Buying a New Pen: Some Decision-Making Tools

So, let’s pretend that I’m in the market for a nice, new fountain pen. It’s a stretch of the imagination I know, but stay with me. I am going to imagine that I have done a little homework, read a few reviews, and fixed a budget of somewhere around the $220–$240 CAD price-point.

So it’s not an impulse buy, but I won’t be trying to sell any of the cats either.

I know that I like nibs that give a nice line variation, to make my hand-writing look a little less scruffy, and that I usually opt for italicized stub nibs as a result. However, on this occasion, I’ll be looking for something a little finer. So, I’m also going to assume that a bit of homework has been done, and that I have narrowed down my selection to a few nib types, and their associated models of pen.

So, with a shortlist of candidates at my fingertips, and sitting in my office in rural Canada, many, many miles from my nearest specialist stationery store, I have some questions I would like answered before I make the final decision. What kind of line do these nibs make? How do those lines compare with each other? I like fairly large pens, so how much bigger/smaller are the pens on my shortlist, in comparison to each other? Or some of my other favorite pens? Well, obviously heading over to your favorite brick and mortar store, and trying these things in your hands is by far the best answer, but Toronto is almost four hours away, and the journey alone would add another hundred bucks to the price of my pen. But not to worry, there are some amazing tools out there for you to play with… er, I mean of course, for you to use to come to an informed decision on how best to spend your money.

Yeah, of course, that’s exactly what I meant. I don’t spend hours playing with this stuff at all.

The Goulet Pen Company: Pen Plaza

First-off, I don’t know anybody in the fountain pen community that hasn’t found their way to the web site of The Goulet Pen Company in the US at some stage. But their web site is so much more than just a place to buy your stationery. Visit the site, go surfing their blog, videos, and other resources. These guys have put some serious time and effort into this site. Take, for instance, the first of the two sections I’ll be looking at here, Pen Plaza.

This is a tool that allows you to select a shortlist of pens from a great library of top quality images of some of the best fountain pens available. You can arrange them side by side, so that they can be directly compared for size and design. Pens are pictured, closed, posted, and open, so that you can compare each model in the way you prefer to use your pen.

So far, I’ve narrowed my search to two Pilot models, the Custom 74 in black and gold, with a soft-fine (SF) nib in 14K gold, and the Pilot Falcon in black and gold, with the SF 14K gold nib. So let’s take a look at how these can be viewed in the Pen Comparison Tool. I’d like to know how their size and dimensions compare to each other, and to some of the other pens in my collection. So let’s throw a few into the mix, to give me an idea of how the Pilots compare…

Goulet’s pen comparison tool shows me that both are a little larger than the Platinum 3776 and the Sailor 1911L, but not quite up there with the Edison Collier, the TWSBI Diamond 580AL, or the rather large Lami Aion. That’s fine by me, I like the larger pens, but the Pilots are still a pretty good size, and by no means would they be the smallest in my pen case. I rarely write with my pens posted, and their length when capped is not really that relevant to me, so this graphic puts things into perspective extremely well.

Also, just as an aside, I have to say again how this tool is really something special. It is incredibly user-friendly, it does what it sets out to do quickly, efficiently, and ties in to the rest of the web site (e.g., purchasing) without a flaw. Both technically, and from a customer service perspective, these guys deserve some serious praise for the Pen Plaza.

What’s Available?

So now I have to know what’s available—colors, nib sizes, materials—whatever my preferences lean toward. As a Canadian customer, looking for a supplier local to me, I’m going to head to the main port-of-call for anybody making this sort of purchase online in Ontario, the wonderful, Wonder Pens. There are, of course other good pen and stationery stores in Canada, even one or two with a good online retail presence, but not in Ontario, and nobody I’ve found in Canada is (in my humble opinion) as good as these guys…

Their web site tells me that both of the models of pen I’m looking at are available with SF 14K gold nibs, as well as soft medium (SM) 14K gold nibs. So now I ask myself, given that I usually write with the far wider 1.1mm stubs, what would be the difference between the line made by a 1.1mm stub, the SF and SM in the Falcon and the Custom 74?

Let’s head back to the Goulet Pen Company.

The Goulet Pen Company: The Nib Nook

Goulet’s Nib Nook does for nib sizes and writing samples, what the Pen Plaza does for pen sizes and designs. Do you want to compare the output of a Pelikan M805 broad nib, with a Visconti Homo Sapiens Dark Age broad? Or two music nibs? Then this is the place to do just that…

The Nib Nook works just like the pen comparison tool; simply pick a pen brand and model, then the nib size (extra-fine, fine, medium, broad, 1.1mm and so on), and the comparison tool will show you a standardized writing sample for each pen and nib combination.

Once you’ve got your shortlist displayed, you can even drag and drop the writing samples into the order you’d prefer. For example, you might want all of the SF nib samples together for an easier, top-down comparison…

From the graphic above, it’s easy to see that the SF nib on the Pilot (Namiki) Falcon produces a more generous line than the F nib on the Custom 74, or the SF on the Custom 912.

The more I look at that sample from the Falcon, the more I like it.

