My writing habits have undergone a change recently, because I've managed to develop a vexing case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in both (!) wrists. So I've regretfully put my skinnier, heavier pens on furlough, and I've been experimenting with more "ergonomic" pens - putting the term in quotation marks because I've investigated pens that position themselves as ergonomic designs as well as pens that are simply comfortable to use. I've decided to gather the results of that investigation into a sort of omnibus review (given my current circumstances, this has taken a long time to type - in short installments, no less.)
By way of preliminaries, I should point out that ergonomic success implies, for me, light weight, comfortable shape and ample girth - particularly at the section. For other folks, the term may suggest other design attributes. So regard this, please, as one user's personal perspective.
I have made an effort to restrict my remarks to ergonomic considerations; these are by no means exhaustive reviews. That said, it's inevitable that some of these comments will touch on other aspects of pen performance. (An ergonomically sound pen that's a poor writer will be a failure, because one will never use it.)
This discussion is limited to pens I own; I would gladly welcome nominations for other worthwhile candidates.
Most of these pens are well-known, and reference photos abound on the Internet. However, to keep this from being an unrelieved block of text, I've included simple group shots of the pens, uncapped.
Group I, left to right: rOtring Skynn, rOtring Core, Schneider Base, Omas 360 Magnum, Pelikano Jr., Pelikan Future
Now here's a pen that screams "ergonomic" - nothing else could justify the homeliness of the design. Put off by its looks, I had always passed up the chance to acquire one; but I am now the reasonably satisfied owner of not one, but four. I'm happy to report that the Skynn's design works as intended: the fat, soft-touch section is easy and comfortable to grip. There are trade-offs, of course. The bulbous grip makes for a rather vague writing feeling; one wouldn't want to use a Skynn to produce exactingly precise line art. I've found that the best course is to give in to the experience rather than fight it: opt for the "XL" (medium-broadish) nib - mine are uniformly smooth, wet writers - simply because they don't demand overly fine control. The result might be a bit sloppy for some, but it works for me. (I think the "XS" nib might actually be a poor choice, because one would grip the pen more tightly to overcome the imprecise handling, thereby defeating the purpose of the design.) The Skynn is light in weight and well balanced in the hand.
My one serious complaint has to do with the teeny-tiny cap. It can be extremely hard to remove, especially for people with grip problems: the very people for whom the pen is intended. Over time, the cap has loosened up a bit, but I still make sure I have a rubber band handy to serve as a cap gripper. A shocking ergonomic faux pas in an otherwise excellent design.
And while we're on the subject of "homely": for many pen fanciers, the Core actually is the "ugly stick" we hear about people being beaten with. I wouldn't go quite that far, but I've got to say that its pseudo-extreme styling strikes me as a fifty-year-old marketer's interpretation of "edgy": not a good thing.
But we're talking ergonomics here, not beauty. For me, the Core - judged purely in terms of writing comfort - is less successful than the Skynn. The pen is light, and the barrel fits nicely in the hand: two definite positives. And the gripping section is agreeably thick. But I find that my fingers spend a fair amount of time seeking a comfortable position on that section. And I sometimes wish that the section were covered in the slightly soft, slightly grippy material that partially covers the cap.
I think, honestly, that the Core would be a more comfortable pen if its section were a simple cylinder. In this case, I think the drive to design something that was ergonomic in appearance may have resulted in an element that is less than optimally ergonomic in fact.
As a side note, I'll mention in passing that my Core, which is an XS, is a drier writer than I prefer.
Another pen that's solidly in the Euro-Ergo styling idiom, the Base is, fittingly enough, Schneider's base-line, entry-level fountain pen. It's not nearly as odd as the Skynn or the Core, but it's certainly quirky. The cross-section of the reasonably broad barrel - which sports a long longitudinal ink-view window - is a difficult shape to describe: imagine a guitar pick with its sharp "V" point fully rounded off. Once the pen is nestled in the hand, the shape is perfectly comfortable. It's large and lightweight - two good qualities in this connection.
The Base's section is wide, and it's covered in a rubbery material that's comfortable to the touch. Its shape is a conventional cylinder, with a flattened area at the bottom. That shape works very well, because its contours "suggest" proper finger placement without forcing fingers into specific spots; and the ample girth makes for a pressure-free grip. High marks here.
The nib - mine's a medium - slightly undercuts the success of the overall design. The nib has a bit of a downward curve, making for an occasionally awkward point/paper interface. (The Sheaffer Intrigue is another pen whose nib exhibits this trait.) If the Base's nib were flat (or, better yet, slightly angled upward), the writing experience would be dramatically improved.
Up to this point, the pens discussed have been inexpensive, steel-nibbed, cartridge-filling instruments. The 360, of course, is a whole different species: 18K nib, piston-filler (with the exception of the Mezzo, which I don't own and can't speak to), and significantly higher price. But any inquiry of this kind has to include this pen, if only by virtue of its explicit claims to sound ergonomic design: "carefully studied and developed to be totally ergonomic." (Verbiage taken directly from a late-1990s 360 brochure.)
