You don’t need to be a certifiable pen dork... but it helps.
September 12, 2020 3:13 PM   Subscribe

The US tosses out 1.6 billion pens a year. Ballpoint pens were first patented in 1888, but it wasn't until Biro came up with the idea of using thicker ink 50 years later that they became a mass-market item. The Bic pen guy was the first to really capitalize on this; he died in 1994. Refillable pens don't have to cost a fortune. Disposable pens don't need to be terrible for the environment. You can use a felt-tip pen with refills. posted by jessamyn (59 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
When I was living in Germany 30-odd years ago, the pens used by all the kids in high school were these sort of fountain pen nibs with ink cartridges you screwed into the pen, used it up, and then replaced it. The ink was not thick, but writing with a fountain pen all day long was oddly soothing.

I have no idea what those pens are called and if they are even available in the US, but they were pleasant to use.
posted by hippybear at 3:33 PM on September 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Veet Voojagig, was a quiet young student at the University of Maximeglon, who pursued a brilliant academic career studying ancient philology, transformational ethics and the wave harmonic theory of historical perception, and then, after a night of drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Zaphod Beeblebrox, became increasingly obsessed with the problem of what had happened to all the biros he'd bought over the past few years.

There followed a long period of painstaking research during which he visited all the major centres of biro loss throughout the galaxy and eventually came up with a quaint little theory which caught the public imagination at the time. Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, fishoids, walking treeoids and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, there was also a planet entirely given over to biro life forms. And it was to this planet that unattended biros would make thier way, slipping away quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely biroid lifestyle, responding to highly biro-orientated stimuli, and generally leading the biro equivalent of the good life.

And as theories go this was all very fine and pleasant until Veet Voojagig suddenly claimed to have found this planet, and to have worked there for a while driving a limousine for a family of cheap retractables, whereupon he was taken away, locked up, wrote a book, and was finally sent into tax exile, which is the usual fate reserved for those who are determined to make a fool of themselves in public.

When one day an expedition was sent to the spatial coordinates that Voojagig had claimed for this planet they discovered only a small asteroid inhabited by a solitary old man who claimed repeatedly that nothing was true, though he was later discovered to be lying.

There did however, remain the question of both the mysterious 60,000 Altairian dollars paid yearly into his Brantisvogan bank account, and of course Zaphod Beeblebrox's highly profitable second-hand biro business.
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
posted by BungaDunga at 3:34 PM on September 12, 2020 [20 favorites]

@hippybear yes! My German friend brought me one a few years back. It had a baseball on the end of it!

Founten pen cartridges are much easier to fill and clean than vacume pens, in my opinion. I'm a big pen fan!
posted by rebent at 3:42 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I recently went nuts on JetPens and played around mixing and matching bodies and refills. Was so tempted getting the sampler packs, but I don't need that many pens.

0.28mm gel ink and 0.4mm B pencil lead, baby!
posted by porpoise at 3:50 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Recently I went through one of my assorted collections of pens. (I'm not the only person who winds up with pen collections right?) This group contained a lot of pens from previous business travels (hotels, restaurants, conferences, etc.) Some were old and dried out so I tossed them away, others still wrote and those got kept. There were a few old, dried-out ones I would have liked to have kept either for the memory of the place or the design of the pen, but for the most part I didn't. I did keep one, however, that I'd like to be able to find a refill for, but I doubt it will happen. The pen is a really nice one--great balance, real wood on the shaft along with a really nice, heavy, white metal cap. It's from the database company Informix if anybody cares. The problem is that the ink cartridge only says "Hawk RRC Ceramic" and its shape isn't one that I'm familiar with, so the odds of getting a refill are pretty slim at this point.
posted by sardonyx at 4:01 PM on September 12, 2020

The number of pens in my life which have run out of ink or otherwise ceased working to those that have just vanished is about one to two hundred and eighty. Where those pens have all gone, I have no idea, but I assume they must be out there somewhere in the world.

You’re welcome.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:02 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

The problem is that the ink cartridge only says "Hawk RRC Ceramic" and its shape isn't one that I'm familiar with, so the odds of getting a refill are pretty slim at this point.

