What I’ve Been Learning Lately: The Perpetual Pen Project

A few months ago, I was modeling writing in my classroom and my Pilot G2 ran out of ink. I tossed it and continued writing with another, which also ran out of ink. I tossed that one and continued writing with another, only to have the next one run out of ink as well.

I already knew that the Pilot G2 ink was the least long-lasting of all the inks I’d used before, but I loved the feel of the pen and the glide of the ink that required (I thought) hardly any pressure. I also knew replacement ink was available… kind of. Unfortunately, it was not available in bulk, so each replacement cartridge was wrapped in plastic just like the pens, making them nearly as wasteful as purchasing a new pack of pens in bulk. Also, the refills weren’t conveniently available (the only place I could find to purchase them was Amazon), so I treated the pens as disposables which, at least around here, they are marketed as.

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Contrary to popular belief, these pens are not disposable.

But after going through three in one class period, I knew I couldn’t ignore how wasteful I was being. This happened shortly after going through four brand-new highlighters in one week of highlighting my students’ grammar errors in their research papers (which says something about the need for focused grammar instruction in the lower grades, I think), so it wasn’t as though this were an isolated experience.

I went home that day and started researching refillable pens. The first I came across was the Parker Jotter which was apparently the standard retractable ballpoint pen before most pens became disposable.

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The Parker Jotter pictured with the Parker Rollerball, my “loaner” pens, and their respective refills.

Then I came across fountain pens. Some of them were absurdly expensive, but I found the more affordable Lamy Safari and read that it was often considered a starter fountain pen, so I bought two fine-nibbed Safaris: one yellow and one blue.

I filled the yellow with Noodler’s Blue Ghost (yes, invisible ink. I’m practical like that) and, after using up the blue cartridge it came with, the blue with Noodler’s bulletproof black. I should mention for the uninitiated that filling the Lamy from bottled ink required the purchase of a Lamy Z24 coverter.

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I was pleased with the grip of the Safari (the grooves allow you to hold the pen with almost no pressure at all) and the smoothness of the writing (the nib need only barely touch the paper — there is almost no effort involved), but I thought the line was too thick. I Googled about until I learned that my idea of a fine was based on Japanese brands like Pilot, and that Western fines are actually at least a size larger. I knew I loved the fountain pens and would not be looking back, plus I knew I needed more than one color ink at a time for grading and modeling purposes, so I bought two more pens. This time, I bought two Lamy Al-Stars with extra fine nibs. The only difference between the Al-Star and the Safari is that the Al-Star is made of aluminum. For some reason, I found that to be much more comfortable, and I started writing almost exclusively with my deep purple and charcoal Al-Stars. Meanwhile, I learned Lamy nibs are particularly easy to replace, so I ordered two extra fines and fitted them to my Safaris, which made them write just as well as my Al-Stars. Still, I preferred the metal Al-Star to the plasticky Safari, and my go-to pens at work and home were the Al-Stars.

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I was hooked. I joined The Fountain Pen Network to learn more about pen care, ink, and fountain pen-friendly paper, and while there, I learned about vintage pens. Vintage pens were the ultimate in environmental writing instruments: but for the materials to replace ink sacs as needed and the shipping, they had zero environmental impact. They had been lovingly used, and were now being passed on. I explored my options and settled on an Esterbrook. I managed to get a restored yet affordable Esterbrook SJ with a 2556 (extra fine) nib that wrote like a dream and gave me no guilt because the pen had been made in the fifties. It was at least sixty years old and worked as well as my brand new pens, so it was likely to last quite a while longer with proper care. I bought two more restored Esterbrooks, this time from the J series, one with a 2556 nib and the other with a 9550 nib. The 9550 I don’t care for quite as much, but Esterbrook nibs can be swapped with ease, so I think I’ll buy a few and find the perfect nib for me. I have my eye on the 9556.

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Things were going well. I loved the pens, and I loved caring for them. I had black, burgundy, green, and blue ghost inks to choose from (burgundy remains my favorite), and I was happy.

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As you can see, I didn’t stop my ink purchases there.

There remained two problems: 1. I found out how often it’s convenient to have a retractable pen, and 2. I still hadn’t solved the problem of disposable highlighters and markers.

I decided to deal with problem number two first since I was sure retractable fountain pens didn’t exist. Back in August of last year, I’d bought a set of Auspen refillable white board markers for work. They have replaceable nibs, refillable ink reservoirs, and the bodies are made of recyclable aluminum. Plus, they don’t stink like other white board markers (even the supposedly “Low Odor” kind).

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I had trouble finding a refillable regular marker, though. I rarely use markers, but I do need them for posters in my classroom and sometimes my students need to borrow them. Finally, I settled on a 6-pen set of Copic Ciao markers. The set has every color I need but black (I can buy that separately later) and it, like Auspen, has refillable ink reservoirs and replaceable nibs. The bodies are plastic, but they should last a long time (I’m aiming for the rest of my career), so that’s okay.

