Added 01/06/11: When I started this discussion, I did not know that there are several Internet merchants who sell Chinese fountain pens. Besides xFountainPens.com (the subject of the message that follows), I have also learned of hisnibs.com, isellpens.com, and cutepens.com.
I want to put in a word for the pens sold through the site xFountainPens.com. These pens are offered at prices as low as $13.00 each. They are, of course, not name-brand pens, or indeed, as far as I know, pens available through any other vendor outside of China, which is where they are produced. They all have steel nibs, though some have gold-plated ones. They all have brass barrels—which suits me just fine, though I know that some people prefer a resin barrel. Most of them can use either cartridges or a converter. Most of them have bogus German names, which is obviously an attempt to disguise their rather humble origins, but does not diminish their quality. I have bought many of these pens, some for my own use and some as gifts, and, while they cannot bear comparison to a high-quality gold-nibbed pen, they can certainly bear comparison to the entry-level fountain pens that some of the major makers now offer at $50-80.
About the limitations of these pens: First, as I have mentioned, they have steel nibs; consequently, they will not move over the page as smoothly as a gold-nibbed pen. Second, consistency of flow is mediocre: very often, even when the converter is still half-full, I have found it necessary to spend some time flicking the pen downward to restore the flow of ink to the nib or else to give the plunger of the converter a few twists (though it is not as though I have never had this problem with pens that cost ten times the price!). Third, I have found that these pens need to be used at least once a day if you want to be able to write with them as soon as you uncap them. Leave them unused for a day or more and they tend to get stuck, though storing them with the point downward reduces this tendency.
So, as I said, these pens are not comparable to gold-nibbed pens from Waterman, Pelikan, or what-have-you, but they work reasonably well, many of them have a very attractive design, and their prices are absurdly low. If, like me, you like having a variety of fountain pens at your disposal but don't like to spend loads of money on acquiring new ones, or if you are just starting out to use a fountain pen and would like to experiment a bit before you sink hundreds of dollars into a really good one, I think you will do well to make some purchases from this site.
A final note: I have exchanged messages with the proprietor and found him to be very courteous and obliging.
I'd like to offer a suggestion to you from my website which I think will be helpful in your ink flow problem:
As with all new pens, I recommend to run a dilute solution of dishwashing soap (two or three drops to a small bowl of water) through a new pen a few times, followed by water only. Step one is effective at removing manufacturing oils that can tend to make the ink less than enthusiastic in heading from the converter/filler to the nib, and step two removes the traces of the detergent you've used...which tends to have the opposite, diuretic effect.
I'd also like to mention that the smoothness of a nib has nothing to do with whether the nib is steel or gold. You're not writing on the base metal, but rather on the tipping material (often referred to as 'Iridium', but that hasn't been used in decades...it's actually an amalgam now of similar hard metals).
Smoothness, and proper ink flow for that matter, are also greatly effected by by the proper adjustment of the tines of the nib.
Anyway, glad that you've discovered the great selection of Chinese pens available (I was the first to introduce a number of Chinese brands to the U. S. over the past 13 years).
Thanks for the advice and information, Norman. Are you sure that dishwashing detergent is as effective as that? I have soaked these nibs in Higgins Pen Cleaner overnight (followed by rinsing and then a long soak in plain water), without solving the problem.
After starting this thread I learned from other posts in this group that there are other varieties of such pens and other vendors who offer them (though I did not know of your site). That made me feel a bit foolish---not just because I failed to look at other posts but because I had assumed until now that the vendor that I had discovered was the only one selling such pens in the US through the Web!
Yes, quite sure about my detergent suggestion (after about 25 years of collecting and thousands of customers). :-)
Again, there can be more than one cause for what you're experiencing. Converters with agitator balls or springs can be very helpful, for instance, in preventing the ink from adhering to the converter walls (which, if you unscrew the pen when it stops or hesitates, will most likely reveal to be the problem).
Feel free to sign up for my newsletter (the last just published today) on my homepage if you're interested...and another resource that I think you -- and anyone else reading this thread -- will find very valuable is the Fountain Pen Network.
No need to feel foolish! The vendor you've mentioned is a fairly recent addition to the pen community.
The pens that I have had trouble with have agitator balls in their converters. They don't seem to help. By contrast, I have had no comparable flow problems with my Waterman pens, which have no ball in the converter, or with my Pelikan. But I will try the detergent thing.
I am very sour on the Fountain Pen Network. Even after I have registered and logged in, the site will not let me make posts or even do searches (!). It's like having doors slammed in your face, which I don't take kindly. I sent an e-mail message to the address given for problems on the site several days ago but have not received a reply.
In a fit of nostagia, I'd sure like to see a return of the old Shaeffer cartridge fountain pens I used back in parochial school.
Not overly expensive (I mean they cost a whole $1.00-$1.50 back in the 1960's), but you could get them with either fine or medium nibs and the ink came in five cartridge pachages in a mutitude of colors.
Decent pens, the only problem I ever had with them was the tendency for them to "disappear" from my desk.
They don't make them any more? How sad! I used those pens all through high school myself. (When I started college, I moved on to a metal-barreled Sheaffer with an inlaid nib---like the present Legacy model, but with a steel nib. I still have it, though it's now a bit gummed up and I don't use it any more.) I guess that if you want a really cheap fountain pen now that you can pick up in a variety store, you have to buy one of those Pilot Varsities---which are not bad for the price, but they have to be thrown away and replaced when the ink is used up.
okay I know this is very old post but, one the Varsities being thrown away after the ink is dried up, you don't have to do that. You can take a syringe and refill the cart.
My understanding is that detergent helps the ink flow, not because it *cleans* the pen, but rather because it leaves behind just the tiniest bit of detergent so that any ink becomes 'wetter' (molecular cohesion is reduced) than it would otherwise be. Wetter flows better.
Anyway, I second the notion of Hero pens. I've purchased a couple from Norman and I've purchased lots of others off of ebay. Though none of them are like Ferrari's, they are definitely like a Mazda Miata (fun, inexpensive, tremendous bang for the buck).