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Battle of the BFGs: M800 versus Balance

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5 replies to this topic

#1 ChristopherH


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Posted 03 December 2005 - 23:59

For my first pen review, I thought it would be fun to compare my newest pens, both of which happen to be BFGs. That’s “Big, Fine, Green”, of course, not the overpowered-yet-finicky DOOM weapon, though perhaps there are similarities. B)

2005 Pelikan M800 EF

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About a year ago my wife found her M405 (medium nib); the light weight and smoothness is just right for her left-handed underwriting. It’s an amazingly expressive pen, but always seemed a bit too short for me to use comfortably. Like her, I have reservations about the Souverän styling, but eventually Pelikan quality and precision won out and I decided to save for an M800.

I’m also in the midst of trying to reshape my cursive handwriting into something vaguely Spencerian (or at least more elegant). Attempting a 55-degree slope dramatically compresses the space between strokes, so I wanted to try a true fine nib. In Pelikan, this means Extra Fine, since all the nominal “Fine” nibs I’ve tried in Italian and German pens seem to be more “Medium minus”.

One phone call to Pam Braun (okay, many busy signals -- she’s deservedly popular), one week’s anticipation, and I had a classic green stripe M800 EF.

1931 Sheaffer Senior Balance F

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A confession: smooth-ended pens push my buttons. Flat-tops are nice, but the sharp ends of a cylinder seem somehow mismatched with the smoothness of hands or paper. A beautifully smooth pen, interrupted by crisp trim, reminds me of a Gull-wing 300SL, or a Tipo 33 Stradale: the curves tell a story of speed and sex appeal.

Clearly I needed to own the essential streamlined pen: Sheaffer’s Balance. Inspired by Richard Binder’s commentary, and the gorgeous pictures in Paul Erano’s Fountain Pens, Past and Present, I settled on marbled Marine Green as my color of choice.

I finally had a chance to find my Balance at the San Francisco Pen Show (my first show, what fun!). Tim Pierson had a good selection of balances, and I selected a few to dip test. As soon as I started writing with the ‘Oversize’ Marine Green Balance, a huge grin spread across my face, and my wife calmly announced “You’re buying that pen.”

Putting together reference information from www.richardspens.com, I think my pen dates roughly to 1931. It’s got a long round ball humped clip, and no visible lever pin.


Pelikan M800
Length, capped: 14.2 cm (5 9/16")
Length, posted: 16.6 cm (6 1/2")
Barrel diameter by threads: 12 mm (15/32")
Mass, inked: 29 g (1.0 oz)

Sheaffer Balance
Length, capped: 14 cm (5 1/2")
Length, posted: 16.2 cm (6 3/8")
Barrel diameter by threads: 12 mm (15/32")
Mass, inked: 22 g (0.7 oz)

I’m not sure whether the Balance is truly “Oversize” (as advertised) or merely “Senior”. “Senior” seems slightly more likely, on the basis of barrel diameter; in any case, it’s big enough for me.

Aesthetics, Fit and Finish

Pelikan makes a handsome, classic pen. Conservative styling, quality materials, every part precise and smooth. Many details to appreciate, like “Pelikan Souverän Germany” engraved into the double cap band. I can’t find anything specific to fault... except that it somehow doesn’t move me. Perhaps silver trim would have been a better choice. I appreciate the overall size of the M800, but I prefer the balance of the lighter Pelikans which lack the (overbuilt?) brass piston. Holding any Pelikan gives a feeling of solid precision.

The Sheaffer, on the other hand, demands my attention and affection, despite apparent flaws. The Balance is a simpler design, just smooth celluloid with one cap ring, a clip, and a lever. Pictures (mine, at least) can’t capture the magical depth and shimmer of celluloid; my pen has moderate ambering on one side, but still glows fantastically in sunlight. Somehow I forgive the modest brassing on the clip and the little ding in the cap band as signs of maturity. There’s a warmth and “lived-in” sense when I pick it up.

Objective advantage: Pelikan
Subjective advantage: Sheaffer

Nib and Feed

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The nibs are similarly sized and shaped; the Pelikan has slightly more graceful “shoulders”, but the Sheaffer has a more purely cylindrical curvature.
Despite my general preference for silver over gold, I find the elemental single-tone 14k gold Sheaffer nib more appealing; it’s an elegant monolith, with crisp engraving: “SHEAFFER’S/LIFETIME/REG.U.S.PAT.OFF./MADE IN U.S.A./1886252”. The gold has a lovely color, shines, and sheds ink easily.
For some reason the platinized portion of the Pelikan 18k nib seems less shiny than I’d expect, and the engraving attracts a lot more ink. Perhaps it also suffers from comparison to the stunning two-tone 14k nib on my Visconti Van Gogh Maxi (which has jealously conspired to sneak into this review by any means necessary, “green” only with envy, and “fine” only by hedonistic Italian standards).

Pelikan features a full and capacious modern comb feed in (presumably) plastic; Sheaffer’s feed is slimmer and smooth, tucked into the nib with coarse serrations on the sides, and has the softer look of ebonite. Both pens feed well: Pelikan slightly dry but perfectly consistent, Sheaffer dramatically wet with mildly variable (gravity-fed?) flow. The Pelikan nib unit is easily user-removable and interchangeable.

