Shoot-out Review: 3 Cheap Fountain Pens, Part I - Pilot Vpen

Fountain Pens closedYes, I love fountain pens. I'd be happy as a lark if I could make a living out of testing a different one every day. Unfortunately, such is not the case and I have to make due with using what I can afford, usually "flea market specials" sent along by my friends for me to restore.

Well, not quite, it seems. I've recently come across three different fountain pens selling for between $3 and $9 USD. Obviously, these shouldn't be judged against the yardstick of $100-300 pens, but do they offer a good value for the money? Are they appropriate for fountain pen newbies? In this three-part series of reviews, I'll be examining (from left to right in the picture) the Parker Reflex, the Pilot Vpen and the Bic Select to see if they really are as good a deal as they seem.

My process was simple. First, I used each pen for a full day in a regular work setting, then wrote one page on three different papers: a pocket lined Moleskine, a cheap index card, and a Rhodia pad. Then I left the pen for a week and checked the flow and ink level when I returned to it. What felt good in the hand? What wrote well and consistently? What would I recommend to a fountain pen newcomer? Which pen comes out on top?

The Pilot Vpen (a.k.a., Varsity)

The pen in the middle in the picture above is a Pilot Vpen (which seems to be called the Varsity in the USA), and is a bit of the odd man out in this trio. Whereas the other two pens can use regular ink cartridges, the Vpen is non-refillable. This is a pity, since --although the pen does contain an ample amount of ink in its barrel-- I always feel a little sad about throwing away a perfectly good pen and adding to the world's landfills, just because of a lack of ink. (Note: some people have tried to refill theirs, with differing levels of success.)

The outside of the Vpen looks like ...well... a cheap pen, a "dollar-store special." The plastic clip of the cap is molded as one piece with the cap, and mine displayed some minor striped discolourations. The barrel is made of translucent plastic that is mostly covered by grey paint and a few goldish waves; through it, one can see the ink cartridge inside, which takes up about 60% of the interior of the barrel --a bit of a waste, really, given the cheap cost of ink and the pennies it would cost to create a slightly longer cartridge inside.

The pen is essentially a long, round stick. There is no ergonomic or rubber grip, no ledge to catch the index finger, nothing to prevent a slow rotation of the pen while writing. This pen tended to fatigue my hands after a day of intermittent writing, and I wished for even a little rubber or shaping to reduce the pressure needed to hold the pen.

A fountain pen really is a precision instrument, and the nib and feed have to be perfectly calibrated to offer an even ink flow that is neither too dry nor too wet. The Vpen tends to the latter, although the flow proves even and consistent. The nib writes extremely smooth and is a pleasure to use. The lines are beautiful and dark on my Rhodia pad (a fountain pen friendly paper, if ever there was one) and a medium thickness on the index card stock, roughly equivalent to a Pilot G2 0.7mm. The Moleskine, however, did not bring out the best in the pen. The ink tended to feather fairly badly, spreading out into the fibres of the paper and making the lines appear sloppy. The bleed, too, was worse than the other pens --I could actually make out the letters on the page once I turned the page.

The ink flow proved very reliable over a week. I stood all three pens up in a pen cup, then left them at room temperature for the duration. When I returned and tried the Vpen, it started exactly as it had before with no skip. As far as I could tell through the "window" of the barrel, there seemed to be little to no evaporation.

The Pilot Vpen/Varsity retails between $3 and $7 USD, only a little more than comparable ballpoint and gel pens, and is available at most large office supply stores and many online retailers.

Pros: wet, consistent ink flow; very smooth writer; good nib and feed; very inexpensive; sturdy.

Cons: looks cheap; can feather and bleed using regular paper; no ergonomic considerations; non-refillable.

Next up, the Bic Select.

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I used to use these back around 1990.

They were one of my first introductions to fountain pens (besides the Shaffer calligraphy kits). As a disposable pen with a fountain pen mechanism/nib, they're a good introduction for new users, I think; they don't have to worry about breaking a 'good' pen (even a cheap one like the Parker Reflex). This pen gave me a taste for a solid, wet line of ink. At the time, gel pens did not exist (or were not available in the US, anyway), so a fountain pen was the only way to get it.

