Friday, July 8, 2011

Pilot Varsity fountain pen review

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.

Pilot Varsity in 7 colors

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.

Pilot Varsity

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.

Pilot Varsity Nib

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.

Pilot Varsity 7 color samples

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.


  1. I love the Pilot Varsity. It's cheap and versatile; the price is made up for all the work you need to put into it (such as scrubbing off the paint with nail polish remover in an unventilated room... that wasn't fun), but it's an excellent way to get anyone into fountain pens.
    I bought a set of the black ones, all of which have been handed out at this point... I did keep three, one of which I used until it dried and then threw away (unfortunately). One of them I converted, and it now holds Online Lilac. Sadly, I managed to bend the nib of the third one and it refused to write. I was pretty sad as I had just filled it with an ink and had to pour it back out.

  2. Great review.

    I agree on the your point re the ink deposit being smaller than Pilot made us believe. However, it still holds about 1.7 ml of ink.

    In Japan you can find some non-disposable fountain pens, i. e. refillable and able to use converters, for half the price of a Varsity/Vpen.



  3. How did you bend it? While converting the pen? You could try tinkering with the nib, see if you can straighten it. Heck, I would even grind it since it's already broken!

  4. Thanks!

    Yeah, they could have added more capacity but, as it is, it still has plenty. I guess they had to keep their costs as low as possible.

    Are you talking about the Pilot Petit by any chance? Jetpens has them and I'm going to buy one when I get the chance. I'm hoping to convert it to an eyedropper straight away. Oh but the Petit is not 1/2 the price of the Varsity.

  5. I managed to bend it at the tip somewhere between emptying the pen and filling it. I suppose it was while I was pulling out the nib and feed? I'm not strong enough to pull out the whole system with my bare hands and had to use a pair of pliers (covered in paper towels) to get it off. It was only when I filled it and tried writing did I notice that the nib was terribly bent. I tried bending it back; I managed to straighten it somewhat, but it still wouldn't write.
    I would have ground it, except it got bent above the tipping; it was practically at the feed, and at that point I suspected that nothing could save it.

  6. Keep an eye out for my next post where I describe in more detail how I pull out the assembly. Essentially I grip the feed from both sides but at the beginning I still managed to scratch the feed but that doesn't affect the pen's operation.

  7. Thank you so much for this post!  I'm new to fountain pens and had decided this pen wasn't worth the price because it didn't seem like a "real" fountain pen.  Now, I want to try it!  I look forward to your next post about them.  Thanks for showing the ink colors written out too. 


  8. Hey, my pleasure! It's really worth trying this pen because if you don't like it, you've only wasted $3. Besides, you might not like it with the original ink but you might love it after you fill it with your favorite ink.

  9. I meant these three pens:

    Sailor InkPen.
    Platinum Riviere.
    And several pens, short and long, available at Daiso 100 yen shops (they use Sailor cartridges) and in other 100 yen shops (these use international converters).

    All those cost JPY 100, plus 5% tax.

    I reported on them on my blog:



  10. Does anyone know why the green Varsity is so hard to locate?  I have only seen them as part of the multicolor set, not as a single.  What gives?  

  11. No idea but I wasn't very impressed by the green color so you're not missing much, but then again, personal tastes are not to be discussed.

  12. Thanks for this awesome review. I need to get myself some of these... I always love cheap pens for grinding up and playing with. M nibs would make nice CI's and stubs... :)

    I'm going to go check amazon right now. Thanks for the heads up on that.

  13. These should be great for you. Lots of ways in which to grind those nibs - on the cheap.

  14. I totally agree how great this pen is for the money, but unlike you I LOVE this purple. I am forever trying to find the perfect purple and I think this is it! I'm super-fickle about having a smooth-writing pen and even more so for a fountain pen, and this one fits the bill!

  15. still waiting for the detailed story on how to grip the nib while yanking it out to refuel.
    did i miss it?
    just pad up a pair of pliers and grab it by the sides, you say?
    any rocking or twisting recommended?
    i also love the things and want to extend their lives
    many thanks

  16. I have a post about this: How to refill your Pilot Varsity. Maybe you missed it. I don't rock/twist it. Just pull it out. Make sure to use some padding between the pliers and the nib/feed.

