Bic and Beyond: 5 Alternatives to Fountain Pens

As much as love writing with a fountain pen, it’s not always the right tool for the job. For jotting random notes, you’re better off with something you don’t have to uncap. Obviously the Pilot Vanishing Point  can do that, but its price kind of rules it out as the pocket pen that might end up in the wash.

Something about note taking or making grocery lists with a fountain pen feels like a slight to the instrument. Part of the fun of fountain pens is the ritual aspect. It’s nice to have a pen that’s just for long form writing.

That said, my fountain pen habit has raised my standards for what writing should feel like. I don’t have to  use a fountain pen, but I can’t settle for any old pen. Fortunately, I don’t have to settle. There are some excellent jotters out there that are cheap, easy to find, and smooth. here are my favorites.


Pilot G2

pilot g2 gel pen

The current go-to in my pen cup and the #1 pen on Amazon, the Pilot G2 excels at being average and dependable. This is the Honda Civic option. It’s reliable, everyone has one, and for those of us who move on to something nicer, this was often our first experience of a good pen.

I like it because it’s everywhere. This is the best pen you can buy at Rite-Aid or Walgreens. It’s cheap, and you’ll lose it before it runs out of ink.

Charles daly Irish lifeboat pen cup
My bouquet of G2s

There are smoother pens out there, even in the disposable category, but what brings me back to the Pilot again and again is its wide availability. For a look at its downsides, check out Office Supply Geek.


Bic Orange Ball Pen

Like Bic lighters, Bic pens are classics of functional thrift that outclass everything in their price range and many above it. They’re made insanely well and priced ludicrously cheap.

Bic orange

The Cristal  and Orange Ball models have hexagonal barrels rather than round ones which make them more comfortable to grip than the round Bics, that is until you get writer’s cramp anyway because, after all, you’re writing with a ball point pen.


Bic claims their ball points contain enough ink to lay down 2km worth of ink. But that doesn’t matter, because you’ll never be attached enough to a single Bic to do that much writing with it. At around $5 for a pack of 20, these cost $0.25 apiece.


Zebra F-701

zebra 701 tactical pen

Or the Jason Bourne option… The Zebra’s barrel is made of solid steel, so it’s indestructible. This pen could save your life. It can be used to punch out glass to escape a wrecked or sinking car or as a last-ditch self defense weapon. But it’s also available wherever cheap pens are sold.

zebra 701 tactical pen

This recommendation comes from retired commando Clint Emerson’s book, 100 Deadly Skills.

Uni-ball Signo


Japan’s Uni-ball makes a line of inexpensive gel pens, some of which are widely available in the States, all of which are a joy to write with. If you’re not into fountain pens, but want a smooth writing experience, look no further. I like the Signo because it clicks open and makes for a great pocket pen, but for some reason, the UM151 and the Vision tend to write better and feel more substantial in the hand.

uni ball signo gel pen

According to JetPen’s Comprehensive Guide to Uni-Ball, these pens owe their smoothness to an edgeless tip with rounded corners where the rolling ball meets the housing at the tip of the pen. The result is zero scratchiness no matter what angle you write at. Few fountain pens write this well.


Blackwing 601 Pencil


John Steinbeck wrote about this pencil, calling “the best he’s ever found.” Quincy Jones used it to correct his sheet music, Nabokov wrote with it–in lawn chairs and passenger seats while his wife, Vera, drove—and the creators of MadMen put it in the hands of the copywriters and the art department on that show. The cult following of this pen has a home online at BlackwingPages.

blackwing pencil

If you’re into fountain pens for the history and the heritage, the Blackwing delivers that in an erasable media. It was discontinued in 1998, but you can still buy it online.


DISCLAIMER: This post contains affiliate links. All Amazon prices and availability are subject to change, and only current as of the time of publication of this review.

Pen Review: Lamy 2000

Spending some time back in the States, I’ve been reunited with my Lamy 2000. Don’t ask me why I didn’t travel with it in the first place–I must have been on a cartridge kick, trying to pack light or something–but I won’t make that mistake again. From now on, this functional, stylish, piston-filler never leaves my side.

