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March 2009: Fountain Pens and Credit-Card Slips

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Richard has signed credit card slips for years with only a fountain pen. In fact, although I don’t know this for sure and I’ve never asked him point-blank, I am guessing one of the reasons he began carrying a fountain pen daily was to combat the issue of thermal paper — more specifically, the issue of ballpoint pens not writing on it.

At one particular eatery I flat gave up on the ballpoint and signed the bill with a purple crayon they gave my son Patrick to color pictures on his kids’ menu. Extra Fine Points

Lately it’s been brutal for me. I don’t always have a shirt on with a pocket or my bag (that’s another discussion: I have this U.S. Army surplus map bag to carry a journal, pen, book, kid snacks and toys, cell phone, Palm, etc. — the question is, is it a “man-purse” if it’s Army Surplus? Among friends and associates I’ve polled, the opinion runs 50-50) in tow, so I am forced to sign the thermal credit card slips with a ballpoint provided by the cashier or waitperson.

Credit card receipt and fountain pen

And then it doesn’t work. It cuts out right after the “D” downstroke. Can’t get the bugger started. Waitperson/clerk says “You gotta write on something soft” and hands me a tablet or something to put the slip on. No dice. Then they shake the pen like your mom did the oral thermometer back in the days when we put mercury-loaded glass tubes in our mouth. Sometimes that works. Maybe write some spirals on the back of the paper to get it going again.

This happened at least a half-dozen times to me during the holiday season, between Christmas shopping and the frequent restaurant get-togethers it brought. The worst was when I flat gave up on the ballpoint at one particular eatery and signed the bill with a purple crayon my son Patrick got to color pictures on his kids’ menu.

So what gives? Thermal paper bears a shiny, almost waxy coating. We’re not talking about the rough paper that carbons on to a second copy, but the fax-papery stuff. Ballpoints don’t work on it, says Richard, because the paper’s coating acts as a lubricant, making it more difficult to generate the friction that ballpoints require to work.

That same idea is why fountain pens work well on thermal paper.

“Fountain pens don’t like friction,” Richard says. “In fact, they work best with virtually none.”

Interestingly, Richard recommends fountain pen collectors who want to carry the best pen for the job carry one with a “wettish” XF nib — a type I happen to enjoy myself as a lefty who finds himself jotting notes in small cursive in a Field Notes type book.

“It should be well smoothed; scratchiness can create problems by digging up the claylike coating and clogging on it,” he adds. “Anything too dry has the potential to clog more easily from the coating. Anything too wet and broad will best serve to tattoo a clerk’s thumb.”

So there you have it. This discussion might seem esoteric in nature, but it‘s worth the time — how many instances in everyday life can you think of where a fountain pen works better, much better than a ballpoint? And I mean, forget aesthetics or how it makes you feel when writing. Straight up, the darn ballpoint fails where the fountain pen works perfectly? This is one of the few.

cover Further Reading: The Adventures of Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson
Speaking of purple crayons, if you have young kids (or grandkids), you can’t go wrong with the enchanting, stream-of-consciousness Harold stories. These vintage classics have been perpetually in print for more than half a century, for good reason. Best of all, they’re centered around his using a writing instrument!

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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