As a newbie in the fountain pen world, you most likely will want to ask people what the best beginner pen is so that you can start out in this wonderful new hobby. People will of course suggest the Pilot Metropolitan, TWSBI Eco, and modern pens like that. But somebody will suggest that you “take a look at vintage options”. So, now you are wondering what vintage pens are out there, how they compare to each other, which one is right for you, etc. In this post, I’ve taken the top three vintage pens that I see suggested to beginner pen enthusiasts, and I will describe each one’s pros and cons, then compare them to each other.
What is a “vintage pen” anyways?
The term “vintage” describes items that are at least 20 years old. So, at the time of writing this, a pen made in 1997 is a vintage pen. However, most people in the pen community seem to use the term “vintage” for pens made in the 1980s or older, as those are more likely to be discontinued now, or more sought after. Now that that’s cleared up, lets take a look at the three pens.
The Esterbrook J (~$30-40)
This pen is by far the most recommended vintage pen for newbies. And for great reason, too. These pens were made by Esterbrook starting in 1943, and they were made to be an economical pen that could appeal to people of all demographics. The Js use a lever filler (read more about different filling mechanisms here) that contained a No. 16 sac size. The Js came in many colors and sizes, but you will usually find the standard “J” (5″ capped) or the SJ (4 3/4″ capped). Sometimes you will run into the LJ, a slightly thinner version of the J. These pens also introduced Esterbrook’s incredible Renew-Point system that allowed their nibs to be removed and swapped out with another nib in their lineup. Esterbrook had hundreds of nibs made that could fit into the J series, allowing you to choose basically whatever nib size you could possibly want with just one pen.
Macro of the Estie’s stainless steel clip
The Js, along with being very well designed and functional, were also built with quality in mind. They use a durable plastic for the body and stainless steel for the accents to resist corrosion. The lever systems almost always work well, even in unrestored pens. Plus, because these pens are lever fillers, they can usually be very easily repaired by removing the old, dry sac and replacing it (If you are interested in doing this, check out Richard Binder’s guide on how to replace a sac).
Macro of my 1461 Estie nib
– Well Built
– Renew-Point Nib System
– Many Colors and Sizes
– Easily Acquired
– Easy to Replace the Sac
– Lever Fillers are Hard to Clean
The Parker 45 (~$30-50)
Parker 45 semi-hooded nib and cap
When the 45 was released in the 50s, it was Parker’s first ever cartridge/converter filling pen. They advertised the cartridge system to be as “easy to load as a .45”, hence the name. The 45 was built like a workhorse. The plastic is durable and not prone to cracking unlike the Parker 61 and 21. But, sometimes you will find 45s with plastic that has shrunk. These were meant to be used as everyday writing pens, so they were made to take rougher usage (which also makes them great for students). The nib is slightly hooded, and the cap is almost always made out of metal. In my opinion, the pen looks great also.
Similar to the Esterbrook, the 45 allowed the nibs to be removed and replaced with another nib size, although Parker didn’t come close to the amount f nibs Esterbrooks had available as separate units. Parker 45s come in both steel and gold trims, and both steel and 14kt gold nibs. 45s are a bit thinner than the Parker 51s.
One of my favorite things about the 45 is the amount of models that were produced. In addition to the standard 45s with plastic bodies and metal caps, there were 45 Flighters, Insignias, Coronets, the 45 Arrow, Harlequin, 45 Ladys, and the 45 Special GT that offered some design enhancements over the standard 45. These pens offer much collect ability, so be warned that if you decide to purchase this pen, you may fall into a rabbit hole full of Parker 45s. Side note: my first vintage pen and my first 14kt nib was a Parker 45.
I love the clip design on the Parker 45
– Well Built
– Gold Nibs also Available
– Interchangeable Nibs
– Many, Many Finish Options
– Cartridges are Convenient
– Easy to Clean
– Easily Acquired
– In Some Pens, the Plastic has Shrunk
– A bit of a Thin Pen
The Parker 51 Special (~$50-60)
The Parker 51 was an absolutely legendary pen. They are widely accepted as the biggest and most successful pen ever produced. The 51s came in a variety of finishes and filling systems, but I am focusing on the Special model. The Special came with a steel nib rather than gold, and the filling system was limited to Parkers Aero filler, basically a Pilot Con-20 converter built into the pen. The plastic was the same incredibly durable plastic used on the standard 51s, and this plastic didn’t shrink like on the 45s.
The Parker 51 hoop filler, another version of the aerometric fillers
There were 8 colors released for the 51 Special, and each one featured a shiny metal cap with a black jewel. The hooded nib made the 51 a low profile, business oriented pen, but it also allowed the nib to stay primed when uncapped for longer, reducing flow problems. Combined with the snap cap, the 51 is a great pen for taking quick notes.
The tiny hooded nib on the 51 Special
– Many Colors
– Legendary Pen
– Aerometric Fillers are Hard to Clean
– You Can’t Swap out the Nib
Each pen fills its own role in the fountain pen world. The Esterbrook appeals to the masses, with many nib options, colors, and sizes at an affordable price. However, it is not easy to clean. The 45 is much easier to clea, it has a much more sleek style, has interchangeable nibs, and is similarly affordable. Finally, the 51 is incredibly durable and reliable while also being a fantastic writer with little to no flow issues. The design is sleek like the 45, and there are also many finish options if you move on to the gold nibbed 51 models. But, the 51 is generally ~$20 more. Hopefully I helped you decide on your first vintage fountain pen. Trust me, after using one of these, you will be hooked.