One of the reasons that this post took so darn long to write (and admittedly, it did take a lot longer than I wanted it to) is because frankly, this is a really tough class. There are a lot of great entries in this range and it’s awfully hard to narrow the list to just 10. But, that being said, let’s give it a go, shall we?
- Levenger TrueWriter
I know that these pens have gotten some mixed reviews in the past, but I’ve got to say that I’ve had six or eight of ‘em pass through my hands (four are still with me, not counting the rollerball that I hacked recently), and not a single one of ‘em is a slouch in any respect. I’ve used every nib that they sell (including the stub, which is now on loan to a friend in Michigan), and they’ve all been great (in fact, my favorite Broad nib is in that blue one you see pictured above). These are terrific pens, folks. Nicely balanced, great colors, and really great writers. I really, really enjoy these pens.
- Pelikan M200
Come on…you knew it was going to show up on at least ONE of these lists, right? The Pelikan M200/205/215 series are absolutely fantastic pens featuring interchangeable nibs, a piston filler (Rick Conner’s picture above shows the translucent series, which show off the piston a little better than most), and a terrific writing experience. To boot, they’ve got the best after-sale service in the world! I defy you to find a person who’s had a bad experience with Chartpak, their US distributor (and if you’re that one person on earth who’s not happy with the way they treated you, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with the right people to make it right). There are a handful of great retailers who sell these, as well as custom ground nibs in nearly every shape under the sun. I’ve had a couple of these over the past year or two, and they’ve never failed me. They’re well-worth the money! Here’s one in a color I haven’t seen too often, either!
- Aurora Style
When I first used this pen back in November/December of last year, I’m afraid that I didn’t give it a fair shake, because over time, it’s grown on me both in looks as well as in performance. This particular version of the Style has a steel nib, and the body is all-plastic, which actually makes for a very light-weight pen. As with many Auroras, you’ll find that the nib on this one gives you a little feedback (not to be confused with “scratchiness” – I’ve looked at this nib under a microscope and there’s no scratch to be found). It doesn’t necessarily make it ideal for a Moleskine, as it can lead to some feathering, but frankly, this is a really good pen that you can find for low bucks. I’m not entirely sure what the market price is on these now, but you shouldn’t have a hard time finding the all-plastic version for less than $75.
- Sheaffer’s Balance (vintage)
I’ve often stated that one of the best values in fountain pens are found in vintage pens, because oftentimes they can be found for cheap. After putting in a little time in cleaning them up and re-building the filling system, they’ll write REALLY well. Such is the case for the three Sheaffer’s Balances from the early 30s pictured above. The Balance was Sheaffer’s answer to the Duofold, and frankly, it was the Balance that pioneered the “torpedo” or “cigar” shape that’s so popular now with brands like Montblanc, Sailor, and others. They were produced in tons of sizes and colors, so it shouldn’t be terribly hard to find one that’ll fit your hand well, and your taste as far as color is concerned. Your best bet for finding these on the cheap is probably via eBay, and when you get it, it’ll probably need some work done to it, but there are a handful of really talented miracle-workers for these pens. PenRx, Main Street Pens, Richard’s Pens, Tom Pike, and Dennis Lively are just a few of the folks who work on these pens (and I can personally vouch for the quality of their restorations).
There’s tons to learn about the history of these pens if you’re into it (and if you’re interested, let me know and I’ll post up a few historical pieces), but frankly, the Balance is an excellent vintage pen that can often be found for a great price without looking too hard.
*One thing to note about these pens when you’re searching for them on eBay: Don’t be shy in asking the seller to look the pen over pretty carefully for cracks in the cap lip, as well as in the threads on the barrel. Some of the color variations were/are more prone to cracking than others, and if possible, you’ll want to avoid getting one with cracks. They can be repaired by most restorers, but they will be weaker as a result of it. Balances are typically pens that you’ll want to treat with a little extra care. They’re tough, but they’re not indestructible.
- Conklin All-American (modern)
Conklin’s got a great product in the All-American. It’s not a big pen (about the size of a Parker “51″, give or take), but they look great and they write even better. This is probably one of the least expensive ways to buy a new pen with a 14K nib. The orange one that I had was buttery-smooth! These are sleepers; you won’t see many folks using these (though I’m not sure why). Like the Victory, the All-American has a translucent plastic feed, and it’s neat to watch the ink come up into the nib when you first ink it!
- Lamy Studio
The pen with the propeller-shaped clip! These are terrific pens that feature outstanding looks, a nice heft, and typically bulletproof durability. While I’ve never owned one, I’ve written with a few of them, and they’re super-nice. They can be found with a steel nib for somewhere in the $65-75 neighborhood, and ones with a gold nib might stretch a little further than that (but not much – maybe $90-ish?). This picture, borrowed from a Flickr user, shows the pen in the brushed metal finish, but there’s a REALLY nice blue one (black too, I believe) that’s available with a great textured finish. It almost feels like a rubber band!
- “Short/Longs” (Japanese pocket pens)
I borrowed this picture from my friend Woody in Sweden, because it’s an outstanding picture, and it highlights a category that doesn’t get anywhere near the love it deserves. Japanese vintage pocket pens were designed (and I think I’ve mentioned this a time or two before) for smaller shirt pockets, and it’s a shame that there aren’t many being made anymore. They look small when they’re capped, but when you pull the cap off and post it, it ends up being a nearly perfectly balanced full-size pen. There’s a handful of reputable eBay sellers who regularly post these, and the bidding can be all over the place. I’ve seen nice 14K-nibbed pens like these (or their all-plastic counterparts) go for absurdly-low prices (think $25 shipped) to well over $100, so you may want/need to watch these a little; depending on what you’re looking for, you should be in the hunt if you budget between $60-80 for one of these little beauties. The one that I use every day is small enough that it fits in my Levenger International Pocket Briefcase, has a rigid XF steel nib, and never fails to start right up. It’s a Pilot Volex, but that’s certainly not the only model to look for. Sailor, Pilot, and Platinum all made these in the 60s and 70s, and there are still plenty of them to go around. Happy hunting!