Maybe try running some photos of it through Google Image Search and see if you get any matches or close forms?
posted by hippybear at 4:08 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

The folks at JetPens are super helpful, knowledgeable, and got back to me super quick about a question I had for refill compatibility with a weirdo Rotring. I'd suggest shooting them an image!
posted by porpoise at 4:11 PM on September 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

I remember my first Uni-Ball, discovered on the floor of my 7th grade English class. It changed my life.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:24 PM on September 12, 2020 [10 favorites]

My mother used to do calligraphy so we learned to write with fountain pens and it was a good skill to know. When I was asking my sister--who still likes fountain pens--for tips for this post she said she remembers our mom writing with a feather quill. I do not remember that. For me the Big Pen Event was the Erasermate which meant that pen ink was eraseable! It was also hella smeary and I grew up as a rightie in a family of left-handers and they were like NOPE. I clear out my pen drawer every few years. The last time, I took photos.
posted by jessamyn at 4:30 PM on September 12, 2020 [11 favorites]

I was huge into fountain pens during high school and college. Vintage and modern. Gold-plated luxury ones and blister-pack drugstore ones. Too many bottles of not-exactly-the-right-shade-of-blue ink.

They're all collecting dust in the back of my closet now. I still follow a bunch of pen blogs, but skip over all the fountain pen posts. It's the same old stuff that I saw over a decade ago, since that's what happens in an inherently backwards-facing hobby.

Better stuff now:

quick-dry left-handed friendly gel pens
rotating-lead mechanical pencils
completely customizable multi-pens
no-longer-terrible erasable pens and highlighters
posted by meowzilla at 4:47 PM on September 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

USian teen in the 70’s... used to love nib pens with the replaceable cartridges. They were definitely a thing available here. But the truth is, between losing things not attached to me, more ink accidents than I can remember (though I bet my mom would!), the fact that I never mastered using them and the fact that my handwriting was and remains atrocious, I gave up on them. Pity, though.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:47 PM on September 12, 2020

The ancient Shaeffer school pen I bought new from the middle school store for the absurd sum of one dollar is still plugging along nicely after forty years (I bought a backup, just in case I lose it, thirty-eight years ago, and it's still plugging along, too). I suppose, if they ever stop selling those Skrip cartridges for it, I'll become a dab hand refilling old ones with an eyedropper. They're so much less stressful to use then any ballpoint.

Mind you, for most of my writing, I use a vintage mechanical pencil I purloined from my father around the same time (Pentel 0.5 Quicker Clicker) and have a stock of those that I acquired when I wanted more coquettish shades of pencil body than the staid smoky grey of my first and a stockpile of consumables in case of the fall of civilization. In my schlunky middle age, I've defected to the Pentel Graphgear 500 0.9, with leads that are virtually unbreakable in my hands by comparison to the 0.5 or even 0.7. I've got the fancier Staedtler 0.9 as well, but I find it heavy.

Mainly, I can't fathom who throws a whole damn pen out every time it runs out of ink. Blecch.
posted by sonascope at 4:48 PM on September 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

> When I was living in Germany 30-odd years ago, the pens used by all the kids in high school were these sort of fountain pen nibs with ink cartridges you screwed into the pen, used it up, and then replaced it.

Pelikan and Pilot both make low-cost fountain pens for children and students. Pilot in particular has a range of disposable and cheap (under $15) cartridge pens. (There are other companies too, but those are probably the easiest to find). There are also adaptors to allow you to use most types of cartridge pens with bottled ink, so that you're not burning through a lot of cartridges.
posted by ardgedee at 4:49 PM on September 12, 2020

