Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Noodler's Piston Filler fountain pen review

Noodler's is first and foremost known for their awesome, inexpensive inks that are Made in the USA (for now). I'm a big fan of these inks but when I learned that Nathan, Noodler's owner and operator, also tried his hand at creating a cheap piston filler fountain pen, I had to have it. I will spare you the history of how this pen came about and all that because I'm sure you've heard it before from better sources and in more detail.

Nathan wanted to prove that an inexpensive fountain pen can be... made entirely in the USA hmm... sold... and he has more or less reached his goal but, as you will see, there are still some nagging issues that prevent it from being the absolute best option under $20. Speaking of price, the piston fillers are currently $14.

Noodler's piston filler fountain pen

Noodler's piston filler is on the thin-and-light side. Mine is a transparent demonstrator. I love demonstrators so if a fountain pen comes in both opaque and transparent, I'll probably end up getting the transparent one in most cases. I just love seeing the color of the ink and the fountain pen's internals.

Here are some dimensions for those interested:
length capped: 13cm  (5 3/16")
length uncapped: 12cm (4 3/4")
cap length: 5.5cm (2 1/4")
length posted: 14cm (5 1/2")

Though the body is thin, it is not as thin as the Sailor HighAce Neo. As a result, it is more comfortable to hold. It is also not as shiny as the Sailor, which again makes for a good holding experience. The cap is a screw-on and it's something I like because I don't have to worry that it might fall off. It takes 1.5 turns to unscrew.

Noodler's piston filler fountain pen

The pen tapers down to the piston knob but despite this, the cap can be securely posted on this end because it isn't actually held by the knob itself but rather it goes beyond it and catches on the barrel.

Noodler's piston filler fountain pen

Apart from the looks, one of the first things that will assault your senses when you unbox one of these Noodler's fountain pens is a powerful chemical smell which emanates from the material the pen is made from (vegetal resin from what I hear). I haven't smelled this in any pen before but I knew what to expect because everybody else had complained about it. Don't worry though, in a few weeks most of the smell goes away. Some people have mentioned washing the pen thoroughly with water and soap and perhaps surgical alcohol.

One of Nathan's goals with these pens was that he wanted them to be easy to maintain and he accomplished this by allowing the user to disassemble them to their basest components. Self-maintenance is always a desired featured and, in my case, it came in handy right at the beginning because the nib and feed weren't aligned properly. No problem. I pulled both of them out using my fingers, re-aligned them and then stuck nib and feed back into the section. Since the nib/feed combo is friction-held inside the section, this is easy to do.

Noodler's piston filler fountain pen feed

Noodler's piston filler fountain pen nib

I haven't taken apart the piston mechanism but that is also doable if one desires to do so. Removing the nib and feed also comes in handy when cleaning the pen because you don't have to flush it a dozen times by only using the piston. Instead, you can just pour water inside the wide opening in the section and flush it this way.

The nib is a generic steel affair with the words "Noodler's Ink Co" embossed on it. It is not a flex nib, of course. The width is given as a rather ambiguous  M/F but I find that it writes in between these two designations. The feed is rather interesting, being made from ebonite, which I hear is always a good thing.

Noodler's piston filler fountain pen

I've now arrived at one of the major disadvantages of Noodler's fountain pens. This pen cannot be stored with the nib pointing down because it slowly leaks ink. I've been lucky to notice this behavior with the demonstrator because an opaque cap would have left me oblivious until all the ink had drained out. You can still see tiny drops of green ink in the cap, in the photo below. To be fair, this isn't the only fountain pen which leaks ink if stored like this but it is certainly the worst example. I used to store my pens with the nib downward so they would start right away but since I caught my Noodler's leaking, I've flipped them all around.

Noodler's piston filler fountain pen

One other thing that bugs me, but I can't quite put my finger on it, is the impression that ink evaporates from this pen. Maybe I'm just hallucinating but until someone else confirms or denies it, I'm stuck with my suspicions. There's a breather hole in the cap and I covered this with scotch tape and now I'm imagining that the ink isn't evaporating so quickly. Again, maybe I'm spouting rubbish but if you have experienced a similar issue with yours, drop me a line.

Before I get to the writing experience, let me mention one other annoying thing. This fountain pen tends to dry up rather quickly and it takes some time to get it started. Often I will have to twist the piston knob to get some fresh ink on the nib before it will even consider writing. I guess that's the price you pay for simplicity of design.

The nib, as mentioned, is somewhere between a fine and a medium. In fact it is almost exactly like a Japanese medium, like the Pilot Prera I reviewed a while back. Once the pen starts, inkflow is consistent and I would put it on the wet side. Writing feels very smooth and it's certainly up there with my best writers. There's no skipping and no scratchiness whatsoever. It doesn't quite match the dime-a-dozen Noodler's eyedropper creaper which is included with Noodler's Nikita but that pen is helped to a large extent by the flexibility of its nib. Speaking of which, I'm seriously wondering if the nib/feed can be transplanted between these two pens.