  17. this pen was the one that made me felling in love with fountain pen. I use it for quick sketching, writing, and more. It's a workshorse! And I can only agree with you that probably is the best $3 fountain pen around. It works, always. Period.

  18. I got so much more than that $3 from this pen (by refilling it countless times), it's not even funny.

  19. The wick can be PULLED out for a more thorough cleaning. When pushing the wick back into the feed, push the sharp point in from the back of the feed gently so as not to cause it to bend.

  20. But how do you pull it out? From the tip or the rear? And what do you use? Fingers/nails or pliers?

  21. I refill my Varsity pens with a couple of simple tools: needle-nose pliers, a wide rubber band (like banks use to wrap bundles of bills), and an eyedropper (or even an ear wax "bulb" syringe that places like Walgreens sells for flushing out infant's ears).

    Here's what you do:

    With the needle-nose pliers, grip the sides of the feed where the metal nib slides on top. Place the wide rubber-band between the pliers and the feed so you won't leave marks on the plastic of the feed.

    Gently apply increasing pressure. The metal nib will slide off of the feed first. Place this aside. Under increasing pressure exerted by the pliers, the plastic feed will pop free of the pen barrel.

    Now you can refill the barrel of the pen with any ink color you desire, using an eyedropper or bulb syringe.

    If changing inks, it's a good idea to put the nib, the feed, and the barrel under a cold, clear faucet rinse, then let them air dry for a day or so before refilling with ink.

    Now that you've refilled the Varsity's pen barrel, replace the plastic feed into the barrel. It will snap into place with some pressure. Exert pressure on the plastic base of the feed with the tip of the needle-nose pliers, pushing downwards until you hear and feel the feed snap into place.

    Now, with your fingers, gently but firmly slide the metal nib back on to the feed.

    Voila! Your Pilot Varsity is now refilled and ready to go.

  22. I am a fan of the Varsity, but would love a finer line. I used a Dremel and a nail buffer and teh result is incredible! I have now a Varsity XXF. During that process I found a store that actually sells the fine nib, so I bought a bunch. Even at 4ish dollars it is a great buy.

  23. Yeah, that's the beauty of this pen. It's so cheap that you can risk your own mods without fear of ruining an expensive pen.

  24. LongtimeFountainPenUserNovember 7, 2013 at 5:11 PM

    I use a Pilot Vpen purchased several years ago from Kinokuniya, which I refill with bottled ink. I can assure you that it is *not* the same as the Varsity. The Vpen has an extra-fine nib, while the Varsity pens sold in the USA are fine/medium. Kinokuniya is no longer allowed by Pilot to carry the Vpen in North America. I have tried Varsity pens and been very disappointed with them. Try writing kanji and you will see what I mean -- the Vpen writes very beautiful detailed kanji while the Varsity blurs the details because the ink flow is too 'fat'. The nib on the Vpen is very competitive with higher-priced non-disposable fountain pens; I prefer it to several Parkers and Sheaffers in my collection.

  25. LongtimeFountainPenUserNovember 7, 2013 at 5:13 PM

    Please share at which store you were able to acquire a fine nib for the Pilot Varsity fountain pen. Thank you.

  26. Thanks for that, it's very informative. I would try to get my hands on one if I didn't have enough Varsities to last me a lifetime.

  27. Have written with fountain pens my whole life and just ordered some Varsity pens from an eBay dealer. Checked the tracking and saw the pens were in Syracuse NY where it is WAY below freezing, about to be placed on a cargo plane and wind up here, in the Florida Keys where a delivery truck can be WAY hot. I believe we've found the reason for the not quite full ink reservoir. I certainly wouldn't fill any of my pens for such a trek. Clever guys, those Pilot packers.

  28. Interesting. I would probably be more worried about the pressure differential but I've never thought about temperature before. I would think temperature won't be such a big deal since the ink itself doesn't expand much. The air inside will, though. But the fuller the pen, the less the expansion. So, I don't know. Maybe someone better at physics can shed light on this.

  29. It's a mistake, should have been "nib". Sorry about that. I guess that's what happens when you write repetitive sentences :)

  30. You're not the only one! I noticed this a long time ago, the first time I laid hands on a Varsity. There's indeed a ridge inside the cap which can cause the nib to hang if you're not being careful. I've never managed to bend it though, despite using many different Varsities.

    I'm guessing it won't be too hard to straighten it back though. Or just get another Varsity :) they're cheap enough.