Nib Novice, Part 5 – The TWSBI Eco & a Zebra V-301 Update

This is the fifth part in a series in which I’m learning to use fountain pens. For the previous installments, click here.


Chalk it up to a bad experience, but I really had no desire to pick up a new fountain pen after putting down my Lamy Safari a few months ago. I’d already purchased a pen – a TWSBI Eco – but I couldn’t bring myself to ink it up. So I decided to let it sit, shrink-wrapped on my desk, for about a month. When curiosity finally drove me to break open the packaging, I realized pretty quickly that my experience with fountain pens was about to change for the better.

Just to look at it, it’s obvious that the Eco is one of the coolest pens I own. In the lingo of the fountain pen world, it’s referred to as a demonstrator pen, a style that indicates a clear-bodied pen that makes all the inner workings visible. Filled with a dark red ink, “Rouge Hematite” by J. Herbin, it’s neat to watch the fluid slosh around the pen’s innards and move through the feed toward the nib. It’s certainly eye-catching. In fact, a co-worker of mine recently mistook the Eco for an e-cigarette and erroneously scolded me for picking up the habit of smoking.


In addition to its looks, I’m very happy with the way the Eco writes. Various nib styles are available, but I decided to blindly go with a stub nib. Luckily, this turned out to be a great choice, as it seems to give a professionally stylized character to my print handwriting. This has everything to do with the shape of the nib, which looks to my eye like a narrower, rounded-off italic nib. This gives it a vertical/horizontal line variation that is a lot more subtle than what you get from a calligraphy pen.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Eco’s piston filling mechanism holds a lot of ink. A piston mechanism, I’ve learned, works almost exactly like a cartridge converter; simply dip the nib into a bottle of ink, then twist the end to suck the ink up into the reservoir. There’s really only one difference between the two filling systems: instead of the a cartridge being housed inside the pen, the pen’s barrel is the ink cartridge. Yes, I have some anxiety about the pen coming apart and ink spilling everywhere, but it’s something which – knock on wood – hasn’t happened yet.

I’m happy to report that the Eco is the first fountain pen I’ve found myself coming back to again and again. I’ve even considered buying a second one with black trim that I’d fill with a black ink to match, but that’s a little ways down the road. For now, I’m excited again about trying another new fountain pen.

In other news…

Shortly after writing about the Zebra V-301, the fountain pen that barely worked, I received an email from one of Zebra’s product managers. The V-301’s design was in the process of being updated, and I was asked if Zebra could send me one to try out. I agreed, and a few months later, the new V-301 arrived in my mailbox.


On first inspection, the new V-301 looks practically identical to the older model. Take off the cap, however, and it’s easy to tell that the nib has gone through a bit of an update. A shroud now covers the nib and feed section, and it’s likely that there are more changes underneath. Whatever the case, I can say that the V-301 now works a lot better. The new model writes much more consistently (and right side-up), and the ink flow has been reduced. I’ve also noticed that the cap of the new model posts a lot more securely than the old one did.

It’s still not a particularly smooth fountain pen, and I think the clip could use some beefing up. But for a fountain pen under $5, it’s not bad. At the very least, I’m happy that Zebra listened to their customers and made improvements.

Nib Novice, Part 4: Counterfeit Lamy Safari

Note: this post is the fourth part of a series in which I’m learning about fountain pens. For Part 1, click here. For part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.

When I first began looking into fountain pens, my eye immediately turned to the Lamy Safari. I love the colorful options and the slick, modern design. So, for a little more than $20, I snagged one from Amazon and looked forward to inking it up. But when I finally broke it out of its packaging, it quickly turned into a frustrating and disappointing experience.


Instead of an ink cartridge like the Zebra V-301 and Sheaffer Calligrapher, the Lamy Safari came with a cartridge converter, which is basically just the refillable version of a standard ink cartridge. It’s really pretty easy to use: (1.) pop the converter into the pen like you would with a normal cartridge, (2.) dip the pen’s nib into a bottle of ink, then (3.) use use the converter’s plunger to suck the ink up and into the pen. Pen Chalet has a 2-minute video explaining the process.

Unfortunately, when I attempted this simple procedure myself, the ink I used immediately clogged up the pen. I could get no ink to flow at all. So I cleaned the pen and the converter – a tedious process that involves a lot of water rinses – and refilled it with a different ink. This time, instead of clogging up the pen, the new ink began to leak all over the place. Did I do something wrong? Did I choose the wrong ink? Did I break the pen somehow?  I couldn’t understand why I was having so much trouble.