@hippybear I still have mine from around that time/place: a Kaweco Sport. I found it during a pandemic cleaning spree and cleaned it up a bit, the cartridges I bought around the same time still work fine too!
posted by cali at 4:54 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I did love fountain pens as a kid, but the one I had used to leak ink if it was left lying carelessly around (i.e., one time it leaked on my sheets when I left it there for a few minutes mid-journal entry, another time it leaked in my schoolbag when it got upside down). I think about buying another sometimes, but I do have a special pen right now that I use for most of the handwriting that I do. It is a pen my dad made for me. It goes in my brown leather ARC planner pen slot, and that planner goes everywhere with me. I have a silver Cross pen that I've had for 25+ years and that I keep in my bedside drawer. (I don't know where I got that pen, but I think I must have stolen it from someone, as I know I never bought it.:{) I also have a bunch of old, junky, mostly promotional pens sitting around, such as the half dozen or so that sit in the kitchen odds and ends drawer and which I use to write my grocery list, but I never bother buying refills for those when they die.

Get a pen you really like and want to keep, for whatever sentimental or utilitarian reason, and then you will be willing to buy refills for it.
posted by orange swan at 5:01 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I just want to commiserate a bit with like-minded people. For most of my life I've been a Parker pen user. Typically just the Jotter model, but I've had more expensive versions as well. I don't know what Parker is doing with its inks, but it has forced me (after decades) to switch to Cross. The Parker refills just don't last. I buy one, and a handful of weeks later, it's empty. I'm writing a lot less than I used to and there is no way I should be going through refills as quickly as I was. I even complained to the company once after a recently purchased refill lasted me roughly two weeks. The company apologized, promised to send me a complimentary refill for my inconvenience, but I never received anything. It's a shame as I still really like the feel of a Jotter in my hand, and I have a few Jotter bodies (in assorted colours) that it would be nice to get working again, but the idea of wasting money on short-lifespan refills just isn't appealing.
posted by sardonyx at 5:10 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

TIL that my copy of the Hitchhiker's Omnibus was translated into American, which prevented me learning the term "biro" until the Mighty Boosh came out 30-ish years later. Thanks BungaDinga!

Also I just got a speedball cartooning pen set, so this appeals to my immediate interests.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:19 PM on September 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Please note this is a post made as part of MeFi's Fundraising Month. Read more about this project here.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:33 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I fell in love with PaperMate's Flair brand felt tip pens at a relatively early age and was rewarded by the product line being expanded by a few colors every few years until my last 20 years gainfully employed when I would primarily use Green Flairs for all my document signatures and margin notes. That was how anybody knew the document came from Wittler (unless it had been photocopied on a non-color machine).
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:34 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

The ancient Shaeffer school pen I bought new from the middle school store for the absurd sum of one dollar is still plugging along nicely after forty years...if they ever stop selling those Skrip cartridges for it, I'll become a dab hand refilling old ones with an eyedropper.

I got started on a cheap Shaeffer as well, but I couldn't always afford/have time to get more cartridges, so I used to water them down. Maybe I should have used an eye dropper, but instead I just squeezed them under a slow tap of water and released to suck water in. Note: this makes your pen more leaky, so my index finger had a permanent ink spot.

Now I have pens with refillable converters and they are so nice. My reasons for avoiding cartridges these days is more about reducing waste plastic than cost, but I can also report that a good converter holds much more ink and thus you don't run out as fast.

My current favourite is a lovely rosewood Jinhao 51a. Cheap but very well designed, lovely to use. I actually prefer it to my Parker 51, as the wood body is warmer to hold.
posted by jb at 5:36 PM on September 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

It was huge news in China when a Chinese company finally figured out how to make a high-quality ballpoint pen in 2017 after five years of intense research. Turns out making that little ball is hard.
posted by clawsoon at 5:46 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

My German mother gave me the fountain pen she used at school. It was a beautiful pen with black-and-green stripes and a gold nib. Ink was replenished by sticking the nib into a jar of ink and twisting part of the pen. It laid down ink smoothly, never leaked, and never wrote scratchily.

Alas, being an air-headed high schooler, I lost it. All that remained was the pen's clip, which somehow had become detached. I have sold, lost or given away many things in my life and never missed them, but I do regret losing that pen.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 5:52 PM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

This thread almost makes me nostalgic for being a student, when I'd use Uniballs, and only Uniballs, for taking notes in class. Almost.
posted by mollweide at 6:01 PM on September 12, 2020

Always disliked ballpoints. And have you tasted that ink? UGH!!

