Here are my top recommendations, at least one of which you probably dislike. Which is totally fair. (I may do the same, later on, with one of your recommendations.) We’re all still friends.
1. Lamy Safari or Vista. My idea of an excellent starter pen. Also an everyday pen. (Huge caveat: “for most people.” See below.) The Safari and Vista are made in Germany, and well-made. A Safari or Vista will work out of the box, and it will last.
It’s a good size and weight. The cap posts, if you like. And it comes in your choice of fun colors. It’s a good pen for experimenting, because you can buy nibs in different widths, including stub nibs, and swap those in.
But of course it’s not perfect. This is the most expensive starter pen I’m recommending. In the US, with converter, a Safari costs about $35 shipped from Jetpens. (And a converter is almost necessary, because Lamy’s proprietary cartridges limit you to Lamy ink.) Another issue is that the Safari has one of those prescriptive, molded triangular grips that some people find uncomfortable.
Not exactly a negative, but a fact, is that the nib is an absolute nail. It easily withstands beginner abuse, but it’s not exactly luxurious in feel when you’re no longer a beginner. Also, the feed design is intentionally stingy, so the pen does best with a wetter or more lubricated inks. But even so, a Safari is not a machine to show off sheeny or sparkling inks.
And the Safari design does not appeal to everyone. Like any pen.
One final problem: the Safari fountain pen is such a big seller that it has been counterfeited. Buy from a reputable fountain pen dealer who is an official Lamy dealer.
2. Kaweco Classic Sport. This is a very good starter pen. It’s also well-made and sturdy, with high-quality construction. The Kaweco Sport has a nice design, taken from a vintage pen. It’s sort of quiet-looking, but interesting and attractive.
The nibs are absolutely excellent, and easily adjustable if you want to make them a little wetter. You can swap in different nib units, even stub nibs, though not quite as cheaply as with a Safari. It is a pleasure to write with a Kaweco Classic Sport nib.
A plastic Classic Sport is less than $21 from Jetpens. You can add a converter for less than $6 if you want the mini piston converter, or less than $3 if you want the mini squeeze converter.
On the negative side, a Kaweco Sport is a small pen. By design, it’s very short when capped, and the cap is meant to be posted to extend the length to a usable size when writing. The pen is wide enough to be comfortable in the average hand. However, it’s very lightweight. (Many people eventually find themselves upscaling to the heavier AL-Sport or AC-Sport.)
Also, let’s be honest: the converters are usable, but they have a small capacity and are, in my view, subpar. (I prefer the squeeze converter, which I fill with a syringe.) But the Sport is one of only two pens on this list that takes standard international converters, which is nice.
3. Pilot Varsity. This is an easy introduction to fountain pens, and makes a great giveaway for anyone who shows an interest. A Varsity is $3, or less if you buy it in packs, and it’s widely available. It’s very much like a marker, except with a fountain pen nib. It comes in some fun ink colors, plus blue and black. The nib is excellent for the price, a Japanese medium that most of us would consider a fine. The pen is a good size, comfortable for most users. It even has an ink window. Because it sold filled with ink, and sealed, this is the easiest fountain pen for a beginner — just uncap it and write.
The primary negative is that it’s not meant to be refilled; it’s like a marker in that sense, too. Also, it’s not particularly attractive.
4. Sailor High Ace Neo. This is available for less than $15, though Sailor’s converter will set you back another $7 or so, when I look at Jetpens. Or you can buy Sailor’s proprietary ink cartridges.
What I like about this pen is that it’s very low-profile, and has Sailor’s excellent fine nib. It’s a great pen to take to school, because its very fine nib is great on poor paper, and the pen does not stand out. Also, at this price, if you lose it, you aren’t inconsolable — in fact, I can’t include a photograph of ours, because ours was lost at school. Unlike many cheap pens, however, I would buy this one again.
The main negative for me would be that the pen is fairly slim and lightweight.
5. Nemosine Singularity. This is about $20 at Pen Chalet (where I bought mine), with an international converter included. It offers a wide range of available nib choices. I got the stub, which is a medium stub, and a decent writer. The Singularity seems sturdy and well-made, not prone to cracking or developing any problems that I’ve seen. It’s lightweight but a good size — slightly smaller than a Safari. It’s available in clear plastic, and also clear colored plastic, always fun.
In terms of negatives, I don’t find the Nemosine Singularity attractive. Worse, I don’t see that any effort was put into its design to make it attractive. (Even the Pilot Varsity has cute rounded ends.) The Nemosine Singularity is more a solid user than a pen you’ll ever feel affection for.
My “Maybes” or “Almosts”
1. Platinum Plaisir. This looks actually quite good, and people have said positive things, but I’ve never used it, so I can’t actually recommend it. The Plaisir is nice-looking, and looks well-constructed. What I’d want to evaluate is the nib. But the Plaisir is $14.25 at Jetpens, plus $8.25 (!) for the converter. I can’t justify buying a Plaisir myself at this stage. Were I just starting out, I’d probably give this a whirl. It seems like a reasonable alternative to the Nemosine Singularity. Update: Since I first wrote this, I’ve purchased a Plaisir, and used it, and think it’s a fine starter pen. Click here for my review.