Unfortunately, rediscovering my favorite pen has kept me from reviewing any others. I’ve been monogamous. And that right there is the moral of the story from a few years of owning the 2000: if you’re only going to own one pen, and you’re actually going to write with it,  the Lamy 2000 is ideal.




Looks and Design

For those of you who don’t know, the Lamy 2000 gets its aesthetic from the Bauhaus revival, which was in full swing when it was designed in 1960s Germany. It’s as much a piece of modern art as it is a writing tool.

But you already know all of this if you’ve read anything at all about the Lamy 2000. That’s because fans of  the 2000, and Lamy’s marketing department, go on and on about it’s avant garde credentials. This, along with some quirks to the writing experience, make it a seriously polarizing writing instrument. As one review put it, “this is pretty much the Kanye West of fountain pens.” (Lamy’s most outrageous marketing boast is that the pen is featured in the MoMa. Not true, though the man who designed it does have work in their collection.)

Consequently, there’s more than a few reviews out there. Tools & Toys has one of the best ones I’ve read. Neil Gaiman has Tweeted and blogged about his 2000. He praises it as better for novel writing than the “regular Lamy” (I assume he means the Safari) which he reserves for book signing.

In this review, I’m going to try to stay above the gossip and hype to focus on my subjective experience writing with the Lamy. However, the design history is worth mentioning because it’s inseparable from the writing experience. That is  the Bauhaus ethos: form follows function.


Try zooming in on the image above. Can you see the line where the piston filling mechanism joins the barrel? This moving part is nearly invisible when it’s screwed down. The brushed finish further camouflages it, giving one consistent finish down the length of the pen and the section. The same goes for the cap: it’s lines blend nicely with the body whether capped or posted. The cap feels like it’s supposed to be there, not like some clunky after-thought with nowhere better to be.


Above the section, there’s a discrete ink window you won’t notice until you’re running low, unlike some other pens where the ink window reminds you of those plastic gel pens the sell at Rite Aid.


The barrel is made out of a brushed fiberglass-like material called Makrolon. It’s durable, it has that matte look that screams quality, and it warms to the touch. That bond you begin to feel with this pen, you get the sense that they engineered that feeling ahead of time.


One design feature that’s controversial, to the point of turning some off the pen, are the little nubs that lock the cap in place (above.) Some people find they get in the way when they’re writing. They can’t find a good grip. I don’t notice the nubs (or whatever they’re called,) and I’m happy to not have to unscrew the cap every time I want to jot something down. But I can see how this would be a deal breaker for someone with a different grip. Another issue with the 2000 is that the nib is ground in a way that limits the angles you can write from (more on this in a minute.)


Nib and Ink

The nib is 14k gold coated in platinum. You get the flex and warmth of a gold nib without the color gold. The nib is hooded, like the old Parker 51. You trade an elaborate nib you can show off, for one that’s built for serious writing. Hooded nibs are supposed to resist drying out because less ink is exposed to the air. I’m careful about capping my pens when they’re not in use, so I wouldn’t know much about that feature, but I can say this nib is plenty wet without being sloppy.

I write with a medium nib, and it’s very medium. It’s not so bold that I can’t write on cheap or thin paper, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for super precise penmanship (if I could even do that.) If I could go back, I would probably get a fine or extra fine. After writing with Japanese pens for a couple years, a German medium is a little broad for my liking.

The piston filling mechanism is smooth and reliable. It has a solid feel like it won’t need servicing for many many years to come.


The ink capacity is in a league of its own. I haven’t got exact measurements, but I find it lasts a week plus with heavy use. I could confidently fill this up for a short trip and not have to bring a bottle of ink with me. The trade-off with that discrete ink window is that by the time the window reads empty, you’ve only got about a page left.



How it Writes

This is a working pen. It’s not bedazzled or engraved or encrusted with gems. It’s not a luxury item. The Lamy 2000 was built for writing. Every design feature, everything that contributes to its price, is intended to optimize the experience of actually using the pen as a pen and  not a desk toy or decoration. This is the pen to buy if you want to write a novel without getting writer’s cramp.  I draft almost everything I write longhand, from emails to short stories, and I can say the 2000 is still a dream to write with after hours at my desk.