And felt tips feel like tiny, tiny fingernails scraping down 8.5X11" blackboards.

So I have a lot of mechanical pencils, fountain pens and technical pens. Kind of surprisingly, the smoothest writing pens of them all are the technical pens, kind of a tie between the Faber-Castell TG1•S with stainless steel points and old style fountain pen-like Koh-I-Noors with old style tungsten carbide points, though those points are very rare. Staedtlers are worthless, the caps crack within a year and the wires in the points rust out in two.

For pencils, I like mechanical pencils with a ballpoint like cap which covers the point, and it turns out you can take the Pentel 1.3 mm highlighting pencil which in form resembles a cheap Bic, and replace its lead guide and guts with the Pentel Sharplet-2 lead guide and guts of whatever lead diameter you prefer, and have a very lightweight mechanical pencil with a nice removable cap which fits over the back end just like a ballpoint's and allows you to advance the lead with the cap in place. The 0.3 Sharplet-2 requires an extra step and is just a bit trickier, however.

I wish I could find some 0.9 mm and 0.7 mm leads in 3B and 4B hardnesses, though.
posted by jamjam at 6:01 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

My German mother gave me the fountain pen she used at school. It was a beautiful pen with black-and-green stripes and a gold nib. Ink was replenished by sticking the nib into a jar of ink and twisting part of the pen. It laid down ink smoothly, never leaked, and never wrote scratchily.

That sounds like the Pelikan 123; the nibs were removable and came in a variety of widths including two italic widths and a left-handed nib. Somewhere I have a cigar box containig several of those and all the nibs. They are a really superior and well made pen.
posted by jamjam at 6:16 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

1.6 billion means about 5 pens per person. Not everyone uses pens, but that still suggests that the average pen gives about 2 months of use, which seems pretty long to me.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:48 PM on September 12, 2020

I've never tried using a fountain pen, but a few years ago I got an aluminum Karas Bolt and fell in love. Later I ended up with a second one made of solid copper. It's really heavy, so it's my home-use pen as opposed to the one I carry around with me (the aluminum one).

I use it with a Schmidt cartridge, which works nicely. I tried using a Fisher Space Pen cartridge, but it sucked.
posted by heteronym at 6:48 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Was so tempted getting the sampler packs, but I don't need that many pens.

I wanted to try to have a nicer writing experience, and was really overwhelmed by all the choices. I got a sampler pack, and it was really useful for figuring out which pens I liked best. Now I keep the ones I like tidied away where only I can get them, and leave the rest around for random family use.
posted by Orlop at 7:11 PM on September 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I find it fascinating that the price of a basic Bic pen when it was introduced and the price today (at least if you buy them in boxes) is basically the same.

My mother used to manage a tax prep office and she brought her own pens, different from those supplied by the company because she hated the company pens. Every day when she got in to open the office, she'd go around to everyone's desk and take back her pens from everyone who had stolen them.

Personally, I prefer a black, 0.5mm (0.3 is better, but very hard to find) Pentel EnerGel.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:29 PM on September 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I went through a fountain pen phase several years ago (and I also had problems with them wandering away from my desk at work and mysteriously landing on other peoples' desks, hmm).

I am still fond of Lamy Safari, though I use the rollerball version with Pilot refils now. I have an Al-Star and a Vista (clear plastic "demonstrator") and have been tempted to grab a couple of others just because.
posted by Foosnark at 7:47 PM on September 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Pilot G2 gel pen afficionado, here. Got hooked on them in college.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:53 PM on September 12, 2020

I'm currently using a Yooker's felt-tip fountain pen and will testify that it works as well as can be expected. Ink flow is consistent, it feels like a felt-tip pen, and I'm just... this is neat.
posted by fatbird at 7:56 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

My city recycles pens and markers. At least, they have a bin in the lobby of City Hall where old pens are collected. I save up a rubber-banded bundle and donate every few months; no idea what happens to them.

