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Let’s be honest. Many of us when we started down the slippery slopes of the fountain pen world discovered a plethora of cheap Chinese pen on eBay and tried a few out. These mainly worked, but over time we realised they are just cheap copies of other makes and while some people do continue to use/buy them, others like myself stop. Thing is for disposable starter pens to give to friends and colleagues light they are hard to beat, so the question I set myself was could I buy pens just as good on the UK high street for £5 or less. The only stipulations being that the nibs had to have tipping (not just a butterfly fold) and the pens had to be refillable. As I know some of you may raise the question over the Pilot VPen V4, which in theory you can refill, I have included one of those as well as a bench mark, though you will have to pull the nib and feed once empty for it to really count.

The collection I bring before you took longer to collect than originally anticipated, but that was part down to the UK COVID-19 lock down. Some were reduced, though at full price I believe all still stick to the limit (at the time of purchase). The pens are as follows:

  1. Helix Oxford Fountain Pen – £5.
  2. Manuscript Classic Fountain Pen with Iridium Nib – £4.25.
  3. Monami Olika – £3.24.
  4. Paper Mate Ninja – 97p.
  5. Pilot VPen V4 – £4.28.
  6. Platinum Preppy – £4.99.
  7. Sainsbury Fountain Pen – £2.
  8. Schneider Xpect Vivaz – £2.99.
  9. WH Smith Soft Grip – £3.99.
  10. WH Smith Fountain Pen with chrome trim – £4.99.

Note the above prices are present list, the three pens from WH Smith were part of a 3 for 2 deal and also had an additional Easter discount. The Cult Pens order used a 10% off voucher. Additionally the Paper Mate Ninja may well now a dropped range as I believe these were originally around the £3.50 mark.

While a person new to fountain pens would just have plugged in a cartridge and tried to write straight away, I first rinsed each one (aside from the Pilot V4) to remove any manufacturing detritus, then used the cartridge included with the pen (or one of if it came with more), rather than any from my own stash or a converter with my choice of ink. This was done using a mixture of a bulb and a standard international converter to push the water through. The Platinum was always going to be awkward to flush as I do not have a spare proprietary converter, however I was surprised to have issues with the Helix, Paper Mate, and the more expensive WH Smiths pen, which all take standard international cartridges but would not take a converter. Note I was not going to push hard to seat the converter in case I broke the feed peg.

One thing to be aware of, I used these pens as if I were to be new to the fountain pen world, so any minor issues which I would normally fix, such as minor tine re-alignment or smoothing of tipping, was not allowed.

Helix Oxford£5
Where FromAsda, WH Smith
Where MadeChina
Number of Cartridges1 international short
Ink Total0.8 ml

Initial reaction: This is a heavy pen. Cap and barrel are metal though the section is plastic, as is the inner cap. The latter may be just for sealing the nib as you can hear metal on metal when posting. Cartridge took a little pressure to insert but then there was a loud pop as it seated home. Nib wrote straight away without any need to prime.

Actual use has been fine. Nib is smooth and the ink flows well. While not exactly a light pen it is well balanced and comfortable to hold though on the thinner side. This would be a good pen for a student, which is not surprising considering that is the target group for much of Helix’s products. Pen certainly looks more expensive than it is.

Manuscript Classic with iridium tip£4.25
Where FromCult Pens
Where MadeEngland
Number of Cartridges2 international short
Ink Total1.6 ml

Initial reaction: All plastic pen, certainly made to a price point but does not feel brittle. Inverted second cartridge in the barrel allowed the one to be used to be screwed home. A little priming as well as a few nib down shakes was required to get the ink to flow.

The patriotic side of me so wanted this pen to work well (as the pen is not only from an British company but also made over here), and with some smoothing of the tipping I think it could do so, however this test is for ‘out of the box’ and so a decent ink flow is let down by a scratchy writing experience. Under a loupe the tines are fine but there is a chip in the tipping, which is probably the source of the issue. It’s rough enough to actually scrapes fibres away from the paper.

I am surprised how comfortable this pen is to hold as the barrel is thin and the section thinner, though nicely shaped and textured.

Monami Olika£3.24
Where FromCult Pens
Where MadeChina
Number of Cartridges3 international short
Ink Total2.4 ml

Initial reaction: Cap and body do not feel like they can take any punishment. Second cartridge inverted in the barrel allowed the first to be screw pushed in to the feed. Ink started to flow very quickly though the pen appears to be rather dry. Having a fine nib may be behind this view but the dried ink is also fainter than I would expect.

I must admit I had not heard of this South Korean company before I started looking at pens for this group test. There are two fountain pens (the Neo is not available in the UK but looks like it would be only ~£15-30 max) in their range and just the options of fine and EF nibs. It has to be said this pen is a direct rival to the Platinum Preppy and Pilot Plumix but under cutting both on price, especially the latter (which is no longer available in the UK).

