Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Trolling for Hate: "Pens" v. Pens

I recently purchased, on air while recording GGL, a Matthew Martin 400 series pen.  I also purchased, around the same time, a Scheaffer Sagaris Fountain Pen.  These purchases made me realize just how different pens can be and how the gear community has, for all intents and purposes, gotten the pen thing completely wrong.

My essential problem with the Matthew Martin pen, along with all of the pens of its ilk--the Hinderer pens, the Tuff Writers, the ZT, Surefire, and Benchmade pens is simple--they are not about performance, but instead about looks and branding.


As a community, we are dedicated to focusing on performance.  We spend large sums of money on small upgrades in steels or insignificant increases in lumens.  But when it comes to pens we are enamored with what is, frankly, a bunch of bullshit.  

Now there are places where these hard use pens are useful.  If you are a police officer writing tickets on the side of the road in 110 degree heat or blizzard conditions, get one of pens listed above and call it a day (though even here you can still do better, see below).  They will write in just about any condition.  But if you aren't, you are settling for a massive downgrade in performance.  This isn't the pen equivalent of me railing against silly overbuilt knives.  There they are ostensibly still knives.  The difference between something like the Matthew Martin pen, even with a good refill, as opposed to the Fisher refill that is the default for all of these pens, and the Scheaffer is essentially an unbridgeable gulf.  

I used to think that these ballpoint refill pens were necessary as nothing as prissy as a fountain pen could withstand the rigors of EDC work, but after carrying a fountain pen for two years, I have put the lie to that claim.  A good fountain pen, like a Kaweco Sport, Pilot Vanishing Point, or the Scheaffer Sagaris, can handle daily use and lots of travel (air travel is a different story, but with precautions taken, they can handle even that).  I get that some fountain pens that don't hold up.  In particular, I have avoided Twsbi, but aside from cheap stuff and a few exceptions, the fountain pens I have had have been able to withstand the rigors of hard, excessive daily use. 


And the performance increase--the writing performance increase (because, after all, these are pens and their task is to write)--is huge.  I switched to fountain pens because I take so many pages of handwritten notes a day that my hand became a claw when I was forcing myself to use ballpoints and gels.  You need so little pressure to write with a fountain pen that I can easily take twenty or thirty pages of notes a day, at a high speed under stress, with no problem.  I can't say the same for a ballpoint.

But its not just the ease of use that demarcates a fountain pen from other pens.  The fountain pen allows for a tremendous amount of variability in the width of the line.  You can get very thin lines for marginalia or massively thick lines for underlining important things.  With a ballpoint or gel, you can't do these things without a ton of effort.  There is also the fact that you can get very precise colors with a fountain pen.  I just bought my first bottle of ink (and at the rate I am using it I will still have it in five years), Pilot's Iroshizuku, and it is amazing.  The vivid colors and the change in tone from the edges of the ink to the heart of the line are incredible.  Your eye drinks it all in and your hand is thrilled at the prospect of continued writing.

In short, the performance difference between a fountain pen and other pens is so great that it is the the same as the difference between a high end ZT and the knife shaped objects sold at Wal-Mart for a dollar.  By focusing on things like the body material or the name brand on the pen, the EDC community has become blinded.  This is the only place where we accept truly subpar performance.  You can put all of the mammoth ivory you want on the body of a pen, but if it runs a ballpoint refill, your still just putting lipstick on a pig.

This is not as simple as fountain pens are better (though they are).   In reviewing pens and using them more than probably 99% of the population, I have come to realize that ballpoints are especially bad.  Gels are better, with better page feel, better lines, and better colors, but they are still not the same as a fountain pen.  I have found that only the Mont Blanc Fineliner refill approaches the performance of a fountain pen.  This is a case where I think it is probably worth having a discussion about performance.  Comparing a Fisher refill and a fountain pen is pointless.  The Fisher refill is awful.  100% total garbage.  But with the Fineliner you get something better and something different from a fountain pen.  These are real pens.  I also think the Sharpie refill is close to being this good.  It is just as "write everywhere" as the Fisher, but it gives you real page feel. 

