Some people never caught the vintage pen bug, but a lot of us do. And inevitably the first question would be: Which one to go for first?
As a fan of the Esterbrook J series, I will attempt to make the case that you should be looking for one of these wonderful pens, as your first foray into the fascinating world of vintage fountain pens.
I never thought that a vintage pen can look and feel so retro-modern which is another way of saying “I know this thing is old, but it doesn’t look and act like it.”
Let’s start from the look. The pen is old enough to be used by your parents or grandparents. The J series was produced from 1941 to 1952 under many different variations (and names).
While it’s obvious that it’s a vintage pen, at the same time, there is something modern about it. The way all the lines are simple yet in harmony with each other, from the thrifty placement of black “jewels” and the chrome bands and clips, to the large stainless steel nib, this pen is both classy and utilitarian.
While the other manufacturers rely on gold trims, fancy clip shapes and busy marbled patterns on the barrel, the Esterbrook J series went for the opposite direction. It’s almost deliberately simplistic. And it works.
Then, when you actually hold the pen, it just feels like a solid instrument that is ready to write. And a no-nonsense, smooth writing experience is exactly what you get with this pen — provided you get one with a nib that is in a good condition. I just had an Esterbrook nib rusted just enough to break one of the tines. Speaking of the nib, let’s talk about that a bit.
Exchange That Nib!
Suppose you got a new Esterbrook J, you are excited! It’s the color that matches your favorite travel notebook cover, too. But upon trying to write with it, the nib is bad (just like the rusted one I mentioned above). What to do?
One of the coolest thing about owning and using a fountain pen is the flexibility to be able to swap nibs. The nib is the heart of a pen, just like a lens on a camera, it gives the pen ability to render different styles and strokes and in a lot of cases, different shading of the ink.
Esterbrook had done in the 40’s something that today’s popular brands like Lamy or TWSBI are famous for, easily-exchangeable nibs.
While they are not the only vintage pen companies who went this route, the fact that their nibs are still actively traded in the used market 65 years after they are manufactured, tells me that they did something right. Another manufacturer: Venus also produces nib units that are compatible with these pens.
Most of these Esterbrook J nibs are of the Firm or Rigid variety, there are a few that bear the “flexible” moniker, but those are uncommon and according to those who have used it, are not as flexible as let’s say, a Warranted 14K nib.
Let’s Use It
If you haven’t seen a 65 years old nib at work, you’re about to see one:
I did this sketch using the 9556 nib which was marketed as Firm Fine nib. As mentioned above, one thing that these exchangeable Esterbrook nibs that are not famous for is flexibility — which is slightly ironic given that Esterbrook is one of if not *the* largest manufacturer of dip pen nibs which offers a huge range of super-flex nibs.
A flexible nibs allow you to write with extreme line width variations. Just search on youtube for “flexible nib demonstration” and you’ll see what I mean.
On the contrary, the reason Esterbrook J pens are very useful for sketching is because it has a nearly indestructible nib that produces very consistent lines and a smooth writing experience.
Overall, I think everyone should try to write with this pen. I took the blue Estie (see how endearing the name is) the other day to a business meeting, and I wrote a diagram that will be built into a Business Dashboard which will end up displayed on a large flat panel screen in the company lobby.
Imagine that, using a 65+ years old fountain pen to design a 2015 Business Dashboard, I bet Richard Esterbrook didn’t see that one coming.
Here’s my summary:
- Is it cool or stylish?
Yes. Compared to pens of the same vintage, the patterns on the barrel are different than the usual marbling or chased or gold-filled. The design of the pen definitely leans towards Art Deco styling. Straight lines, minimalist shapes and dimensions all contribute to the unique look. It is very easy to pick out an Esterbrook J among a pile of old pens. Collecting Esterbrook J in different colors are just as addicting as collecting Lamy Safari colors, but the Esterbrook has a bonus coolness factor by being vintage. And by the way, the mechanical pencil is no less cool-looking.
- Does it feel cheap?
No. I find the Esterbrook J to be quite unique in how it is constructed. The body is plastic (okay, celluloid to pen collectors), but it feels solid (not brittle or “creaky”) in the hand. The clip is slim with a nice ESTERBROOK engraving, and does the job well, it slips into pockets, pen holders in my leather bag, my jeans pocket easily. The neat stainless steel trims complements the chrome nibs and did a very good job holding the pen together. Plus the fact that you can remove the nib unit simply by screwing it out of the section (the part of the pen you handle when writing), after 65 years with no leaks, it is an indication of a high production standard. Remember, they probably made close to a million of these in the 40’s and 50’s.
- Is it comfortable to write with?
Yes. This pen begs to be used. It is not a heavy pen, in fact by today’s standard it’s quite light, about as light as a Kaweco Sport, I would say. But the diameter of the J (there is a slimmer LJ and the slimmer and shorter SJ version) model is perfect for my hand. I can write (or sketch) with this pen for a long time. Smaller hand would use it unposted, larger ones will feel more comfortable writing with the cap posted.
- Is it a good value?
In 2015, samples of this pen in restored condition (replaced ink sac, that’s the most essential) fetch anywhere between $30-75 depending on the condition and the rarity of the color. I think this pen has a tremendous value because it’s a comfortable and reliable writer, plus it’s still stylish enough to be a conversation starter.
- Who would I recommend it to?
It is my believe that if you have any curiosity at all about vintage fountain pens, the Esterbrook J should be one of your first to try. For anyone new to using fountain pen, the nuances of flexible nibs, BCHR eye-droppers, and lever vs buttons vs crescent vs blow vs (many others) are best saved for later times. The Esterbrook J is easy to restore, easy to operate (once restored), and it looks so cool.
For more information, hit Esterbrook.net and you’ll find more than enough stuff to read about my blue Estie and her siblings.