by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Believes The Pen Can Be Mightier Than The Sword…
You know what product attribute doesn’t get enough hype? Tactility — how something feels to the touch. While today’s manufacturers obsess over size and weight, promising us larger and larger capacity and lower and lower weight, that’s fine for phones and planes — but not enough for us creative professionals. In fact, sometimes we want our tools to be heavier and less modern. Whether the instrument is a keyboard, camera, or clarinet, it has to feel just right in our hands.
For me, that essential tactility applies to pens.
While I do most of my writing on a computer — and keyboard tactility is, well, key — I relish the sensation of scribbling on dead wood. (Taking notes on a tablet is like trying to sleep on a plane: possible sometimes, unpleasant all the time.)
Of course I need a pen that writes well, but ten-cent Bic ballpoints do that. I want more: a pen with heft and coolness to the touch. And as a design fan, I also want it to look well-crafted and professional. So all those criteria rule out plastic. Instead, I’ll spend more for steel.
But not too much more.
Luxury brands Mont Blanc and Waterman can keep their pens, because I struggle to keep mine. Every year I unintentionally supply many unknown writers. To keep my financial losses to a minimum, my favorite pens won’t wow collectors or serve as impressive gifts. They simply fit my preferences and budget. They’re also all refillable, which keeps waste to a minimum.
If those criteria work for you, you just might like my five favorite steel pens…
(Note: the following list contains affiliate links, so if you click through and buy anything, he proceeds support the Atomic Tango Martini Fund. Cheers!)
For under $40, the rOtring won’t break the bank, yet it has that German pedigree (“rotring” means “red ring”) while making the user look like an architect. Consequently, it makes a nice gift. In terms of tactility, that knurled non-slip grip sure feels nice to run your fingers over.
This Japanese-designed, low-budget alternative to the rOtring Rapid Pro costs around $7. Not exactly gift worthy, particularly with its plastic parts inside, but you won’t cry over losing one either. Like the rOtring, the Zebra F-Z01 pen has an all-steel body and a knurled grip. The combo of looks, feel, and affordability make it my go-to pen.
Close behind the F-Z01, Zebra’s F-402 (just over $6 for a 2-pack) has a rubber grip and looks automotive. (Note: the new logo is different than the one pictured above.) I keep one ready to roll in my car, which it fits perfectly.
Around $20, the American-designed Fisher Space Pen comes with pressurized ink that writes at any angle, at extreme temperatures, and in zero gravity. Hence, it’s used by astronauts. (By the way, an urban legend claims that NASA spent millions to develop this pen that would write in space, while the Soviets laughed and gave their cosmonauts pencils. Not true. The Fisher Space Pen was privately developed and adopted by both sides, because pencils create flammable dust. Just thought you’d like to know.) Since I do most of my writing on the ground at L.A. temperatures, most of those features aren’t necessary. The Fisher Bullet Space Pen comes in two pieces, and is very compact with the cap on the writing end. Now here’s the rub: it actually doesn’t write all that well, the ballpoint leaks just a bit, and the refills are expensive. Consequently, the Space Pen is interesting to look at and talk about, but the others write better.
The classic Parker Jotter offers tip-to-tip stainless steel and a mid-century modern vibe for between $10-$15. This American-designed/British-owned pen also offers a satisfying heavy click — an important tactile feature for pen lovers and fidgeters. Above all, for us James Bond fans, the Parker Jotter appeared in the 007 film GoldenEye, in which it doubled as a grenade. (See the video below from the 0:40 point.) Of course, the version you buy won’t have that incendiary feature, which would be taking tactility a bit too far.
So there you have my five fave pens of steel. Got a favorite that’s not on my list? If so, I’d love to hear about it.
In the meantime, write on…