There’s No Such Thing As A Dumb Question If You Don’t Know The Answer

I’ve used a number of Pilot fountain pens in the past, some very expensive, some not so much. But the one thing that I’ve noticed about them (and you’d be hard-pressed not to), is that great big, silver, nib size sticker on the barrel, and that worries me. You must be able to peel it off right? But what if it leaves a mark? I can’t imagine that it would, but I should ask somebody that knows. Somebody whose opinion I know and trust. So I turned to Laura of Fountain Pen Follies, who I knew had recently reviewed the Custom 74, and is an ever-helpful font of fountain pen wisdom…

If you have a question, ask around. The fountain pen and stationery community is one of the most helpful and friendly I have ever met. And, of the tools I’ve discussed in this post, it’s the community that is the most valuable, sure you can sit and play with Goulets fun tools for hours on end, but who else could ever tell you where to stick those labels?

So, Have I Made a Decision?

Well, all this was just pretense wasn’t it? I wasn’t really in the market for another fountain pen…

And if you believe that, then there’s a large tower in the middle of Paris I’d like to sell you.

My decision-making tools have pointed to two pens that are well-liked by many, but the soft-fine nib of the Falcon and (I am assuming of the the Custom 74 also), seem to have a lot of online reviewers swearing at them

I don’t really see the use of a “soft” nib. If I can’t get line variation out of it, I think I’d rather just have a nib that will perform well, be as smooth as butter, and not require such special handling. But this weird in-between “soft” nib is just a pain in the rear for the way I write. A pain in the rear that, as you will see in the video, causes the pen to hard start and skip.
Pen Review: Namiki (Pilot) Falcon Acrylic
Matt, Pen Habit, December 29, 2013

This soft fine nib was anything but soft for me. The first thing I noticed when I wrote with it was that it is SCRATCHY.
ugh!
I just paid $150 for a scratchy pen that I now own!
It’s so much easier to review a scratchy pen when you are just borrowing them from a manufacturer. It’s so much harder when you’ve spent your hard earned money on a pen that disappoints you.
Namiki Pilot Falcon Soft-Fine Review 
Jennifer, Best Fountain Pen, Dec 2, 2015

The frustration I experienced as I tried to keep on writing cannot be described in words. (Well it could, but then I’d have to censor everything past this point) After that first day, it has been sitting in my drawer collecting dust until I dug it up for this review. Even as I was making the handwritten review, I was running into problems…
Pilot Falcon SF Review 
The Passionate Penman, August 11, 2014

…rather than by them. Now, I’m sure that both of these pens, with regular Pilot fine, medium, or broad nibs, are going to be great writers; but it was the soft-fine nib, and the line variation that some seem to be able coax from it, that really interested me.

So the online tools have still managed to leave me in a bit of a quandary. A quandary which, I think can only be resolved by putting these pens in my hand and trying them out in person. There you have it, these software tools may be great—and they are the best I have ever encountered—but nothing can really beat having a pen in your hand.

I suppose, if I had been looking simply for a standard nib type, there wouldn’t have been much of a choice, I would simply have opted for my favorite size. But it’s this subjective, deeply personal aspect of using a fountain pen that both fascinates me, and keeps me seeking out new nibs and new variations. To broadly go where no one has gone… sorry, getting my nerd-lines crossed a  bit there.

All the same, I should be visiting Toronto in a few weeks. I’ll let you know how things progress. Meanwhile, if anybody has anything to add about Pilot’s soft-fine offerings for the Falcon, and the Custom 74, please comment below; I’d love to hear some personal experiences.

8 thoughts on “Buying a New Pen: Some Decision-Making Tools

  1. This is so true: “these software tools may be great—and they are the best I have ever encountered—but nothing can really beat having a pen in your hand.”

    I learned this the hard way, unfortunately. And yes, you may pay more to go check a pen in person, or to go to a pen show, and maybe even by buying it in a store. But you will save money in the long run, by avoiding pens that aren’t right for you.

    By the way, I am no expert, but I’ve owned the Pilot Metal Falcon, and I do not believe that is the same nib as the Pilot Custom 74 soft nib. The Falcon is designed to be flexy, while I believe that the SF used on the Custom 74 is designed to just be soft, not flexy. I have used an SF nib on a Platinum, and it wasn’t like the Pilot Falcon fine nib. Going back to just Pilots, the Falcon nib even looks different than the Custom 74 nib — I’m sure of that.

    I hope you have a great time on your shopping trip!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the advice! Yes, the Falcon nib looks completely different from, well, almost anything else really. I just imagined that it might, being a Pilot SF, perform like the Pilot SF on the Custom 74. Wishful thinking I suppose 🙂 I was erring toward the 74 anyway… time for a shopping trip (and they’re always fun).

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  2. I have a Custom 91 with the SF nib, which I think would be the same as in the Custom 74. I haven’t tried the FA for comparison. The SF is suitably bouncy and you can get a bit of line variation, but it’s nothing like as flexible as the nib on my ancient (1920s) Onoto. I get the impression that the FA is softer than the SF, but still not a true flex nib. As a left-hander, not having too much flex suits me as I have to push the nib across the page rather than pull it. The SF is nice to write with, but, as you might expect, it takes a while to get used to when switching from anything with a very rigid nib. Not sure if that helps, but it’s my 2 cents worth.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is helpful, thanks. I had thought about the 91, but it’s not stocked by Canadian suppliers very often, hence the 74 and the Falcon. And yes, vintage flex simply cannot be beaten. Thanks for your 2 cents!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, the “direct from Japan” route is attractive. I’ve picked up a Platinum 3776 that way–at a fraction of the Canadian cost–and the choice of colors and nib sizes is often better. It’s just such a loooong wait. I’m one of those people that wants an instantaneous transport of the pen, as soon as I hit “submit” on my shopping cart.

        Liked by 1 person

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