Several years ago my school got in a few reusable white-board markers. You could unscrew the end and, drop by drop, refill them from a little bottle. I quickly claimed the purple one. Things got messy around the little bottles in the supply cabinet, as might be expected; and too much ink flowed out when writing just after a refill. Still, I loved the eco-logic of mine, but they never got any more ink, and these special markers had disappeared the following school year.

BTW Fountain pens are cool but keep yer damn ball-points, I'm actually a 100% pencil guy, how can you write without an eraser?

posted by Rash at 8:00 PM on September 12, 2020

My preference in pens is moderately cheap Chinese fountain pens (the quality control is too iffy for the ones that cost less than $2 each). Fountain pens aren't really a hobby to me; it's just that I write a lot, and I like the writing-feel of even a moderately cheap fountain pen over any rollerball or gel pen I've tried. I worry about losing and damaging expensive pens; I lost my favorite PenBBS pen when I handed it to a friend who forced the cap back on the pen not realizing it was a screw cap.

My pen of choice is the Wing Sung 3003, and it's honestly ridiculous that you can get five pens this good for $16 - the quality control isn't the best, but if you get three pens this good for $16, I still consider that a great deal.

Reddit is collectively very knowledgeable about cheap Chinese fountain pens, and this enormously, ridiculously comprehensive guide is a good place to start.

That reminds me, I should get back into my real writing hobby: buying a lot of ink in outlandish colors.
posted by Jeanne at 8:00 PM on September 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

I got a Schaefer calligraphy set as a kid, with a cheap cartridge pen and so many beautiful cartridges. I still have it.

I’m a fountain pen person who owns fancy pens, but I love those $3 pilot v-pens, and use them all the time. I’m sorry that I just learned about sampler packs of grading pens when online classes mean I don’t grade in red ink for the first time in many years.

Thanks for this post, I can’t wait to read all those soothing pen links. Then take notes in olive ink, in the special green pen I bought to match my olive ink.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 8:47 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ok pen fanciers, I now seek a cartridgeless fountain pen that writes like a Pilot V5.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:54 PM on September 12, 2020

My preference in pens is less the ink and more the weight. I hate hate hate writing with those pens with a clicker instead of a lid. I need the lid on the back of the pen when I write for the weight.

Also, fuck most ballpoint or roller ball pens. As a lefty, they really suck since the ball is meant to be dragged and not pushed they are not very smooth writing for me at all. I much prefer the felt tip pens. Never tried the fountain pens as they’re even worse for lefties than the ball-types and I never had the effort or money to find a special left handed one.
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:10 PM on September 12, 2020

Cheap Chinese fountain pens have been a blessing for me - I tried getting into fountain pens twice before over 20 years, but I like the fancy ink colours the most and for Eastern Europe incomes, Western pens were a luxury item I'd be afraid to carry every day, never mind have multiples for a choice of inks. And the cheapest Western ones I did get broke, leaked, and dried up in days.

I just ordered two more Jinhao 51a with custom nibs for half the price of my Pilot Metropolitan, and they write just as pleasantly. I've had people pick up my Jinhao X750 and not believe it's a $5 pen. They put up with jostling in my bag, I can carry half a dozen with different inks, and if I lose one or someone nicks it, I can reorder for the price of two coffees. Game changer for people on limited incomes.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:44 PM on September 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I was at another Event last year when those things existed and, wandering from stand to stand mused up a catechism of promo-pens:
¿Do we need pens with another company's logo?
* Nope
¿Do we want / desire such pens?
* Not much . . . rather have a promo mouse mat esp if living in Finland or Wisconsin where they are handy for sitting in winter bus-shelters
¿What is the life-time use-time of such a pen [I've got 12 more since yesterday all suspiciously similar in design]?
* Less than being famous for 15 minutes
¿Do all the other companies have pens on their exhibition stand?
* Yes
Must we have parity of esteem?
* Of course
¿Is this the sort of nonsense that drives a growth economy?
* Assuredly
¿What about the trees, the bees, the orang-utans?
* Fuck 'em
That evening I opened up all the promo pens in case there was a note inside: "Help, I'm an enslaved refugee in a pen factory somewhere in Europe". A crappy promo-pen that leaks or dies is not the best metaphor mission statement for the company.
posted by BobTheScientist at 5:01 AM on September 13, 2020

The Skilcraft! I don't think I still have any of these, but I probably left several government offices with one more than when I came in.

