Sustainable ink pen solution for a lefty
May 16, 2014 3:56 AM   Subscribe

Can you please give me advice, or share recommendations, about non-disposable, easy writing pens for a left-handed writer? Not ballpoint, and need free-flowing ink. I have tried various gel, ball-point, fountain, and dip pens, and I prefer a sustainable solution.

My primary avocation is writing fiction, and I had a pretty serious bout of writer's block last year. I am slowly coming out of it, and a significant part of that has been switching modalities regularly -- using keyboard, dictation, and pen or pencil. Don't know if it's correlation or causation, but it works.

The one problem has been getting going writing with a pen. I have been losing 5-10 minutes most days, mucking around with wiping excess ink off of my fountain pen, inconsistent flow, etc. I have been using a Levenger True Writer fountain pen (I am not a pen geek, but I'm naming for context for those of you who are). I was for the longest time filling up the reservoir, but the ink just doesn't seem to flow that well, and I have to refill at least once per writing session. More fiddling! I have been using Levenger Raven Black, and I live in a location with four seasons with fluctuating humidity.

This year, frustrated with the cartridge situation, I've taken to dipping the nib directly into the ink bottle, which brings its own problems -- the aperture is built for a cartridge, it's super-messy, etc. This week I tried a dip pen again, and I had a brief out-of-body-ish moment where I realized I was using a motherfucking dip pen because I was having problems making a 19th century writing technology work for me in 2014. There has to be a better way.

I am pretty clearly futzing around in part because of writing anxiety, but reckoning up how much time this is taking showed me that it's passed beyond silly delaying and into a problem. I have a full time career apart from writing, and this is taking anywhere from 2-10% of my writing time per week, on weeks where I'm writing by hand. I bought some disposable Uni-Ball pens yesterday, because they've worked for me in past, but I don't want that to be my permanent solution. Garbage, plastic, seabirds eating dead pens, etc., etc.

So: I appreciate your suggestions and advice. Inks, ink additives, types of pen, writing practices, ways to make my fountain pen work better, websites, etc. I've poked around online, but I'd like advice from someone who has faced similar problems or knows their pens/inks. Thank you.
posted by cupcakeninja to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, also: the Levenger pen was a gift, more than I would ordinarily pay on my own for a pen. I'd prefer an inexpensive/less spendy solution, but if a $200 pen is the answer, I would consider budgeting for it over time.
posted by cupcakeninja at 3:59 AM on May 16, 2014

What kind of paper are you using?
posted by oceanjesse at 4:07 AM on May 16, 2014

Grab a cheap al-star + converter and stick with their official black ink. Also, dab off the nib on a napkin after you refill the converter. Finally, YouTube is your friend.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:11 AM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I generally use cheap Mead composition notebooks, like so. Sometimes cheaper generic equivalents from Staples, Office Depot, etc. I've done various visual arts stuff in past, so I have both other paper (sketchbooks, Canson sheets, etc.) around, as well as other inks (W&N, Higgins, Holbein). I would be willing to buy a better quality of notebook for drafting if it would help.
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:12 AM on May 16, 2014

Response by poster: Oh, hell. Thank you, oceanjesse. I search YouTube for tutorials all the time, but I hadn't thought to look for this purpose.
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:15 AM on May 16, 2014

Try picking up a clairefontaine notebook and see if it makes a difference.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:16 AM on May 16, 2014

As a leftie, I like the Pilot Bottle 2 Pen, which doesn't smear, comes in a variety of colors, and is 89% recycled content. It's also a retractable, which I like.

I also use the Pilot v ball, which works well, but isn't 100% in its non-smearing, and has a cap.
posted by miss tea at 5:10 AM on May 16, 2014

I bought a bunch of the Uni-Ball JetStream .7mm Fine ink refills, and use them in my stainless steel Zebra F-701 pen body. Because the F-701 is retractable, it takes a little bit of crimping/modification to seat the spring on the ink refill, but now that I've got the hang of it that process only takes a moment when I'm renewing my ink reservoir about once a month. The JetStream ink has gotten a lot of praise for being The Best ink for lefties because of the way it attaches itself to the paper. It only smears when I use it on something like photo-quality paper, and then only if I touch it immediately. If it has a second to set it's fine.

I get a lot of compliments on my pen, and take great pleasure in it myself. In my humble opinion it marries the best ink to a damn great pen body.
posted by carsonb at 5:11 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I learned how to use a dip pen, I was taught that it generally worked better not to actually dip it but to load it with a paintbrush. Overall, though, the thing about ink flow is that you're moving the pen the wrong direction, which is why I gave up on such pursuits. There are left-handed nibs you can get that will at least change the angle a bit, but the ink is intended to flow when the pen is being pulled, not pushed. That's why real nibs get frustrating. Sometimes you can get better results by trying holding the pen a bit differently, but I'd need significant handwriting rehab for that.

