NB: I still have no idea why WordPress formatting still wants to be such a total shitshow. If you know, do tell me, but I remain powerless to fix it.
I repurpose this post title from a man who once told me: “Ideas are not responsible for the people who hold them.” The fact that I can refer to this particular man here is proof that the therapy has been working. Hurrah! Anyway this will become relevant later.
It’s back to pens and time to talk nibby to you. Nibs are made from a few different materials but all the cheap ones are steel. You need to spend a fair amount before you can move out of steel nib land and into other options. Gold starts to appear at around £50 and then gradually takes over between there and £250. Any manufacturers who are still selling you steel at £250 are bastards.* Gold is an excellent material for nibs: it’s soft enough to write smoothly, but firm enough to resist damage. It doesn’t corrode and it just feels pretty damn luxurious. But what else have we got out there?
Titanium nibs also show up. Although there are only a few pens that offer them as an option from the start, you can pick them up from Bock in a range of standard sizes, and fit one to a pen of your choice for around £60. I don’t really have much to say about titanium nibs, except that they look really cool (in a literal sense). I’ve never written with one, and I can’t quite justify the expense of buying one when the world is so full of very lovely things. Opinion seems to be divided between “awesome” and “crushing disappointment” and although much is made of their softness and line variation, the results always look a bit forced to me. So here’s an invitation to pen nerd buddos to send me their titanium-nibbed pens to play with. You should definitely do that.
Palladium is a thing. Or rather, it’s a thing that nibs can be made from. Most well-known for these is Visconti. Much fuss is made over the Visconti Palladium Dreamtouch nib. Again, I don’t know what these are like because I’ve never written with one. This is because you have to spend almost £500 to pick up the cheapest of them, and they go well into four figures for some of the prettier pens that have them. For slightly less, you can get chromium, but I’ve never written with… well you catch the drift by now. Unusually for a luxury pen brand, Visconti seem to shun gold for the most part. I have an idea that maybe they’re just trying to be different, which may be uncharitable. But the only Visconti currently available with a gold nib seems to be the Pentagon, which is, in my opinion (which I remind you is always 100% correct, objective and THE ONLY VALID OPINION ON ANY SUBJECT) utterly fugly.
Pen nerd buddos: you should definitely send me your Viscontis to play with. Unless it’s a Pentagon.
So what’s left? Well, glass nibs are a thing. They’re a rather odd thing, but they have their fans. There’s your typical glass nib dip pen, of which Lord Dippington is one. Those are everywhere and can be bought for a few quid, which is just as well because they break very easily. Many of us have got a glass-nibbed dip pen and been amazed at how well they work. Glass is extremely smooth and satisfying to write with. The smoothness is different from a metal nib and it’s difficult to describe if you’ve not tried it. If you like fountain pens, it’s worth picking up a cheapy glass dip pen from eBay and see what you think of the writing experience. I certainly fell in love with it immediately. The paradox of glass as a nib material is that it’s both fragile and resilient. The nib will snap very easily if you drop the pen, but if you just write with it, it’ll keep going forever. They break in an instant but they also don’t wear down. Glass dip pens can keep going a surprisingly long way between dips. This is because teeny little channels are cut into the nib, which means that, unlike other dip pens, it has a feed. Ink gets into these channels and then gradually gets released as you write. If the ink stops flowing, you can rotate the pen slightly to bring a different channel into contact with the paper. Keep doing this until they’re all empty and you’ll have several lines of writing.
More recently, some of the Chinese manufacturers have brought in glass nibbed dip pens with caps. This may seem like an obvious development, with glass nibs being so easily damaged, but of course dip pens don’t normally have caps because they don’t store ink so there’s no risk of it drying out. It seems to have taken a great many years before some bright spark registered that if you make a dip pen that has a glass nib but is otherwise made from less brittle materials, and you put a cap on it, you can accidentally knock it off a table when you’re reaching for your coffee, and it’s less likely to break and become useless. Delike have quite a nice looking dipper with a cap, and Moonman have brought out a pen that can switch back and forth between a steel nib and a glass one. Unfortunately, although the steel nib connects to a standard fountain pen feed and section, the glass nib turns it into a dip pen only, which is frustrating.
