It didn’t hurt that his table overlooked a cobalt-blue crater lake, but it wasn’t the spectacular scenery that sent Father Kyle Sanders into bursts of euphoria at a restaurant in Nicaragua in 2012.
Father Sanders, then a 26-year-old transitional deacon six months shy of his priestly ordination, was attending the farewell dinner of a seminary mission trip when a tablemate lent him a fountain pen – and showed Sanders what he had been missing in his ballpoint-dominated world.
“I sit down and I write with it and I think, ‘This is awesome! Where can I get one?’” said Father Sanders, recalling how the act of writing had been made virtually effortless and more pleasurable, thanks to the fountain pen’s smooth, gravity-released flow of ink.
Moreover, the internal mechanics of a fountain pen allowed the writer to hold his pen at a far less hand-cramping angle of 45 degrees – rather than the nearly 90-degree angle required to coax ink out of a ballpoint.
The experience was such an epiphany, Father Sanders went on to amass a collection of about 130 pens, primarily of the fountain variety. His jewel-like collection boasts pens of all girths and colors, and showcases materials such as wood, precious metals and a hard rubber called ebonite.
“I didn’t know anything about fountain pens but I liked them as soon as I put pen to paper,” chuckled Father Sanders, 31, the parochial vicar of St. Philip Neri Church in Metairie. “When you’re from my generation and you don’t know about things, you ask ‘Senor Google.’”
An international collection
Father Sanders shops for pens on the Internet and at pen shows, which has enabled him to gather pens from all over the globe, including Japan, China, Germany, England, the United States, Canada, France, Taiwan, India and Italy.
“Italian pens you can usually tell because of their (high-fashion) appearance,” said the priest, pointing to a midnight-blue fountain pen whose plastic barrel (main pen body) suggests terrazzo marble.
Another Italian favorite, made by the company Visconti, is a fountain pen whose clear plastic barrel contains swirling blue and green “ribbonettes” and sterling silver accents.
Pens are as diverse as their makers, Father Sanders said, pointing to one of his more unusual fountain pens: named “Ship in a Tempest,” and for which a pen maker from Atlanta scrimshawed a sea-tossed ship onto a piece of naturally shed deer antler.
A thick-barreled fountain pen from Germany called “The Pelican,” fashioned out of gold-accented black resin, features the bird on its cap, finial and nib – the arrow-like tip of a fountain pen.
“When you really dive deep into fountain pens you want to find what you love,” Father Sanders said. “I resolved that to be able to do that, I would try a little bit of everything.”
Other cherished pens include a rare, gold-filled fountain pen made by the Iowa-based Scheaffer company, one of the top three American manufacturers of the 20th century. It is engraved with the initials “MF,” indicating that it was given as a gift.
Father Sanders’ most beloved “pen” unscrews to reveal a surprise use that has nothing to do with writing: as a portable container for holy water.
“They would give these to priests and ministers as gifts in the 1950s and ’60s,” Father Sanders said. “They’re very rare.”
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Calling all pen lovers!
There are more pen lovers than one would think.
An Internet forum called The Fountain Pen Network includes a podcast called “The Pen Addict” that attracts 100,000 downloads. Aficionados also share their finds in Pen World Magazine and on Instagram, and celebrate “International Fountain Pen Day” on the first Friday of November.
“There are all these men and women who collect fountain pens and write reviews and write incessantly about fountain pens,” Father Sanders said. “Some are poetic and some are extremely scientific, and will want to analyze the PH-balance of an ink, or the specific balance – the feel – of this pen versus that pen.”
Rainbow of inks on tap
Despite being considered old fashioned, fountain pens are a “green” technology because they are refillable, unlike most ballpoints. Consequently, Father Sanders keeps an assortment of bottled inks in his rectory office.
“There are purplish blues, reddish blues, greenish blues, pure blues. With blacks, you move from a charcoal to a deep black and everything in between,” he said. “Because of the chemistry of fountain pen ink, there can also be a sheen on top of the ink that’s a second color – so you might find some blacks that have a yellow sheen, or blacks that have a red sheen.”
Fountain pens, which use only quick-drying, water based ink, have tiny internal “wings” that channel ink down into a feed. The ink then flows into the nib with the help of gravity.
“A fountain pen is pretty much a controlled leak,” Father Sanders explained. “The paper itself pretty much draws out the ink. You don’t have to push (the pen into the paper). It just kind of flows out.”
“With ballpoints, there’s a little ball bearing in the tip that you push on, and that’s how it opens up,” he added. “Most ballpoints, like your normal Bic, use oil-based ink, which is why it so difficult to get out of clothing.”
Father Sanders said his hobby has encouraged him to slow down and spend more time “on paper” than behind a computer screen.
“It’s an intentional thing,” said Father Sanders, who uses fountain pens to write out all his homilies. “I keep a pocket notebook so I can write things down to remember them – not so I can look at them later to remember them; the physical act of writing things down helps me to remember,” he said.
The priest also keeps a daily journal and manually corresponds with about 30 people around the world.
“Quite literally, a lot of my pen pals are pen people,” said Father Sanders, noting that despite his passion for fountain pens, he also carries a ballpoint with him at all times.
“If you’re signing a check in a restaurant, that kind of paper would not handle (a fountain pen’s) water-based ink; it would just swipe right off,” Father Sanders said. “They would never have my signature!”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.