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