The simple answer is no, but a rash of recent posted lists of sub £/$50 pens and also a chat with a long term unemployed fountain pen enthusiast, did make me wonder about covering this and even looking at some of my cheaper pens. I will also list at the end some other well respected pens which I do not own.
When at work colleagues ask me about my using fountain pens rather than a ballpoint for notes (or even a laptop as I work in IT) they are often shocked at the costs. Not at the fact some of the pens I take to work are worth hundreds of pounds, but more because you can buy a blister pack of gel pens in a supermarket for just a couple of quid. It is the same amongst those of us in the hobby. What is considered cheap to ones may be seen as a lot to another. I remember feeling guilty the first time I bought a pen for £100, thinking I would never do it again, how times have changed. My present situation and perspective allow me to be in this position.
I’m happy to explain to others that beyond the way the nib feels and lets the ink flow (I include the tipping with this) plus how comfortable the pen is to hold, are the key things of thee writing experience. Beyond that you get subtle differences and then more exotic materials at which point fountain pens become working art. Sure facets on hand turned pens (on such pens as the OMAS Paragon or ScriBo Feel) take time and add to the cost, but there are injection moulded pens out there that can feel just as comfortable.
I will now cover a number of ‘low’ end pens I personally own. All of these can be bought for under £40 in the UK, out of the seven, over half can be got for under £20 and three of them for under £15.
Lamy Safari – £16-£20
The first pen for so many people. Originally designed with children in mind, the Safari has become a timeless icon. Sure as a result Lamy are considered to be a low end pen manufacturer, resulting in their high end pens being overlooked, but this 39 year old design is still very popular with many coloured variants being available and the annual limited editions costing no more (we’ll leave the regional special editions out of this piece).
Holding the pen, the first thing you note is either a great amount of comfort or of discomfort, for the grip is almost triangular in nature forcing a tripod grip. It was originally designed to teach kids how to hold a pen and write after all. Many do not like the Safari as a result, but the fact that many other manufacturers have copied this says a lot, and not just for children pens, after all OMAS had a great deal of success with their 360 range.
Material wise, the Safari is near indestructible – note I did say near, but it will take a pounding. Be careful at attempting to test this on an old one though, the original versions are now worth a lot of money.
The nib is the standard Lamy steel unit, meaning a large range of choices, plus the ability to easily swap around – though consensus is not to do this too often else the nib will sit loose and move around or even slide off.
The design has been so successful that there are whole set of models based upon it including the Vista, Al-Star, ABC, Nexx, and LX.
Lamy Al-Star – £24-£28
Not much more to say about the Al-Star over the Safari aside from it having an aluminium barrel and a transparent grip. One difference is the ring between grip and barrel is on the latter, meaning grip sections can not be swapped between the two models. Some people prefer this version, feeling it is a more serious/complete pen.
Pelikan Pelikano – £12-£20
There have been multiple versions of the Pelikano, and it is not even the cheapest fountain pen Pelikan produce. The version I have comes in at the princely sum of £13.
Holding the pen and you can guess where the influence has come from and also who the target market is. The grip section is triangular in nature, being another pen to enforce the tripod grip. The grip is covered in rubber, making it slightly more comfortable than on the Lamy pens, however this is a fixed overlay and as such may pull away with heavy usage. Almost certain a lot of heavy usage.
Material wise it feels a solid pen that could be thrown about.
Nib wise, it is almost as if Pelikan have just tried to clone a Safari has a very similar shape, as well as feed. Depending on the version, the range of nibs available is small, and with my pen the options are just M and A – the latter being a ball tipping to allow the pen to be used at far greater angles that normal fountain pens – as part of the learning experience for kids. Note Lamy also do an A nib.
Faber-Castell WritINK – £15
When you talk about Faber-Castell many people think of art supplies, especially pencils, however they have gained a good reputation for slightly unconventional pens with great nibs, but at a higher price for a low end pen. A number of years back they introduced a number of new ranges based off a new, slightly smaller nib. First of these was the WritINK. The pen is a more ‘classical’ tubular device, though the top of the cap is unmistakably Faber-Castell. The barrel has large embossed finger/thumb prints on it, which gives character but are too high up to offer additional grip unless you hold the pen a lot further back. Unlike the previous pens in this list, it will not take a full size converter (I have a short Monteverdi one in mine), but it still works with short international cartridges. It is a light pen and comfortable to use. Also the regular round grip means no being forced to use a tripod grip – the bane of many a left hander.
Material wise it is strong, and just the like previous three, designed to take a pounding from kids.
Visually there’s little difference in the nib from the one used on the Ambition, eMotion and Loom, however it is slightly smaller and from the side looks slightly less substantial and has a slight droop just before the tip. This makes little difference in the writing experience, which has always been the selling point for Faber-Castell. I would have to say it’s not quite as buttery smooth, but this pen does show just how cheap you can get and still find a truly pleasurable writing experience.