There have been a couple of attempts to revive the glass nib on true fountain pens recently. There’s Yachingstyle, who have one of the most annoying websites I’ve ever seen. And there’s Sen Handmade, whose website is also pretty bad. Neither of these are available outside of east Asia, and they have three figure price tags, which is quite a lot for an unknown brand. Then there’s the Wink Pen – also over £100 – a Kickstarter which seems to have got quite a bit of love at the time, but then vanished. Bizarrely, the selling point of the Wink Pen was not the glass nib, even though that was the reason why people bought it. It was the fact that that you could use stuff that wasn’t ink as ink – such as wine, which is why the name is short for “wine ink pen.” As far as I’m aware, literally nobody other than the original designer had/has any desire to write with wine. Although it’d probably work well if you’re a total creepy weirdo who wants to write with blood.
So where and when do the glass-nibbed fountain pens come from, then? Mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, and mostly from Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. Yeah… those guys. It is possible that you might have some mixed feelings about that heritage. I don’t have an answer to that one: you either consider objects from that time and place tainted or you don’t. Glass pens were not for the powerful to sign off on awful things. For that it was Montblanc then and it’s Montblanc now (bite me). They were for ordinary people, and they were used for three reasons. First: glass is very cheap. Second: glass is hard and resilient enough to make a mark on several layers of carbon paper, which was damn useful at the time. Of course, from the 1950s onward, the devil’s ink sticks began to appear, and these days you’re stuck with one of those if you need to use carbon paper. At the time, however, although fountain pens were everywhere, almost all of them had flexy gold nibs because that was how you got acceptably beautiful penmanship. Glass nibs obviously don’t flex, which means your penmanship will be UNACCEPTABLE but gold flex nibs are useless on carbon paper. Push hard and you get a thicker line; push harder than that and you break your nib and cry.
The third reason is connected to the first: gold became crazy valuable, especially as the Nazis had a real thing for hoarding it. Metals in general became scarce all over the place because of war efforts, but it was only this part of the world that resorted to glass for nibs. The rich and powerful would keep their gold nibs, but for the plebs and the schoolkids it was glass from thereon.
Some of the glass nibbed pens that can be found now are frankenpens. They started off with gold nibs, but the original nibs got taken off and sold when shit went down, and a glass nib was put on to replace it. This did not go well for the functioning of the pen, and most of these are sticky, leaky horrors that desperately want their original nibs back. A a generalisation that is not 100% true (Montblanc actually made a glass nibber around this time), glass nibbers were made cheaply, as no-frills functional items, by companies you’ve probably never heard of.
The vintage fountain pen market is entirely about recognised brands. People know where they are with their Watermans and Conway Stewarts and Wahl-Eversharps and Mabie Todds. Prices drop abruptly for second tier manufacturers like Burnham and Mentmore. There really isn’t much of a market at all for little manufacturers without a recognised brand. Unless they have glass nibs. The glass nibbers usually go for around £60-£100.
Enter Bastings. Have you heard of them? No. You have not. There’s pretty much no information out there about them. Every now and then someone finds a Bastings Pneumatic and asks around about it. And someone very knowledgeable responds: Oh yes. Those. Yeah, they show up every now and then. No I have no idea either, really.
So how did I come to own this pen? I found it on eBay when I was having a bad afternoon, lying in bed feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes I look at the lovely pen auctions that are about to end. I’m not really shopping, just seeing what is out there and gradually soothing my brain with pen facts. It’s actually quite difficult to get a bargain on eBay because it’s watched closely by thirsty thirsty pen nerds. But not closely enough on that particular afternoon, because they didn’t notice the glass nib on this one. This was because the seller had done her damndest to make the pen look completely worthless.