The trend in EDC pens is pretty silly--massively heavy, overbuilt pens designed to withstand cannon fire, but can't write worth a lick.  If you write every day you owe it to yourself to do better than a ballpoint, roller ball, or gel pen.  If you only jot something down once in a while, well, I am sure the EDC pen will work, but it is no better than a Sharpie, even if it is in a titanium body.  And really, when as minimal use stopped us from pursuing performance?  Very few of us use our knives for hours a day, and yet we have no problem seeking out M390 and ZDP-189.

So it is a mystery--why do we accept clearly inferior performance in our pens?  Perhaps it is because we have reached the Baroque Period of the Golden Age of Gear and only bling, not performance, matters.  But I also think it is possible that some folks just don't know better.  That $600 mammoth ivory pen writes no better than a free bank ballpoint.  But for $5 you can get a damn good writer in a Sharpie.  And for $25 you can get a truly sublime and durable fountain pen in the form of the Kaweco Sport, Lamy Safari, or many others.


And try as I might I can't find anything even close to the performance of a Vanishing Point, thanks to its best in price bracket gold nib, for around $125.

If you care about performance, if you want the very best, or if you care about value, stop kidding yourself with these three pound, ugly monsters and get a pen used by adults.  Get a fountain pen, or at least something that runs a Mont Blanc Fine Liner.  Or hell, get a Sharpie in a metal body with replaceable refills (they are like $7).

And if you can't bring yourself to do that, at least drop that Fisher refill in the garbage and get a Schmidt EasyFlow 9000, the best writer that is compatible with Parker style refill (which is what the Fisher is).  

I'll keep reviewing the ballpoint pens because they can be useful, they do write longer (though a large refill fountain pen lasts quite long as well), and people are interested.  But I think any person interested in EDC and performance should have a fountain pen in their daily carry arsenal.  


  1. Tony cutting through the bullshit yet again. This is why I fucking love your site.

    I completely agree with everything you said here. Fountain pens are just superior regarding writing performance. I guess other aspects, such as "bling" factor, "tactical use", and hype is what drives people to buy these pens. Which, again, I don't get, (why would you sacrifice performance for these factors? I mean c'mon bruh) but cool, each to his/her own. One thing to note is these "gear community pens" are usually made of more solid materials, and have less parts to break then a fountain pen. So I guess they have that (toughness) going for them. But having carried a rotation of a Parker 45 and a Decimo Vanishing Point as my EDC, toughness isn't a huge issue as long as you aren't being silly with your pens.

    So my conclusion is... Use a fountain pen. It's the tits. And fuck the Fisher Refill.

  2. Although I'm a fountain pen user for all personal work (Lamy Studio) I can't agree with you in so many ways. Trying to find an immediate drying/non smudging, waterproof, long lasting ink for a fountain pen is a chore. And when you do the ink tends to look like a broad ballpoint anyway. A ballpoint cartridge will last so much longer than the equivalent amount of fountain pen ink, seems like 10 times the amount. My EF nib looks like an M ballpoint nib, I haven't been able to come close to reaching a Schmidt F point with any fountain pen nib. Oh and there is the problem of just how fragile that nib is, if even one of the tines is not perfectly aligned you're going to get scratching and blotching which makes writing really annoying (been there done that). Yes ballpoint writing looks, well typically ballpoint, with about as much individuality and personality as a photocopy but let's be real about why they are preferred to fountain pens. A fountain pen is considerably more work. Like the difference between driving stick and automatic. If you want to build a tough, go anywhere and do anything pen like these companies are, a fountain pen with it's fragile nib and delicate ink is totally out of place. Period.

    1. A few things here. First, if you want a quick drying ink you should try Quink, which is, as it sounds, a quick drying ink. Second, I have found that Pilot's Iroshizuku line of inks, while not billed as quick drying, are, in fact, very quick drying.

      You are right about the cartridge on a fountain pen, but if you go the bottled ink route, you can get very large ink reservoirs that make up most of the difference between a ballpoint and a fountain pen. And the bottle ink route is vastly cheaper, even with high end ink like Iroshizuku.

      I am not sure I would agree with the stick/automatic analogy. With the right equipment its probably more like the difference between a good mechanical watch and a good quartz--that is to say almost unnoticeable in practice.