Faber-Castell Loom – £31-£40
The Loom and Basic (now called Essentio) came in as lower price models before the WritINK appeared and are of a more conservative shape than the Ambition or eMotion. The Loom is available in two versions, the first with a plain aluminium body and coloured caps, the second and more expensive (which can be got for just under the limit for this article) has a gun metal finish on the barrel and is either shiny or matt, plus the cap is anthracite/black. The pen is very well balanced and the textured grip pleasant, though I did previously note the grip in the newer release appear to be of a more slippery nature. The pen is very smart in appearance, especially the gunmetal versions.
Material wise, the aluminium barrel will take damage and I managed to pin dent mine without being aware. Still the pen will take knocks, it’s just more likely to show it’s ‘battle damage’.
The nib is the classic size #5 Faber-Castell nib found on the other mid range pens, with no breather hole and the interesting dot patterning on the surface. It is buttery smooth and probably the nicest writer amongst the pens listed here (for my preferences anyhow).
Kaweco Sport – £18-£21 (more for specials)
This may be a pocket pen, but it is also the stalwart of the Kaweco range and I do know people who’s only fountain pen is one of these. Available in lots of colours, plus a number of different ranges (plus in aluminium) there is plenty to choose from. The clip, if required, costs extra. So does the tin. Neither are really needed as the pen is safe being thrown in to a pocket. The pens may look small, but the design means the cap fits deeply on the barrel to make the pen a comfortable length. The down side is it will only take short international cartridges or the Kaweco mini converter, which does have a poor reputation. Still it can be used as an eye dropper filled pen, as I have done with mine.
Material wise, the pen is made from strong plastics, and with the cap and barrel overlapping so much this is one tough pen.
The nib has always been a weak point. While people mainly just complain on forums, a lot of people do seem to get bad Kaweco nibs. It almost seems like it is pot luck. Mine was a good one. Writing wise, it’s a neutral experience, partly down to the small size of the nib.
TWSBI ECO – £28
An original piston filler pen for under £100 – this was the starting point for TWSBI with their 530 pen. Material cracking issues plagued them through the 530, 540 and the early 580s, but by the time the ECO came out these had been largely resolved (and noticeably the only people who still complain about the issues seem to suffer from lots of cracking TWSBIs, so are either unlucky else …). The ECO may now not be their cheapest fountain pen, but it did cause a stir and it is a lot of pen for the money. Annual limited editions, large ink capacity, smooth nib, easy to disassemble for cleaning (with instructions and tool provided), and also available in two versions, the normal one with a traditional rounded grip and the T with a triangular shape, all make this a popular pen. Personally, while I find the nib a little anonymous, the shape and feel of the pens make them very tactile, they just feel comfortable in the hand.
Material wise, the old cracking issues are very rare and these days more likely down to over-tightening on re-assembly, or pushing the nib back in too hard (in theory the nib should not be removed, the instructions and tool are only for removing the piston mechanism for cleaning and lubricating (plus barrel cleaning). Mine have certainly suffered a reasonable amount of abuse, though normally loose in a pen case, rather than just thrown in to a bag, and are yet to see any signs of cracking.
Nib wise, there is a reasonable range to choose from including a number of stubs. These all work well.
Platinum Preppy – £4-£5
A refillable fountain pen for under a fiver ?! Supporting the same nib as the Plaisir (which can still be got for under £15) and the Procyon, this open comes with a full cartridge, can be used with a Platinum converter, or even used as an eye dropper filled pen (as I have done now with mine having finished the original cart). Available in a reasonable range of colours, the price point is not the only selling point as the colour of the pen matches the colour of the ink. All seven could be bought and still be under the cost limit to this article. What’s not to like. One interesting thing is, even at this price point, the cap comes with a sprung inner cap to stop ink evaporation (which does work well).
Material wise you do get what you pay for. The clip is likely to break rather quickly if used – think cheap gel pen type clip, and the plastic can be cracked when knocked. Still it is not as weak as I make out.
There are a number of nib options, though you may be limited to what there is available in the colour of ink you are after. These are standard Platinum fair, so more pencil like than the others here with the possible exception of the Lamy.
So these are just the pens I own. The are plenty of others such as the Pelikan Twist, Pilot Metropolitan/MR (of which the European version takes standard international cartridges/converters, not Pilot proprietary ones), Pilot Kakuno, Platinum Plaisir, Kaweco Perkeo, TWSBI Go, Lamy ABC, Lamy Nexx, and more.
One thing to note. I have avoided Chinese and Indian pens on purpose. Most the Chinese pens are clones and of mixed quality, I wanted to cover pens which should work out of the box and also can be replaced by the shop if faulty. Sure PenBBS did start with original models, but most are above this price point, plus in more recent times they’ve given up and joined most the rest of that country’s producers in producing knock off clones. India I’ve skipped for a number of reasons. Mainly the cheap pens are really cheap and basically very poor. The cheaper end we see on the forums are actually the hand made pens from the likes of Ranga and ASA, but those cost more and the value could be questioned, though not as much as some of the newer Indian companies who are charging Western prices for their pens even to locals. This is my choice for the article, I’m not stopping you from buying pens from those countries and Jinhao is often seen as a cheap entry way in to the fountain pen world, however when you can buy a Platinum Preppy for a similar cost and be backed by a warranty ….