However, I would strongly recommend trying this one before you buy it. The nib has a sweet spot that doesn’t give you many grip options, and those nubs get in the way for some people. It’s not uncommon for folks to complain of quality control issues. But this is a misconception. Lamy’s quality control is second to none, but people often mistake the quirks of this particular nib, for quality issues. It’s not scratching or squeaking, it’s not false-starting. You are holding it wrong. There is a defined “sweet-spot” and if you move off of it, things grind to a halt. This video from Goulet Pen Company goes into detail on this point:

Discussing the LAMY 2000: Quality Control

For years now we’ve been receiving emails and order comments requesting that we test our customers’ LAMY 2000 fountain pen nibs for “quality control” issues …


I love the way it writes. It’s smooth and there’s just the right amount of flex. The Makrolon doesn’t get clammy but warms to the touch. This makes the pen feel like an extension of my body and even my consciousness. My grip happens to work for the sweet-spot, so it doesn’t feel temperamental to me.

The Bottom Line

At $115-200 (depending where you look),  the Lamy 2000 is not cheap. That said, it delivers more pen for your money than anything in that price range. I would still stand behind my recommendation of the Kaweco Al as the best pen for $50-100. But if you can afford that, I would say take the leap and go with the 2000 instead. For around twice the money, you get much more than twice the pen.

If what you’re looking for is a workhorse of pen, get yourself a 2000 and call it a day. If you’re a writer looking for something great to write with, your pen habit can start and end here.

For all its practicality and simplicity, there are a lot of intangibles at work in the appeal of this pen. Everything I’ve praised about it–the minimalism, the German engineering–could just as easily be turned on its head as a critique or even a parody by someone who doesn’t share my emotional bond with this tool. For a true pen connoisseur, for the kind of person who doesn’t think of pens as tools, I would still recommend a Lamy for your collection but only after you’ve acquired some others.

This is modern art, and it will leave you cold if you’re more of a Renoir person.


DISCLAIMER: This post contains affiliate links. All Amazon prices and availability are subject to change, and only current as of the time of publication of this review.

UNICEF Fountain Pen–the Children Deserve Better

This pen is a human rights violation.


On my last day in Spain, I went to the post office to send postcards to new subscribers. Waiting in line for stamps, I noticed a cup of fountain pens for sale on the counter. They were €7 and the proceeds went to UNICEF. I picked out the blue one to test out on my train ride to the airport.


I love discovering fountain pens in places I don’t expect to find them. I wanted to like this one. Unfortunately, the pen was terrible. I say “was”–past tense–because I have no intention of writing with it again, and I wouldn’t gift it to my worst enemy. It’s so bad. The profits may go to charity, but this pen is a human rights violation.


The problems began when I tried to identify the pen. It has the UNICEF logo stamped on the barrel, but they don’t make pens, as far as I know, so there must be some lowest bidder behind this one. There’s something etched on the nib (poorly) and eventually I deciphered it. “STYB.” It turns out this is a Spanish stationary company located not too far from Valencia. Their homepage is the website equivalent of this pen. I get the sense that they just don’t care, even though their “about” section boasts of their dedication to quality and the global trust their brand has earned. Their slogan is “passion for writing.”

The Writing Experience


The nib is built to suck. Its tines are  at such a sharp angle that the pen scratches constantly no matter how you hold it. There is no sweet spot. There’s no breaking it in.

It has a good deal of flex, but that doesn’t do much for line variation, it just makes the pen leak more ink onto the page and lay down a wetter line that’s no wider.

Design and Looks

Design-wise, I couldn’t find too much wrong with it, apart from the cheap nib. This is a pocket-sized pen, just a couple centimeters longer than the Kaweco Sport.


The clip is flimsy.  If you’re lucky, it’ll just fall out of your pocket one day and you’ll have to replace it with something not so horrible.


It takes an international short cartridge and or converter. This would probably make a great eye-dropper pen if it were worth writing with in the first place.


If you want to donate to UNICEF, just send them some money, and maybe see if one of the trick-or-treaters collecting for them has a pen she’s willing to give you.


If you’re in the market for a cheap pen, I suggest the Platinum Preppy or the Pilot Varsity. Both of these are cheaper than the UNICEF pen and they write way above their price-point.

As if this one hadn’t given me enough issues, it exploded on the flight home.