      Of course the Tuffwriters, et. al. are tougher, but that doesn't mean that a fountain pen isn't tough enough. It won't survive a blender, but my VP has been more than tough enough for me and I write in some pretty rough places. There are some fountain pens that won't hold up, like Twsbis, but my Sagaris and my VP are fine. In fact, I think the Sagaris, which its all metal construction, is quite tough.

  3. I have fountain pens: Kaweco, Lamy, and even a Vanishing Point -- never use them. Why? Because they suck in the field. One drop of rain (pretty damn common in Oregon) and the whole page and the one below it are gone. And then you can’t write anything the rest of the day. Just a bleeding mess of chromagraphic hues. Same with gel pens and your Fineliner.

    There are only four writing implements i take into the field - a Parker Jotter ballpoint (running the Schmidt Easy Flow -- nice call), a Staedtler 925 (.07) pencil, a Doane Utility notebook, and a Write-in-the-Rain Journal. I take field notes and make field sketches – probably a dozen of each every day in the field. Something like, line width, precise, vivid colors that change in tone and page feel are pretty damned unimportant, superfluous actually

    This commentary does not take into consideration all conditions of use and is focused on a very small segment of the population. You may sit in an air conditioned environment and write all day, I don’t. Come join me in my office, the banks of a marsh on a rainy day in December. Bring your note book and your fountain pens. I'll have my pencil and my Write-in-the-Rain Journal. Want to bet which notes and field sketches will be readable the next day. Hell, you won’t be able to write a damn thing.

    But; other than that, I pretty much agree with what you are calling attention to; but it is really limited in scope, aimed at a really small segment of the population. How many people actually have to, “take twenty or thirty pages of notes a day, at a high speed under stress”? How many people actually buy, “massively heavy, overbuilt pens designed to withstand cannon fire, in a titanium body” ?

    Use the right tool for the job – don’t pound nails with your chisels and don’t bring a fountain pen into the field.

    1. You're not wrong, but, in general, this site is addressing a relatively limited segment of the population anyways. This segment has recently been prone to preferring gear for looks over performance, and I think that's really the point Tony's making here, that these overbuilt pens don't actually perform up to the price you pay for their looks. Obviously every person's use case is different, but he does mention one that can use a tougher pen, which implies others. He does also mention better-performing alternatives, such as the Sharpie or replacing the Fisher refill with the Fineliner, so you can have performance and toughness.
      I, for one, have looked into getting a Tactile Turn Mover because it uses the Pilot G2 gel refill, which I have found to be exactly what I want for performance vs. cost(lasts longer and is less prone to being finicky than a fountain pen). It's $70 so it's not a small investment but it's made of anodized aluminum(other materials as well for varying costs) so I can get something tough that also has the performance I want. The key thing is that I'm specifically not sacrificing the performance I personally desire, because I know better. Part of what Tony's saying here, I think, is that many in the EDC community are buying these overbuilt pens just on looks and branding, and are unaware of the fact that they can do better in terms of writing, which is their function. Some may not even care, but Tony's "job" here is to call it like he sees it.

    2. The critique in the OP is the pen version of a Gayle Bradley remark overheard in one of Nutnfancy's SHOT videos: "You can't call it a hard use knife if you can't cut anything with it!" (/hat tip to TheApostleP)

      As a total ignoramus outsider to this subject -- I don't even know what I don't know -- I will just meekly chime in that the Pilot G2 is what I associate with the phrase "nice pen." I occasionally buy a pack and use them instead of the usual cheap Bic (or worse) stuff in the office copier room. It's nice.

      I don't take remotely as many notes as Tony. I do like to use a note pad and a pen for hard thinking. You can arrange phrases and ideas more freely in 2-D space to suggest and explore their relationships. I am a messy writer and prone to marginalia, so I need something that dries instantly.

      Fountain pens daunt me. Maybe that's ignorance. (I once thought the idea of non-stainless blade steels on pocket knives was anachronistic contrarianism too.)

      That Tactile Turn Mover is very appealing.

    3. Greg is right about the Rite in the Rain paper. It, like the Field Notes Expedition Edition, runs a polymer based paper (similar to those used in foreign currencies) and these do not work well, if at all, with fountain pens. For that particular use, ballpoints are better.