Before I let my irritation compel me to throw the Safari out the window, I decided to consult with the fountain pen fans at Reddit, who suggested replacing the converter – perhaps the one that came with the pen was faulty. Luckily, I had ordered an extra one, so I tried it. And for a little while the pen seemed to work, but I soon realized that the leaking didn’t actually stop, it just slowed. Whenever I removed the cap, ink still smeared all over the pen and all over my hands. After a couple days of this, I was done with this pen.

So I sat down to write this post, unhappy and exasperated, when I stumbled onto a blog by Goldspot Pens. I was looking to see if others had similarly poor experiences with the Lamy Safari, and it turned out that many indeed had. Only these problems weren’t with real Lamy Safari fountain pens, they were with Safari counterfeits.


Reading further, my experiences matched closely with a blog by The Desk of Lori and a post on the FPGeeks Forum. Counterfeit Lamy Safari fountain pens seem to be sold through third party sellers on Amazon and eBay, and there are a fair few differences when comparing one to a real Lamy Safari. Small differences are easy to spot with both in hand, but the major difference is that these counterfeits are known to be barely functional. Fortunately and to Amazon’s credit, I was issued a full refund without being asked to return the counterfeit.

When I finally ordered a real Lamy Safari – this time from Goldspot, since their PSA alerted me to the counterfeit issue in the first place – my experience was much better. I chose a limited edition Neon Yellow color with an extra fine nib, and I inked it up with a bottle of Levenger’s Raven Black ink. And though the ink was more gray than I expected and the extra-fine a little too fine for my taste, I’m a lot happier.


I still have some issues with fountain pens, but they mostly come from still being a newbie. I press down a little too hard on the paper, and I fumble to get the nib turned the correct way. But, hopefully, this will all improve with time.

Nib Novice, Part 3 – The Sheaffer Calligrapher

Note: this post is the third part of a series in which I’m learning about fountain pens. For Part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.


One bonus that comes from having a blog about pens is that I occasionally get some interesting hand-me-downs. This Sheaffer Caligrapher is a good example. Purchased sometime in the 1980s, it was found by my mom at the bottom of her desk drawer, where it sat in its original packaging, unopened and with two black-ink cartridges.

After my bad experience with the Zebra V-301, I was eager to break open the packaging of a new fountain pen and pop one of the ink cartridges in. I gave the cartridge a squeeze to get the ink flowing, and to my surprise, this 30-year-old pen began to write without any issues (though I did manage to make a small mess).

italic (calligraphy) nib vs. fine nib

Up until now, I haven’t gotten into much detail about nibs. The nib is the tip of the fountain pen; the part the touches the paper and distributes ink to the page. There are a lot of different nib styles – fine point, medium point, stub, flex, etc. And a fountain pen will produce different line variations, depending on the type of nib being used.

The Shaffer Calligrapher uses an italic nib, which has a tip that flattens out into a broad area. Rather than providing a consistent line width, this nib design is meant to produce broad horizontal lines and thin vertical lines. And If you hadn’t guessed by this pen’s name, it makes an ideal tool for calligraphy.


As far as I can tell, the Sheaffer Calligrapher is an older model of the Sheaffer Viewpoint, which sells for under $10 and is commonly bundled with special calligraphy sets. The Calligrapher is built nicely for this purpose, too. It has a threaded cap with a flat end that can stand up vertically when posted, making it ideal for longer writing sessions. Surprisingly, it’s also a pretty durable pen. I inadvertently threw it in my backpack where it banged around for a week, and when I took it out to write, it still worked great.

All said and done, It was nice to use the Calligrapher. It’s a good-quality pen at a low price, however, I can also tell that it isn’t the right pen for me. I’d like a pen that’s more practical for every day use and something that fits my block writing style better. In the mean time, the Calligrapher will rest in slot number three on my fountain pen stand, waiting until the next time I need to write a thank you note.


Nib Novice, Part 2 – The Zebra V-301

This is the second part of a series in which I’m learning to use fountain pens. For Part 1, click here.