My first thought was the Bic Banana commercial. (Stop Writing!)

Surprised that the ballpoint was patented in 1888. I think there was a plot point in Angel Heart where Harry finds a hospital log entry that was obviously back-dated because it was in ballpoint, and the date was from before the Biro.

I miss the (cheap) fountain pens, and I also miss the pocket protectors that went with them.
posted by MtDewd at 5:03 AM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Glad to see another Lamy Safari fan here, Foosnark. I seem to have accidentally given away the one I bought recently, and I broke the one I've had for 25 years (unknown provenance, found in my parents' pen jar) earlier in lockdown when an old iMac G4 (with screen removed) fell off a shelf onto my desk on top of it. So I will need to buy a new one. Rollerball is the one for me.

I appreciate genuine Bics, and normally have a 10 pack of them in my office desk. My employer does not provide anything close to as good: generics with welded polystyrene barrels from 2-piece moulded castings, instead of the Bic's one-piece injection moulded barrel, and crime of crimes, the generics have the point loose at the tip, and only held in by the polypropylene cap at the top of the barrel, the other end of the flexible ink tube. But I guess they do cost pennies instead of, what £0.20 for Bics in bulk.

I might have thought too much about this.
posted by ambrosen at 5:11 AM on September 13, 2020

I’ve used fountain pens almost exclusively for around thirty years. Started with cheap ones and, once I demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I wouldn’t lose them by my usual method of forgetting where I put it down, I’ve gradually moved up the ladder of form and luxury. My accumulation is fairly modest in size at fewer than twenty pens, but they’re carefully chosen and I use them all.

I usually have around seven pens in use at a time, but only three nowadays due to reduced handwriting needs during the pandemic. Currently inked up are a Yard-o-Led Viceroy Grand Victorian with a broad nib, an Oldwin Torpedo in arco verde celluloid with a medium nib and a Visconti Opera Master in “turtle” with a stub nib modified to cursive italic and tuned by John Mottishaw. It gives me joy to write with them. I also find that people really appreciate receiving handwritten notes and correspondence written with a fountain pen. Even the mail room personnel at work like to see my handwriting on interoffice envelopes.
posted by slkinsey at 5:53 AM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have a couple of fountain pens but I don't talk about them with anyone. I use them with a Mnemosyne for journaling. The ink dries almost instantly and doesn't bleed through.
posted by tommasz at 6:13 AM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

> Ok pen fanciers, I now seek a cartridgeless fountain pen that writes like a Pilot V5.

Don't sweat the cartridge requirement. Nearly all fountain pens made today use the same cartridge/converter ink system*; manufacturers of the cheaper pens push you towards prefilled cartridges mostly because they presume you want the convenience (and because it helps their bottom line after selling you a pen with a lower margin). This includes the $1.50 Hero 280 (a Lamy Safari knockoff) as well as thousand-dollar limited-edition Viscontis. As long as it takes a cartridge, there's a converter available for $1.50 and up that will allow it to refill from ink bottles, and vice versa.

Anyway, the things to keep in mind are that Asian fountain pens tend to undersize their pen nibs and European fountain pens tend to oversize; a Pilot "Fine" is somewhat equivalent to an "Extra Fine" on a Lamy. A Pilot V5 has a 0.5mm roller ball, so I would suggest looking for an extra-fine-to-fine nib in European or US pens**, or a fine-to-medium nib for Japanese pens ( has a table comparing nib sizes (in mm) across many manufacturers). It's the rare manufacturer that puts a numeric measurement on fountain pen nibs, and that's partly because the lines vary a little from nib to nib and because a nib can be reshaped with a little effort, and because ink flow can also affect the line the pen draws†. JetPens has an excellent explainer with illustrations -- while I've linked directly to the tip size illustration it's worth reading the whole page for a very well-written introduction to fountain pens.