I had a Libelle rollerball that took refills and didn't have that problem, but I wasn't really thrilled with it, it was really pretty but heavy as hell.
posted by Sequence at 5:17 AM on May 16, 2014

Levenger pens look nice, but they're usually low-quality clones of actually nice pens.

There are (relatively) inexpensive, refillable fountain pens with reputations as great writers. The Lamy Safari comes immediately to mind - you're stuck with Lamy's non-standard ink carts or a converter, but the pen has some rabid fans for it's reliability, durability, comfort and writing capability.

The Pelikan Style is likewise in the $25 range, takes standard long and short cartridges, and may fill the bill for you. Not as indestructible as the Lamy, and a bit thicker with an oddball style, but a fantastic writer. If you prefer ergonomic pen styles, this is probably the one.

If cost is no object, Sailor and the fine Pelikans (M200, M800, etc.) are regarded as making the most practical, durable and finest writing fountain pens available - tools rather than jewelry, altho priced like jewelry, but you're paying for their rep as never-die fine writing instruments.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:24 AM on May 16, 2014

Also! I find using a .9mm mechanical pencil to be very pleasant - very smooth, and with a nice line on even the cheapest paper. Pentel's Twist Erase is a very comfortable and well made pencil.

The Retro 51 Tornado pencil uses 1.2mm leads, and is an even better writer, but it's not very comfortable for extended use and has reliability issues in the full size model. (The compact model is excellent, but only when a full size instrument is not an option - your hand will cramp up and die holding a tiny metal cone for a few hours at a time.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:47 AM on May 16, 2014

(I really need to get all of my thoughts down in a single answer. Sorry this wound up being in three parts.)

Finally, here is a page on left-handers and fountain pens - a change-up in technique may alleviate some frustration.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:54 AM on May 16, 2014

I'll be Slap*Happy's rabid Lamy Safari fan -- was actually coming in here to recommend it. I'm not a lefty, but I am a fountain pen fan and my Safari with an ultra fine point is a super comfy, reliable writer and also the least smeary of the ones I've loved over time - the ink flow is so fine that I never have smear problems. It's lightweight so you don't use much pressure, which should work if you are pushing the nib across the page rather than pulling. It's also about a $30 pen so it's reasonably priced for an experiment.

I was also really fond of the Parker Vectors, but the ink flow is pretty heavy on those so I would steer away for leftie purposes. Actually I think all my Parkers are that way.

The Pilot Varsity is a comfy, very reliable disposable -- more reliable than some of my real pens -- that has moderate ink flow but not too smeary. And they run about $6, IIRC. I keep refilling mine (just use needlenose pliers to pull the nib out, then pipette some ink in, super easy though not immediately obvious) so I haven't priced them in a while!
posted by sldownard at 6:21 AM on May 16, 2014

I'm a fountain pen tragic, and my most reliable pens are my Kaweco Sport with an extra fine nib (I use cartridges, the squeeze converter is useless) and my TWSBI 580 with a 1.1mm stub nib. I agree that the Lamy Safari is an excellent pen, and it has the substantial advantage of being available nearly everywhere, but I find it skips way too much.

If I were you I'd go out and buy a TWSBI in a nib size that suits you (I LURVE my stub nibs for long writing sessions - so broad and juicy - but there are also times that I prefer a fine nib). There's a reason that TWSBI is the darling of the pen dork community - they're affordable, have a gargantuan ink capacity and the nib quality is just beautiful.
posted by nerdfish at 6:39 AM on May 16, 2014

Jet Pens has a buying guide for lefties.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 6:49 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, this just popped into my head - are you flushing your pen before you refill it? Because that makes a world of difference to my pens. I use the converter/filling system to draw up a penful of a very weak dish soap and water solution, squirt it out, then do the same with a few penfuls of plain water to rinse out the soap. I then try to thoroughly dry the nib before I fill it again to get rid of any crusted up ink.

As for types of inks, I've had good luck with plain old Lamy ink, Parker ink, and I recently bought a couple of bottles of Sailor Jentle that are pretty and smooth and lovely.

Goulet Pens has a pretty extensive tips-and-tricks section that might be of interest.

Oh, and I also remembered that lots of people are saying the Pilot Metropolitan is a killer beginner's pen. Iroshizuku inks are also supposed to be very smooth to write with.
posted by nerdfish at 7:06 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love Safaris and Al-Stars as high-quality, low-cost pens, but the triangular grip can sometimes be problematic for people who hold the pen in non-standard ways, which often applies to lefties. I also like what TWSBI is doing in theory, but I've had trouble with their nibs, so I'm not really in step with the current pen-dork generation.