      That said, how many people regularly write outdoors in the rain? I don't carry a rescue tip knife because I'd rarely use it, and I'd prefer a fountain pen for the same reason. Greg's office seems to be an exception and not the rule. Very rarely is heavy outdoor work "pen" work. And when it is, I'd still recommend something over a ballpoint. The Sharpie works on the polymer paper and as I mentioned above, it has a real and decent writing experience.

      As for line width, vivid colors, and the like, as a lawyer I can tell you that courts REQUIRE originals and that means that bright blues help distinguish copies from originals. Also, I take lots of notes and having line width control makes it easier to emphasize things. When I take notes of a witness, fast and furious, I can more easily go back for cross and find important things if there is some line width variation. Its not a HUGE thing, but I do use it on a regular basis.

      As for the number of people buying the Tuff writers, Hinderers, Benchmades, Surefires, and Matthew Martin pens, just hop on Instagram. They are everywhere in the knife community. And that is sort of my point--in this one small niche, where performance is king, we have ignored performance in favor of appearance. I'd have a great understanding of why if folks were carrying G2s and Skilcraft pens, but what we get are these overpriced, overbuilt, $600 ballpoints that write very poorly.

    4. Iron gall or noodler's inks are plenty waterproof for your average drizzle. And this is one of the fountain pen's great advantages - change the ink, not the pen.

  4. I used to use a fountain pen for notes, but stopped after I couldn't live with the smudges from the odd encounter with water. But I do agree that the overbuilt tactical pens are silly for the vast majority of the population, perhaps for everyone.

  5. The Tactile Turns are lovely pens, but here's something to keep in mind: The clicky on these pens takes a very light touch. It's nice, but I found that the pen would extend unintentionally in my pocket or even in my computer bag. I'd end up with ink on the inside my pocket or pen slot in the computer bag.

    Maybe my clicky is an extra-sensitive special case, but I ended up saving the Tactile Turn for desk use, and switched to a capped pen for the pocket.

  6. Tony, I think you're doing yourself a huge disservice by dismissing Twisbi! The 580 is a really refined design with enormous ink capacity and good nib - not as nice as the VP but certainly better than the Lamy Safari or Kaweco Sport. It was designed with input from the community at FPN and went through several iterations (First there was the 530, then the 540) as the design improved. It's made to be easily dis- and re-assembled. It's probably the best value piston-filler on the market, feeling and writing like an entry-level Pelikan at less than half the cost. I'm a touring musician and have taken mine on the road with me numerous times without any durability issues.

  7. I love my fountain pens. However I still carry a fisher bullet space pen in addition to my karas kustoms ink because using most fountain pen inks on cheap paper is not a pleasant experience. The fisher refill sucks for writing pages of notes but it's great for small jobs and will perform consistently on any paper.

  8. I am an engineer and I carry two Fisher Bullet Space Pens on me, one blue and one black. They take up virtually no pocket room and I do not have any concern when writing on dirty paper, as it can happen when working at our R&D facility. I don't always know where I will be working so it's nice to always be prepared. I keep some Uni Jetstream pens in my office, but leave them at my desk. I don't know if a better refill is compatible with the Fisher Bullet Pen, but usually when I use it I just need to jot something down quickly. I am quite happy with the Jetstream, but could see myself upgrading at some point. I have no idea where to start.

  9. You should ask brad to lend you one of his Nakayas; possibly the best fountain pen(s) ever.

  10. I've never really warmed-up to fountain pens. It's just not my thing, and gets in the way of what I need, which is a basic, ready-to-use writing instrument. I am most productive with my Parker Jotter pen (stainless steel version). It writes really well, it has a classic look that no one would mistake for a tactical pen, and takes almost any Parker-type refill.