If that sounds like I'm working up to a denunciation of the 360 as a pen whose ergonomic credentials are purely a matter of marketing spin...well, nothing could be further from the truth. While I'm aware that some users have found the 360 awkward to write with, I'm not a member of that group. For me - and those words are the key here, because your own experience may be different - the 360 was a comfortable writer right out of the box.
The remarkably lightweight, curvilinear-triangle barrel fits nicely in my hand, and the fat section - which continues its contours - puts my fingers in a natural, stress-free position. And the nib's sweet spot hits the paper perfectly. The pen's vegetable-based resin isn't as ostentatiously cushiony as, say, the Base's rubbery section; but it has a certain "friendliness" lacking in many other resins, and it is comfortable to hold.
It may be fundamentally unfair to compare the writing performance of the 360's nib to that of the Skynn or the Base. I will simply mention that my two 360s are spectacular writers: the best in my modest Omas collection.
In sum: if you find that you have a need for an ergonomically-correct fountain pen, and your budget permits, you probably ought to test-drive the 360. For me, it lives up to its promises.
NOTE: I should be clear - I'm talking about the old-style 360 here, not the newer design. To my eye, that new pen has all the hallmarks of a compromised, marketing-driven design. And I should also point out that while the nib's orientation works for me, other folks have needed to have the nib rotated for optimal performance (I regard myself as lucky in that regard). And finally, I want to mention that my 360 Magnum - the largest of the 360 family, and out of production for several years - is actually a bit more comfortable than my full-size 360. But we're talking about a minute difference here.
Pelikano Jr./Pelikan Future
These cheap-and-cheerful pens are somewhat startling reminders that a fountain pen needn't be expensive to be a good writer. But my evaluation criteria are narrower here: I bought both of them strictly as a part of this ergonomic quest, and I'm judging them in that context.
Both the Future and the Pelikano Jr. feature soft-touch padding on the gripping section. In the case of the Jr., the entire section is made of a rubbery material, with indentations for fingers and thumb; the Future, on the other hand, integrates three strategically-placed rubbery pads into the section.
For me, neither pen was a perfect solution. The Future's padded spots weren't quite large enough to make for a fully comfortable grip; I had to make a conscious effort to align my fingers to take best advantage of their cushioning. The Jr.'s section was better in that regard, but - being designed, after all, for littler hands - the section indentations were a bit too short for complete comfort (I found myself curling my fingers inward to keep them properly positioned). Both pens are blessedly lightweight, and both are reasonably chubby to hold; but I would have appreciated just a touch more length at the section.
Before I developed this physical problem, none of these issues would have been a matter of concern. Certainly neither pen can be faulted as a pure writer; they are smooth, skip-free and well balanced.
NOTE: although it's not reviewed here, I also tried out the Lamy ABC, another interesting variation on the children's-pen theme (and a direct competitor to the Pelikano Jr.). I found its wooden barrel friendly and comfortable, but its section, like the Pelikano's, is a bit short for adult fingers.
Group II, left to right: Danitrio Densho; Danitrio Cumlaude; Mont Blanc 149
This group and the next (I acknowledge that I'm lumping a bunch of pens in together) consist of instruments that aren't specifically marketed as "ergonomic" designs, but which are, to varying degrees, ergonomically successful. They have several key qualities in common: light weight, broad barrels and fat. cylindrical gripping sections. That's an old-fashioned recipe, but it still works pretty well.
It makes sense to consider these three pens at the same time, simply because they're all oversized "baguette" shapes. Honestly, if you like one of them, you'll probably like the others.
To be sure, there are individual differences. The very slightly tapered cylinder of the Densho/Cumlaude section (I'm thinking here of the brown Cumlaude, whose section is a bit different from that of the gray version) is extremely comfortable, and it has the virtue of allowing one's fingers to find a suitable gripping position without forcing them into a specific placement. That can be a very good thing, particularly in conjunction with the section's fatigue-free girth. Both the Densho and the Cumlaude are made of lightweight, "friendly" materials: ebonite and celluloid. The Densho's 18K nib, a soft fine, is superb. The Cumlaude's nib, a gold-plated medium, is less expressive, but also excellent.
The 149's section isn't terribly different from that of the Danitrios, which is a positive. On the other hand, the MB's "precious resin" is a bit colder in the hand than the Danitrios' materials, which is a negative. But on the whole, the 149 is an ergonomically sound design. Its 18K nib is first-rate. Whether one would choose it as a day-in-day-out default writer, given the anecdotal evidence of the resin's fragility, is a separate question. Since the onset of my Carpal Tunnel issues, there have been several instances where I've come close to losing my grip on a screwdriver, or a toothbrush, or a dog leash. I would hate to see that happen to my 149.
