Parker 51

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Parker 51 capped

Once you get interested in fountain pens, there inevitably comes a time when you read about a pen and get curious. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already got a number of very nice pens — in fact that exacerbates the problem. The more you use different pens, the better you understand your own preferences. I try to resist these impulses when the pens are expensive, but is less easy to resist if the pen can be bought for a very reasonable price. That’s how I came to buy a Parker 51.

The Parker 51 is not in any way a rare pen. They were manufactured for more than 30 years, and Parker sold millions of them in that time, changing the design very little over the years. I certainly remember people using Parker 51s in the 1970s and 80s. It sold well for so many years because it’s a great pen. I don’t think that it was ever a particularly cheap pen to buy new, but it wasn’t outlandishly expensive either. It has understated elegance, looks sleekly modern even today, and is a solid workhorse made for people who write. Those are all things that I love in a pen. I started looking around on eBay for good value examples. I was after a pen that had a good nib and ink delivery system, but I didn’t care if the cap was a bit dinged or the body slightly scratched. I also wasn’t bothered about getting one of the rarer body colours (though the teal version is gorgeous). In the end I found a lovely black Parker 51 (Mark II, I think) from the 1950s with a fine to medium nib, for under £40.

Parker 51 uncapped

It is a wonderful, functional pen. I love the hooded nib in my Lamy 2000, and the nib in the Parker is even more hooded — just the tip shows while you’re writing. This does take a bit of adjustment: at first, it is difficult to tell when you have got the nib orientated correctly because you can see so little of it, but after a while you get a feel for it. The theory is that a hooded nib prolongs the time that you can leave the pen uncapped before the ink dries in the nib, and it seems to work very well in this pen. I tend to pause to think while I am writing, and it is annoying to have have cap and uncap your pen while you do that, or else scribble to restart the flow. I haven’t experienced hard starts using this pen, though as with all pens, the ink will eventually dry in the nib if you leave it uncapped for too long. The push-fit cap is also very functional for an everyday writer, as you can whip it on and off quickly, but it fits snugly and securely.

It is a light pen, and the smooth, bullet shape is very comfortable in my hands at least. It is well balanced, and though I don’t usually use fountain pens with the caps posted, I do with this pen. It is a perfect length posted or unposted, but since posting the cap adds only just over 2 cm to the length and very little weight, it is easy and convenient to do so. It’s another very functional feature: if you are writing notes, you don’t want to worry about finding somewhere else to park the cap where you won’t lose it. The cap is a matte brushed steel (or ‘Lustraloy’ as they call it), and the section and body is a nice tough, hard plastic. The threads that connect the body cap to the section are very smooth and feel high quality. The whole pen has an air of poise and quality.

Parker 51 filling mechanism

My pen is an aerometric filler, which means there is a tough, flexible plastic sac inside a steel casing, with a steel bar that you press to compress the sac and fill the pen with ink. Four presses of the bar while the nib is held under the surface of the ink is enough to get a good fill, and the aerometric system makes it easy to flush the pen out quickly, because you can squeeze the bar repeatedly much faster than working a piston in a piston filler pen. My only slight gripe is that the inside of the sac inevitably gets stained with ink (as it is in this pen), so it is difficult to determine the remaining ink level. I suspect that as I get more familiar with how long one filling typically lasts given my normal usage, this will be less of an issue.

Parker 51 ink sample

Finally, the nib on this beauty is an absolute joy. It is beautifully smooth, and lays down a very even line which is not too dry and not too wet. This is perfect for writing notes as most inks then dry fast enough that you don’t end up smudging your writing. I think the nib is probably a medium, but it lays down a line that is a touch finer than most medium nibs (for example, the one in my Lamy). It is still broad enough that it is smooth and lovely to write with, but the slightly finer line is very useful if you are writing in a small notebook or one with narrow ruled lines. The fit of a pen to your personal preferences is a very individual thing, but for me, this pen squarely hits a sweet spot. In the same way that my Happy Hacking Keyboard is a lean, mean, typing machine that positively encourages me to put my fingers to the keys and clatter out words hour after hour, the Parker means business. As soon as you pick it up and post the cap it says let’s write. I love the fact that the pen I bought has a couple of minor dings in the cap and some light scratches on the body. It is a pen that has been used and had a life, and even after 60 years of laying down words on paper, it is still ready for more.