2. TWSBI Eco. It’s decently priced at around $30. The problem is, I didn’t like the Eco very much when I owned one. It was too large, or something, and it never felt perfectly comfortable. The nibs are standard in quality. I had the medium stub, which was a dry writer, like every TWSBI nib I’ve ever had, but it was decent. The Eco is a piston filler, though the pen’s design makes it hard to clean ink out fully.
The Eco is fine. My bottom-line is that I think the Eco is comparable in components and quality to the Nemosine Singularity. Except the Nemosine Singularity is $10 less and felt more comfortable in my hand. So I picked the Singularity. But the Eco is certainly recommendable.
3. Sailor and Platinum Desk Pens. These are excellent pens, around $10 to $15 depending on where you buy them. (Plus converter or cartridges.) The main thing that makes them not a “best beginner pen,” for me, is that they are desk pens, so not made to be carried around. The excellent nibs are Japanese fine or extra-fine — I’ve seen it both ways, but mine are extra-fine.
Here are the pens I often see recommended to newbies, but that I cannot myself recommend for various reasons, ranging from “not comfortable” to “not good for newbies” to “dreck.”
1. Pilot Metropolitan. The price is good in the US. Further, I like the nibs — the nibs that Pilot uses in all its lower-price pens are good. But I find the Metropolitan fatally uncomfortable because of the step-down in the section, and because the metal body is fairly heavy for its size. Plus, the design is basic. That cannot be redeemed by pretty colors. And don’t get me started on the animal print bands. But it’s still the best on this particular list.
2. Pelikan Twist. Nice-looking pen in a CAD world. But also kind of odd-looking, for a pen. It will be noticed, and it looks more adult, and cool, than the Pelikano pens. Reasonably priced. Decent nib, the same on all Pelikan beginner pens. You can use a converter, but the converter doesn’t attach securely, which is true for all Pelikan’s beginner pens. The Twist, however, is too large for me to use happily, and I have to think that would be true for most.
3. Platinum Preppy. Maybe it’s been updated, but when I used these some years back, I found their nibs horribly unpleasant. Not to mention that the caps would spontaneously crack. Or how ugly they were. In a “hell, we didn’t even try” kind of way. I think of the Preppy as the Yugo of pens.
I know a Preppy is dirt cheap. (Bless its heart.) But in my opinion it’s abominable dreck. (Or was — I haven’t used one in years.)
The problem is, people recommend the Preppy, or buy it, based on its dirt-cheap price and its online availability. And I swear, no one buys just one. But if you add up the costs of enough dirt-cheap pens that crack in the cap, or are punishment to use, you find you’ve spent enough to fund a pen from the first list, which you’d still be using.
Every other Platinum I’ve ever used has been excellent. This is such a plummet down the mineshaft that I’m not even persuaded the Preppy is made by Platinum. Were I in charge of Platinum, I’d launch the Preppy into the sun. Except maybe that would be bad for the sun.
Newbies deserve better.
4. Pilot Penmanship and Plumix. Good price. Nice nibs. Feed and ink flow is only so-so. Grip is fine. Thin but with decent ergonomics. And they seem to have tried with the design, at least. But the designer appears to have been either a committee, or Satan. On a bad day. When his eyesight was failing. Sure, these jaunty plastic spears won’t offend anyone used to the look of cheap ballpoints. But they won’t make any newcomer want to use fountain pens, either.
5. Noodler’s Ahab. One of the reasons I grew darkly disillusioned with fountain pen forums was seeing how every green newbie was told to buy an Ahab.
Here’s a counterpoint: don’t. Don’t buy these as a beginner; don’t recommend these to beginners. Ahabs often require a lot of work to get and keep working, which is far beyond a newbie’s skill and will only serve to make them think that all fountain pens are fussy and not for them. Any paragraph ending with “… and then you reset the feed in boiling water” should not be addressed to a newbie.
6. Various sub-$5 fountain pens made in Pakistan or China. I’ve used some. Not even close to all. But all that I’ve used have lacked any element of delight. If they work — which not all of mine did out of the box — they’d be perfectly adequate to try an unknown ink, or as tester pens. But they offered no pleasure in the writing experience. So why bother? Just use a free ballpoint. Or a slightly more expensive pen from the same brand that’s a lot better.
All five of my recommended pens are sturdy enough to stand up to a newbie’s unknowing abuse, and all are good enough writers, and comfortable enough to use, that a person won’t hate writing with them.
I’ve realized that I think a good starter pen should be, first and foremost, a good pen. Because it seems to me that a newbie needs to experience a little bit of the magic of writing with fountain pens, if she or he is going to catch the bug.
I do know that when it comes to buying a pen for themselves, many experienced fountain pen people buy my “no” pens. Of course. For many people who aren’t beginners, there’s fun in buying something new, which may or may not work out, but “hey, it’s only $5.” Or maybe you want a sacrificial pen to learn nib work, or to use a high-maintenance ink, or you seek out an Ahab so you can practice adjusting feeds. That all makes sense. Just not so much for a beginner, in my view.