*(albeit in different sizes, so you have to match the converter to the pen. The only pen made today that I've seen with something other than a cartridge or converter is the Hero 616, which is the heir to the classic Parker 51‡ and still uses a bladder.)
**(complicating this rule of thumb is that while Ohto is Japanese and TWSBI is Taiwanese, their pen nibs are manufactured in Germany so nibs tend to err towards European norms (all actual-or-nominally-American pen manufacturers source their nibs from Germany, as far as I've been able to see). Also some companies have different size standards for different product lines; for example some Chinese companies use in-house nibs for their cheap pens and German nibs for their expensive pens.)
†(ball points don't necessarily scale exactly either, because the point housing and type of ink will also affect the line; one variety of 0.5mm ballpoint will be wider than another. So after this excessively verbose comment as well as its recommended reading material, your final takeaway should probably be that you should still expect to have to experiment a little if you want a very close match.)
‡(trivia time! You can find a lot of people online sniping about the Hero 616 for being a knockoff of the Parker 51, which isn't true. Parker sold their fountain pen manufacturing equipment -- including dies -- to the company that later became Hero, so for decades (dies eventually wear out and are replaced) the 616 was a Chinese-made Parker 51, and continues to be a legitimate descendent of the original. They're still excellent pens for their sub-$2 pricetag (10 for $10.50 if you order direct from China), although they're not ideal for beginners; conventional wisdom is to buy a bunch at a time and test carefully because quality control isn't great -- a couple in each batch are likely to be too faulty to use, unless you want to learn how to repair them.)
posted by ardgedee at 8:04 AM on September 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

I’ve only thrown away 2 empty Bic pens in my life. The other 500 of them are with the guitar picks and unmatched socks.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:29 AM on September 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

The disposable Erasermates were pretty cool... If you popped the tip off just right, all the ink would flow out. Much fun for an eighth grader.
posted by Jacen at 9:31 AM on September 13, 2020

I find it fascinating that the price of a basic Bic pen when it was introduced and the price today (at least if you buy them in boxes) is basically the same. ,

When my kids were very small, they used to often get a Matchbox car when we went grocery shopping. They cost a dollar. I observed to my mom that they must have cost very little when my brother and I were kids; she said no, they cost about a dollar, but it was a lot more money in those days.
posted by Orlop at 9:46 AM on September 13, 2020

@hippybear – at my secondary school in the UK during the Seventies, all pupils were expected to use cartridge pens. Fountain pens were messy to refill, even if nobody grabbed the Quink bottle and emptied it over your shirt. Each Christmas I could expect to receive from aunties at least three cheap cartridge pens with nibs like tin foil.

(Work completed in ballpoint pen would be deemed 'illegible' and rejected by the teachers.)
posted by MinPin at 11:58 AM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have always liked fountain pens, but over the past few decades my computer writing grew and paper writing dwindled. When we all went home into isolation in March I decided to start a journal and of course I needed a fountain pen or two for that. All of my old fountain pens were at work drying out and unobtainable. Some of the pen retailers were closed but Jet Pens came through. Along the way my old pen habit has come back and I have discovered the great PennBBS and Moonman pens from China. I mostly used blue and black ink cartridges at work to avoid inky fingers, but at home I am finding joy in many different color inks, some with great shading or different color sheens. If any fountain pen ink junkies are reading my new find is Tono & Lims No. 10, a lovely shading light burgundy red ink.

Nice job on this post Jessamyn. I particularly like the Foley's link.
posted by caddis at 5:24 PM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I got into fountain pens for a while, and did refillable ones, but at one point I picked up a cheap Kaweco Sport at a bookstore, and found that the size and shape is perfect for that "always next to my keys" pocket. I got one of the more durable aluminium varieties at KaDeWe while on a business trip in Berlin, and haven't lost it since. Everyone knows it's my pen, I refill it from cartridges (I type looking forlornly at the gorgeous bottles of Akkerman ink in a cabinet across the room), and I even have a little case to hold more.