I know what you’re thinking! This photo is the most inspiring picture I have ever seen. I am moved to tears. I must have this amorphous black blob that was apparently made by Bastings… whoever the hell they are. It doesn’t even say that the pen is vintage. I was drawn in by how crap the listing was, and saw the glass nib mentioned as an afterthought. To be fair to the seller, she obviously didn’t understand pens. She probably inherited this one from somewhere else and could make no sense of it at all. She certainly didn’t know that the one selling point that would make all the difference was the beautifully undamaged glass nib, or that would have been in the listing title and featured photo. But as I did know that, I hammered in my last minute bid, catching the little devil for £8. And now he is mine. I did send him to Battersea Pen Home to have a checkup and new sac fitted, and he came back valued at £75. Of course you have to offset the cost of getting the sac replaced, but it’s still a steal.
He’s an odd little chap. Vintage pens are often items of beauty, because they were expensive and expected to last. This little guy goes beyond no-frills and into the epitome of frillnessness. He’s medium size, or probably one-size-fits-all. He’s matte black at a time of beautiful colourful celluloid pens. He’s made out of cheap plastic – I’m not sure of the exact composition, but it’s likely whichever plastic was not being funneled off for other purposes. The clip is poor quality steel which has corroded to buggery. He has “Bastings Pneumatic” engraved on the cap and “Made in Germany” engraved on the barrel. Given its particular origins in history, I don’t know why this is in English. Post-war Allied occupation perhaps? Either way, this is the product of a country that has been fucked up.
The first thing you wonder about is how to fill the thing. There are lots of different ways to fill a pen. There are cartridge/convertor, piston, vaccuum, lever, button and crescent fillers. There are eyedroppers. It isn’t any of those. The clue is in the word “pneumatic” which of course means breath. It’s a blow filler. Basically there’s a hole in the top of the barrel. You take the nib off (it comes out very easily), put the section into the ink and blow through the hole. This pushes air out of the sac and the ink goes all bubbly. It also makes you look like a kid trying to annoy parents by blowing bubbles through their straw instead of just drinking their damn juice. When you stop blowing, the sac inflates again, pulling ink up. And you’re ready to go.
Quick but obligatory interlude: pneuma is a very interesting word. It can mean breath (hence pneumonia being a disease of breathing), or it can mean spirit or life-force, or can mean something that is powered/sustained by air (pneumatic drill). It goes all the way back to ancient Greece, and remained an important concept within medicine almost up the the 20th century: doctors believed in pneuma as the essence of vitality in every living thing. Good stuff. Being the term for magical fuel in my novel, it’s also important to me personally. This is basically A GODDAMN MAGIC PEN.
How does this little cutie write? Like a dream. It has that lovely glass nib feel, the ink flow is steady and the writing experience is a joy. One thing that is a little odd when you’re used to writing with a conventional metal nib is that the ink flow relies more on gravity than a metal nibber, which is all about that capilliary action. He doesn’t drip or make a mess, but it does mean that the more slowly you write, the thicker a line you’ll get. That’s true with pretty much any fountain pen, but the difference is particularly striking when you use a glass nib. You’re not going to get anything finer than medium, however quick your scrawl, but writing slowly takes you up to a solid BB. I suppose it might be possible to imitate flexy writing like that, but it’d be a pain in the arse so I don’t recommend it. It also means that you’ll want to avoid leaving him cap-downward (I don’t know why you’d do that anyway) but horizontal is fine. You will find, however, that after sitting horizontal for a while he will start extremely wet before falling into his normal only-very-wet habit. Well it beats pens that don’t want to start. Every single time you put him down, put the cap on, though. That’s good practice generally, but if you don’t he will drip ink and you will reach for your coffee, knock him off your desk and break his nib.
Don’t break his nib. He’s an angel and I love him.
* I’m looking at you, Montegrappa.