet Pens. I’ve also purchased pens from The Gentleman Stationer, Dromgooles in Houston, Little Otsu here in Portland, and a few random spots on the internet (including eBay). Oh yeah, I bought one Kaweco Sport from Measure Twice in Brooklyn–yes, that means I bought a fountain pen from the drummer of Jawbox. 2

As for blogs, I’ve started to follow a few fountain-pen and stationery blogs. I’ve been familiar with The Well-Appointed Desk for years even before this newish fountain pen obsession, basically because Ana is a long-time member of Society of Three Speeds! The Gentleman Stationer has been another good regular read, as is Fountain Pen Blog and The Poor Penman.

As for what’s next: I don’t think I’m going to buy any pens for a bit. Many of the pens listed above I got within the last two months. It’s easy to buy many of the pens in the $30 or under range, especially when one gets used to the idea of spending more than a couple bucks on a pen. There may be a few more pens I’d get from brands I haven’t tried yet, just to see what they’re like. Will I get some more expensive pens, those in the $100 and above price point? Probably. (The brass Kaweco sits squarely at $100 retail, so I already have one, even though it’s basically the same as my plastic Kawecos but in a fancier dressing.) I might ask for these nice pens as gifts. For now I’m going to have fun with what I have.

Like my stuff? Go to my Ko-fi page to buy me a coffee!

1 OK, rivers. Seymour is on the Naugatuck River, which flows into the Housatonic where Milford is located.

2 At least the drummer from the post Dischord days.

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4 thoughts on “A fountain pen update: A tour of starter pens

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  1. Hi Shawn. Once again, you are inspiring me towards something. Living in a household with three others, things such as writing insturments are considered communal property. While I don’t draw, I have strong preferences in writing utensils, even if I’m penning something as mundane as a grocery list. Until now, my tool of choice has been disposable rollerballs such as those offered by Uni. My selection process was simple: raid the corporate supply closet (back in my corp. days), and find the one that fit me best. I believe it’s time I acquire a pen for myself. Learning here that the entry point for fountiain pens is quite reasonable, I’ll probably give one of your listed models a try. The nearest Blick store is only a few miles away…

    I’ll add that in my youth, I was exposed to both dip and cartridge fountain pens. In fact, there’s a remote (yet very viable) chance I may have doodled with the very pen used to create comics for publications such as Playboy and New Yorker. But that’s a story I should probably unpack in my own blog.

    1. Cool! I will note that the fountain pen selection at Blick is pretty eh. They do have a few on the website, but “in store” stock is always much less. Jet Pens is a good place to go for fountain pens.

      1. I’m not surprised to hear Blick isn’t the best source. They probably are the best source local to me. My thought was I could get a better idea of what I want by holding it, but if they are in a blister pack, that might not even be the case. I can pretty much tell by looking at a pen if it’s going to give me cramps, though. I don’t need the Coupe DeVille of pens, but want better than the Chevette. I figure shipping on an inexpensive pen might be more than the pen itself, but I do have Amazon Prime for another week or so (finally letting go of that – yay)…

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