So far I am very impressed. The pen is comfortable to use, starts first time, and like the Preppy, is available in a fair number of different colours with the ink matching the pen. Additionally it has the advantage of taking international short cartridges rather than proprietary ones. While the pen continues to be a dry writer, this does not affect performance. Additionally my initial views on the quality of the plastics were quickly changed though I still think the clip would not last any real use.

Paper Mate Ninja£0.97
Where FromMorrisons, The Range
Where MadeChina
Number of Cartridges2 international short
Ink Total1.6 ml

Initial reaction: Pocket pen size. All plastic but feels like a slightly more expensive pen. Had to push the cartridge home due to short barrel not having enough space to hold a spare. Pen struggled to be primed but once managed the ink flowed relatively well though there were hints of a possible hard start

So in actual use this pen does suffer from hard starts. Once the ink does flow the line laid down is very dry and rotate the pen just slightly and the pen stops writing. To call it a sweet spot would infer some variation or flexibility on angle. Not so here. Additionally the nib is slightly scratchy, making the pen even less pleasant to use. I now know why the pen was so cheap and the range appear to have been dropped. Looking under a loupe, the tines are just slightly misaligned.

Pilot VPen V4£4.28
Where FromCult Pens
Where MadeJapan
Number of CartridgesPre filled
Ink Total~2.2 ml

Initial Reaction: Removed the cap and the pen wrote well right from the start. It’s gel pen origins are obvious so the body and cap should be able to take a bashing but I’d expect the clip to snap off after a while.

Using this pen you can see why some people say it is the only one you need. Reality is over time it will become an expensive option as you can buy a converter and a bottle of ink for a similar amount to a couple of these. Still it is a pen that just works and works well out of the box and as a result is certainly a good option to introduce someone to fountain pens. I was originally not going to include it in the test as in theory it is disposable, however I know some of you will have asked for a comparison as you can easily pull the nib and feed to syringe fill, and so it fills the role as a well known benchmark.

Platinum Preppy£4.99
Where FromWH SMith
Where MadeJapan
Number of Cartridges1 Platinum propriety
Ink Total1.2 ml

Initial Reaction: Cartridge had to be pushed in but this was easy enough to do. The transparent feed meant the ink could be seen to flow towards the nib from the start though it took a minute or two before the pen would write. Pen does feel cheap and the clip is never going to last.

This is actually my second Preppy, but while the first one wrote smoothly, this one has a slight edge. It’s not much but you can feel it catching slightly on certain paper types. I suspect just 20 to 30 seconds of work on the tipping would fix this. I am a little disappointed it must be said.

Where FromSainsbury
Where MadeChina
Number of Cartridges4 international short
Ink Total3.2 ml

Initial Reaction: Cheapest pen here but feels solid enough and has more traditional looks than most the others, having said that the barrel is already prone to scratching. Barrel is actually too long to allow a second cartridge to push/screw the first one home. Was hard work to insert a cartridge, had to put it on a table and push down hard with the section, which first resulted in the rubber grip sliding off. Once cartridge was in it took a few shakes to prime the nib but after that the ink seemed to flow well.

Having been sat for a week this pen did not want to write, but when I looked at it, the issue was actually the ink in the cartridge was stuck at the back. A few taps, a little wait, and the pen started to write. There does seem to be a sweet spot which provides a relatively smooth writing experience, but there is also a slight scratchiness to this, and move off angle it becomes more obvious. I can see little under a loupe, so maybe with more use the feeling will improve. A certain amount of it is also ink flow. The nib seems to dry quite quickly but as you write the experience improves. I would try a cartridge from one of the other pens to see if that were to make a difference, but that would invalidate this test, especially considering this pen comes with more ink than any of the others, including the Pilot, and so would require more use before a new source of ink would be required.

After more writing there is no improvement. I was secretly hoping that this, the cheapest pen and also the pen with the most ink, would do well in the test. Alas not.

Schneider Xpect Vivaz£2.99
Where FromCult Pens
Where MadeGermany
Number of Cartridges1 international short
Ink Total0.8 ml

Initial Reaction: Feels tougher than it’s price would indicate. Rubber grip is slightly shaped to enforce a tripod grip, so this pen is obviously targeted at school kids. While it came with just the one cartridge there was a fake one inserted in the section, which allowed the actual ink cartridge to be screwed home by closing the barrel. Nib has proven to be hard to prime meaning initially the writing was faint. After about half an hour the ink flow become more acceptable.

At the start this pen felt like the tines were misaligned, however this is one pen where usage has improved the experience. Initially it was hard to prime and there was some hard starting as well as a scratchy writing experience. The latter took several days of mild use to vanish, but now I’ve just tried the pen after leaving it for the night and it is still a smooth writer. Catch is it took time to get this way, however unlike a number of the other pens I’ve not felt the only way to get a decent writing experience is to work on the nib, so big plus there.

WH Smith Soft Grip£3.99
Where FromWH Smith
Where MadeChina
Number of Cartridges1 international short
Ink Total0.8 ml

Initial Reaction: Pen looks and feels very cheap though the rubber coated (?) barrel is pleasant to the touch. With just the one cartridge this had to be pushed home, which was easy and the pen started to write straight away, however the experience was very scratchy so I was hoping more writing would help wear the tipping in.