So when someone asks "Say, do you have a pen?" I always answer "Well yes but, uh..." and start unscrewing it while mumbling "Don't press down, OK?"
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 9:21 AM on September 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nice pens are like nice notebooks: you need to get over the nagging feeling that your handwriting isn't good enough or your thoughts not profound enough and just use them. Go on!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 9:26 AM on September 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

So when someone asks "Say, do you have a pen?" I always answer "Well yes but, uh..." and start unscrewing it while mumbling "Don't press down, OK?"

Just lie and say no, you don't have a pen. No one needs to use your fountain pen.

I learned this the hard way. Fortunately, at work, I always have many other pens to lend people - and now I just don't go anywhere.
posted by jb at 12:36 PM on September 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have also been carrying the same aluminum Kaweko Sport fountain pen in my pocket for 4 years. Never had a leak, never had a dry start, I only refill it once every few weeks, and I can use all kinds of interesting inks. It takes Pelikan cartridges, which can be washed and refilled many many times.

The only similarly comfortable pen to carry in my pants pocket was a brass fisher space pen, but the writing experience is way better with a fountain pen.

At home my favorites are a Sailor music nib, in white and gold, and a flex nib Pilot that was very expensive, but it sparks infinite joy when the nib flexes just right and one can see the spreading film of ink being deposited into the paper in a perfect dance of surface tension and capillarity.
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:29 PM on September 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I recommend taking a look at Noodler's inks and pens. I do love some of their inks, although some can stain fine pens. They have innks with great colors, shading and sheen, very inexpensive. I am running out of Apache Sunset at the moment and will have to move on to Black Swan in English Roses.

Their flexible nib pens are inexpensive, look good, and are well built, but they are for tinkerers. If you don't mind stained fingers, wasted ink, and having to adjust nib and feed for different inks and papers, they give great results for a fraction of the price of a Japanese or German flex nib.

They offer fraud proof inks with interesting characteristics, and "variable composition" inks where each bottle has a unique proportion of ingredients that "enables most of our inks to be unique in a forensics lab on a per bottle basis". The owner also tends to go into long rants about the competition.

I don't have enough context to figure out if there is a consistent message, but the choice of ink names gives me a weird feeling of complicated politics, some kind of patriotism or military fetishism I can't figure out, maybe I am just seeing patterns where there are none.

Names like Apache Sunset, Antietam, Operation Overlord, Mandalay Maroon, Purple Wampum, Burma Road Brown, Bernanke Blue (the bottle has a little poem about Broad and Wall street and the future price of ink being in the quintillion dollars), House Divided, American Aristocracy, etc...
posted by Dr. Curare at 3:09 PM on September 14, 2020

(the bottle has a little poem about Broad and Wall street and the future price of ink being in the quintillion dollars), House Divided, American Aristocracy, etc...

He's telling you the ink is highly toxic, probably in the main because of heavy metals, including chromium, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and uranium. At least with Noodler ink you will be able to quite literally write poison pen letters.

I was a little shocked when I looked around for support for my guess about Noodler to find out that tattoo inks have used heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury for a long time, and that it was only recently that they were required to be labeled (the discussion was in a 2007 Scientific American article) and I saw a 2017 NCBI article about cases of mercury poisoning from tattoo removal due to the fact that some techniques of removal flush the ink through the system. There was also a reference to burning sensations during MRIs because of metal particles in some tattoos, but this seemed to be rare.

It occurred to me though that before antibiotics arrived on the scene after WWII, syphilis raged around the world for hundreds of years with few available treatments other than heavy metals, and in those days mercury-bearing red tattoo ink may have been more of a feature than a bug. I wonder whether people – I was thinking sailors, but no insult to the profession is intended – ever considered tattoos medicinal, or if it was an unconscious adaptation.
posted by jamjam at 3:35 AM on September 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Just lie and say no, you don't have a pen. No one needs to use your fountain pen.
It helps that I am in the UK, where everyone did a module on fountain pen handwriting during KS3. Most people see the nib and either go "Oh yes, fountain pens: I remember this." or "Oh no way am I getting ink on my hands again!"

I would just say I didn't have a pen if I were back in the states.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:38 AM on September 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

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