Brian Northgrave

There are many reasons for collecting fountain pens.

One, is the aesthetics. Pens can be beautiful in several ways, including the design of the different elements - nib, feeder, the shape of the barrel and cap, as well as the colours and patterns on cap and barrel.

Another reason is to build the value of a collection. The thrill of finding that rare and valuable pen at the back of store or in an estate sale.

New pens are always coming on the market that offer new features and designs. Collecting them, perhaps just buying a new pen every few months gives an impressive collection in no time. And prices will vary from a Chinese pen at just a couple of dollars – and which performs perfectly well – and some jewel-incrusted beauty that weights too much but writes about the same.

Another area of interest are the vintage pens. It is easy to forget in these times of disposable pens and markers that there was a golden age of fountain pens in the first half of the 20th century. It was when you usually had just one pen in your pocket, and perhaps a desk pen. They were cherished and shown off on occasions. There were a great variety of nibs. The materials could be rare and expensive. Gold nibs were common, gold and silver appeared in caps and barrels.

Back then, the technology was such that for a modest investment you could start up a pen manufacturing business. Scores and scores of pen manufacturers appeared around the world. As an example, you can Google a list of fifty or more companies that made pens at one time or another in the USA. But then the ballpoint came along and displaced practically all of them.

If you are interested in fountain pens, and adding to the ones you have, you should consider visiting a pen club if you are fortunate to have one nearby. Fortunately for me, I live in Ottawa where there is the OFPS - the Ottawa Fountain Pen Society.

OFPS members have a wide variety of interests. Some specialize in collecting just one model of pen, say a Parker 51, and report that although they have scores of them, they realize they can never expect to collect an example of all the colours that were used for 51’s. Some will do extensive Internet searches and find rare and expensive models at discounted prices. A benefit of being a pen collector is that there are so many pens that have been made and are being made that you have great scope for expanding your collection, for the excitement of discovering a pen you didn’t know existed, or if you did, you never thought you would find it.

It can be satisfying to concentrate on new pens, and there are always many new ones coming on the market from manufacturers around the world, the USA, Europe, Asia. New and interesting features, for example the Pilot Vanishing Point pen that looks like a ball point that shows the ball point nib when you push down the button at the top. Except that pushing the top button on the Vanishing point shows a fountain pen nib. Costs about $200 Canadian but is attractive and well made - doesn’t even leak when you take it on an aircraft.

There is ample scope if you decide to collect new pens, but also if your interest is in vintage pens. In the last 100 years many, many pens were made, and most of them are still around, somewhere. And the many companies that made them came up with all kinds of designs, using a range of materials. There have always been the “top tier” companies like Pelikan, Mont Blanc, Parker, Waterman and Sheaffer, but there were also the many small companies, many of which were in business only for a few years but made pens that are a pleasure to use now.

But to use them now often requires repairs, understandably if they had been damaged or left at the back of a drawer for 60 or more years. The good news is that many of the repairs are not so difficult to do, and the kit of repair tools is simple and inexpensive. If they are beyond your skills to repair, you may be able to get someone else to do it. As I mention, if you belong to a pen club a fellow member may take on the repair.

I had always been passionate about fountain pens. In school it was the Esterbrook which gave a fidgety, short attention guy like me an excuse each class to take my pen up to the front of the class to fill it. It never needed it but if was a chance to stretch. When I got a job, I bought a Pelikan and used it throughout my career.

Several years ago, something happened that lead me to make Pelikan my top pen choice. When my Pelikan stopped working (it had been unused, full of ink, for too long and no washing out worked) I took it to a store selling top brand pens including Pelikans and was told it would have to be sent somewhere to the US and I would be responsible for the cost of repairs once it was sent back. A few weeks later I was called in and given the pen. How much? Nothing, not even postage. I was astounded, and even more so when I got home and examined the pen closely. No familiar little nick. It was my pen cap, but they had given me a new pen.

But while I loved my Pelikan, I had never thought of collecting pens. The new ones were expensive, and I could only use one at a time anyway. The old ones almost always didn’t work, and who wanted to have a collection of fountain pens that can’t write?

Then, shortly after the Pelikan windfall, I found that I could no longer fill the Sheaffer desk pen that I had for years. I wasn’t optimistic it could be repaired but I decided I had at least to try. Was there some place, hopefully not too far away? It was then, when Googling for a pen repair that I came across the Ottawa Fountain Pen Society and learned that old fountain pens could be repaired.

