How bad can a £2 fountain pen be?

TL;DR: Terrible!!

I have seen and read several reviews, of inexpensive “student” pens that perform extremely well for their price point, even compared with much more expensive “proper” fountain pens. My own personal experiences with cheap Chinese pens in the £5-£25 range have mostly been excellent. Perfectly usable, robust pens that do the job, even if their nibs are not much to write home about, and some of their plastics are not designed to decorate your mantlepiece.

So when I spotted this £2 fountain pen in my local Sainsbury’s, I had to try it out and see how usable it was. It’s part of the Sainsbury’s “HOME” range, which includes a range of basic stationery consumables such as notebooks, printer paper, pens, glue, etc.

The pen design is clearly based on the later Sheaffer No Nonsense pens, with the clip-on cap and the rubberized grip section, which have been very successful budget school and calligraphy fountain pens. Unfortunately, the overall pen shape is pretty much where the similarity ends.

The nib itself looks quite attractive, and the feed looks solid.

Although the shape is different, looking at the nib reminded me very much of the way Lamy nibs are set, so I tried to see if it is removable. Sure enough, it did slide off quite easily from the feed (I’m not sure if that is necessarily a positive feature for school pens, but let’s ignore that for the moment), to reveal a very unorthodox feed mechanism. Normal fountain pen nibs are base on capillary action to raw ink from the ink repository to the nib. This pen uses a wick!

I am assuming that the idea is that the wick will draw ink from the cartridge (in pretty much the same way that a methylated spirit burner draws liquid), and being in contact with the nib close to the tip, the nib’s capillary action will take care of transferring ink from the wick to the paper. I don’t know if this is cheaper to manufacture than a standard plastic feed, but it is an interesting idea nonetheless.

Time to try the pen. The blister pack comes with four black small international standard cartridges, so I picked one and tried to fit in the pen. It sits securely in the section, but however hard I tried, it proved impossible to pierce! I tried a different one, same result. I tried putting a second cartridge in the barrel to first the first one in, but the barrel is so large that the second one just floats in it. Measuring the cartridge it appears that whilst the external dimensions of the cartridge are correct (4.5mm) the internal diameter of the hole is slightly smaller (2.4mm, consistent with international cartridge converters) than most standard small cartridges (3.0-3.5mm). Also the plastic is quite hard and does not have any “stretch”. The net result is that the cartridges supplied with the pen, do not fit the pen!

I expect that, at this point, most of these pens will find the way to the rubbish bin, with an exclamation of “oh well, that was a waste of 2 quid…”. However, I was determined to see if it works. I replaced the cartridge with a standard J.Herbin cartridge I happened to have around and, sure enough, it fitted well and pierced straight away. I then had to wait patiently for the wick to do its magic, and get ink to the nib. Actually, I gave up waiting. I let the pen be and only came back to it a few hours later, by which point I could see that the tip of the wick had gone dark, so I assume it was saturated with ink.

It took a bit of effort to get the ink to flow through the nib and, when it did, it only produced a very thin, skipping, scratchy line. Thiner than a typical EF, and very very dry.

I tried pushing the tines hard to force some ink flow increase, and also tried smoothing the nib a bit with some micro-mesh (you know, as you would expect the average school kid, would do to improve their new pen flow…). I got it to the point that it would write adequately, but it was still a laboured experience.

I have to admit that I did not do a whole lot of writing. I wasn’t exactly inspired… I left the pen and returned to it a few days later to give it another try. Nada! Zip! Nothing! No matter how hard I tried, I could not get the ink flow to start.

I suspected that the ink had dried on the wick (why wouldn’t it? that’s what we expect it to do on paper when exposed to air…), so I ran the nib and feed under the tap for a few seconds, waited about half a minute, and sure enough the pen started writing again.

Conclusion

This pen is just terrible. It’s everything you don’t want a fountain pen to be: difficult to use, unreliable, scratchy, bothersome. But it only costs £2, so who cares? Actually, I do! And I would implore #Sainsburys to remove it from their stock, until the issues have been fixed. If I was a kid and I was given this pen to use, the experience would scar me for life. If this is what my first experience with a fountain pen is like, I would not want to go near a fountain pen again. Give me a Bic ballpoint anytime!

Fountain pens are some of the finest writing instruments ever produced. Kudos for trying to bring them to the masses with an affordable entry point budget pen. But this is NOT the way to do it!

Is it a pen? Is it a plane? No, it’s a… thingy

(with apologies to René Magritte)

What is it?

I came across these pens while browsing on eBay and, at the princely sum of £2.33 each including delivery from China, I decided it was worth a look. If only just to experiment with it. So I bought both the F and the EF versions available.

So let’s start with the obvious: It’s an un-branded, Lamy Safari demonstrator look-alike. That is not too surprising, there are dozens of Chinese cheap copies of the Lamy Safari. As far as copies go, this is actually quite a nice one.

As with all Safari-style fountain pens, you get the cap with the metal paperclip on the outside and a sealing inner-cap on the inside, you get a barrel with a couple of ink-viewing cutouts (never understood the point of those in a clear demonstrator but hey, if Lamy has the holes so should the lookalike), you get a piston converter for your favourite inks, and you get a transparent section with a recessed grip and a finned ink feed. So far so good.

