The Pilot Varsity might be the cheapest fountain pen on the market (even cheaper than the Platinum Preppy) and as a disposable pen some would be tempted to disregard it completely as a real fountain pen, yet the Varsity is more than meets the eye and I'll tell you why I think so.
Pilot markets the Varsity as a disposable pen and the customer is expected to throw it away once it's out of ink. At around $3 (or less, depending on how you buy it), disposing of it might not seem a very attractive proposition. After all, this is not a $0.10 BIC. Still, I can see why many people would just throw it away without a second thought. In fact that's exactly what I did, a couple of years ago before I got into the fountain pen craze. Since then, I have learned that the Varsity is actually not as disposable as it seems. Read on to see why.
The Varsity also has a "brother" called V-Pen which, from what I can discern, is the exact same pen but with different coloring. The strange thing is that the V-Pen is slightly more expensive than the Varsity. For example, Jetpens sells the Varsity for $3.00 and the V-Pen for $3.45 (as of this writing). They also sell a set of 7 colored Varsities for about $20. Truth be told, I've heard rumors that the V-Pen has a finer nib than the Varsity but I don't see how that's possible since both nibs look identical and both are marked with <M>.
Currently I have a Varsity that I saved from a while back and I also bought a 7-color set from Amazon where it's much cheaper than other stores, at less than $13 per set. That amounts to less than $2 apiece.
The Pilot Varsity is made from soft plastic which some might consider cheap. I prefer soft plastic in cheap pens because it doesn't crack like the more upscale looking Platinum Preppy. The cap is a snap-on with a fairly useless clip (not much tension in it). The cap is topped by a round tip with a hole in it, color-coded depending on the ink. The cap in the Varsity is unpainted black plastic, while the V-Pen's is covered in silver paint (or is it made from silver plastic?).
The body of the Pilot Varsity is painted with a silver design which exposes a small window for checking the ink level. In practice this window is rather dim so you need to hold it up to the light in order to see anything. Personally I don't like the paint so I took the initiative and laboriously scraped it off my first Varsity. If you ever attempt this, two things will be revealed.
First, you will notice that Pilot cheated on the ink capacity. The black cap at the end of the body is simply decorative and it's not a stopper, as you might be led to believe. The surprise is that Pilot has sealed off the ink chamber way before the end of the barrel which leaves more than an inch of unused space. I just with they didn't cheapen out like that and used the full length of the barrel. The second thing is that, once the paint is off, the whole body is transparent and you can see the ink. That's always good for me because I love demonstrators.
The Pilot Varsity uses a seemingly cheap nib/feed assembly but it is one of the most effective I've ever come across. You see, this pen never dries up (even with the big hole in the cap), always starts immediately, the flow is wet and consistent, it never skips and it never spits or leaks.
The nib is a non-flexible steel piece, also used in the Pilot Petit1. It is marked as M (Medium) although it is not the same M as the Pilot Prera. What I mean by this is that it is not a true Japanese M, but rather a more "international" one. The line is thicker than the Prera's M, which isn't to say that it's bad. Pilot has done the right thing in making this nib slightly broader than its more expensive cousins. The nib itself is very smooth and in this aspect it rivals much more expensive pens. It doesn't have a breather hole but it looks like it was meant to have one.
The feed is a plastic affair without external fins. The fins do exist but they are inside the section. This mimics rollerball ink pens such as the Pilot V5. I suspect that the design of the feed contributes to a large extent to the excellent ink flow of the Varsity, not to mention the instant start, the lack of drying and so on. I also believe that part of the secret is the tiny wick which goes the length of the feed, from bottom to tip. This wick is in permanent contact with the ink in the reservoir at one end, and touches the nib at the other. Being always saturated, it offers an endless supply of ink to the nib.
As mentioned, the Pilot Varsity writes very smoothly. While it can be held comfortably without posting the cap, I prefer to post it because otherwise it feels too light. Posting the cap gives it just the right balance.
I have tried all the 7 colors in my set and here are some quick impressions.
Black - standard dark black, nothing much to report
Blue - more like blue-black, i.e. a darker shade of blue
Purple - not very impressed by the purple. I would have preferred a brighter shade
Red - beautiful red. It tends towards vermilion if you ask me, or slightly towards pink. Either way, I love it.
Pink - bright, candy pink. I'll probably use it for drawing, highlighting or I'll give to my wife. I like the neon-bright shade but pink is rather limited in use anyway.
Turquoise Blue - similar to Noodler's Navajo Turquoise. It's a light, bright shade of blue.
Green - same impressions as for purple: I don't care much for it. It looks a bit drab.
So how then, is the Pilot Varsity not actually disposable? If you haven't heard this before, hear it from me now: the Varsity can be refilled! It can be re-used, again and again, with any type of fountain pen ink. People are using various methods to refill it but mine is simple: just pull the nib/feed out. I won't say more at this point but stay tuned for my next article which describes the procedure in more detail.
Now, you can probably see why I bought the cheap 7-color set: so I can refill these pens later.
The Pilot Varsity is, to me, the best $3 fountain pen. It writes incredibly well for the price and performs admirably in every way. The ink reservoir (although it should have been bigger) is very accomodating and certainly holds more ink than a cartridge or a converter or even some piston fillers. It is also cheap enough that you won't mind if it breaks or if you lose it. You can also lend it safely to others without worrying that they might misuse it. Best of all, the Varsity might just be the gateway drug into the world of fountain pens. It certainly was for me.