Inexpensive need not be cheap

Living in a country where taxes are exorbitant, where exchange rates are unfavorable, where buying from foreign web-based stores is a lottery ticket (one never knows if and when the items will come, or be snatched on their way over the mail service, or if customs will demand that you far more the the price of the item in duties applied to the item’s price plus shipping costs), one is sometimes obliged to resort to fountain pens legally imported from China.

Such pens are inexpensive (well, even at twice the international cost, they are affordable), but not all are bad. Some are surprisingly good for their cost of around five to ten US-dollars (yes this is cheap – a new Lamy Safari or a Pilot Metropolitan will set you back will for about forty bucks. A Pilot VP or a Lamy 2000 will cost no less than 250 bucks, which is a lot in view of the median income here.

Moreover, cheap Chinese fountain pens (and ink) can be found in stores in even small towns all over Brazil. For those not willing to deal with mail order uncertainties, this may well be the only option.

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The hero “221” in its pretty case.

This is the case, for example, of the small and light, very fine nibbed Hero 221 fountain pen. Thin, light, plasticky, undecorated nib, with a bright gold anodized cap that sits smoothly and firmly in place, this little pen looks remarkably good and writes surprisingly well right out of the nice cardboard box.

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The Hero “221” comes in a nice cardboard case.
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The Hero “221” in its velvet sleeve.

Well, maybe this pen is no Pilot Custom 74, or even a TWSBI 580 or 700, but it is a very decent writer. In my opinion, it compares favorably, for instance, with the Pilot Metropolitan as regards writing comfort – it is thin and light, and there is no step between the body and the grip section. Build quality, however, is entirely another matter: the Pilot Metropolitan is hard to beat in that regard.

For instance, the cap is made of lightweight aluminum, and presumably prone to getting scratched fairly soon (not mine, however for I keep it in a cloth sleeve in my pen case).

The little pen, nevertheless, writes superbly – no nib adjustment was necessary when I took it out of the box and inked it up. Sure, it comes with an aerometric filler, but to get it it full to the brim, I removed the steel casing and squeezed the sac itself, and got over 0,6 ml of Parker blue-black into it. Then I put the casing back in position, for the sac is quite wobbly without the casing (although there is s wire inside it to keep it rigid).

Anyway, I have used the little pen for a while now, carrying it around in my pen case in my knapsack, bumping it everywhere, and there is not a hint of a leak, dripping or. Moreover, I had no false starts or flow problems. I am quite surprised that such an inexpensive pen can be so good.

But that is not the only inexpensive pen that is as good. I have a Pilot 85 G3, that cost me the same (new old stock – you can still find a few, though for about twice as much), a Pilot 78G (same considerations), and a Compactor Pluma – a Brazilian made plastic pen which is not manufactured any more, but of which there are still plenty available as new old stock for less than 8 dollars, universal converter included.

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The four contenders: (left to right) Pilot FP 85 G3; Compactor Pluma; Hero “221”; Pilot FP 78G.

What I do not especially like are steel or brass bodied Chinese pens from Baoer, Jinhao or even Hero. Not because they are bad, but because they are heavy and get you tired of holding them after an hour or so of writing. But build quality is very good, which is surprising for their price (here in Brazil, from 10 to 20 dollars, depending on the model). I will concede that such pens, however, as the Jinhao X450, Jinhao X750, Hero 507 “( Eight Horses”), Yiren 823 Ice are usually good, honest, well made, prettily finished pens and good writers (although some may require some coaxing the nib to write well, some nib tweaking). Aside from their rather heavy weight, I find no fault with them – but this is a matter of personal taste. I do prefer lighter, thinner pens that post well, smoothly and positively – and the Hero 221 cap action feels as good and as smooth as that of my Pilot Elite’s cap. In fact, these two pens have the most satisfying cap actions among all my pens.

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Chinese characters followed by the model number around the girth of the cap.

So what do I recommend? Well, you may save for a Faber-Castell Emotion Pearwood, or a Pilot VP, or a Pilot Elite 95, or a Lamy 2000. Or buy a vintage Sheaffer Imperial, or Parker 51 or 75, if you can. But do not sneer at these little plastic fountain pens. They may your best option for everyday intense writing joy.

Anyhow, fountain pens are all about different inks, different nibs, different papers, different handwriting styles, different journals, and about giving vent to one’s creativity (I doubt that any other hobby can give you so much joy for so little money). And one certainly does not have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to enjoy the hobby.

So keep your wallet tight, and write always, a lot, with joy!

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