  11. I personally carry a Kaweco Al Sport and prefer it as my EDC pen. But the pen on my office desk, which ends up being used far more often, is a modded Zebra "F-4701". As much as I love fountain pens, a ballpoint is simply more practical for more people in more situations. I don't write often, but when I do, it's either to jot down a quick note to be handed someone else (in which case the cumbersome unscrewing of a fountain pen cap is unwieldy) or to take the type of intermittent, stop-and-go notes you'd need while attending a talk or PowerPoint presentation (when a fountain pen left uncapped between breaks in writing would dry out). Further, I sign a lot of documents and checks, and the Space Pen refills you hate so much happen to be one of the most versatile and commonly available indelible inks. I use Mont Blanc Permanent Black in my Kaweco, which attempts to mitigate, but does not entirely solve, this situation. I'd assume as a lawyer you would place a high value on the integrity of signatures and notes on legal documents- I have a lawyer friend who even writes in blue ink exclusively, to make his handwritten notes and signatures immediately distinguishable from photocopies. For all these reasons, and despite their many pleasing attributes, fountain pens tend to be far less practical and useful for the average person, or even the not-so-average EDC nerd.

  12. So... Did I miss your observations about the Shaeffer Sagaris? I have about 4 fountain pens right now, but like Greg, I'm doing a lot of field work and that's a poor environment for a fountain pen. Loosing the cap for a Waterman in the weeds was the last straw. When my work changes and it keeps me at a desk, I'll fill them.

  13. I'm not quite sure why you decided to drag Matt Martin pens into this when this is clearly a fountain pen vs all article.

    I need a clicky pen for work. I don't take down pages of notes but I need to jot stuff down constantly. Nothing I have seen has shown me that the few clicky fountain pens out there would be a better choice as they seem like compromised designs in the face of forcing it into a form factor it doesn't belong it.

    I have several Matt Martin pens, all with better than Fisher refills in them and they are fantastic. None of them are tactical or overbuilt, just nice pens. Just because he makes A tactical pen doesn't mean that's all he makes.

    Plus, I get to support a kid who makes almost everything himself and is a good guy instead of shelling out money to some random company and he makes plenty of pens cheaper than the Pilot Vanishing Point.

    I still don't get how you own a nice watch that is less accurate and less durable than a g-shock but costs over 10x as much. Or a nice custom Gedraitis or Dauntless that can't out cut your zdp-189 dragonfly but also cost almost 10x as much.

    You get hung up on some the craziest things sometimes. It is almost like you are more than happy to get esoteric but only when it's things you agree with.

    1. This isn't "fountain pens are better". It is really "ballpoints and gels suck." Every hard use scenario named in the comments might not suit a fountain pen, but the sharpie which I mentioned and seems to have been forgotten, will do just as well or better than the Fisher.

    2. Also, it wasn't Matthew Martin in the particular, his pen was just emblematic of a class of pens and the most recent version purchase of this kind of pen. That said, some of the mammoth ivory pens he sells seem to be MOST emblematic. Nothing by Hinderer, ZT, Benchmade, or Surefire comes close to the $600 for MCM's most expensive pen.

      I bought it because he is a kid starting out. I want to support those kinds of people. I have always gone out of my way to support those endeavors both personally and on this blog. But I am still going to be critical. I don't get this "never speak ill" mindset that exists in the custom knife world. Some customs are AWFUL. Just like some productions are AWFUL. But Matthew Martin isn't served as a maker of stuff if we just assume his stuff is awesome by default.

      As for the Sinn v. G-Shock thing there are two issues--first, the Sinn is sufficiently accurate and sufficient tough for me. The pens I am railing against do not pass the writing performance test, even with the best refills. I get that there is a difference between sufficiency and excellence, but here, in the case of pens, ballpoints do not meet the first standard, let alone the second, in 95% of the circumstances. The same thing is true for the Gedraitis and Dauntless--both are sufficiently good at the primary task that I enjoy them for other reasons.

      Second point about the watch--appearance is function when it comes to a watch. A watch works by looking at it, so how it looks is very important to its function. I find G-Shocks hard to read at a glace and quite ugly. I find the Sinn very easy to read (in fact, it has the best legibility of any watch I can think of) and I like its clam, clean appearance.

      As for the last point I agree with you--I do get hung up on crazy things. I just think its nuts to spend $300 on something that writes like meh because the brand name or its overbuilt/machined look. The Sharpie is a great writer--really damn good--and it costs $7. If write anywhere is your thing or if you need to write in tough conditions, that is an awesome pen, much better than a ballpoint, even the best ballpoints. But if you don't need that kind of writer, a fountain pen is the way to go.