My major regret in buying the Noodler's piston filler is that I didn't opt for the flex nib variant. At the time I bought mine, the flex nibs were in stock. Now, alas, it's impossible to get one. I'm sure a flex nib would improve on the good points even more.

To summarize, Noodler's piston filler fountain pen is probably the most inexpensive piston-fill pen on the market and one of its major strengths is the fact that you can completely disassemble it for cleaning, maintenance and adjustment. Likewise, the nib and feed can be adjusted to change ink flow. If you can put up with a few annoyances such as the strong initial smell, the dripping ink and the slow start, the smooth writing should convince you to give this pen a try.

The two writing samples I've included are done on photocopier paper and a Staples journal (which I'm discontinuing starting with my next ink review), in J Herbin Vert Olive. I'm not sure this is the best ink with which to test how a fountain pen writes but hopefully my next review will showcase an ink better suited to the task, which was also loaded in this pen.

J Herbin Vert Olive ink review on photocopier paper

J Herbin Vert Olive ink review on Staples journal

Here are some videos by Nathan Tardiff, explaining how to:

- adjust the nib and feed

- repair and restore a piston filler


  1. Thank you for this detailed review. I always thought his fountain pens are made in Pakistan. Do you know which of his new piston fillers are made in the USA? Is it only the demonstrator?

  2. Matthias, I don't know what to say. From what I was aware, all his pens are made in the US. I thought that was part of his philosophy. I'd be disappointed if they were made elsewhere. Where did you hear anything about Pakistan? This definitely bears investigation.

  3. I think in one of his youtube videos he mentions that the pen is only a tool to bring the ink to paper and that the ink is the important bit because the ink is what records your work (this was I remember he obviously used different words). I also remember reading somewhere that it is so difficult to get permission to expand the business the way he wants and information about where the different components are from and definitely remember Pakistan because I was surprised that it was not China. If you search for "Noodler's Pakistan" in a search engine of your choice you get some hits, but I couldn't find the post where I got it from.

  4. I am pretty sure these pens are made by Chelpark in India. Someone posted a thread about it on FPN.

  5. I'm starting to believe that guys. In that case, it wouldn't surprise me that these pens are having some issues.

  6. 5 minutes later...

    OK I'm convinced. A search on FPN for "Chelpark" indeed found this thread which is very well documented with pictures.

    This won't stop me from buying a flex nib when they become available though.

  7. It's a shame the pen has issues. It is actually quite beautiful. The photos with the green ink and the nib look fantastic!

  8. @Matthias thanks!
    It's not just this particular pen. From what I've read elsewhere, everyone's having the same issues. But again, I don't see this as a pen that I would carry permanently with me. It's something that stays on my desk where it won't get the chance to misbehave.

  9. This is an excellent, and thorough, review. I'm glad you mentioned the finicky flow issues that come up - it is annoying, but I've found that keeping the pen full and choosing less saturated inks helps quite a bit.

  10. Thanks Matthias. It looks like they are made in India, not Pakistan. I don't think any of the piston fillers are made in the US. I stand corrected :)

  11. Thanks Matthias. It looks like they are made in India, not Pakistan. I don't think any of the piston fillers are made in the US. I stand corrected :)

  12. The pens are definitely not made by Chelpark, I've spoken with Nathan on the phone about this. Long story short, in order to keep costs down, Nathan used a pen design from a manufacturer that already makes these, and he 'built' the design of the pen much like you'd build a car using parts from different manufacturers. Chelpark did the same thing as Nathan, they just sources parts that look alike. Chelpark isn't a manufacturer, they just designed their own pen using a manufacturer that has the same forms as the parts that Nathan uses. Injection molding machines for pens cost around $250,000 per pen body, so you can understand the cost advantages of using a pre-selected body form.

    FPN has jumped to conclusions on this one, but I got my info straight from the man himself. Chelpark pens are not Noodler's pens, though the fact they look similar is undeniable. Nathan did confirm to me that the nibs he uses are his own design.

    I hope this clears some stuff up!

  13. Thank you for this explanation, it's really informative. I have to say that I am always impressed by Nathan's determination and ideas. Do you know whether the feed is different, too (it seems to be longer than then Chelpark one).

  14. Thanks Brian, this is very informative. I stand corrected again and I'm sorry if I have disseminated the wrong information. It doesn't really matter to me where the pens are made as long as I like how they feel and write. You might want to post what you wrote here on FPN as well, just to clear things up.

