March is set aside as the one month in the year when we express our gratitude for the steel pen, an invention that continues to improve lives and handwriting all over the world. Is Dr. Boli the only writer still obsessed with steel pens? The answer is a resounding no. The Steel Pen is a site made by a true obsessive in the best sense, and it is well worth wasting a few hours to explore its byways.
Can you still get steel pens? A similar question came up in International Typewriter Appreciation Month, and the answer was that one Chinese factory was making a sort of distant echo of a good typewriter for the American market. But for steel pens, the answer is a resounding and unqualified yes.
First of all, many pens were abandoned very suddenly in the middle twentieth century, when offices bought their last orders of steel pens and then found that no one was using them anymore. Those unopened boxes of pens often turn up on auction sites for reasonable prices.
But the pens are still being made today in great variety by some of the original makers. William Mitchell makes pens for every use, and also keeps up the Joseph Gillott line of drawing pens. Speedball keeps up a variety of lines, including the Standard School Pen, which was meant for inexperienced hands, and the Hunt line of artists’ pens. Leonardt, one of the other great Birmingham brands, is still making a every kind of steel pen, including the Index Nib, a novelty pen shaped like a hand with a pointing finger. Brause, Nikko, Hiro, Zebra, Tachikawa—there are almost as many choices now as there were a hundred years ago. There was a dark age of about thirty years when it was hard to find a good selection of steel pens; but then came the Internet, and now a dealer on one side of the world can find a customer on the other side.
When it comes to ink, writers of our own era have a decided advantage over the writers of a century ago. We are living in the golden age of ink. Many of the old brands—Sheaffer, Diamine, Waterman, Herbin, and the like—are still making the same formulas they have made for decades or centuries. But the boom in expensive fountain pens has meant a boom in small companies producing ink in endless colors and varieties. Noodler’s lists 40 shades in the “blue” category alone. If you worry about your pen’s diet, you can choose Organics Studio inks. Of course you can make your own ink from walnuts, but if you wanted to sell it you would run into the difficulty that “Walnut” has been registered as a trademark for a brown ink that is made from something other than walnuts.
In short, you cannot use the excuse that the supplies are difficult to come by as a reason for sticking with a ballpoint. You will have to come up with some more baroque reason.
Meanwhile, there is the complex issue of paper, which deserves an article of its own.