The idea that an old pen could be repaired changed things for me. Now I didn’t need to walk past that attractive old pen in a flea market. I could stop to examine it to see if perhaps I could repair it if it was a simple job, or if not, whether a fellow member of the OFPS might be able to do it. This unleashed my passion for fountain pens. Five years after attending that first meeting I have collected 250 pens. Many makes from many countries. They range from “worthless” to perhaps two hundred dollars, although more of the former and fewer of the latter.

Every collector has their own criteria. For me, it is not so much the value of the pen since I don’t really care what my collection is worth. What I look for is a vintage pen, a make and model that I haven’t got, or if I do, is it a make that I am fond of. If it cost me $10 or $50, that doesn’t matter so much. Above all, do I think it can be repaired because I want every pen in my collection to write. Has it got an attractive design? What is the filling mechanism (I like the piston fillers, which are almost always German)? What about the nib (often the vintage pens have gold nibs)?

When I get the pen home, I can wash out that ink which may have been there for thirty or more years. And then there is the dual pleasure. First, what can I Google about the pen? I can usually find something on the nib or the barrel of the pen that allows me to find its history, and the history of the pen company. Perhaps the owner’s name is on the pen, and very occasionally I can identify them. One example was a pen made in the US that allowed me to track down the owner, a lady in California who had died there in 1952.

Second, how does the pen write? It is here that the vintage pens stand out, because there is a surprising variety of how they do - more so I find that with newer pens. The newer pen nibs certainly have a full range of thicknesses, from the exceptionally fine Japanese to the broad ones that suit calligraphy. But the vintage? There the variety is a pleasure. How is the flex in the nib? How does it “hold” the paper, what sort of “feel” does it give. Perhaps a bit scratchy, which can be satisfying.

It seems to me that a vintage pen nib can reflect something of the atmosphere of the age it was made. A modern pen, in this age of hurrying to get everything done, can be used to write quickly. A vintage pen, with its flexible nib, and perhaps a slower flow of ink, tends to encourage one to write more slowly, to appreciate the flexibility of the nib, its feel, and to note how it appears on paper.

So, what kind of a vintage collection do I have? An eclectic one – I’ll buy almost any pen that is not already in my collection, and hopefully costs less than $50. And if I like the model, I’ll add to it, within limits. And my collection is one that should be used, at least as much as is reasonable to expect. And I use them. Every morning in retirement I write up my plan for the day, and in the evening a plan for the next day, and that involves an hour or so of writing with a pen. Most of my day is spent at my desk, and there again, a pen is often in my hand.

What pens do I use? There is an old Montblanc desk pen, whose nib I thought would never work, but that a fellow OFPS member managed to repair. It writes beautifully and leaks over my hand only occasionally - but that is why I only use washable ink.

Then there are to pick of the collection – ten pens in a glass at hand. They will change from time to time as I find a new one, I like or decide an existing pen doesn’t really deserve its place. What makes these select pens my favorites?

To begin with, they will all write differently – the feel, the flex, the way the writing appears on the paper. There are emotional links with each of them, a pleasure writing with them. But that is not enough to win a place in the top ten. They have to be able to write whenever I pick them up, right away, even if I haven’t used them for a few weeks. This criterion eliminates quite a number of pens. For example a Parker Dufold I am fond of. And yet it is not a matter of how old the pen is. In the glass there is a chunky octagonal metal pen with one of the old-style push-button fillers. That pen seems happy to write immediately, even after being left for a month.

A final aspect about vintage pen collecting/repairing is where do you get those pens. I have bought old fountain pens on Kijiji, and that worked out. I have not had luck with Ebay although I have often looked there. One problem is the high cost of shipping. I am not sure why you can buy a workable fountain pen for $5 from China including shipping whereas the cost for a pen from the US will include $25 for shipping. Serious collectors from the OFPS club will attend Pen shows where they are able to trade and buy pens. And our club regularly hosts a sale and swap of pens during the monthly meeting. I go to the occasional garage/estate sale but so far no luck. Post-Covid we will travel again, and other members of the OFPS have picked up pens in countries where they are not as prized as they have become here. Good hunting!

Tags: Brian Northgrave