Objective advantage: Pelikan
Subjective advantage: Sheaffer

Writing Experience

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(Full-size 300-ppi scan, 1.1 MB)

I’ve included the Visconti Van Gogh F for reference purposes (since it insisted). The overview image is roughly 80 ppi, the closeups are 300 ppi. These colors are a bit light on my monitor, so don’t use them to evaluate Florida Blue; I’ve left them as scanned since the <i>relative</i> differences match my perception of the page better than after correction.

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This is the second EF nib I've tried for my M800. The nib that came on the pen was bone dry and scratchy; its positive quirk was that it was a servicable flex nib if I wrote at a snails pace to let the ink keep up. Chartpak politely and speedily replaced it, and now it’s a bunch better behaved. It’s still on the dry-side, and needs a free-flowing, saturated ink to avoid looking washed out. Not much line variation, but at least the flow is consistent and it deals decently with a variety of papers. Occasionally it digs up a fiber from the paper (even with my typical light pressure), and the line gets smeared out. There’s a tiny bit of flex possible, but with some “memory”, so the line may remain relatively over-saturated for the rest of the word. On the plus side, the line is truly fine, which is getting harder to find these days.

Overall, I don’t recommend the factory EF nib for the M800. It lacks all three classic Pelikan qualities of smoothness, wetness, and character. It’s possible that I’d have had a totally different experience with an F nib, or with a Binder or Mottishaw extra-fine with better proportions.

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It doesn’t get much better than this. A firehose of ink, focused down to a precisely sharp and smooth point. Crisp edges, deep colors, and a rigid nib that’s happy with almost any surface. I love it!

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My Visconti Van Gogh (Maxi) nominally has an F nib, but writes a medium line with tons of variation. Springy and smooth, it’s hard for the true fines to compete, at least until space gets tight.

Objective advantage: Visconti (hey!)
Subjective advantage: Sheaffer

Filling System

Pelikan’s piston filler is generally considered state-of-the-art. Sheaffer’s lever-filling sac is, well, antiquated. The Pelikan certainly holds a lot more ink, and pushes it around authoritatively with an overengineed brass piston. Maybe it’s just because it’s my first lever-filling pen, but there’s something reassuring about the mechanical simplicity of the Sheaffer. It’s also much faster to fill, and doesn’t need as much cleanup afterwards.

Objective advantage: Pelikan
Subjective advantage: Sheaffer


Well, the M800 was cheaper, and it’s new, and it has a warranty, and there’s a thriving resale market. On the other hand, the Balance means a lot more to me.

Objective advantage: Pelikan
Subjective advantage: Sheaffer


Fountain pens manifest beauty, truth, and goodness.

Objective conclusion: You would probably enjoy a Pelikan M800. It’s a great pen, widely admired for excellent reasons.
Subjective conclusion: I’m so very deeply happy to have found a Marine Green Sheaffer Senior Balance!

Edited by ChristopherH, 04 December 2005 - 00:00.

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#2 Blade Runner

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Posted 04 December 2005 - 00:36

Let me be the first to say how much i enjoyed your interesting past and present review and photography.

My medium nibbed 800 was a dry writer with: Pelikan royal blue, Florida blue and Aurora, but became a wet writer with Quink washable blue. It is not a saturated ink, but if you want increased flow and have a bottle hanging around, i suggest giving it a try. It's amazing how different feeds flow differently with different inks.

I like what you said about brassing. I have a favorite vintage pen with brassing, and that's fine with me too. When I pick up my Gold Bond Stonite, it's like slipping into a favorite pair of hiking boots that's nicely worn in. :)9

I hope this will be the first of many reviews.


#3 Maja


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Posted 04 December 2005 - 18:54

What a great review and what nice photos! Thank you so much, Christopher.
I love the fact that you reviewed and compared a new classic and an old classic---great idea! We have had some reviews of vintage pens but not nearly as many as we have had of modern ones. MichaelR linked to a nice Balance review of his, a few days ago, so it's been a bit of a windfall for vintage Sheaffer fans lately :lol:
I have both the M800 and a few Balances so I fully agree with what you say. I couldn't really choose between the two because they are both classics of their time. When I use an older pen, though, I get some sense of the history that surrounds it. I don't get that in a modern pen.

Now, when are you going to post a review of the Van Gogh so he/she won't be jealous? ;)
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#4 davyr


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Posted 04 December 2005 - 20:13

very nice, creative review, christopher! that senior balance looks marvelous.
"i love the smell of celluloid nitrate in the morning...you know, the smell, that camphor smell, it smells like...victory."

#5 southpaw


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Posted 05 December 2005 - 04:20

Great review! Very creative to compare a modern pinacle with a classic vintage. I too had an M800 and sold it because it didn't move me. OTOH, I have a modern Balance (Cobalt Glow Balance II) which is wonderful! Thanks again for the review.
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8, NKJV)

#6 randyholhut



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Posted 05 December 2005 - 22:29

While the M800 is a most drool-worthy pen (at least among the Pelikan fans here), there's still nothing like writing with a solid vintage performer like the Balance.

There are lots of things about pen collecting that are enjoyable, but one of the most enjoyable is the idea of using a pen that's 60, 70 or even 80 years old and it still doing the job it was made for decades earlier.

To hold a Duofold or Balance in your hand in this Bic stic age of ours is wonderful. It gives you an appreciation for a time when things were built to last; when even a humble pen like a Esterbrook was made with quality and craftsmanship.

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