I have so many letters,

I have so many letters, notes, texts and notebooks written in green VPens, it's not even funny. I would buy them by the handful back then, in between my cheapo Stypen period and my Parker Vector period.

Hah. I also went from the

Hah. I also went from the Varsity to the Parker Vector. It's like a natural progression.

I have a refillable VPen.

I have a refillable VPen. Unfortunately, the rubber is disintegrating. Thanks for telling me the US name for the pen -- it should help immensely in finding a replacement.


You say in your review that it's the pen at left, but I'm pretty sure the VPen is the one in the middle. At least, it looks like a Varsity, and I can see the first few letters of the word PILOT on it...

The middle pen

Ah, yes, sorry. Fixed!


Varsity sighting

I ventured to Borders yesterday and they have Varsity pens in a display near the checkout... didn't pick any up since I have a purple, teal and black on in my current arsenal. They weren't marked with a price but if you are looking to pick up just a single one - this might be a good place to visit :)

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Try OfficeMax

I buy the Pilot Varsity at OfficeMax, where they're available in 3-packs (black, blue, & purple) for a bit under $9.00 USD. I also purchased some on eBay, paying only a bit more than half the OfficeMax retail price, including shipping.

It's been a number of years since I used a fountain pen, so the Varsity is serving as something of a reintroduction for me. I've never owned a "high end" pen, but I'm pleased with the consistent performance of the Varsity, and use it on a daily basis.

I've also begun providing this pen to my 4th-grade elementary classroom students for handwriting practice. The kids are notorious for grasping their pencils in a "death grip." The fountain pen, or "long-time ago pen" as they call the Varsity, requires the students to apply a lighter touch and a steadier, more consistent pace to their letter formation. So far they like it... and they've only bent one tip so far!

I'm wondering how the Varsity compares to the popular Pilot Petit1, a Japanese version of the disposable fountain pen. From images I've seen, the nib appears identical, the differences being a shorter barrel and more vibrant ink colors for the Petit1.

Varsity and Petit1

The nibs are the same style on the Varsity and the Petit1.

Main difference is the Petit1 has a fine nib, and the Varsity available in the US is a Medium sized nib.

The Varsity is also sold as the Vpen in other countries and these are available with a medium sized (nib same as the Varsities sold in the US) or Fine(same nib as in the Petit1).
I refill my varsity pens with bottled fountain pen ink. You can also refill the Petit1 cartridges with bottled fountain pen ink also. Save some cash and save some plastic from going to a landfill near you.

Just how do you go about

Just how do you go about refilling one of these pens?

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Parker Reflex

I'm sure Doug's a busy guy, but after waiting for SO LONG for a review of the Parker Reflex, I thought I'd just submit my own.

It is SUPERB. I own a handful of Parkers - and have a fondness for the Vectors, thank you eBay! Each one, especially the Reflex, write beautifully. Must say I prefer them over my two Lamys (blue Safari and a Vista). FYI, y'all.


I may be mistaken but I believe the reflex line is being discontinued so if you want one get it soon.
They should still be supplying the refills from what I understand but you can use a converter to I suppose.

Pilot Varsity

One thing I like about the Pilot Varsity is that it comes in a variety of colors. You can order the combo pack of about 10 different colors for about $23 from the Pilot web page. This is a perfect way to start out FP newbies, and old-timers like them too, since you can use one color for your day planner, another for your journal, keep one by the phone, give one as a gift, etc.
There are many children who have never even seen a fountain pen before. I, myself, remember using a tried-and-true Shaeffer see-thru cartridge FP all through high school during the early 60s and it was a reliable friend. I could write a long essay and it would just glide and glide--with never a hint of "writer's cramp."

nice review, thanks

You're spot on. I didn't write too much with the Varsity, so I can't comment on the fatigue, but its a fantastic pen. The fact that its an instant starter is really weird, especially for a cheap FP. FPs are notorious for slow starts usually, irrespective of price