Fountain Pens for Cheap Bastards6 min read

I’ve enjoyed using fountain pens for a number of years. This probably tickles the same part of my brain that appreciates typewriters and Victrolas. This is a really elegant writing instrument that never should have been allowed to fade back into obscurity and the hobbies of overpaid eccentrics.

If you’re curious about fountain pens, you might be put off by the enthusiasts who pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a pen. You just want something nice to write with, right? Maybe spending $25 to $30 on a Lamy would make sense to you if you already knew that you liked fountain pens.

What if I told you that you could have a really nice fountain pen for three bucks?

Pen makers in China have really figured things out. That, and they get some cushy subsidies. While quality control might not be among their core strengths yet, they really understand mass production, driving down costs, and profiting on volume rather than margin. The fountain pens coming out of China now are no joke.

One of my favorites right now is the Jinhao X450. Jinhao makes a number of pen models, with the X750 and the X450 satisfying those who like substantially thick heavy pens. Both the X450 and X750 are made mostly of metal. I give a slight preference to the X450 for improved ergonomics at the grip.

This Jinhao X450 was purchased on eBay for $2.96. That price included shipping.

The X450 is a pretty remarkable pen. And right now, as I write this post, you can buy them from Chinese exporters for under $3 apiece. The pen comes with a Jinhao branded international converter which allows the pen to draw ink from a bottle. But since the pen follows international standards, you can also use the same standard disposable ink cartridges that most other fountain pens use. This is a great way to give it a try and see if you like fountain pens.

The nib that comes with a Jinhao X450 is nothing special. It’s steel. It flows alright. I’d describe it as a Medium nib. In my own tests, they write pretty well right out of the box. But you can improve them in about ten to twenty minutes with some fine tuning.

Best cheap source for ink? Jinhao makes ink, too. The black ink isn’t so great. Actually it’s not very good at all. But their blue ink cartridges are often reviewed better than premium inks from boutique manufacturers. And you can have a couple of years worth of ink cartridges for under $15.

Buying stuff from China can be a bit of a gamble. My experience has been that vendors tend to be very trustworthy about shipping your orders out. But they won’t tend to be very good at all about communication. Discussing a problem with your order might not happen the way you’d like it. If something goes awry, you might get stuck holding the bag. Also, you’re at the mercy of everyone handling the parcel between China and your front door. Don’t be surprised or butthurt if your $3 pen has a small ding in it from the shipping adventure.

And because of that, I like to recommend that you be careful about the even cheaper pens like the Jinhao 250. Being made of mostly cheaper plastic components, the 250 is a brittle and cheap feeling pen that can and will break in shipping. The extra fifty cents or buck that you save won’t seem so great when you’re looking at a broken pen. I own a number of X450’s and X750’s, and so far they have not suffered any serious harm in shipping.

Are they perfect? No. Like I said, you may find them to be greater pens after you take the time to fine tune the nib. Remember, a fountain pen is not a disposable ball point pen. You’re investing in a writing tool that may well be inherited by your children and your grandchildren. A good fountain pen can easily outlive its owner.

One other area where I feel the Jinhao pens are weak is in the converter. If you use ink cartridges, problem solved. But if you want to use bottled ink, as I do, you may be frustrated with the converter. I’ve found the included converters to be ill-fitting and sometimes a little leaky, which can lead to a little bit of ink leaking out of the seam where the barrel meets the grip… and you end up with ink stains on the first knuckle of your middle finger as a result. The good news is that standard international converters fit in this pen. You can get really nice German made converters, like the Schmidt K5, for about $5 each. The Schmidt K5 fits great in the Jinhao pens. It doesn’t leak, and it holds a little more ink. I put these in all of my Jinhao pens.

My $3 Jinhao X450 is seen here with a $15 Goulet nib. Such an upgrade may sound absurd on the surface, but this combination writes like a $100 pen.

And if you really want to take it up a notch, you might invest in a nicer nib. I tend to spend about $15 (plus shipping) on a Goulet 1.1mm stub, which wholly transforms the humble Jinhao into a really nice writing instrument. If you’re doing the math, that means that for about $25 total cash outlay, you can have what I’d consider to be a nice long-term writing instrument.

If you’re flat out crazy about these pens, any standard #6 nib will fit on these pens without further modification needed. That means that you can use an old 1920’s gold flex nib if you want. I’ve seen others invest in modern gold nibs and rave about how nicely the setup works. When it comes to fountain pens, while the body is important for ergonomic comfort, the quality of the writing comes from the nib and the ink that you use.

This is actually a Reflexions sketch book that I picked up at the art supply store. It holds up to fountain pens relatively well, but does shed fibers into the nib, and does not hold up well to nibs any wetter than this.

One final note, regarding paper: fountain pens write really wet. They lay down a lot of ink as they go. If you try using one in a Composition notebook, you’re going to hate the experience. The ink will saturate through to the back of the page (and likely to the next page). It will feather and make your writing look fuzzy. Paper fibers may shed off the page and clog the tiny gab between the tines on your nib. It’s just bad news all around. I know we just talked a lot about using $3 pens, but when it comes to paper you’re really going to have to raise your standards. Even a Moleskine may not be any good (there are reports of Moleskine paper feathering & bleeding, too). Rhodia makes notebooks that look like Moleskine’s but use a higher grade of paper that is known to work really well with fountain pens.

Do you have a favorite cheap fountain pen? Share in the comments.

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