Cape Cod, 2017

Kaweco Sport Followup: one Issue

My fountain pen reviews have found an audience on Reddit where they’ve prompted a discussion that has been extremely educational for me. It blows my mind how much there is to know about pens and how civil pen people are talking about them online.

In response to my review of the Kaweco Sport, one Redditor (/U/oyogen) pointed out an issue I forgot to mention about the pen.

“Kaweco nibs are often over-polished, leading to hard starts on smoother papers. I’ve tried on copier paper, it starts easier, but still skips a part of the stroke.”

I had read about this in some negative reviews of the Sport. When I got mine home and inked it, I noticed that it was skipping on a glossy legal pad. When I switched to my Leuchturm notebook, it wrote fine. I was so stoked about my new pen that I forgot about the false start and attributed it to the paper. Having tested it on glossy paper again, I can say this is an issue with the Sport.

So, should this scare you off the Kaweco? It depends. If you’re attached to one particular brand of paper, then you might want to test it and see if the nib agrees with your paper first. But if you’re not picky, this shouldn’t be a problem. You can always write on something different. As luck would have it, the paper that does work with this pen tends to be cheaper and more abundant.


DISCLAIMER: This post contains affiliate links. All Amazon prices and availability are subject to change, and only current as of the time of publication of this review.

Pen Review: Platinum Preppy–the FREE Pen

That’s right, FREE. Noodler’s gives away the Platinum Preppy with their inks.

Alternatively, you can buy the Preppy on its own for $4.50 or a seven pack, in all the colors of the rainbow, for $16.

As for my review, it’d be tempting to say “what do you want? it’s a free pen.” But the fact is, this pen over-delivers in every way and outperforms most pens under $50.

The Writing Experience

…is awesome. I’m gonna be controversial and say this writes better than everyone’s favorite budget pen, the Lamy Safari. But it costs five times less than the Lamy.


The nib isn’t overly springy but it doesn’t feel like writing with a nail either (cough cough –Safari–cough cough.)   Like other Japanese nibs, this one lays down a fine line. There is an “05” (medium) option but that’s harder to come by. The default is a western fine.

There’s no line variation whatsoever. So the preppy is not a budget option for fine writing.

Design and Looks

The barrel is covered in Japanese writing–at least on mine, which I bought in Japan–this is kind of fun, but it definitely marks it as a cheap pen. Like the Varsity, there’s a barcode on the barrel.

On the plus side, the barrel is transparent, so you always know exactly how much ink you have left.

The best feature of this pen–the one I wish other manufacturers would copy–is the air-tight cap. I’ve picked up my Preppy after many months of neglect and disuse and the nib was still wet. This makes it no more temperamental than  a ballpoint pen.


The Preppy uses a proprietary cartridge that has a tiny metal ball in it. Not sure what that’s for, but it means This is to break the surface tension of the ink and improve the flow, but it means there’s  a slight rattling in your pen.

I haven’t tried the Noodler’s option, but the Heart of Darkness, that includes this pen, is one of the most praised inks out there. It’s made in the USA and it’s permanent.

The coolest option is to convert your Preppy into an eyedropper pen. With a simple modification, you can fill the entire barrel with ink. Doing it this way gives you 2-3 times the capacity of a cartridge or or converter. The Noodler’s bottle comes with an eye dropper for just this purpose.

This video from Goulet Pens shows you how to convert your preppy:

How to Eyedropper Convert a Platinum Preppy

One of the best values in the fountain pen world is converting a Platinum Preppy fountain pen into an eyedropper pen, and here’s how. All you need is an o-ri…

The Bottom Line

Get yourself a Preppy, no matter who you are:

New to fountain pens? Start with the Preppy, it’s the perfect first pen.

So into fountain pens that you don’t want to write with anything else? Make the Preppy your everyday beater, fill your cup with Preppys.

Can’t justify an expensive pen but don’t like throwing your Varsities away? Get a preppy for $2 more.

Gifting a fountain pen? Buy a dozen Preppies and give them to all your friends. That’s what I did when I was in Japan.

Want to modify your pen or covert it to an eyedropper? the Preppy’s price means your experiments will never be too costly if they go wrong.

DISCLAIMER: This post contains affiliate links. All Amazon prices and availability are subject to change, and only current as of the time of publication of this review.