There are few pens stranger than retractable fountain pens. They’re like a contradiction; fountain pens are cumbersome and complex by design, so why bother making one retractable? Well, I think it’s mainly because they can, but also because doing so forms one of the most iconic and unusual writing instruments in recent memory, whilst also making something so hopelessly practical that it’s a wonder why Pilot are the only ones to mass market such a product.
The Vanishing Point (VP from hereon out), or “Capless” as it’s known in some countries, marries the writing pleasure of a fountain pen, with the convenience of one-handed operation. Slip it from a breast pocket, click the button, and begin writing in one swift motion, and with one hand. What is considered by some to be a gimmick in fact enhances the whole experience of an entirely extraordinary pen, one that even without the capless mechanism would be fantastic in its own right.
So, it’s a noteworthy product, and one that I can wholly recommend; something I hope to show you in this review.
My specific measurements are as follows:
- Retracted length – 140mm
- Length with nib extended – 137mm
- Width at widest point (midpoint join) – 13mm
- Clip length (usable section) – 42mm
- Total clip length – 52mm
- Clip width (widest point) – 4mm
- Left/Right handed – Both
- Body Texture – Glossy and smooth depending on colour/model
- Crown details – None
- Materials – Gold, plastic, steel, rhodium (depending on model)
- Nib Material – 18k gold filled
- Filling system – Cartridge/Converter
- Retail price – Approx. $150.00AUD+
- Available colours – Too many to list
- Cap system – Retractable nib
- In production – Yes
- Other features – Swappable nib units
- Markings – “Pilot XXXX Japan” on midpoint join (depends on model)
- Number of pieces – 3 (front, nib unit, rear)
- Removable nib/feed – NO (do not attempt to remove nib/feed from housing)
- Recommended to hand size – Universal
Box and Design
It may surprise you to know that I haven’t actually bought one of these pens new, but nonetheless the contents of the box are standard Pilot fare. Papers, cartridges, and a converter. Nothing too special, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. The box varies a lot, depending on the age and colour of the pen, and even the country you buy it from, with special editions having extravagant boxes unique to that pen.
The whole pen splits up into three segments: front, back, and nib unit. The nib unit is rather simple: a small nib married to a metallic segment that holds the cartridge/converter in place. If you opt for a cartridge, the included sleeve must be slipped over the top to provide a more rigid structure for the mechanism to push against. This has been the standard design of the VP for decades. You can use either the standard piston style converter, the CON-50, or opt for the CON-20 push bar converter. The longer and more spacious CON-70 won’t work, however. The photo below shows the CON-50 attached.
This design also opens up the possibility of swapping nib units. Simply remove the unit and pop in a new one, perhaps a smaller or larger nib width, to completely change the pen. Sure, you could buy multiple bodies, but the units themselves run about sixty bucks, much cheaper than a whole pen.
The sleek body of the pen is broken up into sections as well. Typically the pen will have a glossy gold or chrome coloured section at the front where the nib pops through (or matte grey on the newer versions). The hole is often referred to as a “guppy”, resembling the mouth of the fish with the same name. The clip is attached at this point, with the rings at the midpoint and the button at the rear also being of the same material. The sections in between are a coloured metal, except on some editions where they are constructed from lacquer. This means that the entire body is metal, but is unusually light, especially given its size.
The function of the guppy is relatively complex, but works essentially like a trap door. A spring keeps the door shut, but opens when the nib pushes through after pressing the button at the rear of the pen. It takes a long push, but it’s very responsive and hard to stuff up. Pressing the button again will retract the nib. The door is absolutely airtight. You can fill the section with water and attempt to blow water through the hole, but none will come out. However, the guppy is very hard to clean, and I would wager that all well used VPs will have ink residue inside. I haven’t found this to affect the function of the pen, and wouldn’t recommend cleaning it regularly unless you’re obsessive, but it is something to note.
I have a few vintage VPs, and the guppy has lost its seal on almost all of them. These are 50-60 years old mind you, but it does cast a little bit of doubt on the longevity of these pens. Whether the revisions in design have rectified this problem is something I could only confirm in 10-15 years, sorry.
The nib itself is tiny, something that doesn’t indicate that the writing ability is hindered at all (you only have to look at the Lamy 2000 to disprove that theory). There are alloy versions of these nibs, but the standard fare is 18k gold (sometimes rhodium plated for a silver coloured finish), a relatively uncommon material for nib construction. Nevertheless, those that use it will be in for a huge surprise.