  15. I had the same issues with evaporation. Noodler's Black, Green Marine, Blue-Black, Lamy Blue...didn't matter, all evaporated quickly. I covered the hole with tape but didn't really want that. It evaporated so quickly I discounted these as daily writers. Not to mention the flow issues, dry - flood - dry - flood.

    I have to say, I'm not pleased with these pens and I hesitate to order the eyedropper version for the same reason. If I wanted a cheap pen, I'd get a Safari or Pelikano, I'm just not THAT much into piston fillers.

  16. There's not much I can disagree with. For those who are really crazy about piston fillers, they might as well get the vastly superior TWSBI, which, although more expensive, is worth every penny.

    I'm thinking that a Pilot 78g is also a good option, and cheaper to boot, even though it doesn't have a piston.

    Still, the Noodler's pen is an interesting experiment and something that you can use to practice fountain pen maintenance on the cheap.

    I'm still going to get the flex but only because that's the only cheap flex pen you can find these days. I'm definitely not going to pay $140+ for a Pilot Falcon, for example.

    You can't buy the eyedropper separately anyway but the nib in that one is really nice.

  17. Ditto on the Pilot 78g. On the Namiki/Pilot Falcon: the "flexible" nib is really not. I'd say it's "soft." But, there's no "flex" unless you push HARD or have the nib modified. You get much better "flex" characteristics with the Noodlers. If you want a great pen that is IMHO better than any Mont Blanc but still looks/feels expensive, the Falcon is for you. I love mine, it's my "formal" pen.

  18. That's exactly what I heard about the Falcon: that it is less flexier than the Noodler's. No, even though the Falcon is a very nice pen, it's out of my price range. At this point I just want to play around with flex on the cheap.

    If I were to spend some big money on a real flex pen I'd get a Waterman 52. That one, in my eyes, is the golden standard.

  19. Want to make an exchange, one flex nib for one regular steel nib? I have two Noodler's flex nibs but no steel nib. I would like to try the regular nib as well as the flex nib since I am going to participate in the Noodler's artist contest using only Noodler's pens and ink for artwork... Keep in touch if you are intrested! And keep doing your great reviews!

  20. Thanks for the offer! It's very tempting but I would still like to keep the non-flex around. I'm thinking of getting the flex in a different body color.

  21. I like noodles pens. I have at least seven of them. I find there is really nothing you can say that is consistant about them. I have the drying up problem with only two or three of mine. I do have what seems to be the evaporating ink problem with a few of them. A few of them write very smooth and a few were scratchy. I like to tinker and fiddle with things so smoothing the nibs is something that I enjoy. What is really annoying to me is that I like the standard nib better than the flex and I cannot obtain these nibs and no one at Noodlers will reply to my inquiries. OK so I find the Nemosine to be a great $14 pen. It writes smooth and consistent. The Lamy Safari is very smooth. I will say that all of the online pen stores that I have bought Noodlers pens or ink from have been very nice and tried to be helpful. But I've spend enough money on pens and inks from Noodlers that I think that I at least deserve a response to my emails. I'm very disappointed. What good is all the fuss about being able to dissassemble them and maintain them if you can't buy a nib.

  22. Hi Robert,

    From what I understand Nathan is a one-man army. He handles everything (or almost everything) about the production of his inks and pens himself. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't have time to reply to emails. I guess that's what happens when you don't have employees to handle these other aspects of a business. I'm not making excuses for him, just saying what I think is actually going on.

    The cheaper Lamy pens are great, especially since they are mass produced.

    If you are looking for a great pen and (allegedly) great customer support, try TWSBI, if you haven't already. The pens are more expensive but they are also better crafted, better looking and better writing.

    As for Noodler's inks, there are many that I like and many that I don't. You know how it is, personal preference and all that. Sometimes I wonder why would someone bother to produce a particular ink since I dislike it so much.

  23. Thanks for the reply. I do understand that Nathan is a one-man operation and has done a great job. I didn't mean to be hard on him but you know how the human mind is. I got obsessed with the idea that I would like the nicely colored flex creepers with standard nibs.

    Thanks for your advice on the TWSBI. I've been thinking about trying one.

    I'll probably try one of the nibs that Brian Goulet has just introduced for the Ahab and Konrad as well has other pens that take a #6 nib. However that turns a $20.00 Ahab into a $35 pen. Still a reasonable price to pay for a fountain pen. Love all your reviews. I don't know how you manage it all.



  24. Thank you Robert, very kind words!

    First, have you seen my Ahab review?

    It's a great little pen, much better than the original Noodler's flex. The only criticism I have is that the nib is not a wet noodle but it still has very nice variation.

    I'm not familiar with that new Ahab/Konrad nib you are talking about. Can you give a link?

    As for my reviews, I'm afraid I haven't had a lot of time to do any in the last few months. When I started I was more consistent, with a new review every week. I just couldn't keep up the pace.