It’s a dangerous notion anytime you hear someone talking about something that is the best. Mostly, because ‘the best’ comes with a truckload of opinion and a boatload of qualifiers. But, this last Memorial Day weekend I found myself discussing which was the best type of grilling – gas or charcoal. I found myself in the middle of a heated conversation (pun intended) between two friends, each on different sides of the conversation. The gas grill argument: its quick, efficient and you know that you are getting your meat to the temperature needed to make it safe. And it tastes fine. The charcoal argument: its authentic, tastes better and temperature safety be damned. I didn’t say it was an intellectual conversation, although I do think one of my friends is going to attempt a thesis on it.
It got me to thinking though about the best fountain pens. What are the qualities that folks look for in a fountain pen that make them stand out from others. From my experience, it comes down to the barrel, the nib and the ink. Some will argue that design and aesthetic are equally important (and I agree) but the true pen aficionado could care less about how pretty a pen is and instead concentrate on the feel and writing prowess of individual instruments.
In an attempt to get those who are not yet pen experts to think about fountain pens in a more in-depth nature, I’ll attempt to briefly speak to the these three attributes.
The barrel or body of a fountain pen is the bulk of the writing instrument. The barrel at best is mundane. If it were a human it would be skin and bone, muscle and tissue. It’s an empty vessel meant to house the heart and soul of a fountain pen and over the years it has evolved to do this job well. Barrels now come in as many shapes and sizes as there are stars in the sky. Many people prefer a moderately heavy barrel that has a decent heft. This may be because the weight gives the pen a sense of worth. But, in some way the weight of the pen gives weight to the words. That might be a bit to romantic. Regardless, grasping onto a full bodied Montblanc fountain pen and scrawling an inspirational piece just feels better when you have something that you can really hold onto. In my opinion, best pens have weight.
This is hard for me to talk about. Nibs are the soul of a fountain pen. The various makes and designs of nibs are many, but they all have the same basic makeup – two splines meeting in a point to transfer ink to the page. But, of course, over the years nibs have been transformed into a centerpiece of the fountain pen experience. Before where there was only a nib, now there are many. Now when we speak of nibs we must talk about the tip, the tines, the shoulders, the body and the tail. I’m sure I’m missing some identifiers. The idea though is that all these pieces of the nib contribute to some aspect of how it transfers ink to the page. Many people like to have a medium nib (generally speaking) that can transfer ink to the page in an even, but full line. The nib should have a flex, but not be unruly. It should be responsive enough to take commands from the writer, but still maintain it’s own course and deliver appropriately when the users stroke and pressure vary as is common. To each individual writer a nib is their connection to the page, but for me a nib should flex, but also be strong enough to stand it’s own ground.
The heart of every fountain pen is the Ink. Most inks for fountain pens are water based with dye. This is because the use of pigment, as with other inks, introduces particles, which could clog and ruin the nib. But, there are many dye based colors that you can choose from, which is one of the great advantages of using a fountain pen. In this day and age you can get just about any color under the rainbow to put inside your fountain pen of choice. And, its not only the color that are options of choice, but the type of ink as well. Many true pen enthusiasts seek out old formulas of ink that contain certain metals and dyes in order to transfer the texture and physical presence of their words to the page.
So where does all this leave me, in my opinion, in accounting for the best fountain pen? Simple. If I had my druthers I’d choose the Montblanc Starwalker Black Mystery Fountain Pen as the best fountain pen. But then again, I’m more of an aesthetic guy myself. How about you?