The Pilot Metropolitan is really good for its price, and comes with a converter.

Ink-wise, go with traditional brands (Lamy, Parker, Waterman, etc.) that aren't as pigment-rich and don't offer every colour under the sun, but flow well and also dry pretty well.
posted by holgate at 7:15 AM on May 16, 2014

Seconding TWSBI and nerdfish's cleaning suggestion.
posted by epo at 7:20 AM on May 16, 2014

I'm fond of fountain pens and I'm a righty... but even for me, some inks are inconveniently slow-drying since I'm using my pens in work situations where I don't have the luxury of blotting the paper or letting the notebook lie open to dry.

Look for reviews of fast-drying inks and opinions on how they behave in various pens. Some of the small companies, like Noodler's Inks, might have inks more suitable for your purposes, and in a broader range of colors. Different inks perform better-or-worse with different pens too, of course. This is a particular kind of rabbit hole that you might find enjoyable or obnoxious.

Having used fountain pens costing one dollar, ten dollars, a hundred dollar, a thousand dollars(!)..., I personally think the price/performance sweet spot is going to be in the $15-50 range. When buying pens of current manufacture, once you're over the $150 mark you're mostly spending on the appearance and potential collectibility rather than practical usability. There are some really exceptional and usable pens currently manufactured in the $150-400 range, like Pelikan's and Edison's (the only company in this comment whose products are U.S. made!), but at that price I really think it's worth finding a way to try them before buying, because of the risk of committing to buying an excellent pen that ends up feeling not quite right in the hand for whatever reason.

There are a lot of excellent suggestions for $21-and-under pens on Fountain Pen Geeks. In fact I would recommend the FPG forums in general because there's a much greater community interest in fountain pens as functional tools rather than exclusively as collectibles. You can get practical questions answered without implicit sneering at your disinclination to spend a lot of money.

As for pens... I think the Lamy Safari is an excellent pen BUT its grip makes it an idiosyncratic choice; for those for whom it works, it's awesome. My partner has several, for making diagrams and multicolored annotations and notes; it's her favorite pen. For others (like me), it's a difficult pen to use.

There are good cheap pens at the $20-and-under mark from Pilot (Japan), Jinhao, and Baoer (China). The Hero brand (China) is a love-or-hate company among western fountain pen fans but personally I think you really can't do better for the price (you can still get a pack of ten Hero 616 pens for about $12 including shipping -- even if most of them are clinkers, you've got a bunch of pens that work for less than $6 apiece). I've also used some good pens from India (via Fountain Pen Revolution), although like the Hero pens, manufacture is inconsistent and the pens tend to require some tuning up before they're dialed in.

The TWSBI pens, at $50 and up, are fantastic writers, although some people find them awkward. The larger TWSBI pens also have some notoriety for the barrel developing cracks. The manufacturer is very prompt to satisfy customers with the issue, though.

I've never had difficulties ordering pens from overseas. If you're interested in Chinese pens, the best venue is going to be AliExpress or Ebay. But within the U.S., retailers to consider include Fountain Pen Revolution (sells pens from India). I Sell Pens has an eclectic range from the cheapest Chinese products to kilobuck European models. I also prefer I Sell Pens' ink samples more than Goulet's: Goulet provides a better selection (and an ink club, and some degree of curatorship) but ISP provides more ink per sample, so you can try it in a few different pens. xFountainPens sells mostly Chinese pens at significant markup (eg, the $15 x750 is a rebadged $6 Baoer 750), but tunes pens before shipping, so the price is justifiable. xFountainPens is also the only vendor I've found for the Nemosine Singularity, which is a pretty great pen for $15 and was my re-introduction to fountain pens after a long number of years away from them.
posted by ardgedee at 7:59 AM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

One more thought on the matter: There's a small industry of pen tuning, the craft of turning good pens into great pens through their skill at nib shaping and adjustment. Some superstars of the form are Richard Binder, Mike Masuyama, Richard Mottishaw, and Pendleton Brown. They all handle online orders and one or more of these guys are usually seen at the larger pen shows to work on pens while-you-wait.

Their services are not necessarily cheap ($50 is probably the baseline), but they can turn a pen that isn't quite right (for whatever reason) into one that does just what you need -- in your case, maybe, one that works better for a lefty.
posted by ardgedee at 8:45 AM on May 16, 2014

I'll poke my head in to say that ultra-fine on a safari is a pretty frustrating experience on shitty paper. They clog up and carry bits of cellulose ans smear and I had a bad experience and converted to fine point. Now everything is better.
posted by Dmenet at 4:59 PM on May 16, 2014

I'm a lefty with pretty small writing, and my current pen of choice is this Pentel gel ink with a fine tip. It writes right away, and the ink dries very quickly, I never see smudges.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 10:28 PM on May 16, 2014

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