What you don’t get, however, is a traditional nib! the feed continues and ends up into a ballpoint. Or, technically, a rollerball (more on name-calling later in the post).

Does it work?

Yes it does! I started by loading the converter with Diamine Oxblood, one of my most well behaved inks, on the 0.38mm EF section. I was expecting that it will take a while for the feed to get saturated before it starts working but, to my surprise, it wrote instantly! And it wrote well, with a juicy wet flow. And it wrote instantly every time I picked it up. And I deliberately left it uncapped for 20 minutes to see what it will do and guess what? It still wrote instantly, just as a ballpoint does.

Time for a stronger challenge. I loaded up the 0.5mm F one with KWZ Sheen Machine. One of my worse behaving inks. It’s beautiful on the paper, but a nightmare on nibs. (Not to mention that I have never managed to load a pen without getting ink all over my fingers, what is it with that ink?). It worked absolutely fine. The sheen does not lend itself to F and EF, it really needs a M or B to show properly, but it’s there if you look for it. And of course it’s much drier flow than the Diamine. However, the pen wrote quickly and every time, without any issues of drying up. Success!

The only issue I do have, is that I don’t see much difference in thickness between the F and the EF. Compared to my fineliners (which is my usual test), they both are thinner lines than a standard EF, and not much to separate them from each other. Perhaps if they were both loaded with the same ink the difference may have been different.

As the ink is in the cartridge and can’t be eye-droppered, there is little point in being a clear demonstrator, as you can barely see what ink you have in the pen. To be fair though, I find that issue with most demonstrator pens that use a converter, and this pen is no different.

Interestingly, however, the shape of the 0.5 tip is shaped as a technical pen tip, rather than as a ballpoint, even though it still has a ball tip. Easier to use with a ruler, so even more brownie points for flexibility.

I have not yet tried to clean the pens, as I want to write a bit more with them, but I will update here once I know more. Interestingly, the converters do unscrew and come apart for cleaning, so that is definitely a bonus!

Is this a fountain pen?

There has been a big debate in the past, to determine what exactly IS a fountain pen, and which pens can actually be classed as fountain pens, and which not. Stylographs, for example, the pre-cursors to the modern day Rötring and Steadtler technical pens, are included in most fountain pen history books [such as Andreas Lambrou’s “Fountain Pens vintage and modern”], as well as fountain pen repair guides [such as Jim Marshall’s and Laurence Oldfield’s “Pen Repair”]. So have been fountain pens with glass nibs. They are a fundamental part of the evolution of the modern fountain pen. My preferred definition of a fountain pen is a writing device that uses a container of re-fillable liquid ink which it prevents from evaporating, with a writing point that allows the ink to be transferred, when in contact with paper.

Based on this definition, ballpoints and rollerballs are not fountain pens, because the ink container and the writing point are all-in-one refills, so I can’t clean them out and refill them with my favourite ink, whenever I want. By the same token, a Montblanc with a glass nib, or a Conway Stewart stylograph with a needle-point, are very much fountain pens.

This pen also fits the fountain pen definition. It does use a rolling ball rather than tines to transfer the ink to paper, but in every other way it allows me to use it as I would use any other fountain pen. And unlike having an open nib, it will not let the ink dry at the tip, so I can use it reliably with my most challenging inks. And it comes in a choice of tip widths (F-0.5mm and EF-0.3mm). So I’m happy to declare this thing a fountain pen and not feel guilty using it. I only wish it would come in a Medium or Broad so that I can take advantage of it with fancier inks.

Parker Slimfold – Same but different!

I was tidying up some pens last night, and between them were a few Parker Slimfolds.

The Slimfolds were the runt of the Duofold litter, but they are fascinating pens: Small, affordable, reliable, easy to clean and service. A great introduction to vintage pens.

There are several articles that cover the history of Slimfolds, but last night I noticed something that was unusual and I have not seen covered elsewhere: There different “generations” of the original Slimfolds!

The easiest way to spot the difference are the clips. One (I believe the later one) has a shorter clip with tapered feather section on the arrow. The other is a bit longer and the feather section is more rectangular

The next difference is in the cap band. They both have the same chevron pattern, but the newer band has a bit of a “lip” at the top and bottom, which the older one does not seem to have.

Next difference, still on the cap, is the breather holes. The later pen has only one breather hole towards the top of the cap. The older one has two breather holes opposite each other, much further down the cap. Usually, you’ll find one of the breather holes hidden under the clip.

Moving to the barrel, the main distinction is the imprint. The earlier pen has Parker and Slimfold printed on separate lines followed by “Made in England”. The newer pen has the Parker logo and “Parker Slimfold” on a single line. The earlier pen also has a year stamp (“6” in this example, denoting 1956). The newer barrel is not dated.

There is a slight difference in the colouring of the plastic, which is very difficult to see in the pictures. The earlier pen is a bit brighter overall, the newer pen is a bit darker. This only seems to apply to the red ones though, as far as I have seen.

And just so that you don’t think this peculiarity is only relevant to the red slimfold, here is a similar pair of caps in green.