These days, fountain pens are no longer marketed to the general public.  If you want to buy one, there are very few options besides specialty shops and online stores – big box retailers simply don’t carry them. So, I was a surprised awhile back when I noticed this Zebra V-301 fountain pen at corner store a few blocks away from my apartment, where it was hanging between Pilot G-2s and BIC Stics. I bought it for about $4, and it became my second fountain pen.

The V-301 is based on the popular Zebra F-301, mimicking its stainless steel body and plastic, black trim, but as a fountain pen, it’s obviously much different. It uses what’s called a disposable, “cartridge-style” refill, which is basically just a small tube of ink. With some fountain pens, these cartridges are refillable, but disposable cartridges seem to be recommended to fountain pen newbies because they are very straight forward. You just pop the cartridge inside, and the ink starts flowing. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

The V-301’s ink cartridge

With this Zebra V-301, it took a lot of work to actually get the ink running. I spent at least 5 minutes scratching paper with the nib until I finally became frustrated enough to shake and bang the pen on the table. But when the ink eventually started to flow, my experience with this pen didn’t get any better.

When you look for reviews of this pen, not many people have good things to say. Azizah at Gourmet Pens calls it her “current most disliked fountain pen ever,” and the review at No Pen Intended calls it a “trainwreck of metal and ink.” And, having used it for a couple days, I fully understand their complaints.


The V-301 is very finicky about the angle at which you write. You have to hold it at a very high angle, else the ink flow cuts in and out. Oddly, the ink actually flows a lot better when holding the nib upside-down with the feed facing up, and this seems to be a common complaint. Even Zebra’s product page for the V-301 has half a dozen customer complaints about this problem, and, for what it’s worth, Zebra’s customer outreach has said that the pen will soon be fixed.

If nothing else, Zebra deserves credit for being a company that dares to try something different. Still, it’s a shame that the V-301 is such a disappointment. As one of the very few mass marketed fountain pens, it’s likely to wind up in the hands of beginners who might be so turned off as to never try another fountain pen. I, on the other hand, will persist on. And, next time, I’ll be sure to try something that works better.


Nib Novice, Part 1 – The Pilot VPen

Fountain pens, frankly, are intimidating. For someone like me who’s never used one, they seem a bit finicky and archaic. Learning to become a fountain pen user seems almost like learning to drive stick or learning how to ferment homemade vinegar. There are fervent advocates for all these practices, but to an outsider, they seem like they might be more trouble than they’re worth. So why bother?

Type “why use a fountain pen?” into Google, and you’ll be met with a host of reasons listed on various websites and blogs.  Unfortunately, most of these reasons just don’t speak to me. For example, a blog at oPENions describes how fountain pens can be great for left-handed writers, but I’m not a lefty. A blog at Writer’s Bloc does a great job of explaining how fountain pens are good for people with weak wrists, carpel tunnel, or hand-cramping issues, but none of these are problems for me. A post at Goulet Pens even mentions that fountain pens can save you money in the long run, though if this were a major concern, it would be cheaper for me just to swipe ballpoints from bank lobbies.

For me, there’s only one reason that makes sense. All of those blogs touch on it in one way or another, but I think blogger Ed Jelly puts it best: “Maybe it’s the inner pen geek speaking, but I find it fascinating that there are several parts and either a steel or gold piece of pointed metal that deliver ink to page. Capillary action draws ink from the internal reservoir through a feed to regulate the flow, all the way to the tip of the pen… Different pens have different filling systems and clear pens (called ‘demonstrators’) let you see all the inner workings. Tell me that isn’t more interesting than your standard ballpoint?!” In other words, fountain pens are just kind of neat.

So, in order to learn about fountain pens and decided for myself whether they’re worth the trouble, I’m starting this new series of posts to explore them. Because fountain pens come in a wide range of varieties – different types of nibs, ink refill systems, barrel materials, etc –  I intend to look at a broad spectrum. And I’m beginning with the simplest fountain pen on the market, the Pilot VPen.

At $2.60, the Vpen is also probably the cheapest fountain pen you’ll find on the market, and it definitely looks the part. Its body is light and made of plastic, It’s non-refillable, and entirely disposable. Still, it was fun to use, and surprisingly smooth.

Of course, nobody would consider this a great pen. The ink flow skips in and out occasionally, and it bleeds through paper fairly easily. A decent gel pen beats it any day, but it nevertheless has me looking forward to trying another fountain pen. And perhaps next time I’ll spend  few more dollars.

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