One of the biggest questions many people who are somewhat new to fountain pens have is what is the difference between an expensive fountain pen and an inexpensive fountain pen? It is really worth spending hundreds or even thousands more on a pen? In this post I want to talk about some of the more significant differences between expensive and inexpensive pens.
The first thing you should know about me is I like value. That is not the same thing as being cheap. I am willing to spend money on things that will stand up over time and that have a quality relative to their price. I would rather spend more money to buy something once and be done with it than need to re-purchase something multiple times. For example, I’ve owned the same set of kitchen knives for almost 20 years and they’re still amazing. Were they inexpensive when I got them? No, they definitely weren’t. Were they worth it? They were, as they have saved me much frustration over the years and I haven’t had to buy new knives to replaces ones that were no longer any good.
When it comes to fountain pens, I have a similar mindset. Of course, this is a hobby and emotion sometimes gets the better of me and value goes out the window. Still, I’d like to imagine that most of my fountain pen purchases have been decent values.
If I had to guess, I’d say the average amount that I’ve paid for a modern fountain pen is $100. This includes a handful that cost over $150 and many that cost less than $50. I have never spent more than $400 for a fountain pen. This means I don’t have much experience with the most expensive pens out there. I’ve used them and handled them before, but have never used one on a regular basis. As you’ll see, this limitation shouldn’t really affect my overall knowledge of fountain pens and the info below should be accurate.
Expensive vs. Inexpensive Fountain Pens
Fountain pens at their core are fairly simple objects. A nib, a body to hold the nib and a reservoir to hold some ink. Of course, pens are made up of more than just three pieces, but in general that’s what makes them work. Isn’t it amazing that such a seemingly simple object can have such a huge range of options and prices?
I want to discuss each part of a fountain pen that has a significant influence on price and/or performance. My goal is to give you some tools that you can use when considering a pen to decide if it’s going to be worth it to you. I know that everyone has different tastes and preferences, so I’m going to do my best to remain neutral and just present why each particular variable can influence the price of a pen.
For each part below, I’ll try to give an actual example to show how much of a price difference you can expect. Please note that for the particular pen models I mention, they will typically feature more than one price-affecting variable, so when comparing a Pelikan M200 to a Pelikan M800 for example, they will have different nibs, sizes and sometimes even body materials. Pen prices are taken from the same retailer.
Nibs influence your writing experience and how your writing looks. Less expensive pens tend to have steel nibs, which can still write very well, but are not typically as soft or flexible as a gold or titanium nib. Extremely cheap steel nibs may not even have any tipping material, which means that they can be quite scratchy to write with. Nib shapes and sizes outside of Fine, Medium or Broad, such as stubs, italics and even music nibs, can increase the price of a pen.
Nib size can also influence the price of a pen. I’m not talking about Fine, Medium or Broad, but the physical size of the nib itself. Larger nibs will almost always cost more than a smaller nib. One reason for this is that they simply have more material, so they cost more to manufacturer. Larger pens need larger nibs to keep the overall look balanced, but some people do say that larger nibs feel nicer to write with.
Example: Lamy Studio – Steel nib: $80, Gold nib: $180
The material that the feed is made out of will also affect the price of a pen. Less expensive pens tend to have plastic feeds, while more expensive pens tend to have ebonite feeds. An ebonite feed typically provides better ink flow and can be more precisely fitted to a particular nib, which can lead to a better writing experience. You will rarely be able to choose the feed material when purchasing a fountain pen.
Example: This is very brand-dependent, so I can’t really give a good example.
The material the pen body is made of is probably the most obvious fountain pen feature and therefore can have the biggest impact on the price of a pen. Typically, a solid-colored plastic body will be the least expensive option. Pens with fancier plastics, such as those with a mix of colors or sparkles, can cost more than the same pen with a solid-colored body. Metal pens will typically cost more than a plastic pen. For example, a Kaweco Sport in brass or aluminum can cost 3 to 4-times more than the plastic version, even though the rest of the pen is identical.
More exotic materials and finishes can drive the price up even higher. Hand-painted finishes such as urushi cost significantly more due to the amount of labor involved in creating them. The same goes for maki-e, which is essentially a painted scene or decoration on a fountain pen. Some of the most expensive pen bodies will even feature precious metals or gems.
Example: Kaweco Sport – Plastic: $25, Brass: $100
In general, the bigger the pen the more expensive it will be. Larger pens are also usually the flagship pens a company offers, and therefore come with more options such as bigger nibs, gold nibs and nicer body materials. Larger pens may also have a sturdier build and weigh more.
Example: Pelikan – M400: $350, M800: $600
The brand of any given pen can also greatly influence how much it costs. For some brands, you will pay a premium simply for the name that is attached to the pen. For other brands, the name is synonymous with quality and reliability. As one reader pointed out in the comments, some brands may even come with additional benefits such as annual pen tuning or the ability to swap nibs after purchasing a pen if you decide you’d like a different one.
Example: Two well-respected and iconic pens with gold nibs – Lamy 2000: $200, Montblanc 149: $935
The filling mechanism can also affect the price of a pen. Many basic pens simply use ink cartridges. Since they have fewer parts, they cost less to manufacturer and therefore are less expensive. As filling systems get added and more complicated, the pen price goes up.