You would have thought a pen bought from a stationary store chain would work. Well the ink flow was good pen but the nib was scratchy. The tines are slightly misaligned on the under side, yet look like each half of the tipping was from a different pen as the difference on top (not affecting the writing) was far greater than below. A shame really as this is a surprisingly comfortable pen to hold, just horrid to use.

WH Smith with Chrome Trim£4.99
Where FromWH Smith
Where MadeIndia
Number of Cartridges2 international short
Ink Total1.6 ml

Initial Reaction: Metal cap seems to be decent enough but barrel is cheap and scratching already. Pen was packaged with the cap posted. It was remarkably hard to remove at first, as was the barrel. Now the cap fits securely to both post and to close/seal the pen, and still requires a little force to remove. Could not quite fit an inverted cartridge in to the barrel, so the one to be used had to be pushed home. This was relatively easy to do and the pen started to write straight away.

Second only to the Helix Oxford for cost (by just 1p) and with a metal cap and trim yet this pen both looks and feels the cheapest of the lot. Cap is hard to remove, post, and replace, yet this does not mean the nib is sealed as it dries out quickly and hard starting follows. The clip looks and feels strong yet there is no traction so it slides over pocket seams with no pressure and the barrel already has a noticeable ring scratch around it from when the the cap was first removed from the end of the barrel. Once the ink does flow the pen is slightly scratchy, not through tine misalignment but from the pen being very dry. This also means that when you pause even for just a few seconds you suffer from yet another hard start.

I’m not sure quite what I was expecting with these pens. I do have memories in the past of some rather poor writing implements at this sort of price point. From the ‘old school’ Platignum pens in the 1970s which would leak every where and crack by just being looked at to the cheap supermarket pens with butterfly folded steel nib ends of the 1990s. I’ve actually been surprised at how well some of these have worked and if anything it does prove you do not need to go on to eBay and order a dodgy clone to get a decent writing experience at a cheap price. So here is a ranking I sorted based on these specific pens including fit and finish:

1. Helix Oxford
2. Monami Olika
3.= Pilot VPen V4
3.= Schneider Xpect Vivaz
5. Pilot Preppy
6. Sainsbury
7. Manuscript with Iridium Tipping
8. Paper Mate Ninja
9. WH Smith with Chrome Trim
10. WH Smith Soft Grip

As the above covers build quality as well, I have a second list which just covers the writing experience, including feel in the hand:

1. Monami Olika
2=. Pilot VPen V4
2=. Schneider Xpect Vivaz
4. Helix Oxford
5. Pilot Preppy
6. Sainsbury
7. Manuscript with Iridium Tipping
8=. Paper Mate Ninja
8=. WH Smith Soft Grip
8=. WH Smith with Chrome Trim

I would say my biggest surprise was the pen from Monami. I’d not previously heard of this South Korean brand and looking at their web site the Olika might be the only fountain pen they currently sell. Whilst of the same concept as the Platinum Preppy, a refillable pen as cheap as you can make it, this one has the advantage that it uses standard international short cartridges and almost certainly will take a converter. If it weren’t for the certainty the clip will break at some point this might have rivalled the Helix Oxford for the top spot on the first table. Speaking of of the Helix pen, this was also a pleasant surprise. I was not expecting much yet for just five pounds you have a relatively smart pen you could bring out at a meeting without the worry of looking cheap. Alas since I bought it for this test Asda have raised the price to £5.50 but I have seen it else where still going for a fiver.

Biggest disappointment was not the Manuscript – without the chunk missing from the tipping I think it would have scored higher, no the real disappointments were the two pens from WH Smith. Sure the pens are cheap and from two different manufacturers (and countries at that) but still you would expect a stationary store to sell something that works when it comes to their own brand. After all alongside the Platinum Preppy and the Pilot VPen (the latter only available in packs of multiple pens hence mine being bought from Cult Pens) they also sell a reasonable range of Lamy and Parker pens as well as some from Cross, Faber-Castell and others. It is almost as if they did a tick in the box exercise and cared little for the results.

The key thing though is I would consider three of the refillable pens, four including the Pilot to be true viable options for every day use for the new user. With some micro-mesh work to smooth out imperfections in the tipping, that number could be increase to six or seven including the cheaper of the WH Smith pens despite that one coming bottom in both my charts.

I collected the pens used in this test over the period of about two months, leaving it until all were gathered before I started the actual work including uncapping/unpacking them. The actual writing tests then took me close to four weeks to complete as I wanted to use each of them properly in case any initial issues were just manufacturing detritus passing through the system.

One thing of note, I know some readers may point to the fact many of these pens were made in China. The key thing is they are being sold through brands that have to adhere to decent copyright laws and so are not straight clones.

If you are interested in a full review of any of these pens then please let me know, certainly some of them will continue to be used.