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Next was the highlighter issue. I had a few options: the most popular seemed to be to convert a platinum preppy highlighter (which has replacement nibs and cartridges) into an eye-dropper fill and then just buy highlighter ink. I was just about to go that route when I came across the Pilot Parallel highlighter conversion. For this, you buy a Pilot Parallel calligraphy pen (I bought all four sizes because there was a sale and I often have need of more than one highlighter color, but I wasn’t sure which size would be best), a Con-50 converter for each pen, and some highlighter ink (I went with Noodler’s yellow and green). The nice thing about this is that the nib is metal, so you never have to replace it and you never have to worry about the nib being infected by other colors. There are some drawbacks, though: The pen lays down a lot of ink, so it will bleed through cheap or thin paper. This isn’t a problem for me as 90% of what I highlight is my students’ single-sided drafts, but it would be an annoyance if I wanted to highlight books or double-sided work. The other issue is that it is not kind to fountain pen ink, even ink that is supposedly bulletproof. I used the highlighter on things I’d written with my Al-Stars, and within seconds the writing disappeared and became just a smudge among the highlighter yellow. This happened even on writing a week old. I would suggest this highlighter conversion only for people who generally highlight typed pages. If I go back to school, I’ll probably do the Platinum Preppy conversion.

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By this time, I was getting near satisfied, but I still wanted a pretty pen, and I wanted it to be retractable. It turns out they do exist, and the most popular is the Pilot Vanishing Point. I fell in love with the VP Raden and after much back and forth about the cost, I purchased it. It’s more beautiful than any picture can capture, and it writes such a fine line so smoothly I never want to write with anything else. I do, of course; there’s no way I’m taking a pen that expensive to work, and, as I mentioned earlier, I need a variety of colors at any given time. Eventually, I purchased a Pilot VP in yellow that I could take to work and not worry quite so much about. At home, though, the Raden is all I write with.

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My husband took me to the Fountain Pen Shop in Monrovia, and he bought me a Noodler Flex pen. Unfortunately, it skips a lot and the flex feature is hard to get the hang of. I’ll mess with it a bit more, but if it continues to skip after I change the ink, I may have to take it back.

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To satisfy my pretty nib need (the VP is beautiful, but the nib is mostly hidden), I have a very cheap (less than $10) Jinhao on the way with a two-tone nib. And that’s going to be it for a while. I’m set up so I have all the pens I need, and they should last me the rest of my life so long as they don’t get lost or stolen. I do still have some Pilot G2s around, and they, along with the Parker Jotter, are my loaner pens that I’ll always have on hand to hand to someone who is grasping for one of my fountain pens. I should be able to refill those forever, too, though much less often since I won’t be using them myself except for official documents like checks on which fountain pen ink is not always secure.

Now I’m passing on the pen love. One of my students has nerve damage in her wrist and it hurts for her to write for long periods. I let her write with one of my pens for a minute, and she seemed impressed by how little effort was involved, so I’m giving her my blue Lamy Safari. It has served me well, but I like the Al-Star a bit better, plus I have the Esterbrooks and the Pilot VPs. It’s time to let this one go. I’m giving her a converter full of ink, a cartridge, and a card with care instructions. Hopefully she’ll like it.

At some point I’m going to have to put photography on my learning list so these pen photos aren’t so dismal. This year, though, it looks like my focus will be on Thai, American Sign Language, sewing, Scottish country dancing, and hiking. There will be more on that soon!

Edited to add:
I also bought a more durable mechanical pencil. The Papermate Clear Point lasts about three months before the clip breaks off or the cap or body cracks, so I tried to find something similarly shaped that would take 0.7 lead and last longer. Here is my current pencil set up:

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The Papermate plus a separate click eraser and extra lead.

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The new Parker pencil. My worry is that the cap/eraser is rather flimsy, so it may not outlast the Papermate in the long run. That’s a shame because the body and clip seem like they’ll last for years, or even decades. We’ll see. I’d get an Esterbrook pencil, but the lead size is too thick for my taste. I may look for another vintage pencil, but as I almost exclusively use pencils for taking attendance, and starting next week we will be taking attendance online, this is not a high priority for me.

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7 Responses to What I’ve Been Learning Lately: The Perpetual Pen Project

  1. Julie says:

    Most excellent, Mezzie! I haven’t solved the highlighter issue either, even with Preppy conversions. If my whiteboard didn’t use “wet erase” ink, I would try the Auspen. They came out after I’d committed to a “wet” board. Very nice on the Pilot VPs, too. Great pens. Cheers!

  2. Mezzie says:

    Based on the reviews, this ink might work for your wet erase pen refills: http://www.gouletpens.com/Noodlers_Blackerase_Ink_4_5oz_p/n19821.htm
    The downside is there are few colors available (black and blue only, I think), but it’s a start!

  3. Mezzie says:

    …And a quick jaunt to your page tells me you already know about that ink. 🙂

    I have some wet erase pens leftover from overhead days. I’ve just been using them as markers to run through them; it didn’t even cross my mind to use them on my white board. I’ll do a test in a corner, and if it erases easily enough, I’ll have an option for when I need fine lines.

  4. Oldtimer says:

    I know it may be a very epensive highlighter, but i have my eye on this for a while. Somehow, i cannot bring myself to buy a $100 highlighter, but it is a fountain pen also and comes with green and yellow highlighting ink!

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B003X0F4FU/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pd_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=3IXVBVUNZVKTI&coliid=I37SU8473LV4M4

  5. Oldtimer says:

    Oops, i cannot fix the mistakes. Sorry!

  6. Mezzie says:

    I did see that, but I couldn’t justify spending that much on a highlighter. I do highlight quite a bit, though, so maybe a few years down the line it’ll seem like a good investment. So far, the Pilot Parallels are working fine, though you do have to find the sweet spot while holding them to get a full line.

  7. pensandart says:

    Really enjoyed reading your post! I started with G2s and then moved into fountain pens too. 😀

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