Example: Pilot pens with the same nib – Custom 74 (converter): $160, Custom Heritage 92 (piston-filler): $220
Many fountain pens have some unique characteristic that can affect the price. A Pilot Vanishing Point has a retractible nib, which you may be willing to pay more for than a comparable pen with a traditional nib and cap. Another thing that many pen manufacturers are doing is releasing limited edition fountain pens. These can come in special colors or finishes that are not always available and many people will pay a premium for these pens versus the standard offerings.
Example: Lamy 2000 – Regular: $200, Bauhaus Limited Edition: $500
There are many artisans who make fountain pens, and some people would rather purchase these than pens made by large companies. For most of these small pen manufacturers, each pen is hand-made with limited distribution channels, which can definitely increase the price of each pen.
Example: This is very brand-dependent, so I can’t really give a good example.
In general, I feel like there are price brackets for fountain pens in which you can find pens of similar quality and features. These are not to be taken as a rule, but instead as a guide when considering your next pen purchase:
Basic or beginner pens with the most ordinary of features. Many great pens can be found in this category, including the Pilot Metropolitan, Lamy Safari and Kaweco Sport.
Another small price range, but one that includes some added features such as improved filling mechanisms and larger pens. Some notable pens in this price range include the TWSBI Eco and Lamy Al-Star.
This price range includes many popular fountain pens. Gold nibs start to make an appearance and there is greater variety in pen material and size. Popular pens in this price range include the Pilot Vanishing Point, Pelikan M200, Faber-Castell Loom, Lamy Studio and Visconti Rembrandt.
Although it may seem expensive, this is the sweet spot for fountain pens. Gold nibs are the norm and there are many different size and material options to choose from. Many hand-made pens from small pen creators can be found in this price range. Popular pens in this price range include Sailor 1911, Lamy 2000, Platinum 3776, Leonardo Momento Zero and Pilot Falcon.
This is another very popular price range for pens and where many brands’ premium pen lines start. Popular pens in this price range include Sailor Pro Gear, Pelikan M600, Aurora 88 and Optima and Pilot Custom 823.
While out of reach for many, there are still some extremely popular pens in this price range. These pens are almost all of the premium offerings for most brands. Popular pens in this price range include the Pelikan M800 and M1000, Visconti Homo Sapiens, Montblanc 146 and 149 and many urushi and maki-e pens.
This is the price range where all bets are off. The main difference between pens in this price range and other, less-expensive pens are either the materials or that the pens are limited editions. Most are premium or exotic materials such as urushi, maki-e, Arco, or precious metals.
So Is It Worth It?
After seeing so many examples of how different features can affect the price of a pen, you’re probably asking if some of them are worth it. The vague, but accurate answer is: it depends. It depends on what you prefer in a fountain pen or writing experience. It depends on how much you’re willing to spend on a single pen. It depends on your aesthetic and image.
From a writing perspective, the nib and pen size will have the biggest impact. If you want an italic nib or a double-broad, the only option is to pay more. As you saw in the Lamy Studio example, upgrading from a steel nib to a gold nib will cost you an extra $100. I recently bought a Lamy Studio, tried both nibs, and went with the steel nib as I just didn’t feel enough of a difference to justify the extra cost. As for pen size, some people want a larger and heavier pen while others want a smaller and lighter pen. If you want a larger pen, you’ll likely have to pay more for it.
From a durability perspective, metal pens are probably worth the extra cost. If you’re accident prone or toss your pens into a bag or pocket and take them with you everywhere, a metal pen will probably hold up much better than a plastic pen. As for other pen materials, the added cost of a urushi or maki-e pen will likely be a big turnoff to many people, regardless of how beautiful the pens are. Still, many will see them as individual works of art and buy them to have something unique and beautiful.
From a practical perspective, brand shouldn’t matter. You would either like or dislike writing with a pen and it wouldn’t matter who makes it. That’s not always how it works, though. Many people will pay a premium for a pen from a known manufacturer. Maybe it’s trust or brand loyalty, but there is something to be said about having a name that is known by most. On the other hand, small, independent pen makers are thriving and many people love the pens that they make because they are not mass-produced by a large commercial manufacturer.
If I’m going to be completely honest, I’m probably not the best person to write a blog post like this. I like black pens that write well. Fancy colors and exotic materials don’t get me excited. Unique filling systems don’t mean much to me. I’ll leave the limited editions for other people. Give me a black pen with a wet, broad nib and I’m happy.
I know that I can get amazing pens for under $300 and can’t really justify spending much more than that. I am just as happy writing with my Lamy Al-Star as I am when I am writing with my Omas Paragon. Sure, they each have their own writing experience, but both write well.
I have also taught myself some basic nib-tuning skills so that if a nib doesn’t write the way I want, I can tweak it a bit. I realize that not everyone can do that and spending more on a pen with a better nib is important to some people.
You may have noticed that I didn’t even mention vintage fountain pens, which are in a category of their own. Prices and values for individual pens vary based on condition, rarity, nib and who is selling them. I am fortunate to have a decent collection of vintage pens with fun and flexible nibs, so I don’t feel the need to track down a modern pen with a flexible nib. Again, not everyone can say that and modern flex is both safe and comfortable.
Ultimately, I’d encourage you to not fixate on one specific pen feature and instead search out a pen that works well with your writing style. If your next pen has to have a gold nib or has to be urushi, think of how many other pens you’re not considering that you may love. Ideally, you could try them out ahead of time at a shop or pen show, but that’s not always possible or practical. If you have a pen that you’re interested in, get online and ask for recommendations for similar pens. People are usually more than happy to share their experiences and opinions.