Thursday, October 13, 2011

How Did I Start

A fellow NaNo participant just read about my plans, and sent me a "NaNo mail" (a private message on the NaNo site) to ask a few questions. I started to reply to him, then it occurred to me that if one person was wondering, there were probably others who would like to know the answers to the same questions. He wanted to know how in the world I ever got into collecting fountain pens, what the benefits are, and if I use them for everyday writing or just keep some that are never used. I plan on breaking my answers to those questions up into two posts.

I started using fountain pens when I was still in school. I bought a cheap Sheaffer "school pen" and was hooked. They require little to no pressure to write with, so they're easy on your hands, and with the right pen the experience is nothing like writing with even the best rollerballs. At the time (the 1970s) good rollerballs didn't exist, so the experience stood out even more for me. For a while I stuck with Sheaffers; I did try one other fountain pen I found in the store, a Wearever, but that experience convinced me Sheaffers were the only ones worth using. My first "real" pen, which I bought about the time I got out of school, was a stainless steel Targa.

Over time, I bought a few Targas, one or two just to keep in different places, several with different nib types and sizes, and one or two more in different colours. Gradually, I tried a few other pens I found here and there, and discovered Pelikans. Pelikan is a German company and their pens are piston fillers that write very nicely, especially the pre-1997 models. I was tired of needing to change cartridges often while I was writing, and a piston filler will hold more ink, enough to last a full day of hard writing. Depending on the nib, it may last several days. So I stopped using my Targas for the most part, and bought a few Pelikans for regular use. I even saved up enough money to get a Pelikan Toledo, a heavy, expensive replica of the original from the 1930s; the first such replica they ever made, as far as I know.

It has never occurred to me to not use my pens. Some pens may see much less use than others, depending on what I want to use them for and how my tastes and preferences develop. As I already mentioned, I haven't used my Targas much since discovering the joys of pens that use bottled ink. (Although, as some of you may already know, the Targa can also use bottled ink by inserting the optional squeeze filling converter, but I find those too small and inconvenient to use often.) But I have never bought a single pen with the intention of keeping it untouched. Even the mighty Toledo got its first drink of ink soon after it arrived, although, again, it isn't a pen I use everyday.

Once I began spending time on the internet, I was able to learn more about odd fountain pens I'd never heard of before, and I started a habit of picking up different pens just to see what they were like. I bought a couple of Wality pens, very inexpensive Indian fountain pens that aren't made of as durable materials as the more costly makes, but that work surprisingly well. And I like having cheap pens on hand, that I will be less likely to mind losing if anything happens to them. When I want to go somewhere there might be a risk of losing them, I can take one of those, and not one of my better pens. Although, that said, I tend to grow attached to all my pens, and keep a careful enough eye on them I haven't lost one since I got out of school.

So far, I was still stuck in the belief that vintage pens were "too much trouble". Then a friend who loved fountain pens died, and I inherited several of his pens, all thirty years old or more. One was a Parker Senior Duofold from about 1930. Those pens sparked my interest in vintage pens, and I made some amazing discoveries. A basic Sheaffer pen from about 1960 wrote as smoothly as a much more expensive pen today; I'm sure of this because I've bought several of the Imperial II Deluxe model with the Touchdown filler, all new old stock, and they all write this well. These aren't pens that have been 'tuned' or tweaked by a nibwright, either.

I spent more than twice as much for one pen, 'set up' by a nibmeister, than I paid for all three of the Sheaffer Imperials I own, and they write as well as the more expensive, specially set up pen. This isn't the nibmeister's fault; anyone who works with pens is forced to work with whatever the manufacturers give them. But I mention this to illustrate what an eye opener my experience of vintage pens has been. And they are amazingly sturdy; there is a story of an Onoto that was onboard a ship sunk by the Germans during World War One, and that pen lay in the wreck on the sea floor until it was recovered in the 1990s. With no more restoration work than you might have to do on any pen of that age, it was restored to working condition.

One of the joys of trying out so many pens is that every make, every model, has its own personality. Not only that, but each individual pen develops its own characteristics. In this way, fountain pens are a lot like guitars. I'm not a musician, but I know a few guitarists, and I know that every guitar is a bit different. In the same way, every single fountain pen has a 'personality', and there is nothing like discovering a real beauty. It is true I haven't yet used every pen I now own; I've bought a few that I haven't had the chance to ink up yet, since I try not to keep too many inked at one time. But the whole point, to me, of owning a pen is to use it. There are collectors who buy pens that are decades old but have never yet been inked, and put them away in display cases to be admired, but I personally find that sad.

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