I’ve been catching up on the Pen Addict members-only “Friend of the Show” podcast (highly recommended), and person after person said that they prefer modern pens, and they have a vintage pen, an Esterbrook, which they don’t really use. That people’s first vintage pen is an Esterbrook didn’t surprise me, as it’s a great little pen at a very compelling price, and it can be easily modified to suit your writing style by swapping out the nib. What did surprise me a little is that people aren’t really using the Esterbrooks that they have.
Then again, I own five Esterbrook pens:
Yet I haven’t used them in years. They all have nibs that I carefully selected to fit my writing style perfectly, and still I haven’t used any of them since 2016 or so. And the reason I don’t use them is the reason why I’m going to suggest to people starting out with vintage pens to maybe not pick the Esterbrook as their first vintage pen, ubiquitous and cheap and beautiful as they may be.
They’re lever fillers, every last one of them.
Lever filler mechanisms are very common in vintage pens, because they are so cheap and easy to produce. They’re also fairly easy to mend, and so you’ll find them everywhere on a vintage dealer’s table or on a vintage pen site. They are my second least favourite filling mechanism (hello button fillers, you get first place) because they are not great to use when you’re filling a pen, and they are really not great to use when you’re cleaning it.
The Esterbrook does allow you to bypass the annoying cleaning part in that you can unscrew the nib and clean the pen like that, but you still have to use the lever when you fill the pen, and you still have no earthly idea how much ink is in your pen while you’re writing with it.
So my friendly suggestion would be to delay your first purchase of a vintage fountain pen and buy something a little more expensive (in the $100-$150 range) that is easier to fill and clean. If it turns out that you like vintage fountain pens, then you can start getting used to lever fillers and their quirks.
Here are my top three suggestions, in order of most beginner friendly to least beginner friendly (but still friendlier than a lever filler): the Pelikan 140 (a piston filler), the Parker 51 aerometric (an aerometric filler that works like a squeeze converter), and the Parker Vaumatic (a vacumatic filler).
The Pelikan 140 is a piston filler with a gold nib, and a semi transparent body which allows you to see if you filled the pen properly and how much ink is left. It was made for over a decade and has a wide variety of nibs, so you can quite easily find it, and look for the perfect nib for you, just like with the Esterbrook. It is a more expensive pen, but you can still get a phenomenally good pen (ebonite feed, gold nib which can sometimes have flex, and a large ink capacity) for significantly less than what the same features would cost on a modern pen. The downside is the aesthetics, which can be a little spartan (Pelikan 140s are mostly black with green stripes), and the trim’s tendency for brassing. But brassing adds character, as once a very good vintage pen blog said. These pens are also likely to be more easily obtained in Europe than in the US or Asia.
The Parker 51 is still my absolute favourite vintage pen, but that’s not why it’s here. It’s here because the aerometrics (which are also cheaper) sport a filling mechanism that works very much like a modern squeeze converter, albeit permanently attached to the pen, and the filling instructions are etched into the pen, which is very helpful of Parker.
Theoretically you can gauge if there’s ink in the pen using the transparent sack but in most cases the sack will no longer be transparent, and even if it was, its position doesn’t really tell you a lot about the state of the ink in the pen. So it’s relatively easy to fill and clean the pen, but you’re not going to have any indication as to how much ink is in it at any given time.
The Parker Vacumatics are gorgeous pens with great nibs, and the striped Vacumatics let you know what the ink level is unless they are stained beyond belief, in which case I’d wait a bit for a pen in better condition. The Parker Vacumatics I’m recommending are those with a lock down mechanism. Of the three pens they are the most fiddly, and that’s why they’re in third place, but they allow for a relatively large ink capacity, and the option to see the ink levels at all times, so they go on the list. To fill the pen you unscrew the blind cap, give the metal nob on the top a slight turn and push (a bit like opening a child proof pill bottle) and then the metal plunger springs out. You push the plunger a few times to fill the pen, and then you push down the plunger and twist it once it’s down so that it locks back into place. If you’ve ever used a child-proof pill bottle then you’ll be familiar with the push and twist mechanism, and if not have it demonstrated when you buy the pen or find a youtube video that shows you how to do it. It’s not difficult.
The Parker Vacumatics are not as intuitive to use as a lever filler, but they allow for an ink window which means that you can see if you have ink left or if you’ve filled or cleaned the pen properly pretty easily:
These pens are never going to compete with the Esterbrook pens on price because they have gold nibs and more sophisticated filling mechanisms. They do quite easily compete with modern pens in terms of bang for your buck when it comes to getting things like a piston filler with a flexy double broad gold nib. If you’re buying a vintage fountain pen that you want to have a relatively easy time filling, using and cleaning, and that will give you a unique and oftentimes exceptional writing experience, any one of these three pens ought to do.
And just to set the record straight: I love Esterbrook pens, and there was a time when I used them constantly, and I still heartily recommend them as they are little workhorses of delight. It just occurred to me that perhaps that little lever combined with the opaque body may be off-putting to new users, and so I’m suggesting a few (much more expensive, sometimes harder to obtain) alternatives. With vintage fountain pens purchase patience is required and not FOMO, so it’s worth waiting for a great $100 pen that you’ll use more than buying a $50 one that you won’t.