Void of any sort of flex, the durability and consistency when writing is evident, and indicative of a workhorse pen. The nibs come in sizes ranging from extra-fine to broad, the EF being relatively elusive and hard to find. I own and have tried all of them, and I tend to prefer the extra-fine (having a preference for finer nibs). These are Japanese nibs, so they tend to run finer than indicated, with the EF making a needle width line. Despite this, it’s one of the best nibs I have ever used.
One thing I can say about these nibs is that I have not found one that wasn’t instantly extraordinary to use from day one. Pilot has done something amazing here, and they write better, smoother, and more consistently than pens costing two or three times as much. The broad is notably buttery, as expected, but it’s extremely surprising to see that the extra-fine writes smoother than many medium nibs I have tried, such as those on the Lamy Safari and other iconic pens. In fact, the VP nibs are some of the only nibs I haven’t had to tinker with out-of-the-box. In a word, these nibs are simply fun.
For the nibs alone I can wholly recommend this pen to anyone. Not just the fountain pen enthusiasts, but anyone. The design is very close to a ballpoint pen. In fact, use one of these in public and few will even realise you’re using a fountain pen. The nib pokes out ever so stealthily, with enough room to get your preferred writing angle, and is unobtrusive and doesn’t force you into a certain grip or writing style like some pens do. The weight balance is, in a word, perfect. You can lay it on your finger at the midpoint and it will stay. Very impressive.
The clip can be annoying, but given the symmetric design it would be hard to orient the nib correctly without the clip guiding your grip. Some “forefinger-up” grip users may be annoyed that their pointer finger sits right where the clip is, so the VP may not be for you. For everyone else, including myself, it is unobtrusive and stays out of my way. Speaking of the clip, it’s easy to use; firm, yet slips onto a shirt or jacket pocket with ease. For those that find the clip annoying, some specialists will remove the clip entirely, like the one below from Mottishaw (this is the “carbonesque” finish).
One further things to note is that when filling from a bottle the ink is drawn up through the very top of where the nib/feed starts. Be sure to dunk the entire nib and feed inside the ink or you won’t draw anything up, something a confused reader contacted me about recently. This is somewhat of an odd design decision, but only requires a little extra effort.
Conclusions, Thoughts, and Further Recommendations
The VP is an icon of fountain pen design. It marries a unique look with the function of a ballpoint, and the excellent writing ability of a fountain pen. It stays far away enough from a ballpoint to cater to users like myself, yet the learning curve for ballpoint users is almost non-existant. The retractable design is something I doubt copycats (or even Pilot themselves) could improve on, and doesn’t detract from the elegance of the overall package.
Add to this the massive array of designs and colours, the range of nib sizes to suit any preference, and the durable, lightweight construction of the pen, and you have something that is both luxurious and fun in equal amounts. Give one as a gift, or keep it for yourself. If you are in the market for a pen; not just a retractable pen or a fountain pen, but a pen in general, don’t look past the VP.
There are very few flaws. Perhaps the questionable longevity of the seals, and the, perhaps, obtrusive clip position bring it down, but these are minor niggles and certainly not things I have experienced. In my mind, this pen is basically perfect in use, but the biggest issue outside of that is the difficulty in cleaning both the nib housing and the guppy, but it’s not something that is impossible to accomplish, nor something you’d need to do often.
If you have the $100+ for a pen and wanted other considerations, there’s nothing in that price range that offers the retractable design besides a used, or on sale, Lamy Dialog 3. The Dialog, however, is not nearly as well made as the VP (with regards to the airtight seal), but is larger, sleeker, and arguably more luxurious than the VP. If you want to go all the way, the VP Raden series comprises of some of the most beautiful pens I’ve ever seen, with black lacquer bodies flecked with abalone shell throughout. These come at a premium, however.
It’s also possible to pick up the LE versions as well. These are made in limited quantities each year, and every pen is numbered. I own the green 2010 LE (the one in the photos above and below) and it’s a pretty unique colour, but not necessarily worth the extra dosh.
You could grab something like the Platinum 3776 series, which I often recommend as well, or snag a deal on a Lamy 2000 for around the same price. The 100-150 dollar price range is a sweet spot, so you have a whole load of great pens to choose from. Also don’t forget to consider the Decimo, which is a thinner, sleeker, and lighter version of the VP, and the Fermo, which has a twist-style retraction unit rather than a push-button design.