NOTE: There's a large group of pens that are similar in shape to the three discussed here, but one size smaller in terms of width, particularly at the section: the MB 146, The Pilot Custom 823, the Wality 69, the Recife Crystal, and many others. For me, the difference in girth makes these pens slightly less comfortable for extended use. Another pen that falls into this category is the Sheaffer Balance OS: arguably the pen that inspired the design of all the rest (and thousands more besides). A pointed reminder, I suppose, that "oversized," in 1930s terms, meant something very different from "oversized" in 2007 terms. (Then, too, there's the fact that a seventy-odd-year-old pen may not be the best choice for an everyday writer.)
Group III, left to right: Delta Dolce Vita (medium); Taccia Andante; Sheaffer PFM
These pens are also oversized, fairly wide-profile, reasonably lightweight instruments. They're more varied in overall shape, however, than the homogeneous pens that make up Group II.
The Delta is a pure cylinder throughout, descending from the 1920's flattop branch of the evolutionary tree rather than the "balanced" line. The barrel is extremely wide, but it's the generous girth of the section that distinguishes the Dolce Vita from other pens of similar configuration. That section has very little step-down or taper; it's a big, simple tube that rests lightly in the fingers and offers an infinite variety of gripping positions. It's a pen designed to be guided gently across the paper; it responds to steering inputs in the manner of an ocean liner. If that sounds like a criticism, it's not intended as such. On the other hand, I have to say that the pen's nib is simply too small for its body - almost in the manner of a vintage third-tier pen that marries an oversize body to a tiny "cost-reduced" nib - and that can make for some ungainliness in writing (sometimes the nib is literally hidden by the wide section).
For me, the Delta works best unposted; posting the cap seems to make it a bit top-heavy, and that's been an ergonomic fault since before the word "ergonomics" was coined. My Dolce Vita is the medium size, and it works very well without posting; I imagine the OS version (which I don't own) would be even better in this regard. On a personal level, I tend to find purely tubular pens less comfortable in the hand than baguette-shaped pens. (Please note that the vintage Duofold doesn't make the cut either - partly by virtue of its cylindrical shape, partly by virtue of its skinnier profile, and partly by virtue of concerns about its viability as a day-in-day-out writer.)
The Andante is a concededly idiosyncratic choice here. While its profile is nowhere near as wide as that of the Delta, the Taccia compensates with a design in which the barrel flows seamlessly to the nib: as with a vintage retractable-nib safety, there's no section at all. That makes it possible to vary finger position at will, allowing for small adjustments to relieve pressure and fatigue. The pen is awkwardly long posted, but it's light and well-balanced unposted. The steel nib (Schmidt?) was a splendid writer out of the box. Definitely a pen worth considering, if you find yourself confronting issues like mine. (A pen that almost succeeds on these terms is the Waterman Liaison; but its more obtrusive section trim and excess weight count against it.)
The design of the PFM has stood the test of time, as witness the ongoing success of its lineal descendants. Its agreeably wide, Zeppelin-shaped barrel (or "man-sized barrel," in Sheaffer advertising lingo) is a good compromise between "balanced" and straight-sided profiles, and its gently curving gripping area, which flows with little interruption to the nib, is extremely comfortable in use. I have several PFMs, with PdAg and 14K nibs ranging from extra fine to stub; each and every one is a fine performer. Unlike some other vintage candidates, the PFM is "young" and robust enough to serve as an everyday writer. Honestly, the only possible negative here is the fact that the PFM, unposted, is just a bit short; but posting the cap instantly corrects that problem. I regard the PFM as an outstanding ergonomic design.
NOTE: For these purposes, the best PFM models are definitely the PFM I and the PFM III (and the Autograph, but buying one of those is likely to be a matter of economics rather than ergonomics). Their plastic caps preserve the pen's balance when posted, while the metal caps of the other PFM models add greater weight. And speaking of weight: that factor alone explains the exclusion of the modern Legacy. While its shape and size mimic the dimensions of the PFM, its brass construction makes it significantly heavier in the hand.
The best pens in this lot, in my view, are the Skynn, the 360 and the PFM. One rung below them: the Densho, the Cumlaude, the 149 and the Andante. I'd put the Dolce Vita and the Base a notch below those three, with the other pens tied for last place.
I really hope that other folks confronting this kind of health issue will discover something of value in this discussion. Personally, I find it encouraging that my top three picks include both cheap and pricey pens; that both vintage and modern designs are represented; and that two pens specifically developed as ergonomic instruments are sharing the podium with a "conventional" design. The good news is that there are lots of worthwhile choices out there.
It's interesting to see how a physical issue can refocus one's priorities. Thanks for taking this little detour along with me.
PS Slightly off-topic, but I really ought to give honorable mention to a wonderful mechanical pencil that has proven very comfortable to use: the Lamy Scribble (.7mm). A splendid design!
PPS The name of this topic is based on a memorable phrase coined during the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign. No political overtones, though.
Edited by Univer, 22 January 2008 - 22:39.