    3. But not every one of his pens are mammoth... How is it any different than a mokume Aeon? Are you going to impugn the entire Aeon line because he makes a ridiculously expensive baroque piece?

      Matt's stuff is awesome. His craftsmanship is top notch. You should know by now I'm not one of those people who blow smoke up makers' asses.

      I am just having a hard time wrapping my head around this. His pens start at $75 bucks. You make it sound like he's the William Henry of pens where they are all overwrought and super expensive...

  14. Original comment got eaten by blogger, it seems. Anyway.

    I own a Kaweco Sport Al and used to carry it pretty regularly. I still do if I'm expecting the need to take long form notes. However, it was not appropriate for my work environment. I spend most of my day in a truck or on my feet, and when I'm using a pen it's for tasks that the Kaweco can't handle. The Tactile Turn Shaker (Ti) which kicked it out of my pocket (and straight into my backpack, which is also with me at work and school - so, all the time) can write on carbon paper forms and leave an imprint. The Kaweco didn't apply enough pressure. If I can't find a sharpie, I can use the Shaker to label water samples. Because of the slick (oftentimes wet) label paper, the Kaweco had a rough time. If I'm signing into and out of a facility, its much more convenient to grab the Shaker (clipped to my shirt pocket), as opposed to digging out the Kaweco, unscrewing it, posting the cap, getting the ink to flow (it may not after rolling around in my pocket), and recapping it afterwards.

    This feels like the difference between a modern pocket knife and a traditional folder. Yes, my GEC's cut better than most of my other knives and are less frightening to non knife people - but they're in a leather pouch in my pocket. Not conducive to slicing open a stubborn packet of chemicals in wet/muck conditions. That's why I'll frequently carry both: a SAK or traditional folder alongside a modern knife. They're just different, in my book, and speak to different needs. If I'm prepping my lunch, I'd much rather use a traditional knife or a Swiss Army knife. If I need to open a package or cut off a tag, I'll use a modern knife.

    Maybe you could clarify a bit on what specific pens you have a problem with? If the refill on the Martin sucks, are there other compatible ones? Does this impact how you feel about the TTPocketTools pen, or the Maxmadco?

    G.R. Parker

    1. I would also like to note that opting for the titanium version of the Shaker was certainly a vanity choice on my end, but at the time of purchase it was cheaper than the Vanishing Point. Additionally, I had the Kaweco and didn't want my pens competing.

  15. Anthony - any thoughts on the Kaweco Lilliput? Jet Pens ranked it as their choice for best EDC Fountain Pen.

    I'm not a huge fan of the fact that it is clip-less, but it almost seems like an ideal choice to meet your standards while appealing to the EDC-bling crowd as well thanks to the variety of materials in which it is produced.

  16. Tony- Fountain pens are great, but not for every situation. I have been an academic, and am a cop. I can't use a fountain pen at work. The paper I have to write on is cheap copy paper and my VP or Franklin Christoph will bleed and feather all over the place. I carry them when I get to choose the paper. At work I carry a Uni Power Tank, a TuffWriter with a Fisher refill, and a Karas Kustoms Retrakt with a G2 refill. These pens exceed in my work environment. But you know what? Thats where "tactical pens" or pressurized pens belong, clipped to body armor, or at a construction site, or an archaeological dig, or on a ship. Somewhere you might have to wright in the rain, or the freezing cold, or your pen might get run over. I can't use a fountain pen at work for another reason, FORMS WITH CARBONS- and no I'm not kidding. When I'm not at work and I have a bag, I carry a LOT of different writing instruments. When I am only carrying one off-duty, its usually a very nice wood cased pencil, which, by the way, I am literally forbidden from using at work. You need to remember its all about what you need from the instrument. Are you going to bring a Nakaya into the jail with you? Absolutely not. I'm not clipping a TuffWriter to my dress shirt either. One big thing is the pen/ink/paper combination. Try writing with a gel or fountain pen on a Rite in the Rain or Field Notes Expedition notebook. It will smear like crazy. Thats where a Fisher, or better yet a Uni Power Tank, excel. Its all about choices.