- Parker “51″
I’ve probably already said enough good things about the Parker “51″ and why I like it, but for $80, you’ll probably be able to find one in a little nicer shape (although I’ve bought them before for less than $10 and they looked great!). The one you see in the picture above is a Cedar Blue Vacumatic filler from 1946, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. You’ll find these all over eBay, but I know that PenRx often has these, as do restorers like Ron Zorn of Main Street Pens, and it’s not terribly uncommon to find them fully restored in this price range.
- Sheaffer’s Snorkel
A pen that turned W.A. Sheaffer into Public Enemy #1 for schoolteachers across America during the 50s…who knew?
These are one of the more interesting vintage buys out there today. Long and slender (and ridiculously over-engineered), this pen was sold in the 50s and early 60s as the “world’s most complex pen.” They weren’t kidding, either. If you look at the photo above (which was borrowed from Jim Mamoulides’ terrific website, PenHero), you’ll see a pointy thing sticking out from underneath the feed and nib. That’s the Snorkel. To fill it, you unscrew the blind cap on the back and pull it out. While you do this, over on the business end, the Snorkel tube comes out, too. When it’s fully extended, you simply put the tube into your ink bottle, and push the blind cap on the back back in, and the Snork sucks in the ink. This crazy design was built so that when you ran out of ink, you didn’t have to go and find a Kleenex or towel to go and wipe the nib off when you were done (and it also kept you from getting your hands inky). It was (and still is) a great concept, but with so many moving parts, there’s a higher risk of failure (and there were some problems with these).
However, don’t let this throw you off. Just be aware that when you’re buying one (and eBay is probably your best bet for a bargain-basement price), you’ll have to have it restored. It’s not a big deal, just something to be aware of. When it comes back to you from your restorer, it’ll write really well (some of Sheaffer’s best nibs, in my opinion, were produced during this era), and it’ll be a neat piece of 1950s geek chic to show off to all of your friends. The Snorkel was made a zillion different colors and had a handful of different nibs available ranging from steel to 14K two-tone platinum/gold combos, and they always seem to look great. They’re a fairly long and slender pen, but they aren’t what I’d categorize as heavy. They’re quite comfortable to write with, actually. If you’re looking for one that’s already restored, you’ll probably have good luck at any of the major vintage pen restorers that I’ve already mentioned, and if you want something that’s a little above-average in terms of color (there are some rare ones out there), look no further than David Isaacson’s typically-huge listing on his website, Vacumania.
But why did it turn schoolteachers on Sheaffer’s as a company? Simple. Smart mischievous kids (perhaps even some of you reading this) figured out that they made EXCELLENT squirt guns when filled with water! There are plenty of stories of schoolteachers forbidding the Snorkel in their classrooms, and I’d imagine (hope?) that the modern Sheaffer Pen Co. still has a few angry letters in their archives.
(For the record…don’t try the squirt gun trick on an un-suspecting spouse. Don’t ask me how I know this, either.)
- Pelikan Epoch
From time to time, Pelikan has released a few non-piston fillers to the market, and they’ve gotten mixed reviews. The Level series, the PURA, and others like the Epoch, have had some success, but not to the same level as their piston-fillers. This pen, though…is awesome. It’s a terrific departure from Pel’s traditional look, and despite not having the critical acclaim, these are really head-turning. Mine’s a blue one with black, with an XF nib courtesy of Chartpak’s nib-swap policy, and it’s an awesome writer.
The nib on this pen has a tubular shape and it gives it a really solid/rigid feel. It’s very smooth as a writer, and frankly, I really like the way it looks, too! The picture above (borrowed from WorldLux), shows the subtle taper pretty well as the barrel flows up to the nib. It’s really comfortable for those of you with long fingers (i.e., the musicians in the room).
The one drawback of this pen (for some – not me) is that the pen is sold as a cartridge-filler only. It has a sleeve attached to the blind cap (the black piece on the bottom) that holds two small cartridges or one big one. Normally, I would consider this to be a drawback. But…in this case, the sleeve that holds the cartridges will also hold a converter quite comfortably, and it works just fine. You’ll need to fill your converter prior to putting it in the sleeve, but that doesn’t bother me too much, and it opens up the possibility of using bottled ink in whatever color you choose.
They’re available from a variety of retailers out there, so pick your favorite and give this one a try. I’m really glad that I did.
Well, there you have it. This’ll put the wraps on my picks for the best bangs for the buck at the $80 mark. I could have expanded this list quite a bit, because there are always new pens coming to market and this is a pretty competitive price-point for many manufacturers. But…the fingers will only type for so long, and my budget isn’t endless (however, if you’ve got something you’d like to loan/donate for a review, I’m more than happy to accept!).
Next stop…triple digits! The “Benjamins” class of $100-ish pens is probably the most competitive class out there, but there are some really clear winners that offer outstanding looks and performance. We’ll sort ‘em out next week!
Now…last thing. What would YOU classify as the best writer for $80, if it’s not on this list? Post ‘em up in the comments and let’s get a good discussion going about what you think should make the list! Vintage or modern…it doesn’t matter.